The Acts of the Apostles is St. Luke’s history of the early church. We see the exponential growth of the church as a result of the preaching of the Apostles in the power of the Holy Spirit. When the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 312 AD, there were already many millions of Christians in the empire. What was their life like? In one sense, it was no different from the lives of their pagan neighbors. In another sense, their faith made all the difference in the world. Most ordinary citizens lived in overcrowded tenements. These were teetering, overly tall buildings with no ventilation or plumbing. There was a constant danger of fire taking out your city block. Life expectancy was around 30. The corpses of the dead were sometimes dumped with the day’s trash into the city’s open sewers. These were the neighborhoods where the Christians lived. Yet Christian homes were somehow different, and that difference was among the great and silent means of evangelization. The true story of the growth of the Church was, as St. Augustine said, “one heart setting another on fire”. For example, consider the great epidemic of the year 260. People knew that these diseases were communicable, but they had no way of treating them. The first people to flee when an epidemic began were the doctors. Next were the pagan priests. Ordinary pagan families were encouraged to abandon infected family members. Yet Christians considered themselves duty bound to care for the sick. One author wrote, “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending their every need and ministering to them in Christ—and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they themselves were infected by others with the disease”. Not only did Christians take care of each other, they also cared for their pagan neighbors. Many of these people moved by the love of the Christians and inspired by their hope of heaven, became Christians themselves. Gradually, invisibly, but inexorably, this is the way Christian belief and love changed the empire, one good deed at a time.
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