Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Source flickr: Leaf Image
The more things change, the more they stay the same. With the changing seasons, I am reminded that some things never change.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on Colossians chapter three. While preparing for the sermon I outlined the book of Colossians and studied several commentaries about the epistle. One of the commentaries quoted a big chunk of one of the earliest Christian writings (circa A.D. 200) outside of the bible, entitled, the 'Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.' While not inspired, chapter five and six of Mathetes caught my attention because of its missiological significance. I would encourage you to read the following quotation from Mathetes in light of the current state of Christianity in the West and also because today many Christians in the United States will be heading to the polls to vote.

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. 
The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. 
They 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 marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. 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 obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. 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 foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
To sum up all in one word— what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world.

The author of this early Christian writing is an evangelist writing to a non-Christian. This context helps us to appreciate the previous quotation even more! Ideally, Christians are only distinguishable from those they live among by the life of Christ living through them--they are salt and light living in the midst of a dark world. They are the preserving agent; or as this writer has put it, the soul of the people they are living among. As much as things in the broader culture change, Christians have a call to live in the midst of their communities as ambassadors of a heavenly Kingdom!

A few days ago I posted this same quote on facebook, and upon re-reading it, I found it was even more relevant to our current circumstances than at the first reading. One sentence stood out: "They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed." This quote reminds me that Christianity started in a context where infanticide (the Greco-Roman alternative to abortion) and sexual immorality were the norm. The issues of human dignity and traditional marriage have been at the forefront of American politics for the past several decades. Despite the appearance of losing ground, it is actually a return to the status quo.

The more things change, the more things stay the same--one of the things I have been reminded is that humans are still in rebellion against God. Christians cannot change this fact by legislating morality. In fact, as the apologist Mathetes illustrates in his epistle to Diognetus, the Christian church is supposed to live differently in the midst of the world--not by wearing different cloths or eating different foods, but by living holy lives.

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