For Shavuot: On Minyans, Synagogues, and Home Fellowships

Moses Comes Down from Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:25,2...
Note to artists: Yes, the word "qeren" can mean a horn, but in this context, it really means "honor" or "glory."

Shavuot begins tomorrow (i.e., Tuesday, June 7) at sundown.  It’s customary at this time of year to thank Hashem for giving the Torah on Mt. Sinai–and in the case of Messianic Jews, for giving the Holy Spirit on the Temple Mount.  Last year I took the occasion to blog on the Torah, Spirit, and Unity and meditate on the romance of Ruth and Boaz (another Shavuot tradition).  This year’s blog is going to be a bit of a meandering one on a subject that I previously touched on in Radical Discipleship, Continued Membership, but which is once again on my thoughts.

This last Sabbath, I ended up filling in for Rabbi Gavri’el on the main service in addition to starting the Revelation series for the Shacharit (morning) service. It will go up on Cyber-Synagogue in due time, but I should warn everyone up front that it wasn’t my best teaching ever. To start with, it was almost completely off-the-cuff. R. Gavriel had indicated that he wasn’t feeling well, but had meant to show up just to teach, even if he had to skip everything else. That being the case, I focused on preparing my own service over making sure that I had a back-up teaching for him just in case. I didn’t find out until 15 minutes before the service that he would be out. As a result, I didn’t really have a flight plan, so while I think the essence of what I ended up teaching on was from the Holy One, it came out more than a bit disorganized.

What was that essence? It was a challenge: If you found out that the entire leadership of the synagogue was out sick one Sabbath and you were the senior member on hand, would you be prepared to lead the service?

Seriously, this is all you really need

See, in Jewish thought, a synagogue doesn’t need a rabbi. It doesn’t even need a kosher Torah scroll–in fact, it is permissible to sell the congregation’s Torah to build a mikveh (immersion pool) if necessary, since the latter is fundamental to keeping certain commandments. You don’t even have to have a building: The word “synagogue,” like “church,” originally refered to the assembly of the people, not to the building that they met in. No, to have a synagogue all you really needed was a minyan: ten or more Jewish men who were of Bar Mitzvah age.

In theory, that means that if some weird sci-fi disease broke out that killed everyone 14 years old and older, that it was expected that a group of ten 13-year-old Jewish adolescents would, having gone through their pre-Bar Mitzvah education, know enough between them to carry out a complete synagogue service, including reading from the Torah (in Hebrew) and expounding on its meaning.

How many of you reading this would be up to that challenge?

As I worked this morning, I was listening to this weekend’s View from the Bunker podcast, where Derek interviewed Keith Giles on his book This is My Body: Ekklesia as God Intended. Mr. Giles was basically issuing the same challenge to my Sunday Brethren, though in the process, I think he went too far in discounting “organized religion.” For example, while he was correct in asserting that the Body of believers is a Temple of the Holy Spirit, he was incorrect in claiming that the Apostolic Ekklesia rejected the Temple in Jerusalem (see our article on Acts 21 on Hebrew Root) or the synagogue service. On the contrary, we see that wherever possible, the early Nazarenes remained within the synagogue in their particular city (Acts 14:1, 15:21, 17:2 and 17, 18:5-8, 26:11; Jas. 2:2)–and where they were actively kicked out, they formed their own synagogue.

Nor could it be said that they rejected hierarchy in the Body. Each assembly had its own elders who were in turn under the authority of the apostles, who had their own council in Jerusalem that they deffered to on difficult matters that affected the Body as a whole (again, ala Acts 15). Over all of this, Messiah Himself continued to reign through His Spirit, and even through dreams and visions.

I think what confuses a lot of people is Paul’s discussion of discipline in the assembly in 1Co. 11-14, which does make it sound like a borderline free-for-all. Taken by itself, it does seem to indicate that every service was “Spirit led” to the abandonment of any sort of order of service, liturgy, or ceremony. However, there are good reasons to believe that Paul was discussing a service that was being held in addition to and apart from the main synagogue service. To give just one example, 1Co. 11:20-22 tells us that the meeting being discussed in the ensuing chapters was specifically centered around a fellowship meal; food was not served in the synagogue service. In fact, such a dinner on the Sabbath would have been difficult to arrange, since cooking is not permitted on the Sabbath itself. Rather, this fellowship dinner most likely took place after sundown on Saturday, which according to Jewish thought would begin the first day of the week, when the fires could be rekindled (cf. Acts 20:7).

Like this, but with more yarmulkes.

In effect, then, this Messianic service would be akin to a small Bible study group that met together on Sunday night apart from the main church service to share a pot-luck dinner, pray together, discuss that day’s sermon and Sunday school lesson, and maybe have a Bible study on a completely different subject.

As the divide between the Ekklesia and the Synagogue widened and hostilities between Jews and Gentiles increased on both sides, this first-of-the-week service became the main attraction for the Gentile believers in many places–so much so that by the Fourth Century, most could hardly fathom entering a synagogue for any reason.  That was, of course, an enormous tragedy, causing the now Gentile-dominated Christianity to lose sight of its Jewish heritage.

Is it any less of a tragedy when home fellowships today deliberately sunder themselves off from their local churches or synagogues?

Let’s suppose that such home fellowships do enjoy a greater share of the Light of Hashem’s Word than whatever worship assembly or assemblies they splintered off from.  Don’t they lose the opportunity to share that light with other Christians, Messianics, etc.?  Certainly, there are cases when such groups are wrongly told to cease and desist–as the Apostles were–and have to make a choice between God and Man, but far more common in my experience is that they excommunicate themselves.  They may be right in their theology and use of the gifts of the Spirit–but what if they aren’t?  Wouldn’t they benefit from oversight, as indeed the 1st Century Nazarene assemblies benefited from the oversight of the Apostles?

I think that home fellowships are indeed a vital part of the Body of the Messiah.  But  I also believe that all too many of them have forsaken proper discipleship out of a sense of pride.  “I don’t need any man’s teaching.  I have the Holy Spirit to teach me!”  So did the Apostles.  But they also had two years of extremely intensive discipleship–which is something completely different in the Jewish world than it is in the Christian–before Yeshua had them rely on the Spirit.  Are we today so much better and more holy than they?

Today, as we prepare to celebrate the giving of that Spirit, let us also celebrate by following the example of the Living Word of God, who gave us our example in what it takes to be true servant-leaders and fishers of men.  If you happen to be in east Atlanta and are looking for a Shavuot celebration to join, you’re more than welcome to crash ours.

Shalom

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