You know, we know very little about the Biblical worship services of the early church. The best description of the early church is found in the letters to the seven churches in the first chapters of Revelation. The churches were outposts of support, activism and were gatherings of people who tried to see the world from God’s point of view.
Folks at UBC know that Revelation is my favorite book in the Bible. It’s not because I like blood and gore and guts. It’s not because I buy the eternal lake of fire thing. I like it because it’s one big metaphor for our life. Like Mad-Eye Moody reminds us: We need constant vigilance against evil. And as Dumbledore says, “Keep your friends close, Harry.” For none of us can do our best work by ourselves. Revelation gives us clues to why we do this thing called church.
First a little context. The writer of Revelation is a prisoner on the island of Patmos, a prison colony. He has a vision, a revelation. During the time that the Roman Emperor Nero was in charge, the church was persecuted. In a megalmoniacal orgy of power, Nero used to have Christians brought into the stadium and asked “who is Lord?” If they said Caesar is Lord, they could live. If on the other hand they said Jesus is Lord, they were drawn and quartered. Nero didn’t like having anyone challenge his control.
The early church, those that were left, went underground. They were illegals. They were heretics. They were seditious unpatriotic troublemakers. Heck, they may as well be called spiritual terrorists for believing that Jesus is lord instead of Caesar. So when they communicated, they did so in code. They used the sign of the fish to indicate their meeting places.
Revelation is written in code. The early church folk knew what it meant. We know a little bit of what it meant. When it said Babylon, it was talking about Rome. When it spoke of the Beast, they were speaking of the Emperor. The number 666 in ancient numerology refers to Emperor Caesar Nero. When it speaks of the Lamb, it refers to Jesus. When it speaks of the Dragon, it refers to Satan. When it speaks of the Lamb conquering the Beast, it speaks of how evil will not prosper forever. It will eventually implode. This is a book that says beware of the empire which seeks its own glory. Seek God instead, for empires will fail—all of them. Empire uses might and abuse to wield its sword against anyone who would disagree with it. Revelation paints this picture in graphic detail.
To make matters worse, the writer of Revelation makes it very clear that it is difficult for all but the most astute to tell the difference between the lamb and the beast. Like a good advertiser, the beast appropriates the language of the lamb in order to win support and confuse the faithful. What’s that line? A lie told many times over becomes regarded as accepted truth. That is why the writer repeats seven “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” You shall know the truth, the real truth. And the truth will set you free.
There is a heavenly chorus in Revelation. Throughout the book, you hear the voices from heaven saying things like, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” And “Holy, Holy, Holy is God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of God’s Glory.” “The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our lord and of his Christ and he shall reign for ever and ever Hallelujah.” These songs, this heavenly music reminds the readers that even when all hell is breaking loose on earth, God has already overcome. The long arc of history bends toward justice and the faithful witnesses will see the new Jerusalem. There’s another reality out there that begs to be recognized and embraced.
When you are persecuted and you literally fear for your life, the church is the one place where you can turn that knows the truth. It sees through the lies and the misdirection. It exposes the breach that is out there and encourages us to live as Christ would have us live, despite what is out there.
Revelation envisions a new way to look not only at the world, but also what churches need to be in the midst of apocalyptic hell on earth. Hear what the writer of Revelation lifts up as important. You heard Paul read it a few minutes ago. Throughout the letters to the seven churches were the words: Bear the faithful witness. Have patient endurance and be not afraid.
Faithful witnesses are the ones who are willing to be faithful even when it could cost you your life. In Revelation, you have those who have exchanged their white robes for red. This means that they are beheaded for following the Gospel. That was the stakes in those apocalyptic times. Christianity was a matter of life or death in their world. If you were one of the few who could bear the faithful witness, you might well be killed for it. Not a pretty sight, which is why the churches were so fragile and yet also why they were so vitally important. How faithful is our witness? Are we fair-weather Christians? Mel Roy has said that if you were brought up on charges of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict? Faithful witnesses were willing to say Jesus is Lord and face the consequences. Revelation says that those faithful witnesses look out for and encourage us. They are our cloud of witne4sses, as the writer of Hebrews states it. And they are watching and awaiting our faithful stand in defense of the Gospel.
Patient endurance is probably best translated as persistent resistance. The church community is where you can garner the strength and support to persistently resist the powers of empire with its creeping tentacles of influence and seduction. We need to be constantly vigilant against the powers that would distract us from the work of the lamb. I remember Coretta Scott King speaking at my college graduation. She said that the work of her husband had been misnamed passive resistance. There is nothing passive about resistance. It is not about being a doormat and letting others walk all over you. She advocated for active nonviolence. Nonviolence is a lifestyle choice—an active choice that we need to make day in and day out. We need to persistently resist the powers and principalities that want to do harm to people. That is the core of the gospel.
Finally, we are to be not afraid of the apocalypse that is around us. We are not to be afraid because the called out church, full of faithful witnesses and persistent resistors are on God’s side. God has overcome the world as the heavenly chorus reminds us throughout the book. The church, when we are at our best is the outpost of hope. It is the community of comfort, truth-telling and action which reminds us and encourages us to be the faithful witnesses and persistent resistors that will change and reclaim the world.
Why do we do this thing called church? We do this thing called church to save lives. Not just in heaven, but here on earth. We do this thing called church because it is a force for Good. We do this thing called church because it is where God is manifest. We find God together. Does this mean that God is in all churches, even when they do evil things? Maybe so, and that’s the hard part. God is in everything, even the church community that is woefully wrong-headed. If we seek after God together, then we find something that we can latch onto that gives us life. That’s what I call good news.
So, see if any of these churches sound like ours.
The church of Ephesus: I know your toil and your patient endurance. You know the difference between true and false prophets, but your love is lacking, and you need to reclaim that. In your righteousness, you have abandoned your love and your joy. You need that. Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The church of Smyrna: I know your affliction and your poverty. But you are rich in Spirit! Watch out, because some of your members are about to be killed for what they believe. Don't sway from the truth, for the truth will ultimately save you. Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The church in Pergamum: You are living in the belly of the beast. That's a hard place to live. Yet, you are holding fast to the truth. You have resisted the temptation to deny Christ. Good for you. But even within your own church you are divided. You need to still do healing inside your church. Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The church in Thyatira: I know your works--your love, your faith, your service, your patient endurance. You are getting better all the time. But still, many of you are swayed by your own temptation. I will judge you on the basis of your works. So keep getting better and seek the word of God. Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The church in Sardis: I know your works. I know your material wealth and your luxury make you feel great and alive, but you are really dead. Wake up and smell the coffee. You have some good folks in your church follow them and you will all be saved. But if not, woe is you. Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The church in Philadelphia: I know your works. You have walked through the open door. You might think you have little power, but your patient endurance shows that you have lots of power. Because of all that you have done, I will save you. Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
And finally to the church in Laodicea: I know your works, you are neither hot nor cold, How I wish you were hot or cold, but since you are lukewarm, I will spit you out. For you say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.' You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. I tell you to repent! Those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The writer of Revelation is not so concerned about converting outsiders to the church's cause. That is important, but it is not the focus of the book. The focus of Revelation is survival and being able to thrive amidst terrible distress. Those who follow the Beast, do not have ears to hear, often. But to those who do have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
As we listen for the spirit, we need to be careful not to be defined by the agenda of our adversaries. We need to pray and listen to the stories of those who have struggled and are struggling. And of course, listen to the joy, the hope the pain of others. For that is one major place where we discern direction and hope for our world. In our discernment, don't be lukewarm. Lukewarm people are not good for anyone, and the Spirit wants to spit us out.
Sometimes we find that the Spirit has spoken to us most clearly in the midst and aftermath of adversity. When we are living as the church on the limb, we find the excitement, the joy and the hope which we all need.
I have to believe that when the early persecuted churches got together in their little masked churches and their storefronts or in their houses where they worshipped, that they sang and they laughed a lot. We need that. There is an utter joy in knowing the truth. It makes you free.
Today, as we gather here, we are listening again with new ears and we are all eager to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. So to all of you who have felt pain and struggle, you people who have questions burning in your hearts, you people who have needs so deep that you cannot handle them alone, the church is here for you. For through our laughter, through our enthusiasm, through this wonderful community, we will garner the very strength we need in order to face what this sin-sick world throws at us.
So why do this thing called church? We do this thing called church so that we can garner the strength to have the patient endurance and persistent resistance we need. We do this thing called church so that we can have the courage to bear the faithful witness to a world and a people who would rather that we simply stop being so uppity. We do this thing called church to save lives. We do this thing called church because we are enraptured by God and we are of good cheer. We do this thing called church because we can and we must. It’s how God moves in this world. And it’s how hope is spread. It is how joy abounds. It is why we were created and it’s why we sing along with the heavenly choir,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and honor and glory and blessing.”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all therein saying:
“To the one who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.”
All fell down and worshipped, and everyone said, “Amen.” (Revelation 5:12-14)