The beauty of a blog is that you are in full control of what you write about. Most of the time, I write about things I have learned or experienced that I think others might benefit from. Sometimes I write because I need to process what is going on around me. In other words, the message is probably as much, or more, for me than those of you that honor me by reading my musings. This is one of those posts.
It seems like in the span of just a few days, the entire world has gone bonkers. Extended spring breaks, online classes, rushes on toilet paper, and the cancellation of large group gatherings are just some of what we have experienced. We are even learning new terms, like “social distancing.” We are putting into practice habits that should have been part of our regular activities, like "wash your hands." Out of an abundance of caution (and often by local mandate), churches moved to online services across the nation almost overnight.
The natural and logical tendency is to stay close to home, hunker down and wait out the current crisis. For those that are part of the most vulnerable segments of our population, that is a wise move.
The current situation has caused me to reflect on the actions of the early church in the face of crises. More specifically, what really caused Christianity to spread from a small sect of Judaism into the formal religion of the Roman empire in less than 300 years? More importantly, what can we learn from that viral spread of a religion?
The answer is a bit surprising. Christianity did not spread because of its message; it spread because of what Christians did.
Let me give you an example. Consider the following set of statements.
I want to share the Gospel (Good News) with you:
- He is my savior
- Through him are salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life.
- He is the son of God.
- He is Divine.
- In him, there is peace.
Who am I talking about? For those that are Christians, our immediate answer is Jesus.
Yet, if you were a person in the first-century Roman empire, your immediate thought would be Caesar, the emperor.
In many ways, Christians adopted empire language relating to Caesar to describe the incredible saving act accomplished by God through the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Yet, just sharing this message and substituting Jesus’s name for Caesar’s wasn’t going to convince anyone to join this fringe sect of Judaism. They already had all those benefits (in their view) through Caesar and the Roman empire.
There had to be something more than just the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. In fact, it wasn’t so much what the early church said about their faith that brought others into the movement, it was what they did.
Here are some examples of what they did that made a difference:
- Christians quit participating in the social activities that were associated with the pagan temples—which impacted nearly everything.
- Christians would not offer sacrifices to the emperor or the gods, in a world where EVERYONE offered sacrifices.
- There was no social class distinction in Christian gatherings. Everyone was to be equal.
- Christian homes were more egalitarian than their pagan neighbors. Heads of households treated their wives, children, slaves, and employees with respect, love, and compassion—risking upsetting the social order of the empire.
- Christian families adopted babies left to exposure (a pretty common practice) rather than leaving them to slavers and pimps.
- Christians held firm to their beliefs in the face of torture and death, refusing to renounce their faith or curse Christ.
- Christians cared for the sick when epidemics spread around the empire from time to time—despite the danger to themselves.
People saw how these Christians lived (and died). They saw what seemed to be illogical behavior, and it made them wonder what would cause them to act like this? It was the difference in how they lived and treated others that enabled them to share the good news of Jesus Christ. In less than 300 years, it changed the world.
Yet, part of me thinks that we have lost our ability (or desire) to be different and unique. Perhaps, we as a church have been practicing "social distancing" from the world for so long that we have no engagement with it to influence it. However, I fear the answer is that we have become so much like the world that no one can see any distinction.
I think the current pandemic provides Christians with an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of our faith. Rather than using this excuse to hibernate within our homes, perhaps we should see this as an opportunity to serve. Who can you help? Who can you serve?
This past week, I saw a social media post by a Christian friend that said the problem with our country was that we had taken prayer out of our schools. No doubt, this was being blamed on some liberal agenda. It struck me that Christians are called to be the light of the world. If Christians are in schools, then there is prayer in schools. If Christians are in government, then God is within the government. We don’t need to have the 10 Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Anyplace that Christians serve others during this pandemic, God is there too. Everywhere Christians are, God is present and active—or at least he should be.
The problem isn't that we live in a post-Christian society. The problem may be that Christians are not living their lives sufficiently different from the world for anyone to notice. Perhaps if we were, we might have some significant opportunities to share the Good News of Jesus that is supposed to make a profound difference in our lives.
Right now, we might do well to restrict our diet of Paul and read a little bit more of James with regards to how we are to live out our faith:
Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
James 2:18b-26, NRSV
So, my question to you (and me) is this: how can you and I better demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ through our actions in the face of this pandemic?
Someone’s (eternal) life may depend on it.