I recently revisited Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity and was once more struck by the power of the early Christian movement. He describes first century Rome where, for most people, life presented serious challenges. The city was crowded. It is estimated that population density in Rome was almost three times that of modern-day Calcutta. Buildings were incredibly close to one another, and were known to fall down regularly. Cramped living conditions and the use of open braziers for cooking meant that fire was a constant danger, and coupled with poor understanding of hygiene and the emptying of toilet pots in the streets, sickness and epidemics were common. Crime rates and interpersonal violence rates were extraordinarily high. Around one-third of the population of Rome were slaves, who were commonly subjected to violence, loss of freedom and sexual abuse by their masters. For Christians there was the added opprobrium of being thought a threat to the welfare of the state because they refused to worship the city gods and Caesar himself.
To this existence Christianity brought neither escapism nor fatalism. Rather it brought hope and love.
It brought the message that God loves people. Stark points out that
almost everywhere on Earth the gods were thought to be many and undependable. Aside from having some magical powers, and perhaps a gift of immortality, the gods had normal human weaknesses, concerns and shortcomings. They ate, drank, loved, envied, fornicated, cheated, lied, and otherwise set morally “unedifying examples”. They took offence if humans failed to properly propitiate them, but otherwise little interest in human affairs
The God revealed by Jesus was remarkably different, a God with a passionate interest in the lives and affairs of people, who loved them with a depth that is almost unfathomable, valued them when nobody else did, and had hopes and dreams for them. God, Paul assured the Roman Christians, “works for the good of those who love him” and is for them, so much so that nothing could separate them from the love of God – “neither death nor life, angels nor demons, the present or future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (8:37-39)
The Gospel also brought a message of hope. With soaring rhetoric chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans assured the Roman Christians that God was committed to transforming the universe. The creation will be liberated from all that prevents it from being a place of abundance and safety (8:18-22); people will receive bodies that are not susceptible to suffering and vulnerability (8:23-25); and as we wait for that day the Spirit helps us pray (8:26-27) and to be conformed to the image of Jesus (8:29-31). Paul does not respond to suffering by declaring God will remove us from the location of suffering – our bodies and our world – but transform us and our world so that suffering is no longer the human experience.
And the Gospel brought a new way to live, gronded in compassion and mercy, qualities that were seen as weakness within Greco-Roman culture but as virtues in the early Christian community.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
These were the practical counsels of love not unachievable aspiration. Stark’s book describes how Christians set about showing love and mercy to one another and their neighbours, often in the most difficult of circumstances, and through the power of their love society was transformed. For example, Stark describes the panic that set in when deadly epidemics wreaked havoc through ancient cities. The elites would flee to their country properties, the infected would be pushed into the streets and piles of dead bodies would accumulate. The Christians however took the sick into their homes and cared for them, often at the cost of their own lives. Yet those acts of compassion had rich dividends, for what we know now that they did not, was that even basic care during times of epidemic lifts the recovery rate, so that many more survived than otherwise would have and rumours spread of the magical powers of Christians.
Of course Christians did not always live up to their lofty ideals – the New Testament letters provide ample testimony to that. But in the midst of their own brokenness and the brokenness of the world around them the gospel message of God who loves and will transform our world was life-giving to those who embraced the message and those with whom they came into contact. As our society becomes less religious and more secular, there is great angst amongst many Christians as to the future of the church and its place in society. The New Testament takes us back to a time before there were cathedrals, a professional priesthood, and prior to the entanglement of church and state, and perhaps holds the key to our future. Let’s grasp the extraordinary message of a God who loves us deeply, who is committed to the transformation of our life and our world, and get serious about showing love and mercy to our neighbours, our community and our world. And perhaps like those first Christians we will see love, hope and mercy transforming us and our communities.