Frances writes on this weekends readings :- When Virgil was celebrating the universal peace of his patron Augustus in the late 1st Century BC he wrote his Eclogues and Georgics. He wrote a series of pastoral idylls, full of the splendours of the natural world, and a bucolic vision meant to represent the peace which now reigned after the terrors of years of devastating civil wars. By way of vivid contrast, when Christians wrote to celebrate and publicise Jesus and the faith, it was most frequently deeply rooted in the city, the place where the faith flourished and grew amidst the teeming masses of men and women rubbing shoulders, amidst the hurly burly of ordinary daily life. This indeed remains the Christian message, that God, Immanuel is with us, God in real time, and not the fantasy of the Augustan peace, and that he is with us as we take the faith out into the world. In the 5th century, when St Augustine wrote his masterpiece after the fall of Rome, it was again to the image of the city, here the City of God, that he returned, purposeful, hopeful, confident in the power of God.
For Greco-Romans, life without the city was not real life at all. Granted, aristocrats did visit their rural estates frequently, but they all knew that what made them and everyone else tick was their intellectual and political life lived in the city. Exile for an upper class man; loss of the buzz was to be condemned to death. Rural isolation was a nightmare to be avoided at all costs. It’s the same for us today, isn’t it? True, some of us may live in pretty villages like Eynsham, but we are all heavily dependent on the city just down the road, for jobs, shops, and the culture they give, and the thought of life lived totally in some isolated backwater is not for the majority of us.
In our studies of Acts, here (15: 1-2, 22-29), we have seen how Paul and his colleagues travel around the cities of the ancient world spreading the gospel. Indeed, it would have been unthinkable for them to have gone to rural parts, for the most part under the management of rich slave owners, who would not have looked kindly on their intrusion into their strictly controlled world. The Church depended upon the urban environment for its spread, just as we do today when the majority of the world’s population live in cities. Here, in Acts, we witness the very first Church Council in Jerusalem setting down rules about the admission of pagan converts to Christianity; and cities with their great bishoprics would rapidly become the great centres of Church teaching and leadership. It was amidst the vibrant life, the dust, dirt and smells of the ancient city, with its builders, workers and traders, as well as their political life, that the great doctrines of the EarlyChurch would be forged, not in some lonely rural retreat. The faith relates to real life and is no fantasy and its relevance is what makes the difference between believing and rejecting Christianity.
So important was this concept of the city that John, writer of the Apocalypse, (21:10-14, 22-23), ends his Revelations of God not in some idyllic pastureland, but in the heavenly city, Jerusalem, now perfect, pristine and new, which we see reflected in the dimensions of the city; a perfect square; with equal numbers of gates and foundations on all sides. We note that in contrast to the many temples of pagan cities, this city has no temples, precisely because “God will make his home among men.” In and through the city God “makes the whole of creation new.” Now it was not because John was rosy-eyed about ancient cities that he wrote thus, for he knew that they could be places of terrible disease; riot and that at night they could become the haunt of the violent. Ancient town dwellers were accustomed to bolt their doors and put up their shutters after nightfall and only the wealthy, who could afford armed guards, went out after dark. But in John’s new city of God significantly there is no night and therefore, under God’s perfect rule, no place for terror. Life was to be lived under the rule of God in perfection. God was ‘at home’ with his people who shared in his love and reciprocated it.
This ‘making of a home’ between God and man is also John’s theme, Jn 14:23-29), as our Lord prepares his followers both for his departure and his abiding presence with them in the Holy Spirit. Not we note just Jesus, but the Father too will be represented in this ‘family’ of the Triune God who all ‘make their home with us’. And they make that home in quite specific ways, by calling on followers to love Jesus and to keep his word, in others words, by living out his life in their own lives. This is the way in which the Christian demonstrates his love for God, not in some esoteric existence, far removed from reality, but in the daily tussle with the world, and only thus can we know God’s ‘peace’. This will clearly not be an end to struggle and the cross, but it will be the assurance that we are truly ‘in God’.