Sunday, November 30, 2014

Laodicea: A Church Where Jesus was on the outer!!! (Revelations 3:14-22)

The letter to the church at Laodicea is both the easiest and the hardest of the seven letters to the seven churches in revelations to preach on.

The easiest because it’s the “ most concrete in local colour” we have such a great depth of information about the city that opens up and brings alive what Christ has to say to the church… right down to knowing about Laodicea’s plumbing problems…

But it is also the hardest because it really packs a punch… it hits home… Not only does it speak specifically to a church in a city in Asia Minor at the end of the first century … it sadly resonates with the Christian church in the west at the beginning of the twenty first century… Have we like them become complacent and think we are self-sufficient in our affluent society? Have we like them, then and there, become Luke warm and half-hearted in our faith? We seem to have everything we need and just maybe we’ve left Christ on the outer!!!What is the spirit saying to the churches? What is the spirit saying to us?

Laodicea is the last stop on our journey through the seven letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. A Journey that has not only followed the mailman along the main road through the province but has weaved it way through Jesus speaking to a whole kaleidoscope of churches wrestling with different issues… As John Stott summaries it...The Ephesians were urged to return to their first fresh love for Christ. The Christians at Smyrna are encouraged to remain true even in the face of suffering. Pergamum is told to champion truth in the face of error. Thyatira is to follow righteousness in the face of evil. In Sardis there is a call for inward reality behind an outward show. The church without much strength at Philadelphia is offered open doors for evangelism and service and called to boldly step through. In the letter to Laodicea complacency is challenged with a powerful appeal for wholeheartedness.  A call I need to hear, a call we all need to hear…

Laodicea was the chief of three cities in the Lycos river valley. The other two cites were Hierapolis  and Colossae. It was famous for three things. Firstly it was famous for its wealth: it was the Switzerland of the ancient near east, it was the banking capital. It was also the centre of a very lucrative garment trade; famous for cloth made from the very soft black wool. It was a centre for healing, known for a very effective eye ointment made from minerals found in the area. It was so wealthy that several members of a prominent family were considered royalty in roman society, they earned the title king. It was so wealthy that when the city was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 AD they turned down Imperial aid to rebuild the city, they could do it themselves.  It would be like Christchurch turning down government aid to rebuild. The city and the church took pride in the resources they had at their disposal.

The other thing the city was famous for was it water. Rather its water problem. Eleven Km’s  in one direction were hot springs at Hierapolis, a  tall water fall of boiling water, very much like the lost  pink and white terraces in Rotorua is there,  Water that was known for its healing and recuperative properties. Seven km in the other direction was Colossae known for its cold mountain spring water, beautiful clear and refreshing. But Laodicea had no natural water source so it bought water in by an elaborate aqueduct and pipe system.  By the time water got to the city it had either become too cool to provide good bathing or had heated up too much to be good drinking water.

 We know from archaeological evidence as well that the pipes often solidified because of the amount of lime and other minerals in the water. The people in Laodicea were always complaining about their water. It was like a public drinking fountain on a hot summer day you take one sip and you want to spit it out as it was tepid and undrinkable. Jesus uses this image to tell the church how he felt about the condition they had allowed themselves to get into. Like the drinking water they were neither hot nor cold and because they were tepid, lukewarm,  Christ would spit them out, they were vomit inducing.

Now people have often seen neither hot nor cold to mean that Christ would prefer they were either whole hearted or passionate or totally against him. But the people at Laodicea would have known that if the water was cold it would be refreshing and wonderful to drink, there is nothing like an ice cold drink after you have been toiling in the sun for a period of time. Or hot and full of healing properties. Like a soak in a hot bath at the end of an arduous day. But the church was neither of these.

Jesus introduces himself to this church as the Amen, the true and faithful witness, because he sees thing as they really are and speaks the truth about them. In the gospels Jesus would start many of his saying with the phrase truly, truly signifying that what he is about to say is both important and true. He is speaking to a church that  is deluded about their true condition. Very much like the “you’ve heard it said”… “but I say”… formula in the ‘sermon on the mount’ Jesus contrasts the Churches understanding of their condition with his own… They say they are rich and wealthy and do not need anything, just like their city had said to the emperor,  but Jesus sees their true condition they are wretched, pitiful and poor , blind and naked.  They may think they are wealthy, there is money in the bank, but when it came to storing up treasures in heaven the vault was empty. All the women might look good in their fashionable little black dresses and the men all take pride in the black jersey, but in spiritual terms they don’t have a stitch to wear, nakedness speaks of shame; their true condition is plain for Christ to see. They may be able to heal certain eye problems with ointment, but just as in John’s gospel where Jesus compares the Pharisees to the man born blind, they need their spiritual eyes open.

I wonder in the west if it is not the same, we have such a high standard of living, and we can easily think we are OK. We have a comfortable life… Even in this country when we talk of child poverty it is not something we need Christ’s help with we think it can be solved by political will or economic policy. We have the resources within ourselves. One of the ways people talk about God is that God is there for the cracks, the gaps and with science and understanding and human knowledge the gaps seem to be getting smaller, we’ve covered over the cracks perhaps and so well we don’t actually need God in our intellectual framework. We feel we can heal the human condition both physically and on a deep psychological level through our medicine and understanding, even there we seem to have stepped aside from needing the great physician… we have great traditions and rituals and artefacts that help keep us sustained and maybe we can forget the spiritual reality behind those things. Our zeal and our passion can fall away, we can become lukewarm.

In response to that Christ’s call is for the church to come to him… to remind them that in their world of choice and plenty that only Christ is the source of eternal life. That only Christ is the source of things that satisfy spiritually and last eternally.  He calls them to come to him and buy gold refined in the fire, white clothes that will cover their shame, and salve for their eyes that will make them able to see properly.

 It is a bit hard to think of us buying Gold from Christ, what do we have that we can give him, but Jesus tells the parable that the kingdom of God is like  the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price that the person was willing to give up all they had to possess it. All they had… to be all in not half hearted.  At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount the way to receive the kingdom of God the first step to being all in was to know that you were spiritual poor.  But the cost is to be all in for Christ.

Christ offers us white garments, that we can be clothed in his righteousness, that he is faithful and just and forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  Likewise our eyes can be closed to the spiritual reality around us and we need to turn to Christ again to open our eyes and allow us to see. It is only in knowing and following and fixing our eyes on Christ that we can run the race, that we will find fullness of life, not a comfortable life but a full eternal life.

We often think of such hard words as the ones that are said to the church at Laodicea as being about an angry wrathful God, but Jesus continues his invitation to the church at Laodicea by letting them know that those whom he loves he rebukes and disciples. The writer of Hebrews quotes proverbs to encourage us in times of difficulty by affirming that God as a father disciplines his children because he loves us. Christ’s invitation to come to him comes out of his great love for the church his great love for us, his great sacrificial love for you. The hand that disciplines is a nail pieced hand…

The way to change their heart condition was to turn and to earnestly seek Christ again, to know their spiritual condition and acknowledge their need for him. Cities in the ancient near east were seen as being places of safety. They were walled with large gates and at sunset the gates to the city would be closed. The Ephesus gate at Laodicea is only just visible above ground(see image to left). But  If you were still on the road, running late, and you arrived late you would have to bang on the city gate hoping that someone would hear you and come and open the gate and let you in. This is the picture that Jesus uses to couch his invitation to the church at Laodicea.  Behold I stand at the door and knock if anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and eat with them and they with me. 

We are used to seeing this passage through the art work of Holman Hunts painting ‘the light of the world’ and equating it with people coming to salvation, but the offer here is made to people in the church, yes to individuals, but within the church to again be open to Christ. The picture of sitting down to a meal is one of sharing table fellowship with a person, the most intimate of ways of sharing life together. Repentance and the way to wholeheartedness is again to hear Jesus voice to focus on him, to know the reality that we celebrate in communion, that he is with us and feeds us and sustains us. To know how much he loves us. To be people who don’t simply have Jesus as an add on to an already busy life but the one who at its centre and source.

 Jesus promise to those who are victorious who come back to him and follow wholeheartedly is that they will reign with him, they will share his throne. In Laodicea the height of their wealth was that some important people in the community were considered to be kings they had earned the title in the roman society. But Jesus is offering so much more to his people, why settle for what this world has to offer when Christ offers so much more when he comes fully into his kingdom.  We are used to the beatitudes in Matthews Gospel, and we forget that they also appear in Luke’s Gospel in what is called the sermon on the plain in Luke chapter 6. I think we prefer Matthew because Luke is a little more blunt than Matthew and also because he includes a list of woes as well. He says blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God, and we need to be aware that we are impoverished and we need Christ, but Luke adds a corresponding woe, woe to those who are rich, for they have had their fill in this world. Wealth in its self is not wrong but…  If we fill our lives with and trust and rely on the things of this world we’ve had our fill, and is there room for Christ.

,  “The restoration of the church” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer “ will surely come from a new kind of community, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ(will be full hearted for Christ). I believe the time has come to rally people together for this.”

  The letter to the church at Laodicea says that starts with Individuals coming alive again and wholehearted for Christ… the ‘anyone’ who hears my voice… Do you hear Jesus knocking and calling this morning?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Philadelphia: The Encouragement of An Open Door For a Church On Shaky Ground (Revelations 3:7-13)

Just before the service we were having a discussion over weather the code in the image the left was in binary or hexadecimal code... I used it because when it comes to the letters to the seven churches they can seem to be written in code... maybe not machine code but code none the less and  the letter to the church at Philadelphia seems full of intrigue and mystery with its talk of a key and an open door and a pillar.  We need to decipher the code that John uses to speak to the heart of this church facing difficulties and suffering. It’s a code worth deciphering so we can hear the message that this letter has for us. That we can hear the message Grant Osbourne says “every small church in a difficult area of ministry will find encouraging.”  That we can hear the message that “every Christian uncertain of his or her gifts and place in the church as a whole will be comforted by” That we can hear the message that “God is more interested in our faithfulness that success.” That we can hear what the spirit is saying to the churches, and in particular what the spirit is saying to us. 

We’ve just been doing a church survey and thank you to everyone who filled out the survey, its part of the on-going process of honestly evaluating where we are now so we can plan and look to the future. The seven letters to the seven churches at the beginning of Revelations are like that review process, like Jesus filled out the survey, looking at where the church was at, assessing its strengths and weaknesses. Some of the things that are said may seem rather hard and harsh, but they are not intended to write off the churches, to judge or condemn them, but rather to right the church, putting them back on track. The letter to the church at Philadelphia does not receive any criticism only encouragement  about possibilities even in the face suffering and opposition.

 Revelations is a book designed to comfort and prepare the church to face what is to come… and it starts by evaluating where the church is at, an honest assessment from the one who walks amongst the seven lampstands, Christ who sees and knows their deeds. That is why we are looking at these letters and seeking to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches… Christ loves us, Christ knows us and Christ is with us and speaks to prepare us for what is to come or more importantly for the one who is to come.

Philadelphia is about 44 km’s to the south east of Sardis, and it is the next logical stop for the postman delivering these letters. It is the youngest of the cities in the region. It was founded by Pergamum in 198bc and given its name because of the love the king of Pergamum had for his brother.   If we were going to do comparisons with New Zealand cities, you could say it was the Christchurch of the province. 

Firstly it was designed to be a little bit of Greek culture transplanted to the province of Asia, I guess a little bit like Christchurch was designed to be a taste of ol’England down under, or Dunedin was to be the Edinburgh of the south. It was strategically placed at the cross roads of the provinces in the interior of Asia, and was designed to showcase and spread Greco-Roman culture throughout those regions.

Secondly, this is how the Greek historian and geographer Strabo described the city

“Philadelphia has not even its walls secure, but they are daily shaken and split in some degree. The people continually pay attention to earth tremors and plan their buildings with this factor in mind… It is a city full of earthquakes.”

As we’ve worked our way through the seven letters the 17ad earthquake has often featured and while other cities had been damaged by the earthquake Philadelphia was at its epicentre. People moved out of the city into the country side around it in fear of earthquakes. AS a major winegrowing area it was also hit hard when the roman emperor Domitian decreed that wine production in the empire should be cut in half to encourage corn to be grown to feed his army.

We don’t know much about the church in Philadelphia except from what we have in this letter. It was a church that had little strength…it was possibly small and did not have much status in Roman society. It had faced persecution and suffering. We see the synagogue of Satan mentioned again, the church was originally seen as a Jewish sect, which meant that it was afforded some protection in roman society who valued civilizations that were older than their own. But it seems that here the door to the synagogue had been closed, the Christians are cut off, thrown out, Jewish believers were disowned by family members and neighbours. They were said to no longer be part of God’s people. Even in the face of this and the hardships of living in a quake filled city their faith was not shaken, they had held on and not denied Jesus name.

It’s with this back ground that we look at what the spirit is saying to this church.

We are introduced to the one who is speaking as the one, who is holy and true, or more precisely to the Holy one and the true one, Old Testament titles for God, the synagogue may have written the believers off but Israel’s God the Holy one and the True one had not.  He is further seen as the one who holds the keys of David in his hand. In Isaiah 22:22 there is a prophecy against the Stewart in King Hezekiah’s court that the keys of David will be taken away from him and given to another, to Eliakim son of Hilkiah. The person who had the keys was the person who controlled entry to the palace and also access to the king’s presence as well. Here Jesus is saying that he is the one who holds the keys now to the kingdom of David’s descendant. While the Synagogue of Satan may have said the Christians were cut off from God but the truth is that Christ who has the keys has opened the door, and no one but him can close it.  It is encouragement to the church that despite what they have suffered and been through that Jesus is the door that leads to life, and by his death and resurrection he has opened it, they are not shut out.

The door to the kingdom is open and in Christ we are all invited to come on in. It’s Christ’s invitation. But also for a church that has faced such hardship and suffering it also encourages them that even though they don’t seem that strong and big and important, that the door is open for mission and evangelism and service. They had done a good job in the difficult times holding on to their faith, but the one who knows their deeds is inviting them to see that he has opened doors for them as well. It is easy when you lack strength and are tired to simply find yourself with tunnel vision, focusing on the difficulties and the problems and you can miss the opportunities that God has placed before us. It is easy perhaps to have our eyes full of the doors that have been slammed in our faces so we do not see the open doors. AS I mentioned before Philadelphia was built as a missionary town, to pass on Greco-Roman culture it was at the intersection of roads to the provinces around it that may not have been as fully churched as the province of Asia and that was a possibility it had before it.  Verse nine talks of some from the synagogue of Satan coming and bowing down to them and acknowledging that they are indeed God’s beloved, it speaks not only of a future time like in Old Testament prophecies when the gentile nations will come and acknowledge Israel’s God, but speaks of the fact that even those who oppress the church who seem closed to the gospel may well respond and come to Christ. They may have closed the door but Christ is the one who has the keys and the door to the kingdom of God is open.

The message to this church struggling and without much strength is that Christ has opened door for them and they are to keep faithfully witnessing to Jesus Christ. One of the good definitions for mission is the reality that God is at work in the world by his Spirit and our call is to go and find where the spirit is at work in the world and join in what the spirit is doing, in terms of people being open to the gospel, in terms of showing love on a personal level, in service in the community and in the wider world. We can keep on banging our heads on doors that have been closed, on ways things used to be, or we think they should be and actually miss the open doors that are before us. When I worked at the university I spent time with Harry Morgan at St Andrews Symonds Street and the church there had been wrestling with the change of demographics in the area around them, it was so different than the traditional congregation of anglo-scots. Harry’s response was that it was a door of opportunity not a closed door… so they changed the service title to an international service in English, which was very welcoming and inviting to a very cosmopolitan and international community in the city centre. They started conversational English class and bible study. They asked the international folk who had started coming to the church to make suggestions on how they could be more inviting and welcoming…  It’s still a church that struggles but it has had an impact on people all round the world from seeing that simple opportunity…

In the end Jesus command to the church at Philadelphia was patient endurance, to keep on being faithful witnesses to the gospel, to the door that Christ had opened for all to come to him and to keep on looking for the doors of service and witness that Christ had opened for them to step through. I tell you what it’s easy to try and look for a silver bullet that will solve everything, but we are not offered that rather open doors opportunities for patient endurance.

Then in verse 10 there is the assurance that the Holy one the true one will keep them through the trials that the whole world is to go through. This has been interpreted in different ways. Some see it as Christ’s assurance that while they go through trials and suffering now he will spare them the final judgement. Others have seen it as a reference to what some call the rapture, a belief that God will come back and take his church away before the final tribulation comes… But in keeping with Christ’s call that they endure patiently it is more likely a promise that Christ is able to keep them through what is to come. They and we although we may not have much strength can rely on Christ to be with us and bring us through. It’s not even an assurance that bad things will not happen to us, it is the experience of God’s people down through history that there is death and martyrdom, the seven churches mentioned in this book and even the cities have not stood the test of time. Rather it is the assurance that Christ will be with us and see us through, just as God was with Christ and saw him through the cross and raised him from the dead. The call is to trust and to continue doing what we are called to do… to witness to love and to serve. The success of that is not in our hands but in Christ’s.

The letter finishes with a promise to those who overcome; they will be accepted into God’s temple and his presence. Not only that but they will be made into a pillar in the temple and never again will they be made to leave it. What great encouragement and promise to a church that had suffered being shut out, for a church without much strength being given pride of place and seen as a pillar. What comfort for a people from a city where they have had to move out to be safe from earthquakes, that they are welcomed in to a place of security. We live in a time of celebrity pastors and mega churches and people look at them as being places of great success and many of them are the result of lots of prayer and hard work, but in God’s kingdom I wonder if we will not see those who have faithfully worked and witnessed in the hard places and difficult and sometime unrewarding places take pride of place. I’m not saying we shun actually growing and succeeding in the world today, I just think we are to realise that Christ’s call is to faithfulness…

Those who overcome are also promised that they will receive a name. In biblical times it was a common practise to write inscriptions on pillars… In 2 chronicles 3 Solomon planted two pillars in the temple and inscribed a name on each Jachin which means ‘he establishes’ and Boaz which means ‘in him is strength’ and for the people in the church at Philadelphia to be reminded of those inscriptions would have been encouraging as it is for us to be reminded of that… maybe we should inscribe that on our front pillars here… But also to the church that had been ostracised for the sake of Christ they are promised that he will write his name, and the name of the city that is to come God’s city on them, that they belong to him. We belong to him.

I want us to stop… and be still… to take stock and hear what the spirit is saying to you individually and to us as a church…

Christ offers an open door into his kingdom and in to his presence… this morning is the spirit telling you, “you need to step through that door”, you need to come to Christ  accept him as your lord and saviour.

As you look around you at your life and around the community what are the open doors that Christ is calling you to step through for service and witness.

Finally we may feel weak and have little strength but do you hear what the spirit is saying to the church… Christ has the keys… Christ has opened the door… Christ will bring us through… Christ will welcome us home and establish us.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sardis:- A wake up call to the church of the living dead (Revelations 3:1-6)

Have you ever been to a place because of its reputation or reviews or recommendations and been disappointed by its reality?

Maybe a restaurant that people rave about but when you go the service and the food are not up to scratch… and the decor seems faded, out dated.  You’ve been told a film is really, really good and you’ve just go to go see it…so you’ve gone and well…really …really…it wasn’t that good at all… Or maybe a hotel, that didn’t live up to its glossy slick advertisement,  or a beach or a shop, or  a show… or yes even a church and the reality was nothing like its good reputation.  Sardis was a church that had the reputation of being alive but in Jesus eyes it was dead; It was a zombie church full of the walking dead. It needed a wakeup call… a resurrection.

We’ve been working our way through the seven letters to the seven churches at the beginning of the book of Revelation.  Looking at what the spirit has to say to the churches. Churches that face problems from without and issues from within. Craig Keener summarises our journey so far like this...
"the Glorified Jesus oracle to Ephesus challenges a loveless church, His oracle to Smyrna encourages a persecuted church, His oracle to Pergamum addresses both persecution and compromise, His Oracle to Thyatira challenges compromise, But Jesus words to Sardis challenge a sleeping church to wake up."
 What is the Spirit saying to the churches, what does the spirit want to say to us?  Do we too need a wakeup call?

The city of Sardis reminds me of some of the surf safaris I used to go on when I was younger, you’d always turn up at a beach and no matter what the waves were like if you talked with a local they would say… yeah it’s Ok but you should have been here yesterday… Sardis was a city that you should have seen yesterday. In the sixth century BC it had been the capital of the kingdom of Lydia and ruled by its famous king Croesus, who was legendary for his wealth. It was built of a high acropolis at the end of a fertile river valley protected by sheer cliffs on three sides; making it almost impervious to attack. Several inland trade routes meet there so it was important for trade. It had been destroyed by an earth quake in 17 AD and had been rebuilt by the kindness of the emperor Tiberius. Rebuilt because of its historical value, it had applied to be the city in Asia to be granted the right to build a temple to worship the emperor Tiberius and its submission, kind of like competing to host a modern day Olympics, had been based on that historical value but it had lost out to Smyrna that was of more importance to the present and future of the region. Sardis may have been called a great city but by the time of the book of revelations it was more a city with a great past and a great reputation.

The church at Sardis seems to have taken on some of the characteristics of the city itself. Of all the churches so far this is the only church that the glorified Jesus does not have anything positive to commend the church for. It may have responded to the gospel in the past, and we don’t know anything about the origins of the church there, but now it sat back and thought the job was finished, but it wasn’t. Sardis was a centre for pagan worship and of the deified empress Lydia and was known for its large Jewish population; in fact the biggest synagogue in the ancient world, about the size of a football field, was built in the centre of the city, but unlike the other cities in the region there was no conflict or persecution from these groups. The Church seems to have been able to be accommodated in the city; it had blended in with its society. It was a church at ease.  With that ease it had fallen asleep.

They like the city thought they were alive and vital but the one who holds the angles of the seven churches in his hand says they are dead. It had all the outward trappings of a church but that was a hollow shell, a good show the life had gone. It was the first church to be filled with what would call nominal Christians, a term which is defined by the Lausanne Committee of world evangelism as people who are may be practicing or non-practicing church members. They may give intellectual assent to basic Christian doctrines and claim to be Christian. They may be faithful in attending liturgical rites and worship services, and be an active member involved in church affairs, but not have come to a place of personal repentance and salvation in Christ Jesus, it is a condition that is a problem in churches as they move past the first generation of believers. They live out of a past move of God. It’s like they wear their faith like a mask and it does not go heart deep, and the word for that from Greek theatre is hypocrite… to put on an act.

There is a poignant scene in the 1972 film ‘brother son Sister moon about the early days of the ministry of St Francis of Assisi that demonstrates what may be at the heart of the problem at Sardis… Francis and his band of monk have rebuilt an old church and gather the people to worship, they are the common folk and the poor, as they walk into the church people stop and you can see that they encounter the presence of God, it moves them, in the movie this is spliced with the gathering in the town church, which is beautiful and grand full of historical significance, and all the important people are there, but it is still and silent and they look disconnected and even worried. The director Franco Zefferelli, sums up the difference in a poignant way. In the chapel in the country side a lamb is bought into the church and placed on the communion table, as it comes in the place starts to be filled with song and life and joy, then we are taken back to the town church to a beautifully embroided silk cushion on the communion table. A wonderful piece of art but the lamb is not present.

The risen Lamb of God, the glorified Christ speaks to the Church in Sardis and calls it to  wake up and strengthen that which remains. It is a warning to wake up or Christ will come like a thief in the night and catch them unawares. We might think that this use of a thief in the night is just quoting some gospel terms about Jesus second coming. But for the church in Sardis they would know the significance of what is being said. Two times in history the city had been captured by a foreign army, the Persians and then the Greeks and both times it was because the city had become lax and comfortable, the armies had sent people to climb the cliffs that were thought unscalable and thus took the city by stealth. While the NIV uses the words Wake up! The image is of a watch man on the city walls staying awake and watchful, and making sure that he keeps the watch fires burning, he may have dozed off and let them burned down to an ember but they need to made bright again. The city and the church may have been focused on their idealised past, but they were to fix their eyes on the future and be ready for the coming of Christ.

The Spirit speaks to the church and tells them how to waken from their slumber, to rise from the dead.  Firstly they are to remember what they have received. It might seem strange to think that a church in city that was so caught up in the past is being asked to remember. But it is not their idyllic and lofty past they are to remember. It is interesting most churches have an idealised past they look back to… and I often joke that which church you want to attend often depends on which time warp you want to jump through. One of the ways the church is talked about is an institution, institutions are set up to protect the gains made by past movements and reforms. It holds on to things that have been done in the past, but in doing so can forget or disregard what the spirit is doing now.   Sardis is not being asked to remember its past history, no matter how great it was, but to remember what it has received.

It had received the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one who stood amongst the churches was the one who had come in the flesh and to all who received him he gave the right to become the sons and daughters of the most high God.  To those who over come in this letter Jesus says he will not blot their names out of the book of life. In Asia citizen records were kept, and for people from Sardis it would have been important to be recorded as a citizen of that significant city, it was a connection with the great past, but Jesus is saying that he offers a greater citizenship one in the new Jerusalem that Revelations speaks of being established, a citizenship of the coming kingdom of heaven, not the faded kingdoms of this world.

But it is to hold on to the whole gospel… and Jesus had introduced himself to the church in this letter as the one who held not only the seven angels of the churches but the seven spirits of God as well.  Again John writes in code and the seven fold spirit is a reference to Isaiah 11v2 where the messiah is said to be filled with the spirit of God, a spirit described in seven different ways. So here we see that the Glorified Jesus is seen as the one who has the Holy Spirit, the spirit that the people of God received at Pentecost, the spirit that gives life to the church, the spirit of God that raised Jesus from the dead and can raise us to life in Christ.  The church is to remember and fan into aflame again the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in their midst, in our midst.

On Thursday it was Remembrance Day. The celebration of the end of the first world war, made all the more significant by the fact that we are remembering 100 years since that bloody conflict, that embroiled the whole world and saw war and slaughter on an industrial scale for the first time.  Part of that remembrance is a striving and working for peace in the world today.

 Likewise it was not enough for the church at Sardis to remember they were also called to hold it fast and to repent. There remembrance of the past had to result in action in the present. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus teaching on waiting for his second coming finishes in four parables, that talk of what we should do to be ready. Right after he has said he will come like a thief in the night Jesus tells the parable of the unfaithful servant; that we are to keep on showing justice and love to one another. The parable of the ten virgins, waiting for the bridegroom, a story that reminds us that we are to make sure we keep our lamps full of the oil of the Spirit.  The parable of the talents, where the people of God are called to use the gifts God has given to see a return for the returning king to invest in the kingdom of God. Then the parable of the sheep and the goats that we are to show love and care for the least, and in doing so for Christ himself. This is what it means to hold fast and repent. To turn from our ease and to focus again on the person and things of Christ: To live ready.

In the end Jesus does acknowledge that there is a faithful remnant in the church at Sardis who have kept their clothes unsoiled, who have not compromised their faith, in even the deadest of churches you can find people who are like beacons of hope. But in the ancient near east people would not wear their normal street clothes to the temple, they would change into spotless white or linen garments. Here Jesus is saying that for those who persevere they will be welcomed into his presence. They will be with him when he comes into his kingdom.

One of my favourite movies is the 1999 cult classic ‘the matrix’ its science fiction and tells the story of a future world where the world is run by machines, machines that are run off the electrical impulses in the human bodies. Humans are seen as nothing more than batteries. We are plugged into a matrix a computer simulation of earth at the end of the twenty first century at the peak of its civilization to keep us docile and useable. The film tells the story of a man called Neo, who comes in contact with a group of people who have been freed from this matrix and now live and fight for  a place called new Zion, the film tells the story of Neo being woken up. In fact the first time we meet him on his computer screen those very words are typed… Wake up neo… The pivotal moment in the movie comes when he meets Morpheus a leader of the free humans who offers him two options, embodied in two pills. A red pill and a blue pill. He can take the blue pill and go back to sleep and tomorrow believe anything he wants, or he can take the red pill and wake up and see just how deep things go. What is the spirit saying to us today! Well it saying the same thing we need to wake up and become alive again in the spirit of God. to remember what we have received and to allow the spirit to lead us into life again. But in the end it’s up to you. You can take the blue pill and well believe what you want or you can take the red pill and see where Christ leads us.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Thyatira: Love does not tolerate falsehood. (Revelations 2:18-29) What the Spirit is saying to the Churches (part 5)

Thyatira almost sounds like it could be a town down country somewhere in New Zealand, doesn’t it.. And it is the church in the smallest of the cities in Asia Minor mentioned in Revelations. WE talked of Ephesus being like New York or Auckland, and Pergamum being like Washington DC or Wellington and if we are using those analogies here it’s a tough job but someone’s got to be Palmerston North right? You know it might be easy to think that Jesus is concerned and interested only in the big churches in the big Cities and the significant and important places.  But the longest of the seven letters is written to the smallest and least important of these cities. While we are a church in a big city we are small and it’s good to know that Jesus sees and knows about smaller churches. It’s encouraging and challenging that he knows our strengths and our conflicts, our weaknesses and our issues. He speaks his word and encouragement and truth into these places as well.

We are working our way through the seven letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor recorded at the beginning of the book of Revelations.. we want to ‘Hear what the Spirit has to say to the churches’… both then and there at the beginning of the second century,  and here and now at the start of the churches third millennium following Christ. What does the Spirit say to the churches and what does the Spirit want to say to us? 

Thyatira was originally founded as a military settlement to guard the south eastern approaches to the capital of Pergamum. But like all these cities on the major east west trade route it grew. It wasn’t politically or strategically important but it was commercially important. It became the focus for a great number of trade, merchant and craft guilds. Guilds were like professional associations or trade unions for particular industries. Archaeologists have found evidence of guilds there for bakers, tanners, cobblers, weavers, dyers and potters.

It was known in particular for its fine bronze and its purple dyed cloth. In Acts 16 Lydia who was Paul’s first convert in Europe and hosted the first church in Philippi came from Thyatira, and was a dealer in purple cloth. We don’t know how the church was established in the city of Thyatira but maybe Lydia had moved back home or the gospel spread through her dealings with her home city.

Thyatira also boasted a temple to Zeus’s son Apollos. The guilds and the temple set the background for the issue that the Church at Thyatira was facing. Guild meeting would have taken place around cultic meals in the temple, where a sacrifice to the patron deity of the guild would be made, and where cultic prostitution was also seen as an acceptable part of doing business, which would have put Christians at odds with the prevailing culture and sexual morals of the city. Refusing to participate in these meals and activities would have curbed their ability to make a living. How were they to live out their faith in that context?

As with all the letters we are introduced to the one speaking to the churches by the imagery used in John’s vision of the glorified Jesus in Revelations chapter 1. However Jesus is first introduced as the ‘Son of God’, in all the letters this is the most overt use of a messianic title we are familiar with from scripture. Apollos was known as the son of Zeus and in using the title son of God the letter is reminding the Church who is the real son of God, there can be no compromise for this church they are going to have to choose between one son or the other, they cannot worship both. The one speaking is said to have eyes like blazing fire, eyes that not only see the external but looks at the heart.  In verse 23 this is spelt out more with a direct quote from Jeremiah 17:10 that God searches the hearts and the minds, and will replay each of you according to your deeds.  The glorified Jesus is also seen as one who has feet like burnished bronze, in a city known for its fine bronze they would have known that this provided Jesus with a solid platform that Jesus stands for truth and is not going to be moved.

The church is then commended for its strengths. Four things are mentioned love, faith, service and perseverance. If you went to this church you would receive a warm welcome you would be aware that they loved each other deeply, that was manifest in practical ways in the way they cared for and served each other, like the other churches they had kept their faith, maybe they too had faced pressure and persecution from outside, and that faith had been practically worked out in patient endurance continuing in their love for each other.   In fact these things had caused the church to be growing in its vibrancy and probably numerically, it was doing more than it had at first. The quality of relationships and the love shown to each other is a sign of vibrancy in a church, it is attractive to people when they experience genuine Christian love and service. Jesus had said “they will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another” and he demonstrated that by washing his disciples feet and ultimately in laying down his life for us. The church is designed to be a loving and accepting community across the barriers of society, a place where in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, Greek or barbarian, slave or free, male or female. However in the case of Thyatira this love had led them to ignore issues of truth and immorality.

The issue facing this church was similar to the one at Pergamum...  they had tolerated someone whose teaching, had led to sexual immorality and eating food scarified to idols. In this case it was a woman who called herself a prophet. This person claimed to know deep secrets, to have more knowledge than other people, secret knowledge that allowed them to compromise their faith; Secret knowledge that the letter sees as not being from God but from Satan. Thinking we know more than others or having special knowledge is a trap we can fall into too easily.

Like with the Church at Pergamum an Old Testament character is used to describe the false teacher. In this case it is Jezebel. Her story is told in the books of 1st and 2nd Kings she was the daughter of Ethbaal the king of tyre and became the wife of Ahab the king of Israel, she convinced Ahab to give up the worship of Yahweh and worship her deities, Baal and Asherah, While she did not claim to be a prophet she did set up a group of 480 prophets of Baal in  Israel.  By invoking her name here the letter tells us that the woman in Thyatira was having the same influence. Leading people astray.

What does the spirit then say to the church that found itself in this situation? Well firstly the Spirit speaks to Jezebel and her followers. Just like with the jezebel in the Old Testament God will come and judge them. As she had lead them into a bed of immorality she will find herself on a bed of suffering and her children, like in the Old Testament will be struck down. We are not happy with that violent language today.  But firstly we need to note that she has been given time to repent. There is a process here, it is God’s desire that no one perish, but the person here has obviously refused to turn back to God. Through Paul’s writing to the church at Corinth in particular you can see the lengths that he is prepared to go to to bring people who have gone astray back to the gospel truth. In fact in the letters to the church at Corinth Paul outline a process to be followed with someone who was living in an immoral relationship to encourage them to repent...  Secondly we may think of her actual children but it is her followers here who are talked of. Death is more likely a reference to final judgement than a physical killing. Thirdly there is the acknowledgement that God sees the heart and the mind, that God is just and repays each person according to their deeds. Just like John could right and tell us that if we confess our sins that God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, we can trust God to be just and faithful in dealing with those who do not repent. Evil will not go unpunished.

Then Jesus speaks to those at Thyatira who have not followed Jezebels teachings. Who have not gone after the deep secrets?  The Spirit is not going to add another burden. One of the reactions we can have to false teaching and immorality is to retreat into stricter and stricter austerity, to clamp down and try and tie everything down in a constraining legalism. But here the words used are those we find in Acts 15 when the council of Jerusalem made its declaration about how Jewish the gentile believers were to be and asked them to simply refrain from eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality. The second thing was that they should hold on to what they already have. They are to hold onto the love they have but also to the truth of the gospel.

What is the spirit saying to the churches?

Well in the biggest and smallest Churches, Ephesus and Thyatira we see two extremes when it comes to love and truth. In Ephesus the church had fallen into cold hard legalism, they are commended for not tolerating those who claimed to be apostles but were not. Here in Thyatira they had fallen in to a lax love, they tolerate someone who claims to be a prophet but is not, they want to include everyone but at the expense of truth. These are two poles that the church still finds itself swinging between. We find ourselves on the road between Ephesus and Thyatira. In the end truth without love is no truth, It becomes a hammer to beat people into our image with and love without truth is not love at all, how can we love someone and leave them in a place of danger and darkness. Strangely enough it’s not a compromise either that works. It’s not either or, but both and. It is the difficult road of holding on to both. This is the road that Christ has walked before us: The cross road of truth and love.

It is also an issue for us today to work out what the burden we carry is. Where do we draw the line… I love the quote that has been attributed to many people from Augustine to Count Zinzendorf (the head of the Mennonite movement) in the essentials Unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things Love. Which is a great way for us to find unity across a very diverse denomination and churchscape in our world? But we also have to be aware that as Craig Keener says there are other matters that lead to spiritual life and death. Where we need to hold to the truth and to do so we will suffer accordingly particularly in a society where tolerance is the only real virtue and intolerance the only vice.”

The Homosexual debate and same sex marriage debate are an area at the moment where the church is wrestling with those issues. And it’s a hard area for us particularly in a society where to disagree with the prevailing world view is to be labelled as homophobes and haters. But we have people who view it from extremes, the extreme of exclusive truth and the extreme of inclusive love. It is not an issue that is going to go away and it one that we will continue to wrestle with  to try and walk the road of truth and love. Can I say some of the people I really admire that do not often have their voices heard in this debate they are people who have what they call same sex attractions but do not choose to define their lives by their sexuality and for the sake of the gospel have chosen a single celibate lifestyle.

AS I said before Thyatira was a city known for its purple cloth, which of course was the imperial colour which is what made it so valuable. And so for the Church at Thyatira it was  appropriate to say to those who are victorious who hold onto what they have in Christ, love and truth, there is the promise that we will reign with Christ. The words at the end of this letter are a direct quote from psalm 2, where God establishes his king amidst the turmoil and rage of the nations. To Christians who because of their faith refuse to become part of the system of their day this is encouragement… Maybe it’s true that as we learn to walk that tough road of holding to both radical truth and radical love we will gain the wisdom we need to judge the nations, just as Christ is able to. The other reassurance for those who are victorious is that they will be given the morning star. In revelations that is a reference to Christ himself. It is the hope that Christ who knows us and loves us will be our inheritance now and into eternity.