“If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror and forget what they look like as soon as they leave.” (James 1:23-24)
In 165 AD, in the very first centuries of Christianity, a small pox epidemic swept through the Roman Empire. Historian Rodney Stark says that a quarter to a third of the entire population died from it. Marcus Aurelius speaks of caravans of carts and wagons hauling the dead from cities. Whole villages in Italy were abandoned and 5,000 people a day died in Rome.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, claimed that Christians had nothing to fear from the plague, saying, “We have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.”
Bishop Dionysius wrote to Christians in Alexandria and said that the Christian way provided a prescription for action during this time of testing. He gave tribute to local Christians who lost their lives caring for others. Many Christians, “heedless of danger, took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in the name of Christ . . . in nursing and curing others, (they) transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”
While others in these communities were abandoning their families who had the sickness, Christians were caring for them at their own personal risk. A century later, Emperor Julian began charity efforts in an attempt to match the Christians who were growing in number because of their care for people in need.
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me . . . I was sick and you visited me . . . Truly I say to you,” says Jesus in Matthew 25, “as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”
For the early Christian community in AD 165, doing what Jesus taught was apparently the norm. These Christians believed, as the write of the Epistle of James did, that our faith demanded our good works.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?”(James 2:14)
Stark says that modern medical experts claim that conscientious nursing of those suffering from the epidemic in AD 165, even without any medications, could have cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more.
Christians caring for each other and for the strangers and the sick during this epidemic likely resulted in the disproportionate growth of the Christian community.
As Christians in North America today, what do we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror? If we “see” ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ, do we remember what we see as we live out our daily lives?
As we live out our faith in response to issues of the day like gun violence, immigration reform and humanitarian assistance in Syria and eastern Congo, caring for others even when those around us do not, what could be the result for the Christian community?
Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.