Nick Page

The soul of the world

Spent the last week in France, teaching at Le Pas Opton – one of my favourite weeks of the year.

A lot of the time was spent talking about the early church and the way in which they sought to put Jesus’ teaching into action.

The following comes from the Epistle to Diognetus, an anonymous work, probably from around 150 AD. I’ve used it in several talks, because nothing describes better the world of the first Christians, and the way in which so much of what they did ran counter to society around them, and, indeed, was a threat to the world around them. It’s an amazingly inspirational piece of writing.

‘For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice and eccentric way of life. This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign.

They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.

They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonoured, they are glorified in their dishonour; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished they rejoice as though brought to life. By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.

In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.’
Epistle to Diognetus 5.1-6.1

Taken from Michael Holmes’ translation in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations