Sunday, July 09, 2006

Early Christian Exiles

The second-century Epistle to Diognetus furnishes us with one of the earliest examples of how the early Christians thought of themselves and their relationship to the pagan culture around them. In chapter five we read:

"For the Christians dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.

"They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreign-ers, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred."

This glimpse into the pre-Constantinian church is a challenge to the triumphalistic attitudes of many today who are fond of (mis)quoting II Chronicles 7:14 to remind God of his "covenant promises" to prosper America.

If the Church were to slip even more deeply into cultural obscurity, if the people of God were made to pay a price for our faith, if believers were forced to relinquish our utopian visions of a this-worldly country "reclaimed for Christ" -- in a word, if we set our eyes upon the eternal City whose Builder and Maker is God, only then will we begin to understand the pilgrim existence that our brothers and sisters of old endured.