The lamb on the throne

Reading:  Revelation 5:1-14

The one thing that strikes me about the first century church is that it was completely powerless. Revelation is addressed to a church that is facing a great persecution. The first century church was filled with people at the bottom of society. It is addressed to Christians who were recently thrown out of the synagogue, they had caught the negative attention of Rome, they were blamed for the problems that happened in society. Christians were not just persecuted — but, in the stories that were being told about them, Christians were the villains.

Revelation is a letter addressed to the church in Asia Minor, which is now called Turkey. Every one of the seven churches are in major cities of the time; whether the regional capital, a major city of trade, an industrial center, or other traditional centers of power. The Roman Empire knew the names of these cities, and these cities were big enough to have the Emperor’s ear. Several of these cities had temples to deified emperors such as Caesars Augustus — two of these cities were so powerful that they suffered Emperor’s envy.

Christians remember the Emperor Domitian as the second great persecution. Many historians don’t believe that Domitian singled out the Christians — but whether or not he had Christians in mind, the Christians suffered greatly under his policies. Domitian decided to emphasize traditional Roman religion. He personally had a temple built to Jupiter, and he worked to increase the practice of worshiping dead Emperors. His first act as Emperor was to declare that his late brother Titus, the former emperor, was a god, and he had temple built for the worship of his father and brother.

Christians refused to participate in Emperor worship. They would not say Caesar is Lord concerning the living emperor, and they would not pray to the dead emperors. In many places, this meant exclusion from Roman society and a ban from trade. In some cases, it meant physical danger. Whether or not Christians were singled out, their lives were being destroyed by the empire — and their beliefs were not accepted by society. Christians had no power, and any power or wealth a Christian might have was quickly being taken away.

In Revelation 5, we see an image of the slaughtered lamb on the throne, in all trappings of authority. The lamb is called the lion of Judah, the root of David, the conqueror. The lamb had the authority to open the sealed document — a document that had a seal on it to show that it was not disturbed between the sender and the one receiving it; in other words a document that was written for the king’s eyes only. This picture in Revelation makes it clear that Christ is in the ultimate authority.

Now, there are different ways of interpreting this. One common way is to see that Christ’s throne is above all other thrones. We can easily quote Paul in a way that suggests that every king is under Christ, and they are, as political authorities, authorities to do good for the kingdom of heaven established on Earth.

The idea that the emperor is God’s agent on Earth is a pretty easy concept when the Emperor is Christian, and the state religion is Christianity. This was the dominant understanding after the 4th century throughout Christian Europe. It made sense, because you had a Christian king, and he was crowned king by a Christian bishop. The church clearly recognized the king’s right to rule.

This understanding is fairly popular in the United States as well; and why shouldn’t it be? Almost all of our presidents were publicly Christian, and Christian ethics are commonly discussed in congress when crafting laws. The inaugural prayer service has been a tradition since the founding of our nation; it is usually held at the National Cathedral, and it does give a sense that faith has a rather public role in our government. One of the first public actions of a president is to appear in a religious service that lasts for three and a half hours.

When Christianity is on friendly terms with the state, it is easy to picture the rulers as God’s subjects — who will be judged by God according to whether or not they governed according to God’s law. When we see the officials of the church and the officials of the state standing together, and the church blessing the state; it is hard to think otherwise.

The picture of Christ having the ultimate authority might not have had the same implications to the 1st century church. Things are very different now than when Revelation was written. One thing that stands out to me in this passage is that the lamb on the throne was slain. We have to remember that Jesus died on a Roman cross; Roman soldiers stood guard around his grave to make sure that he stayed buried — and when he rose from the dead, he conquered the act of Rome, and Rome’s military might. The picture of the Lamb that was slain, but still conquered isn’t a picture of Christ putting the emperor into power, but a picture of a Christ who’s power was far greater than the empire.

At this point, interpretation becomes difficult for me. I grew up with the idea that I lived in an effectively Christian culture, and everything that I saw around me supported this idea. There was also an idea that there were forces that were trying to reduce Christian influence from our world and culture — there of course were many stories that could be given as examples of this as well. I grew up aware of the culture war, and knowing which side was the right side.

On the other hand, I learned in history classes about all of the evil that was done by people who claimed to be God’s representatives on Earth. History taught me how much corruption was possible in a Christian nation — especially if people were afraid to touch the leaders that God supported, leaving it so that at the end of the day they were only accountable to God. Learning this part of history, I was somewhat skeptical of my own Christian nation.

Conversely, I learned about the evil done by secular nations. I learned about the viciousness of communist governments; as a student of Church history, I learned about how brutal the Roman government was for the first few centuries after Christ. I also learned how brutal society was. I learned about abandoning children to death, I learned about a world where only the powerful mattered, and where life was not treated as sacred. I also learned how Christian ideas seeped into culture and changed the hearts and minds of the people. I learned how Christian Rome eventually ended blood sports, I learned how people started making a real effort to care for the sick, and to save unwanted babies.

When I look at the difference between Christian Rome and Rome before Constantine — it is hard for me to regret that the Emperor became Christian. Even with all its rough edges, I prefer Christian Europe to pre-Christian Europe. I understand the challenge Christianity had in adapting to its new place of privilege, considering that the New Testament was addressed to a Christianity facing existential threats, living in a hostile world with an uncertain survival. I much prefer the world where the Empire and the Church are friends; I much prefer the world inhabited by great theologians trying to understand this new situation.

When I look at history and see all the ways the church has failed to be the church; ways where it represented the Roman Emperor rather than Christ, I see that when Jesus said he did not intend to establish a Kingdom of this world, the church won’t be successful at establishing godliness by using the government. The problem I see in history, including recently, is that Christianity can be distracted by political power, begin to compromise in order to hold onto that power.

Jesus taught us that he did not wish to build a kingdom of this world. Jesus did not want to be the emperor, Jesus did not want the church to become a political party — you see, the kingdom of heaven is lasting in a way that political parties and dynasties are not. The kingdom of heaven is not thrones, nor strong men but it is salt, it is light, it is mustard.

I think that the way that the Kingdom of Heaven changes the kingdoms of Earth is by changing everyday people. When we look to governments to change the world, we make a mistake. Governments can make laws, they can enforce laws, but they do nothing to change the human heart. Christianity started with a few powerless people; people who learned to have faith, and to live according to love, even when love is difficult. It started with a few people who had no power, but were willing to die for what they believed in — and who would do what was right, even when the world was wrong.

For centuries, innocent Christians died; people who were slandered, but who did nothing but good to their neighbors, and the known good character eventually defeated slander. Eventually innocence defeated false convictions. Eventually people sought to become more like the Christians — more Christlike — Christians were salt, light yeast, and eventually Christians were everywhere and changed everything.

I have come to believe that the way Christians change the world isn’t by changing governments directly. I believe that Christianity changes the world by changing something far more lasting — Christianity changes the hearts of the people.

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Jeremiah 29:1-14 Plans to give a future and a hope

Reading: Jeremiah 29:1-14

The words of this passage are very familiar to me. The promise that God gives God’s people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29: 11-12 KJV) is a promise that I often see on posters. These are words that many people keep coming back to, because they are words of hope.

I admit — when I see these words on a poster, they are separated from the context. When lives are comfortable, it is easy to look to the promise that God has a special plan for us — when our lives are hard, then these words are very difficult to believe. The words are most difficult to believe if they are given to us in the context of words that take away every bit of hope that we have.

When Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles, Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. The leading people of Judah were taken away from their homes, and they were sent somewhere else to live. One of the communities where they were sent was Babylon — the capitol of an enemy empire that destroyed their homeland. These were not people living in a safe situation — these were people living in a place where they were surrounded by enemies.

Not only were they in a hostile place, but this letter was not actually the kind of letter that would bring hope. In order to preserve hope, the exiles were telling each other that this would all be over soon, that they could go home and rebuild. The exiles were putting on a brave face, and hoping to return home. Jeremiah the prophet sent them a letter telling them that the hope that they had was wrong — that they would die in a hostile land, never to see home again. This hope crushing letter is still something we keep going back to and quoting, why, because it says: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” This promise to people facing the worst news they can imagine surely is for us as well.

I don’t know what it means to live in a hostile nation. I don’t know what it means to have hope stripped away; I have never lived in exile, I’ve never lived in fear of the police, I’ve never felt that place where I lived was hostile just because of who I was. I cannot look back at my experience and know what the Jews in Babylon must have felt — especially as they had this bad news. My experience does not tell me these things, and my imagination isn’t quite good enough to tell how I would respond to these things; you see I imagine myself braver than I am.

The truth is, I stand here, and I realize that there are people in this room who can understand. Last month has been a tough month for you — and you are in my prayers. I know that some of you are nervous when you see police. I have learned that there are some people who use their little bit of authority to harass people. I realize that there are some of you who have face ICE, and have been to the immigration courts. I know that this experience is frightening, and my thoughts and prayers are with you.

Two weeks ago, I listened to our attorney General, Jeff Sessions speak. In his speech, he included a lengthy list of crimes committed by illegal immigrants. This list included some fairly detailed descriptions that included names and ethnicity. When listening to this man try to demonstrate that Hispanics are a danger to the United States, I realized that this is dangerous. As Sessions spoke of local police forces refusing to protect the public from this danger, I feared that somebody might take up arms to protect his community from the brown threat. I know that Jeff Sessions was only talking about those who could be deported — but I also know that you can’t tell a natural born citizen from an immigrant by looking, and I don’t know anybody who carries around their birth certificate to prove citizenship. If your ancestors are largely Mayan, Inca, Aztec, or any of the other people who are indigenous to the Americas; you can’t change your skin. When Jeff Sessions mentioned the crime committed by a Guatemalan, and suggested that law enforcement refuses to protect the people from such criminals — it puts everyone of Mayan descent in danger — and considering that violent racist don’t really care to verify genealogy any more than they care to verify status, it puts everyone of visibly Native American descent in danger.

The danger that I speak of is something that I’ve seen in a community that is familiar to Karla and me. When we visit Kansas, one of the stops that I make is in Oletha; which is a quiet suburb of Kansas City with a Christian college. Several months ago, the President spoke of the danger of radical Islamic terrorism — and following that speech, somebody saw a couple Indians eating at a restaurant. The man pulled a gun on them, yelled get out of my country, and murdered them. He drove to another town, went to a restaurant, and asked to be hidden, because he killed an Iranian. Now, these Indians were not Iranian, they were not Muslims, and they were not terrorists; and they were here legally, working as Engineers for Garmin. Violent racists don’t care about immigration status — nor even getting nationality correct. If hate is a danger to electrical Engineers — it is a danger to everybody who can’t change their skin.

As I’ve been watching this hateful insanity, I’ve been learning that even those I thought would be sympathetic are not always. I’ve learned that doors that I thought would be are being shut. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that you are a community that can identify with the Jews in Babylonian captivity. The more my eyes are opened, the more I see that the story of an America that welcomes people isn’t always true. It breaks my heart to have learned this.

The thing is, the more you are like the Jews in Babylon, the more sure I can be that the promise is for you — the promise that God wants good for you and not evil. I know you and I both pray to Jesus, I know that we both hold onto the name were were given, Christian. I know that we are members of the same kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. You are my fellow citizens in Christ — this cannot change. Because I know who you are, I know that the hope offered in this promise is yours.

I also see that Jeremiah gives advice to people living in a land that is an enemy land. The advice that Jeremiah gave was to live — to build houses, to plant gardens, to marry and have families. He advised the people who lived in a hostile land to live normal lives in that land. This seems to be good advice to me, because what other choice did they have? What choice do you have? You have to live your life — the alternative is to die waiting for a chance to live.

Living life, and having your family live life though isn’t the only advice that is given. The rest of the advice is difficult advice: Remember this is advice to people living in a hostile city and nation!

Jeremiah tells the Jews living in Babylon to work and pray for the prosperity of the city — to work and pray that Babylon prospers. The advice is to seek good for your neighbors, and for the wider community, even if it is a hostile place filled with enemies. The reason Jeremiah gives is that “As Babylon prospers, so you will also prosper.” This really makes sense if you think about it. If you are going to live your life somewhere — you hope that it is a good place to live. If you live in the city, what is good for that city is good for everybody, so hope for that good.

Now, I would like to call on us to follow one part of the advice given by Jeremiah — stand, and lets pray. There is something that has been called a concert of prayer where the leader calls out prayer requests, and everybody prays. I have a few things to pray for — I will call them out, and wait as we pray. Let us pray together.

  • For peace and prosperity in the United States and Indianapolis
  • For President Donald Trump, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our congressmen and our judges
  • For governor Eric Holcomb, that he governs wisely and well
  • For our city government, our schools, and our civic workers
  • For those who are poor and those who are sick
  • For Iglesia Amigos

Message given at Iglesia Amigos de Indianapolis.

Revelation 3:7-13 — Closed doors and open doors

Reading: Revelation 3:7-13

We are continuing our overview of the 7 churches with Philadelphia. If you notice, the letter to Philadelphia does not condemn them for anything. The struggles that they suffer are mentioned, but there is nothing but love and compassion for this struggling church. If our church were to get a letter, I hope that it would be such a letter.

For those of you who were in Sunday school, you have learned that the city of Philadelphia was a city that was one prosperous but now faced struggles. The video we watched talked about how the city was devastated by an earthquake, and then the Emperor Domitian ordered them to destroy the local vineyards so not to compete with the Italian Wine industry.

In addition to that, they mentioned something that had become a continuing theme in these letters to the churches; the argument of whether or not Christians were a Jewish sect. This argument had been going on for some time, and historians disagree on whether or not this argument had yet been resolved. Some say that a clear decision was made about 85 AD, but there is evidence that there were synagogues that included Jewish Christians well into the 2nd century. By 98 AD, however, the distinction was clear enough that Roman law did not include Christians as Jews.

This process of separation, which by this point had been going on for about 40 years, was a hard process to say the least. I know a little bit of the pain of seeing doors closed — especially doors that at one point very familiar to me, but can you imagine going to your place of worship, and being told that you are no longer welcome? Can you imagine the doors of your church being closed to you? I know the language in Revelation is a more harsh than we find acceptable now; but, at the time it was a personal hurt — when the synagogue doors were shut, the Christians were separated from not only the pagan community, but the community that worshiped God as well.

Historians estimate that at the end of the First Century there were thousands of Christians, most likely less than 10,000 — this number comes from assuming that Christians grew at a consistent rate until Christianity became the main Roman religion in the fourth century. Even if we are to guess that the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation is the number of Christians, this would be a tiny fraction of the 60 million or so people who lived in the Roman empire. While the best we can do is guess — there is no number I can guess that makes getting closed out of the synagogue anything less than isolating.

What is the promise given to those who are faithful, even when they are cast out, and it is made clear that the world has no place for them? What promise is made to people who now see the doors of both the synagogue and the Agora shut, isolating them from both the world of faith and the world of business? “These are the words of the one who opens and no one will shut.” I see much hope in this introduction; I see the promise that Christ has an open door for the marginalized.

In some ways, we can imagine what was going on; Many of us have had an experience where we were shut out of somewhere that was familiar and safe. If we have, we have a guess of the hurt that was going on. Personally, I’ve been very lucky — I’ve been more the type to observe shut doors than to have them shut on me. When I experience closed doors, it is generally because I choose to spend time with those who see the doors shut on them.

You know that my heart is with people who are shut out — it always has been. My earliest memory of disappointment with the church was when I saw friends that I invited were less than welcome. Right now, my heart is with a group of people who are being reduced to a political argument. Last month was not a good month to be involved with Hispanic ministry. Just last week, a man involved with Iglesia Amigos was picked up by ICE, and for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, his wife was released with an ankle bracelet. Just a couple weeks ago, Jeff Sessions demonized the Hispanic community by reading a list of crimes, connected with Ethnic backgrounds — it does not make it easier for a community of brown when the nation is being told by high government officials that brown people are criminals, and dangerous to the community. Next Tuesday, we suspect that a group of documented immigrants; the minor children of undocumented immigrants brought here, but later given permission to live and work here might find that when their work permits expire, they will not be renewed. We fear that people who have no memory of living anywhere else will become criminalized.

It is hard for me to walk with members of a marginalized community, because there are some doors open to me that, in order to enter them, I must leave them behind. It is distressing when we see doors that were once opened closed; especially when there are people who we saw as friends on the other side of those doors. Last month has literally been the kind of month where optimism has become dispair.

Yet Christ came to Earth to bring the gospel to the marginalized people. Christ preached good news to the poor — Christ is the one who sets before us an open door that no one will shut. The more time I spend with people who see doors closed, the more I realize that these words are good news for the desperate. The kingdom of heaven is made up of the faithful Christians of Philadelphia; who entered the door Christ opened while all those other doors were shut. Jesus came with the message that God accepts those that society calls unacceptable. With Christ, all the divisions we make no longer matter, because Christ tore down all those walls that we build.

The hard part of this gospel is that we are called to love those that Christ accepts. We are called to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, where those walls that were once so comfortable are now torn down. If Christ opens a door — we must let people enter that open door instead of trying to block it. Sometimes good news for the marginalized means a call to work for us. I remember reading a sermon where the preacher was telling the congregation they shouldn’t be a welcoming church — he made it clear that this wasn’t because they were welcoming the wrong people; but it was because they were no longer an inviting church. Welcoming is much easier than inviting; a sign next to an open door is welcoming. Inviting is showing people who are desperately searching for any open door that there is one open too them. Inviting is letting people who are marginalized know that the gospel is good news for them. Inviting is going to the lost, and leading them to Christ’s open door. This is the gospel — and as people of God’s kingdom, the gospel is our work.

Revelation 2:8-17

Reading: Revelation 2:8-17

Today we read the messages to the churches at Smyrna and Pergamum. There is a common theme and a common history between these two churches — the theme is suffering persecution, and the common history is that both are known for suffering persecution.

I will start with Pergamum — Antipas of Pergamum is the first known Martyr in Asia Minor. Antipas died in 92 AD in a Brazen Bull. I don’t know if you know what a Brazen bull is — but, I’ll tell you. A brazen bull is a statue of a bull with a door in the side, and tubing that transmits sound from the inside to the mouth — sound that is distorted by the tubing is supposed to sound like bellows. The victim is locked inside of the bull, and a fire is lit under it; and as the person is roasted, his screams become the bull’s bellows.

The note in Revelation mentions a person who was executed in this creative way. The cruelty and the inventiveness that is displayed here makes it clear that this is a place where Satan’s throne is — if Satan had no throne there, how could such inhuman cruelty be openly part of society.

Smyrna is described as a place where Christians were slandered, and the local Jews were pointed out as enemies. Smyrna is different from Pergamum in that it is a prediction: “Do not fear what you are about to suffer… for ten days you will have affliction.”

In Smyrna, Jews were tolerated, and their monotheism was tolerated. One question that this brings up is whether or not Christians share in the toleration. The Jews distanced themselves from Christians, and the Christians were accused of Cannibalism, human sacrifice, and other libel. I’m not sure how long 10 days is — but I do know the most famous martyr of Smyrna was Polycarp — and he ordered to be burned at a stake about 50 years after Revelation was written — and he was brought to the stake jointly by the Jewish elite and the pagans of Smyrna. Whatever the situation that would last 10 days was, it was still very much in effect 50 years later.

Personally, I like the idea that the 10 days are the 10 persecutions of the Early church; if they are, than at the time Revelation is written, they would be in the second day of affliction — and the ten days would be over at the start of the 4th century — so 10 days would be about 250 years — the persecutions end with the Church becoming the Imperial religion.

The promise I see in Revelation is that if Christianity endures, it will survive the persecution, and even the persecutors. There is a promise that the power of those who kill only have the power to touch the body — and because of Resurrection, they are powerless against the Church.

I’m done talking about history. There is much more that could be said, there is much I could say about idol worship, I could read from Numbers, and summarize Numbers 22-24, telling the story of Balaam in detail. I would try to connect what is written in Revelation to the experience of the ancient Hebrews. — In a normal weekend, that is what I would do, but this isn’t a normal weekend, so, I have already finished my commentary.

Today, I wonder how a letter to an American church might read. Would we read something like: “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is?” Would the letter addressed to us praise us for standing firm against the evil that is in our world? Would it speak of how much we suffer or will suffer?

At this time, I seriously doubt that our letter would read like that. We live in a nation where persecution is so unimaginable that a simple intellectual challenge to Christian morality or belief is as close as we come to persecution — and there are many who seem to believe that such a challenge is persecution. Christian thought is considered in the highest level of government, in a respectful way, even by those who disagree with it; this is so true that those rare times when we don’t hear a common Christian belief being treated respectfully by a government official, we feel that it is wrong, and frighteningly abnormal.

What would a letter be like to a church who faces no persecution, who is not punished nor separated from society for their beliefs, who’s members have control of significant wealth, who has influence in every level of the government, and who’s members hold many positions of high leadership? How does the letter change when in an environment where the president reminds us that we worship God, not government? It seems like we, just like Christian Rome, would get a letter to a church that conquered by enduring hardship.

You see, many American churches have a history of persecution. The American idea of religious freedom was created by and for persecuted Christians. We overcame, we created a place for ourselves where we didn’t face that any more, and part of the goal was to protect the freedoms of those who have no power. With our history, what would Christ say to us?

I think that the letter would be less than kind. I think that we would be called out on our lack of faith in God, and how we really believe in ourselves, our wealth and our power and our personal knowledge.

I think that we would be condemned for the relationship formed with political parties. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly based on Christian morality; both are essentially secular. Now, there is both a Christian Right and Left that have one this one thing in common — both compromise things they believe to be part of the party. Sometimes compromise comes in the form of deemphasizing a traditional belief, or a teaching of Jesus — sometimes it goes further, and it is literally calling something good that scripture calls evil, or condemning something that Christ commands.

I think that we would be condemned for the idolatry of nationalism. The first Christians dealt with the question whether or not Caesar is Lord — they made it clear that Jesus is Lord, and nobody else really is. We live in a nation where Caesar makes no claim to be lord — yet, we are willing to compromise the gospel for political power. We are not asked to worship Caesar, but we are willing to bow down and worship Satan for the promise that he will give us the world to rule.

Today, I think the biggest thing that would be spoken against us is that we say we love God, but we openly hate our neighbor. We think nothing about speaking of those created in God’s image as if they had no value, and if their lives were worthless. It is as if we’ve decided that God’s image is a select group of people — not every human, but just one ethnicity.

This weekend, a group of White Nationalists extremists held a rally in Virginia. This rally included a Nazi terrorist using a car to harm and murder people who disagreed with the Nazi message. I look at the American church, and I see a group that does not have the courage to say that this hate is sin; and that if you hate your neighbor, who is made in God’s image, you cannot love God. If the American church said this clearly, we would not have seen the ugly display that formed at Charlottesville; but we have not said it — instead, too many of us have defended the rhetoric of hate. In fact, we have a Christian culture where church members recruit other church members for the Klan. Your grandparents likely were aware of the days in the 1920’s when one of the local pastors was a leader of the Indiana KKK; and nobody seemed to have a problem with this. We long ago compromised to the point of blasphemy. If there were a letter to the American church, the letter would tell us to repent of this blasphemy.

Every generation has its own difficulties. The difficulties we read about in scripture are very often the difficulties of living in a hostile culture under a hostile government. Our situation is different, our greatest difficulty is that we are caving without any pressure to those things that early Christians would resist to their death. Our greatest enemy is not Caesar, but compromised Christian leaders telling us that evil is good.

The letters all have this in common: “Whoever conquers” has a promise such as never tasting the second death, or a white stone with a new name. Overcoming a disease in the community is harder than overcoming what is external community. It is very hard because it is our problem; it is our sin. May we overcome though, because a church that hates who it should love is no Christian church at all.

Revelation 2:1-7

Reading: Revelation 2:1-7
Ephesus was an important church — tradition tells us that John settled in Ephesus, and that he brought Mary with him. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is one that focused on the gospel of Christ rather than any specific problems with the church. Scripture tells us that Paul spent about 3 years in Ephesus — that he was nearly run out of town because the Christians were not buying things dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Scripture also tells us that Paul’s student Timothy became a leader in the church at Ephesus.

The message given to the Ephesians is given to a church that looks to me like it was the center of Christianity, following the destruction of Jerusalem. The last of the disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus settled there, all of the big names preached there, and it was enough of a center theological knowledge that John writes to them that they tested those who falsely claimed to be apostles and found them false.

The Church at Ephesus is a church that is theologically correct. The Ephesians cannot be fooled; they were taught by the best and they know who and what Jesus is; they know the True gospel, and when they see a false gospel, they are able to name it as a counterfeit.

This passage speaks of a specific false teaching — that of the Nicolaitans. The Nicolaitans are only mentioned twice in scripture, the second time is later in this chapter in the letter to Pergamum:

You have some there who hold to the teachings of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so they would eat food scarified to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (Revelation 2:14-15 NRSV)

These short lines, and a few sentences from early Christian writers is all we have to tell us about this group. Ireanius called them antinomians, and associated them with one of the Gnostic sects of his time. Justin Martyr said that they ate food sacrificed to idols; which I also got from reading Revelation. What I was able to find left me guessing who the Nicolaitans were; but, one thing stood out: The early Christian writers were clear that they took the name from the Greek deacon Nicolaus of Antioch, who was appointed a leader with other Gentile Christians in order to correct a problem that was forming due to having a multi-cultural church.

Just making the leadership multicultural didn’t fix the problems. The conflict between the different cultures in the church would continue. When Paul wrote his epistles, the chief false teaching he opposed was that of the Judizers. Paul spoke against those who demanded that Gentile Christians first give up their own culture, and become culturally Jewish. Judiziers were not able to separate their faith from their culture.

When I was at FUM triennials, I went to a workshop led by Eden Grace where we learned about cross cultural ministry. While we were in the workshop, she spoke of the mistakes made by well meaning missionaries over 100 years ago — specifically in the context of Kenya.

The original missions in Kenya were large compounds, and the people who joined the church were taken into these compounds to live like Christians. They built western-style Christian houses, planted Christian gardens the way Englishmen planted gardens, dressed in Christian clothes like Englishmen wore, and learned English culture as the culture of Christianity. Many 19th century missions did not separate English culture from Christian faith; and they taught English culture as Christianity.

Growing up American, but having an interest in cross cultural ministry, I’ve become aware that I must recognize that faith and culture are not the same thing. When I experience cultural differences, my culture is the one that feels right. I even want to look for proof that what I am used to is better — but when I’m honest, I realize that scripture does not really endorse European culture either, there are things in there that challenge us too. We all can make the same mistake the Jewdizers made.

One thing that I learned when studying Church history is that Heretical teachings come in pairs; there is the false teaching, and then there is another false teaching that forms while trying to refute the first false teaching. When people focus on correcting errors, instead of the truth — that focus reliably leads to another error.

Now, what error would come from Greeks rejecting the call to turn into Jews; the most obvious error would be to create a Greek Christianity that cared more about being Greek than Christian. The error would be to avoid questioning anything that was part of Greek culture — leading to people who claimed Christianity, yet would go to the pagan temple to buy meat scarified to idols, and perhaps even offer a pinch of incense to Caesar. I really think this is the most likely error of the Nicoliatan; that they Hellenized Christianity just as the Jewdizers Jewdized Christianity.

In I Corinthians 8, Paul seems to be writing to exactly this type of Christian. They rationalize their behavior by pointing out that they know that the Greek gods are nothing. There is the idea that openly participating in Greek pagan culture is ok, because they don’t believe in the gods that received the sacrifice. This is a convenient faith, it is one that does not challenge a person’s place in society — but, as Paul writes: “not everyone has this knowledge.” Paul urges these Christians to behave different from their Greek culture, so they will not cause others without their knowledge to stumble.

What is ironic is that if I am right about who the Nicolaitans were, then they and the Ephesians church had something in common; both were correct in knowledge, but somehow in error. Those who did not separate themselves from idolatry simply because idols are nothing knew the right thing, yet did the wrong thing, and they were able to justify it by their knowledge. The Ephesians are condemned because they “abandoned the love they had at first”.

When Jesus spoke to the disciples at the last supper, he told commanded them to love one another. It is said that people looked at the Christians, and said of them “see how they love one another.” Even when Jesus spoke of how we will be judged, Jesus didn’t say there was a theological entry exam for heaven, but instead spoke of the way we treat others. Loving one another, and acting according to love is a big part of what it means to be Christian.

One group was smug, and acted wrongly with the knowledge that because there is but one true God, none of the Greek paganism even mattered, the other group was able to tell which teachings were right and which ones were wrong, but ended up failing to continue to live in love. One might say their faith moved from their hearts to their heads.

Of course, I’d recommend Biblical knowledge, good Theology, and a good enough understanding of the gospel to recognize when somebody is preaching a false one. The knowledge and discernment the Ephesian church had was a good thing to have. I think the point here is that we cannot put knowledge over the love we are commanded to have. A smug superior knowledge can even become a justification for bad behavior; and right knowledge can be applied wrongly. Knowledge is good, but knowledge alone is not enough.

We must remember the love that we had at first. We might make mistakes, we may even be mistaken about something that we think we know — but, as Peter wrote in I Peter 4: “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.” Remember, no mater how much we know, no matter how good we are at discernment, if we forget to love, we have strayed from the way Christ taught us to live.

 

The end of all things: I Peter 4:7-19

Reading: I Peter 4:7-19

“The end of all things is near.” These words spark the imagination; these are words that we all hear from time to time — and they are words that are easy to dismiss because we see that the world didn’t end every time that we hear those words. It is easy to argue how the world will end, and miss how much of the world really did end.

I believe that I Peter was written between the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, and the death of Nero in 68 AD; perhaps not surprisingly, this range of dates is also when Peter and Paul died under the persecution of Nero. Lets consider the Roman world in the middle of the first century.

At this point, Pax Romana had made it so that the entire shoreline of the Mediterranean sea was well connected. The winds were such that travel by sea was fast enough that one could travel from Rome to the ends of the empire in about a week — if you had to travel quickly, you could, though you paid for it by the discomfort of sailing.

While this letter was written in Rome, Peter and others in the community certainly had connections to Jerusalem and the temple. The Roman empire made it so that massive pilgrimages to the temple were possible. The temple was built to its current spender under a Judean king who was basically a client king to the Romans. It might not be pleasant to be occupied, but being under Rome had many advantages.

Caesar Augustus’s descendants were not nearly as great as he was; this is one problem with dynasties, eventually you get kings who are incompetent, crazy, or malicious. Caligula was, doubtless, all of these things. Caligula was assassinated by his bodyguards before he could destroy the empire.

Caligula had most of the adult male members of his family killed, because he saw other potential emperors as a threat to his power. For some reason he missed his uncle Claudius — most likely the reason was that Claudius was mocked by his family and kept out of the public view; uncle Claudius was not a threat.

Under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, things started getting better. Claudius was a hard worker, getting up long before dawn to focus on the needs of the Empire. He focused on improving transportation, building roads and canals throughout the empire; unfortunately, he married a relative, Nero’s mother. The historian Tacitus tells us that Claudius was poisoned by his wife, his food taster, and his physician when Nero was old enough to rule.

When Nero came to power in 54 AD, 10 years before the great fire, he started off as a good emperor. Nero was a student of the philosopher Seneca, and he had the great moral philosopher as his adviser. Seneca taught him to treat people humanely, whether they were slaves or free. Nero’s early reign was marked by reversing the harsher actions of his step-father. His first public speech promised to end secret trials, to eliminate court corruption, and to respect the Senate; and the first half of his rule greatly increased the rights of the poor and former slaves.

It did not take long for the hope people put in Nero to break down; in 58 AD, he had his mother murdered — and by 62, he started executing any nobleman he disagreed with. Not surprisingly, 62 is also when his adviser Seneca fell out of favor. As Seneca was Nero’s speech and policy writer, Nero’s tone and policies changed drastically. One might say that early-Nero’s rule was really Seneca’s rule.

In 64, there was a great fire that destroyed most of Rome. Rumors said that Nero started it so that he could rebuild Rome and expand his palace complex. Between the fire, and Nero’s killing of anybody who criticized him or opposed him politically, he lost the support of the Senate. Nero blames the Christians for the fire, and begins crucifying and burning them. Starting in 65, Senators were planning Nero’s assassination, and they even had members of Nero’s body-guard involved in the plot; and there is a problem, Nero has no heir, the family of Caesar has murdered each other until it was nearly extinct.

In 66 AD, there was a revolt in Judea. Nero sent Vespasian to restore order — this turned into a full out war that in 70AD completely destroyed the city of Jerusalem. While the Jewish-Roman war was going on, back at Rome Nero was assassinated in 68 AD. Nero’s assassination and lack of an heir plunged the empire into a civil war. 69 AD was known as the year of the 4 emperors, the first three dying in quick succession. Vespasian, who warred against Judea left his son Titus in charge and marched on Rome, conquering and looted Rome, and established his house as the next dynasty.

All things are coming to an end. If you were Roman, you were about to see the reign of the Caesars coming to an end. Before Nero, the emperor was from Julius Cesar’s family — but, the Senate was allowed to choose which member; now, the emperor was chosen by the military and served as a military dictator making Rome less democratic. Vespasian’s son Domitian would completely end the illusion that Rome was a republic, and the senate had any power. Domitian would also become one of the greatest persecutors of the Christian faith.

If you had any connection to the Jewish people and faith, the end of Jerusalem as a city and the complete destruction of the temple, followed by making the man responsible for this destruction emperor at Rome would have signaled an end of the world. If you were a Roman, who loved Roman institutions, and the stability Rome enjoyed, even when there were ineffective emperors; you would have lost something. If you were a supporter of the Caesars, you would have mourned their line coming to an end. If you supported the Republic and the senate, you would have mourned that they no longer had any power — that after the civil war all power was held by the emperor and the military.

Peter did not need great prophetic insight to see that change was coming; he only needed the ability to hear rumors, and guess truth from them. The Christian community was a scapegoat for the emperor’s problems; a fiery ordeal is a big eye-opener to the problems faced by the emperor. Perhaps the biggest sign that an institution has problems is the need to direct focus on an unlikely scapegoat. Peter couldn’t have been the only person who saw the writing on the wall.

Peter wrote some advice for the church as it was facing its members being publicly set on fire and burned alive — it might be good to listen to the advice given to a church facing a fiery ordeal even in this time and place where we enjoy comfort, and where Christian thought is discussed and considered at every level of public discourse.

The first thing Peter advises is how to act to other Christians. He advised that we keep loving each other, we keep being hospitable to each other, and that we keep serving each other. When the rest of the world is uncertain, and everything that once seemed safe is unsafe, Peter called the Christian community to be a refuge, and to look out for each other. After the great fire of Rome, many people were made homeless — what is more practical than love, service, and hospitality when people are displaced? Between the fire, a hostile government, and the disasters that were to come, this isn’t just about being nice to each other; this is about survival.

Peter also gave some advice about how to relate to the Roman Empire; in this case he advised that the community honor those who are punished by the government for their Christianity — basically, martyrs are to be honored. If somebody is punished for Christian beliefs or behavior, the person suffered just as Christ suffered — the person is a hero.

On the other hand, Peter told the community not to murder, or steal, or commit other crimes or even to meddle. Peter told this community of scapegoats to be on good behavior — make sure that when Nero sets you on fire, nobody can find any cause for him to have done so — not even meddling; which was reason enough for Nero’s family members and trusted advisers to be put to death.

The end of all things was near, and it came and went; but Peter gave advice that helped Christians survive persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the looting of Rome. The more people saw Christians suffering without any cause; the more people saw Christians loving one another, and being generous and hospitable, serving those who were in need — the more people joined the church. Without fighting back, Christianity would defeat all the power of the empire and would survive it.

Christ has given us the strength to endure all that the world can throw against us. We hope for the resurrection of the dead, and that hope is greater than any power that can be used against us. I don’t anticipate any fiery ordeal any time soon — but, I do anticipate opportunities to love, to be hospitable, and to serve one another.

I Peter 2:4-12 Building a house

Reading:  I Peter 2:4-12

Some parts of the Bible are more difficult for me to understand because of my cultural background. In the United States, we focus on the individual. When a group of people accomplishes something, we choose somebody to give credit to. Of course, there are places where individualism causes problems, and we are reminded things such as “there is no “I” in team — but, at the end of the day, if the team is successful, there is an effort to give credit to an individual.

As an example of our culture, a couple years ago National Geographic put out a documentary series called American Genius. I love documentaries, so I had to watch — and, the series started with “Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates;” which, not surprisingly was about the development of micro-computers between 1977 and the mid 1980’s.

I can say the show was fun, but I can also say that the line that they showed on the screen described the show perfectly: “This program included dramatizations inspired by history. Some events have been altered for dramatic purposes.” In the case of the first episode, I could see exactly where they changed history — but, instead of listing the details they changed, I’ll give the big picture. Every one of the shows was one personality vs another personality — every industry was reduced to two people — and in the case of Jobs vs Gates, they chose two people who were not directly competing with each other.

We all tell stories in a way that “alters events for dramatic purposes”, even when we don’t intend to do so; and one way we do this is that we exaggerate the role of a single individual — we give one person credit for everybody’s work, or we cast blame on one person for the community’s failure. We really don’t know how to think about a community. Do we know what it means to be living bricks?

When we look at a building, we don’t think of the individual bricks, but instead, we think of the whole that it represents. If we really think about what it means to be living stones, making up a great temple, we have to remember that if people are seeing stones instead of the building, something is wrong. For this metaphor to work, we have to see community clearly.

When I was a child in Sunday school, we were taught a little song written by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh:  (Song copyright by Hope Publishing.  The copyright holders graciously provide words and music on their website.)

I’m glad that I had this little bit of theological training as a child; the song is quite simple, but it gives a great overview of ecclesiology:

  • The church is not a building, but people
  • The church is not localized but worldwide
  • The church is not limited to people like me
  • The church transcends time
  • The church remains the church, even when its not at its best
  • The church is about praying in community
  • The church brings the good news of Christ to the whole world

We are living stones; we are part of the great structure that is the church; You and I share this role with Peter and Paul, with names that everybody remembers such as C.S. Lewis, or Augustine; and we share this role with billions of names that only God remembers; but if we focus too much on one brick, we fail to see the structure!

The church is the community that Jesus gathered — and it is much greater than we are able to see. Every one of us is very limited; we can only be one place at at time. We are also limited in that we can only travel one direction in time, and we can only go a little ways. Even people who travel for a living do not have the opportunity to obverse all people; and no matter how long our memory, our memory neither stretches back to the first generation of Christians, nor can we remember what will happen in the future. We are bricks, and as bricks we are far too small to see the whole building, the most we can see is those bricks that are closest to us.

Sometimes people talk as if there was the early church, and there is the church now — as if there is nothing in between. Usually, when people do that, it is because these two moments of time are easier to deal with than all of history. I recall at Barclay college, we did learn a competing view of the church that taught that he church became apostate, and thus was no longer the church, and at some point, God raised somebody up to re-establish the church — our professor Mark Kelly referred to this as the blink off, blink on theory.

This theory has a couple of problems, the first of which is that I am in no place to judge when the church was no longer the church. There are parts of the world where the church is aware of its history all the way until the days of the apostles. I learned that in the middle east, there are families who have been Christian since the 1st century. It is rather impressive to realize that there are Syrian Christians who’s families claim that their ancestors were in the church that Peter served. These families cannot remember a time when the church was not — it is the same as if they were asked to remember when their family was not.

Another problem is that if we want to set a time when the church became “apostate” the best time I can think of was when the apostles were still alive. When I read the New Testament, I can see that the early church was full of terrible problems, and that the apostles dealt with issues that I would not imagine in our churches today. I also can see that the early church dealt with putting faith in humans instead of God, and it dealt with personality conflicts and with cults of personality. Was the church already apostate when Paul was writing his epistles? If it was, how can we trust an apostate church to have preserved Holy scripture?

The truth is that I cannot really point to a time when the church truly lived up to its ideal. Us living stones are not always content to take our place in the structure. Sometimes we want to stand out — sometimes we want to be something much more than a stone; and sometimes we really rebel against the whole idea of holiness and community. The more I read Church History, the more I realize there is no golden age; but, the more I read, the more I realize that there are bright lights in even the darkest of ages. It seems like the church is always in need of repair, and there is always somebody there doing repairs.

To paraphrase the Presbyterian pastor, Eugene Peterson, people go to church to pray together; they don’t go to hear a lecture. Peterson wrote about receiving this epiphany in The Contemplative Pastor, along with several other things that he learned in during his lengthy ministry. Now, the American church model often seems to act as if people are gathering together to hear a lecture — and Peterson, being a Presbyterian, belongs to a faith tradition where preaching is a sacrament; perhaps even the primary means of grace — yet, even in the tradition that has the highest view of preaching, one of the most famously skilled preachers observes people come to pray together, not to hear a sermon.

Ultimately, I believe that the church is a community of the Kingdom of heaven on the Earth — and that it is more than a community, it is a colony. Jesus tells us that we are to be salt and light. The church might not be of the world, but it is very much in the world — and one reason the church is here is to improve the world.

We are a community that eats and prays together. We are a community with a shared belief in God, as revealed to us through Jesus Christ. We are a community with a long tradition of helping each other and caring for those who have needs. We are the church; that is the identity Christ gave us — and with God’s help, we can live up to the high calling that we be the Church.