A Lesson from the Early Church (Part 2)

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.

The above quote is from Dionysus of Alexandria, and I shared it with you a couple of weeks ago as I tried to articulate the Christian’s response to pandemic. When the early church was faced with a similar pandemic (and, it should be noted, a much more fatal one), they didn’t respond in fear but in love. From this example, I encouraged you to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way. I said that, if at all possible, now is the time to try to reach out to your neighbor and serve them.

It’s amazing the effect this sort of love can have on the unbeliever. You go the book of Acts, for instance, and when the church responded to suffering by sharing what they had with one another, we see this result:

46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)

7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

Love is attractive. It pulls people in. We can proclaim the glory of God with our lips all we want, but it’s when that same love is evident in our actions that people sit up and listen.

14 "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  16 In the same way, 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 5:14-16)

This was certainly the effect that Christian love had during the Cyprian plague. For example, just 100 years after the Cyprian plague, the gospel was advancing so rapidly in Galatia that the Roman emperor Julian the First (also known as “Julian the Apostate”) wrote to the high priest, Arsacius, to encourage him to make efforts to curb the influence of “the Galileans.” And what did Julian think was causing the rise of this “atheism?” It was love. He asked Arsacius, “…why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” He complained, “…it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” The Christians’ love – both for one another and for the unbeliever – had produced a religious crisis in Rome, and Julian saw only one way to stop it: “I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practise them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception.” If we want to see the gospel advance, then it must begin here: with our love.

The question is, “Where does the Christian find the strength to practice this kind of love? Where they find the strength to run headlong into a pandemic?” The answer is found in what we celebrate this weekend: the resurrection. The bishop Cyprian of Carthage (after whom the plague was named) writes:

Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God – that we have begun gladly to see martyrdom, while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths. They give to the mind the glory of fortitude. By contempt of death, they prepare for the crown. Our brethren who have been freed from the world by the summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since we know that they are not lost but sent before –  that in departing they lead the way, that as travellers – as voyagers are wont to be – they should be longed for not lamented.

It is the unbeliever who should fear times of pandemic, not the Christian, because, for the Christian, death is not the end but a beginning. It is the beginning of an eternity of unbroken joy. As Cyprian observes: “we know that [the dead] are not lost but sent before,” and the reason we know this is because Christ Himself is already risen from the dead, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor. 15:20)

This Sunday I am preaching on how the resurrection should affect the way we live and act today, and I will conclude by saying that, once we understand what it says about Christ, it should really call us to preach. It should call us to proclaim the good news that, through Christ’s resurrection, we, too, can be raised to eternal life. The question that I’d have you ask yourself as your prepare for that message is, “Do I really believe in the hope of a future resurrection? Do I really believe that I will one day be raised to eternal life – that I will live forever? If so, then how is that belief changing the way I live today?”
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