Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Easter 3 (ii)
April 23, 2012, 10:46 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday evening, 22nd April 2012

What do we know about the Churches of Ephesus and Smyrna, to whom the messages in the second Lesson were sent? One of St Paul’s Letters is addressed to the Ephesians, and we know from the Acts of the Apostles that he himself had ministered there for several years. It was the capital of the Roman Province of Asia (nowadays western Turkey), a centre for the worship of Artemis or Diana, a deity much venerated by women. It was a great port, although later it became silted up and declined.

Smyrna was the second city of the region, also a port, about 50 miles up the coast. It was a Romanised city, very proud of its faithfulness to Rome. Its Bishop Polycarp was martyred in 155, aged 86, and therefore he may have heard the letter read out when a child or young man.

The Letters to the Churches contain a series of commendations and criticisms of various local Christian communities. Ephesus is praised for its toil and endurance, and for rejecting “false apostles.” It isn’t clear, now, who the “Nicolaitans” were (they are mentioned several times in these Letters to the Churches), but it is thought that they may have been a group who advocated some sort of compromise with paganism, a watering down of the faith. By way of criticism, on the other hand, perhaps because of their zeal against false teaching, the Ephesian Christians are accused of allowing their love to weaken. Was this their love of God, or their love of neighbour? Maybe both. Even today it is easy to let zeal for truth- or “correctness”- swamp God’s greater commandment of love.

Smyrna is praised for steadfastness in the face of persecution. Christians there were poor as the world reckons, but rich in the eyes of God. The persecution seems to have come through accusations by the strong local Jewish community. Reading between the lines, we may suppose that there was resentment at what would have been regarded as a Jewish heresy. Gentile Christians may have begun by emphasising their spiritual roots in Judaism, only to be told that they were not real Jews- hence the counter claim, “No, it is you who are not the real Jews. The Church is the true Israel.” Jews had certain privileges as an authorised religion: if in retaliation they denounced Gentile Christians as belonging to an unauthorised sect, the imprisonment Christ warns of would be a real danger. It might even lead to death, in the face of which faithfulness would lead to a crown of life.

The Book of Revelation addresses a situation one or two generations on from our Lord. It is easy to see that by that time there was a risk that the first fervour of the faith would be gone. John’s readers would include Christians whose grandparents had, maybe, heard the Gospel from Paul or other missionaries, before they themselves had been born. The problems John faced have been magnified many times, as a further nineteen centuries have passed. Ever succeeding generation needs a wake-up call. In the eighteenth century the Wesleys spearheaded such a call in this country; in the nineteenth it was Newman, Pusey and others. Only a few generations later, and the work has to be done again.

 

From the beginning, scholars have debated whether the John of the Book of Revelation is the same John as the Evangelist and beloved disciple. It really does not matter. He was clearly a visionary, but that does not mean the book is simply a description of visions he had. He was a visionary in the sense that he had a clear idea of what the Church of his day ought to be, but was in danger of not being. The “visions” he described are certainly coloured by his reading of the ancient prophets, particularly Ezekiel; they are also coloured by the need to disguise the fact that they were directed against pagan Emperor-worship, the idolisation of power. A similar need for discretion has been met in later generations by the use of political satire, subversion presented as comic fable of fantasy.

As we read the Book today, we have to decode the imagery. What are today’s idols? Money? Sex? Military might? How should the Christian respond to a State machinery that demands the sacrifice of conscience? How do we balance the Nicolaitan impulse to compromise too much with the society around us, and the contrary impulse to retreat into a self-righteous ghetto? Are we willing to toil and endure, like the Ephesians? Has our love grown weak (again, like the Ephesians)? Are we prepared to face ridicule and unpopularity for what we believe in? Are we faithful people, people of faith who trust absolutely in the message we have received, the message of God’s love?

I have read that a recent survey has shown that people of religious faith tend (on the whole) to be happier than those without faith; readier to volunteer for and support good causes; less prone to mental illness, and so on. The factual basis for this is accepted even by some atheists and agnostics, who are now wondering how these desirable features may be captured by people without faith. “You don’t have to believe in God to be good, or happy,” they say. The problem is that, for Christians, the root of their goodness and happiness (which alas is not always present) is their belief in a loving God who has personally shared in human suffering and death, and in Jesus Christ has risen in glory. Take that away, and you lose the motivation for self-sacrificing behaviour

John saw the risen Christ in glory, who said, “Fear not, I died and behold I am alive for evermore.” In his message to the Christians of the year ninety (or whenever it was), he asked only that they be faithful, to stand firm and trust him. “To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life; he who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death.” Christians still make many mistakes, but when we get things right, we know it is not through our own cleverness or strength, but in the power and wisdom and love of Jesus. The Book of Revelation is often thought of as a hard book: but if we understand it as John’s critique of the world of his day, rather than as a forecast of events still to come, we will find that it has a lot to teach us. We need the “vision” in the wider sense, the vivid sense of Christ as Living Lord, and of the often disguised forces of the world that are ranged against him. We need to be clear about the difference between the two sides, and about which one we are on. There is a war on, between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, between love and hate and indifference. Those who fight and conquer, spiritually and morally, are guaranteed life and happiness, here and hereafter.

 

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