A Diaspora of the Heart

 Inspired by 1 Peter 1

Today we begin a five-week series in First Peter. It’s a short little letter, and we are going to read nearly all of it over these five weeks. It’s a letter that doesn’t usually get a whole lot of attention, which is unfortunate because there’s a lot of good stuff here. However, there’s also some not-so-good stuff here. I mentioned that we’re reading nearly all of it. Well, the part that they have skipped includes that good ol’ gem, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Feel free to boo that out loud. I did wonder for a moment why they didn’t include that section. I mean, it could have given pastors the opportunity to address it. But the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with skipping it, because, really, what is there to say about it? 

The only faithful response to that is to say, with all due respect, that’s wrong, and we don’t believe that. Even I couldn’t spin that into something wholesome! Even I couldn’t give you some other perspective that could somehow make it acceptable or useful in today’s world. It’s just a byproduct of another culture with a very outdated moral code. So, I know there are plenty of biblically astute people here who may have wondered why we’re skipping that part, and so I thought it only fair to explain why. I’m not dodging anything! You know that’s not me. Think of it as, we’re just not giving it any more attention than it deserves. So, moving on! 

Let me give you a little of the context in which this letter was written. It wasn’t written to a specific church in the way that many of Paul’s letters were. It was written with the intention of it being passed around to many churches in many lands. As such, the author took care to make it as accessible to as wide an audience as possible, knowing that it would be read by both the Jewish community as well as those outside that community. This makes this letter one of the most applicable to us two thousand years later, and that will also be the most important lens through which we should interpret this letter, but more on that in a bit. Before we get into that, I should mention that scholars aren’t sure who wrote this letter. 

Despite it being named after the Apostle Peter, we also know that Peter was illiterate. That, coupled with the fact that the Greek of this letter is written in a very advanced, high-level Greek. Way more advanced than even Paul’s letters. It’s a nightmare to translate. So, it could have been written by a colleague of Peter’s, or just someone writing in the spirit of Peter, which was very common in that day and not frowned upon. We just don’t know for sure. Regardless, I’m glad it still made it into the Bible. As I said, lots of good stuff here. Well, except for that part that we’re just gonna ignore. Lastly, the persecution of Christians is also an important piece of context that heavily influenced this letter. However, we have to be very careful applying this one to ourselves today because we are not persecuted. Not even close. 

Alright, with that context in mind, all of which I know you will remember over these five weeks, let’s dig in to chapter one. In all honesty, we’re not going to dig very far today because the first verse gives us so much, not only for today, but for this entire series. The author begins with, “To God’s chosen strangers in the world of the diaspora.” To God’s chosen strangers in the world of the diaspora. From the word go, the author gives us the perspective, the posture, from which we are to hear and consume this letter. As God’s chosen strangers in the world of the diaspora. Let’s tackle that sentence backwards, and begin with the word diaspora. I’m not sure how familiar that word is for you but it takes some unpacking in order for us to get the most out of it, especially because it’s importance cannot be overstated. 

It's an old Greek word that literally means to scatter or to disperse. In recent years I’ve heard the word diaspora refer more and more to the scattering of the African population across the globe by way of the slave trade. Traditionally though, the word diaspora has probably been most used as a reference to the scattering or dispersion of the Jewish population. The scattering of their people started while Abraham was still alive, beginning with the events that led to Egyptian slavery. From there, some of them returned to reconquer the land they claimed as their own, but even that didn’t last long, as there’s always a bigger fish. From the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians, to the Romans in Jesus’ day, all these empires participated in the Jewish diaspora, the scattering, the dispersion, of the Jewish population across the four winds of Earth. 

However, many scholars today do not believe this to be what the author of First Peter is referring to. A few verses later the author writes, “you were not liberated by perishable things like silver or gold from your meaningless ancestral way of life.” Ok, we may not know who exactly wrote this letter, but we do know that it was most likely someone from the Jewish community, and therefore would never refer to Judaism as a “meaningless ancestral way of life.” So, the author isn’t referring to the Jewish diaspora, but to something else. A Christian diaspora? Well, sort of but not exactly. This wasn’t a literal diaspora, this wasn’t a geographical scattering of Christians the author was talking about—but a diaspora of the heart, where it really mattered. 

Christianity flourished under this model. Why? Well, the Jewish Christians knew from their ancestry just what it meant to be a scattered people, strangers to the world. And the non-Jewish Christians knew this from the point of view of being persecuted. This gave them an edge that their enemies were not ready for. This allowed them the unique gift of being able to identify, to relate, with all those in their world that were also suffering, whether that suffering came from the empire, or the rich, or their religion, or some other oppressor like slavers or men or whoever. Those who were suffering weren’t looking to the powers that be for relief. They knew the powers that be very well and the only thing they were offering was more pain. And then along come these weird Jesus people. 

Some people were calling them Christians, some were calling them the people of The Way, and they followed the ways of this poor, persecuted, carpenter/prophet/healer/messiah/God-in-flesh person who didn’t seek power, who didn’t seek fame, who didn’t seek money, who didn’t seek land, let alone a home, who just loved people, to the last dying breath, and beyond they even said, and here’s the kicker, who could relate, who could empathize with us, from lived experience, from Jesus’ own heart of diaspora. This is what made the ways of Jesus so powerful! This is what made the followers of Jesus so inviting! This is what the author of First Peter didn’t want them to lose! This is why the author called them, called us, “God’s chosen strangers.” But then we sold out. 

About 200 years after the writing of this letter, the persecution of Christians officially ended, and about a decade after that happened, the Roman Emperor became a Christian, making Christianity not just the favored religion, but the government-sanctioned religion. Meaning, people no longer saw Christianity as the people of relatable relief, but instead, just one more of the powers that be. What was once this little Jewish sect, exploded into a mighty force, spreading across the world, not out of kindness and empathy, but by force—the once persecuted, became the persecutor. What probably seemed like gaining an edge, was really losing the edge that really mattered—the heart of the diaspora, of being scattered, of being strangers. 

Ok, that was heavy, let’s end on a positive, because as you will see, this letter is a very positive one. But without this foundation of the diaspora of the heart, it will be meaningless to us. Let’s fast forward to today and the state of the church we find ourselves in. Though we are still not being persecuted, we certainly aren’t what we used to be, are we! We no longer hold much power, yet we still carry the baggage of an oppressor. As such, our numbers have dwindled worldwide, our worship attendance has dwindled worldwide, and unfortunately, our influence has dwindled worldwide. So, you may be wondering, what keeps this pastor going, what gives me hope, why do I still do what I do? Well, because I think, whether we like it or not, we are returning to the state in which we started. 

We now have this opportunity to rediscover, the heart of diaspora, the heart that we were born with two-thousand years ago—the heart of a people who were scattered but not lost, the heart of a people who were homeless but were citizens of God , the heart of a people who were powerless but found strength together, the heart of a people whose suffering turned into serving others in need. So when people ask me what I think about our dying religion, how can I not be hopeful, excited even? Death is how we know things are just getting started! Death is when God does God’s best work! So, as we read through this short but powerful letter, remember that a diaspora of the heart is at the core of it, and not just it, but at the core of who we are, and not for our sakes, but for the sake of the world, always for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Who Pays for Our Desires?: Final of 4 Sermon Series on Ten Commandments

 Inspired by Exodus 20:17

Alright! We finally made it to the end of this series on The Ten Commandments, or as the Bible calls them, The Ten Words. We have been following the Jewish numbering, which is different than ours, and so that brings us to the tenth, but what we would think of as the ninth and tenth commandments. Not only is this the original way our faith ancestors saw these but it just makes more sense that way, as both deal with the same sin of coveting. Even Martin Luther dealt with them together in his Large Catechism. Of all four sermons in this series, this seemed to be the toughest one to write. Believe it or not, there isn’t a whole lot of attention out there on just this one Commandment, it often gets treated as an appendix, or an afterthought. And maybe that’s because we don’t talk about it very much, at least not in my experience. 

I can think of lots of times when murder or stealing or lying or adultery has been heard in sermons. But coveting, maybe it just doesn’t have the same ring to it for us. Now, I grew up learning this one as jealousy, anyone else? Translations are a funny thing. Jealousy isn’t necessarily wrong, but as we’ve seen throughout these Ten, the way we were taught these in Sunday School just scratched the surface of their true meaning. Even this last one, has farther-reaching ramifications than we were taught. So, let’s jump in. The Tenth Word is the only one that doesn’t deal with an outward action. All the others are about something said or done outwardly. Not the tenth, this one, is all about what goes on inside our head, making it one of the sneakiest and possibly easiest ones to break. 

Let’s define what we’re talking about though. Coveting, in its simplest form, is desiring what someone else has. I like the word desire rather than want, it’s stronger and more passionate. And even though I’d typically rather use common, everyday language, jealousy just doesn’t quite cut it. Jealousy sounds like something children have. Not that children are immune to coveting, nor are adults immune from acting like children, but I think if we adults could get our coveting under control maybe our children wouldn’t inherit so much of it. It’s also odd that it comes last, because if you think about it, if we were able to not break this one, all of the others would be unnecessary. I mean, think of all the different reasons that people murder or lie or steal or cheat on their spouse. 

I’m betting that in every instance, you could tie it to the sin of coveting, to the desire to have what someone else has, whether that be their property or their money. Or intangible things like their happiness or their livelihood or their success or their pleasure. At the end of the day, not being satisfied with what you already have, is at the root of the sin of coveting, and I’d say is at the root of breaking all the others. If a person is satisfied with what they have, would they resort to murder? If a person is satisfied with what they have, would they resort to lying or stealing or cheating or having other gods, or abandoning their elders? In general, I’m arguing no. Of course, there’s always exceptions. And I’m intentionally not bringing mental health into any of this. 

So now that we’ve gone over what coveting is, and how pervasive it is, what in the world do we do with it? Especially given the fact that it’s something that happens in our heads! We live in a society that teaches us that thoughts and feelings aren’t inherently bad, that thoughts and feelings are normal, as long as we don’t always act on them! But number ten flies in the face of all that! This final Word from God says no, that some thoughts and feelings, are actually inherently sinful. Well, ok, but how in the world are we supposed to stop a thought or feeling from coming into our head! And, is God really saying that we can’t have any wants and desires? Ok, here is where we need to take a breath, and add a little nuance to this, as well as some context. Because no, that’s not what God is saying here, of course we are allowed to have wants and desires. And even attain them! 

First, the context, context is everything. Remember, they had just been rescued from slavery in Egypt and are now on the brink of creating a nation with this newfound freedom. Think about the emotions and thoughts that they might be having. When the world has been horrifically unfair to you, it’s so easy to succumb to the thought that you deserve revenge, or at the very least, you are entitled to more than you need, for a while, to make up for what was lost. And for them, it was generations in slavery! So, talk about being susceptible to coveting! They came from nothing and now wanted everything that everyone else has enjoyed for the last few generations! And could have easily thought they were entitled to it! Fair’s fair, right! The Tenth Word from God says very loudly, no. 

Not even after all we’ve been through, God? No. I’ve personally gotten a taste of this. No, I’ve never been a slave but up until I became a pastor, in spite of the fact that pastors don’t make that much, at least compared to other fields that require a four-year postgraduate degree, whoa, I better be careful, I might break this commandment right before your eyes! I’m not bitter about it, just stating a fact. But in spite of that fact, when I became a pastor, that was the most income I had ever had. Up until then, my family lived well below the poverty line. It was the first time in my adult life that we didn’t qualify for food stamps and other aid. So, talk about coveting. It was 18 years of built-up coveting! And those first few years were hard to get used to, hard to learn how to be responsible with this new gift. 

So, that’s one perspective on this commandment. But let me provide a little more nuance to this. This isn’t about having wants and desires. Quite frankly, it’s not just about desiring more than you need. It’s about desiring without regard for your neighbor. It’s about our desires coming at the expense of our neighbor. Martin Luther takes this a step further by saying, when we are not actively working towards our neighbor having enough, having their needs met, we are breaking this commandment. This was God’s way of putting an added layer of protection for our most vulnerable neighbors. And, let me add one more dash of nuance, this was not intended to only be interpreted from an individual perspective. 

One huge difference between the people of biblical times and us, is that the default perspective for us is to make every Bible passage about me, about the individual. This just wasn’t the case for them. Their default position was a communal perspective, whether that be, the nation, the tribe, the family, not the individual. That’s just not the way they tackled life. They had a, we’re either gonna succeed together or we’re gonna fall together, kind of attitude. So, for this one, they’d also ask themselves, how do we keep from coveting,  as a family, as a tribe, as a nation? Today, we would add, how do we keep from coveting as a community, as a church, as a profession, as a country, as global citizens? How do our wants and desires come at the expense of others today? Who pays for them? If it’s just us then we’re ok.

But too often it’s others, whether it’s the poor or women or a vulnerable minority group that pays. From an ecological perspective, it could be animals, oceans, the air, just to name a few that pay for our wants and desires. All because we humans have such a hard time being satisfied with what we have. And that’s the good news here, that we do have so much to be thankful for, more than enough, blessings upon blessings, grace upon grace. All we have to do, is remember where it comes from, and what we are expected to do with it. I know, easier said than done. But this is why, when asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus said, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” Thanks be to God. Amen.