Back To The Future Of Faith

As we continue to look about for hope and direction in the midst of this present global health crisis,  we would do well to train our eyes on yesterday–in particular, on the ways of the early Church in their own time of plague. Hebrews 12:1 tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Among those in that holy cloud of witnesses, we find Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and his fellow Christians of the middle third century A.D., who lived in a time of pestilence and disease not unlike our own, except worse. From 249-262 A.D., the Mediterranean World experienced plague on a massive scale. For a stretch of time, it was reported that 5000 people a day were dying in the city of Rome. The Roman Empire itself was badly shaken and nearly brought to its knees.

Strange thing though, the Church experienced extraordinary numerical growth during these years of plague and, specially, in the years immediately following. Why did the Church see such growth when there were so many other religions throughout the Empire to choose from, not least the gods of the Romans? Largely because of how the Christians tended to the sick and the dying. The pagan Romans, and plenty of others, were so moved, even overwhelmed, by the love and courage of the Christians, that they began choosing the God of the Christians for themselves–and doing so in droves–to the point that the great persecutions of the Christians, that would soon follow under the Roman emperors of the late third and early fourth centuries, were seen as necessary to put an end to the ‘Christian plague’ that was taking over the Empire. (Best estimates are that in the year 200 A.D., there were 200,000 Christians in the Roman Empire, or less than 1 percent of the Empire’s overall population; by 300 A.D., however, there were 6 million Christians, or 10% of the Empire’s population). 

But enough of me giving account; here is Cyprian: “How pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they, who are in health, tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence…These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.” (‘The Treatises of Cyprian’)

Not to be overlooked in Cyprian’s instruction on faith and crisis (given while Christians were dying right alongside non-Christians) is his determination that what is not visible to us is that which is ultimately real. This is a determination as true in 2020 as it was in 250–that ultimate reality is not a thing of science, but rather a thing of faith. In these days when we blindly defer so quickly to science, it is, in fact, faith in God and the ascendant place of the soul that is paramount. We will wait in vain for the day when science can, in any way, approximate Cyprian’s knowledge–that death is not death but rather training–training that is preparing us for a crown. 


Artists Cry Out

Hello Friends,

The Institute for Christian Unity enjoys a great friendship with Emmanuel Gospel Center (EGC) of Boston. EGC has served the Church in Boston (and beyond) since 1938. That’s 82 years of being a light for Christ in the city and equipping Christian leaders to serve the Church well.

Of late, in addition to being a center for leadership training and resources, EGC has become something of a gathering place for exceptionally talented artists. Please check out the below music video produced by EGC as an encouragement to the Church and wider world in this moment of upheaval.

The musicians are Caleb McCoy and Jaronzie Harris. The video is directed by Elijah Mickelson. Caleb has previously presented at the Institute’s WEE Forum and Elijah has done video production for us in the past.

God’s Peace to you this Holy Week, Matt

Christ In Crisis: Grace To Courage To Freedom

No one wants the moment in which we now find ourselves, yet this moment was made for true Christianity. This moment was made for remembering that Christians are followers of a leader who initiated a religion by means of an extreme act of sacrifice and suffering—sacrifice and suffering that did not end with what our leader, Jesus, had to endure, but continued on in the abuses suffered by Jesus’ apostles and disciples, and not just for a little while, but over the course of a large part of the next three centuries. The persecutions of Christians under the Roman emperors in those first three centuries after Christ were sometimes severe, sometimes not, however, when they were severe, as they were in the latter half of the third century and beginning of the fourth, the suffering of Christians was pervasive and without mercy, unless one recanted one’s faith.

Of the persecution inflicted by Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 AD), Church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette, writes, “The storm was Empire-wide, from Britain to Arabia, but was particularly severe in the East, where Christianity had its chief numerical strength. It lasted more than a decade and endured longer in the East than in the West. Apparently the death penalty was inflicted only as a last resort, but torture was freely applied to induce the victims to recant and through it many perished…On occasion there was wholesale slaughter. Thus in Asia Minor a Christian town was surrounded by soldiers and burned, together with its inhabitants…In Rome the property of the church was confiscated and many of the members perished. In Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, the persecution was renewed again and again in the vicissitudes of the political situation and did not die out until the defeat (about 323) of the last of the persecutors.” (‘A History of Christianity: Volume 1’)

Recalling the history of our forbears in the faith occasions a question that may soon be ours to answer: Will we, if present and soon-to-be circumstances dictate, be ready to respond to our new reality as so many of the early Christians did to theirs? Will we be able to set aside our utterly reasonable fears and live heroically, forgetting the plight of our own well-being, and even that of our loved ones, and render spiritual care and material comfort to our neighbors with a courage born of grace, pointing directly to the power of God? A call to action such as this is not a call to recklessness, but rather a call to confidence in the Word–that the Word is true where Jesus challenges, “Do not fear those who kill the body (coronavirus included) but cannot kill the soul,” and Paul assures, “this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (Matthew 10 & 2 Corinthians 4).

Releasing our grip on the benefits of this earthly life, placing ourselves wholly in the hands of God and accepting a possibly immanent death, we find ourselves set free from covering up, and, instead, empowered by the Spirit of God to live in true freedom and with immense courage and love. None of this is easy but all of this is attainable, by grace through faith, from our God made fully known in Jesus Christ.