Have we been this way before?
These are confusing times. None of us have encountered anything like this Covid-19 pandemic before. The scope and impact of what is going on is disorientating and confusing. Has the church experienced anything like this before? Has the church been through times that are equally difficult and come out well? This article is written to tell of the church’s response in a time far more apocalyptic than ours. This response during a time of empire-wide crisis played a significant role in the amazing growth and increased impact of early Christianity.
In 165AD and in 250AD there were 2 significant plagues across the Roman empire. The nature of these plagues was utterly devasting, estimates are that between a third and a quarter of the Roman empire died, in Rome suggestions are that it was 5000 per day. Whole villages and towns were emptied. They were emptied firstly because many were sick and died, but also because those who were healthy deserted to save getting the plague themselves.
Rodney Stark describes this in his book “The Rise of Christianity”. He is not a Christian at the time of writing, but he is seeking to answer the question from a sociological perspective of how this small group of Jesus followers became the dominant force in the Roman empire in just over 300 years. So dominant that it was a possible (even advantageous) move for the Emperor, Constantine, to declare himself, and the empire, Christian. He explains that the Christian response to the plague was part of the growth of the movement. Here is a summary of his 2 key reasons why Christianity grew over the period:
Firstly, Christianity had a much better account for why such calamities fall on humanity, and projected hope for the future in the midst of it. The pagan religions blame the gods, the philosophers blame natural law, the science had no cure, none of them had a coherent explanation of how to make sense of the world or what to do in response. Christianity conversely was able to offer hope, a coherent story, comfort and even guidance for action.
They offered hope because of providing an eternal perspective to life, hope beyond the grave, hope of a God who is above circumstance, but equally deeply concerned and involved.
They offered a coherent story of a world turned away from its creator, a world where evil has been let in, the cause of pain and suffering, and a story of a loving God not leaving the world to its own devices rather stepping into His world, into its pain and its suffering, even to the point of taking on death. But that death was not the end, death does not win, he defeated death in his resurrection, and is now the ascended Lord of all and those who trust in him also get caught up in his resurrection life.
They offered the comfort of a God who loves them. They are not subject to impersonal forces in the world, or to random events. Rather there is a personal God intimately aware and involved with their lives, he is the “God of all Comfort”.
As a result, Christians offered a prescription of what to do in response to the circumstances. I’ll let Rodney Stark speak here:
“Equally alien to paganism was the notion that because God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love each other. Indeed as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another. Moreover, such responsibilities were to be extended beyond the borders of family and tribe … These were revolutionary ideas.”The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, p86
This leads to the second fundamental difference in the Christian response to the plagues. The early church had taken on what it means to be followers of the way of Jesus. They had understood that following Him means that the whole of life is lived in the light of what he taught and how he lived. In a world dominated with confusion and self-protection, because there is no explanation to help them make sense of life. The early church took Jesus life, death and resurrection as their model of life and allowed it to form their fundamental values. The lived their lives by the “master story” of Philippians 2:5-11.
That in Jesus God had come, that he didn’t grasp after his Godly identity as if it was something to be flouted, nor gained his identity from external things, rather he operated out of the truth of his identity. This truth resulted in expressing the love of God for others by becoming their servant, living for the good of others, rather than for the benefit of himself. It resulted in letting go of self in order to take on the concerns of others. For Jesus this even meant the willingness to die on others behalf. The consequence of this was the revelation of the glory of God in and through this self-sacrificial love and the elevation of Jesus to the highest place, over all things, such that all things will be reconciled to him, and all will see that Jesus is in fact Lord of All.
This life is a model life to follow, a way of living that should be lived out. The church of Philippi was instructed directly to let this characterise them as a Jesus-following community. Hence the values of love and care had from the beginning of Christianity become the norms for the community action: loving, serving, caring for people at all costs. As a result, when all others deserted the sick and the dying, one group did not run away…the Christians. The Christians stayed with those who were sick to love and care for them.
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage wrote in 251AD in the context of the second of the plagues. He reflected the biblical Christian belief that struggle and suffering was in fact an opportunity for our discipleship into the way of Jesus:
“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 … although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that … we are learning not to fear death.”The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark, p81
In our day we find ourselves at a significant advantage to those nearly 2000 years ago. We better understand the nature of plagues and are better able to track the nature and means of transmission. We are even able to model its spreading dependent on certain courses of actions. We also live in a world shaped by the Jesus ethic of love of neighbour. In our context there is no benefit in some sort of Christian machismo of putting ourselves in unnecessary risk, by doing so we are in fact just putting more people at risk. We do however honour those who through their medical profession serve others resulting in some level of personal risk. There are even those recently who have died doing that because they are living faithfully to Jesus. The early church came to understand these people as martyrs for their faith.
In these unprecedented times, Jesus followers are invited to be a distinct community living and sharing the love of Jesus. We can reject a life shaped by fear, through our own experience of God’s love, and find ways to share and express that love in ways that do not exacerbate the problem, but instead bring faith and hope in the midst of troubles. Be encouraged, we have been this way before.
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