“Jesus' Letter to Ephesus”
1"To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: 'The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 "'I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.'
We begin another Lenten season in the church, as we always do, with Ash Wednesday. A day of repentance and sorrow over sin, which sets the tone for this penitential time in our church calendar. Ashes are a sign of repentance going back to ancient times, and even today many Christians wear ashes on their foreheads to signify this repentance.
We're also starting a series of mid-week sermons which focus on an important section in the book of Revelation. Each week in Lent we will focus on one of the letters to these 7 churches, in order to hear God's word to us, and prepare us for the observance of Good Friday and Easter.
But first some background. St. John, as an old man, was imprisoned for his faith on the island of Patmos. One Sunday John had a marvelous vision, a “revelation”, which was given to him by Jesus Christ himself. In fact, the real name of this book of the bible is, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John”.
And in that vision, Jesus appeared to John surrounded by many symbolic images. These things John really saw – but many of them stood for other things, for concepts and ideas. When Jesus appeared, he held in his hand 7 stars and walked among 7 lamp-stands. Jesus himself said these 7 lamp-stands were the 7 churches he would address, and the 7 stars were the “angels” of those 7 churches.
And while some believe those 7 angels to be guardian angels watching the churches, a much older interpretation makes more sense. The Church Father known as “The Venerable Bede” makes the case that these “angels” are really the pastors of those churches. After all, the word “angel” means “messenger”. And God blesses us with supernatural, spiritual as well as everyday human messengers. Also, it makes more sense for them to be pastors since he both commends and criticizes not only the churches but the messengers. And we pastors are certainly in the same boat as the people of the church. We are sinners and saints just the same.
So Jesus has a message for each of these pastors and the churches under their care. They were certainly not the only 7 churches of their day, and so these letters have wider application. They even apply, we will see, to us. We heed the warnings to the churches, even as we take comfort in the promises at the end of each section. So too, as the criticisms and compliments of Christ for these churches are universal to Christians of all times and places.
Take this first letter, to the church at Ephesus. They get a mixed review from our Lord. He commends them for their vigilance against false doctrine. Heretics known as the Nicolatians were active in the area, and the Ephesian church was right to “hate” their works. Jesus, too, says he hates their works. We don't know exactly what the false teachers taught, but it's been suggested they practiced promisquity and ignored the law of God. So far the Ephesian Christians get good marks from our Lord for avoiding this heresy and enduring in the true faith.
But then Jesus takes them to task. He holds something against them. They have “abandoned the love” they first had. Their first love. What was it? Apparently a love for one another, rooted in their love for God, who had first loved them in Christ. He calls them to repentance and even threatens that if they don't repent, the lamp-stand will be removed from its place. In other words, they will lose their place as one of his churches. In yet other words, they will no longer be his people.
As I said, these words of Jesus have a wider application. For many pastors, and many churches, and many church members do much the same as the Ephesians. We may say the right things, we may even remain outwardly faithful. But inside of us is a rot of lovelessness that threatens our very faith.
Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourself. Paul tells the Corinthian church, that even if he speaks in the language of the angels, but has no love, he's a noisy gong or clanging symbol. Love is one of the most important words in all of scripture, one of the highest values.
For Jesus' own summary of the law is to love – to love God, and to love our neighbor. And which of us couldn't stand to show more love, be more loving, put others before ourself more, and basically be better Christian neighbors? We have all failed. We all need to be more loving. We are all like the Ephesians.
What does it mean when there is no love, or very little? It means that we have sinned, and must repent. What does it mean when faith does not express itself in the works and deeds of love? It means we are sinners whose faith is flagging and failing, and we need to turn again to Christ and the cross for forgiveness, strength and renewal.
And Christ loves us. Greater love has no one than that he gives up his life for his friends. Jesus of course, gave up his life for us, even when we were enemies of God. He did it out of love. God sent him out of love for the world. A love which is patient and kind, which keeps no record of wrongs. A love which always endures and never fails. A love so great that not even death could overcome it. God is love, and Jesus is the embodiment of God's love for us.
It's that love that empowers us to love. It's the Gospel that gives us the strength and the will to love God and love one another. Nothing of our own, nothing within us can do it. Only the love from without can inspire the love within. And by his Word and Spirit, he shows that love and speaks that love and sparks that love in us.
You know, the Nicolations, the false teachers in Ephesus, their very name meant “the conquerors”. Again, we don't know much about them or why they would call themselves that. But we do know this, from Romans 8, that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us”. Yes, Jesus makes us more than conquerors!
In Jesus, not only do we defeat sin, death and the Devil – enemies we could never face on our own but who don't stand a chance against him. But also in Jesus we are more than conquerors. We not only defeat our enemies but we live victoriously. “To him who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God”. Yes that life which God originally intended for Adam and Eve – that life which is restored only by the love of a savior who died.
Each week, as we read the letters to the churches, we will discover spiritual insights and applications to our modern churches, and even to us as individual Christians. We will be called again and again to repentance and faith, as our Lenten journey continues.
Today, we see ourselves in the Ephesians – commended for watching our doctrine. Praised for the endurance of faith we have. But warned not to let our love grow cold. And reminded, that in the love of Christ, we are more than conquerors, who will eat from the tree of life.