Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Challenge of Ephesus: Sermon on Revelation 2:1-7

It was the early years of the sixties, and Robert Wilson, preacher and editor, sat in his Myerstown study with the day's mail, as the radio babbled in the background. Over the airwaves, Wilson picked up a familiar voice – one he'd heard in the halls at seminary three decades before. It was the voice of a popular and controversial radio preacher, whose journey had been anything but smooth and gentle. Wilson's ears caught the accents of the Rev. Carl McIntire. And he remembered Carl.

Carl McIntire, born in Michigan, was raised first in Utah where his father pastored, until his dad had a mental breakdown and left the family. Carl was raised then by a single mom in Oklahoma, finished college in Missouri and then in 1928 moved to New Jersey to train for the ministry at Princeton. He was a loyal Presbyterian. But the Presbyterian Church in the USA at the time was divided between two sides of a controversy over key points of the gospel. Some overly broad-minded folk wanted to revise Christian teaching in light of modern morality and modern science, so they were called Modernists. Other folk warned that some things just weren't up for debate, like the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, the atoning death of Jesus, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus so that he'd literally come again. Those convictions, they said, were 'fundamentals' of the Christian faith, without which it couldn't be Christian. And because they believed in fundamentals, they got nicknamed the 'Fundamentalists.' That was the camp to which McIntire and his best-loved professor John Gresham Machen belonged. They were defenders of the fundamentals.

Not long after Carl got to the seminary, the Presbyterian Church voted to reorganize it to give more power to the Modernists there. Machen and others quit Princeton to found a new seminary in Philadelphia, Westminster, and Carl followed him to study there. It was there that Robert Wilson met Carl McIntire – Robert's first year there was Carl's last. Carl graduated in 1931 and got ordained. By '33, he was pastoring a church in Collingswood, New Jersey. But by a few years later, because he and Machen had founded a more biblical missions agency, the Presbyterian Church USA put them on trial. They rejected its authority and, in 1936, founded what would be called the Orthodox Presbyterian Church – a new denomination committed to upholding the fundamentals of the faith that mainline Presbyterianism had thrown away.

In short order, though, the new Orthodox Presbyterian Church was embroiled in controversy. They agreed on those fundamentals, but they found they didn't all agree on other things. They didn't agree what to believe about the end-times. They didn't agree how to engage with politics. They didn't agree on whether it was okay to use alcohol or tobacco. And you'd think these would be questions that a group of committed Christians could settle peacefully among themselves, or at least learn to respect each other's convictions, to 'agree to disagree.' But that wasn't Carl McIntire's way. So he led a faction to separate from the newborn denomination to start yet another one: the Bible Presbyterian Church. His congregation followed him, and when their fancy church building got taken from them in a lawsuit, they marched out to a big tent to stick with their pastor.

In the early 1940s, it was clear that the main association of denominations in America, later to be called the National Council of Churches, had become led by the Modernists, and didn't give a voice to believers who insisted on what they read in the Bible. So two new organizations were formed. One, McIntire's, the American Council of Christian Churches; the other, not McIntire's, the National Association of Evangelicals. They were quite different in their tone. When the NAE was being created, one of its founders (Harold J. Ockenga) preached that “a terrible indictment may be laid against fundamentalism because of its failures, divisions, and controversies. … I am disgusted with this division and strife; I have no interest whatsoever in being involved constantly in these internal quarrels with the brethren.” But McIntire wasn't disgusted with that. He believed that there was never a time to cooperate with those who deviated from the Christian faith; not only that, he wouldn't cooperate with those who did cooperate with those who differed. That's why McIntire condemned, for instance, the ministry of Billy Graham as being too compromised to be truly Christian. Around the same time McIntire started a daily radio show called The Twentieth-Century Reformation Hour, his own Bible Presbyterian Church split in two, based solely on whether people were happy with Carl McIntire's style of leadership, which one of his own men called “extremist and unwise and uncharitable.” McIntire stood for the fundamentals against those who taught false doctrine, he was right to resist the Modernists, but he burned hot against whatever else he didn't like, too.

For two decades, since he was a Navy chaplain in the Second World War, Rev. Robert S. Wilson had subscribed to McIntire's magazine The Christian Beacon. Wilson had friends who worked for and with the man. But he wasn't part of McIntire's movement. Wilson's denomination belonged to the NAE. His denomination was ours. He was one of us. When people kept writing to Wilson about McIntire, he answered one letter by writing that he'd “agreed with [McIntire] on many points,” but not his attacks and his attitude. To someone else, Wilson wrote back:

He is obsessed with a crusading attitude that expects everyone to accept his personal viewpoint. Anyone who does not agree with him is then a heretic or a Communist or something else. … I believe in standing for the truth of God's word, but we should not be contentious about it so as to cause more harm than good. … His approach is negative, and his evidence is not conclusive. He stirs up opposition when wrong should be met with prayer and sound doctrine. I know that people are being misled by his broadcasts, and they are substituting anti-Communism for evangelization. Money is going to support anti-Communists and taken away from missionary projects. This weakens the work of the gospel. Our main task is to declare the gospel and witness to Jesus Christ. With a positive stand, we will be able to counteract the wrong doctrines and positions in a way that will endure. This should be better than merely stirring up people to a negative attitude which creates doubt and dissension and leaves the churches in a worse condition than before.

And to answer yet another letter, Wilson said about Carl McIntire:

He is a man with zeal who feels that everyone should toe the line in regard to orthodoxy. He condemns everyone who holds to any heresy, or associates with anyone who holds to a heresy. … He spends his time and effort in negative work, rather than positive. … McIntire has a number of radio broadcasts in this area. He has evidence which sounds good, but many times his zeal blinds him to being charitable and even accurate in his evaluation. … The American Council has several denominations in it, most of whom split off from other churches … They have much truth, but their zeal exceeds their Christian love.

When I read those letters in our denomination's archives this past week, I thought about this letter John wrote down – a message from none other than the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, to the church as it meets scattered throughout the tenements and houses and workshops and halls of one large first-century city. Ephesus had over a quarter of a million people. It had a massive stadium, a theater, a marketplace, and its temple to the goddess Artemis was so gigantic it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Only one of the pillars is left standing; I've been there, and it's huge. Ephesus had been moved around several times in its history, being destroyed and transplanted by first the Lydians, then the Greeks, and they worried that if they couldn't stop the Cayster River from silting up, they'd have to move again. It was into that city that the gospel came, first through Priscilla and Aquila, then joined by Paul who lived there more than two years to build up a thriving church from which missionaries were sent to other key cities in the area. Paul moved on, but many co-workers stayed. Paul later met one last time with the Ephesian church elders to warn them to “be alert,” because he knew soon there would come “fierce wolves,” “men speaking twisted things,” false teachers who would try to revise and corrupt the teachings he'd left with them (Acts 20:29-31).

Paul charged them to be on the lookout. And as we meet them in today's passage, written down a generation later, we hear Jesus' own affirmation that they'd listened to Paul's warning. Jesus says that the thing that sticks out about the Ephesian church to him is that they “cannot bear with those who are evil” – when messengers came to them and claimed to be apostles who could teach them more, they “tested” those missionaries and “found them to be false,” and so the Ephesian church sent them packing (Revelation 2:2). Those were wolves like Paul warned about. Now another mysterious movement has arisen, the Nicolaitans, who advocate for some compromises with the 'modern world' and its realities – they want more accommodation to the pressures of society – but the Ephesian church has no place for them. Jesus tells the Ephesians, “You hate the work of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). The Ephesian church is sticking with the fundamentals. They are asking some right questions of those who come with alternative suggestions. They know the faith they were taught, they're sticking to it, and they're exercising discernment. They refuse to swallow just anything. They do not believe whatever sounds good in the moment. No, they put every claim to the test.

And that is not an easy thing to do. Living faithfully like that in a big city, with ideas aplenty in the streets and the market, is not a simple task. They have to put up with a lot of pressure. They have to get made fun of as backward bumpkins who refuse to get with the times. Maybe they get called intolerant, maybe they get mocked by these teachers as incomplete without a new word. It would be so much easier to just lower their standards to go with the flow. It'd be a simple thing to loosen their grip on the fundamentals. But they don't. Jesus observes that they show “toil and patient endurance” (Revelation 2:2). Jesus tells them, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3). In other words, no matter what anybody says about them, they aren't tired of the fundamentals, aren't bored with the old faith, aren't at much risk of giving in to the pressure. They'll cling to the old rugged cross anyway.

And all of that is good, Jesus says. The Ephesian church is loyal. The Ephesian church knows what they heard and were taught, and they believed the right things. Doctrinally, theologically, they have checked all the right boxes – and Jesus likes that! Jesus would have a problem with them if they dropped those things, if they started compromising – Jesus would object. We'll see, in some of the other letters we'll read soon, about other churches where that happens, and Jesus is not happy about it. But in Ephesus, there isn't even a hint of that. They know the Christian faith well, and even when it's hard, even when they get called backward and intolerant, they refuse to change their minds. They are not weary of sticking to the fundamentals. And the fundamentals they believe are, in fact, fundamental in the eyes of Jesus. We cannot read this letter and forget that truth.

All this makes the Ephesian church sound pretty healthy and thriving. Hooray, we might think, for Ephesus! It may shock us, then, that Jesus identifies a problem so severe that it threatens their very identity as a church. He is happy that they have, as it were, a robust immune system. Their immune system is not allowing contagious false teachings to establish a beachhead. And that's good. But their immune system is overactive. They have become so obsessive about discernment, so scrutinizing and suspicious, that their immune system has become a different kind of unhealthy. Spiritually, the Ephesian church is suffering from an autoimmune disease.

We're familiar, many of us, with different sorts of autoimmune diseases of the body. For instance, in celiac disease, exposure to a normal protein – gluten – leads to an abnormal response. And then there's lupus, where the immune system gets so hyperactive that it attacks healthy tissues in general, or rheumatoid arthritis, where the immune system goes after a specific sort of tissue, the joints. The result of such autoimmune diseases isn't a great thing. The very system designed to defend the body against bad things has been kicked into overdrive so that even good and healthy parts of the body come under suspicion and get attacked. The body fights itself, the body no longer treats its very own parts with love, and the inflammation that results is not a healthy outcome.

That's essentially what Wilson saw happening in McIntire's ministry. McIntire at times broadcasted antibodies to attack even natural things in the church, and to do it in an abrasive and inflammatory way. The immune system was good when it rejected revisionist teachings, but then it got all worked up over normal things like different views on minor issues, and with so much suspicion, it doesn't take long to cause inflammation and damage to the body. Wilson had to admit, “They have much truth, but their zeal exceeds their Christian love.” Doctrine is not meant to come at the expense of love. But that's what Wilson saw. And it's also what Jesus sees happening in the Ephesian church. For the sake of zeal about correct teaching, they'd abandoned the love they used to have for each other, the love that motivated them to work together, to care about each other as people and not just as bundles of ideas labeled 'right' and 'wrong.' They excelled at toil, at work, but it was largely a negative work of putting everybody under a microscope. Jesus tells them, “You have abandoned the love you had at first” – the love, for instance, that they used to have for each other (Revelation 2:4). They used to excel at that, in the early days. But after the struggle to preserve their theological purity against infiltration and corruption – which was, again, a healthy thing to seek to maintain – now their autoimmune disease was getting in the way of love.

Today, it's quite possible to make the same mistake as the Ephesians did. McIntire shows us a bit what that can look like. It isn't always flagrant and so obvious. When we handle our differences poorly, we can have similar effects. When we major on the minors, this sort of thing is lurking 'round the corner. Discernment is really crucial – but discernment must put first things first and stand with the whole church, not a narrow sect. Which is what the Ephesian church could become, if not careful. Unloving discernment can mislead down back alleys.

Not only had the Ephesian discernment-mania gotten out of hand and distracted them from loving each other, it also had distracted them from loving those beyond their walls. They became insular and unevangelistic. Maybe they didn't even realize it. Maybe they still thought of themselves as gospel-people. But they no longer were. I can easily imagine that they thought it was enough to talk at their neighbors instead of to them. You can just picture Ephesian church members leaving tracts in the restroom for people to find, then patting themselves on the back for having done evangelism. And it isn't tough to believe that they might condemn their neighbors, shake their head over their neighbors, puff at their neighbors, criticize their neighbors – and in all their warnings about the moral corruption and religious emptiness of Ephesian culture, the supposed evangelist might leave their neighbors with little reason to understand that the gospel is good news for them. What we have here is another immune system overreaction: a transplant rejection, failing to integrate needed healthy tissue from the outside into the systems of the body – failing to integrate their neighbors into the local expression of the body of Christ, and so let the life of Jesus fill and sustain them.

It is easy for a church, now as much as then, to lose that love. Wilson observed that McIntire's radio ministry was so hung up on various pet projects that people were funding those instead of supporting missionary work. Remember what Wilson wrote: “Our main task is to declare the gospel and witness to Jesus Christ. With a positive stand, we will be able to counteract the wrong doctrines and positions in a way that will endure.” We must not lose sight of our mission. Our mission is to speak good news, positive news. It isn't to tell the world what the church hates, but to celebrate who the church loves, and to show how Jesus really is the answer – the good news – for all that ails each neighbor and neighborhood.

Wilson would advise us, “Serve the Lord faithfully and win souls, rather than criticizing everything.” And yet it's easy for us to get caught up in announcing how much we hate the darkness. It's easy for us to be heard issuing our lists of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. It's easy for us to launch into a speech and talk at our neighbors without ever listening to them. It's easy for us to leave a tract and settle for that. And it's especially easy to get so caught up in our own life, even our church life, that we, for all intents and purposes, ignore the need around us. We might still convince ourselves we're gospel-people. I'm sure the Ephesians had. But we can trick ourselves into thinking we're more evangelistic and more welcoming and more loving than we really are.

What the Ephesian church needs, and what we need, is a hefty dose of Christ crucified and risen. That's why we have this letter – one of seven letters dictated by Jesus Christ, through his servant John, to be sent to seven key churches on a circuit in Asia. Jesus announces himself to them as “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1). Jesus did not come just for one church in one place – he has a fullness of churches in his hand. A small local sect is not enough; each local church has to realize they're only part of the plan in Jesus' hand. But Jesus insists on envisioning each church as a “golden lampstand.” And what do lampstands do? They give light to what's around them. And the problem in Ephesus is that there's a lot of structural integrity but not a lot of glow. They aren't sharing their light; they're hoarding it. And Jesus already told us that no sane person “lights a lamp and puts it under a basket; they put it on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others” (Matthew 5:15-16). The gospel light needs to be given off, needs to be shared. A church needs to be evangelistic. A church needs to be caring and compassionate. A church needs to persist in the way of love, and not abandon it and fall.

Jesus has a sharp warning for the church in Ephesus. They think they're doing fine because they agree with all the right things, they check off the proper boxes. And Jesus likes that, but they're forgetting the power that put them there: love. If they keep on the track they're on, they'll fall to pieces. Just like Ephesus had been moved and transplanted, the 'lampstand,' their presence as a church, would also be taken away and moved elsewhere – in their weakened and insular state, they'd be easy prey to fall under the domination of the very culture they're zealously resisting, much as McIntire's movement never retained the numbers to mount a significant stand, and much of his work unraveled in his own lifetime. Just so, Jesus warns the Ephesian church, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place,” if things continue as they are (Revelation 2:5).

But it doesn't have to be that way. They can change. They can reawaken their lost love, the fire, passion, care that drove them when they were first planted, when they and their parents first caught the gospel and stepped into a new kind of living. What Jesus asks of them is to “repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:5). They need to ease up on their obsession and regain their balance. They need to get back to the way it used to be, and rediscover the beauty of God's grace in each other, and restore the fullness of their fellowship. They need to set aside their suspicions and embrace each other. They need to step back from the negative and return to the positive mission they have to build each other up and to transplant Christ into their neighbors and their neighbors and neighborhood into Christ. They need to climb back to the love they'd fallen from. That doesn't mean they should lose all their discernment and get doctrinally indifferent. A radical course of immunosuppressants is not Dr. Jesus' prescription for them. His prescription is a dose of grace and love that can restore equilibrium. Because the healthy functioning of a church is the golden mean between immunodeficiency and autoimmune disorder, between mainline modernism and McIntire fundamentalism. And that golden mean is discerning love.

The good news is, we know that the Ephesian church listened to Jesus – they did repent after getting this letter! We know because just eleven years later, a bishop from Syria – Ignatius of Antioch – was being taken to Rome, to be tried and put to death there for his faith. And as he passed through this region, members from the church in Ephesus came to bring him food and supplies on his way. The delegates included their bishop Onesimus, and their deacon Burrhus, and other men from the Ephesian church like Crocus and Euplus and Fronto, who came to help him out of their own resources, even though they'd never seen him before, even though he probably did things differently in his church than they did it in theirs. After he'd passed through, he wrote a thank-you letter, which we can still read today. He said Onesimus had informed him that the church was still dedicated to discernment – that they had no heresies among them, that they still rejected every false teacher. And yet they must have had a fresh tone and outlook. Ignatius calls Onesimus “a man of inexpressible love,” and Ignatius celebrates that the whole Ephesian church is united in “harmonious love.” Ignatius met some of the very same people to whom Jesus was speaking just eleven years earlier, and the discerning love he sees there shows that, without becoming immunodeficient, they'd left behind their imbalance and returned to their original health.

I would hardly call us an all-doctrine church stuck in discernment overdrive. But we can learn from what Jesus said to one that was. Can we say we keep our priorities in order well enough? Can we say that our lampstand shows the gospel to our neighbors? Can we say we're actively making a difference in our community out of love for them? When we compare this church now to the way it was when it was first founded, how close are we now to the love we had at first, the love that gave this church fire and passion and purpose? How close am I to the love I had when I was freshly saved? How about you? Or do our pet projects and obsessions distract us? Have we found a way to uphold the real fundamentals in a positive way, in a charitable way, in an evangelistic way? Or are we tempted to be negative, tempted to go into lock-down, tempted to keep to ourselves?

The good news is, even if our fire has dimmed, it isn't too late. The Ephesian church turned around quickly, and the same can be true here. Jesus is speaking to Ephesus but inviting all the churches to hear it, if we can get what he's saying. And if we take this message to heart, Jesus has a gift waiting for us: “To the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). Safe haven at last, beyond the pressures we endure now. Asylum and refuge in the royal garden of our King – now free of every stain, now free of every risk. And the tree he offers is not the dark tree of dizzy discernment run amok, but the tree of life – his tree. Growing from the cross, he offers us fruit to enjoy and savor, just like when we first began the biblical story. He wants to take us back there, to real peace, to fresh love. So let's go. Let's find our way with Jesus. Because, as McIntire himself said in his final broadcast: “Only Jesus counts.” And with that, we can all agree. Keep alert, but don't let it get in the way of love as fresh as Eden's bloom. Jesus offers sanctuary against every peril, and Jesus has fruit to feed your hungry soul. May this church be so. May we all be restored to the love we had at first. Amen.

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