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City of God

What do we dream for in life?

The Bible shows a group of individuals who played their part in the great drama. They each had a unique function and it was interesting how their names reflected an aspect of their function. That’s how the Bible does it, the best example being Jesus himself, his Hebrew name, Yeshua, meaning “salvation”. His chief function in his life (and death) was to save his people, something stated quite clearly (but lost in most English translations) in Matthew 1:21:

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus (Yeshua, Salvation), because he will save his people from their sins.

The Bible features a string of functioning men and women, be they prophets, priests, kings, poets, military leaders, farmers, slaves and so on. If a new Bible were to be written featuring the exploits of Christians living in the UK in the 21st Century, what a different book that could be! It would be a book of exciting conferences, great music-soaked celebrations, dramas in village squares and the odd vicar caught with his pants down. To be honest, in comparison with the heady days of the ancient Jews, we don’t get up to much really. Of course this is not a fair comparison, as the Bible is not being re-written, the first is perfectly adequate for all of our needs and, if God had a purpose for our current generation, other than the treading-water that we seem to be doing, then He would empower us to be men and women of great function and purpose. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have aspirations, though, because we don’t know what lies ahead of us, in a world becoming increasingly madder.

We feel safe in our Christian “forms”, as redeemed Children of God, and many of us would prefer basking in our grace-fuelled blessed state, as we wait for heaven to beckon. This is a wrong attitude and, I’m afraid, our forefathers in the faith are much to blame. In particular, one of the most influential Church Fathers, Augustine. He was extremely influenced by Plato, with the idea that the physical, material world is bad (or evil) and that the spiritual, heavenly world is good and to be eagerly sought. To be blunt, it’s a death cult masquerading as a philosophy of life and these early Christian thinkers had a theology thoroughly infiltrated by it. In his book, the City of God, Augustine consoled his readers that one should not concern oneself with such worldly matters as the destruction of Rome, the City of Man, but should rather look heavenwards at the “city yet to come”, the City of God, the New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation. On the face of it this is a noble mission, a thoroughly Christian pursuit, but to measure the true worth of a book is to examine its legacy. What sort of influence did the City of God have on those who read it, on those who converted its words into action?

It was a very large book, full of challenging ideas and it was to be read in many different ways, by different people. Some saw the book as a handbook for a theocratic society, governed by the Church, or those appointed by it, whether king or pope, as the best way forward. Others took a different view. By holding out hope for the Christian, by saying in effect, don’t worry about the mess in this world you have to live in, there’s a better world to come, many saw, in these words, justification for the acceptance of a life of disappointment, deprivation and disaster as there’s better to come in the next life! As the publication of this book was swiftly followed by the Dark Ages, there’s a strong possibility that this seminal book from the most influential Christian thinker in a society that considered itself a Christian one, had something to do with it!

The new kind of Christians, after the fall (of Rome), had little interest in their bodies as such. They cared about the health of their souls. They had no interest in consumption. They could lose their reputation rather than gain it for possessing wealth in a society where poverty was next to godliness. Roman wealth was replaced by Christian poverty. (A History of Knowledge, Charles Van Doren p.96, Ballantine Books 1992)

Just as we, living in the affluent West in the 21st Century, believe that progress is determined by the number of cars in the garage, the size of our plasma screens or the availability of exotic foreign spices in our supermarkets, our 10th Century friends would have considered themselves living in enlightenment, devoting their lives to the well-being of their souls, that precious commodity, their ticket to a good afterlife. In a way, perhaps they got it right! The trouble is that their objective may have been a good one, but the way of getting there was eminently flawed.

Sacraments were the way into Heaven at that time. Ordinary folk couldn’t understand a word of the liturgies in their local church, as it was all in Latin. Neither did they have a correct balanced understanding of Jesus, as Bibles were just not available for the common man and, if they had been, no-one would have been able to read them. Yet they were told that if they followed the actions dictated by the sacraments they would be alright. Sacraments controlled their daily lives. Baptism at the start of life was absolutely necessary, as was regular penance – confessing your sins (with payment to the church) and regular Holy Communion. Real, considered, saving faith didn’t come into it. You were “saved” through your actions, as if the act itself was sufficient. It is a sad and sobering thought to consider how many from those times had a nasty shock in the next world. You must also wonder whether someone with an incomplete, even false, understanding of the historical Jesus and the purpose of his death is any better off than an ignorant native in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Only the Lord has the answer to that one.

It was “salvation by forms”, or just a form of salvation, not a real one. It was expecting God to be satisfied by just lip-service to the sacraments, a series of rituals, external observances, that may have been underpinned by functional truth, but which had become forms. For instance, Holy Communion as a Biblical act of remembrance of what Jesus achieved for us is a sacred and meaningful act, but not so much when it has become a meaningless duty just for appearance’s sake, or as a passport to eternal life.

Sacraments are still alive and well in our modern Church and one’s use of them needs to be dictated by individual consciences, rather than edicts from church hierarchies. If they are a reflection of one’s relationship with Jesus then that’s good, but if they are a reflection of one’s relationship with the Church, then that could be a very different matter.

This is an extract from the book, Shalom, available for £10 at https://www.sppublishing.com/shalom-239-p.asp

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