Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Vision (6/6/13): They will know we are Christians...

I’ve recently been reading a book titled The Rise of Christianity (Princeton University Press/HarperOne, 1996) by Rodney Stark.  The book is a series of sociological studies on early Christianity.  The book’s subtitle is:  How the Obscure Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.

In one chapter Stark contrasts how Christians and pagans responded during times of plague and how this difference affected the growth of the Christian movement.  Stark examines in particular a major epidemic that struck the Roman Empire in the year 260 AD.  At the plague’s height over 5,000 persons per day died in the city of Rome alone.

Once the plague passed, a Christian pastor in Alexandria, Egypt named Dionysius wrote a letter describing how the believers had cared for the sick and dying and how many had sacrificed their own lives in such service.  He wrote:

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.  Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead….  The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters [elders], deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.

In contrast, Dionysius also described how the pagans responded to the same crisis:

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 and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.

Stark concludes that it was the compassionate response of Christians to the members of their own communities, as well as to strangers, that significantly contributed to the spread of the Christian movement during that time.

Reading the chapter I was reminded of the words of the old hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  As with the church of old, may the Lord gives to his church today a heart of compassion, self-sacrifice, and service that will become an effective witness to our community.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

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