Thursday, December 10, 2020

The church that had fallen asleep (Revelation 3:1-6)

 A church cannot live long off of its "reputation." The church in Sardis presented itself as a church that was "alive." Jesus, however, was not impressed. "You have a reputation of being alive," he says, "but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God." The Sardis church stands in contrast to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a church thriving in spite of persecution; Sardis was a church dying because it thought it was safe from trouble.

The language of Jesus' admonition was one the believers in Sardis would have understood all too well if they knew their history. Twice, in 549 B.C. and 218 B.C., the city had been sacked. Both times, the citadel of the city had been taken by stealth. The people were caught unaware, thinking the natural fortifications of the city were sufficient to fend off any attack. Jesus warned the believers in Sardis that if they "will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you." Just as the city had fallen into enemy hands because of a lack of watchfulness, so the church in that city would come under judgment if it did not awaken from its sleep.

It would appear the church in Sardis had become too much like its surroundings. Its "reputation" was becoming linked with that of the city itself and its ignominious history of failing to stay awake in the face of impending catastrophe. Having likewise fallen asleep, the believers in Sardis were admonished to wake up and face reality. They were no longer "alive," but "dead." Their idleness and apathy were sins for which they must repent. All was not yet lost, indeed, there were "still a few names in Sardis" who were "worthy," but the urgency of Jesus' warning indicated the time was short. His judgment would come at a time when they least expected it; and it would be swift, sure, and decisive.

Watchfulness is the theme that runs throughout the Advent season. Unlike the church in Sardis, we do not want to be found sleeping at our Lord's coming. Jesus promises that "[the] one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels." That is a promise worth waiting for!

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the  Spirit says to the churches."

The church that loved too much (Revelation 2:18-28)

 Any similarity between the church in Thyatira and present-day churches that overlook blatant heresy in the name of "love" is hardly coincidental. The church in Thyatira is the opposite extreme of the church in Ephesus. Whereas Ephesus is commended for its commitment to truth and rebuked for its lack of love, Thyatira is commended for its "love and faith and service and patient endurance" but rebuked for tolerating "that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols."

Thyatira is the church that loved too much. Its leaders are apparently too weak to resist the manipulations of "Jezebel," a particularly despicable woman whose name is a reference back to the wicked queen who, along with her husband King Ahab, instituted Baal worship in Israel at the time of Elijah. Calling herself a "prophetess," she has been given free reign in Thyatira to lead people astray into what appears to have been an idolatrous cult that glorified sexual immorality. There is nothing remotely Christ-like in her teachings or in the Thyatiran church tolerating her under the guise of "love."

Just as truth divorced from love leads to legalism, love divorced from truth leads to licentiousness. Both will ultimately lead to death. For the church to thrive and be a faithful witness for Christ (and thus a threat to the fallen order called "Babylon" throughout Revelation), it must keep truth and love in proper balance. Only then will it create an environment of grace in which true and loving disciples can be consistently made and nurtured.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Faithful unto death (Revelation 2:8-17)

 While the church in Pergamum has a few problems which need to be addressed, not least of which being the presence of the Nicolaitans, an obscure but dangerous heretical sect, Jesus has nothing but commendation to offer the church in Smyrna. Bearing faithful witness to Christ, however, is a dangerous thing in Smyrna. Jesus warns the believers that a time of testing is coming upon them. Some will be thrown into prison; some may even lose their lives. "Be faithful unto death," Jesus encourages them, and I will give you the crown of life." 

The bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, was ordained by John himself. The account of his martyrdom is one of the most moving stories of faith in the history of the ancient church. Polycarp would not deny his Lord, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice. He remains an example for all believers of patient endurance and faithfulness even unto death.

But as Polycarp entered into the stadium, a voice came to him from heaven; "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." And no one saw the speaker, but those of our people who were present heard the voice. And at length, when he was brought up, there was a great tumult, for they heard that Polycarp had been apprehended.

When then he was brought before him, the proconsul asked whether he were the man. And on his confessing that he was, he tried to persuade him to a denial saying, "Have respect to your age," and other things in accordance therewith, as it is their habit to say, "Swear by the genius of Caesar; repent and say, 'Away with the atheists.'" Then Polycarp with solemn countenance looked upon the whole multitude of lawless heathen that were in the stadium, and waved his hand to them; and groaning and looking up to heaven he said, "Away with the atheists."

But when the magistrate pressed him hard and said, "Swear the oath, and I will release you; revile the Christ," Polycarp said, "Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

But on his persisting again and saying, "Swear by the genius of Caesar," he answered, "If you suppose vainly that I will swear by the genius of Caesar, as you say, and feign that you are ignorant who I am, hear you plainly: I am a Christian. But if you would learn the doctrine of Christianity, assign a day and give me a hearing."

The proconsul said, "Prevail upon the people." But Polycarp said, "As for yourself, I should have held you worthy of discourse; for we have been taught to render, as is proper, to princes and authorities appointed by God such honor as does us no harm; but as for these, I do not hold them worthy, that I should defend myself before them."

Whereupon the proconsul said: "I have wild beasts here and I will throw you to them, except you repent." But he said, "Call for them, for the repentance from better to worse is a change not permitted to us; but it is a noble thing to change from that which is improper to righteousness."

Then he said to him again, "If you despise the wild beasts, I will cause you to be consumed by fire, unless you repent." But Polycarp said: "You threaten that fire which burns for a season and after a little while is quenched: for you are ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Come, do what you will."

Saying these things and more besides, he was inspired with courage and joy, and his countenance was filled with grace, so that not only did it not drop in dismay at the things which were said to him, but on the contrary the proconsul was astounded and sent his own herald to proclaim three times in the midst of the stadium, "Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian."

When this was proclaimed by the herald, the whole multitude both of Gentiles and of Jews who dwelt in Smyrna cried out with ungovernable wrath and with a loud shout, "This is the teacher of Asia, the father of the Christians, the puller down of our gods, who teaches multitudes not to sacrifice nor worship." Saying these things, they shouted aloud and asked the Asiarch Philip to let a lion loose upon Polycarp. But he said that it was not lawful for him, since he had brought the sports to a close.

Then they thought fit to shout out with one accord that Polycarp should be burned alive. For it must needs be that the matter of the vision should be fulfilled, which was shown him concerning his pillow, when he saw it on fire while praying, and turning round he said prophetically to the faithful who were with him, "I must needs be burned alive."

These things then happened with so great speed, quicker than words could tell, the crowds immediately collected timber and sticks from the workshops and baths, and the Jews more especially assisted in this with zeal, as is their custom.

But when the pile was made ready, divesting himself of all his upper garments and loosing his belt, he endeavored also to take off his shoes, though not in the habit of doing this before, because all the faithful at all times vied eagerly who should soonest touch his flesh. For he had been treated with all honor for his holy life even before his gray hairs came.

Immediately then the instruments that were prepared for the pile were placed about him. As they were going likewise to nail him to the stake, he said: "Leave me as I am; for He that has granted me to endure the fire will grant me also to remain at the pyre unmoved, even without the security which you seek from the nails."

So they did not nail him, but tied him. Then he, placing his hands behind him and being bound to the stake, like a noble ram out of a great flock for an offering, a burnt sacrifice made ready and acceptable to God, looking up to heaven said: "O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers and of all creation and of the whole race of the righteous, who live in Your presence;

I bless You because You have granted me this day and hour, that I might receive a portion amongst the number of martyrs in the cup of Your Christ unto resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and of body, in the incorruptibility of the Holy Spirit. May I be received among these in Your presence this day, as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, as You did prepare and reveal it beforehand, and have accomplished it, You that art the faithful and true God.

For this cause, yea and for all things, I praise You, I bless You, I glorify You, through the eternal and heavenly High-priest, Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, through Whom, with Him and the Holy Spirit, be glory both now and ever and for the ages to come. Amen."

When he had offered up the Amen and finished his prayer, the firemen lighted the fire. And, a mighty flame flashing forth, we to whom it was given to see, saw a marvel, yea and we were preserved that we might relate to the rest what happened.

The fire, making the appearance of a vault, like the sail of a vessel filled by the wind, made a wall round about the body of the martyr; and it was there in the midst, not like flesh burning, but like a loaf in the oven or like gold and silver refined in a furnace. For we perceived such a fragrant smell, as if it were the wafted odor of frankincense or some other precious spice.

So at length the lawless men, seeing that his body could not be consumed by the fire, ordered an executioner to go up to him and stab him with a dagger. And when he had done this, there came forth [a dove and] a quantity of blood, so that it extinguished the fire; and all the multitude marveled that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.

In the number of these latter was this man, the glorious martyr Polycarp, who was found an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our own time, a bishop of the holy Church which is in Smyrna. For every word which he uttered from his mouth was accomplished and will be accomplished.

The church that forgot to love (Revelation 2:1-7)

Several years earlier, Paul had written to his protege Timothy, urging him to "remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculation rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith" (1 Timothy 1:3-4). Apparently, Timothy succeeded in keeping the Ephesian church doctrinally pure. Addressing the church in Revelation, Jesus says, "I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary."

If doing everything "by the book" were the key to being a vibrant church, the believers in Ephesus would be a model congregation. Jesus, however, holds them to a higher standard. "But I have this against you," he says, "that you have lost the love you had at first."

Ephesus is the church that forgot to love. Jesus admonishes the believers to "Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent."

Truth divorced from love is legalistic, judgmental, and cruel. Indeed, there is no church more spiritually dead than the church which does the right thing for the wrong reason. Chasing off false apostles is certainly not wrong in and of itself, but defensiveness cannot take the place of love as the defining characteristic of the church. Love compels the church not only to drive out the wolves, but also to seek out and bring home the lost sheep.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

The mystery of faith (Revelation 1)

 John's magnificent vision on the island of Patmos was a revelation given him by God, with whom he enjoyed so intimate a relationship as to be granted the privilege of seeing the realm of eternity which transcends time and the realm of glory which transcends space.

"Behold, he is coming with the clouds" (Revelation 1:7) is not the pipe dream or escapist fantasy which many pop culture “Christian” authors have made it out to be. It is that part of "the mystery of faith" which makes our faith complete. It is a reminder that we have more to look forward to in the next world than we can possibly comprehend in this world. At the same time, it calls us to live in this world as we will live in the next, "in lives of holiness and godliness" (2 Peter 3:11), participating even now in the ongoing fulfillment of the eschatological kingdom toward which all of history, in Christ, is moving. The certainty that Christ is coming again keeps us accountable, ever aware of the fact that, at any moment, Christ our Judge will appear and we will stand before him to give an accounting for all the thoughts, motives and actions which have defined our lives in this world.

But this reality does not inspire fear in the heart of believers, whose lives are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into the image and likeness of God. Rather, Jesus' promise, "I am coming soon" (Revelation 22:7, 12) is the promise of vindication and eternal rest for those who, in the face of suffering and persecution, persevere to the end. It is a promise of comfort for the living and of resurrection for those who have "fallen asleep" in Christ.

"The promise of his coming" is the promise that brings the church together as a covenant community. The expectation of seeing our Lord face to face brings us together for worship every Lord's Day. It is a promise that is made real in the celebration of the Eucharist. For in every observance of this blessed sacrament, the true meaning of John's vision is broken and poured out before our very eyes. Christ is present in a real, yet mysterious, way. Heaven and earth become one. New Jerusalem shines in all its splendor as its citizens celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

"The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking," as Paul reminds us, "but of righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). Yet it is precisely through the outward act of eating and drinking that we experience the kingdom mysteriously present in our midst. In partaking of the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are participating in the reality beyond the symbols. Paradoxically, we consume outwardly the body and blood of Christ while, at the same time, we are being inwardly consumed into the reality that is Christ himself: the mystery of his death, resurrection and coming again. The whole of this mystery is laid forth visibly, yet mysteriously, in the bread and the cup. Through his broken body and shed blood, our mortality is being consumed into his immortality. His presence is made real in our midst as we gather in his name around his table and made real in the world around us as we outwardly manifest it through "lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God" (2 Peter 3:11b-12a).

To contemplate this mystery is to be consumed by it; to surrender our selfish desire to understand that which is too high even to enter our feeble human minds. In seeking to draw the mystery into ourselves, we will find ourselves being drawn into the mystery. Therein, we begin to embrace Jesus’ most comforting promise, “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:3).

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

“Even so. Come, Lord Jesus!”