A Lesson From the Early Church (Part 1)
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:42-45)
The Thursday before last, Emily was making her weekly shopping trip to Aldi when she noticed an ambulance out front. It is not entirely uncommon to see an emergency vehicle in front of a store like Aldi or Wal-Mart, so she went inside and gathered what she needed without giving it too much thought. However, as she began to check-out, the ambulance’s presence became much more disturbing. The cashier informed her that the ambulance was there because a small crowd was waiting to enter when the store opened. The store opened. The crowd rushed in. A woman was knocked down – and no one stopped to help.
And what was it that the crowd wanted so desperately that they were willing to ignore a woman in such obvious need of help in order to have it? Toilet paper. “I’m really disappointed in how people are acting right now,” the cashier told Emily.
Of course, such responses should not entirely surprise us as Christians. The Scripture tells us that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” (Jer. 17:9) We can expect, therefore, that in times of trial these kinds of behaviors are going to emerge out of at least some portions of the general populace. But how is the Christian to respond? Or, to put it another way, how is the one whose sinful heart has been transformed by the Spirit of God to respond?
We see the answer in the above Scripture passage from the book of Acts. When the early church faced times of trial and even persecution for their faith, they did not try to hoard what they had. Instead, they willingly and eagerly shared what they had with others – and most especially with their brothers and sisters in Christ. When you think about it, this is the very essence of the gospel. The gospel proclaims that when we were spiritually sick and poor, God did not “protect what was His.” Instead, He freely shared what was rightfully His – even His most precious possession – so that His people could be healed and receive eternal life. How can we, then, as His people, not demonstrate the same sort of compassion to others – and, again, most especially to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ? To quote the apostle John:
9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)
We see a tremendous display of how this kind of love is displayed during a pandemic from the church’s example during the Cyprian Plague of the mid-3rd century. The Cyprian Plague appears to have been much more deadly than the current pandemic, even killing as many as 5,000 people per day in Rome at its height. And yet, while the pagans tended to flee the cities to save their own lives, the Christians stayed to help. As Dionysius of Alexandria recounts:
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, 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.
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.
I would like to spend some more time next week reflecting on the church’s response to this early pandemic, but suffice to say for the moment that, while I think we should practice social distancing during our pandemic, it is not selfishness or fear that should drive this response – but love. We keep our distance, not so much to prevent our getting the disease as to prevent our giving it. And it is this same love that should also encourage us to reach out and seek to help our neighbor in whatever ways we can at the moment.
I know some of you have asked at times, “What can I do to reach out to my neighbor? How do I strike up a conversation with them after perhaps years of neglect?” I would tell you that right now you have a tremendous opportunity to do just that. This pandemic is something we are all going through, so why not take a moment to go next door and simply ask your neighbor, “How are you guys doing? Do you all have everything you need?” And when the two of you inevitably begin to discuss the current panic in our society and they exclaim, “You know, I’m really disappointed in how people are acting right now!” say, “I know what you mean! But you know, we shouldn’t really be too surprised. The Bible tells us that this is what we really are – that this is what humanity is really like on the inside, apart from the grace offered in Jesus Christ.” You might be surprised by what they say next. It is in moments like this – when the sinfulness of man is so obviously on display – that the gospel seems, perhaps, not so foolish after all.
Even if you do not go next door to offer help, I would encourage you just to get out. My family and I have regularly gone on evening bike rides for at least a couple of years now, and I can tell you that I have never seen so many people outside. It is really quite bizarre. It would seem that while the pandemic has encouraged people to stay at home, the beautiful weather we are experiencing still beckons them outside. The result is that residential neighborhoods are actually springing to life. So go for a walk. Say “hello” to someone who lives in your street. Introduce yourself even (at a socially safe distance, of course) . Again, you may be surprised what new relationships you might be able to form by simply choosing to see this pandemic, not as a reason to hole away and hoard, but as an opportunity to reach out and love.
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