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Monday, October 8, 2012

Learning from the Didache

      Chapter 1 of the Didache
      There are two ways: one of life and one of death; and the difference between the two ways is great.

      The way of life is this: first, you should love God, who made you; secondly, love your neighbor as yourself; and whatever things you do not desire to be done to you, do not do them to someone else.

      Now the words of this teaching are this: Bless those who curse you and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who are persecuting you. For what credit is it if you love those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same thing? But love those hating you, and you will not have an enemy.

      Keep yourself from fleshly and bodily cravings. If anyone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him also. And you will be acting maturely. If someone should force you to go one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your coat, give him your shirt also. If anyone should take from you what is yours, do not demand that he give it back, for you cannot.

      Give to everyone asking you and do not refuse, for the Father desires to give to everyone from His own gifts. Blessed is the one who gives according to the commandment, for he is innocent. But the one who receives without need shall account for his receiving. Furthermore, being held, he shall be examined concerning what he has done, and he shall not be released until he has given back the last cent.

      It has been said concerning this, "Let your money sweat in your hands until you know whom you should give it to."*


I came across a book the other week about the Didache. I’m sure this is something we covered in seminary. It also happened to be a book I’d long forgotten about. Thankfully, I’ve rediscovered what an overlooked treasure it is.

Very little Jewish Christian written material made it out of the first century intact. Not a lot was written down in the first place, as cultures of that time would have been more oral in nature. In addition, Judaism and the new Jewish/Christian movement were persecuted minorities and so much, if not most, of the existing literature would most likely have been destroyed in different raids.

What we do have, however, is the New Testament, most of which was written in the last half of the first century. Paul was writing between the years 50 and 65, twenty or more years after the death of Christ. Mark was most likely written in the early 70’s. Matthew was probably written in the early 80’s. Luke was composed shortly after Matthew. And John was written sometime towards the end of the first century or beginning of the second.

Lesser known existing works would be the Epistle of Barnabas, written between 70 and 131. Also, the Epistles of Clement (written by two different people). The first was penned late in the first century or early in the second. The second was most likely written mid-second century. And the Shepherd of Hermas, again, dating from the late first century or early second. Each of these books would have been considered candidates for the New Testament canon.

Finally, we have the Didache. The Didache was written between 40 and 110. The majority of Bible scholars would place it around 70, so written around the same time as our first gospel, Mark. The Didache was circulated widely for centuries and was treated as an important part of the developing New Testament by many early Christian communities.

Tony Jones, author of The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community, offers up a telling point, writing, “When the New Testament canon was closed, several centuries after Jesus’ life, the books that made it into the Bible were destined for a readership in the billions, and those that were not were relegated to dusty seminary libraries…As such, it [the Didache] remains largely unknown to Christians who have not studied the early church.”

So what is the Didache? It is a short (half the length of Mark’s gospel) instruction manual for new believers. It is divided up into 4 parts. Most scholars believe an editor pieced this manual together from 4 separate sources. It is quite practical in nature and concerns itself not with theology, or proper belief, but with behavior. Jesus is never mentioned, but there is an underlying assumption throughout the book that this new religious movement is all about following the example of Jesus.

Much of the wording in the Didache echoes fragments of the gospels verbatim (Or do the gospels echo the Didache?), so some of the Didache’s and the gospels’ source material must have been the same. In other ways, however, it departs from the gospels and from Paul. Interestingly, the Lord’s Prayer is included in the Didache. Now the version of the Lord’s Prayer we all know by heart includes a benediction that does not appear in the gospels. We say “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever, Amen.” This is from the Didache.

This little book is valuable for the glimpse it offers into the life of the earliest church. The context is rural, though it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific geographic location. The audience would have been Gentile converts as well as people transitioning from Judaism to Judaism/followers of The Way.

A couple of months ago, when I was writing about things to look for in the future church, I spoke about a great reversal. Jesus instituted an order that we pretty quickly turned on its head. Jesus made belonging the first priority in the formation of church, before moving on to behaving and finally, through a sense of belonging and a developing understanding of ethics and practices, beliefs developed. For centuries upon centuries we have done things backward in the church. We place proper belief at the head of the class and then run rather quickly through behavior until finally, we get to belonging. This is so fundamental to the very nature of church, it’s difficult to imagine how to do it differently.

The Didache is important at least in part because emerging models of church are looking to the early church for help in rediscovering what church was supposed to be about in the first place. The early church, despite persecution, was attracting people in droves who longed to belong to a movement, to a community that had such high expectations for humanity. It wasn’t difficult to find a place in the early church. All you had to do was throw your lot in with the movement. And when you were poor and underprivileged to start with, your “lot” didn’t amount to much.

When you joined up, instruction began immediately on what it meant to be a follower of “The Way”. But this instruction was primarily ethical and spiritual. Spiritual practices were an intrinsic part of what it meant to be church and so the Didache speaks about prayer, fasting, stewardship, hospitality, service. You combine ethical and spiritual practices and you have a super strong emphasis on behavior.

In the first few chapters (there are 16 chapters in all) we find instructions on how to be in relationship with others, what kinds of behaviors to pursue and to avoid. There’s input on stewardship. I really like the line, "Let your money sweat in your hands until you know whom you should give it to." I guess this was an admonition that appeared frequently in ancient texts.

Chapter seven is about baptism. “And concerning baptism, in this manner baptize: when you have gone over these things, baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in running water.

“If you do not have running water, baptize in other water. If you are not able to use cold water, use warm. And if you have neither, pour water on the head three times, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And before baptism, the one baptizing and the one to be baptized should fast, as well as any others who are able. And you should instruct the one being baptized to fast one or two days before.”

You think of all the schisms in the Christian church that have occurred simply over the proper technique for baptism and this chapter sounds like a breath of fresh air. “Better to use running water. But, you know, if running water isn’t a possibility use other water. If you don’t have cold water than use warm water. And if you really don’t have much water at all then pour that little bit on the head three times over.” In other words, don’t get hung up on the details. You do what you have to do. Baptism is an outward expression of an inward movement. Therefore you can immerse, pour, sprinkle, dunk, spray, splash, trickle, whatever works best for you.

The Didache never addresses what people should believe. And people in the early church believed all sorts of interesting things about Jesus, about God, about life. There was no unified theology. No creeds. No dogma. This movement was too new to be institutionalized. The idea was that as people moved in a more ethical direction and were shaped by daily spiritual practices, this would in turn inform developing beliefs. It’s not to say beliefs weren’t important. They were. But they were third in line, not first.

Let’s contrast this with church today. I would say we get stuck in belief most of the time. Even our worship is designed to highlight the sermon, a time for the pastor to get up front and talk about what he or she believes. Behavior hovers more on the periphery of church. In the ethical realm we tend to focus our energies on the sins of others and not so much on our own weaknesses. While in the Old and New Testaments as well as in the early church one of the greatest sins was economic injustice, in too many of today’s churches, material wealth is actually treated as a reward. Homosexuality and abortion receive the greatest portion of our ethical energies.

And we really only dip our congregational toes into spiritual practices. The pastor or worship leader takes care of the prayer piece. We do our private tithing, but don’t talk about it too much. Fasting as a spiritual practice has really gone by the wayside. If we engage in spiritual practices, it’s usually more on an individual basis. But the catch here is that a sense of belonging is totally tied up with communal behavior.

I think about my own church as a good example. Last Sunday we gathered together to pack over 1,000 school kits. School Kit Sunday is always one of our highlight Sundays of the year. Interestingly, on this Sunday, we don’t really get into the belief realm at all. It is all about belonging and behavior. We begin with a short time of worship (no sermon). Then we do service together, from the youngest to the oldest. We have people who only come on School Kit Sunday because there is such a rich sense of belonging that day. We envelop everyone and we’re all working together for a common cause. And then we sit down and eat together. Share a common meal. Church doesn’t get much better than that.

As members of my congregation talk about how to still maintain a sense of community after the church closes its doors next summer, our energies seem to focus on what we can still do together. We talk about continuing our school kit work. Getting together for meals. A Bible study group. We talk about ways we can still find a sense of belonging with each other through our behavior. Because belief is a bit absent from the picture, most people have been reluctant to call this church. But it is. In this country we are hungry for the sense of belonging that’s nurtured through a rich tradition of behavior - the two greatest priorities of the early church.

We have so much to learn about what it means to be church. I’m thankful for guides along the way, such as the Didache, that take us back to church at its essence. “As it was in the beginning,” so may it be again……(minus the persecution).

*For a good translation of the entire Didache check out this website:  http://www.scrollpublishing.com/store/Didache-text.html

The belonging/behaving/belief paradigm is borrowed from the book, Christianity After Religion, by Diana Butler Bass (2012)

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