As I get ready for yet another high school formation retreat I stumbled across the writings of the ancient Athenian philosopher, Aristides, and his letter to the emperor in the latter portions of the second century A.D. Aristides would come to faith not long after this writing and it serves as a great illustration for youth to wrestle with within conversations on the nature of Christian community, spiritual formation, and the missional vocation. Even more, it is exciting to link youth to the history of the faith that calls them to live into the redemptive narrative called the gospel that has gone on long before them and will continue on after them.
It is intriguing to compare and contrast the words of an ancient secular philosopher with those of contemporary critics as they pertain to observations about Christian communities and witness.
It is the Christians, O emperor, who have sought and found the truth. We have realized it from their writings; they are closer to the truth and to a right understanding than all the other peoples, for they acknowledge God. They believe in him, the creator and builder of the universe, in whom all things are and from whom everything comes. They worship no other God. They have his commandments imprinted on their hearts… They show love to their neighbors. They pronounce judgments which are just. They do not worship idols in human form. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They do not eat the food sacrificed to idols, for they are pure. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies… They worship no alien gods. They live in the awareness of their smallness. Kindliness is their nature. There is no falsehood among them. They love one another. They do not neglect widows. Orphans they rescue from those who are cruel to them. Every one of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. If they see a traveling stranger they bring him under their roof. They rejoice over him as over a real brother, for they do not call one another brothers after the flesh, but they know they are brothers in the Spirit and in God. If one of them sees that one of their poor must leave this world, he provides for his burial as well as he can. And if they hear that one of them is imprisoned or oppressed by their opponents for the sake of their Christ’s name, all of them take care of all his needs. If possible they set him free. If anyone among them is poor or comes into want while they themselves have nothing to spare, they fast two or three days for him. In this way they can supply any poor man with the food he needs. They are ready to give up their lives for Christ, for they observe the words of their Christ with much care. Their life is one of consecration and justice, as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning, yes, every hour, they give praise and honor to their God for all the good things he gives to them. They thank him for their food and drink… This, O emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this their manner of life. As men and women who know God, they ask of him the things that are proper for God to give and right for them to receive. Thus they run the course of their lives. They acknowledge the good deeds of God towards them. And see, because of them, good flows on in the world! Truly it is they who have sought and have found the truth, and from what we have understood here we must conclude that they alone are close to the knowledge of truth. Yet they do not cry out in the ears of the masses the good deeds they do. Rather, they take care that no one should notice them. They hide their giving like someone who conceals a treasure he has found. They strive for righteousness because they live in the expectation of seeing Christ in his radiance and receiving from him the fulfillment of the promises he made to them. Take their writings and read in them, and you will see that I have not invented anything here and that I have not spoken as their partisan. Rather, through reading their writings I came to these firm convictions, also regarding the future things to which they bear witness. It is for this reason that I felt urged to declare the truth to those who are ready for the truth and ready to seek the world of the future.
Aristides, Apology 15, 16; ca. A.D. 137. Taken from: Arnold, Eberhardt. The Early Christians in Their Own Words, Farmington, PA: The Bruderhof Foundation, 2003.