One of the most spiritually arresting experiences of my sabbatical this summer came not during a retreat, in a library, in solitude or in conversation, but at an award-winning French theme park (and it’s not Disneyland Paris). Le Puy du Fou, in Les Epesses, was last year voted the world’s best theme park – yet apart from a solitary carousel, there isn’t a single ride in the place. Instead, the park is divided up into zones featuring different periods of French history, introduced through a series of spectacular live-action shows. The attention to detail is stunning – castles, viking settlements and medieval towns, all lovingly recreated. There is even a full-size replica Roman amphitheatre, allowing several thousand people at once to witness live gladiator combat and chariot-racing. The gladiator show in question followed the story of a Roman governor persecuting Christians and a brave centurion stepping into the fray. Given the quite secular reputation of French public culture, I was not immediately certain which way the show was going to go: could the Roman governor turn out to be the goodie of the piece – an enlightened administrator dealing with a troublesome religious minority? As it happened, the show took a different turn, as the plucky Roman Centurion turned out to be a Christian convert, submitting himself to trial by combat in the place of his Christian fiancee and friends. It was exciting and entertaining stuff – a bit like watching Ben Hur live. But throughout the forty minute show I couldn’t help feeling that for me, there was a more serious undercurrent. The Christians in the arena were not just story-book characters but (if we’re to take seriously the credal statement ‘I believe in the communion of saints’), in some way, distant family. I found myself wondering how I would cope with persecution, or whether we as a contemporary British church would be able to discover a depth of trust in God and power to endure in the face of such opposition. And regardless of persecution or otherwise, are we taking our commitment to the Gospel as seriously as the Christians of that generation?
In the past I have occasionally dipped into the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, a collection of letters from Christian leaders covering the end of the first and into the second centuries AD – at least one of the authors in this collection, Polycarp of Smyrna, was himself a victim of persecution. The sabbatical was a good opportunity to go back to this book, and particularly those letters which discuss the practical Christian life. What might they have to contribute to our understanding of what Christian discipleship looks like?
Here I’ve started with three letters – Clement of Rome’s first Letter to the Corinthians, Polycarp of Smyrna’s Letter to the Philippians, and the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus. Significantly (and in contrast to many of the spiritual classics of the medieval and early modern periods) the intended audiences of these are substantially lay, and this offers a number of good insights into what the writers thought that the ordinary Christian life should look like. As noted in an earlier blog posting, what follows is not critical textual or historical commentary of the letters (though there’s a place for that elsewhere), but more a face-value reading of the text and what it appears to say about the nature of Christian discipleship.
For all three writers, the centre of faith is fear and trust of God. As Polycarp writes: ‘So gird up your loins now and serve God in fear and sincerity. No more of the vapid discourses and sophistries of the vulgar; put your trust in Him who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and gave Him glory and a seat at His own right hand’. There is an awareness here (which can also be seen in Augustine of Hippo) that whilst doctrine may require sophisticated elaboration, the life of discipleship is essentially simple and practical, and over-philosophising may be counter-productive. Imitation of Christ is at the core of the holy life: Polycarp calls his audience ‘copies of the divine love’, whilst the author of the Epistle to Diognetus writes: ‘And if you love him, you will become an imitator of his goodness. Do not be surprised that a man should be an imitator of God; he can, since God has willed it so’.
So what kind of life does this demand? To begin with, a disciplined devotional life, although all three writers deal with this in a relatively concise manner, perhaps suggesting they assumed their readers would know what was already expected. Constancy in prayer (for God’s mercy, for the fellowship of believers, and for enemies) is advocated by Clement and Polycarp – Clement recalls to his hearers how ‘day and night you would wrestle on behalf of all the brotherhood, that in His mercy and compassion the whole number of His elect might be saved’. Clement praises his audience for their ‘soundness of knowledge’ (chapter 1) whilst Polycarp spends a portion of his letter emphasising the need to study scripture and internalise its precepts. The Epistle to Diognetus spends considerable time outlining the intellectual credibility of Christian belief (notably of the Incarnation) as opposed to contemporary pagan thinking on the nature of the human and the divine. The clarification of key beliefs about Jesus and their defence within the world of pagan philosophy would become a key concern for many surviving Christian writers of the Roman and late antique periods. And as a result, the lived experience of Christian discipleship is often only obliquely discernible in these later works (I may say more about this in a future blog posting about Augustine’s Confessions).
However, in the late 1st/early 2nd Centuries, the three writers under discussion here give substantial space to the practicalities of the Christian life lived amongst other people. There are several exhortations to hospitality and care for others, whilst the author of Diognetus paints a picture of the Christian community repaying ‘calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy’. The portrait is perhaps an idealised one, but we have enough evidence from a variety of (pagan and Christian) sources to suggest that it was not without foundation in reality. The ideal is clear: the author of Diognetus urges that ‘if a man will shoulder his neighbour’s burden; if he be ready to supply another’s need from his own abundance; if, by sharing the blessings he has received from God with those who are in want, he himself becomes a god to those who receive his bounty – such a man is indeed an imitator of God’.
All three writers also devote considerable space to right relationships within the Christian community: The author of Diognetus commends the Christians for their ‘warmth of fellowship’, whilst Clement commends his Corinthian audience for having avoided factionalism and petty resentments. In both Clement and Polycarp there is an expectation that the disciple/church will show deference and obedience to right teaching and leadership – already a theme within the New Testament letters, and to become a strong theme within writing about the Christian life during later centuries. Here we encounter something which is distinctly out of favour in our own time (much of the cultural ferment of the long 1960s can be seen as a revolt against ‘deference’). Yet at the same time, in all three letters there is also a frequent emphasis (almost completely absent from the spiritual writing of other a number of other periods) on the importance of submitting to one another rather than a more binary understanding that some are in authority, whilst others submit to them.
In matters of personal behaviour towards others, the three letters are strongly reminiscent of some of the ‘so then…’ sections towards the end of many New Testament letters. All three writers emphasise that the good disciples is one who is sober and continent in their behaviour (sexually, but also just as importantly in relation to all aspects of material existence). Polycarp and the writer of Diognetus emphasise the virtue of contentedness with what one has, whilst Polycarp’s letter contains extended discussions of the perils of loving money, of anger, and of judgementalism. (Reading the above, I’m reminded of a vicar from around these parts who observes that most of the pastoral and congregational problems he encounters ultimately come down to the misuse of money, sex or power, and that a key task for discipleship development should be helping people anticipate these temptations and be equipped to deal with them when they arise). There is also an expectation (or at least an implicit assumption) in these letters that different stages of life may present different temptations and opportunities. Clement writes, for example: ‘Your elders were treated with the honour due to them; your young men were counselled to be soberly and seriously minded; your womenfolk were bidden to go about their duties with irreproachable devotion and purity of conscience, showing all proper affection to their husbands; they were taught to make obedience the rule of their lives, to manage their households decorously, and to be patterns of discretion in every way’. What would it look like, I wonder, to equip today’s Christian disciples with understanding of the different challenges and dilemmas we are likely to face at different life stages, and to help find ways of dealing with these?
There is recognition by all three writers that a key dimension of Christian discipleship is establishing a right relation and right role within wider society. There is very little here of what concerns modern political theology – the writers comment primarily on individuals in relation to their social context rather than see any over-arching role for the church in the public sphere or in relation to systemic issues (this is of course hardly surprising given that the Christian community was still in the late 1st/early 2nd Centuries socially marginal, frequently seen as deviant, periodically persecuted, and lacking any significant leverage of temporal power and influence in most places. In that context, such a role would be hardly conceivable let alone realistic, at least in human terms). Instead, the three writers focus on a number of themes. First, Christians are people who set little store by the world and its standards: the author of Diognetus writes: ‘though they are residents at home in their own countries, their behaviour there is more like that of transients… […] … their days are passed on the earth, but their citizenship is above in the heavens’. In Polycarp (who was ultimately to be martyred for his faith) this disregard even extends to not fearing death – although at this stage martyrdom was not widely held up as the ultimate expression of the pure and holy Christian life as it was to be in periods over the following two centuries. Certainly there is no hint amongst any of these letters that persecution is something actively to be desired or sought out – though plenty is said by way of encouragement to endure any persecution or suffering encountered. (In this sense, going back to where this post started, there is a very clear expectation that the authentic life of discipleship will result in suffering and persecution – we often say this today, but how much do we really expect it, or our actions for the Gospel result in it?). Idol-worship is to be rigorously avoided (there is a long discussion of this in the Epistle to Diognetus), but in other respects, there is a tendency to encourage submission to social laws – partly because (as the author of Diognetus notes) being free from proscribed rituals and rules, Christians could travel anywhere and blend in with local customs, partly because many Christian writers of the time felt that orderly social behaviour would be likely to deflect local opposition and (more positively) win approval from neighbours. As Polycarp writes: ‘When it is in your power to do a kindness, never put it off to another time, for charity is death’s reprieve [Tobit 12:9]. Let everyone respect his neighbour’s rights, so that the heathen may have no occasion to find fault with your way of life. By so doing you will not only earn approval’. Here again one can hear echoes of the later New Testament letters, but also a clear challenge for today. As Christians, we should be remarkably unencumbered by proscribed rules of dress, ritual and observance, even though consideration for Gospel values leads us to act in certain ways rather than others (‘everything is permissible but not everything is good’, says Paul). Instead our identity should derive from being ‘imitators of Christ’ in being and sharing God’s good news of love and forgiveness to the world. Can I/we honestly say that is how others see me/us? If not, how do I/we change the pattern of our lives so that this becomes a priority, and support, encourage and equip each other in living that out wherever we are?
 Polycarp of Smyrna, Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2
 Polycarp, chapter 1; Epistle to Diognetus, chapter 10
 Clement of Rome, First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 2
 Epistle to Diognetus, Chapters 5, 10
 Clement, Corinthians, Chapter 1.
 Epistle to Diognetus, Chapter 5.
 Polycarp, Chapter 10.