New life on the fringes/margins of Empire

It has often been on the margins in history, outside established power centers, that fresh social and religious movements have begun. This may be true again today globally as a world stricken by plague faces the shifting winds of sudden change. It was true in the fifth and sixth century onwards, as on the Western and Eastern fringes of the Roman Empire movements would grow, bringing new life and dynamism. In the West it was the Celts of Ireland and Scotland, establishing monastic mission centers in places like Iona and Lindisfarne that would send out missionaries into continental Europe and multiply translations and learning.

Outside the Roman Empire to the East it was the Church in Asia, growing from the first century onwards, evangelizing throughout the Persian Empire and on into India, Central Asia and China and also contributing to an expansion of learning through translations.

Recently I taught an online series of four lectures on the history of the Church of the East in Asia up to the year 1500. My good friend and colleague Sarah J was in that series. As part of her learning journey, she painted the gorgeous cross pictured with this post. She was also inspired to write the section below, which I have included with her permission. Thank you, Sarah, for your gifts of visual art expression as well as words.

‘On the fringe of the known and accepted Christian circles, Holy Spirit fire burns and living water flows. This is true historically and continues to prove true now. 

The Nestorian Stele, discovered in 1625 after having been buried for over 800 years, gave evidence to the fact that Christianity had long been established in China, way beyond the fringes of the Roman Empire. Generally, when we consider Christian history, we cite the Roman Empire as literally paving the way for Christianity to spread west. What we often fail to recognize is that early Christians also traveled east along the Silk Road and other established trade routes. They courageously faced isolation, persecution, and outright slaughter in the lands of Persia, China, and India. 

The idea from this painting grew during an online class about the Church of the East. A beautifully symmetrical statue of a cross sits in Xi’an, China to this day bearing witness to the fact that Christianity is not a Western religion. This painting honors the persistence and passion of those early missionaries who headed past the edge into the great unknown. May God give us such courage. 

Everything moves outward from the cross. The water flows and the fire burns….forward, ever forward. This fact gives us courage. The Gospel is good news that cannot be contained or extinguished. We are called into the Missio dei to places where people dwell on the fine line between life and death.’ 

6 thoughts on “New life on the fringes/margins of Empire

  1. Very true. Can’t agree more. Those faithful and passionate heroes just continued. I feel we owe them forever. They braved harsh natures and spread the gospel among often hostile cultures when powers were falling. Yes, may God give us such courage! But also it’s true that during those eras when global powers ruled the gospel could travel further and faster to many, many more who had been waiting for it. We saw it last time during the AD2000 movement. No matter what, the kingdom will continue to grow and the gospel will reach the ends of the earth, in the different ways in different times. But at the same time I probably would not welcome fall of global powers, especially if it was one who has paved the way for the gospel. It already aches my heart and I’m praying… because it may be true again today as you pointed out. I would rather mourn, but, of course, not stop there. Anyway, back to your point. the Missio Dei. Everything out of the cross! Amen and amen to that, Steve. Thank you for sharing! I kinda stumbled into it. Ps. the painting is so beautiful, Sarah.

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  2. I’m juts starting another journey and God has reminded me again of the stele in Xi’an, the believers of central Asia (7th & 21st century – and the following statement – ‘History unlocks the soul of a nation, a people; it brings hope to a nation; it is the emotion of a nation; not just facts upon facts’. Sarah’s cross reflects that hope, that emotion of our soul and that of God . Thank You

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  3. Nature affirms that the margins between ecosystems often have the greatest concentration of diverse life forms. Perhaps the vibrancy of faith naturally drifts towards the margins as a concentration of creative adaptation.

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