Scripture: Revelation 2:1-7
A couple of years ago I led a Jr. High retreat and as part of this retreat I asked the youth to write a letter to themselves. The idea was to prove God’s faithfulness in their lives. They were supposed to write down their biggest concerns and troubles they were experiencing and in six months I was going to send their own letter to them so they would be able to look back and reflect on how God had been at work in their life. As I collected the sealed envelopes, I noticed that to a kid not a single one of them knew the proper way address an envelope. At first I was kind of shocked by this, but then I realized all of these teens had been in born in 2000 or later. Why would they need to know how to address a letter? I remember being taught how to address a letter and taking a field trip to the post office in second grade. However, by the mid 80’s when I learned this letter writing was already a dying art. Today it is all but dead. We just do not take the time to write a letter when we can instead shoot off an email, call, skype, tag, or just text. I understand the death of the letter, but I still find it kind of sad. There is a profoundness to letters that just are not found in emails. Many well-known people from our history have had their letters preserved. We can read the personal correspondences of people like Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, or John Wesley. I do not know if you have ever read these letters, but there is a gravitas, a level of depth, and class that is completely and totally absent from our modern day communications. A proper letter is a unique form of communication that can speak to us and impact us in a way that is vastly different than any other form of communication.
For the next several weeks our entire focus is going to be on the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation begins with a vision of Jesus telling John to write down letters to the seven churches in Asia. These seven churches were absolutely historical places, and the letters addressed to them did address specific issues that these specific churches were dealing with. However, a very common way to interpret and understand this section of Revelation is with the understanding that these letters have a broader implication beyond the local, 1st century church. The thought is that these churches also represent positions and attitudes that churches from all times can find themselves in. In essence Revelation reveals to us letters written not just too specific churches but to all churches. These letters represent the various spiritual states that any church could potentially find itself in. That means that even though letter writing is dead today, the letter from this morning’s scripture could be addressed to us.
This morning’s scripture is a letter addressed to the church in Ephesus. This is the same church that Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians to about thirty years earlier. Of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, the church in Ephesus was the old man on the block. They were founded by Paul on his second missionary journey, and Paul even lived with and led this church for three years. During Paul’s missionary ministries one of the great challenges he had were false apostles following behind him and telling the churches he helped found a false gospel. These false apostles promoted the idea that it was necessary to follow Jewish law and customs to be saved by Christ. Revelation 2:2, credits the Ephesians for testing these people and finding them false. The church in Ephesus also is credited for persevering, for not tolerating wicked people, for enduring hardships, and for refuting the practices of the Nicolaitains. This sect, mentioned only one other time in Revelation, is not a group we know a lot about. What we do know from the writings of the early church fathers is that this group saw spiritual liberty to give them freedom to engage in the immoral cultural of the time. From this letter to the church in Ephesus is that we get the image of a church that has been around the block. They have been tested multiple times. When confronted with false teachings they stood their ground, when pulled and picked at by a sinful culture they did not tolerate it. We get the image of a firmly rooted church that has earned the right to stand strong as a pillar of faith.
However, Jesus has one major complaint against the church. Revelation 2:4 reads “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen!” This is the point we should say “Wait, what?” My knee jerk reaction is “how is that possible?” How could a church endure hardships for Jesus’ name, yet have forgotten their love for their savior? It seems odd. It also sounds like that if the church in Ephesus existed in modern day they would have to change their relationship status on facebook to “its complicated”. It is a head scratcher as to how this could happen, but the reality is that while the church in Ephesus might have been the first church to forget its first love they were certainly not the last.
There is an old parable that illustrates this point. The story goes that along a particularly rocky coast a lighthouse burned in a fire, and there was no plan to rebuild it. This was problematic because accidents along this coast line were not uncommon. There was still a need for help. A group of concerned citizens who wanted to help others took it upon themselves. They organized the Rescue yacht team. These people, who knew the rocky waters well, pooled their resources and talents to patrol the coast. On more than one occasion they helped save people in need. The provided a light in the darkness, and they rescued people with dwindling hope from drowning in the waters. After a while this group decided they needed a base to work out of, so along the coast they built a building. In order to figure out how to build this building, the group picked some of its more active people to form a committee. This committee in turned formed a sub-committee to determine how to furnish the new club house and what color of carpet to get. After they had their building, the group decided that for the “safety” of everyone not just anyone could be part of the rescue yacht team, and they started requiring membership. Outfitting a rescue boat and keeping the lights on of a clubhouse required money, so the newly elected executive team voted to make the paying of dues a requirement for membership. Over time, the remaining members of the Rescue Yacht team found they really enjoyed spending time together and they greatly enjoyed their new building. They were less interested in going out in the cold waters to help others. Within a few years, the Rescue Yacht team, voted to abandon their original mission and changed their name to the Rescue Yacht Club.
A few of the former people involved with the old rescue team thought the original mission of saving the lost and drowning was still important so they started a new rescue squad and once again went into the dark to save those who needed saving. In time though, they found the need for their own clubhouse building and the cycle repeated itself. Today, that particular dangerous coast line has several different yacht and boating clubs with magnificent buildings, but there is no one out in the cold waters to save those who are drowning.
The fact that the phrase “country club church” even exist proves this parable is about churches. A country club church is one that cares more about itself and keeping its carpets free of stains than it cares about reaching the lost, broken, and unloved in the world. The question that this morning scripture causes us to wrestle with is are we a country club church? Now clearly gathered in our beautiful (and mostly stain free) building we of course say no. If we went down to the gas station or the bar and asked the people there about us, what would they say? It is my prayer that we will not be found wanting, but it is a question to consider. As a church, what is our relationship status with Jesus?
As a church we are not a building, we are a united collection of believers. Our collective relationship status is determined by the collection of our individual statuses. Ultimately the question this scripture brings up that all of us need to reckon with, is do we still love Jesus or have we forsaken our first love? The aspect that should most define us as people of faith, the element of who we are that should be most visible, is our love of God. John Wesley was once asked “who then is a Methodist?” He answered this way in his essay “The Character of a Methodist”: “A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Ghost given to us.’ “ John Wesley continued this theme in his sermon entitles scriptural Christianity when he preached “This then is the very essence of faith . . .The love of God the Father.” Our love of God, made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus and by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, should be the hallmark of our faith. However, it can become so easy to forget and forsake that love. Like the church in Ephesus, we can persevere through hardships, our faith can be tested by wickedness, and at some point our faith loses focus. It becomes less about loving God and more about what we do for God. Our faith stops being a love story and becomes about the works we accomplish. We can start loving God stuff more than we love God.
Part of the reason why this happens is because we forget that love is work. This true for our spousal relationships as much as it is true for our love of God, love is more than just an emotion. Love is a choice. We have to choose to act in a way that is loving. We have to choose to feel and know love. In a marriage we make this choice by investing in each other. As Gary Chapman, author of the Five Love Languages, puts it we have to intentionally treat our partner with actions that they understand as loving to keep their love tank full. In the same way, to stay in love with God we have to keep our spiritual love tank full. There are two primary ways to do this.
First, we need to be aware of God’s great love for us. God’s love and care for us did not just start and stop at salvation and the forgiveness of sins. God is continually and constant at work in and around our lives. The love and blessing of God are all around us, we simply need to take time to notice them. If your faith feels dry, if your spiritual love tank is on E, or if you relationship status with God is complicated then I suggest you take time to seek God’s love around you. A great spiritual practice we can engage in is twofold. First, we can begin each and every day with gratitude. We can write out three things that we are thankful for. Not only will starting with the positive daily brighten our outlook for the day, but it will also help us see and be aware of God’s love. The second aspect is every night before falling asleep we can reflect on our day and ask ourselves the question “How did I see or experience God’s love today?” In doing these things we become more aware of what is already true and right in front of us: God loves us very much!
Second, we need to stay in love with God. A crucial part of keeping our love tanks full, is not just having others treat us lovingly, but it has to go both ways. For love to be love, we must not only be loved but we must also love. As Christian musician TobyMac sings “I was made to love you, I was made to find you, I was made just for you, made to adore you. I was made to love and be loved by you.” We have to express our love to God. We do this through prayer and we do this through worship. The words we sing are just words on a page, but they should be our heartfelt expression of love to our God. We also partake in the sacraments, like we are going to do today. Communion is an act of remembrance and it is an opportunity for us to say with heartfelt thanks to God, “I love you.”
Revelation reveals that there are churches that despite having a great historical track record, have lost their first love. May that not be our story. May we not be that church. May our sincere and deep prayer be that we are not a country club church. Instead may we be a church that is known as a church that was made to love. Made to love God, made to be loved by God, and made to love the world that Christ Jesus died to save. May our creed, may our declaration as a church be, “I love you God.”