This past Easter Sunday, I shared the following quote that clearly struck a chord with our dear church folks who, like me, are still trying to figure out how to practice bold faith in God and considerate, careful love for their neighbor during this COVID-19 pandemic:
Historian Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, describes how God used a moment like this in the early days of the church to expand the Gospel in unprecedented ways.
“In A.D. 250, an enormous plague struck the Roman Empire, killing an average of 5,000 people every day. At this time Christians were less than 2 percent of the entire population. Their numbers were growing, but statistically speaking, they were nearly insignificant. Yet despite their numbers, their response to this pandemic won admiration and a greater following. Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, reported: ‘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…Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.’
Outside the church, the situation was much different. Dionysius continues: ‘But with non-Christians everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.’ Stark even points out, in evident irony, that the death rate for Christians in many of these plagues was actually lower than that of those who simply fled. In some cases, by as much as one-half! Why? Some analysts say it was because of their strong sense of community, their refusal to submit to despair, their commitments to care for each other and their robust hope in the face of death. In other words, through their willingness to embrace death, they found life.
Andy Crouch explains why this led to an explosion in the church in the following years: ‘[If you were a first-century Roman], after you had recovered from the plague, where would you want to worship? The pagan temple whose priests and elite benefactors had fled at the first sign of trouble? Or the household of the neighbor who had brought you food and water, care and concern, at great risk to themselves?’
When this plague has passed, what will our neighbors remember of us? Will they remember that the Christians took immediate, decisive action to protect the vulnerable, even at great personal and organizational cost? Will they remember that, being prepared and free from panic, the households of their Christian neighbors were able to visit the needy (while protecting them by keeping appropriate social distance!), provide for their needs and bring hope?” How we conduct ourselves in this moment will demonstrate to the world what we actually believe about the Gospel. OUR GOSPEL THEOLOGY IS ABOUT TO BE ON DISPLAY. So let’s make sure to be faithful witnesses. We may be living through a very new day. But God promises that He gives new mercies for new challenges. He never runs short on supply; the shelves of His heavenly riches are never empty, and His angels never get sick. Let’s call on Him for grace to meet this challenge.”
Will you join the generations of old who dared to live out their theology even in the moments of darkness and despair? After all, our Savior is risen and returning soon for us! (It was so encouraging to see all of the creative drive-in, livestream, and community initiatives that gospel-centered churches engaged in just this past weekend!) Yes, let’s be compliant with what is required of us from our health/legal authorities and considerate of those at higher risk and need right now.. But…we are not called to play it safe. We actually called to “SAFETY THIRD”…that is we are called to love God first and the “neighbors” secondly that He has providentially placed in our lives to shine glorious light of His gospel–no matter the setting around us! That’s when Christianity, personal/powerful relationship with the risen Savior, can be “on the rise!”