Easter Sundays are always really great. Everybody dresses up a little bit nicer. More people are in the pews, which makes the singing fill the whole sanctuary. Many have family in town and are eager to go home to a delicious Easter dinner.
As a minister it is also a tricky Sunday because you know that it is your one chance with some of those in attendance. I know that some of you who come on Easter will not come again until maybe Christmas Eve or the following year. With this being the case, I, along with many other pastors, always feel the need to talk about the historical truth of the resurrection. I said, as many others have, “Either the resurrection is true and it changes everything, or it is not true and none of this matters.” This is a true statement, but there is more to Easter and Christianity than that. As one writer put it, “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” I want to briefly look at the early church and how their lives gave evidence to the risen Lord and ponder what that means for us today.
“How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries” is the very long subtitle of a book authored by Rodney Stark. Stark wrote the book at a time when he would not have considered himself a Christian, though he does today. He wrote it as a sociologist using social sciences to show what the early church actually did that helped spread the movement.
One point that he highlights throughout the book is how Christianity grew because of its response to the chaos of living during the first three centuries. Some of the chaos is from two huge epidemics; one beginning in 165 A.D. and the other in 251 A.D. It is unclear about what exactly the diseases were, but they wiped out a third to a quarter of the entire population throughout the Roman empire. In response to these epidemics, Christians willingly helped those who were sick more often than their pagan neighbors. As a letter from bishop Dionysius dated around 260 says, “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.”
Stark points out that because Christians believe that “God loves humanity, Christians cannot please God unless they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice on behalf of one another…and [this love is] extended to those beyond the bonds of family and tribe.”
This care and love had the great effect of helping people survive these plagues. Stark highlights that “modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more.” Stark then does some hypothetical math and shows that a city would go from a ratio of about 1 Christian to 249 pagans before the plagues to a ratio of 1 to 4 after them.
Stark makes this grand statement about the good that Christians brought to their communities in those first few centuries, “To cities filled with the homeless and the impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity.”
The question for us is how will we respond to the chaos of living in the Capital District? How can we love sacrificially as God has loved us by giving up his Son for us? Have we been more concerned with getting people ‘in here’ than caring for those outside of our walls?