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.