good church: philadelphia

It’s hard to believe that it has been only a year and a half since the devastating earthquake in Haiti.  I know for the people who live in Haiti they still deal with the devastating loss of over 200,000 lives to the earthquake and the ensuing aftermath of lack of drinking water and food to eat.  I had plenty of friends travel to Haiti for relief work and even months after the disaster they slept out doors and in tents.  There was no faith in the structures and if another quake were to strike the people wanted to be prepared. In Haiti there was a climate of fear, and rightfully so, if you can’t have faith in your buildings then maybe a little bit of fear is a good way to go.

Haiti and the first century town of Philadelphia have a lot in common.  Philadelphia was a city that was very seismically active.  The entire town was often fleeing the city and then returning.  The town was characterized by fear.  The town also was a cultural center, setup to export Hellenism to the rest of the world.  The early Christians in Philadelphia were also subject to a fair amount of persecution.  However, in this letter Jesus praises this church more than any other.

This church suffered, it overcame, but mostly, it wasn’t afraid.  Unlike all of the other churches we’ve looked at, this church remained counter cultural and did not take on the fear that the rest of the city had.

One night Jesus’ disciples were on a boat ride and it became stormy so they woke up their Rabbi.  They said, “don’t you care that we are going to die?”  Jesus responded with a question, “why are you afraid, where is your faith?”  I think I would have been with the disciples on this one; at this point they hadn’t experienced the resurrection.  But The point of Jesus saying this is obvious.  God is in control; if you believe that God is who he says he is then there is no reason to fear.

This church took the fear of others and turned it into an opportunity to share about the security of Christ.  This is a church that didn’t make decisions based on fear, they made decisions based on a God who was and is living.

 

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good church: sardis

A few years ago when I had responded to the call into ministry I was still in my last year of receiving a political science degree.  I decided that rather than throwing away 3 years of work I would finish out my degree and then go to a seminary and study theology.  I was telling one of my most respected international relations professors that I was going to enroll in a theology program and shoot for my master’s degree.   This professor tracked me down on campus a few days later and gave me a copy of the periodical, “Faith & Foreign Policy.”  I was very excited to see my two major interests collide.  However, when I read the papers that were presented in this periodical I was strangely troubled.  The papers were all on the theme of ending religious persecution. The reason I would say that I was strangely troubled is because while I know persecution is horrific and de-humanizing, I also know that the only church (so far) that Jesus praises is one that stands firm in the midst of strong persecution.  I don’t want to see anyone jailed or killed for their faith, yet that is where the kingdom forcefully advances.  I found myself living in a strange paradox, I am a humanitarian and yet I don’t want to work to end religious persecution.

The city of Sardis was built on top of cliffs.  It had only been attacked successfully two times in its lifespan.  A small team free-climbed the cliffs in the middle of the night and opened the gates while the city was sleeping.  An attack on Sardis was rare.  The church in that city was a reflection of the safety that the town enjoyed.  During the time that John wrote Revelation there is no indication that imperial worship was required, neither was there persecution for being a Christian.  The church in Sardis enjoyed an unusual safety within the walls of the Roman Empire.

What Jesus had to say should ring loudly in the ears of the American church. “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead.  Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.” It is great to be a Christian in America.  You can give to your church and get a tax write off at the end of the year.  There is no danger of going to jail because of what you believe.  No one is going to hold a gun to your head and make you choose Jesus or not.  Life is good…we are safe.

But I am reminded of Jeremiah at the temple.  His message was, don’t think you’re safe just because you are at the temple, remember Shiloh?  But wait what happened at Shiloh?   At Shiloh the Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant in a battle.  The thought was, “we will be safe if we just take this into battle.”  They were conquered because safety can sometimes breed apathy.

When I played baseball a lot of times we would lose the game in the ninth inning when we were up by a number of runs.  We would just take the field and we thought that we already won it and taking the field was just a formality, our goal was to maintain our position.  Is that what church has become in America?  Taking the field in the ninth?  Have we become a church primarily concerned with keeping the structure in tact?  As I even write this there is a still small voice asking me when will you be ready to step out of your safe life?  When will you be willing to go to uncharted territory?

So what does a good church look like?  Maybe one who’s goal is not to maintain the structure of, “this is what we’ve always done,” Maybe one who is willing to innovate.  Maybe a good church rejects the safety that surrounds it and goes out on a limb each and every day.  Maybe a good church risks and prays.  A good church is humble, always knowing that God is in control and can remove them at the blink of an eye.

 

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good church: thyatira

So many hospitals and medical institutions exist today because of Christians. Take a look at the hospitals that you see while on your way to work you’ll see, the Methodist hospital, the Presbyterian hospital, St. Jude’s Catholic Hospital, and many more. Christians gave medical attention to people in a time and place when it was neither smart nor practical to do so.   Imagine living in a time when an unstoppable plague is moving through the city.  Probably the stupidest thing to do would be to lay hands on the sick.  Yet Christians did this and not necessarily because they were more compassionate than everyone else but because many of the early Christians had seen the resurrected Christ or heard the eyewitness accounts.  Death had lost its sting, the fear of death became a foreign thought, and in fact they looked forward to following in the footsteps of their savior and rising again from the dead.

The resurrection is a promise for believers in Jesus but it also sheds light on a particular worldview.  In Thyatira many Greeks believed in what Plato and Aristotle developed as a kind of dualism.  That is body and Spirit are separate and you can do separate things to feed each of the needs.  This worldview leads people down a road of having two different and incompatible lifestyles.  This worldview can be particularly damaging in a church where the promise of Resurrection is all through the scriptures.  An understanding of resurrection communicates that the physical body and spirit as one and not two separate needs to be filled.  While Plato and Aristotle taught that the body was decaying and useless, the resurrection showed the importance of the body.

In the church of Thyatira there was a woman named Jezebel who claimed to be a prophetess and she led many astray.  All indications were that she taught the dualistic worldview of the time.  It seemed like a spiritual love of God and good doctrine and yet a physical and moral rebellion to God.  When you go down the Jezebel road of living you will eventually get to the place where you compartmentalize your faith and live two different life styles.

Thyatira was a town of trade guilds.  This was like the chamber of commerce except with religious rituals tied to them.  In order to do any business in this town you had to be a part of a guild.  The philosophy of a dualistic nature was convenient for these young Christians to latch on to.  If they could just have the attitude of, “what happens in the trade guild stays in the trade guild,” then they could do whatever they wanted. Apparently, Jesus wasn’t cool with this.

It is fascinating to note that this church faced a threat from within their walls and Jesus threatened to come take care of the problem.  So what does a good church look like?  I think its members look the same while conducting business as they do at church.  I think it’s members know that a belief in Jesus means more than  just a mental understanding.  I think a good church is fearless and bold because of their grasp on the resurrection promise.

 

 

Major thanks to: Daniels, T. Scott, Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelations Letters for Today’s Church.

A great read and a great historical and cultural resource

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good church: pergamum

At the heart of the Biblical narrative there is theme that flows through both the old and New Testament that is that we are made in the image of a God who created and loves us.  All of humanity bears the image of God and are called to be God’s reflection to the world.  However, through all of time there has been competition to that image.  Kings and rulers have put their faces on coins and built statues.  Kings have forced their empire on their subjects and have compelled them to reflect what the empire looks like.  Some are coerced and still others are so deeply in-tune with the empire that they naturally reflect it.  The other day I saw a common bumper sticker that read: “It’s God’s job to forgive Bin Laden, it’s our job to arrange the appointment.” I was thinking about this guy who drove this truck.  He is simply a reflection of what the bulk of his country is feeling.  This thought isn’t in every American’s head but it is enough to be national sediment.  This isn’t uncommon in history.

There was a town called Pergamum in the first century that was a political and religious powerhouse.  It was a part of the Roman Empire.  The town didn’t have great economic wealth but in order to gain political clout, the town would hold events that would reflect what Rome was all about.  To show the military power of their country they would celebrate violence by cutting off the hands of criminals and throwing them into the pit with wild beasts.[1] Imperial worship flourished in this town and if you were to walk into the town you would see statues all over representing the different pagan God’s.  On the top of a hill stood a massive monument to the god Zeus.  It was not easy to follow Jesus in this context.

In Jesus’ critique of the church in Pergamum he references an episode when Balaam taught the people of Moab how to seduce the Israelites.  Balaam didn’t teach them anything revolutionary, he simply taught the people of Moab to integrate the people of Israel into their culture of eating food sacrificed to idols and committing sexual immorality.  This reference is key to understanding what Jesus was talking about; the church in Pergamum began to lose its reflection of their creator.  The church didn’t look any different.  In essence Jesus was put on a shelf with the other god’s of the town and the church started to look like the empire not the King.

So it is in this context that I ask the question, what makes a good church?  If you were really to study the church in Pergamum I think you’d come to the conclusion that a good church looks nothing like the culture.  A good church is a counter cultural revolution.  An outsider should walk into a community of believers and notice that it is uniquely different, there is a love and generosity and kindness that is not found anywhere else.  An outsider should walk into a community of faith and see the reflection of the living God.  A good church should go out and reflect their creator to the world.  Are you in a good church?  Does your life reflect the one who has created you?

 

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good church: smyrna

Smyrna was an affluent town just up the road from Ephesus.  They were blessed to be at the mouth of a river and near a sea, which translates into economically prosperous town.  It was a town that understood second chances.  The town itself had been rebuilt after hundreds of years of being in ruins.

The church in Smyrna spawned out of a Synagogue because in the ancient world that is how the gospel was spread.  The Jews in the town enjoyed a special immunity.  They did not have to pay the annual tribute to Cesar and participate in Imperial worship.  So when the newly converted Christians were kicked out of the Synagogue they were no longer afforded the protection that the Jews had to offer.  Because of this, Smyrna became a town of persecution.  Yet this and another church are the only two that Jesus doesn’t rebuke.

In this context, what is a good church?  Jesus already praised this church, so what were its characteristics.  In our American culture when asked what does a good church look like we would probably hear a lot of things.  A children’s department like the McDonalds play area, a youth ministry of hundreds that goes from one trip to the next that is highly visible on school campuses, we might say a lead pastor who can preach with style and poise, who wears the right combination of skinny jeans, deep-v’s and caries an iPhone.  Our cultural response to this question might be one that offers a ton to the community; the worship experience is like going to one of the best shows.  But if you were to read Revelation 2:8-11 you might get the sense that a good church doesn’t actually have much to offer at all.  You would probably get the sense that a good church is faithful through much, offers little but is willing to give everything.

When we think of Smyrna the martyrdom of the bishop Polycarp comes to mind.  He was arrested on the charge of being a Christian — a member of a politically dangerous cult whose rapid growth needed to be stopped.

Amidst an angry mob, the Roman proconsul took pity on such a gentle old man and urged Polycarp to proclaim, “Caesar is Lord”. If only Polycarp would make this declaration and offer a small pinch of incense to Caesar’s statue he would escape torture and death. To this Polycarp responded, “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Steadfast in his stand for Christ, Polycarp refused to compromise his beliefs, and thus, was burned alive at the stake.  Before he died he prayed that he would be an acceptable sacrifice.  When he was thrown into the fire the account of his death was that there was an aroma of bread baking or of gold and silver being refined.

Does the materialism of our day stifle the witness of our churches?  Or are our churches willing to give it all and offer little?

 

Some historical information taken from, Daniels, T. Scott, Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelations Letters for Today’s Church.

 

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