The Letters to the Seven Churches

3rd Sunday after Pentecost July 3, 2011

Revelation 2 & 3

St. John is an isolated man! He has become isolated by time and circumstances. An adolescent in those years with Jesus, he is now an old man. John has witnessed the 12 become 11, with his own brother James being the first to die a martyr’s death after Judas took his life. The 12 became 11, then 10, then 9…each of them murdered, martyred. And like an Agatha Christie novel, now there is only 1: John. Even the mighty St. Paul had bent his neck to the Roman blade some 20 years earlier. Time has isolated the beloved disciple, this last of the apostles.

And now he has been banished in one of the Emperor Domitian’s many persecutions of the Christians at the end of the 1st Century A.D. Too important to kill and make him martyr, John is banished to Patmos, a little dot of an island off the coast of modern day Turkey. Yes, something of a Mediterranean paradise, palm covered and all (at least back in those days)…but banishment is banishment, and it is no laugh-a-minute Gilligan’s Island. John is isolated by time and circumstances.

From the beginning, the wisdom of God has been known: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Even in Paradise. One is the loneliest number…and powerful fears, mingled with distorting thoughts can come creeping into a person’s heart and mind when he or she is truly alone!

So the letters to the seven churches here in Revelation 2 and 3 are as much for John himself, isolated on Patmos, as they are for these seven churches, now cut off from the man who was both evangelist and apostle to them. He had established each of these seven years before, and over these last many years he has been their father figure, “The Elder” as he calls himself in his three New Testament epistles. The churches are isolated from John, but they’re also isolated from each other in the midst of Roman persecution. So these seven letters are, quite literally, a Godsend. Because when Christians become fractured and isolated…problems are compounded.

Now, if you have a Bible open with you, look down through the verses at the beginning of each of the 7 letters in chapters 2 and 3. 2:1 “The words of Him who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” V8, “The words of the First and the Last, who died and came to life.” V12, “The words of Him who has the sharp two-edged sword.” V18, “The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.” Into 3:1, “The words of Him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.” V7, “The words of the Holy One, the True One, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” And finally, V14, “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.“

Do you recognize those images? They’re all from chapter 1, the initial vision of Jesus in His glory. In other words, these 7 letters to the churches are, first of all, for John’s own sake!

Each of the seven letters begins with a powerful reminder to John that he is not really alone. Banished, yes, but not isolated from his churches or his Lord. In all the troubles John and his churches endure, it is Jesus who stands among them…the vision of Jesus among the seven lampstands. It is Jesus who holds the seven stars in His right hand. Those stars are the “angels” it says, the “messengers.” We Lutherans call that the “Predigtamt.” The Office of preaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments.

So the first word is to John. Yes, John, the hand of Rome is mighty, but Jesus’ hand is mightier. Yes, Rome has shut your mouth, John, but Rome cannot silence the Gospel. Jesus stands with you, stands among His people. A first word to John (and also to us): in Christ you are never alone.

Then a Word to each of the churches. And for all of them, except two, it is a Word of commendation with a word of rebuke. But the rebuke is not condemnation, judgment…it is the call to remember, to come back to what has slipped away in the midst of all their troubles. And that is Jesus Himself.

We know how this happens. When troubles arise, we forget that Jesus holds us like those stars in His right hand. When the decisions of modern Caesar upend our lives, the tides of social change crash over us, and our hearts and minds are seized with everything from outright fear to a sort of stoic, grim determination… such troubles isolate us, harden us, fracture the bonds of human fellowship, turn us against one another.

So Jesus says to the Ephesians, 2:3, “I know you are patiently enduring…” V4, “But…you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Their hearts have hardened in the course of their troubles, their love has grown cold.

To the saints at Pergamum He says, v13, “…you hold fast My name, and you did not deny My faith….” “But…” v14, there are false teachers among them—the Judaizers trying to impose the Law of Moses on the Gentiles—and there’s sexual immorality among them. Their faith says the right words, but their lives show something else.

To the church at Thyatira, v19, “I know your works, your love and service and patient endurance.” V20, “But,” like Pergamum, their love is misguided, tolerating the sin rather than embracing the sinner, the curse of cheap grace, which is no grace at all.

At Sardis, 3:1, “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Echoes of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees, those beautiful white-washed tombs, with dead men’s bones inside.

And, similarly, to the Laodiceans, v15, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other. Since you are neither, I spit you out of My mouth.” Very pointed…because this dead congregation doesn’t realize that faith has died!

For the other two churches, at Smyrna and at Philadelphia…there is no word of reprimand. Those two churches have all they can do simply to hold on to the faith. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” Jesus says to Smyrna, v10. V11, He says to Philadelphia, “…hold fast what you have.” Their troubles alone are more than enough to keep their eyes fixed on Him.

So is Jesus harsh? Harsh to people already in harsh situations? No. On the contrary His words are imbued with the profoundest love. Indeed, the churches are troubled, severely. Rome has made life so very difficult. But the greater enemy is their own sin…the enemy they do not, or choose not, to see, preoccupied as they are with their troubles.

Yes, Jesus’ words are hard…not harsh, but hard…hard as His cross, hard as His death for them. He is taking them down with Him by His Words, so that He might lift them up again, creating them anew in Him. For as hard as His words of rebuke are, His words of recreation are far greater! V7, “eat of the Tree of life”; v11, “not hurt by the second death”; v17, “given the hidden manna”; v28, “given the morning star”; 3:5 “never blot his name from the book of life”; v11, “make him a pillar in the temple of My God”; v21 “sit with Me on My throne.”

For those with the ears to hear…even if stinging from the rebuke…for those whose hearts are turned to Jesus, even if bleeding from His sharp words…for those who listen, it’s these latter words that swallow up the rebuke with grace and love and life. The words overflow with Jesus. Where the cross is, there is the resurrection. Where the sin is, there is the forgiveness. Where the wounds are, there is the healing. Words of life drawing these seven isolated churches to Christ, to each other…words spoken also to us in our isolations…that we too might hear and be drawn to Christ!

Now, given that this is the 4th of July weekend, it’s hard not to notice similarities between these letters and things written in 1776. Their motto was blunt: “Join or Die”! If the 13 colonies remained isolated from each other, they’d all fall. Together, they might prevail. So to inspire this, Thomas Paine wrote stingingly, yet with hope: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph…..” And it would be a glorious triumph, the world turned upside down…at least for the British Crown…a triumph that would come by the blood poured out by these united colonies.

In St. John’s day and today, the summer saint and the sunshine disciple will always shrink before the times that try men’s souls. And how quickly we can find ourselves among them! But for those with the ears to hear…then as now…even if the ears sting…for those who hear the words of Him who conquers, who conquers by His blood, for those who listen to Jesus’ words in these letters, He fill us with the promise that we too shall conquer in Him. We too shall rise even if we fall, shall live even if we die, and, in this darkened world, we too shall shine…and shine all the more in Christ because of the present darkness that shrouds us. He speaks; we listen. And in Christ we, though many, are one body!

Next week, with St. John, we are carried into heaven itself, and into the presence of God.