According to Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, the early followers of Christ did precisely what Jesus asked of us - reaching beyond ourselves to help those in need.
Employing modern sociological methods, Stark contends that a series of devastating plagues played an instrumental role in the seemingly miraculous growth of the early church. In AD 165, and again in AD 251, terrifying epidemics descended upon the Roman Empire, killing between a quarter to a third of the population. Contemporary accounts describe widespread panic as family members abandoned their loved ones at the first sign of disease, sometimes tossing them into the roads even before they had died. As a result, many plague sufferers were left without food, water, and basic care that could have dramatically increased survival rates.
Those early Christians, however, soon gained a reputation for their boldness in the face of death. Stark cites the bishop Dionysius, for example, who described how 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.” For these Christians, the epidemic became “a time of unimaginable joy,” a chance for believers to witness to their faith by offering themselves as martyrs.
It was Christian doctrine, Stark explains, that motivated believers’ courageous response to the terrors of the plague. While their non-Christian neighbors abandoned their beliefs and retreated in fear, Christians found their faith a source of comfort as well as a “prescription for action.” They knew they were their “brothers’ keepers,” that it was “more blessed to give than to receive,” and that they ought to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Can you imagine a situation in which you would give so much of yourself? Maybe for your own family?? We may never consider this a possibility of modern life, unless we conjure up images of someone like Mother Teresa. But who today could give that much of themselves? And perhaps that is what true faith in Christ is all about: without regard to our own life, we give all we have, not because we have so much to offer, but that we have complete faith in Christ for our salvation, and we know what our future holds and where it will be... in Heaven, with the Savior. And that kind of faith is stronger than our fears. Allowing us to move ahead with courage, rather than hiding, or making excuses, or running away for protection.I want to know more of that power which comes from faith in Him, Jesus the Christ.Do you?As Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.”
I cannot say it any better on my own, so I had to borrow heavily from this author. And isn’t a bit shocking to imagine, working so hard to care for those who seemed all but dead, and to expose oneself to the same life-ending disease, without having known these people at all beforehand?
Next week - another short series begins: Finding Work With A Record.