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The Apocalypse for Now 2: First Love

April 15, 2013

“The Apocalypse for Now 2: First Love” Revelation 2:1-7 © 4.14.13 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was a church much like any other, though I suppose someone could claim it had certain advantages. Founded in the fifties as a new church development in a cosmopolitan setting, the congregation had enjoyed a succession of highly competent pastors, whose ministry was enhanced and supported by gifted laypeople of both genders. They had worked hard at establishing a particular identity for the church, and the special characteristics that made the congregation distinctive were recognized and even celebrated by members and by the community. Here was a group of people who seemed able to make it through any crisis, no matter how severe, and come out the better for it. They knew what they believed and did not blindly follow every new trend that came along, but carefully examined the claims of various teachers and ministers to have the truth. Day and night, there was somebody at the church or out in the neighborhoods, doing ministry, serving the poor, sharing the gospel, caring for the sick and sorrowing.

One of the special challenges for the congregation had been responding to the numerous opportunities for ministry in their city. The town was the seat of government, culture, and land and sea trade. Living in such a context challenged the Christians constantly to ask about the implications of their faith for ministry. What, for example, was the appropriate word to speak about a particular government policy? Should they even be involved in politics? What might they say and do about the notorious immorality that flourished in certain sections of the city, particularly the waterfront, with its bars and brothels? There were plays produced in the 25,000 seat amphitheater. There was beautiful, world-class architecture that attracted a number of tourists and students each year. What might be the relationship of the church and the arts?

Naturally, the most pressing question confronting the Christians about their work in the community was about religious life. People from all over came through town on their way to somewhere else. As one would expect, they brought with them a variety of ideas and practices. Any faith and ritual known to humankind seemed to flourish there. Especially popular was an ancient goddess cult, complete with the belief that she was an extraterrestrial that had once visited the city via meteorite. Merchants sold souvenirs of the shrine set up by her followers to safeguard the piece of star stuff. The business was very profitable, and things got quite ugly indeed when some of the Christians challenged the propriety of profiteering from religion.

Yet it was the very variety of religious expressions in the town that gave the congregation and its ministers such an inroad for proclaiming the gospel. Everyone was interested in matters of spirituality. When the church was just getting started, the congregation had rented a hall and sponsored a series of lunchtime table talks. These had been particularly successful, drawing large crowds from the community to hear the evangelist who was in charge of developing the new church. Anything and everything was on the agenda. Whatever people wanted to ask or talk about was acceptable and addressed with erudition, if not eloquence. The speaker was conversant with the old traditional ideas as well as the hottest new philosophies.

Now, decades after its founding, the congregation was still a vital and important presence in the community. But though they still were deeply involved in ministry, something was terribly wrong. There was an element missing that had been present in the early days, but now had slipped away. The tragedy was, nobody really noticed. It took a letter to their current pastor from a respected leader and preacher to point out the problem. He was so confident in what he had to say that he wrote as if he were Jesus himself. His deep concern was that the love that had motivated every action, every program, every liturgy had now been abandoned. There was less a sense of being a movement than an institution. Programs and policies were supposed to be a way of caring for others and organizing for ministry. But now they seemed an end in themselves. In church meetings, the talk was often more often of the "ain’t it awful" type rather than of possibilities for the future. The congregation and its leadership had forsaken and forgotten what it was really like to be passionately, intimately involved with Jesus Christ. They could no longer recall how it felt for the fire of faith to burn so intensely at the heart of being that lives were changed and even society transformed.

The letter writer insisted that something had better turn around soon. If not, there would be dire consequences, namely, the demise and death of the church. They would simply cease to exist. Yet it was not too late. If they would but listen, the situation could be changed, and their life as a congregation would be infused with that essential element of simple, selfless love.

Of course, the church I have been describing is not any modern one, but the congregation at Ephesus in ancient Asia Minor, to which John the prophet wrote near the end of the first century. But, as you can see, it was not really so different from any congregation with which we are familiar. It was a community of faith full of possibility and promise in its earlier years, with excited people who felt they were part of a movement of the Spirit at a special time and place. As time passed, they remained faithful, even as people came and went. There was continuity of purpose, so the vision seemed clear, the identity established. But in the process, somewhere along the way, a balance was lost. The concern for doctrinal purity and the fear of false teachers perhaps became an excuse for excluding new ideas and people. The same could be said for the sense of being a group of folk who had been bonded together in a unique way through the trials and tribulations they had faced. The complaint of Christ against the church was not about their faithful adherence to the tradition of faith nor was it regarding their closeness as a community. Those were valuable qualities of the church. I suspect, instead, that the problem was with their loss of a sense of why they did the programs and handed on beliefs to their children and to new converts. Paul, the founder of the Ephesus church, had spoken to the Corinthians about it years before, when they had lost touch with the fundamental motivation of their lives. “If I do not have love,” he insisted, “I am nothing.” Love had to be the focus and the goal, the center and the substance of the lives of the Ephesians together.

Perhaps some of the loss of purpose and vision was natural. Church analysts tell us that every congregation has a life cycle, something like that of a human being. There is growth, peak, and decline. The last phase is marked by a disproportionate concern with administrative matters, to the exclusion of real attention to people. People, at this point, exist to service programs, not the reverse. There is so much investment in maintaining the way things are, both by leaders and from the operating and other budgets, that reform and real change become very difficult. The church eventually dies.

Before that point, though, there is still hope. The strategies commended by John speaking for our Lord are good ones to keep in mind and practice in any age: remember and repent.

Remembrance comes in at least two forms. There is the regret over the past that usually debilitates us and causes us to wish we could do it all over again. And of course we can’t. We end up wallowing in self-pity and nothing really changes. The sort of remembrance commended here, though, is that which empowers for the future. It mirrors not so much what has been lost as what was accomplished in the past, times of strength and faithfulness, hope and concern. And most of all, it recalls the story of God’s work in our midst and gives clues as to where he may be headed with us in the
future. To remember—especially at the Lord’s Table—was and is an act of reclaiming wholeness and getting a fresh grasp on a vision once owned and embraced.

So, remember and be empowered afresh. And with that new-found strength, repent. Repentance is not just a one time thing. And to repent does not mean solely to be sorry for wrongdoing. It is rather more a complete reorientation of heart and mind, a refocusing of life. Like a navigator who must constantly correct course, the repentant church and Christian are always in the process of centering on Christ. Times change. People change. And new challenges come along that cause us to ask what the call of the Savior might be.

This daily, regular repentance is a way of staying alert to what’s happening in the life of a congregation or an individual. And that’s important. It’s like the old story about a frog who was put in a vat of water. The water was gradually heated to boiling, but the frog adapted to the change, got to used to his environment. In the end his lack of a sense of crisis killed him.

Or if that’s a little too gross and graphic, try this. How many of us have lived in a home long enough or are so busy that we no longer notice the dust bunnies in the corner, the crack in the wall next to the fireplace, the clutter in the closet, the shed, the den? We ignore it or say we’ll get to it later or simply don’t consider it important. Our family and regular visitors accept how things look or don’t notice it either.

Still another way to think about it is a couple that’s been married a long time. They’re content, not on fire exactly, but OK. They go from day to day, doing their work and tending to necessary responsibilities, and every now and again they do something special with each other. What was once the new normal of settling in after the honeymoon has become the routine of the everyday. Maybe it’s what they have to do because of circumstances or it is what it is and this way of living is what they both want and need. But still the early passion isn’t there, though they love each other very much. One might even say when the other departs from the routine and is romantic: “What’s gotten into you?” or “Who are you and what did you do with my spouse?”

In like manner, a church can get used to things and begin to believe they are right and proper or nothing to worry about. Like the frog in the kettle, we can fail to recognize that we’re in hot water, in danger. Over time, the standard of approval for some action becomes whether our friends like it or if it’s in keeping with community traditions or the long-tenured member signs off on it. Or maybe like the people of Revelation, the congregation is tempted to accommodate to the culture, to make the criteria by which it accepts people into fellowship the usual ones we see around us, namely, money, power, looks, community standing, conventionality. So there is no difference between the church and a social club. Or going back to our dust bunny analogy, the way things are has become so established that no one can remember what the house was like when the family first moved in, how uncluttered and bright and clean it was. In other words, any recollection of passion, openness, deep spirituality has been clouded over by humdrum, apathy, and going through the motions of ritual. Like the couple, anything new or out of the ordinary or exciting is looked on with a bit of suspicion, even though back in the day, it was the norm.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen all this happen in my years of ministry, with people and with congregations. Truth be told, there comes a point at which recovery is well-nigh impossible. The key is not to get into that situation. Instead, a congregation needs always to be testing the waters and scanning the corners, so to speak, looking with a critical eye at its faith and mission and measuring them against the standards of the gospel and staying open to the promptings and passion of the Spirit. Maybe every church needs a few people who look at things with the eyes of outsiders, like visitors who come into our homes and rudely point out the dust bunnies and the cluttered tables. These folk speak with the voice of Jesus, saying “remember, repent, love, live.” Keeping on our toes about what’s going on is not about the latest technology or liturgy or updating the building. It’s about the attitude of our hearts, that are always open, reflective, and alive with love for Jesus, our neighbors, and each other.

Apparently the church in Ephesus did not listen to the warnings of Christ and did not change. When the Turks took over the region much later, the congregation had all but dwindled away, dying a long, slow death. But you and I can listen. The invitation stands after all these years, as Jesus speaks in the pages of Scripture: “Let anyone who has ears listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. Remember. Repent. Love with the fervency, the passion of those who have just been touched with my healing, helping hand. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”

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