How The NY Times and the Ancient Church Agree

The earliest followers of Jesus didn’t give themselves the name “Christians.” We read in Acts 11:26 that that name came from those who watched them from a distance. Obviously the name referred to the fact that these people followed the Christ, but according to Michael Green, there was probably more to it.

The Roman emperor at the time was Caesar Augustus and his imperial service spread throughout the empire. These agents of the emperor known as the Augustiani formed a civil service that served as the eyes and ears of the emperor representing him and his interests wherever they lived.

The parallel between the Augustiani who represented Caesar Augustus and the early disciples who represented Jesus was obvious to all. That’s why they referred to the disciples of Jesus as the Christiani–ambassadors of Christ.

For the last 2000 years Christians have struggled to live out the high calling of being Jesus’ representatives on earth. Today you find Christians who think that they best represent Christ by withdrawing from culture so that they aren’t contaminated by it, others who think that they best represent Jesus by fighting the culture war in the political arena, and still others (maybe the majority?) who don’t take the responsibility seriously. Each of the first two positions have merit to them and yet in my opinion get it wrong.

In the past I have mentioned the columns of Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. Mr. Kristof often writes on issues facing the “majority world.” While not a Christian himself, there have been several columns over the recent years in which he has had high praise for Christians. What causes this well educated member of the east coast media to see Christianity in a positive light? Without exception it is the sacrificial love and service of Christians in very difficult places.

In his column dated May 1, Kristof turns his attention on the Catholic church both attacking the leadership for taking theological and social positions that he doesn’t like and praising the priests and nuns who serve in some of the world’s most challenging places.

I met Father Michael in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road here in southern Sudan. He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of statewide examinations.

Father Michael came to southern Sudan in 1978 and chatters fluently in Dinka and other local languages. To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease. “It’s very normal to have malaria,” he said. “Intestinal parasites — that’s just normal.”

Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest.

Anybody scorn him? Anybody think he’s a self-righteous hypocrite?

Here’s another story from Kristof…

In the city of Juba, I met Cathy Arata, a nun from New Jersey who spent years working with battered women in Appalachia. Then she moved to El Salvador during the brutal civil war there, putting her life on the line to protect peasants. Two years ago, she came here on behalf of a terrific Catholic project called Solidarity With Southern Sudan.

Sister Cathy and the others in the project have trained 600 schoolteachers. They are fighting hunger not with handouts but with help for villagers to improve agricultural techniques. They are also establishing a school for health workers, with a special focus on midwifery to reduce deaths in childbirth.

At the hospital attached to that school, the surgeon is a nun from Italy. The other doctor is a 72-year-old nun from Rhode Island. Nuns rock.

And now here is the last paragraph…

And unless we’re willing to endure beatings alongside Father Michael, unless we’re willing to stand up to warlords with Sister Cathy, we have no right to disparage them or their true church.

I don’t think that Kristof is that much different than other non Christians in that what gets their attention and opens them up to hear more about the gospel is seeing Christians’ sacrificial love and service. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m NOT saying that acts of love and service ARE the gospel or that they are done INSTEAD of sharing the gospel. Nor am I saying that if Christians abandon the culture war and perform acts of love and service, then non Christians will all come to faith in Christ.

But I am saying that acts of love and service, whether they are done around in the world or in your neighborhood, will often gain a hearing for the gospel or cause someone to be a bit more open to come to church with you or to use an old Puritan phrase “adorn the gospel with good works.”

Finally, this idea of gaining a hearing for the gospel by acts of love and service isn’t new. Listen to the voices of some of the earliest Christians…

Clement (2 Clement 13:3)
For when unbelievers hear from our mouth the oracles of God, they wonder at their beauty and greatness. Then discovering that our deeds are not worthy of the words we utter, they turn from their wonder to blasphemy, saying it was all a myth and delusion.

Athenagoras in the second century (Embassy, 11)
Among us you will find uneducated persons and artisans and old women, who, if they are unable to prove the benefits of our doctrine, yet by their deeds they exhibit the benefits arising from their persuasion of the truth. They do not practice great speeches, but they exhibit good works. When struck, they do not strike back. When robbed, they do not go to law. They give to those who ask of them. And they love their neighbor as themselves.

Theophilus of Antioch in the second century (Ad Autolochum, 15)
Believers are forbidden even to go to gladiatorial shows, lest they become hardened to cruelty and condone murder. Be it far from Christians to conceive any such deeds, for with them temperance dwells, self restrain is practiced, monogamy observed, chastity guarded, righteousness exercised, worship performed, God acknowledged. Truth governs them, grace guards them, peace screens them, and the holy word guides them.

Tertullian on generosity
Contributions are voluntary and proportionate to each one’s income. They are used to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls who are destitute of means and parents, and of old people, confined to the house, and such as have suffered shipwreck, or any who are in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in prison for their fidelity to God’s church.

As Christ’s representatives what could you do to show the love of Christ by serving your neighbors, co-workers, classmates, and family?

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