Epistle to Diognetus

 

Making Things Harder
by Brian Jones

In a letter historians call "The Epistle To Diognetus," an unknown second century disciple wrote to a skeptic named Diognetus to answer his questions about this strange new religion called "Christianity." The opening lines of his letter capture what people must have found so appealing about followers of Jesus roughly 1,750 years ago. 

"I have noticed, my lord Diognetus, the deep interest you have been showing in Christianity, and the close and careful inquiries you have been making about it. You would like to know what God Christians believe in, and what sort of cult they practice which enables them to set so little store by this world, and even to make light of death - since they reject the deities revered by the Greeks no less than they disclaim the superstitions professed by the Jews. You are curious, too, about the warm fraternal affection they all feel for one another ...I pray God, the Author of both our speech and hearing, to grant me such use of my tongue that you may derive the fullest benefit from listening to me." 

Notice that phrase, "...even to make light of death."

I wonder how many times Diognetus had watched a disciple of Jesus die a martyr's death before he was prompted to ask spiritual questions.

One of the strange things about 21st century churches is the lengths we are willing to go to look, talk and act like the people we are trying to reach and our obsession with making Christianity easy and palatable. If we learn anything from our spiritual forbears, most of whom blow us out of the water evangelistically, it is that evangelism flourishes the more difficult and counter-cultural we make the Christian journey, not the other way around.

Just recently I was reminded of this while teaching in our weekend worship services. We were studying that horrible story in 1 Samuel 15 where God tells Saul to do something that we find incomprehensible today. In verse three of that chapter God told Saul, 

"Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'" 

While I was preaching I kept thinking, "This is it. This is going to be the sermon when some nut jumps out of his seat and hurls a large coffee at me and storms out." Fortunately that didn't happen. But after the message I braced for the worst in the hallway. Surprisingly it never came. In fact, just the opposite happened. I was shocked. Spiritual inquirers I had been building bridges with for over a year came up to me and complimented me like I was Billy Graham. At first I was tempted to pat myself on the back and shout, "You da man, Brian! You da man!" But I knew it had nothing to do with my meager teaching skills. Non-believers I encounter aren't grabbed by easy, make-me-comfortable messages. What spiritual inquirers want is to hear a counter-cultural word from God, even if they vehemently disagree with it. 

One of the hardest things for a non-believer to handle, at least in our context, is baptism. In fact, shortly after our new church in Philly launched we lost 27 people in one week over this issue. In my experience nothing un-nerves a skeptic more than watching someone get baptized. That's a good thing. One reason it disturbs them is it's a little odd. And if you've ever seen a baptism, admit it, on the surface, it is a strange thing to watch. One day a guy is putting with his buddy Harry on the 8th hole of the neighborhood golf course, and the next day he's joined some nutty religious group dunking him under water. It's also humbling. Everyone gets wet. No exceptions. No-one can baptize themselves. Everyone is stripped down to a t-shirt and shorts just like everyone else. Cell phones don't work real well when wet. Neither do luxury cars, expensive homes and stock options. Baptism makes everyone equal. But the biggest reason non-believers are unnerved by the image of baptism is because they get it -- they finally get what it means to be a disciple. Nothing in our religion so powerfully conveys the counter-cultural re-direction of a life like a person being baptized. Baptism is an act that tells an unbelieving world we're slamming on the brakes with both feet, wildly swerving the car around and heading back up a one-way cultural street. 

Romans chapter six makes it clear that one of the primary images Jesus had in mind was decomposition. Baptism is actually a mock tomb. You are lowered into the water as if you were being lowered into a grave. As you come up it symbolizes that, just as Jesus was raised from the dead, we too are raised to live a completely different life. It is like God is saying through this image, "Let me clarify something from the very beginning. This whole journey is about death. Death to your self. Death to the culture in which you live. Death to your ambitions, your dreams, your wishes, your everything. But it's also about life. My life within you. My life to recreate. My life to work in and through and around you to accomplish my will on this earth."

One of my children's favorite games when we go on vacation is a game they call, "Baptize the sinner." It goes something like this. Starting 1,400 miles away from our destination my kids start asking, "Are we there yet?" After 32,435 "Not yets" we finally make it to the hotel. We drag our suitcases to the room, they change into their swimsuits in under three seconds flat and make a mad dash for the pool. We'll swim for what seems like hours and then at some point I'll overhear my middle daughter yell out, "Are you a sinner!?!" My oldest will yell back, "Yes!" And then my middle one will yell back, "Well, be baptized you sinner and become a Christian!" and slam her into the water like a heavyweight wrestler. Then my newly redeemed offspring will jump up and say, "My turn. My turn." This continues until everyone has been dunked four or five times. When I first saw this I muttered to my wife, "This is utter blasphemy." She laughed, "What kinds of games do you expect Pastor's kids to play?"

Baptism has the same affect on skeptics too. It's a mental image that's hard to shake, especially at our baptism services when as soon as people come up out of the water people hoot and scream and clap and high five one another. 

Sometimes it's hard to know how far we've strayed from the course until we receive an outside reminder. In 1883 the scholarly community was riveted when a previously unknown Christian document from the second century was re-discovered and published. Early church leaders and others talked about a book called "The Teaching of the Apostles" that had somehow gotten lost in the shuffle of history. That book, now commonly called, "The Didache," which is the Greek word for "the teaching," seems to be a second century church handbook on how to make disciples. If we were to create a similar document today, I wonder how we would begin such a document. Maybe we might be tempted to list all the benefits of becoming a Christian or how Jesus meets all of our needs and desires. However, what was the first line of "The Didache?"

"There are two Ways: a Way of Life and a Way of Death, and the difference between these two Ways is great." 


About the Author
Brian Jones is the author of Second Guessing God: Hanging on When You Can't See Plan (March 2006) and the founding Senior Pastor of Christ's Church of the Valley in Collegeville, PA. More information about his writing and speaking can be found at www.brianjones.com.

 

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Christian article with feature on letter to Diognetus and thoughts on baptism and counter-

culturalism

 

Christian article with feature on letter to Diognetus and thoughts on baptism and counter-culturalism