September 29, 2017

Two Early Patristic Apologists on the Role of Christians in the Life of the World

St. Lawrence and the seven deacons of Rome

This idea of Christians and the Christian Church as the soul of the world, a people set apart, animated by a divine calling that is discipleship — evokes the scriptural imagery of salt and light, found in the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount. As Christians we are expressly called to be in but not of the world. Our Lord tells us:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. (Mt 5:14-16)
Tertullian of Carthage, "the father of Latin Christianity", a prolific early Christian apologist and successful polemicist against heresy, in a tract from his theological treatise, discusses the Christian’s duties in a way reminiscent of Our Savior:
So we sojourn with you in the world, abjuring neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.
Likewise, the sentiment that Christians in society are to be a light to the world, is echoed in the early patristic writing, the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, or the Letter to Diognetus, an apologetic work defending Christianity from its detractors. "Mathetes" is not a proper name; it means "a disciple." The letter's author and recipient are unknown. One of the earliest texts of Christian apologetics, it reads:
To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are 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, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world.
Christians today face darkness and all manner of persecution, both explicit and inherent. The Church as a 'sign of contradiction' in the world must speak God's truth with conviction and courage. We can do so because Christ is our light. John's Gospel reminds us: "All things came to be through him... What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1:3-5) May we, in all things, speak and act with love, animated by joy, in imitation of Christ.

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