Sunday – November 29, 2020
Word On Worship – Sunday – November 29, 2020
“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. 36 “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
How did the obscure, marginal, Jesus movement become the dominant religious force in the Western world in a few centuries? To understand how this took place we need to explore a number of key factors—one of which is plagues. Indeed, to understand the rise of Christianity from a few followers of the Way to a faith that has changed the world, we need to understand the biblical and remarkable response by the Church to plagues of the past. Over the next few weeks as we come to the end of 2020, I want examine briefly four pandemics in history and how the church has responded in the way of Christ. As we note their examples, let’s be inspired by their faith—even if we might make some adjustments for our own time and circumstances.
The Plague of Cyprian (249–262 AD) was a lethal pandemic that, at its height, caused upwards of 5,000 deaths a day in Rome. While the plague severely weakened the Roman empire, the Christian response to it won admiration and a greater following. Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, 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; 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.
This evident Christlikeness—taking death in order to give life—stood in stark contrast to those outside the church. Dionysius continues: “But with the heathen 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.” (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 7.22.7–10)
Plagues and pandemics intensify the natural course of life. They intensify our own sense of mortality and frailty. They also intensify opportunities to display counter-cultural, counter-conditional love. The church rose to the challenge in the second century, winning both admirers and also converts. While the outworking of love may look different in different ages, love must still be the aim—a love directed by the Holy Spirit, not our self-centered flesh. May we—with our own pandemic—live out the wisdom and way of Jesus before a watching world.