Looking Like Jesus

March 5, 2014

I’m a little off topic this week, but I’m excited about something new I learned and wanted to share it!

This may not be a new story to you, but I recently learned it about in vivid detail when my daughter shared with me her copy of The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. It’s a fascinating a book written back in 1996, which I hungrily consumed in a single day of cross-country travel.

I loved the details about the early church and how it fit into the pagan world of the Roman Empire. The best example occurred during a devastating epidemic of infectious disease in the third century. (Everything I’m writing about here comes from chapter 4 “Epidemic Networks and Conversion.”) There’s one report that at its height the epidemic killed 5,000 people per day in Rome. Across the empire the death rates were unimaginably large.

Frightened citizens, of course, fled for their lives. Men fled their households, pagan priests fled their temples, and doctors fled their patients.

You know who stayed around to care for the sick and dying? The Christians did. Here are a couple of quotations from Christians alive at the time:

“How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted…”

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, 251 CE

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains….The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen…

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead…

Dionysius, 260 CE

These early Christians, Stark points out, showed up where no one else would, unflinching in the face of death. They knew where they were going if they died, and they knew what they were supposed to do while they were still here.

When their unbelieving neighbors were most in need, the Christians stuck around to serve them, and you can bet that those who survived were grateful and were happy to join up with such a community of acceptance and love.

Even Stark, a self-identified agnostic, recognized that the early Christians, from layperson to leader, took the example of Jesus absolutely literally.

Need more evidence? About a century later in 362 Emperor Julian wrote to a pagan priest in Galatia that they needed to be more like the Christians in moral character and “benevolence toward strangers.”

“I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the [Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.…[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

The early church wasted no time on debates about social justice vs. evangelism. Charity, sacrifice, and compassion were the examples Jesus had set, and the young church cloaked itself in those defining characteristics. (Culture war never entered their minds.)

The contrast between the heartless pagan world and the loving church community was unmistakable, and yes, Christianity grew!

(Sign me up for that church!)

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