Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean
Chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation contain seven letters written to seven different church communities: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. All but one of the letters begin with praising some or other attribute found in the church – the patience and tolerance found in the face of evil; the suffering and poverty; the faithfulness to the name of Christ even under extreme conditions; the love, faith, service and patient endurance; the good works and reputation for being alive; and the faithfulness to keeping the Word of God. In most cases, praise of what is good is followed by criticism of the practices within the particular church. So Ephesus has abandoned its first love of God; the people of Pergamum continue to hold to false teaching even though they know the true; Thyatira tolerates wickedness in its midst; Sardis rests on its reputation for being alive, when in fact it is almost dead. Two churches receive only praise and encouragement: Smyrna, in the face of imminent persecution, is encouraged to remain faithful under the severest testing, and the church in Philadelphia, poor and under threat, is encouraged to hold on for just a little longer.
The one exception is the church we heard about in tonight’s 2nd reading – that of Laodicea. This church is described as being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold; wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. The people of this church are encouraged to do three things: to buy refined gold to be really rich, white robes to clothe their nakedness, and salve to anoint their eyes. As with all of the churches, when we know something about the cities mentioned, the letters make more sense.
Laodicea was founded by the Emperor Antiochus II in the middle of the 3rd century before Christ. Unlike many ancient cities, whose positions were often strategic in the defence or advancement of borders and boundaries of empires, Laodicea was well situated for commerce. The great Latin philosopher, poet and orator Cicero knew the city as a banking centre – perhaps not unlike London or New York today. It had a thriving textile industry using the special glossy-black wool produced locally to make cloth and carpets; and it had a medical school famed for its making of ointments for the treatment of ear and eye problems. John, the author of Revelation, seems to have had a good knowledge of the special features of the city – banking, textiles and healing – for all three feature in the letter.
Laodicea, wealthy from its banking appears not to need God. It is not against God – simply doesn’t really care, agnostic, if you like. It is, says John, neither hot nor cold, indifferent towards God. In their complacency, the citizens of Laodicea don’t realise that in the eyes of God, they are in fact poor, naked and blind. God’s reaction to this complacency is quite uncharacteristic of God: God will ‘spit you out of my mouth’. So busy are they in making money and living in their perceived life of comfort that they fail to find in Christ the true source of wealth, splendour and vision.
It’s an uncomfortable letter, the letter to the church of Laodicea, to people such as ourselves, who live in one of the most comfortable, wealthy, healthy countries in the world.
There is a hint of bad things to come, perhaps persecution, perhaps a downturn in the economy, redundancies, unemployment, recession, some sort of plague or outbreak of disease, we are not told. But the sentence, “I reprove and discipline those whom I love” suggests difficult times ahead. And then the way out is offered. The image of Christ standing at the door and knocking is given. Christ does not force himself on people, on us. He is simply there – knocking, waiting for us to hear, to open the door, to invite him in. Once that door is opened, Christ will come in and eat with us. It is a most intimate picture of relationship – the trusted friend invited into one’s home for a meal. The Christians of Laodicea could not help but pick up the allusion to the Last Supper and the Eucharist. There is also, for this Book of Revelation is about apocalyptic times – dealing with the end of all things – the idea of the final heavenly banquet, when the faithful are invited to share in the great meal in heaven.
This short seventh letter in Revelation is one that bears thinking about in our own context – both individually and as a church, as the capital city of the state of South Australia, living in one of the so-called first-world countries.
And as we ponder on the letter to the Church of Laodicea, on our own status of quite often being neither hot nor cold in our faith, we might find encouragement and inspiration in the words of the opening chapter of the 1st Letter of Peter. Verses from that letter provide the text for Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s delightful anthem, “Blessed be the God and Father”. Composed to be sung in Hereford Cathedral on Easter Day 1834, Wesley, who was organist at Hereford at the time, had only a handful of trebles and one bass in the choir. There is a story that the only bass was in fact the Dean’s butler!
Whatever the truth of the butler and the bass story is, it is a great anthem to sing and any treble who has had the privilege of singing the solo lines is likely to recall vividly the anticipation of the running arpeggios on the organ before launching into the beautiful solo with its powerful message: “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be holy yourselves in all manner of conversation.” That section alone speaks directly to the people of Laodicea. And then the magnificent “Love one another” section building, eventually, to the climax with its assertion that the “word of the Lord endureth for ever”.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed at the last time.
But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation. Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.
Love one another with a pure heart fervently. See that ye love one another. Love one another with a pure heart fervently:
Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away.
But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. Amen.
Text: Selected verses from 1 Peter 1
Music: S S Wesley