Christians are indistinguishable…

Or is there a certain way that we are known?

How would you describe a Christian? How would your neighbor describe you? How are you known at your workplace, or where you study? That might be a risky question to ask depending on the audience! In one way or another Christians are described every day and in every way. Some of the answers might make us feel proud. Some of the answers might make us feel uncomfortable.

Jesus told his disciples in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It’s one thing to be identified as one of Jesus’s disciples because of our love for one another. It’s another thing to get lumped into a group of “Christians” because of a set of identifiers that is generally despised.

We’re not the first and probably not the last generation to have to consider our identity in a world that is oblivious to us or even hostile to our faith in Jesus. Our Lord, again in the Gospel according to John, says: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (15:18).

In the second century, the early Christians were a curiosity. Their neighbors rubbed elbows with them but couldn’t quite figure them out. An early disciple using the pen name Mathetes, meaning “a disciple,” wrote to Diognetus, the tutor of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, to acquaint him with this “strange” group of people. Today we could call it an apologetic, a formal defense or justification for the people called Christian. As you read it, consider if you identify with this description or not. How would living like this affect the way your world sees you and your fellow Christians? Focus on the final paragraph and use it in a small group discussion.

A Letter to Diognetus

“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them (leave them in a public place or in the wilderness unwanted). They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then, they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

“To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

“Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.” From a letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)

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Gary Wiley

Gary is a writer and the Spanish Scripture Engagement Content Coordinator for American Bible Society. He lived for many years in Lima, Peru, where he served as pastor and missionary with his family. He lived in New York City for 15 years serving as a pastor. He received a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He now lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his wife, Charlotte. They have been married 40 years and have three adult children and nine grandchildren, and are members of St. Peter Parish in Merchantville.

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