by Daniel Harrell
Our seasonal sermon series on doors is closing with a final two-week look at Revelation chapter 3. Here we find two doors in two letters to seven churches—seven being a very important number in Revelation, tied to creation’s completion and heavenly rest. These church letters preview the larger apocalypse comprising the majority of this fantastical last book about the last days. Many Christians, itching to know what’s coming, presume Revelation offers clarity and comfort until they actually read it. Inside you find it filled with strange beasts and multi-headed dragons with horns and eyes in places you’d never expect them. Numbers that don’t quite add up, funny-looking angels with scrolls and lamps and bowls and horns doing battle against mythical enemies who end up cooked up into a final grim supper of flesh and blood, the carrion of evil eaten by the victors. It’s some pretty gruesome fare. Comfort gives way to worry.
Here in chapter 3, the imagery is less grim, though not necessarily less worrisome. This morning’s passage presents a permanently shut door, a synagogue of Satan, and “an hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.” This “hour of trial” is what Jesus has us pray against in the Lord’s Prayer. “Lead us not into trial” (a more accurate translation than “lead us not into temptation”) references in part this trial also known as Judgment Day. God tests the earth’s inhabitants as regards to our faith, just as he’s done with most of his best people in the Bible, withy varying results. Adam and Eve fail the Bible’s first test, though Abraham eventually aces his, no doubt traumatizing his young son Isaac. The Israelites, however, flunk theirs in the desert no matter how many retakes they took. Poor Job barely survived getting rung through his ringer. King David, Elijah, Hosea and the rest of the prophets got tested. Mary and Joseph too. God goes so far as to sick Satan on Jesus to test whether he’s truly Son of God material. Why should the rest of us expect different treatment?
How you feel about Judgment Day in Revelation depends in large part on your own situation. The privileged among us cringe at Revelation’s constant denunciations of power and wealth, while the oppressed and the poor find encouragement in its promises of just desserts. Suburbanites and city kids might hear hear Revelation differently, as Pastor Dennis Edwards hinted last Sunday. Or as Anna described this morning, Revelation will sound different to abusive lenders versus those victimized by the abuse. It ’s why its called Judgment Day.
The first readers of Revelation covered a whole spectrum. On the one end stood Christians overtly threatened by hostile forces in society—akin to modern believers who face persecution in places like Nigeria, Mali, the Middle East and in North Korea where it’s estimated that a quarter of Christians live in forced-labor camps. At the center of the spectrum stood congregations embroiled in internal conflicts over leadership and the extent to which they should accommodate to surrounding culture. Across the highway a new congregation now inhabits the building formerly occupied by Creek Valley Baptist Church. The new congregation moved in as a result of an acrimonious lawsuit one half of the Baptist congregation brought against the other half. The settlement directed the church turn over its assets—the building, the furniture and the Cadillac Escalade driven by the previous pastor—all to the new congregation, one presumably able to better demonstrate Christian unity and love. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, lay those comfortable congregations, complacently nestled in prosperous communities, you know. Wherever on the spectrum they stood, all Revelation’s first readers experienced certain undercurrents threatened to undermine their faith.
Fortunately, each of the seven representative churches had its own guardian angel. Unfortunately an angel was no warranty against failing test scores. This morning’s church in Philadelphia, however, soars to the head of the class. A rich agricultural city in Asia Minor, Philadelphia was devastated by earthquake around 17 AD. Yet in true gospel fashion, up from the ruins rose a loyal little congregation, led by a lady minister, a prophetess named Ammia. The Lord lauds their having kept his command to persevere, an endurance that outlasted every other church in the region. Long after all the surrounding country had succumbed to Muslim control under Turkey, Philadelphia held out as a Christian populace till 1392.
God rewards their perseverance with a wide open door, the keys to which are held by Jesus himself, the “true one who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.” Like many in Revelation, this descriptive phrase derives from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 22 the key is to the king’s palace, which here gets re-keyed to fit the door of heaven itself. That the key is the key of David makes Jesus the King himself; he has full authorization to rule God’s house. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” he famously said in John’s gospel. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus’ identity as King and Messiah was disputed by some of Philadelphia’s Jews. To them, Jesus was a sad example of what a Messiah should look like. Saviors don’t save through scandal and poverty and rejection and criminal crucifixion. Kings don’t wear crowns of thorns. Jewish resistance to Jesus likely led to Christians (many of whom were also Jews) being kicked out of their synagogues. These same synagogues would have refused Gentile converts entry too. Thus Revelation labels them “synagogues of Satan, Jews who claim to be Jews but are lying” since if they were truly God’s people they would have recognized Jesus as their King. This indictment echoes throughout the gospels too.
Revelation provides a literary look at the ever-widening gap between Judaism and Christianity toward the end of the first century. The New Testament portrays the church as the true people of God and inheritors by faith of Israel’s Old Testament promises. Moreover, the Old Testament spoke of a time when Gentiles would bow before Israel’s God, a reality the apostle Paul picks up on in Philippians when he sings how “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every will tongue confess Christ as Lord.” To this same end, Jesus announces to the Philadelphia Christians here, both Jew and Gentile, that their persecutors will one day “come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you.” You can read this two ways—either as humiliation for their persecutors or as their conversion. Then again, in true gospel fashion, conversion often rises out of the dirt of humiliation. Some come to Jesus joyfully. Others may need a little humble pie first.
Jesus assures the Philadelphian Christians that he’s seen their good work. The synagogue door slammed in their face, but “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut,” he says. This door is their guaranteed gateway to life. They passed the test: they kept God’s word, they lived as Jesus taught, they did not deny Christ’s name even when their loyalty brought them trouble. We read these Christians “had little power” which probably meant they met lots of trouble. This does not mean they lacked spiritual power, it’s just that spiritual power gets you into more trouble than it saves you from. It’s the power to endure hardship rather than get around it. This is by design. We worship a crucified Savior.
In ancient Philadelphia, Christianity was an enemy of the Roman state. To speak of the Kingdom of God was to speak against the kingdom of Caesar—a very dangerous thing to do. For Caesar, kingdom power meant military power, control by brute force. While Roman rule gets described by historians as a time of world peace, Empire peace came by way of war and the total elimination of enemies. Roman apologists called this imperial domination good news, which it was as long as you weren’t a dissident, a slave, an immigrant, a woman, poor, Jewish or Christian. For those brutalized by Roman rule, the only good news would be Caesar’s downfall. For Jesus to say he was coming soon meant Caesar was doomed. It was only a matter of time.
“I am coming soon,” Jesus says, “hold on to what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” The crown in this case is more accurately a wreath, the prize one wins for running a race. That Jesus was due any minute made endurance easier as well as exciting. It was like a kid at Christmas, eagerly perched atop the steps overlooking the Christmas tree, unable to sleep. The good thing, at least from my parents’ perspective, was that my having to wait usually inspired good behavior. True, I knew that my parents would come through with my presents anyway―I was their kid―but why risk it? In similar fashion, to eagerly endure inspires service and kindness and love and truth and forgiveness and compassion, hospitality and genuine humility.
Sadly, Jesus, unlike Santa, has taken his sweet time coming back, making endurance more onerous than eager. Christians, tired of being doormats, cozy up to political power instead of resisting it, in hope, perhaps, of hurrying heaven on earth. If having power is the way to get things done, best grab what you can. Unfortunately, for Christians, this never works well. Mixing faith and political power dilutes Christianity into a bland civil religion not worth its salt. Human kingdoms cannot substitute for the kingdom of God. Governments lie and cannot be trusted. Only God can be trusted, which is why Scripture always calls on God’s people to trust the Lord in whom true power resides. Trusting the Lord’s power takes faith, especially since it so often and ironically manifests itself in weakness. God does his best work amidst powerlessness and trouble, humiliation and insignificance. This is by design. We worship a crucified Savior.
“The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said. “a microorganism of yeast.” The are encouraging signs that Christians are starting to believe this again. Disillusionment with failed ecclesial power structures and political entanglements is tilling soil for a renewal in mustard seed varieties of Christianity. Pope Francis humbly kneads unexpected new leaven into Roman Catholicism. Among next-generation Protestants, the break from political alliances makes way for a more Gospel-centered, social-conscious Christianity. Worship attendance across the board may be declining, but as with a delicious Thanksgiving gravy, reduction intensifies the flavor. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said, “but if salt loses its taste, it is no longer good for anything.”
Across the highway at the now New Covenant Church, their pastor told me that by design, they’re aspiring to grow too big. Shepherding Christian maturity happens best through intimacy, community, renunciation and depth—things you can do with a flock you can’t do with a herd. As Kierkegaard once put it, “the more people, the less truth.” Down in North Carolina, a friend of mine pastors a little congregation striving for a kind of personalization of community and mission that gets lost in a crowd. For them, mission engulfs the whole of our lives together, it’s not something “extra” we do on the side, but absolutely essential to who we are. We enact mission in our jobs, when we offer hospitality to others, practice friendship, work to make our neighborhoods and city more just places to live, when we speak of God’s grace, and when we embody that grace in forgiveness. You can’t manage this kind of Christianity well with a crowd. My friend assures me this is not a problem. This kind of Christianity is way too demanding to ever be popular.
All of this is not to say that numerical growth is bad. Mustard seeds and yeast grow and bloom to fill the world. The distinction, I think, is between growth as the kingdom of God and any one church behaving as a kingdom unto itself. Unlike Jesus, no one church can save the world alone.
The same applies to social entrepreneurial initiatives. I asked one of our Innové coaches this past summer, a highly experienced entrepreneurial consultant, just how many new social startups like the ones Innove helped launch actually make it. She surprised me by saying, “practically all of them make it.” How is that possible? They stay small, she replied. They don’t try to do everything. They focus on their particular passion and calling and trust others to obey their passion and calling. It all comes from God. It’s all good. Get enough small initiatives going, and the whole thing eventually snowballs, just like the church of Jesus Christ. Unlike Jesus, no one church, no single social venture, no individual Christian can save the world—by themselves, snowflakes are weak and frail and melt at the slightest heat. But if enough of them together endure to the end, they can stop traffic.