“Jesus' Letter to Sardis”
The Church in Sardis was not what it seemed to be. Everyone thought they were alive and vibrant and active and living – but they were sick, about to die, and slipping into a slumber. Perhaps it was apathy. Or maybe you could call it forgetfulness. Or spiritual frailness. Or all of the above.
No there is no perfect Christian, and there is no perfect congregation of Christians. Remember the church in Ephesus, and her lack of love. The church in Smyrna, and her fear of persecution. The church in Pergamum, and her struggles with false doctrine. And the church in Thyatira, which tolerated open sin and heresy. Jesus calls them all to repent, so does he also call to the church in Sardis.
Sardis, the sleepy church, is called to “wake up”. Just what was going on here? He says, “I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God”. And we recall the relationship between faith and works. Faith drives good works. Good works are an expression of faith. So something is wrong with their faith, too, it seems. The lacking works are a symptom of the real problem.
Perhaps Sardis was one of those churches that just went “through the motions”. Every Sunday gathering, saying the same old things, singing the same old songs (though probably with little gusto). Mouthing the words with no meaning or thought. One commentator put it this way, the “rituals of godly pretense”. Oh sure, their pomp and ritual made them look alive and well, but inside there was a sickness – a critical illness – of which Jesus was fully aware.
And while Jesus speaks to Sardis, he is really speaking to all of the churches, and to all Christians. Just as we too are called to repent of lovelessness, fear, toleration of false teaching and sin... so are we called to true faith which expresses itself in good works. A living faith which is not mere show. A rich and true trust in Jesus Christ – which naturally brings about the evidence in our lives.
So how are we doing? How are we doing as a congregation, and as individuals?
If Jesus looked at us as a congregation, would he see an active and living faith expressed in good works of love? Would he see us helping the blind, the hungry, the poor – the widow and orphan? Well some people volunteer with Braille. Some donate to our little food pantry or work at the soup kitchen. And as a congregation, we send money to support mission and mercy work in our district and abroad. Some might look at us and say, “my how alive! How vibrant and active Grace Lutheran Church is! What wonderful works they are doing for the Lord!”
But is that just an appearance of life, where death is always close at hand? In our congregational life, do our works really measure up? Could more people be involved? Could we do more to serve more people? Are there works that go undone because we have better things to do? Is there a sense that “someone else will do that”? Do we think that we give “enough”, serve “enough” and volunteer “enough” of our time?
Or in our own personal lives – how would the one who has the seven spirits and the seven stars grade us? Would we get a gold star? Or would we get a mark of, “needs imrpovement”?
No, Jesus doesn't grade on a curve, nor does he judge us in comparison to others. His standard is the perfect law. And we must admit, this is a test we would all fail, if left to ourselves.
But rather than fail us for our failings, he calls instead for repentance. “Wake up!” he says - “Remember!” he reminds. Turn away from your sin and come again in faith to the cross. He calls, because he wants you to believe and live. He calls, because he wants to grant faith in abundance. He calls because he wants that faith to be expressed in good works.
And when we repent, he forgives. He grants gifts we don't deserve, he forgives our sin, enlivens faith, and by his Spirit he brings about those good works in us.
In these letters, he couches his grace in the promises of gifts – and to Sardis he promises 2 – a white robe, and a name written in the book of life. Both of these images appear later in the vision of Revelation, and both remind us of God's grace in Christ.
The white robe is a symbol of his own righteousness – evoking our baptism. There in the waters of grace he washed our robes soiled with sin, washed them in his own blood – taking away each spot and stain. And as we return to our baptism in daily repentance, so does he wash our robes again and again. The Old Adam is drowned, and the New Adam arises to live in faith.
And that book – a book of life – in whose names God has carefully recorded all those who belong to him. It reminds us that God knows us, that he has claimed us, and that he has an intention for us. His plan is in writing – it's just waiting to be fulfilled. The blueprint for our salvation is sure, it's all there in black and white.
So again, like Sardis, we have some repenting to do. We repent of our lack of good works, which comes from our lack of faith. Though we may look alive and well, we are sick and dying – apart from Christ. But let us never be apart from Christ! For in the one who died and lives, we die to sin and live for eternity. He calls us to keep his words, remember them, and wake up. Repent and believe – and conquer – by his grace. In his name, Amen.