The Writing on the Wall

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings : The notion that there would be inscriptions over the gates of the heavenly city was something St John would have been very familiar with from everyday experience. Around one hundred years after he wrote the pagan city of Oenoanda in SW Turkey had the following set into its walls close to its main gate: self-born, untaught, motherless, unshakable, giving place to no name, many-named, dwelling in fire. Such is God: we are a portion of God, his angels. This then to the questioner about God’s nature. The god replied, calling him all-seeing Ether: to him, then, look and pray at dawn, looking out to the east. Anyone who was alive in the early centuries of the Christian era, pagan or Christian would have been a devout worshipper of the gods or of God, since life in the towns and cities of the empire was an extremely precarious thing. A quick look at statistics from Syrian Antioch is enough to confirm this. Between 51 BC and the mid 3rd century she suffered three major destructive sackings, two from the Persians and one in a civil war; she suffered three major earthquakes, in 37, 42 and 115 AD; she suffered severely from the damage of at least two anti Jewish riots in 40 and during the Jewish war in 66-7-; she had 2 major epidemics one of which reduced the population by 30% and major fires which destroyed vast swathes of the highly inflammable city and the slow lingering death of famine continually stalked her walls. Antioch was the city of the Matthean Christians, who, like the rest of its inhabitants would have been intensely vulnerable at these times, and this was quite apart from the daily petty violence and vice rife in any ancient city. The extraordinary thing then is that John, so patently aware of the problems of ancient cities as we see from his description of Babylon (Rome) and its destruction, no doubt influenced by descriptions of the contemporary destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, should choose the city for his final picture of heaven.

Contemporary writers of the Augustan period chose to celebrate the imperial peace of the House of Augustus with rural idylls – most noticeably Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, and when aristocrats could they happily deserted the city for their country estates or their breezy mansions on the Bay of Naples. Pliny the Younger had seven such pads scattered throughout Italy and he wasn’t among the richest by a long shot! Indeed, right up until modern times artists have depicted paradisiacal rustic settings as the fitting portrayal of what good humanity was all about right through from the Renaissance to the 19th century. St John however chose to act differently; why? Well, when we think about it our entire story of salvation has an urban setting whether in Bethlehem, Nazareth with its huge Roman baths and fort or Jesus’ battles with the Jewish elite and Pharisees in Jerusalem and ending with his arrest, trial and death. Even when in Galilee Jesus is mainly encountered in towns and when in the countryside it’s not to native people but to those who have followed him out of the urban areas that he preaches and ministers. Any map of the spread of early Christianity immediately illustrates what an urban phenomenon it was and it is not until Pliny in the early 2nd century that we hear of its spread to the countryside. This is not because no one lived there, but rather because the populations would have been scattered or not infrequently on slave run estates owned by the emperor or rich aristocrats. Christianity was of necessity an urban affair. This being the case, Christian writers would deal with their converts where they were and it was amongst all the joys and difficulties of urban life that they believed the kingdom would finally be achieved.

That cities were violent and full of dissention becomes very clear from the earliest Christian writer, St Paul, ‘grossly insulted at Philippi’; dragged before Governors in Corinth and Caesarea; imprisoned in Ephesus and Rome and stoned at Lystra. This dissention moreover would lie at the very heart of the earliest Christian communities in individual cities, as we see from our reading of Acts where the theological debate on the question of admission to the Judeo-Christian community threatened the very survival of the sect. Here in Acts, we see the issue of whether or not full admission to Christianity had to be by circumcision and adoption of the Jewish law was settled in the Council of Jerusalem C 49, yet, as we know from Paul, writing in the 50-60’s it continued to be an issue which dogged his every missionary endeavour and drew from him some of the greatest Christian insights as to the relationship between God and man. Paul indeed, showed himself to be par excellence a city man, easily able to exploit its ‘honour society’, the patronage of the wealthy for the poor by the development of house-churches once Christianity left the synagogues and showing how well he understood the significance of appeal to ‘friends in high places’, as we see with his reliance on the sponsorship of Sergius Paulus, Governor of Cyprus with his estates and influence in Southern Turkey, and we can easily imagine the usefulness to Paul of Erastus the convert city treasurer in Corinth.

No, it was never to any rural idyll that early Christianity appealed either for members or for its image of life with God, it lies now, as then in the daily struggle for the truth as met in Jesus’ great sermon in John 14, with its promise of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit – promised not to spirit us out of the difficulties of this present life but to sustain and hold us in the love of Father and Son and Jesus’ words of promise and encouragement amidst the chaos do not let your hearts be troubled.

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