Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Challenge of Laodicea: Sermon on Revelation 3:14-22

It's been a long journey, but the three-arches of the dazzling new gate, offering entrance to the city, tell you that you've reached your destination. Before crossing through, you look up and read the inscription. The gate was installed just last year, it says, and fully funded by one town resident by the name of Tiberius Claudius Tryphon. Crossing in, you wander the streets, marveling at how new everything looks. Finally, you stumble into a very elegantly dressed older woman, you'd guess, and have the impression you should ask her to explain where you are. She sneers at you – she seems the type to think the world of herself and little of the world, the type to think kings beneath her dignity, and you scarcely worth her time. On the other hand, she never misses the chance to boast in her prosperity, her family, and her city. So she agrees to give you a few moments of her time.

Her name – she introduces herself – is Claudia Zenonis, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Zenon Rhetor, and a fourth-cousin of Rhescuporis, king of Bosporus. For a bit of an endless while, she natters on about how her ancestor Zenon and his oldest son Polemon, over 120 years ago, stirred up the city residents to a revolt when all around, the other towns in the area were surrendering to the turncoat general Quintus Labienus. For their vigor in rallying the city to his cause, Mark Antony had given Polemon a throne and a kingdom, and even to this day, Polemon's descendants still ruled in Bosporus. Claudia said Polemon had been her great-great-great-uncle; she was descended from the proud branch – no less regal, she insisted – that had descended from Polemon's brother Zenon the Younger. As if to prove her importance, she gives you a gift: a coin with the emperor Domitian's face on the front and, on the back, an athlete ringed about with her own name as the issuer.

Claudia tells you that you've found your way to the magnificent city of Laodicea by taking one of the two major highways that intersect there. Looking around, you can see, like she says, that the town is nestled on a square plateau in the Lycus Valley. Pointing to the south, she shows you the two massive mountains dominating the horizon, Mount Cadmus and Mount Salbacus. Up from that way flow the streams flanking the town's plateau, the Asopus to the northwest and the Capros to the southeast. Turning north, she shows you on the horizon the mile-long white limestone cliffs, coated in shining calcium deposits and spilling over with scorching mineral water. Up there, she says, is the neighboring town of Hierapolis with its famed hot springs.

As Claudia walks you through the streets of the town, she points out one inscription after another, recording the donations made by wealthy local citizens in just the past few decades. The first thing you see, after all, is the massive stadium amphitheater dedicated seven years ago by Nicostratus, on the south side of the city's hill. She explains, Claudia does, that 26 years ago, an earthquake struck. Everything toppled. Just... everything. It all came crumbling down. Many neighboring towns, like Colossae ten miles to the south, were devastated, and had to receive significant disaster relief funds from Rome. But – Claudia's face beams with a pride like you've never seen – but Rome had offered Laodicea a hefty sum for disaster relief, and the Laodiceans had told Rome to keep it. The Laodiceans had insisted that they could rebuild their own city from scratch. And then they did exactly that. She explained that there was no city around where you could find wealth like theirs, and so even a handful of citizens – herself included – could each sponsor gifts of reconstruction. And as you can see (she says), Laodicea has rebuilt itself with no outside help much faster and more extravagantly than Colossae has, even with Roman relief. Claudia boasts that Laodicea needs no one's help – that the city's own resources will always be enough, that no city can be their equal, that perhaps one day Rome will come begging for their relief.

Fascinated, you start to wonder how the people in Laodicea got so rich and so self-sufficient. You ask Claudia, and she's delighted to expostulate on the subject. She tells you first – again, showing you the coin she gave you – that not only does the city have a mint to produce coins, like this one honoring her, but that it's the banking center for the whole region. The banking industry keeps bullion in plenteous supply and turns a hefty profit. It stands perhaps on even terms, though, with the local textile industry. Claudia takes you to the roof of a house so you can see down over the walls to the fields, where a large flock of sheep are grazing. You're shocked to see sheep the color of ravens – dark black, a special local breed. From their wool, Laodiceans are able to weave and export almost every kind of clothing, and turn a significant profit. Claudia explains also that not far from town is a temple that serves as the base of the local medical school. Founded by Zeuxis a few generations ago, it follows the tradition of composite medicines. There are doctors aplenty in town, more than you've ever seen, and the medical professionals use regional ingredients to mix together ointments for a variety of ailments, not just of the ears, but specializing in ophthalmology with an acclaimed eye-salve using a special kind of alum from the nearby streams and some other ingredients. Thanks to this, Claudia boasts, no one in the town ever has to worry about vision problems – they have the solution right there, and certainly they can all afford it.

Feeling a tad overwhelmed with Claudia's incessant bragging, you excuse yourself. It's a fine warm day, and as you pass through the streets and do admittedly marvel at all the high-end craftsmanship, you stop in a market and ask a shopkeep for a cup of water. Sheepishly, he hands you one. Expecting refreshment, you're in for a shock – the first sip hits your tongue, and you spit it out, revolted. Not only is it warm and stale, but it tastes... off. Pythes the shopkeeper explains, somewhat apologetically, that every newcomer to town has to learn sooner or later that the city's water supply is brought via an aqueduct down the valley wall and up the plateau from a mineral spring about five or six miles distant. Looking into your cup, you can tell – it's a little on the cloudy side, could certainly use a filter. Pythes says if you let it sit for a while, it gets better but never quite reaches that cold crispness from the pure springs in Colossae – he loves business trips to Colossae, he admits, just for a chance to remember what water's supposed to taste like.

Suddenly, Pythes squints at you. “Wait, you aren't from the government, are you?” At the assurance you're not, Pythes breathes a sigh of relief. “Because I am just in no mood,” he says, “to have to serve dinner to another blasted bureaucrat from Rome.” Pythes explains that, because of the city's wealth and its status as the local seat of Roman judges, officials look at them as cash-cows, picking out the wealthiest Laodiceans and forcing them to provide 'hospitality' – food and lodging – for them and their staff and their soldiers, and they're all just sick of it when it happens. Nobody wants to have to play host to the greedy government pigs, Pythes tells you. And, if not for the designer clothes this shopkeeper's wearing, you'd feel a lot more sympathetic.

Moving on, though, your goal in coming here is to find the church that used to meet in the home of a wealthy widow named Nympha. Since her passing, you're not certain where they meet, but you know the name of the local pastor – it's Archippus, son of Philemon, originally a native of Colossae but sent here a few years after the churches in both towns had been planted by Paul's convert Epaphras. In time – a stroke of luck, or should you rather call it providence? – you stumble into Archippus and begin to talk. But you find you're about ten years early, dear time-traveler: Revelation won't be written for another decade. You'll have to settle in. But at least, judging from the affluence of the city, you'll be mighty comfortable as you do.

What you'll find, as you spend time there, is that there isn't much difference – none at all, really – between the church of Laodicea, on the one hand, and their pagan neighbors like Claudia and Pythes, on the other. Full of themselves, very self-satisfied, with a fierce independent streak. By the time that the Revelation is written and Archippus has passed from the scene, there's scarcely any difference at all. The Christians of Laodicea, just like their neighbors, boast in being affluent, accomplished, and independent. Jesus can see it, Jesus listens to them: “You say: 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing'” (Revelation 3:17a), just like some in ancient Israel used to boast, “Ah, but I am rich, I have found wealth for myself, and in all my labors, they cannot find in me iniquity or sin” (Hosea 12:8). The Laodicean Christians reason that their prosperity and their comfort shows that they're on the right track. They're comfortable. The status quo has been good to them. Their resources are plenty, they're doing fine. They can afford to vacation every other week, they can take elegant cruises, they can spend as much time as they want at the theater or the games, they haven't a care in the world. Or so they think.

But Jesus is going to have news for the church of Laodicea: Their problem is in “not realizing that you are wretched and pitiable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17b)! What a litany of horrible things to be and not know! Everything in their church may be ornately gilded, but it's hollow. Where it counts, they're paupers. They think they all have 20/20 vision, but they're stumbling in the dark through the corridors of their own hearts and lives. They think they're luxuriously garbed in their bespoke suits and dresses, but they're parading naked through the streets like a fabled emperor in his imaginary new clothes. And they're complacent, a tragic farce on their desperate condition – wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, naked.

It's astonishing – by the time Revelation is written, this church can't be much more than forty years old. Most of its members are first- or second-generation Christians. By all rights, they should be able to remember the big difference between the church and the world. A few decades later, a true lively Christian would tell the world:

Christians aren't different from other people in nationality, speech, or customs. They don't live in states of their own or use a special language or adopt a peculiar way of life. … They follow local custom in the matter of dress, food, and way of life. But, the character of the culture they reveal is marvelous and, it must be admitted, unusual. Each lives in his native land as though not really at home there. They share all duties like citizens and suffer all hardships like strangers. Every foreign land is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland a foreign land. … They lack all things, yet in all things they abound. … What the soul is to the body, that's what Christians are to the world (Epistle to Diognetus §§5-6).

But the church of Laodicea is soulless. Anyone with the remotest experience of living Christianity can step into that church and plainly see that they're playacting in the spiritual nude, stumbling in blindness, bragging about busted second-hand goods when it comes to spiritual things. And the Laodiceans are oblivious, the gulf between their self-image and their reality is wider than the Lycus Valley. So what good is a church like that? To take one sip of that church is to know the temperature's all wrong and that something is off. And Jesus can taste it, too. There are a lot of things water can be useful for. It can be cold and refreshing and pure, like the spring water you want to bottle from Colossae, a real delight to drink, especially on a hot day. Water can also be hot and soothing to dip in, like the famed mineral baths in the hot springs of Hierapolis, which down to this day function as a spa atop their 'cotton castle' with their surreal unearthly 95-degree ponds – and those mineral-rich hot springs are said to be good for your health. But water that's lukewarm and chock-full of impurities – well, it's positively nauseating. I've been to places where water flows brown-gold straight from the faucets. Some water is technically drinkable but so unpleasant that it's scarcely good for anything but making you sick, even inducing you to vomit. And to Jesus, that's what the church of Laodicea is: “I know your works: You are neither cold nor hot. If only you were either cold or hot! So because you're lukewarm – neither hot” (like Hierapolis) “nor cold” (like Colossae) – “I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).

The Laodicean church has become repulsive. They leave a bad taste in Jesus' mouth and make him feel sick to his stomach. They're not good for anything now – not for refreshing and relieving, not for healing and soothing. They're the sort of church you'd only chug on a dare. Laodicea has become a closed system in which the church has settled to the room temperature of the city. They have settled into thermodynamic equilibrium with the way of the world around them. Usefulness is difference. But here, there's no difference. And the result, as Jesus sips it, is positively disgusting. Can a church become disgusting? It absolutely can. And in Laodicea, it has.

It would be nice to say that we share nothing in common with them. But plenty of spiritual taste-testers before me have seen that typical modern American Christianity has a Laodicean flavor to it. We, like they, are usually quite well-satisfied with the status quo. We enjoy what we've built for ourselves. Maybe we even call it a blessing. But whatever it is, it's ours – we know that – and we're proud. Among American Evangelicals, 42% of us have an income higher than $50,000 per year. A smaller segment, but still significant – almost one in five of us – bring in six figures, during our working days. And surely there are some of us here with assets that would surely be the material envy of neighbors in almost any other country. Americans, by any global standard, are what social scientists call 'WEIRD' – that's an acronym: We're Western, educated, individualistic, rich, and democratic. And the middle three distinguishing features there are shared with Laodiceans, aren't they?

And we're satisfied with that. We indulge in that. We American Christians do what we want with that. Oh, sure – we can be generous at times. But seldom self-sacrificial. Take a typical member of an American Evangelical church, and a typical unchurched neighbor, and how different are they really? Don't both vacation in the same places? Don't both drive the same kinds of cars, live in houses of the same square footage, go to the same sorts of movies? Don't both have the same cultural biases toward valuing independence and bristling at the thought of authority and hierarchy? Our churches often are merely outposts of the suburban American middle-class and its typical values. We don't think like apostles and prophets; we think like American patriots. We're disciples of Uncle Sam, just like our neighbors. We've become no different, except maybe a little nicer, on a good day – but then again, maybe not even that. Sometimes we scarcely keep up the form of godliness, never mind its power.

And so our churches are fine! – So we tell ourselves. They're associations in which we, as good old-fashioned American consumers, are free to come and go as we please, depending on the perceived costs and benefits. We are, after all, economic people. Our churches are fine hobbies, social organizations to build up our social capital and kill a few hours on a Sunday morning, so long as it doesn't interfere with the really important parts of our Sunday routines like lunch or errands or the big game. And if we sit out a few Sundays to do chores or to sleep in, well, don't we have the right to our choices (we ask)? Who dares offend by telling us we're of a piece with the world outside our doors? Who dares point out we're fully domesticated pets, not the army of the Lamb?

Because, see, in all our self-sufficiency, we think we don't need other churches, we don't need a conference, we don't need to do anything uncomfortable, we don't need to bend our routines, we don't need to change the status quo. And in all our weekly rhythms, we may pray, we may do devotions, we may go through all of that, but the picture we see is Christ, not in the church's midst, but excluded with the door slammed shut in his face. Have we effectively excommunicated Jesus? Has our independent streak, has our prosperity and pride, have our tepid pieties rendered us a 'Christless Christianity'? Is our temperature anything other than all-American? Because, if not, then I'll tell you this: assimilation to the class values of our culture has made us as lukewarm as Laodicea. How does Jesus feel after taking a sip of our church, a sip of your family, a sip of your spirit? Does he spit?

This may be a message more tragic than any other. When a closed system reaches thermodynamic equilibrium, that's it. Story over. Unless the system's isolation ends. When Israel got that way, God suddenly said, “I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely” (Hosea 14:4). And suddenly, there was hope. And when the church in Laodicea got that way, Jesus suddenly explained that all his rebuking and challenging was meant to give hope instead of hopelessness – it was a sign that he still loves even a useless church: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19). The cure for what ails them is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! And after all he's said, after his diagnosis of their case, Jesus is stunningly generous and exceptionally gentle. As faithless as the Laodicean church is, he doesn't give up. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful” (2 Timothy 2:13). Jesus is “the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God's creation” (Revelation 3:14) – a new creation is dawning, and he is the dawn! He is the first installment of 'all things new.' He is the God of Truth, and as the prophet said, “He who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of Truth..., because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from their eyes. For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create...” (Isaiah 65:16-18). Jesus, the Amen, bears true witness that repentance is possible and newfound zeal is available even for a church that's reached thermodynamic equilibrium with the world. All we have to do is open the gate so we, with our society, are an isolated system no more.

The cure is commerce with Jesus. He invited the Laodicean Christians – who were effectively no different from unbelievers – to leave their own shops and come to his. Because he has things for sale that they really need, if only they'll take note of it. The Laodiceans took such pride in their banking industry, but Jesus tells them what they need is “to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich” (Revelation 3:18a). In place of their gilded rot, he offers them a pathway into a deeper “faith more precious than gold... tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7).

The Laodiceans took such pride in their textile industry based on their raven-black sheep, and yet Jesus calls out their naked shame: “I counsel you to buy from me … white garments, so that you may clothe yourselves and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen” (Revelation 3:18b). God's old covenant with Israel, he says, was when “I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness” (Ezekiel 16:8), while God warned a persecuting world that “your nakedness shall be uncovered and your disgrace shall be seen” (Isaiah 47:3). The Laodicean church has stepped outside the covenant: Although they should have been clothed with Christ's identity in their baptism (Galatians 3:27), they've stripped him off; though they should have been “clothed with power from on high” by the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49), they've undressed. But once when Jesus cast a legion of demons out of a man, the man came back to “his right mind” and was then found “clothed” and seated at the feet of Jesus (Mark 5:15). And so there's hope for the Laodicean church: they can get dressed in the righteousness of Christ, to let each say, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me” (Job 29:14).

And the Laodiceans took such pride in their medical school and in their eye-salve industry, and yet Jesus tells this church that they're blinder than bats. If there's one thing they've been lacking, it's perceptiveness – they're no different from the Pharisees whom Jesus had called “blind guides,” and the Laodicean church is no less likely to “fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). A supposed Christian lacking in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, affection, or love “is so nearsighted,” the Bible tells us, “that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins” (2 Peter 1:9). But Jesus came to preach “recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18)! And so their blindness can be cured, not through their supposed medical expertise, but by his: “I counsel you to buy from me … salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see” (Revelation 3:18c). Jesus wants to make them perceptive, to give them a vision.

If they accept, if they go and 'buy' these things from Jesus – being willing to trade in the status quo and trust that Jesus is no swindler – then they'll be more like the Jesus John saw with “eyes like a flame of fire” and “hairs... like white wool” and with “a golden sash around his chest” (Revelation 1:13-14). Everything Jesus offers is meant to help the Laodicean Christians to “be conformed to the image” of Jesus himself. That's the spiritual blessing. But in order to get that, the Laodiceans have to realize that the status quo stinks. They must repent of their complacency and their independent streak, lose their equilibrium, and learn the beauties of dependence. The Laodiceans can only truly prosper when they trust that self-sufficiency is no match for Christ-sufficiency.

It's only through Christ-sufficiency, which inspires us to more zeal than the status quo can handle, that we can truly overcome. But if we do, Christ has a great offer in store for us. The Laodiceans were proud – especially Claudia Zenonis and her family – of how their distant uncle Polemon, for his defense of the city and his support of Mark Antony, was given the gift of a throne – Polemon was made king ultimately of Cilicia, Pontus, Colchis, and Bosporus. But Jesus is far more generous than Mark Antony ever was. He offers us a throne far outstripping Polemon's dreams and Laodicean pretensions. Jesus says: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). A seat on the throne of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!

What do we have to do to overcome? It all starts with this: Open the door. Christ stands outside – just open up. Roman bureaucrats may barge in and force the proud Laodiceans to lavish hospitality on them, but Christ is so unlike a Roman bureaucrat. He does not batter down the door. He knocks at the gate. He knocks on the door. He has every right to just unlock it and enter – every key is in his hand. But he doesn't do that. He wants our hospitality to be freely given. And any one of us can open our door, even if nobody else in your pew will open theirs. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus tells us. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

The Laodiceans evicted Jesus from his own church. And yet he's so loving and so faithful that if even one of them is willing to open their door and invite him in, he'll accept that invitation. He'll sit down at your table with you. He'll give thanks for your home-cookin'. He'll relish a place to stay in your life. He'll enter, not by force, but by the wooing of his love. He's looking for a friendship with you, a real fellowship with you. He has a lot of goods to bring – his gold, his white clothes, his eye medicine, all the things your pitiful poor self has been needing. And he's straightforward about it, he's above-board. You open the door, and in he'll come. He won't dawdle outside. He won't hold off and reconsider whether he wants to associate with the likes of you. He won't bring out the battering ram and the torches and pitchforks. He'll come in and eat with you, if your hospitality will receive him back into your life when once he's been shut out. And not only that, but you'll eat with him. Jesus will enter your life and become the host there. Your table will be his, and he'll bring out the delicacies, he'll furnish the festivities, he'll donate all the grace. Just – oh, please, just let him in. It will change the status quo. It will be anything but the daily routine you've known. But Christ-sufficiency is the only way to live. He comes to the table. Receive him in now, and next week, come back to see his table spread. Amen.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Hasty Thoughts on 'Praying to the Saints'

First, A Defense
There's a great deal to be said in favor of 'praying to the saints,' and a fair-minded Evangelical should be able to take that into account.  (I'm focusing just on an understanding of 'praying to the saints' in which the 'prayer' is actually just a request for a saint - or, to use a more precise term here, a 'heaven-located believer' - to pray for you: "St. Such-and-Such, pray for us (ora pro nobis)."  'Prayer to the saints' in the sense of asking the saint, as an independent heavenly figure, to personally intervene in earthly affairs - e.g., "St. Such-and-Such, perform this act for us" - is not within my purview in this post.)

Too many of my fellow Evangelicals, I think, raise this objection (O-1): Given that each and every earth-located believer has a direct line to God through Jesus Christ (for "through him we [all] have access in one Spirit to the Father" [Ephesians 2:18]), nothing is gained by asking for the intercession of a heaven-located believer.  And not only is the practice a needless distraction, but it risks diluting the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the "one mediator between God and men" (1 Timothy 2:5).  For this reason (they might say), 'praying to the saints' is an insult toward Christ; and, since believers should do all things to "honor Christ the Lord as holy" (1 Peter 3:15), no believer should ask the intercession of heaven-located believers.

But I don't think this objection holds as much water as we're prone to think.  By way of answer (A-1), if this objection holds up, it would undermine not only 'prayer to the saints' but also requests for prayer each other!  If your intercession for your believing friend avails nothing more than her own prayers for herself do, then why pray for her?  And if you're the one in need of prayer, then asking your friend to pray for you would - according to this objection's logic - be just as much an offense against the unique mediation that Christ offers: you would be, in the objection's usual phrasing, placing your friend as a secondary mediator between yourself and Christ.

But this is absurd!  We're encouraged to pray with our fellow earth-located believers and to pray for our fellow earth-located believers: "Pray for one another" (James 5:16).  Our exemplars in the faith, like the Apostle Paul, clearly prayed for others: "We pray for you" (Colossians 1:3), "we have not ceased to pray for you" (Colossians 1:9), "we always pray for you" (2 Thessalonians 1:11).  The Apostle Paul also did not hesitate to ask other earth-located believers to pray for him and for his mission-team: "Brothers, pray for us" (1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1).  The same is true for the author of Hebrews (which I personally think was likelier Apollos than Paul): "Pray for us" (Hebrews 13:18).  This practice is not useless: "The prayer of a righteous person avails much" (James 5:16).

So, if we know that the prayer of a 'righteous person' is valuable to other believers, and if we are told to pray for one another, and if we have apostolic example both for praying for others and for asking others to pray for us, then seeking someone else's intercession cannot be inherently threatening to the mediatorial role of Christ and cannot be inherently distracting from our own access to the Father through the Son in the Spirit.  The objection (O-1) is defeated (A-1), so long as there is no crucially relevant distinction between heaven-located believers and earth-located believers that would render seeking the intercessory prayer of heaven-located believers unacceptable while that of earth-located believers stays acceptable.

Many of my fellow Evangelicals do seem to find such a reason, and raise it as a second objection (O-2): Heaven-located believers are dead, and attempts to communicate with the dead are scripturally prohibited: "There shall not be found among you ... a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord" (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).  

By way of answer (A-2), the simplest response is that biblical theology does not view heaven-located believers as dead.  When asked a question about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - the great patriarchs whose tombs were present in Judaea - Jesus stressed that "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matthew 22:32).  In other words, the patriarchs should not be seen as dead.  Rather, they are living in anticipation of their resurrection.  God's use of the present tense ("I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" [Matthew 22:32, quoting Exodus 3:6]) is taken by Jesus to demonstrate that the patriarchs, as Moses' "fathers," are "the living."  If that is true (and Jesus tells us it is), then we may fairly apply this to other believers of prior generations: they are still "alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11).  If heaven-located believers are alive, then there is no further need to investigate contemporary applications of Deuteronomy 18:11, because no one 'praying to a saint' can be considered as "inquiring of the dead," from a biblical perspective.  Hence, the objection (O-2) fails.

I know that many of my fellow Evangelicals are not satisfied.  Granting that heaven-located believers are as alive as earth-located believers and that intercession may be requested from earth-located believers, they may develop a third objection (O-3): We can ask intercession from earth-located believers because they are here and we can see them and have fellowship with them, but asking intercession from heaven-located believers is more spiritually dangerous because they are unseen.

By way of answer (A-3), this objection always struck me as somewhat odd.  Geographical proximity and mutual physical sight were never thought essential for having communion.  Certainly, Paul knew that most believers in the church at Corinth and most believers in the church at Jerusalem would never physically see each other in this lifetime.  But Paul clearly believed that the Corinthian and Jerusalemite churches were in communion with each other - that's the whole point of his collection for the Jerusalem church, after all!  Biblical writings discuss 'fellowship' and 'communion' in ways that don't depend on geographical proximity or physical sight.  John writes to a church he's away from and says, "you too many have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3).  And when Paul wrote letters asking a church to pray for him, that church was geographically distant and physically unable to see him.  The church has always confessed "the communion of the saints" - that just as physical distance doesn't break the fellowship between Christians, neither does physical demise break it.  Sharing a physical location (even on earth) and the ability to physically see each other don't seem to play much role in a biblical understanding of Christian fellowship.  This undermines the objection (O-3).

Now, I know some of my fellow Evangelicals will have a misgiving here, which we might phrase as a fourth objection (O-4): Heaven-located believers cannot be presumed to see and hear us; hence, asking their intercession is quite possibly a waste of time, and hence bad stewardship.

By way of answer (A-4), it suffices to say that, while there may be unresolved questions about the status of heaven-located believers, we are told that "we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1).  This verse is using an athletic image, in which we are to "run with endurance the race that is set before us," while the faithful believers of past generations - now heaven-located believers - constitute the audience in the stands of the stadium.  The exhortation takes its force from the notion that the Hebrews 11 believers, now in heaven, are (from heaven) watching us "run" our "race" now, here on earth.  I would say that most Evangelical preachers would apply Hebrews 11 as being open-ended, and the same then for the "cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1 - that it would now include, say, the apostles and the martyrs and the confessors and other Christian leaders like C. H. Spurgeon and Billy Graham, as well as the faithful departed known more locally.

Picking up this theme, no less a theologian than Jonathan Edwards (whose Protestant credentials are impeccable) wrote that heaven-located believers are "surely not unacquainted with the affairs of that part of the same family that is on earth.  They that are with the King and are next to him, the royal family, that dwell in his palace, are not kept in ignorance of the affairs of his kingdom."  So heaven-located believers - of whom those deemed 'saints' are accepted as exemplars, sure to be "next to... the King" - are "not kept in ignorance" of our own Christian lives here on earth.  In this thought, as backed up by Hebrews 12:1, we may presume that heaven-located believers are able to see and hear us, at least generally.  Therefore, the objection (O-4) falls flat.

So thus far, it's looking like there's a great deal to be said for the practice of 'praying to the saints.'

But Then, Some Lingering Concerns
Even with those four stock objections examined and overturned, I can quickly think of three concerns that may fairly deter many from the practice of 'praying to the saints,' which for brevity I'll call 'saint-invoking' or 'saint-invocation' in this section.  And when I mention a 'saint-invoking community,' it refers to a church organization where saint-invoking is a normative and even mandated practice, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and others.

The first concern (C-1) picks up a bit where the last two objections (O-3, O-4) left off.  Biblically, it is incontrovertible, it seems, that heaven-located believers are to be considered alive, and that they can in principle see and hear the earth-located church as a whole.  (Some Protestant theologians may not fully be on board with this.)  But even assuming this to be true, many more propositions need to be stipulated in order to make sense of saint-invocation.  For a heaven-located believer to hear the earth-located church and for a heaven-located believer to hear each earth-located believer individually - well, those are two distinct things, and the latter would be a more demanding task.  If ten thousand earth-located believers are offering up diverse prayers (requests for intercession) to a specific 'popular' saint at the same moment, then that saint requires more than what we know as human capabilities in order to hear them all and repeat them distinctly to God.  (Indeed, I've known some Roman Catholic believers who have sought to pray to more 'obscure' saints, specifically with the hope of having less 'competition' in securing the saint's attention.  This is understandable folk theology.)

This requires the assumption that God gives the saints a special gift, a sort of participation in his own omniscience, in order to catch them all.  An Evangelical may fairly question if we really know that God has, in fact, given such a gift to each and every heaven-located believer to whom each saint-invoking community accords the title of 'saint.'  (Which further raises questions of saint-invoking communities that disagree about who is a saint: Mark of Ephesus receives no veneration by the Roman Catholic Church but does from the Orthodox Church, while Robert Bellarmine receives no veneration from the Orthodox Church but does from the Roman Catholic Church, while John Wesley is in the 'calendar of saints' of some Protestant groups although saint-invocation is less likely to be practiced there.  What happens, from a Roman Catholic perspective, when an Orthodox man or woman asks for the intercession of "St. Mark of Ephesus"?)

Saint-invoking communities, in response to this concern, are likely to retort that they have alternative authority mechanisms that assure them that saint-invoking 'works,' and that therefore whatever assumptions are necessary for it to 'work' are true.  But, to the extent that Evangelicals (and other Protestants) consider themselves justified in viewing those 'alternative authority mechanisms' with a more critical eye, Evangelicals will also retain the freedom to question the basis for making those assumptions.  As such, a perfectly fair Evangelical verdict on 'praying to the saints' is: "Assumes facts not in evidence."  A fuller case needs to be made for the feasibility of the practice.  The questionable standing of such a fuller case is the first concern.  (But Evangelicals and others should understand that saint-invoking communities with alternative authority mechanisms will fail to be bothered by this concern, and fairly so.)

The second concern (C-2) is somewhat like the first objection (O-1).  But it applies not so much to the practice itself in its theoretical pure form as to what the practice looks like in, well, practice.  In practice, certain forms of folk theology have justified 'prayer to the saints' by portraying Christ as a more distant figure and a less favorable and human figure, whose heart must be turned to us in order for his favor to be secured; and thus more familiar 'saints' are introduced who can accomplish this task.  This instinct does denigrate Christ and his mediatorial role.  Jesus himself is our "great high priest" who can "sympathize with our weaknesses" (Hebrews 4:14-15).  If the forms of honor being shown to saints require rendering Jesus more alien from us, then those forms of honor are gravely wrong, and that instinct must be corrected.  And yet just such a 'folk theology' does seem to have played a role in promoting the practice of saint-invocation in some medieval texts (and perhaps earlier and later); and so it may be difficult - at least for Western Christians - to disentangle the practice in its modern popular form from that disturbing and perhaps Christ-denigrating instinct.  To put it mildly, if actual practice (not necessarily 'ideal practice') tends to deform one's thoughts of and feelings toward Jesus Christ, then that actual practice has become a practical problem.

Similarly, certain saints may loom so large in the popular imagination of the saint-invoking community that Christ becomes obscured.  That is not the way it ought to be, on their best theological accounts; but in practice, that may become the way it is.  For instance, in listening in on some online discussions among a certain subset of Roman Catholics, I've noticed Mary being mentioned vastly more than Jesus - when it should go without saying that Mary herself would much prefer things to be the other way around!  (And while I don't accuse that community of 'worshipping Mary' per se, I do have this question: If there were a community that did worship Mary, what exactly would look different in practice from what's already being said and done?)  If, in practice, Mary and various saints loom so large in a saint-invoker's thought, heart, piety, and speech that Christ is less in focus, then that is a major practical problem, insofar as Christian piety requires "keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus" (Hebrews 12:2). 

Further, while asking for a saint's intercession does not need to distract us from enjoying our own access to God, there certainly are cases I've known of where a person may ask a saint to pray for him (or her) in lieu of himself (or herself) praying to God.  That would be a dereliction of responsibility, since each of us really is invited and commanded to "confidently draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16). To 'outsource' that action to a saint, in lieu of drawing near oneself, would be a major practical problem.

Now, all that doesn't in itself render 'prayer to the saints' as impermissible.  After all, it's entirely possible to make the same mistakes, in practice, with earth-located believers.  There have been plenty of people who have seen a pastor or an especially devout friend as a necessary intermediary between themselves and Christ.  That does not mean you shouldn't ask your pastor or a devout friend to pray for you!  But as you do, you should guard against (1) an instinct that distances Christ to make room for that pastor/friend, (2) focusing more on that pastor/friend than Christ, and (3) 'outsourcing' your prayer life to that pastor/friend. And if you can't or won't avoid problems (1)-(3), then maybe it would be relatively healthier not to ask that pastor or that friend to pray for you.

And just the same, if a prospective saint-invoker is going to engage in saint-invoking, then that prospective saint-invoker must guard against (1)-(3).  These 'practical problems' in fact amount to abuses.  And if that prospective saint-invoker can't or won't avoid abuses (1)-(3), then maybe it would be relatively healthier for him or her not to 'pray to the saints.'  (After all, abuses led Hezekiah to break the bronze serpent that God himself had directly ordered Moses to make [2 Kings 18:4] - so abuses can be a valid reason to jettison something, even jettison a thing good-in-itself, if reform should prove unviable and if the abuses outweigh the good of the thing's or practice's benefit.)  Likewise, the authorities of saint-invoking communities have a responsibility, when teaching and endorsing saint-invocation, to explicitly warn against abuses (1)-(3) and to help prospective saint-invokers guard against those abuses.

But in practice, the authorities of certain saint-invoking communities shirk that responsibility, and in practice there are saint-invokers who correspondingly fall into those abuses.  All of this seems to be more dreadful than the notion of just not 'praying to the saints' in the first place.  In other words, it is fair to look in at a saint-invoking community and see the spiritual harm of the abuses among a percentage of practitioners (and the relative silence of irresponsible teachers) as outweighing the spiritual benefit of the practice; and so it is fair to think that, even granting the validity of the practice, there may be strong reason to avoid saint-invocation (and saint-invoking communities).  That is the second lingering concern (C-2).

There is, lastly, a third lingering concern (C-3): All abuses of the practice aside, saint-invoking communities typically present saint-invocation as a normative and expected practice, through its inclusion in corporate liturgical life.  (That assessment should, I think, be uncontroversial).  And yet it is a practice where, it would seem, there should be greater liberty of conscience.  Not everything that is permissible is universally beneficial, if it sits ill at ease with a believer's conscience.  Paul, as we see in Romans 14, did not enforce all his views of spiritually beneficial practices on each and every church.

When it comes to saint-invocation, we know it is possible to lead a thoroughly flourishing Christian life without its practice.  How do we know that?  Because the first generations of Christians did not engage in it.  We have no record whatsoever of the Apostle Peter ever asking the Prophet Ezekiel to pray for him.  We have no hint of Polycarp asking Peter to pray for him.  Saint-invocation was just not a feature of the liturgical life of the apostolic-era church or even the immediately post-apostolic-era church.  (We know it was in at least private practice by the late third century, judging from Roman catacomb inscriptions like "Paul and Peter, intercede for us all"; but before that, the practice's inception is a bit harder to trace, and its incorporation into corporate worship is perhaps harder still.)  It may still be a wise and beneficial practice, but it is not a practice that is inherent to Christianity.

It might be wise for me to ask my bishop to pray for me, but it is not incumbent upon me to do so.  In much the same way, it cannot be incumbent upon me to ask St. Nicholas to pray for me.  The moment what is potentially beneficial is treated as being mandatory (especially salvifically mandatory), we encounter a problem.  We are, after all, "not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).  If we speak of the 'law' for Christians, it must be "the law of liberty" (James 2:12).  Martin Luther said in his Lectures on Titus:
To us all things are holy, even sins committed against human traditions. ... Unless I do something out of deference to you, there is no command except the command of love, which is the freedom of the Spirit and does not reject the truth. ... If the abbot permitted me to wear my cowl voluntarily, this would not conflict with sound faith.  But he says: "Unless you wear it, you will be damned."  Then everything must be torn up, because it conflicts with sound faith.  Christian righteousness says: "I know nothing except Christ."  I serve my brother through love, but I do not want to be saved through it.  I do so out of free deference to him, but I shall not be either saved or damned and lost on that account.
Like or dislike Luther, but he raises a real concern.  If even a beneficial practice is enforced as though mandatory for salvation, it spoils.  And one may legitimately ask if this has happened in the case of saint-invocation.  If it would have been foreign to Peter and Polycarp, is it really a practice in which every Christian believer today must engage?

If it is, then some explanation is needed of why this is so - why every believer now must add such a mandate to Christian living when Peter and Polycarp seem to have flourished in its absence.  (One suspects a saint-invoking community would here give reply by appealing to the binding authority of the edicts of some figure or body - a pope, a council, etc. - as authorized to add conditions to the life of faith, and to render the wise/beneficial as mandatory.  This answer will, fairly, be deemed inadequate by Evangelicals, for whom it will not measure up to the apostolic example.)  But if it is not, then saint-invoking communities need to become communities where saint-invoking is welcomed, perhaps even encouraged, but not mandated - and so space should then be made within those communities for believers who decline to engage in the practice.  If there is not, the risk is that the practice will be treated as a condition of salvation and hence in "conflict with sound faith."  And that covers the third lingering concern (C-3).

The three concerns, in brief: (C-1) that questions remain about the assumptions required for saint-invocation to make sense; (C-2) that practical abuses make the practice dangerous to teach, unless saint-invoking communities are going to do better; and (C-3) that the place of saint-invocation in the corporate liturgies of saint-invoking communities sits ill next to liberty of conscience, apostolic and post-apostolic practice, and the purity of 'sound faith.'  (To me, C-2 is the greater concern.)

I wonder what would look different in, e.g., Protestant-Catholic or Protestant-Orthodox dialogue if less time were wasted with (O-1)--(O-4) and more discussion revolved around (C-1)--(C-3)....

These have been... some of my hasty thoughts.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Challenge of Philadelphia: Sermon on Revelation 3:7-13

Attalus was nervous as he walked into the curia, ready to speak before the senate of the Roman Republic. If the clouds had battled the sun for space in the sky that day, well, it would only have mirrored the battle in his own deeply ambitious heart. Attalus, you see, was a prince... but the second son. His older brother Eumenes was the king of Pergamum. But mighty Rome was displeased with Eumenes. Senators had hinted to Attalus that, if he wanted the throne, it was his for the asking. And so began the struggle.

For years and years, the close-knit bonds of Eumenes and Attalus had been famous. Foreign kings had advised their own sons to be like Eumenes and Attalus, who together had grown the Kingdom of Pergamum from small beginnings into a burgeoning world power “by their concord and agreement and their faculty of mutual respect” (Polybius 23.11). Eumenes, the king, had long been an ally of the Roman Republic, helping them in assorted wars. The Peace of Apamea had given him many new territories. But when the Achaeans revoked the honors they'd once awarded Eumenes, making Eumenes severely depressed, Attalus vowed to travel there and intercede – asking the Achaeans to restore the honors, if not for the controversial Eumenes' sake, then as a personal favor to well-liked Attalus (Polybius 28.7) – it was proof of Attalus' “brotherly love” to Eumenes (Polybius 27.18).

All the meanwhile, Eumenes was helping the Romans in their war against the Macedonian king Perseus, who'd been stirring up trouble. But Eumenes foolishly traded secret messengers with Perseus – Eumenes had hoped for bribes to negotiate a fair end to the war, and was willing to withdraw support from the Romans to help even things out (Polybius 29.4-9). Eumenes had lost the Romans' trust and good will. In time, Perseus was beaten, and in the power vacuum, Eumenes' kingdom at Pergamum came under attack by the Galatians (Polybius 29.22) – and since Eumenes was persona non grata in Rome, he sent Attalus to ask the Roman Senate for help. It was there that some Romans enticed popular Attalus to ask for the Pergamene throne (Polybius 30.1). Temptation was nearly overwhelming – Attalus had always yearned to be king. But in the end, his loyalty to Eumenes won out – he faithfully executed what Eumenes had sent him to Rome to do, and left (Polybius 30.3). Attalus went home, loving his brother more than his own ambitions.

In time, Attalus' costly display of loyalty to his brother earned him a nickname. Because Attalus had shown so much brotherly love, he was nicknamed 'Brother-Lover' – or, in Greek, Philadelphos. Years later, either Attalus or Eumenes founded a new city at the border of the former regions of Lydia and Phrygia – a Greek city to help bring Greek culture to the locals. And they named it, after Attalus' nickname, the city of... Philadelphia. A city to forever remember Attalus' brotherly love for Eumenes.

Down through the years, Philadelphia grew into a fine little town. Situated on the south side of a local river, it was separated by a ridge of hills from a rich volcanic plain that people just called the 'Burnt Land.' It turned out to be very good soil for growing the grapes whose juice could be turned into wine, and so vine-growing became the cornerstone of Philadelphia's industry. The people lived out their days, falling in love with sports, cheering for the winners to get their trophies, wreaths, or crowns. But in the first century, things got troublesome for the city of Philadelphia. Earthquakes began to hit – the city was nearly atop a fault line. Every time one struck, the town was slow to recover. It suffered aftershocks for years. At times, the Philadelphians had to flee the city as it cracked and crumbled around them, and go live in the countryside for years. Over decades, they cried out for help. And some emperors sent it. The Philadelphians were so glad, they changed the city's name to honor the emperors – adding names like 'Neocaesarea' and 'Flavia' to their city. Just like Attalus, they wanted to be loyal, especially in the light of such generosity. Who wouldn't be grateful? The Philadelphians loved Caesar.

But then, just a few years before this letter, the Emperor Domitian – trying to rebalance the food supplies for the empire – wrote out an edict to rip up most every vineyard to free up land for corn production (Revelation 6:7). If put into effect, the idea would have killed Philadelphia – corn didn't grow well in their kind of dirt, they were totally dependent on their vineyards. The hot, piercing sting of betrayal ripped through the city – the very same emperor they trusted as their benefactor was the man who gave orders without the slightest thought to how it would devastate them. By the time John sees visions on Patmos, the people of Philadelphia are overwhelmed with a weary disaffection and disappointment with the imperial office – once bitten, twice shy.

In this vulnerable, shaken, resentful town, there lives a church. It isn't a big church. It isn't a rapidly growing church. It isn't a church of hustle and bustle. Jesus remarks that he knows that the church has “a little power” (Revelation 3:8c). Not a lot of power. Not no power. Not a typical amount of power. Just a little power, a bit of strength. There are perhaps no more people in the Philadelphian church than there are in ours. It's a small church. And it's stayed small for a while, because they haven't had a great deal of success in evangelizing their neighbors. Oh, they've tried – otherwise, they'd be catching the same flak over it that some other churches had. But their aspirations of growth are frustrated; they feel landlocked. They're small. And yet Jesus has chosen them, out of all the churches in Asia Minor, as one of the seven he'll speak to directly. In some of the other letters, Jesus has dealt with large churches in big, venerable cities. But the Philadelphian church, little and weak and poor though it might be, isn't left out. They, too, get to hear the voice of Jesus. Jesus has an eye on them. “I know your works,” he tells them (Revelation 3:8a). Jesus pays as much attention to the little Philadelphian church as he does to the bigger churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and Sardis. Their “little power” is no disqualifier from the attentions of Jesus Christ.

We find out that this frustrated little church has gone through some significant trials in the past – tribulations of the sort that have struck other churches – and this little church has been faithful and borne up under it. “You kept my word and did not deny my name,” Jesus tells them (Revelation 3:8d). “You kept my word of patient endurance” (Revelation 3:10a). When times were tough and times were dry, when the pressure was on, when it got hot, this little church stuck it out. It wasn't anything the world would call heroic. Didn't involve grand signs and wonders. It was just everyday faithfulness in tougher times. And Jesus noticed and appreciated it.

And yet there is a problem that now vexes this little church, and it isn't one for which any blame is laid at their feet. Just like in Smyrna, the letter to Philadelphia mentions a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 3:9a). The local synagogue was notoriously compromised, even from a mainstream Jewish perspective – the rabbis would later comment that “the wines and the baths” of this area “have separated the ten tribes from Israel” (b. Shabbat 147a). Yet evidently, this compromised synagogue was engaged in concerted efforts to bully the tiny church in their neighborhood. The synagogue community was legally exempt from the laws of emperor-worship, and yet they excluded and excommunicated Jesus-following Jews from their fellowship, casting them out and leaving them devoid of protection. They likely cursed Jesus-followers in their gatherings. And they were determined to win Jewish Christians back into their fold, and even convert Gentile Christians in Philadelphia. Their preferred tactic, it seems, was to de-legitimize and demoralize the church. The synagogue authorities were telling this struggling little church that there was no safety outside the synagogue, that there was no security outside of the synagogue, that there was no salvation outside of the synagogue. They told the church that God's kingdom was going to come for Israelites, and that those outside the synagogue's doors were going to miss out. They maybe quoted the verses from Isaiah about Gentiles coming and bowing at the Jews' feet (Isaiah 45:14; 49:23; 60:14).

Between their frustration in failed growth and the haunting voices of the synagogue's taunts, the Philadelphian church has become deeply discouraged. The light has faded from their eyes. They harbor no great thoughts for their church's future. They doubt their own salvation. They have nightmares about being shut out from God's presence because they picked the wrong version of Israel's faith. They've been faithful to Jesus, having kept to his name without denying it, but now these taunts have them struggling to defend their faith from the scriptures of Israel, and doubts are creeping in.

Are we anything like the church in Philadelphia? While a neighboring religious body may not taunt us and try to lure us away from the church, we are at times subject to discouraging voices. We, too, may be faced with the whispers of discouragement. Our hearts may hear whispers like, “You'll never do enough to overcome that past stain. Do more, it's never enough.” And when that whisper comes, we need to know that our stains have all been devoured by the glory that is in Christ Jesus – he saves to the uttermost, regardless of the worst of all our stains and all our weaknesses. But then comes the second whisper: “The difficulties you endure are proof that God doesn't love you, because would a loving God really lead you through what you're facing now?” And we need to know that it's true that “through many dangers, toils, and snares, we have already come,” but these are either gifts of God or else tools he'll tame for our blessing, if we only trust him enough to receive it. But then comes the third whisper: “Don't you know your religion has no place in the modern world? Get with the times! These outdated beliefs will fade into history.” So the whisper may say. But we need to know that the so-called 'modern world' is too small and artificial to last, but the gospel never expires, never grows stale – the gospel will always endure, for Christ is risen.

Ah, but then comes the fourth whisper: “Can't you see that you're too old to be useful? What could you possibly do that's of value now?” And when that whisper comes, we need to know that elderly believers have done marvelous things for God throughout history. Moses was in his eighties when he went up to get the Ten Commandments. Isaiah preached into his late eighties or nineties. Simeon and Anna, who held and announced the infant Messiah, were at least in their eighties. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was a bold witness for Jesus in his late eighties. Anthony, one of the first monks, was 87 when he left the desert to go help steer the church back to the right beliefs; he lived 'til 105. John the Silent, a later monk, lived to 104 and still gave helpful advice to anybody who visited with him. The eighties and nineties are not too old to be used mightily by God.

Oh, but then the fifth whisper attacks us: “Your church is so small. Your church doesn't grow. Look at all the big things around you. Can't you see that the big things are where it's at? Your church is insignificant. It can't possibly do any good.” So the fifth whisper might say! But the Philadelphian church was small. That church had not been growing. They surely heard this same whisper that we have. The things that discourage us, they faced too. And yet that whisper of discouragement is countered by the assuring voice of Jesus.

What does Jesus say? He introduces himself, first, as “the Holy One, the True One” (Revelation 3:7a). The local synagogue may have been casting doubt on Jesus. But Jesus opens for the church the prophecies of Isaiah, and there we find that Israel's God was called “the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:3), and that he'd one day be known especially as “the God of Truth” (Isaiah 65:16). Jesus reminds the church that he is the God who gave the Law and inspired the Prophets all along – a God “holy and true” (cf. Revelation 6:10).

And it's as Israel's holy and true God that Jesus can say to the little Philadelphian church: “I know your works” (Revelation 3:8a). He's said this to all the churches – sometimes what he sees isn't very healthy. But actually, Jesus doesn't have a single bad thing to say about the Philadelphian church. The last thing they need is another word of discouragement. There's enough of that in their lives already. And Jesus first of all just wants them to know that he sees them. They may be small and weak, but he pays as much attention to them as he does to the biggest churches. They are not beneath his notice. The Philadelphian church, to Jesus' eyes, is every bit as precious and valuable as the most active and lively megachurch. And the same must be true for us. If we live in faithfulness to Jesus, we can rest assured that his eyes have caught that. And not out of his peripheral vision. Jesus is looking straight at our church. The name of this church is spoken in heaven. And we are discussed and seen with the same attention as Petra or LCBC, Weaverland or Willow Street, even megachurches. Jesus takes no less notice of our works than of theirs. Jesus takes no less notice of any one of you than of kings and stars.

Not only that, but Jesus wants to say to the Philadelphian church and ours: “I have loved you” (Revelation 3:9c) – have loved and do love. Jesus looks at you, he knows your works, and he loves you! Jesus loves our church! Jesus loves each person here this morning! Jesus loves your family. Jesus loves your neighbor. And Jesus does – really does – love you. The whispers of discouragement, then and now, may try to cast a shadow over his love for you. They may heap up dark accounts of circumstances, they may raise question after question about events of hardship in the hands of a loving God. The whispers have had their say. Over them all, Jesus shouts, “I have loved you!” Oh, church, do you know this morning that Jesus loves you? He loves you infinitely more than Attalus loved Eumenes. Not once has Jesus considered turning his back on you – not even during your worst sin. Open your heart to his love! Let it wash over you in abundance, like the ocean flood surging into a teacup.

Another thing Jesus wants to say to the Philadelphian church and ours: “I am coming soon” (Revelation 3:11a). Jesus had warned some of the other churches that his spiritual presence was going to visit them and bring them punishment. He warned Ephesus that he'd “come... and remove [their] lampstand from its place” (Revelation 2:5), he warned Pergamum he'd “come soon and war against them with the sword of [his] mouth” (Revelation 2:16), he warned Sardis he'd “come like a thief” if they didn't wake up (Revelation 3:3). Here, Jesus will visit a church not to punish but to help – he'll come to bless and assist, to strengthen and protect them. He pledges that “because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Revelation 3:10). Because they persevered earlier, so keeping his word, Jesus is going to keep them spiritually secure during the coming tribulations – the forces of the world may kill the body, but Jesus will seal the faithful believers' souls and keep them alive. He has no plan to leave us to eternally languish in internalized shame. If we trust him and hear his word, we're his, full stop.

Now, the synagogue in Philadelphia scoffs at all this. They make out that their door is the door of the world to come. They scold the church, discourage the church, as a tactic to lure people away from the church and into compliance with their understanding of the Law. They claim to have locked Jesus-followers out of the kingdom of God. But Jesus has a different idea. Jesus turns the pages of Isaiah to the twenty-second chapter, where we find the story of Shebna and Eliakim. Shebna had been the palace steward of King Hezekiah. Shebna had been the one overseeing the royal household, with control of Judah's finances and with the keys to the palace. But Isaiah warned that, due to mismanagement, Shebna was about to be demoted. His role would be given to a man named Eliakim: “I will clothe him with [Shebna's] robe..., and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah, and I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none will open. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house” (Isaiah 22:21-23). That's what God promised to give Eliakim. Eliakim was going to have 'the key of the house of David,' which would allow him to control access to the royal palace – and, hence, control the access of the people to their king. Eliakim would choose who could see Hezekiah and who couldn't. In later Jewish interpretation, Eliakim becomes a high priest with 'the key of the sanctuary' to control access even to God's temple (Exodus Rabbah 37.1; Targum Isaiah 22:22).

And Jesus says that he's the truer and greater Eliakim. Jesus is the one who “has the key of David – who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” (Revelation 3:7b). Jesus controls access to everything in or beyond the universe. No one can get into anything unless Jesus unlocks it. And nobody can lock what he's left open for somebody. Jesus is the true gatekeeper. Jesus is the holy doorman. Jesus has the key of access – even access to God's kingdom. In calling the synagogue frauds and liars, he's shut their door, and nothing they do can open it. But to the little church he says, “I have set before you an open door which no one is able to shut” (Revelation 3:8b). They don't have to listen to their local synagogue's taunts. Jesus has opened a door for them, and no one – not a synagogue leader, not a priest, not a governor, not an emperor, not devil or archangel – can budge that door and slam it in their faces. And Jesus has opened that same door of access for us. And nobody can shut the door on you. For you stands “a door... open in heaven” (Revelation 4:1), so long as Jesus opens it.

In just the same way that Jesus sets before them an open door of heavenly access, an open door to the kingdom and to the world-to-come, Jesus is also setting before them an open door to the mission field. God had once “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27), and “a wide door for effective work [had] opened” for Paul (1 Corinthians 16:9), and elsewhere Paul asked the church to pray “that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). And now, Jesus says, he's opening a similar door for gospel preaching to the Philadelphian church. Not only can they take their message straight to the synagogue again and trust the Spirit's presence, but they're also situated very well to send out missionaries to unreached nearby regions. They may be small, but Jesus can open doors for the gospel delivered by small churches. And he can open doors for us to “declare the mystery of Christ,” if we pray for doors to open. Jesus has the key.

Jesus promises that he will give fruitfulness to the Philadelphian church, in time. They may be subject to the whispers of discouragement and the pressures of persecution, but Jesus takes the triumphant prophecies of the synagogue and turns them around. Where the synagogue read Isaiah and expected the Gentiles to come bowing down to them, Jesus says that it's the discouragers from the Philadelphian synagogue whom Jesus “will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you” (Revelation 3:9bc). The church may be small, the church may be weak, the church may be belittled, but Jesus will vindicate them very openly and publicly one day. Their neighbors will learn that the God of Israel loves the church as his people. And there is the hope – we can hold out the hope – that what Jesus describes isn't just an unwilling submission but a joyful conversion: that the former discouragers, in awe, come and humble themselves to receive the good news that is available for them precisely through Jesus' love to his church. And just so, although the church is routinely mocked and derided in twenty-first-century America, nevertheless we may hear this promise: that one day, Jesus may well make the church's fiercest critics come bow before believers' feet – and we may hope that he'll do it in a joyful conversion, like he did with Saul of Tarsus.

Jesus has even more promises to give to the Philadelphian church – and to us. The Philadelphian church read the scriptures. They had to, especially in their conflict with the synagogue. And as they read those scriptures, they knew the story about how Solomon, in building the temple, had ordered “two pillars of bronze. … He set up the pillars at the vestibule of the temple. He set up the pillar on the south and called it Jachin, and he set up the pillar on the north and called it Boaz” (1 Kings 7:15, 21). And there those named pillars stood, looming sturdily in the court of God's temple. It was a beautiful picture of stability in God's presence. Years later, God had turned to his prophet Jeremiah and promised, “I make you this day... an iron pillar... against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, (says Yahweh), to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:18). Just like the temple's pillars of bronze, Jeremiah would be an iron pillar, unmoved by all the resistance of Judah. It would have sounded like quite the dream to the Philadelphian church, whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had been repeatedly chased out of their hometown by earthquakes.

And so, to them, Jesus vows, “The one who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it” (Revelation 3:12a). For all the demoralizing whispers that tell us we're outcasts, Jesus will answer that we have a place inside. For all the earthquake shocks of life that threaten to topple us, Jesus replies that we can be made sturdy pillars in God's temple. And never can we be chased out. The world and its forms may crumble around us, all else may be shaking and quaking, but we're receiving “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). And in that kingdom, we stand as sturdy pillars, never needing another place.

Jesus knows about Philadelphia's trouble with earthquake shocks. Jesus also knows how Philadelphia has taken on other names throughout the years, but been betrayed by her namesakes. Philadelphia had taken names to honor unworthy kings who left her deserted. Jesus knows that. So it's with great deliberateness that he offers a name that won't go sour: “I will write on him” – on the overcoming believer – “the name of my God and the name of the city of my God (the New Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven) and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12b). Later rabbis would say that, in the end time, the Messiah and the Holy City would both have the same name as God himself (Pesikta de Rab Kahana 22.5a; Midrash Psalms 21.2). It's all one name, one glorious name, the name that inextricably links God and Christ and Holy City. To bear the name of Jesus will be to belong to God. To bear the name of Jesus will be citizenship in the New Jerusalem. A single inscription will say it all. And Jesus will write that name on each believer's forehead, just as the high priest of Israel had a forehead-mounted gold plate with God's name on it (Exodus 28:36-38).

What Jesus is offering is a fabulously beautiful picture. It would have dazzled the little Philadelphian church. It should dazzle us just the same. In the face of the whispers of discouragement, Jesus sees us, Jesus pledges his love for us, Jesus opens doors into the kingdom for us, Jesus promises to vindicate us, Jesus promises to protect us, Jesus promises to prosper our ministry, Jesus welcomes us into God's temple, Jesus gives us a permanent place, Jesus gives us stability, Jesus makes his own name our access code and our identity. Jesus makes of us what our neighbors cannot dream. He gives the simplest believer a glory beyond Aaron and Moses. Young or old, big church or little church, it doesn't matter – Jesus' promises abide the same. And all he asks is this: “Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown” (Revelation 3:11b). Don't let any whispers of discouragement or earthquake shocks steal that trophy you're aiming to wear. “A little power,” sure and steady and sturdy, outlasts the race. Just “hold fast what you have!” Don't be demoralized, don't be discouraged. The risen Lord Jesus writes to assure you what you have in him. The future is bright for a faithful small church, only hold fast what you have in Jesus!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Challenge of Sardis: Sermon on Revelation 3:1-6

The times were old. Ezekiel had been gone twenty years. Daniel, in his seventies, was living out his senior years in Babylon. But far away from them, in what people said was the strongest spot on the face of the earth, the king of the Lydian empire surveyed the destruction of a great kingdom: his own. Croesus, crowned with a wreath and clutching a scepter, poured out a libation from his throne on the pyre, as his servant Euthymos, at his bidding, carried forward the torch that Croesus hoped would wipe away his defeat and help him rise to heaven, made immortal in victorious smoke. Croesus lamented how foolish he'd been in misunderstanding. He'd made a grave mistake in picking a fight with another great empire, far-away Persia, when they'd absorbed the Medes. But Croesus had gone on the warpath, following the Royal Road with his armies to Pteria. And Cyrus had, from the Persian side, done the same. And there they'd fought it out to a draw. A ruinous stalemate of wasted lives and mangled dreams. In the aftermath, Croesus had retreated to his capital city, the place whose Pactolus River running with gold had made him fabulously wealthy. For the autumn and winter, he released his foreign soldiers so they could tend to their fields, and he sent word to his allies in Egypt and Babylon and Sparta to join him in five months so they could triumph together in the spring. And Croesus thought all would be well.

But what Croesus hadn't counted on was that Cyrus had not given up the fight and gone back to Persia. No, in a sudden twist, Cyrus and the Persian army showed up at Croesus' gates. Croesus sent out the Lydian cavalry, but Cyrus spooked their horses with his camels. Croesus was forced to retreat into the citadel that loomed over the lower city. And Cyrus camped around, laying siege to the capital of the Lydian Empire. Yet Croesus wasn't at all worried, and neither were the Lydian soldiers. After all, their citadel was the strongest and safest place of all. Around city and citadel alike, the walls were thick and high, and the citadel on three sides was set atop sharply sheer vertical cliffs. Its reputation preceded it: it was the fortress that could never be breached, never be taken. And so Croesus and his men rested securely.

Or, at least, they did until the Persian soldier Hyroeades suddenly appeared in the fortress. For he, the previous day, had seen a Lydian soldier climb all the way down the cliff to fetch a fallen helmet, and then climb back up again. So he'd spotted the footholds. And Hyroeades, with others following, had ascended the cliff and the wall to the citadel. And, trusting vainly in their reputation, the Lydians had made no preparations to guard that spot by which the Persians came in. If they had been watching from atop the walls of their spot of great confidence, it could have saved their empire. Instead, it condemned it to the dustbins of history. For the great kingdom of Lydia fell in the loss of its capital city: Sardis.

A third of a millennium passed. From Persian hands, the city of Sardis was handed over to Alexander the Great without a fight, and then when his vast empire split at his death, his general Seleucus took the corner where it lay. In time, his great-great-grandson Antiochus came to power, and was away fighting when his own uncle Achaeus rebelled and set up his throne in the citadel of Sardis. And so Antiochus, rightful king, had to come to lay siege against the city where Uncle Achaeus was cooped up. But a year passed, and more. Achaeus and the Sardians were safe inside their impenetrable defenses. They had enough supplies to weather a lengthy siege. It seemed as safe and secure as anything could be. The Sardians enjoyed their reputation for impregnability. It was the strongest spot on earth, after all.

But one of Antiochus' soldiers, a man from Crete named Lagoras, watched the patterns of the vultures as they rested after meals atop the wall between the citadel and the lower city. And he reasoned that if those walls were guarded, the guards would never tolerate the vultures. So in the night, Lagoras and some friends carried ladders and propped them up. And at daybreak, while Antiochus' main army created a diversion by attacking a gate on the opposite side, Lagoras and his team snuck like thieves up the ladders, crept through the city, and helped to saw another gate open from the inside while others worked it from the outside. And before Achaeus could even realize what was going on, he'd lost the lower city of Sardis to Antiochus.

Golden Sardis, you see, had a reputation, ever since it was the capital of a mighty empire. It had the reputation for being impenetrably defended. And yet, two occasions over the years exposed the reputation as hollow, for on those two occasions, the defenders of Sardis were so wrapped up in their reputation that they neglected to keep watch over the places they thought were safe and secure. And in the failure of their vigilance, in the pride that led them to neglect their vulnerabilities, Sardis was twice invaded and conquered by Cyrus and Antiochus. Over the years that followed, Sardis stopped being a major power. The gold supply mostly dried up, cutting off its immense wealth. The city lost all its political significance, and by Roman times, the proud residents found themselves living off the nostalgia of an obsolete reputation – a great name that no longer matched the reality.

Over six centuries after Cyrus took Sardis and over three centuries since Antiochus did the same, we find – as we eavesdrop on a letter from the Risen Lord Jesus to the church meeting within those thick, high walls – is that what was true of the city had become true of the church, as well. The church of Sardis had once been golden, and its fame had gone out far and wide. It was like the name 'Alive' was emblazoned on its forehead and trumpeted with bugles and fanfare through all the churches of the land. It was a lively and bustling church, safe and secure in the gospel. But now, while the name 'Alive' is still tattooed across the church's face, it no longer seems appropriate. “I know your works,” Jesus tells them. And we expect it to be followed by a compliment. Jesus adds, “You have a name that you are alive” (Revelation 3:1b). “But...”

But it doesn't fit any more. The real recent history has belied their name, their lively reputation. Their pride has drawn them inward. The church in Sardis has become a quiet, tame, domesticated bunch. They are no longer spiritually lively. Their praises are mumbled. Their prayers are rambling. The clock ticks down, and they see it go by. They're no longer evangelistic. Church punctuates their week but doesn't define it. It's just an event and a place. They put together a decent front when visitors from the other churches pass through town. But in truth, their works are incomplete in God's sight. Jesus himself says it: “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:2b). Everything they do is left at half-measures. When it comes to spiritual things, the church isn't giving it their all. Maybe they think they are. But they've forgotten when being a church is all about. They've forgotten that it's life and power and heavenly thunder. Instead, the church in Sardis is a dried-up husk of a church, their glory and life stolen away. They bear the name of Christ, but they don't really confess him before others (cf. Revelation 3:5c). They acknowledge Christian truth in theory. But they aren't leaning on it. They don't really believe Jesus could be present in their midst – I mean, what are they, religious nuts? How embarrassing! So, having domesticated the whole church experience, we find that Jesus says most of them have “soiled their garments” (cf. Revelation 3:4a). Unclean, unfit for polite company.

In fact, Jesus goes so far as to tell them, “You have a reputation for being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1c). Some of the most chilling words Jesus can say to a church: “You are dead.” Dead, and they haven't read their own obituary! Dead, and they haven't spotted their tombstone! Dead, and so delusional they can't even grasp it! Theirs is a zombie spirituality, soulless but shuffling through the motions while rotting away. It's been allowed to dry up and decay under their very noses. They're coasting on the easy road to defeat, and yet they're too drowsy and inattentive in their spiritual lethargy to even notice their fatal fall.

We can readily imagine them shuffling drowsily to church and then drowsily to lunch each Sunday. In the week drowsily earning their keep, drowsily watching their movies, drowsily enjoying their vacations, drowsily seeing their kids and grandkids themselves grow to mature zombiehood, all drowsily settling down and settling in with the world around them, shuffling their way through a hollow string of days and years. Oh, we will be discipled, we will be formed, either with the stream of culture or in defiance of it – there is no third choice. And as one wise man said: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

The believers in Sardis, together as a church, used to be a living thing! They used to be able to swim upstream! They had originally received and heard a living gospel (Revelation 3:3a). But they forgot its life. They forgot its vitality. And now what they're left with is the collapsed shell of obsolete godliness, a mere powerless form, left behind like the exuvia of molted cicadas, still stuck on the bark of the tree, still looking as if it could move, but utterly empty of anything alive.

Pride and Inattention are a toxic marriage. They give birth to the twins Laxity and Complacency, and the whole family allows the house of God to fall into disrepair around them. From there, only a fraudulent facade can be put out to give the illusion of substance, masking the mismatch of their name with the hollow void where life should have been – but isn't. It's like a Potemkin village. The story goes – and it's mostly untrue, but the old Russian story is – that Grigory Potemkin, a Russian governor, wanted to impress the Empress as she came to see how he'd rebuilt a devastated province. So as she was traveling by barge down the Dnieper, each day he would have fake houses and fake storefronts built to look like a village, and a team of peasants would pretend to live there each day as the empress sailed past; and then when she'd moved on, they'd tear it all down and hustle down river and build the village again, to make another fake village for her to see. A Potemkin village – just the looks and the name, but a mere front and a fraud. How many Potemkin churches litter the American landscape? How many of our lives have become spiritual Potemkin villages by which even we ourselves are often fooled?

What I'm talking about is what we've come to call nominal Christianity. It's nominal in that it has the name, but the substance doesn't measure up. It's Christian existence in name only. And it is a problem. Forty-five years ago, Billy Graham spearheaded an effort to call together thousands of Evangelical Christian leaders from across the world to meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. From that pivotal meeting, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization was born. Six years later, in June 1980, that committee sponsored meetings in Thailand to explore the plight of nominal Christianity in each of the big traditions of the Church: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. In the papers they produced, they defined a nominal Christian as “one who... would call himself a Christian or be so regarded by others, but who has no authentic commitment to Christ based on personal faith.” They identified five types of nominal Christians, including “one who attends church regularly and worships devoutly, but who has no vital personal relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord.”

By December 1998, the Lausanne International Consultation on Nominalism met in England and produced what they called their Statement to the Churches on Nominality. They stressed that even churchgoers can be nominal Christians, saying: “Many people attend church whose faith may be described as nominal in that it has little influence on their daily lives, habits, or personal devotion. Others attend, but their conviction or commitment is weak.” And nine months shy of twenty years later, in March 2018, the Lausanne Global Consultation on Nominal Christianity met in Rome and produced a Statement on Nominal Christianity:

Nominal Christians can be described as follows: People who identify with a Christian church or the Christian faith – (i.e., the 'name') – but are in contradiction with basic Christian principles with respect to becoming a Christian, faith, beliefs, church involvement, and daily life. … Without repentance and faith in [Christ], turning from sin, trusting him alone for our salvation and transformation, and obeying him as Lord, there is no authentic Christianity. … The reality is that nominal Christians may be found in every congregation, every denominational tradition, every theological stream, every generation, every cultural context, and every diaspora people.

How easy it is to slide toward nominal Christianity, and not even realize it! How easy it is to think you're alive but really be dead. We can readily assume, on the basis of past events – a prayer we said one time as a kid, a track record for Sunday School attendance – that our continued motions mean continued life. But they don't. It is perfectly possible to become a nominal Christian without noticing – we forget what living faith looks like.

Sardis is everywhere. Sardis is across the globe. Sardis is down the street. Sardis is maybe in this sanctuary. If the original Sardian church stays as they are, then they're in danger. If there's anything their history should have taught them, it's what happens when Sardis loses focus and coasts on a reputation! It's that kind of thinking that let Cyrus come and break the Lydian Empire. It's that kind of thinking that let the ladders of Antiochus go up and reclaim the city. Sardis knows what it means when kings come and sneak in like thieves through cleverness instead of direct force – it means the city has been exposed and must fall. And now Jesus warns the church of Sardis that in the same way, “If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you” (Revelation 3:3c). If the Sardian church doesn't react, Jesus will slip in and pull the plug and call time of death. And everything they really trust in can't keep a sneaky King out.

But that isn't what Jesus wants to see happen. He doesn't want to have to come like a thief. He doesn't want to come against them at all. He doesn't want them to be dead! He can't bear the thought of a dead church! He's in grief as he looks at churches thinking that their spasms of rigor mortis are the stuff of healthy Christian living. And yet that's the delusion we so easily hold, which lulls us into our cozy complacency. To churches like this, maybe like us, Jesus yells in our ear, “Wake up!” Wake up, get alert, pay attention, be watchful! Recover your vigilance, leap into action! “Strengthen what remains and is about to die!” (Revelation 3:2a)! The church is in the emergency room – the church needs drastic resuscitation, and there's no time to waste, because the patient is dying – and the patient is them! Every second counts before the last glimmers of hope for revival fade away!

And the only intervention that stands a chance is this: “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it and repent” (Revelation 3:3a-b). Get back to the living gospel you heard at the start. Cling to it, sustain it – don't keep it around as a taxidermied mantelpiece, but go back and recover the beating heart and heaving lungs and sizzling neurons and flexing muscle fibers, and embrace the living gospel and don't let it out of your arms this time. Don't be shipped to the morgue. Don't be shipped to the taxidermist. Let this shocking word be the defibrillator that resets a rhythm of repentance and breathes life back into faith. But how? What do we have to do? In 1980, the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization said this:

Today's churches must develop patterns of organization that both gather their members together into the presence of their heavenly Father and also release them to be the salt of the earth. Worship will therefore be a high priority that we need in the churches. We need a worship that is scriptural in principle and truly indigenous in its expression. We need a worship that is for joyous participants rather than admiring spectators. … The ministry of the Word will be equally important … The churches we need will be churches where prayer is central. … The churches we need will not allow a passion for the lost to be relegated to an article of faith, but rather to become the motivating force that leads God's people out to evangelize expectantly. … We pray for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing in all of our hearts, so that our churches will become communities that reveal something of the loveliness of Christ to our fellow-men.

Eighteen years later, the 1998 Lausanne Statement to the Churches on Nominality had more to say, and I quote:

In ministry to those who attend churches..., churches should be encouraged to help Christians discern and resist the relentless pressures of the modern world, consumer cultures, mass media, and self-centred values. Christians should be encouraged to review their use of time and money, attitudes to relationships in family and community life, and their service of others, particularly those with special needs. … Churches should also encourage the demonstration of faith in unconditional love, non-manipulative friendships, and unselfish care. … The prayer of the Consultation was that God would revitalize the whole Church, transforming the cultures and societies of the world, placing the Good News of the faith before all people, and drawing nominal Christians to a life-transforming faith in Christ.

And twenty years later, the 2018 Lausanne Statement on Nominal Christianity gives us a few final pointers:

We call the churches we represent, and all churches everywhere, to:
  1. Pray for all those who are Christians in name only, that they might come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.
  2. Pray for a spiritual awakening of nominal Christians, a strengthening of the weary and struggling, and a renewal of our commitment to disciple all those who bear the Name.

Recognizing the commandment of Jesus to make disciples of all peoples, we urge our church communities to:
  1. Prioritize a holistic discipleship that brings all believers to maturity in Christ.
  2. Proclaim the biblical gospel with clarity and boldness but always attending to the context so that the message of Christ is properly understood.
  3. Plant new churches and work for the renewal of existing churches – churches that embody the joy of the gospel, that reflect the character of Christ in their community life, and display the power of the Spirit in transformed lives, to the glory of God.

That last bit is crucial. Can there be such a thing as a Christian who goes beyond just a name? Yes! Jesus goes on and praises a few 'names' in Sardis who retain a living faith and who keep themselves pure from the laziness of worldly compromises: “You have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (Revelation 3:4). Those people are not nominal Christians – they are the real deal. They haven't “soiled their garments.” They “are worthy” to “walk with [Jesus] in white” – the white robes of a triumphant army, celebrating a victory they all share. Living faith is the condition, the qualification, to walk with Jesus, to share his victory, to be justified and sanctified in union with him, and so to have a real relationship with him and not just a theoretical one.

For a church like Sardis that seems to have accepted nominality as normality, I'm sure these 'few' seem like they live an unattainable standard. I'm sure they seem odd and off-kilter. I'm sure a church like Sardis, confronted with these words, may wonder whether it's even possible to come back to life from the dead. Can there be hope for the cold campfire of a church, all dull gray? Is there anywhere Jesus could poke that could revive a spray of orange sparks to brighten the dusky air? Or have the embers all burned through to dead ash?

Questions like those are why Jesus presents himself the way he does. When he opens each letter, he introduces himself in the way that church most needs to hear. And what the church of Sardis most needs to behold in Jesus is this: that he's “the One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars” (Revelation 3:1). The Jesus who died and lives again is the Jesus who holds the angels, the planets, and the fates in his hand. Nothing can slip by him, because everything we think governs the course of events is flowing through the scars of the nails. And from him flows a sevenfold Holy Spirit – a Holy Spirit wide enough, rich enough, diverse enough to reach every one of these seven churches, which signify every church on all the earth. The Holy Spirit has enough life, the Holy Spirit has enough power, to whip ashen embers into flame, to electrify and revivify, every church from pole to pole. The Holy Spirit is more than up to the challenge of Sardis. If only they'll turn back to the living gospel with a living faith, the Holy Spirit will breathe life back into the Sardian church and into every Sardian Christian. The sevenfold Spirit of God has life enough for Sardis – and life enough for us.

Jesus hasn't given up hope for Sardis. Jesus hasn't given up hope for us. And to those who overcome through a living faith, Jesus has some promises: “The one who overcomes 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” (Revelation 3:5; cf. Matthew 10:32). To you with a living faith, Jesus offers victory and his companionship. To you with a living faith, Jesus offers a permanent place for your name. To you with a living faith, Jesus offers his very own lips to brag about you where his Father and all the court of heaven can hear. Jesus is not ashamed of any believer and any church who keep to a living, breathing, evangelizing faith.

Where does that leave us? Jesus ends his letter by saying, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelation 3:6). This letter and its warning and its hope was never meant only for a single city in the first century. The words of Jesus fly on the Spirit's wings to every church across space and time, and they reach us here as well. If “the Spirit says” these things “to the churches,” then the Spirit says them to us – but do we have ears to hear it for ourselves? Will we hear it, really hear it? Or will we nod politely, shuffle out, say “Fine sermon, preacher,” and then continue the routines of the dead and dying?

Jesus is talking to me. Jesus is talking to you. Where do we fall between the name and the substance? Where do we settle between life and death? Are we awake and alive? Are our works complete before God? Is each of us worthy to walk with Jesus in the pure brightness of a living faith? Are we strengthening and fortifying those places where we just assume we're okay? Nominality must not be our normality! Oh, may we welcome the sevenfold Spirit from the hands of Jesus, and may we awaken anew to a living gospel and a living faith! Amen!