Today feels somewhat like a plague out of the Dark Ages. At this moment, we have no vaccine or cure to rely upon and there is much we cannot control; we’re not used to that. What we do have are examples of our Lord Jesus and His Church to guide us in how to respond in times like these. We have Christ’s words: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk. 6:31); “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:39); “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13); “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40). Along with what He said, we have the actions of Jesus, putting the well-being of others before His own. The New Testament Church lived out His example, and later still we have examples from the Early Church fathers: Cyprian, Dionysius, Eusebius and others who, like we are, lived and ministered during epidemics. They reported powerful advances in the rise of Christianity, due in no small part to the selfless, sacrificial actions of God’s people. Sociologist Rodney Stark gives a fascinating account of this period in The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Harper One, 1996), which I will draw from below.
Let us first consider 2nd century Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. In 165, an epidemic hit the empire, perhaps the first incidence of smallpox in the West. A quarter to one-third of the empire perished, including the emperor. A second epidemic, perhaps measles, followed in 251. 5,000 a day died in Rome alone and whole cities and villages were abandoned. The empire’s priests, having nothing to offer, often fled the cities with the wealthy and powerful to escape the devastation. Christians, however, serving the God of love (a very radical concept in those days) put their faith into action in tangibly caring ways, giving them vastly higher survival rates that seemed miraculous. Cyprian wrote that when death did come to Christians, they considered the departed as those who lead the way, “that as…voyagers are wont to be, they should be longed for, not lamented” (Mortality, quoted by Stark, p. 81.) In the face of pervasive death, Christians showed that life had meaning and hope. One biographer said that Cyprian exhorted Christians that there is nothing special in loving and taking care of our own, “but that one might become perfect we should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well…. Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” (Stark p. 87) The Church served as the light in the darkness, and the effect on the empire was profound.
In the second epidemic, Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a tribute to Christians: “Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred death to themselves and died in their stead” (Easter Letter, Stark p. 82). Even pagan sources recorded this characteristic behavior of Christians. In fact, 4th century emperor “Julian the Apostate” (so remembered for his opposition to Christianity) attempted to set up his own charities, challenging them to match the behavior of those he pejoratively termed “Galileans,” hoping thereby to slow the growth of the Church. He complained to one of his priests, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence…The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (Stark, 84). Loving one’s neighbor was extremely radical. Stark suggests we put ourselves in the frame of mind of a pagan Roman: one who never heard of a God of love and knew nothing of altruistic human behavior rooted in such a sacrificial love, and read Matthew 25:35-40 as though hearing it for the very first time: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” As Tertullian wrote, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents” (Stark, p.87)
God’s people have a long history of tangibly expressing God’s redeeming and healing love to people in need. The holistic gospel that Jesus proclaimed was anything but Gnostic. Gnosticism taught that salvation is a purely spiritual matter; it promised escape from the material world. Jesus rejected all dualism: the pitting of matter and spirit against each other. When the messengers of John the Baptist came to inquire of Jesus whether He was the Messiah, Jesus answered, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” The entire life of Jesus—His words and His works—brought healing and saving light to a dark world. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind” (John 1:4a). Today especially, may we again hear His words and to follow in His steps: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Dr. Gaylan Mathiesen Ph.D. serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as professor of Mission and Evangelism at Lutheran Brethren Seminary.