Pilgrims in Babylon

 

In the very helpful book, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing, authors Philip Kenneson and James Street remind us, "If the Church's mission is to announce the erupting reign of God, and to do so by being sign, foretaste, and herald of that kingdom, then it will not be able to do that if it expunges all its oddness in the name of building bridges to unbelievers" (145).  The church is full of oddness, and there is good reason for it. The overwhelming biblical witness is that we are pilgrims in Babylon (John 18:36; 1 Peter 2:9-11).  That is, we belong ultimately to another king, another kingdom, another city, another home.  Therefore, if nothing is odd or foreign or strange or new or counter-cultural within our lives or our churches, then how can we possibly point lost souls to God's kingdom (which is truly odd, foreign, strange, new, and counter-cultural when compared to the world's kingdoms)?  As Jesus reminds us, we are not of this world (John 17:14-16), we therefore don't look like the world when we gather for worship and when we live our lives as pilgrims.

In the midst of all of our striving to be relevant, perhaps we need to learn anew a lesson from some of the earliest Christians.  According to one account from the late second century, the early Christian's relevance, apologetic, and cultural influence was grounded primarily in his odd, foreign, strange, new, and counter-cultural way of life.  After calling Christians a "new race of men," the ancient text of The Epistle to Diognetus highlights the "remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship."

For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom.  For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style.  This teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious men, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do.  But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one's lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.  They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners.  Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland  is foreign.  They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring.  They share their food but not their wives.  They are "in the flesh," but they do not live "according to the flesh."  They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.  They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws.  They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted.  They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life.  They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything.  They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated.  They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect.  When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.  By the Jews they are assaulted as foreigners, and by the Greeks they are persecuted, yet those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility (quoted from The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd edition, p. 299).

Of the many things that stand out in this early defense of Christianity, perhaps the most significant is the apparent comfort these first Christians had at being foreigners and aliens, even in their own countries.  They knew they were pilgrims in Babylon.  Their lives showed it.  Their witness was strengthened by it.  They were not hip and relevant, they did not have a seat at the cultural table of their day, nor were they fashionable and respected.  But they were faithful.  They loved their God and their neighbor.  And as strange as this new race of men was to the world, they continued to grow and thrive under the blessings of God.