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An Introductory Course in Christian Spirituality

Diakonia/service

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The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.--Bonhoffer

 “In the widest sense of the word, diakonia (service) is not one, but the essential dimension of the Church.” [1]  Dietrich Bonhoffer claims “that the Church is the Church only when it exists for others”.[2] The Church exists not as some self-perpetuating mechanism for the sake of those who are its members. It exists for those who are unbelievers, sinners, outsiders and aliens. It exists to expand the opportunities of living open to others and expanding the opportunities that improve the quality of their lives. This mission of the Church becomes enfleshed in the real and specific places where these "others" are suffering and we respond. Such suffering includes the experience of poverty, oppression, being despised, enduring injustice or having one's life threatened. In its response to these ignition points, where ever they arise, the Church is authentically Church, as its identity comes into being through service.[3]

 

Service is a grace and responsibility inherent in baptism. The anointing with chrism during the baptismal rite signifies the strengthening grace given to the newly baptized to live out the diaconal munera of sanctifying, giving prophetic voice and serving.

 

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas goes further, considering service to be a basic human characteristic. The meaning of human existence is found in service for others. Without others one is stuck with oneself alone. There is no change, no growth. Confrontation with another brings one to the realization that one is not alone and my understanding of the world may not be totally accurate. If I treat the other as an object, I remain locked in my solitude. However, I am faced with the neediness of the other and in my response to the need of the other I am moved from my solitude. This “response-ability” makes me more than I was. The more I care for and respond to the other, the more I become.[4]

 

Service begins in our awareness of the other and our mutual suffering. The awareness of suffering evokes compassion, for we are made in the image and likeness of agape. There is a desire to respond to the suffering, to give of oneself in order to lessen the suffering or to bring it to an end. It is in giving expression to this desire through our actions that we experience service. If we really believe that God exists and that God is agape (1 John 4:8), then we cannot experience God without loving those around us for our experience of self-giving love is the experience of God. Service moves us beyond our internal thought processes and into an engagement with others.

Service is not mere servitude. It arises from agape and is enfleshed through the free choice of the believer. It is a human act. It is an act of the total self. It renders one powerless, for it places oneself at the service of another, committed to the alleviation of their need and suffering. “It is the capacity to look beyond ourselves to see the need of others. It is the empathy to want to help and the skill to know how to help.”[5]

 

If God is agape and God has given us freedom in order that we might be capable of agape, then evil is the absence of agape. It is the denial of who we are. It is the refusal of agape.

 

Service brings us into confrontation with evil. Our mission is to be pure self-gift in the face of evil, suffering, pain and despair. It is in agape that our service makes God present. It is the presence of God that overcomes evil.[6]

 



[1]Walter Cardinal Kasper, “The Ministry of the Deacon,” Deacon Digest 15 (March/April 1998): 23.

[2]Dietrich Bonhoffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, rev. ed. (New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, 1967), 203.

[3]Ottmar Fuchs, “Church for Others.” In Concilium, vol. 198, Service--Church for the Others (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, LTD, 1988), 41-42.

[4] William T. Donovan, The Sacrament of Service: Understanding Diaconal Spirituality (Green Bay, WI: Alt Publishing Company, 2000), 24.

[5] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, “Waiting at Table.” In Concilium, vol. 198, Service--Church for the Others (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, LTD, 1988), 89.

[6]Ibid.

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1. What is the relationship of service to communion and self-emptying?

2. If service is the essential dimension of the Church and rooted in baptism, how is ministry any different from the service offered by any other Christian?

3. What forms of service are considered ministry?

4. Are all the baptized capable of ministry?


The Cost of Discipleship
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Letter and Papers from Prison
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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