Sunday, November 23, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 9, 2014

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the spirit saying to the churches?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dabbling with All Saints Day ( A Prayer of Thanksgiving and Confession)


This week in Church we are celebrating All Saints day... yes I do realise that it is also (reformation Sunday). I guess it is a way of countering the influence of Halloween that has crept into the New Zealand psyche over recent years... Due to a combination of American media  and large chain stores and supermarkets in New Zealand seeing the possibility of increased sales. It does focus on glorifying the creepy and the scary. While many Churches run light parties  as a counter to that this year we have decided to run an all saints day service to acknowledge the people who have gone before us and inspired us in our faith... here is my attempt at a prayer of thanks giving and confession for the weekend. Please feel free to use it make comment suggest amendments, or totally ignore it.



Loving God,

We gather as your people to worship you

We come together to affirm our faith In Jesus Christ

We come that we may be strengthened to serve and witness

We come knowing that we are part of your people

We come as a small part of your church universal

Joining with saints round the world and throughout time

 

Merciful God

We come to remember your goodness  and grace

That you created the world and all that is in it

You have made each of us in your image; unique and beloved

That you have lead and guided your people throughout history

That you sent your son Jesus to save us and restore us to yourself

That by your Holy Spirit you dwell with us

 

Faithful God

We remember those who have run the race and kept the faith

Those whose journey with you are told in the scriptures

The Patriarchs, monarchs, prophets and people of the Hebrew Scriptures

Apostles, church leaders, and first generation believers of the New Testament

We remember the Men and women who down through the years have faithful passed on the gospel

Those who by their word and deed, with sacrifice and suffering have made Jesus known

 

Gracious God

We remember the people who have gone before us in this place

In this land: as we celebrate 200 years of the gospel in Aotearoa New Zealand

And Here: In the generations who have faithful served you at this church

And in our lives as we remember all those who shared their faith with us

Grandparents, Parents, pastors, teachers, children and friends

Thank you for this great cloud of witnesses

 

God who holds our times in your hands

We remember and give you thanks for your goodness in the past

For all you have done and those who have gone before  

We acknowledge your grace and goodness to us now

We thank you for the people that you have called to journey with us

We place our trust in you for tomorrow

Your continued grace to us, our children and our children’s children  

 

Mighty God

Forgive us, we have done the things we should not do

Forgive us, we have left undone the good you call us to do

Renew us O Lord; fill us a fresh with your spirit

Enable us to faithfully serve you and one another in love

Empower us to witness to the great hope we have in Jesus Christ

That we might bring glory to you O God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fighting To Stay True...Pergamum: What the Spirit IS Saying To The Churches (Part 4)



We are working our way through the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor at the beginning of the book of Revelation.  We are doing that because we want to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches: The churches then and there at the end of the first century and to us here and now at the start of the third millennia of the churches epic journey following Jesus.  What does the spirit have to say to the churches as we face trouble from outside and face problems from within?  Today we are going to look at a church that faced a very challenging context; the church at the place described as where Satan lives and has his throne, a church that had stood firm in the face of persecution and martyrdom but a Church where there were people who were seduced to compromise the truth, to mix the worship of Jesus with the pagan practices around them.  What is the spirit saying to us… 

If Ephesus was the New York of Asia Minor, then Pergamum was its Washington DC.  In the New Zealand context you could say if Ephesus was its Auckland then Pergamum was its Wellington. It was the political capital for the province, the seat of the roman governor. It had been the seat of power in the region before the Romans had come as well. It was a city suited to such a roll as it was built on top of an almost 1,000ft acropolis or hill and commanded the whole area around it, a strong fortress.  Pergamum had the second greatest library in the ancient Mediterranean area after Alexandra. When the Egyptians stopped exporting papyrus   for writing on, Pergamum gave its name to what they developed to replace it… what we call parchment. It had a theatre that could seat 10 000 people and was known as a center for entertainment and for festivals. 

AS the Political Capital it was the center for emperor worship, there is still the remains of a statue of the emperor Trajan near the summit of the acropolis today. It was also the centre for many pagan temples. A temple to Zeus dominates the land scape. That’s a picture of the altar to Zeus  to the right… There were also temples to Athena, Dionysus; the God of wine. 

The city was also well known for the worship of Asclepius, the God of healing and that temple was like the Lourdes of today attracting many people looking for healing. It was the alternative medicines mecca. The symbol associated with Asclepius was the serpent.  As we see these factors combine we can see how Jesus can call it the place where Satan lives and has his throne. It made it a hard place to be church.

Again we are introduced to the one speaking to the church by imagery that is taken from John’s vision of Jesus in Revelations Chapter 1. It is Jesus who is speaking to the churches, when the Spirit speaks to the Church it brings us the words of Jesus. Here we see Jesus is the one who holds the two edged sword.  In scripture the sword is seen in two ways both of which speak to the church in Pergamum and to us. The Sword was the symbol of Roman authority and government and the Church at Pergamum is being reminded that they may live at the center of roman rule and even where Satan has his throne, but ultimately it is Jesus who is sovereign, Jesus who rules. The two edged Sword is also an image in scripture of the word of God it is the symbol of God’s truth.

Jesus tells the church at Pergamum that he knows where they live. Now we are used to those words these days in a weird creepy horror movie stalker kind of context, “I Know where you live’ is like a threat… And we are all worried about the big brother capacity of government agencies. But for the church at Pergamum and for us it is a source of comfort and encouragement. To the other churches Jesus had talked of knowing their deeds and actions but Jesus knowledge of the church goes beyond the confines of the faith community into the context as well. In Pergamum Jesus is aware of the hardship, the persecution that has gone on the temptation to compromise their faith to fit in. He knows both the reality of what we face and the spiritual reality behind it. He knows the pagan environment that the church at Pergamum faced and the increasingly pluralistic and secular environment that we find ourselves in. An environment, which was described by one novelist I read recently where ‘God has been resigned to being the domain of fundamentalists, fanatics and humorists’.  He knows that both environments are hard to be faithful followers. But Jesus knows where we live.

Jesus acknowledges the churches strengths. AS the center of Roman rule in the province Pergamum had been the first place to have to deal with persecution. In Roman society you were able to worship who you liked as long as you also were willing to worship the emperor.  Christians were not willing to do that. In Romans 13 Paul encourages the believers at the heart of the Roman Empire to respect the Roman Government, God had proposed for civil government, it was there to protect the weak and to punish the wicked, but it was only a servant of God not to worshiped as a god. The Church at Pergamum had withstood the persecution. Unlike Smyrna they had already witnessed the death of their bishop Antipas, but had remained faithful as witnesses to Jesus. Tradition tells us that Antipas was ordained Bishop by John and was roasted to death in a brazen bull. Here is a church that had stood firm. That could not be broken by persecution.

Then Jesus acknowledges the problems the church has.  There were groups amongst them that were compromising their faith and the Church had not fought against them. The letter uses an Old Testament story to illustrate this.  Balaam is a prophet that Balak the Moabite king pays to come and curse the people of Israel. He is afraid of them and so calls on spiritual means to disrupt them. Balaam is unwilling to do this; in Numbers 22 we have the wonderful story of Balaam’s donkey stopping him. However we find out later in Numbers that Balaam had told Balek how to get the Israelites to curse themselves. He suggested sending women to seduce them to join in the worship of the Moabite Gods thus earning God’s wrath, which is what happens in numbers ch 25. 

In the New Testament as gentiles had come to Christ and joined the Church the Christian leaders had gathered together in Jerusalem to work through the issue of how Jewish did people need to become to be followers of Jesus. The resulting judgment  recoded in Acts 15 asked them specifically to stay away from food sacrificed to idols and from sexual immorality, from our reading in 1 Corinthians you could see that such things were an issue in the early Church.  Much of the life and commerce of Pergamum would have revolved round Pagan temples, family celebrations would have been in the temple, artesian guilds, professional associations would have had meals at temples and sacrifices to the emperor of various deity would have been part of that. Various groups were teaching that such things were acceptable for Christians. The Christians in Smyrna suffered financial hardship because they would have refused to make such a compromise but here poverty is not seen as one of the issues so it may well be that some were not willing to sacrifice to the imperial cult to save their lives while others were willing to sacrifice to the pagan cults to save their livelihood. 

In doing this however they would have ruined their witness to Jesus Christ. It’s a challenge for us today, how much do we influence our society for the kingdom of God and how much have we let society influence us. Have we allowed our faith to be compromised when our hopes and dreams and the pursuits that dominate our time and our sexual morals are not much different than the world around us. We may still have a theological affirmation of who Jesus is but the way we live that out does not reflect our commitment to Jesus and his kingdom. 

Recently I’ve been reading a book called ‘Shrink’ by Tim Shuttle and he talks about the fact that the church in western society has come to view success not in terms of faithful service to Jesus but in the terms of the secular business world, success is all about the ABC’s Attendance, Buildings and Cash flow… WE talk of celebrity pastors and are told that the way to grow a church is by using business techniques and strategy rather than through prayer, love, discipleship, faithful proclamation of the gospel and service. 

Prosperity Gospel preaches that God will bless us financially if we give and obey him. Can I say that is a very pagan understanding of religion that we can manipulate and earn God’s blessing. That blessing is seen in terms of the quality of cars in the church car park, money in the bank not in terms of the amazing depth and width of God’s grace to us.  It tells people who struggle financially that their faith isn’t good enough.  Even without that how much of what we focus on in our lives is about Christ’s kingdom rather than simply the prevailing spirit of this age. 

WE live in an environment where as a church we wrestle with connection, living the gospel out contextually so that it speaks to our culture and not compromising the gospel. Where we hold to traditional forms and styles at worship that don’t speak to the world and have adopted our societies norms. 

Jesus call to the Church at Pergamum is to repent, and once again we are not told what that entails. But Jesus tells them if they do not fight to be true to Jesus then he will come and fight. The two edged sword speaks of sovereign authority and it will be used to bring Judgement. To repent in this case is to fight to become true: To resist compromise with the gospel and its values. The sword also points to the way we are to fight and resist this compromise. Remember it is also the image for the word of God. God’s way of overcoming error is the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ. AS John Stott puts it “falsehood will not be suppressed by the gruesome methods of the inquisition or the burning of heretics at the stake, or by restrictive state legislation, or even by war. Force of arms cannot conquer ideas. Only truth can defeat error.” 

Jesus then turns to give encouragement to those who overcome. Like with all the letters the reward of staying true and faithful to Christ is couched in terms that connect to the issue being faced and with the church at Pergamum it’s no different.  Jesus says that for those who overcome they will receive the hidden manna, they will be given a white stone with a new name on it, which seems rather mysterious to us.  But the hidden manna was seen as the bread that God provided for the people of Israel in the desert that was placed in the Ark of the Covenant.  While scholars have a whole raft of ways of looking at the white stone, it fits to think of white tiles that were used like tickets today to get into religious festivals. Jesus is saying that for those who overcome they are invited to a greater banquet and greater feast, the wedding feast of the lamb to feast not on food sacrificed to idols but on the very presence of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate communion we talk of it as a foretaste an appetiser of the meal that is to come when we shall sit down with Christ in eternity. Why bother going to the pagan festivals and joining their meals when we have been given an invitation to this feast. A feast we experience with the presence of Jesus in our lives each day. Pagan worship would often give their initiates a new name and here is the promise that Jesus himself will give us a new name. AS I thought about that I couldn’t help but thing of Jesus sitting down with his disciples at  the last supper and saying I no longer call you servants but friends, or Simon, being called Peter which means rock. But the name on the white stone could also simply be the name of Jesus, acknowledging that we are his.

What is the spirit saying to the church? Well as Michael Wilcock says “our soft centered permissive society can be curiously hard on those who refuse to go along with it.” It will both persecute those who do not bend and it is very seductive that we worship its idols alongside our own God. We need to be prepared to fight to be true to Christ. In the end what we are offered in Christ is so much more than what we are offered as a compromise.