A Little History Lesson
When Christianity began, it was nothing more than one small Jewish sect among many. Jesus had recently died, rose from the grave, spent forty days with his disciples, leaving them some final instructions, and then he rose up into heaven before their eyes. After this the church, known as The Way, was born, with about 150 people. Shortly, some of them, the Apostles with a few helpers, would go forth and begin spreading the word of who Jesus was and encouraging people to live as he had. Each of these followers of the Way was Jewish. They worshipped in synagogues. Spent their evenings in Jewish homes, giving thanks to Yahweh. When it was needed, they prayed with and helped the neediest of the Jewish people. Effectively, this Jewish period of the church lasted 20 years. But some of the Apostles, Peter and now a new one who was formally the infamous persecutor known as Saul, but now wanting to be called Paul, began taking the good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God to gentiles, mostly God-fearers, but others as well. Sometimes, the apostles preached in open air markets, sometimes they were invited in even rich people's homes to preach to neighbors who had been invited over to hear this wonderful message.
Today, we like to think when these various people heard the life-changing message about Jesus, they were moved by the Holy Spirit and became Christians (a term that was intended to be derogatory but which quickly replaced The Way) and then they too shared the message and the church grew exponentially. This is not what happened.
As Paul, and others took the gospel to the gentiles, the Jewish church, at this point the Jewish Christian sect had been expelled from the synagogues, and they had formed their own religion, meeting in houses. This was ca. 50 C.E. We know the fledgling Christian church struggled. While the early church resonated with wealthier people who sought more out of life, the church seems to not have had enough resources continue to minister to people, especially amongst the neediest communities. So the church leaders, at this point James (Jesus’ brother) and Peter, approved Paul’s taking the gospel to the gentiles, but on one condition, that he send money back to Jerusalem to help (Acts 21). This actually became a focal point of his ministry and he often ended his letters with the reminder to help the poor of the Jerusalem Church(1 Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8-9, Rom. 15).
But, in 68 AD, the Jerusalem church, the birthplace of Christianity collapses, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. At this point Christianity is pretty much completely severed from Judaism. This is some 30 to 40 years after the death of Jesus. And while Christianity does spread across the Mediterranean, it is by no means popular. Often theses early Christians are seen as local agitators, frequently arrested with family members turning on them (read Thecla’s martyrdom story). By the end of the first century, about the time that John’s gospel is written, and as well as the Book of Revelation, Christianity can claim about 10,000 followers. So it has grown, again amongst the wealthy and poor, but not exponentially as first witnessed when three thousand were added on one day (Acts 2). And then something happens.
A plague breaks out in the eastern parts of the Roman empire. This illness is centered on cities and large towns. As people grow very ill, the healthy flee in fear, leaving sickened family members behind. Every man for himself, the healthy run for the hills, so to speak, leaving the cities collapsing under the weight of the sickness and failing economies. But, unlike during previous outbreaks, something different happens this time. Not everyone who is healthy flees. Some people, calling themselves Christians, stay behind, feeding, comforting, and caring for the sick. When some of the sick die they are given Christian burials, a promise of a new life in heaven.
Word reaches those who left the cities that the illness has passed and that it is now safe to return. Expecting to find their loved ones dead, they are surprised and filled with joy when they discover that many of their loved ones have survived...all because of the care and compassion shown by Christians. When asked why they stayed, the Christians responded that it was out of love for the sick. The Lord, Jesus, had given them a command to love their neighbors as themselves and to care for the sick, to pray and anoint them. Yes, some of the Christinas died from sickness too, but those who follow the Lord are not afraid of death, because there is something greater: the promise of life everlasting.
From This point on, Christianity would spread from these cities and towns of the eastern empire throughout the Mediterranean. It would spread north into the sweeping Steppes of what would become the Ukraine. It would spread east into Persia and even China. It would find a footing in what would become Spain, end even eventually by 600 AD it would begin spreading throughout the British Isles and Ireland. Today there are over two billion Christians worldwide because in ca.100 AD, empowered with the Holy Spirit, believing in something greater than themselves, a handful of Jesus followers cared for and loved their neighbors who were sick.
We live in similar time today. While I expect us to follow the wise and orderly word of our local and national leaders during this time of shelter in place, there is till much we can do to care for our neighbors. When we go to the grocery stores, maybe we can pick up something they need. Instead of hoarding our 68 rolls of toilet paper, we can share if our neighbor is running low. A warm, smiling “hello” over the backyard fence (while keeping your six-feet distance) is powerful medicine right now. There are many ways we can be creative during this time to be reassuring, hopeful, and Christ-like. What ideas do you have?