From 361 to 363 AD, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustuswas the Emperor of Rome. He is widely known today as either “Julian” or “Julian the Apostate.” This latter appellation is because he abandoned Christianity, the faith in which he was raised, and sought instead a revival of the old pagan religions of Rome to counter the rising tide of Christianity. He sought to have the pagan temples restored and the pagan priests put back to work. It was, in many ways, a frustrating venture for Julian. At one point, in a fit of frustration, Julian wrote the following to one of the pagan priests: “It is a disgrace that these impious Galilaeans [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”
What a telling statement! Julian the Apostate was irritated at the Christians’ undeniably impressive care for the poor in Rome. More than that, he marveled and chafed at the realization that the Christians not only cared for the Christian poor but also for the pagan poor. Historian and theologian David Bentley Hart writes this of the early church’s care for the poor:
Even pagan critics of the church were aware of the astonishing range of Christians’ exertions on behalf of others…Ultimately…one finds nothing in pagan society remotely comparable in magnitude to the Christian willingness to provide continuously for persons in need, male and female, young and old, free and bound alike. Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations.
From the first century through the fourth, I think one can fairly say, no single aspect of Christian moral teaching was more consistent or more urgent than this law of charity. In the surviving Christian literature of the first five centuries, both before and after the church’s transformation into the imperial cult, the refrain is ceaseless, and is most poignantly audible in the admonitions of the great church fathers of the post-Constantinian period-Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom-to rich Christians: to follow Christ, one must love the poor and give to them without reserve or preference. At its very best, the Christian pursuit of charity, both before and after Constantine’s conversion, was marked by a quality of the supererogatory that pagan religious ideas could simply never have inspired…And, as I say, even committed pagans acknowledged the peculiar virtues of the Galilaeans. The pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, for instance, who admired Julian and who harbored no rosy illusions regarding the church, still commended the faith of the Christians as a “gentle” creed, essentially just in its principles and its acts.”
Caring for the poor and the needy has long been a key concern and focus of the Christian Church. In fact, it seems to have been one of the dominant concerns of the church. William Barclay has given another example of this reality.
In the East it was the custom for beggars to sit begging at the entrance to a temple or a shrine. Such a place was, and still is, considered the best of all stances because, when people are on their way to worship God, they are disposed to be generous to their fellow men. W.H. Davies, the tramp poet, tells how one of his vagrant friends told him that, whenever he came into a new town, he looked for a church spire with a cross on the top, and began to beg in that area, because there, from experience, he found people most generous.
Yes, with all of the church’s problems throughout history, and all of its failures to care for the poor as it ought, there is something about Christianity in particular that has special care and concern for the poor and the needy. Our covenant expresses this concern and priority under the final section, “the reaching of the nations”
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine,
living out the gospel in our lives,
embracing the whole counsel of God.
We covenant to bring glory to God by
gathering for worship faithfully,
singing to the glory of God,
joining together in fervent prayer,
doing good works to the Father’s glory,
living lives that reflect the beauty of Christ,
giving offerings to God joyfully and faithfully.
We covenant to reach the nations by
sharing the gospel with those around us,
reaching out to the poor and the needy
Of all of the numerous concerns that the church should have, why mention this one, “reaching out to the poor and the needy”?