The Epistle to Diognetus Part 3 – The Manner of The Christians

Continuing on from The Vanity of Idols Continued – Epistle to Diongetus Part 2,  we were left asking what life actually looked like for those who sought after it and who knew where to find it. To peer into this let us look at chapter 5 of the text of the letter to Diognetus:

“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… But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities,… 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.” The Epistle to Diognetus, 5.

If you felt this was a jam-packed chapter, you are not alone. We will discuss here the first half or so which we will arbitrarily cut-off at the sentence ending, “but they do not live after the flesh.”

This is a striking passage from a letter that comes early in the history of Christianity. At its beginnings, Christianity was a persecuted religion amongst a pagan and/or Jewish majority depending on where in the world the Christians lived. What is interesting about this section in the epistle is that the Christians are not somehow cut-off living in ghettos or identifying each other with secret codes. Rather they are living out the life of the community around them. One should also note that this is before the beginnings of monasticism which did not see its flourishing until the 4th century. Even in the movements of monasticism, the love of the other was of supreme importance. One need only look at the communal living circumstances of Basil’s monasteries and the Pachomian communities. Amongst the solitaries one can look to St. Antony and the famous saying of his, “‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.” As we continue, our anonymous author then goes on to elaborate what it is that is so striking and wonderful about their manner of life.

There are many things which make up their wonderful and confessedly striking manner of life. They dwell as sojourners in their own countries and endure all things as foreigners. Is this an early form of monasticism? No, our author clearly states that they live in the cities and follow the customs of their brethren in the cities which they inhabit. How often do we use ‘our rights’ against one another to repay evil for evil. How often do we seek ways to ‘restore justice’ to ourselves? Rather, how often do we look after our own and ourselves and yet we neglect the others around us, trodden on by society and neglected by the powerful. Are we quick to forgive or are we even quicker in visiting pain and harm upon those around us when they have wronged us? The words of Christ ring true in our ears,

“But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:44-48.

This life of self-sacrifice, perhaps even seen as ‘self-abasement’ (in a pejorative sense by some), is in fact the Divine way of life. God is the measuring stick because it is in the image of God that we are made (cf. Gen 1:27). We will speak more of this notion of the Divine Love in future posts.

This self-sacrificial love is the underlying theme that continues throughout this passage. Our author affirms that the Christians marry ‘as do all’ but then affirms that they do not destroy their children as was a common pagan custom (Perhaps he says as explicitly  against those who would say that the flesh, and therefore marriage and sexual union, were evil in and of themselves. Cf. the excellent treatment of this very issue by: Hart, M. D. (1987). Marriage, celibacy, and the life of virtue: An interpretation of Gregory of Nyssa’s” De Virginitate”. Pg13-15). The caring of children, desired or not, is a self-sacrificial act and it is something the Christians do wholeheartedly, they give of themselves for those around them, family or otherwise. This is again reiterated where our author states that the Christians have a common table, all are welcome to share at their gathering.

The sharing of the common table likely refers to a dual aspect of the Christian life. In the first instance it reflects the self-effacing love of the Christians who would go to great lengths to offer out of their poverty to others. This is a fulfillment of what we have spoke about above with regards to the Divine love. The other aspect likely refers to the Eucharistic table where the Christians shared all things in common. The Christian community, the Christian Eucharist, would be the first place in history where both commoner and royalty, slave and wealthy, sick and decrepit and healthy and pristine would mix. It is in this spirit that St. Paul can say to the Christian community in Galatia, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Galatians 3:26-28.

The whole of the foregoing discussion by our author has served to highlight the one point at which he arrives next, “They are in the flesh but do not live after the flesh.” The Christians do not somehow deny their fleshly nature, they do not believe themselves to somehow be ‘above the body’ but rather they do not allow their body to dictate their course of affairs. We will treat this in another post but let us pursue this idea here and now. The body and its desires and its interests are the things nearest to us. Our most basic desires or even our most basic needs are that of the body. The desire for sustenance, relationship, mutual love, etc are ‘natural’ (ie belonging to our nature) but if they become the object (the end, the goal, the telos) of human existence then we have greatly erred. If food becomes the purpose and the point of my life then I will surely adopt an unhealthy diet and will see the physical repercussions of this. Similarly if my own comfort and well-being become the very measure of my life, this too becomes an idol which erects itself in my life and to which I dedicate my life to. As stated in  previous posts, we too have idols even if they are not made of stone as they were in past societies.

The one who is able to not live after the flesh is the one who is able to begin to go beyond themselves and to seek after the well-being of the other. The one who moves beyond the flesh is the one who can begin to use his or her flesh as a tool in the service of their neighbour. This is the one whose love is outwardly directed, a love which moves out of oneself and brings one closer to their neighbour.

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