Revelation 2:1-7 & 8-11
Loving a Zealous Church
One of the things that the Whole Bible Bible Study has been good for is context. There is always way more to put into a sermon in terms of context than there is time for and trying to make the connections to real life without me telling you what your life is about is the other problem.
This week in particular I struggled to come up with a sermon that was either judgemental about us or too easily dismissed as applying primarily to other people. A feel good sermon in the worst possible sense. Because I think that these letters have something to say to us. To the church in every generation. To the saints in every age. To every single person trying to live faithfully in their own context.
So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to tell you a little about Ephesus and give you some time to think about how that might apply to your life – crazy as it seems. And then I’m going to ask you to find one other person and tell them one thing that occurred to you. Not the most profound necessarily and you don’t have to bare the darkest secrets of your soul. Just one thing. Then anyone who wants to can tell the us all – briefly – what they came up with.
Then we’ll do the same thing with Smyrna only this time we’re going to focus on the church – this church, The United Church, the mainline church, the church universal. And we’ll jump right from thinking to the whole group of us. Brief, though.
Then we’ll wonder what John’s advice to those two church might apply for us. And – I hope and trust – that I will be able to wind it up with some theological reflections. Now, we have a big agenda so let’s get going.
Ephesus and Smyrna were both sea ports. And they were both cities with a lot of temples, a lot of wealth and a lot of business. You’ve probably heard of Ephesus – definitely as the people who got the letter to the Ephesians and maybe because the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But it wasn’t the only temple there. There were a bunch and one of them was an Imperial Temple – the gods who had been Caesar. That temple featured a statue of one of those gods that was 25 feet tall. Only the head remains, but it was clearly meant to show that this was no ordinary man – bigger and better and definitely divine. Politically savvy worship was just one of those things you did because you belong to a certain profession or social group or whatever. It cemented relationships, set the right tone and showed people you knew how things were done.
In that culture “worship [was] a profoundly political act. Who or what we worship reflects our deepest values and our deepest beliefs.”
So what I want you to think about is not what you worship – because that’s too easy. We worship the living God. But if an anthropologist were observing your life, what would be taking up the most time and space? What would they figure was the most important thing to you based on how much time you spend on it?
For example – there was a guy who wrote in the paper about how he was trying to turn off his cellphone as soon as he got home from work instead of spending all evening on it – including scrolling through messages while sitting with his daughter at bedtime. I have noticed a huge trend among my colleagues where a whole lot of value is placed on how much they work for how long and how many funerals they do. And I know that from the outside looking in, food and emails would probably look really significant in my life. And British mystery shows.
It doesn’t matter why – or it may be true and unavoidable that you need to be on your blackberry because your boss demands it. This isn’t about judging the rhythm of your year or the healthiness of your work/life balance. We know we worship the living God and we’re doing the best that we can right now. It’s simply about noticing what is taking up a lot of space in our life. It’s entirely up to you whether that’s something you want to change – the guy with the cellphone problem tried and failed. So far – he hasn’t given up.
And now Smyrna. The letters and the whole Revelation to John were not written at a time when Christian persecution by the Romans was particularly fierce. Their biggest source of persecution was ill-usage from the Jews who had been their sisters and brothers in faith until recently. The Jews thought they were theologically dubious and probably didn’t appreciate being told they were behind the times. So what the anticipated testing and affliction were is unclear – but it’s fair enough to say that every faith community has troubles. If you’re too small, you’re too small and if you get big you have rifts and schisms.
But what is interesting in this letter, and very relevant to us, is that the church is poor and afflicted, even though they are rich. But those riches are not material. They don’t have wealthy members and investment accounts. Their wealth is spiritual.
So my question is – how are we rich? We don’t have huge membership numbers, our budget is shrinking, our volunteers are tired – but enthusiastic and creative. We do not all have white hair – which cannot be said of a lot of more financially settled churches! What other wealth do we have?
Without these kinds of things – all the money, all the resources, all the able and willing volunteers in the world are useless. Hear what the spirit is saying to the church.
In the letter to the church at Ephesus, John warns about the Nicolaitans. Nobody knows what they are but one theory is that they represented a heresy in which Christians figured that they could engage in social sacrifices and other practices that were part of the imperial cult as good citizens. Because they knew it was meaningless. The zeal that the church at Ephesus had had at first wouldn’t have allowed for that and in spite of all the challenges they had faced since then, that was one fault they had never developed. If they could just take that line and keep pushing it back towards their early passion and enthusiasm and willingness to love extravagantly, they would get permission to eat from the tree of life – which was not just about eternal life, it was also about not toiling, not growing wearing and discovering wisdom.
The church at Smyrna, on the other hand, was rich even though it was poor and the reward that it was promised if it could hang in there was the crown of life. Not a royal crown for the poor church though – a victor’s crown, the crown of an athlete that had trained for years, developing strength, endurance and mental stamina.