A member of the congregation asked me if I had ever heard of Judas’ Gospel, I replied I had and offered to lend them a copy. Once read they returned it with words along the lines of – ‘I think I will stick to the Gospels in the Bible.’ I know what he meant, however his question had also reminded me of the Epistle to Diognetus another of those writings that isn’t in the Bible, yesterday I remembered it again and dug it out for a read.
Written in the second century by Aristides is replying to a question Diognetus (a non-Christian) had asked: – ‘What is a Christian?’. I find the question itself an interesting one, Diognetus isn’t asking, ‘What is Christianity?’ or even ‘Who was Christ?’ but ‘What is a Christian?’. Of course we can’t know for certain, but I can’t help wondering if Diognetus’ question grew from a common seed we hear today. You don’t need to be Christian to live your life caring for others, loving your neighbour, going the extra mile, being generous with your time, talents and money to good causes and charities, accepting people as they are or treating everyone as equal. This is of course true, and all those years ago there were undoubtedly good people who lived up to the Christian ideals who weren’t Christians, so the question is a good one both then and now. Of course we might want to say our answer will be slightly different after all we live in a different world and a different society, but take note of how Aristides begins his reply.
You cannot identify Christians from other people on the basis of nationality, language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own, or speak some strange dialect, or adopt some peculiar lifestyle. Their teaching is nor the inventive speculation of inquisitive minds. They are not propagating mere human teaching as some people do. They live in Greek or foreign city, wherever chance has placed them. They follow local customs in clothing, food and other aspects of life. But at the same time they demonstrate the strangely wonderful form of their own citizenship. They each live in their native land, but as strangers. They shoulder all th duties of citizenship, but are made to suffer like aliens. Every foreign country is to them a homeland, while every homeland is like a foreign country. They marry and have children just like everyone else; but they do not kill unwanted babies. They share a common table but not a common bed. They are present ‘in the flesh’, but they do not live ‘according to the flesh’. They live on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey human laws, but surpass these law in their personal lives. They love everyone, but are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death and yet they are more alive than ever. They are poor and yet make many rich. They are short of everything and yet they live in abundance. They are dishonoured and yet their dishonour becomes a glory. Their names are blackened; nevertheless they stand innocent. They are mocked and yet they bless in return. They are treated outrageously and yet behave respectfully to all. When they do good they are punished as evildoers, When punished they rejoice as if being given new life. They are attacked by Jews as aliens and persecuted by the Greeks. Yet those who hate them cannot give any reason for their hostility. To put it simply – life is to the body as Christians are to the world. Their life is in the body but is not of the body. Christians are in the world but not of the word. Life is locked into the body, yet it holds the body together. Christians are held like prisoners in the world, yet it is they that hold the world together.