Joni and I live in a racially diverse city. Even with that disclaimer my recent morning errand run was unusual. I made four stops, interacted with at least a dozen people, and not one of them looked like me. Every encounter I had was friendly, upbeat, and kind. Not one black, Hispanic, or Asian person seemed to notice or care that I was not like them.
I reflected on that experience versus the America the media and politicians portray. According to the inflammatory headlines we are a country of hatred, racism, and greed. I am not naive. We are far from a perfect union because our nation is made up of imperfect people like me and you.
People who want freedom. People who want to be able to enjoy friends and family. People looking for acceptance by others and forgiveness for mistakes. People who want to believe they are a part of something more significant than just getting through the day. People who hope their lives matter.
I have wrestled with my role as a follower of Jesus in this often ugly environment. I decided to examine how the first Christians approached their challenge to spread the Good News on decidedly unfriendly turf.
The early church had no chance to win the culture war. Jesus chose not to address the political leaders. Philip Yancey writes about the conundrum we face as followers of Jesus in a dark world.
I study Jesus and Paul in vain if I’m looking for a way to “change the world.” Surely, they were aware of the great societal evils around them – think of Romans paying to watch gladiators murder each other for sport – but they gave us no global formula. Instead, they called Christians to show the world a different way to live, to become pioneer settlers of the kingdom of God. Against all odds, that eventually prevailed in Rome. People saw that the Christians freed slaves (some of them), treated women with dignity, nursed plague victims rather than fleeing, and adopted abandoned babies.
How did those ragamuffin followers influence the very history of the world? By living out what they said they believed. I wrote about the early church strategy in my book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People.
The early church championed the concept of community responsibility. Professor Rodney Stark studied the early church and found that unbelievers were often attracted to the faith because of the tangible benefits provided by the charitable, care-giving Christians. Early Christian scribe Tertullian wrote late in the second century that pagan temples spent their donations on “feasts and drinking bouts.” Donations of the Christians were used to “support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined to the house.” The pagan emperor Julian was amazed and even cynical when he noted, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well.” That’s quite a shot across the bow, isn’t it? They act Christian at home and away! How dare they!
Professor E. Glenn Hinson writes, “The early Christians impressed the culture with high moral standards and their practice of charity for all, regardless of social status” (emphasis added). Today’s church could earn a doctorate in cultural impact just by integrating those two qualities into the fabric of daily life.
Christ’s teachings on the dignity of life greatly influenced the early church. Remember that the early Christians lived in a culture that practiced infanticide, gladiator combat, and even cannibalism. The church’s revolutionary view of the value of life was sacrificially demonstrated during the two great plagues that devastated the empire in the second and third centuries. While most citizens avoided any contact with the sick and even cast them into the streets while still alive, Christians nursed and cared for the sick even though it cost some their lives. The selfless service of the early church won many Gentile and Jewish converts to the fold.
I support those who are called to cultural combat and I pray those messengers can demonstrate God’s grace in the process.
As for me, I have been called to communicate grace. I will always encourage fellow travelers to remember who God says they are in Christ. Saints. Redeemed. Forgiven. Adopted. I will remind readers (and myself) to be kind, patient and loving with needy sojourners because it is in those exchanges that the light of God’s grace shines most brightly.
I will say over and over that grace works and is the only way to actually deal with sin. Sometimes I feel like a one trick pony but I am okay with that because I was transformed by grace. My walk with God was rejuvenated by grace and my relationships reinvented by grace.
I recognize there are evil people on this fallen planet. But in the eyes of most people I encounter I see the divine flicker of the image of God. My hope is in Him and my message is the scandalous and amazing gift of grace. I share Paul’s mission and desire as I finish my race.
But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God. Acts 20:24