Dead Churches, Like Sardis

Dead and dying churches. They are everywhere in our nation along with opinions as to why and what to do. A lack of vision. Failure to keep up with the times in music. Too much politicking. Boring services and comma inducing sermons. A changing culture that could care less. These are some of the reasons people give for the death of churches, with no shortage of advice on staying alive. Perhaps now is a good time to read this letter from Jesus to a dead church:

 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:
“I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. 3 Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 Yet you have still a few persons in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. 6 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.Revelation 3:1-6 (NRSV emphasis mine)

Is there anything here that can help our dying churches in Canada? Jesus gives them six imperatives:

Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. Revelation 3:2-3a (emphasis mine)

Let us take a look at each.

Wake up!

To wake up is to leave dreamland and dwell again in the real world. It is to give up appearances and get back to reality. The church at Sardis appeared to be alive, but needed to grasp the reality that in God’s eyes they were quite dead. Every church needs to pinch itself from time to time to ensure it is awake and has a good grasp on reality.

The original language behind “wake up” is more literally “become watching” (Young’s Literal Translation). We are reminded of Jesus’ teaching:

35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. (Lk. 12:35-36 NRS)

Churches, more than any other group of people on earth, should live in such a manner that the return of Jesus tonight would cause rejoicing and not embarrassment or regret. Sadly, many churches in our nation do not even think Jesus is returning.

Strengthen what remains and is on the point of death!

What remains, yet could disappear? A community of people gathered around a cause. Let us consider another time Jesus spoke of the potential for death:

John 15:5-6 (NRSV) I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

To strengthen what remains, the Christian community needs to gather, not just around a cause, but around a person, the Person, Jesus Christ.

Remember then what you received and heard!

What was received and heard, that is now forgotten? Consider the following example:

13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. (1 Thess. 2:13 emphasis mine)

The Christians in Sardis are to remember the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. It is the message of reconciliation with God. It is the truth that such reconciliation is made possible by the grace of God through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Is it possible for a Christian community to forget the Gospel? Here are three ways the Gospel is forgotten among the churches of our nation.

  1. The Good News is forgotten where the reality of the supernatural is denied.
  2. The Good News is forgotten where confidence wanes in what the Bible teaches about Jesus.
  3. The Good News is forgotten where sentimentality becomes an idol.

This last one perhaps needs more explanation. Suppose you had to make a choice between a) having your church just as it is, with the building and the weekly services, but no possibility of anyone coming to Jesus through its ministry, and, b) a person coming to Jesus through the ministry of your church, but you must lose your building and the way you do things. What would you choose? If you chose option a, sentimentality may have become an idol. It can and does happen that the message of the church is seen of less importance than the institution of the church. Such churches need to “remember then what you received and heard.”

Obey it!

The word “obey” has the connotation of the mere keeping of rules. However the word in Greek is much more nuanced than that. Some of the definitions include: “keep in view, watch over, guard, keep, preserve, maintain, protect, observe.” Here is encouragement to keep, guard, and maintain the Gospel teaching. This is more than just keeping the right doctrinal teaching, for the Good News of Jesus Christ is not just good news. It is life changing good News. When we grasp the Good News fully, we will find ourselves grasped fully. Yes, churches are for sinners like you and me, and should be places where we can be transparent about our struggles. Yet, the Church is the people who live by the Holy Spirit. The statistics should reflect that people are bearing the fruit of the Spirit. If things look no different between the church and society, then chances are good that the church is dead. There is a need to guard the Gospel, not just in the sense of being able to recite a catechism, but in being changed people, a people who reflect the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Repent!

To “repent” means to have a “change of mind.” The church in Sardis is told to repent, to have a change of mind about what is important. In our day, there are many voices calling for churches to change. Change the music, change the morality, change the doctrines, change the traditions, change the preaching, change the preacher. Some churches try to change nothing. Many churches try to change everything. The change that really matters is the kind of change Jesus calls a dead church to make; a call to change the mind, to repent and focus on the life changing Good News of Jesus Christ. 

There may be many reasons that churches die. But there is one reason that is inexcusable, one that Jesus speaks to; forgetting the life-changing Good News of Jesus Christ. Neglecting the Gospel is a sure-fire way to kill a church. Does your church need to pinch itself?

(All Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted)

Leading Like Jezebel in Thyatira

You have influence! In every relationship, in fact every encounter, you influence and are influenced. Even where there seems to be disengagement, there is still influence. As we continue our trip through the seven churches of Revelation,we meet a person of incredible influence in Thyatira. Not good influence, but incredible:

I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. Revelation 2:20-21

You may have a Jezebel in your life, exerting incredible influence. Not good influence, but incredible. You may be the Jezebel in someone else’s life. Jezebel is not likely the real name of the woman in this church. Instead this is a nickname, pointing back to the wife of King Ahab in the Old Testament. The original Jezebel had incredible influence over the King. Not good influence, in that he was influenced away from Godly worship, but incredible. We have the capacity to influence and be influenced away from a God-focus. Therefore we need to take influence very seriously. So what are the leadership lessons we can learn from Jezebel?

One person’s influence can be extremely important. When you think of the great themes and scope of the Book of Revelation, it is remarkable that this one woman should get a mention. We are not told if she has an official leadership position. That does not matter, for we can wield incredible influence without an official position. I’ve seen some people wield incredible influence on individuals, and an entire church, even after they have passed away! Do not underestimate the kind of influence a Jezebel can have in your life, in your family, or in the life of your church. And don’t underestimate the power you exert over others. You do have influence. Are you using your influence to draw people toward Christ’s Kingdom, or away?

To claim to speak on behalf of God is a very big claim. Jezebel “calls herself a prophet” (verse 20). Broadly defined, a prophet is someone who speaks on behalf of God. Jezebel was not doing that at all. Her advice directly contradicted that of the apostles at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to stay away from idolatry and sexual immorality. Her advice directly contradicted the commands and wisdom of all the Scriptures from Genesis on. Do we allow people to “speak on behalf of God” in our lives who have no right to? Are the spiritual leaders of our lives full of Biblical truth and the Holy Spirit? Or are we sometimes the ones to get preachy without a good grasp of Biblical truth and fullness of the Holy Spirit?

That you reap what you sow is still true, and so what you sow as a person of influence is very important. Jezebel will reap what she has sown: “Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings” (Revelation 2:22).

Grace is a wonderful theme in the Bible and comes to its most profound expression in Jesus. In Jesus, we do not reap what we sow, we reap what He has already sown in his death and resurrection. He sows love, mercy, and forgiveness. We reap eternal life. We also reap what the Holy Spirit sows, a Kingdom life, a life marked by the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But we might take a Jezebel detour. We might insist on doing the farming ourselves, throwing away the Holy Spirit’s seed, prefering to sow our own seed instead. Don’t be surprised by the weeds. If people are allowed to have a Jezebel influence in our lives, don’t be surprised by consequences. If we lead like Jezebel, don’t be surprised if like Jezebel, we reap what we sow. Let us reap what the Spirit sows instead.

Shepherding is a great image for leadership. The concept of leadership carries through the letter to Thyatira:

26 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,
I will give authority over the nations;
27 to rule them with an iron rod,
as when clay pots are shattered—
28 even as I also received authority from my Father. Revelation 2:26-28

“To rule” in verse 27 is literally “to shepherd” and reflects the Greek translation of Psalm 2:9 quoted here. Christian leadership is not just influence for the sake of having power, it is about shepherding. It is not so much power over, but responsibility for. There are three aspects of shepherding to think about. First, the shepherd is not the owner of the sheep, but is accountable to the owner. All leaders  are accountable to God, even if they do not believe in Him. Second, care of the sheep is an important aspect of the shepherd’s work. We can think of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me to lie down in green pastures.” The good shepherd leads the the sheep to good pasture. Third, the shepherd is to have concern for the safety of the sheep. Looking to Psalm 23 again: “your rod and your staff — they comfort me.” Thy rod and staff comfort me because with them you can chase away predators. Keeping in mind these aspects of shepherding, we can clearly see that Jezebel was no shepherd. In not repenting, she was not being accountable to God. She had no care or concern for the sheep. In fact she was leading them into danger. In contrast, Jesus is the good shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep (John 10). Are there Jezebels in your life who throw off accountability, who are influencing you though they have no care or concern for you? Are you a Jezebel, or do you shepherd people?

You are, whether your realize it or not, a person of incredible influence. But is it good? Are you a good shepherd, like Jesus? Or a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, like Jezebel?

Religion and Sex, Here, and in Pergamum

Old fashioned fuddy-duddies in a society that is enlightened and progressive. That is how many people would describe Christians today, especially in the areas of religion and sexuality. In matters of religion the contemporary trend is to either deny, or affirm, all of them. You can practice one, but don’t dare say it is the only one that is true. And in matters of sexuality, there are no rules, so long as it is consensual. If only the Church would get with the times and not be so stuck in the past! But is this fair? Has society truly progressed leaving the church stuck in the past? The letter to Pergamum in the Book of Revelation helps us answer this question.

While the faithfulness of the Christians at Pergamum is commended, there is something that Jesus must address:

But I have a few things against you: You have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Revelation 2:14-15 (NET emphasis mine)

Whoever the Nicolaitans were, the main concern is with their teaching on religion and sexuality. To understand why this is important, it helps to know something about religion and sexuality in a Roman city like Pergamum.

The word that could be used to sum up a typical Roman view of religion is confusion. Confusion because the gods were always in a mess. When men create gods in their own image, the gods start to look and act a lot like men. Character deficiencies are to be expected. If the gods could be in a mess, they would hardly be in a position to give moral guidance. You would be excused for being in a mess too. Further, you could be confused about whether the gods like you or not. You might pour out the proper libations to the proper gods, but if your boat sank, it was pretty clear they were not happy.

The Good News of Jesus Christ brought people from confusion in matters of religion, to clarity. God was not created by men, but He is the Creator Who has revealed Himself. His character and nature are clear. His moral guidance is clear. That you have the opportunity to stand in a love relationship with God is clear. Yes, you might pray and your boat might still sink, but that God loves you is still clear. The proof was not in a safe voyage across a sea, but in the cross of Jesus Christ which brings us safely from enmity towards God to intimacy with God. With the Gospel, confusion is replaced with clarity. 

The word that could sum up a typical Roman view of sexuality is power. Adultery, prostitution, sex with temple prostitutes, sex with prepubescent boys; all of this was not just allowed, it was encouraged. The free Roman male should do all this, and should not blush. You had sex, not because you were in love with someone, but because you had power over them. What kind of a Roman man are you if you cannot prove your strength and power?

The Good News of Jesus Christ brought people from a place where sex is about power, to sex being about love. You might think that the Romans were free in matters of sexuality, and that Christianity came to replace freedom with rules. But the move is not from freedom to rules. Instead it is from a power trip to a journey of love. Paul in speaking about renouncing old ways has not changed gears when he says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .” (Ephesians 5:25 NRSV). Among other things, this is still on the theme of living a new way, and not the old Roman way. In Christ, husbands are called to sacrificial love, and this includes matters of sexuality. Loving your wife means giving up the prostitutes and whatever other sexual interests you had as a Roman man. In places like Pergamum the Christians were the enlightened and progressive ones calling people away from the old status quo of sex as an expression of power to a new way of sex as an expression of love. (1)

We clearly see this shift in matters of religion and sexuality at the Council of Jerusalem. The big question facing the Church at the time was whether non-Jewish people needed to become Jewish as they became followers of Jesus. Here is the conclusion they sent by letter:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. Acts 15:28-29 (NIV)

In other words, you do not need to become a Jew and keep all the rules of Judaism when you become a follower of Jesus. But you can no longer live like a typical Roman! Roman confusion about “the gods” does not mix with Christian clarity about the love of God in Christ. Roman emphasis on power in matters of sexuality does not mix with the Christian emphasis on sacrificial and covenantal love.

At Pergamum, the Nicolaitans were pressuring the Christian community to ignore the wisdom of the Jerusalem council and keep living like typical Romans while also looking to Jesus. They are called to repent, keeping in mind that while Rome ruled with the power of the sword, the Romans themselves were accountable to a more powerful God.

These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. . . .  Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Revelation 2:12,16 NIV

So are we being old fashioned fuddy-duddies, out of step with an enlightened and progressing society? Should we join with the Nicolaitans and mix our Christian faith with changing Canadian values in religion and sex? Actually, in throwing off the beliefs and ethics grounded in our Christian heritage, our society is not moving forward, but moving backward – to ethics recognizable to pre-Christian Romans. In throwing off an exclusive belief in Jesus as Lord, society is moving from clarity about God and His love to confusion. And in throwing off Christian ethics in sexuality, society is moving away from love as the anchor. When you unstick religion and sexuality from God’s Word, you quickly become unglued. As Christians, we are called to join God in turning religion and sexuality from confusion and power, to clarity and love. There is nothing old-fashioned about that!

(1) I am always indebted to the work of Biblical Scholars as I am in the habit of consulting various Bible Commentaries in the preparation of sermons. One book in particular helped shape this sermon: Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Michael Rueger, who points out the Roman view of sex as power, and the Christian call to love.)