Lessons from the Diaspora

04 Oct


Ian Cron has been writing about the idea of “Christians in the Diaspora” over on his blog here and here. It has led to some good comment threads and conversations.  I posted some thoughts about the significance of diaspora here.

As a Jewish follower of Jesus, the idea of diaspora is very powerful to me.

As an evangelical gay follower of Jesus, I find myself very much cast into the diaspora these days.

And yet I find there are more of us in the desert — coming from different journeys and points of departure — than we realized.

Ian summarizes well what the historical Jewish diaspora is: 

Derived from a Greek word meaning “a scattering of seeds,” it refers to the physical migration of a people away from their established homeland. Along the way the diaspora may settle in several homes, maintaining some form of attachment to them, but insinuated into their bones and blood, there is a haunting nostalgia for a return to the land of their ancestors.

The reality of living in diaspora — brought on by the destruction of the temple and occupation of Jerusalem — forced many changes on God’s people.  In Jerusalem, worship was centered at the temple and on the temple system. In the diaspora, one must re-learn how to worship without temple.

It is the diaspora that you see the rise of the synagogue — a Greek work that simply means “assembly”, not unlike the word ecclesia (“gathering”) which came to characterize the young church after Pentecost.  I think there are some important lessons we in the Christian diaspora can learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters who have been (and, for most, still are) in the diaspora.

LESSON #1: Diaspora redefines Community

At the temple, the community was everyone.  When we lived in the Jewish nation, our community was ever-present.  Now in the diaspora, we must seek it out.  But those in the diaspora make a priority out of seeking small communities of similar journey-farers and wanderers.  

In diasporic synagogue worship, the importance of “minyan” develops.  A minyan is gathering of ten adults. In modern Judaism, a proper service needs 10 bar mitzahed adults — you don’t need clergy, you don’t need a building, you don’t even need a Torah.  Can worship happen without the required ten? Yes, though there is a recognition that it is not the same as a having a full minyan — for our salvation and worship are always plural, as a people, as a community. So our corporate worship reflects that.

In Judaism, it is a mitzvah to simply show up at a worship service to make sure a minyan is present.  Even if you are a stranger travelling through, when you show up to be part of the minyan you are part of the community.

For the Christian diaspora, I think there is an important lesson here.  Don’t go-it alone.  You don’t need a mega-church or even big congregation.  But find ten people (or 2 to 3) and worship together.  We are created for community and we are created to worship in community. I don’t think diaspora gives us an excuse to try and be Lone Ranger Christians — after all, the Lone Ranger still had Tanto. 

LESSON #2: Diaspora celebrates Orthopraxy more than Orthodoxy

In the days of temple worship in Jerusalem, everything was prescribed in terms of what you did.  Show up here. Sacrifice here. Say these things.  And the temple was a 7-day a week operation.

In the diaspora, there was no such structure or institution.  In such a setting, endless debate about orthodoxy was not needed, but focus on orthopraxy — right practice.  It is here that you begin to see the discovery of a real Jewish ethos, Jewish values and a redefinition of what it meant to live a Jewish life.

This journey continues today.

In most places of the diaspora, Jews have little or no access to kosher meat, a mikva (spiritual bath) or the ability to walk to shul on Shabbat.  And so a new sense of Jewish life, ethics, values and orthopraxy develops based on the very real context in which we live.

The lesson for Christians in the diaspora? Develop patterns of right living. Be intentional about living out our values as Christ-followers.  Put feet on our faith.  Find people to talk to about what it means to really do this in practical ways at work, in family, at school, etc.  Develop a personal rule that develops these habits and practices.  They are critical to spiritual survival in the diaspora.

LESSON #3: Diaspora survives only in a Big Tent

When you need a minyan, the only question you ask is “are you a Jew?”  This, by definition, creates a big tent full of theological and social diversity.

For the Christian diaspora, this is a critical lesson.  Sometimes we leave the big country club church, and then try to create our own smaller clique of people who look-think-act just like us.  And we can become as divisive, judgmental and exclusive as the communities we left.

But, when you are a wanderer in the desert, you should really welcome all who need shelter… a big tent is a good idea.  And even you settle down in a foreign land — still the diaspora — you should welcome all the ex-pats you come across… even if they don’t agree with you theologically on everything.  

In the diaspora, we must embrace a big tent theology!

LESSON #4: Diaspora emphasizes the Story

One of the central emphasizes of Jewish worship in the diaspora is the telling and re-telling of the story of how God has been faithful to his people.  We tell the stories again and again because these stories form and transform us — and form and transform our own stories.

Narrative theology becomes critical to the life of the community.

Less important, perhaps, than how many feet you can walk on the sabbath (a topic many of the rabbis in Jerusalem debated ad nauseum) is the retelling of how faithful Yahweh was to his people in the desert as He led them forth from Egypt.

As Christians in the diaspora, we must keep telling the stories… and keep writing them as well.

LESSON #5: Diaspora centers around Table

Eating together around the table is central to Jewish worship, community and identity.  In fact, the whole Passover Seder (a tradition really developed in the diaspora) is framed around eating specific foods that tell the story of our people and God’s faithfulness.

But simply eating at table together is significant.

It is where stories are told and lived, orthopraxy is discovered and practiced, community is forged, neighbors and foreigners alike welcomed… it is central to everything.

And I think it is no mistake that TABLE is really the central gathering point and metaphor for the Christian life.  Jesus expected that we would gather at table to break bread, share wine,
and retell the story again and again.

For too many Christians in the diaspora, the sacramental table has been lost and thrown out as part of the trappings of the institutional country club we have left. I think that is a mistake.  The more we find ourselves wandering and wondering in the diaspora, the more important it is for us to be grounded at the Table of Grace, the Lord’s Table.  Whether this happens with a minyan or two to three people, or at a locally formed congregation, it should happen regularly.

FIVE LESSONS FROM THE DIASPORA… what are your thoughts?

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Posted by on October 4, 2010 in Uncategorized


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