Revelation 2: 1-7 “The Loveless Church”

Last week saw the release of the Scottish Church Census. Here are just three of the key statistics:Picture1

Now, I appreciate that the Church is not a numbers game: our primary concern is that people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, not that people attend on a Sunday. That being said: following Jesus does involve gathering with His people to worship Him – so numbers can occasionally be an indication of spiritual health.

There are cultural reasons for the decline of Christianity, and these are too varied to consider here. The Church does, however, need to accept some responsibility for this decline: for the way we have conducted ourselves (especially in “the West) in the last 100 years or so.

This is one reason to look closely at the letters to the churches in Revelation: to help us get to grips with some of the issues which have led to  decline in the Church, and what we can do about them!

We begin with the first letter: to the Church in Ephesus.

Image result for the church in ephesus

The Church in Ephesus (v.1)

In many ways, this is the most important church to Jesus writes through the Apostle John. It is the church planted in the largest city of the Roman province, which was also a major religious centre. It was also one of the churches Paul helped to plant!

We read that Jesus comes to this church as one who holds seven stars and walks among seven lampstands. Each star and lampstand represents one of the seven churches: the fact that Jesus holds them, and walks among them, suggests something of his support of and closeness to these churches.

A Church with Sound Doctrine (v. 2-3)

Jesus commends this church:

  • For their deeds, hard work and perseverance;
  • For their ability to spot false apostles;
  • For their endurance through hardship in Jesus’ name.

In summary, Jesus commends them for their sound doctrine (doctrine is simply what we believe).

Why is sound doctrine something which is commendable?

I would suggest sound doctrine is commendable because:

  1. It means the Church knows what it is about: in this day and age, you (unfortunately) cannot assume that those in the church actually know what the Church is all about!
  2. It keeps the Church grounded: it ensures anything we do as a Church has its foundation in what we believe.
  3. It sets us apart from the world: on the occasions when the Christian view and the World’s view conflict, sound doctrine ensures we are doing things God’s way!

A Church without Love (v. 4-5)

Jesus does, however, hold one thing against this Church: They have lost their love! Leon Morris comments:

It is not clear whether this is love for Christ … or for one another… or for mankind at large. It may be that a general attitude is meant which included all three. (Morris, TNTC Revelation, p.65)

What happens when a church has sound doctrine, but lacks love? I fear that it sets up an “us and them attitude”:

“God loves us because of our sound doctrine. God, therefore, does not love you, unless you also subscribe to our doctrine.”

This is not how Scripture testifies to the love of God. We are told that God loved us, even when we were incapable of loving Him (e.g. Romans 5:8 and 1 John 4:10). Furthermore, our conforming to God’s ways comes as a response to His love, not as a means of earning His love.

So, what does love in the Church look like?

‘Love’, in the early Christian sense, is something you do, giving hospitality and practical help to those in need, particularly to other Christians who are poor, sick or hungry. That was the chief mark of the early church. No other non-ethnic group had ever behaved like this. ‘Love’ of this kind, reflecting (they would have said) God’s own self-giving love for them, was the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in God. (Wright, Revelation for Everyone p.13)

Why is love in the Church important? Because, “‘Love’ of this kind, reflecting… God’s own self-giving love for [us, is] the best expression of, and the best advertisement for, faith in God.” (Wright, 2011:13)

The Nicolaitans and the Victory (v. 6-7)

Jesus calls on the church in Ephesus to repent, to find its love again, or it will lose its lampstand (i.e. cease to be a Church of Jesus Christ).

Then Jesus gives a strange affirmation: both he and the Ephesian Church hate the Nicolaitans.

Scholars don’t know much about the Nicolaitans: they only appear twice in the Bible, and both times in Revelation. Given the context of this letter, we can assume that their message/practices were drawing people away from the Gospel. As such, it is no surprise that Jesus says He hates their practices: anything that tried to draw people away from the Gospel is against God!

(Incidentally: note that Jesus hates the practices of the Nicolatians, not the Nicolatians themselves. Jesus still loves the people, even if He hates their actions.)

Finally, Jesus closes with a promise: to those who are victorious, they will eat of the tree of life.

Each letter contains an expression of the ultimate hope of the Christian faith; new life and new creation. The way it is expressed to this church is through the promise of being able to eat of the tree of life, in the paradise of God.

Conclusion

If the Church is serious about trying to get things right, then we have to consider seriously what we read in Revelation.

From this first letter, we learn that doctrine is important. What we believe is important. It is our beliefs which define us and shape how we operate in this world. If we are to be an effective church, we must know what it is we believe, and why we believe it.

But this, in and of itself, is insufficient, because if we have our beliefs sorted, but do not show love, then we are useless. The whole Gospel message is concerned with God showing His love for this world through Jesus Christ. If we are to be an effective church for God, then we must be prepared to live and work in a way which shows His love.

By doing so, we may halt the decline, and see numbers attending church grow once again – which would be nice. But that’s not our ultimate aim. We are not in this for the numbers! Our highest calling, as part of God’s Church, is to help others come to saving faith in Him, that they too may one day eat of the tree of life.

Ministry Reflections: The first 150 Days

It is common, upon the election or appointment of a new leader, for people to keep a close eye on the “first 100 days”. These days are sometimes seen as a means of measuring the tone and policy of a new regime: the actions and decisions taken by an incumbent in these days giving a sense of what is to come.

Unfortunately, I have missed the opportunity to reflect on my first “100 days” of parish ministry. This is because, believe it or not, the first few months of full-time ministry are quite busy!! This is also reflected in that this is the first time in several months I’ve been able to share my reflections here.

I was ordained and inducted as Parish Minister of Clincarthill Parish Church on the 27th October 2016. As such, today marks my first 150 days of full-time parish ministry. Since I missed my first 100 days, I thought I would use this milestone as an opportunity to share some thoughts on my first few months as sole minister of a congregation.

Starting Well

Coming to a congregation as a new minister is quite daunting, especially when that congregation is your first charge! With the best will in the world, there is nothing that can prepare you for the unique task of ministry: and I say that having had a very helpful and thorough training experience!

The first few steps seem, at the time, the most difficult: following the procedures which are set out to allow you to discern and follow God’s call to a congregation, leading to your ordination and induction. This process can be very draining, and I certainly felt a sense of relief when the it was complete: I had finally made it!

This relief was, however, short lived. A realisation quickly set in: I’m now the minister to a congregation of 230 members. These people are now my responsibility. I have services to prepare, and visits to conduct, so as to feed their faith, and look after their spiritual well-being. Above all else, I need to get to know these people; for, how am I to lead these people, if I do not know them?

Maintaining Balance

Before long, Christmas was upon us. This was a mixed blessing: on the one hand, the congregation have their traditions and expectations, and in a sense, can just get on with these. On the other hand: the congregation have their traditions and expectations, and some of these things required my input.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the Christmas period is a wonderful time, where people soften slightly to the message of Jesus. It was wonderful to so soon celebrate my first Christmas with my new congregation.

Unfortunately, the busy-ness of this period meant the rhythm and pattern of ministry, which I established over my first month, was disrupted. The shape of each week became increasingly unpredictable: I was not able to visit people as regularly as I would have like, and my time was increasingly taken up by events and preparation for various upcoming services.

I began to realise I was falling into one of the pitfalls of ministry: poor work-life balance. There are few jobs where you can get up at 8am, work continually throughout the day (especially when your office is in your home!) and only stop working because you think it’s about time you went to bed…!

Trusting God

Thankfully, I have a very wise wife, and she had the foresight to do 2 things:

  1. Book us a holiday!
  2. Remind me that I had friends to talk to.

Both these were wonderfully helpful.

The holiday was helpful, for I now had a target: I knew when my next break would come and I could push on through my work until then.

And, of course, catching up with friends is always helpful. I enjoyed being able to catch up with people socially, but I also appreciated the insight some friends were able to provide. Most helpful, I think was a quote one friend shared with me:

The best thing you can do for your congregation is look after your own spiritual life.

Would you believe that it that I, the new minister, had been neglecting his prayer and devotional life!? Scripture and prayer are at the centre of all I do and believe, and yet I had not been immersing myself in these things. As I was ministering to my people, I had been failing to minster to myself!

Sustaining and Persevering

This was a moment of clarity for me, and helped change my perspective on a few vital things.

First, although I have a unique role as parish minister, I am more aware of God’s role in these things. Yes, I have my tasks and duties, but ultimately, I am a servant, whose job it is to point people away from myself and toward God. I take seriously the words of John the Baptist: “He must become greater, I must become less”. (John 3:30 NIVUK).

Second, I have found greater joy and sustenance from my devotional life. I would be the first to confess I am yet to get the balance right: it is still sometimes too easy to set aside time for prayer and Bible study in order to do other things. But I now appreciate the discipline at a much deeper level: when I practice it, I am uplifted; when I neglect it, I am aware that something is missing.

I am amazed, as well, at how much has happened in my first 150 days of ministry: and this post doesn’t even cover half of it! What I’ve shared here are some specific moments, and all focused on my experience of God and faith: I haven’t even said anything about my work in the congregation or the parish!

What is clear, I think, from these 150 days is the way God works. He is (thankfully!) gracious enough to sustain me in ministry, even when I do give Him His rightful place. And (thankfully!) He is quick to show us where things are not right, and loving enough to give us His Spirit, who helps conform us to the likeness of Jesus.

I am excited what lies ahead of me in ministry: the joys, as well as the challenges. But, more than anything, I am excited to see what God can and will do through me, as I do what I can to devote my life to Him, and give my service as a shepherd of His people.

One, Holy, Catholic Church

The title of this post is borrowed from the end of the Apostle’s Creed, which reads:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The holy catholic Church,
The communion of the Saints,
The forgiveness of Sins,
The Resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.

If you haven’t read the Apostle’s Creed in full, I recommend you do so: it is a great summary of the key points of belief in the Christian faith. Just search for “the Apostle’s Creed”, and your search engine should throw up something useful.

There are, of course, many wonderful statements of Christian Theology in the Apostle’s Creed, and I may spend some time one day writing a more detailed reflection on each verse. But here, I am focusing in on one particular line: “The holy catholic Church”, especially the connotations thrown up by the word “catholic”!

Now, those of us who are gifted in the English language will know that “catholic” with a small “c” simply means universal. Those of us who need to look this stuff up (and I include myself here: when I first read the Apostle’s Creed I had to look this up) you now know that “catholic” with a small “c” simply means universal.

But what of Catholic, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church? Certainly, its been a tricky old time for the Catholic Church in the past few weeks, what with the Pope stepping down, then the resignation of Cardinal O’Brien. Incidentally, if you are struggling to understand exactly what is happening with regard to the Papacy, I recommend the article from the Guardian below, which is a nice summary:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/feb/28/pope-resigns-and-then-what

As an aside, I do appreciate the irony that this is my second post in recent times on something relating to Roman Catholicism, despite self-describing my blog as “Evangelical, Reformed and Presbyterian”, terms which usually appear as polar opposites to Catholicism (again, perhaps I will take the opportunity to reflect on these three terms at a later stage). Ideologically, I would place myself in opposition to some of the teaching of the Church of Rome. Yet, I also have some very good friends who are Roman Catholic, and I bear them no ill will, nor should I! I have friends who hold to many different belief systems, and although I disagree with them, I don’t let that ruin a good friendship.

I would add that, at this time, my sympathy and prayers go out to those who are Catholic, as they have just lost their spiritual leader, and now have to wait to discover which direction the Roman Catholic Church will go, as well as what it will look like under new leadership. Typically, people don’t deal with change very well, so I will be praying as people come to terms with what has happened.

But, I now want to ask a question; as I have said, “catholic” means universal. Therefore, the Apostle’s Creed would quite rightly read “I believe in one holy, universal Church”. If you have realised anything from this post so far, it may be this: the Church is anything but universal today. Even in this blog, I have highlighted several different strands of “church”: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical (the opposite being Liberal), Reformed (referring to a particular kind of Protestantism) and Presbyterian (referring to a particular form of church structure). With all this stuff going on, all this fragmentation, how can I possibly say that I believe in one holy, catholic or universal church?

Historically, the church was, for a brief time, universal or united. Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, and for a spell enjoyed political power. Then, with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, the only bishop remaining in power was the Bishop of Rome (the beginnings of the papacy). As time moved on, there was the great schism between the east and the west, creating the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church. The universality of the Church is broken.

Further breaks occurred at the time of the Protestant Reformation, which led to the Lutheran, Anglican and Reformed Churches. And on and on it goes! Rather than write about all this stuff happening, here’s some pictures that explains it all nicely:

File:Christianity-Branches-2013update.png

File:Protestantbranches.svg

So, again I ask the question, with all this stuff happening, to what extent can the church actually claim to be universal? In response to this, I am reminded of Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:26-28 ESV)

As we read these verses, I don’t think it takes much work to understand what Paul is trying to say here. As long as a person confesses Christ as their Lord and Saviour, then they become a child of God, part of His Church. And God sees no distinction between people: all He sees are the beings He created, for “all are one in Christ Jesus”.

Yes, there are many different expressions of Church today. Yes, different Churches have different ways of doing things. Yes, different Churches emphasise different aspects of Theology. But who is to say which expression is the right expression? People respond to different forms of Church…so perhaps it stands to reason that there are many different expressions of Church for people to engage. It is unfortunate, however, that, more often than not, it is these little differences which cause disagreement between people who all confess the same God, the same Lord and the same Saviour: Jesus Christ.

A preacher I listen to regularly is known for making this statement: “The main things are the plain things.” What is the main thing of Christianity? It is the plain truth that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour, and through His death and Resurrection  we have access to the unending love and forgiveness of God.

And, as long as a person expresses this Truth, it does not matter which expression of Church they belong to, they are our Brother or Sister in Christ, and should be treated accordingly. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter which Church we belong to.

And it is this reality which gives me the freedom to say that I believe in one, holy, catholic, universal Church, which belongs to Jesus Christ.  As a Star Trek fan, allow me to express this statement of my belief through Captain Picard. I couldn’t have said it better myself…