In the last post The Epistle to Diognetus Part 3 – The Manner of The Christians we discussed the life of the Christians who do not live, “After the flesh”. Here we will delve into the second half of that chapter and what it says about the manifestations of a life not lived after the flesh. We will give the full chapter here again:
“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.
Again, we are struck by a radical contrast, “they pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.” Many of us maybe have an idealized vision of a monastic, living in solitude, constantly praying that they be ‘released from their chains’ (referring to their earthly existence). However, as we have seen, the anonymous author, Mathetes (translated into English as disciple), is not speaking about a secluded ‘fringe’ group but rather citizens that are not distinguished ‘neither by country nor language nor the customs they observe’. To be ‘citizens of heaven’ is the common vocation of all Christian people. So if these people are not all raising the dead or living in secluded caves where all time is spent in constant vigil and prayer, what does it mean to be a citizen of heaven?
There are many ways to approach this question, we will embark on one.
On the one hand, Christ Himself gives us an answer and it seems almost too basic to have any explanatory scope on first glance,
“Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:20-22.
Thus it seems that Christ and the author of this anonymous epistle are both stating the same principle that ‘heaven’ is not a ‘place somewhere else’ nor is it a place where we simply do all the things we enjoy forever (Many of us can think of the imagery of those stating that ‘grandpa is now enjoying golfing everyday now that he is in heaven’). Rather Heaven can also communicate an internal disposition of the individual. Heaven is our natural home because it is the very presence and life of God, this communion is what we were created for. This nearness to God and communion in the life of the Trinity is what we cry out for daily with our prayer that “Thy Kingdom come” in the Lord’s prayer. We are not praying the world somehow disappear or for us to ascend into the heavens at that time but rather that we might live the life of God here and now. Take for example St. Gregory of Nyssa’s commentary on the Lord’s prayer starting from a section where he contrasts the rule of sin and death over us as compared to the Kingdom of Heaven:
“But the sum of all good is to submit to the authority which gives life, the Kingdom of God. Human nature was deceived and was led astray from the discernment of the good. The inclination of our free will was directed to slavery. The life of human beings was subjugated by every evil. Death entered nature by a myriad of ways inasmuch as every suggestion of evil turns out to be a form of death against us. Therefore, because we have been entangled in this kind of tyranny and have been enslaved by death through evil passions which assault us like enemies and executioners, it is good that we pray for God’s Kingdom to come upon us. For by no other means can we put off the wicked subjugation of corruption except through the substitution of God’s life-giving lordship over us. If we then ask that God’s Kingdom should come upon us, we honestly entreat God to actualize in us these blessings: to be released from corruption; to be liberated from death, and to be loosed from the bonds of sin. We pray that the tyranny of wickedness cease its power against us and its war not conquer us, leading us away as captives through sin. We pray “Let Your Kingdom come upon us” in order that the evil passions which rule and lord it over us may depart from us, and indeed vanish into nothingness… Likewise, if God’s Kingdom comes upon us, all those things which dominate us collapse into nothingness. Darkness cannot endure the presence of light. Sickness cannot exist when health returns. The evil passions are not active when freedom from passions takes hold. When life reigns in our midst and incorruption holds sway, gone is death and vanished is corruption. “Thy Kingdom come.“… Let the opposing camp be destroyed. Let the array of the enemy vanish. Let the warfare of the flesh against the spirit be done away. Let not the body serve as a base for the enemy to fight against the soul. Let the royal lordship shine upon me… However, when Your Kingdom appears, “sorrow and sighing flee away” (Is.35:10). Life, peace and joy enter instead.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, On The Lord’s Prayer, Homily 3 as in St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lords Prayer: the Beatitudes. Newman Press, 1954.
One must forgive the length of the quote but it seemed apt to reproduce it in full here. St. Gregory of Nyssa here has elucidated the request for the Kingdom of Heaven, for the Kingdom of God. We are not to yearn after endless pursuit in our pleasures or endless delight in our worldly temptations but rather we will have eternal bliss and delight in God Who is Life and The Kingdom Himself. This dwelling with God also implies the active casting off of the corruption and the pursuit of selfish pleasures and desires which plague us in our day-to-day life. We are to pursue God and His Kingdom today and now, not as an esoteric destination that happens ‘in the future’. In a way, the Kingdom is always today and never tomorrow despite the way we speak about “going to Heaven” when we die.
Living the Kingdom of Heaven is a putting off of my selfish desires, a denial of my self-interested obsessions and a living to and for God, an ecstasy (a turning out). The fact that I take it as a personal affront whenever someone cuts me off in traffic, that I am so agitated, even to the point of letting everyone on my social media account know about it, when someone butts me in line or that I cannot fathom how someone could be so rude to ask for a ride home when they clearly know I am busy; these all indicate to all of us that we have yet to ‘become citizens of Heaven’. Many more examples could suffice here but we can all think of times where we could, maybe even should, have helped our neighbour but done so out of obligation or neglected our duty altogether. St. Athanasius concludes about the Kingdom of Heaven,
“But the way of truth has for its goal the God who truly exists . We do not need anything except ourselves for the knowledge and faultless understanding of this way. For the path to God is not as far from us or as external to us as God himself is high above all, but it is in us and we are capable of finding its beginning by ourselves, as Moses taught: “The word of faith is within your heart.” The Saviour also declared and confirmed this, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” For insofar as we have faith and the kingdom of God within us, we are capable of arriving quickly to the vision and perception of the king of all, the saving Word of the Father…. And if someone were to ask what this road might be, I say it is each one’s soul and the mind within it.” St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, 30.
In the following few lines of this same chapter, our author actually gives us a roadmap as to what he means by the citizenship of heaven which characterizes the Christians of his age. To this we turn in a following post…