Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 29 April 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 60.1-14; Revelation 3. 1-13
Over the last year, along with my fellow-area deans in the Two Cities, I have been carrying out parish visitations on behalf of the archdeacons. This involves meeting the churchwardens and clergy and PCC, checking registers and records; then writing a report which is sent to the archdeacon and the parish.
In writing these I try to encourage rather than discourage, praise rather than condemn (life is difficult enough already for some of them); although if I have seen something which needs sorting out, I will mention it.
I suppose it is possible that in a century or so, some historian burrowing through ecclesiastical archives might come across what I have written, but I suspect my comments of the life of this parish or that will soon be forgotten.
Not so, the visitation reports on the state of seven churches in Asia we find in the Book of Revelation; and two of which we have heard this evening.
These churches were not the only ones in the region and we do not know why these were selected; but they represent a variety of situations and states. There are churches facing overt hostility from others in society; those with internal conflicts over leadership and accommodation to a non-Christian culture; there are Christians who are comfortable and complacent in prosperous communities.
Despite the differences, all the congregations were alike in being subject to currents and forces that threatened to undermine their commitments, whether obviously through persecution, or more subtly though the erosion of the basis of their faith.
Each congregation is addressed individually, but not privately, since all the messages are available for all the congregations to read. The messages to all the churches were clearly composed as a single unit and follow the same basic pattern:
- An address from Christ
- Words of rebuke or encouragement
- A summons to listen and a promise to those who conquer.
The opening address from Christ includes a command for John to write to the “angel” of each church. Some have suggested that the angel might be the local leader who was to read the message to the church. This seems unlikely because elsewhere in Revelation the “angels” are heavenly beings. This mode of addressing the angels seems to assume that each congregation has a heavenly representative. Nevertheless, the messages themselves speak directly to the members of the congregations.
The address to each congregation echoes the vision of the glorified Christ with which Revelation begins (1.12-20). Hearers of the Letters are to consider their situation in relationship from the perspective of Christ.
The promises at the end of each section depict the faithful as “conquerors.” This suggests the faithful in each community are engaged in a struggle to remain faithful. The writer of Revelation sees conquest in two ways:
1. Revelation speaks of a horseman and a beast who “conquer” by making war, killing and oppressing people (the way of Babylon and Rome and the empires and powers of this world).
2. Christ the Lamb and his followers “conquer” the forces of evil by faithful suffering.
The first is the victory of violence, the second the victory of faith.
This understanding of conquest is intended to alter the way hearers’ perceive their situations. Those who are being persecuted overcome their opponents by remaining faithful, even to the point of death. For those who are complacent, the first step in conquest is to wake up to the way in which their comfort is eroding their commitment.
If we look at the two churches dealt with in our passage, the problem in Sardis is one of complacency. There is no mention of persecution by the authorities or conflict with the synagogue, or internal divisions of opinion. To all appearances this congregation would seem to be thriving. Yet the message addressed to it is almost wholly negative. Its danger comes not from open hostility but the kind of comfortable conditions that breed complacency. They may not be threatened by the judgement of society or state, but they are by Christ’s.
Sardis was one of the principal cities of Asia Minor. In earlier times it had grown wealthy from local gold deposits. It was the capital of the fabulously wealthy King Croesus of Lydia. In the 1st century AD it prospered too from commerce and agriculture. Its citadel, built on a steep hill, seemed impregnable – but had in fact been taken twice. Not by frontal assault but by stealth.
Both Sardis and Philadelphia had been devastated by an earthquake in AD 17 and rebuilt with Roman help. Sardis built a temple for the imperial cult in acknowledgement of this.
The message to Sardis contrasts appearance with reality. It has the “name of being alive.” A good reputation means that others view it favourably. A reputation for being alive suggests prosperity and an absence of affliction. The message challenges this perception by declaring that in the eyes of the risen Christ the congregation is in fact dead; in terms of faith, they are at the point of death.
There are several issues at Sardis. The calls to “wake up” point to a lack of vigilance, not unlike that which had led the citadel to fall to surprise attack. The Christians there are like members of a household, who settle comfortably to sleep, unaware that an intruder might come. In their case, the most dangerous intruder will be not be someone sent to arrest them in the middle of the night, but Christ himself. John echoes the Christ who warns in the gospel, “I will come like a thief in the night, and you will not know at what hour I will come” (Matt. 24.43). Christ comes to strip them of the complacency they mistake for security.
They seem, too, to be content with partial obedience to Christ. Many may consider the congregation to be alive, but measured against the standard of unwavering faithfulness of God, their efforts are far from complete (Rev.3.2). One commentator has called the church at Sardis “the perfect model of inoffensive Christianity.”
Many in Sardis have “soiled their clothes” (3.4). Uncleanness was a common image for sin. Revelation identifies Christ as the one in whose blood people have “washed their robes and made them white” (7.14). Sin and uncleanness include whatever compromises relationships with God and Christ.
But promises are given as well as warnings. One is that those who persevere will walk with the risen Christ, “dressed in white” (3.4-5). White robes, signified purity and were worn on festal occasions and at sacred ceremonies.
Christ’s promise to those who persevere is: “I will not blot your name out of the book of life” (3.5). The book of life signifies citizenship in the kingdom of God. Later John will speak of people’s names being written in the book of life from the foundation of the world. People are placed in it as an act of divine grace; they cannot obtain access by their own efforts. Greek cities would often blot out the names of those who had been executed from their citizenship rolls. Christ assures Christians that those who conquer – which can include being condemned society – will not lose their heavenly citizenship on that account. On the contrary, Christ will confess their names before God, overturning the negative judgement of human courts.
Philadelphia, the second of tonight’s churches, sat in the midst of a rich agricultural area. Originally built as a centre of Greek culture, after it was rebuilt with imperial help it showed its gratitude by changing its name to “Neocaesaria.” Later, it adopted the family name of the Emperor Vespasian, calling itself “Philadelphia Flavia.”
The congregation had “but little power”; it was small and poor. Its people seem to have been on the receiving end of denunciation by members of the local synagogue, a large and influential one Despite this opposition the believers have refused to deny Christ.
Christ identifies himself with a reference to the steward who has the key to the king’s house in Isaiah (Isaiah 22.22): the one “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Christ is the one who is able to admit people into the kingdom of God. Because of their relationship with the doorkeeper, Christ has set before them “an open door that no one is able to shut.” This assures them that even though their adversaries seek to exclude them in this world, Christ has opened a way into the presence of God for them. In the eyes of society they may be outsiders, but through Christ they are insiders. Those who persevere in faith will be pillars in the temple of God and bear the name of the New Jerusalem.
The Letters to the Seven Churches were intended to be read by all seven and by others too. Their place in the canon of scripture means they are to be read by us today. We, too, are to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. It is an essential part of that process of pruning we heard about the Gospel at the Eucharist today (John 15.1-8); the pruning without which we cannot bear the fruit which God expects from us. Not everything which is condemned will apply in every case, but we would be an unusual church if none of it did.
Our triennial visitation takes place soon. We will have to wait and see what the acting archdeacon has to say about us. Will he find us faithful or compromised, complacent or conquering?