Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- An early Christian once wrote that Christians did not dress differently from the rest of the inhabitants of the empire; they did not eat different foods nor appear in many other ways different from the common man. What he found marked them was their attitude to wherever it was they were living. Christians all lived as ‘strangers and sojourners’ they had no abiding city. This was unusual in a world where one was either proudly loyal to one’s home city or fiercely attached to one’s identity as a Roman citizen. What marked the Christian from the rest was the great sea-change that came over them as a result of their espousal of the Christian faith, as they lived out their lives amidst the hustle and bustle of Roman towns and cities and played their part in the economy, the administration, education, and even in the army of that state.
Our readings this week all focus on the significance of belonging, being members of the Christian community, and what that entailed. Our reading from 2 Peter (2:20-25) is about suffering, both the redemptive suffering of Christ for us, and how those persecuted for the faith were encouraged to understand their own persecution. When Pliny was governor of Northern Turkey around 100 AD, he wrote to Trajan his Emperor of the trouble caused by Christians; how their activities had severely affected trade in the local meat markets, and their teachings had spread to towns, cities and even villages until his persecution of them had quietened things down. What he had required was that the accused offer incense to statues of the reigning emperor and the imperial house, either in the court or in the many temples to the imperial cult which dotted the landscape. In other words, it was one specific action they had to undertake, one which every pagan would have been happy to do, and the one action Christians refused to do and for which they could be sentenced to death. Pliny’s account indicates that there were a number of people killed for their adherence to the faith at this time; those who saw themselves as ‘citizens of heaven’, whose loyalties were there rather than to the Roman Empire, no matter how much they appreciated its benefits and lived under its rule of law and benefitted from its peace and enjoyed its baths, theatres, Games and easy communications, and the goods it brought. When it came to the crunch, there were things Christians could not, would not, do.
Our reading from Acts (2:14, 36-41) speaks of a similar perspective as Peter insists on the decisive shift that the repentant must make by being baptised. As with the Petrine Letters, we know that these Christians undertook to do certain things as a result of their baptism of which the most important was partaking of the Eucharist amidst the prayer community of their fellows whose mutual support and care was paramount. Being a Christian placed obligations upon members both within the society and individually, as they were required to live according to the demands of their new lifestyle, which would include recognition that there were things they could no longer indulge in: visiting brothels; lying; exposing unwanted children; eating meat previously sacrificed to the pagan gods and worshipping in the traditional Roman manner. This latter would have been much more difficult than we imagine, for to us religion is largely something we decide to do on Sunday, and is discreet and largely private. But imagine a world full of traditional household gods, which included tiny statues of the emperor which you honoured every morning. Add to this shrines at every cross roads; statues of emperors in every court; at the theatres; the places of commerce; the entrance to the baths etc and you begin to appreciate just what a great shift in allegiance and in daily activity espousal of Christianity entailed. These ‘gods’ weren’t decorations, they were a visible and real reminder of the Emperor and his power over the Roman Empire and you were expected to pay homage to them. It was about how you lived your life on a daily basis that was affected, and in a world where most lived cheek by jowl in very crowded accommodation blocks, where you knew every one else’s business and they yours, Christians were highly visible and intensely vulnerable. Small wonder then that Pliny wrote of the success of his operation to suppress the faith in Bithynia!
Our gospel from John (10:1-10) is about precisely this crisis situation. By the time John wrote in the late 80’s to early 90’s Christianity had split from its parent Judaism and clearly from this gospel there were different groups of Christians who even viewed their fellows with great suspicion and hostility. John’s groups, with their clearly elevated theology of Jesus who was totally ‘One’ with the Father and his very carefully defined ideas as to the destiny of humanity in Christ appear to have had serious disputes with groups of more ‘Jewish-Christians’. We can see this in the author’s use of one of Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements: here ‘I am the gate of the sheepfold’. John’s language of those who are not of his group and their theology of Jesus are savagely put down: “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate, but gets in some other way is a thief and a robber.” He issues serious warnings to those who might consider straying, “Anyone who enters through me will be safe…the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” Woe-betide those who wandered from the straight path of Johannine theology!
Belonging to the Christian fold then was a matter of the utmost seriousness, not for the sloppy or the faint hearted in those early days and your every move carried enormous consequences. Whilst I would not wish to return to those dangerous times or inflict them on anyone else, one cannot but admire their gutsiness, and long for some of their real conviction.