The first Christian communities were made up of small groups of disciples of Jesus. After the staggering events of Jesus’ condemnation followed by his passion, crucifixion and death, the first followers of Jesus go into hiding, out of fear and dejection at the unjust and cruel end of the Lord’s earthly life.
When Jesus appears to them after his resurrection, we find the disciples concealed in secret in fear of the same religious authorities who had condemned and crucified Jesus only a short while before.
So how did the faith of this first, small band of frightened disciples of Jesus spread like wildfire? How did Christianity become, some 300 years later, the dominant religion of the Roman Empire? How did the Christian faith grow from a small cluster of hidden disciples to the widely accepted faith of the known world at that time? What allowed for this remarkable expansion of early Christianity?
Historians of the early church note that one of the leading reasons for the rapid spread of Christianity in the ancient world was the daily, concrete works of love, mercy and compassion practiced by the first followers of Jesus.
In the midst of pagan cultures, it was the Christians who cared for the poor, the sick and elderly, the outcast and the most vulnerable in their communities. Their witness to love of neighbor was a compelling magnet drawing their pagan neighbors and friends to the Christian way of life, patterned after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
The commandment of love of God expressed in love of neighbor stands at the heart of biblical faith. Christianity is weakened when Christian faith does not find public expression in works of charity and justice, particularly for the most vulnerable and needy in society.
In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah gives us a glimpse into the heart of God’s desire that his people love one another in concrete works of mercy and compassion. And so we hear Isaiah say, “Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.”
The psalmist reminds us that the just man is a light in the darkness when he prays, “Light shines through the darkness for the upright; he is gracious and merciful and just. Well for the man who is gracious and lends, who conducts his affairs with justice.”
In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, to become salt of the earth and light to the world. Matthew sums up the Gospel demand of love and justice when he writes, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” God’s word challenges us today to let faith overflow into good deeds as we pray, “speak to me, Lord.”