Scripture: Revelation 3:7-13
It has been my observation, that there are two types of people in this world. There are those people who love history and find it fascinating. Then there are those people who hate history and find it all terribly boring. I am firmly in the love history camp. For the past several years, one of the periods of history that I have found most engaging is the late 18th early 19th century. I have specifically focused on the conflicts of this time and sometimes it is referred to as the Napoleonic era. This is a period that I have read the books for and to better understand the tactics I have played the game of. This is period of warfare that in the popular conscious is best known for people lining up with guns and taking turns shooting each other. That did happen, but that is because the guns were not very accurate, yet guns were still deadlier than swords or spears. People did not fight that way because they lacked intelligence to do something smarter. People fought that way because it was the most effective way to fight in that era. The two most important factors to fighting during this era were maneuver and discipline. The side that was able to move as one and hold the line was often the side that won. The two sides did not just sit there and shoot at each other until one side was destroyed. Often one side would break their lines and flee, lose ground, then rally to reform and try to get back what was lost. Eventually a side’s morale would break and the battle would be all but over.
It was really neat for me a few years ago I got to see on a small scale how this played out. At camp that year one of our big games was a water balloon fight. I spent the whole day filling up thousands of water balloons. However, this was not a free for all. We were playing capture the flag and the groups had to fight in Napoleonic style lines. The counselors had them practice following commands of “make ready”, “Aim”, and “fire.” Before the game a few of the counselors even had their campers practice marching. Once the game began it was really neat to watch it all unfold. Some groups turned into disorganized blobs and those groups very regularly found themselves suffering heavier hits and they were quick to retreat from a more organized line. However, the organized line would then encounter greater opposing numbers, and itself break. There was a lot of back and forth but neither side could get much past the middle. Then one counselor, organized his groups into two by two column instead of a line and marched them down the side of the field. A couple groups of the opposing team saw them and tried to throw water balloons. A couple of the kids of the marching group wavered and started to break formation, but the counselor was right there to grab them, keep them in formation, and I kid you not was yelling “Hold the line! Hold the line!” This group marched all the way down to the back defenders flank, moved from a column to a line, eliminated the defending group and captured the flag to win the game. It was glorious. I tell this story, because I could not help but think of it when I read this morning’s scripture. The idea of holding the line was essential to victory in Napoleonic warfare, and I think that is the key message of this morning’s scripture. The church in Philadelphia was a church under fire but they held the line, and I think they offer up an example for us to follow today.
Another area of history that I clearly have a strong interest in is biblical history, so for people like me this morning’s scripture is great. There is some deep bible nerd stuff going on here. For instance Revelation 3:7 is a direct reference to a fairly obscure passage for Isaiah. I realize that not everyone gets into “feeling the history” like I do, so here is the cliff notes version of the snapshot we get of the Church in Philadelphia. In the late first century, Christianity was only beginning to be seen as its own thing. For many it was still considered a sect of Judaism, and many of the believers were still Jews. Often, the Jews in area did not particularly take well to some converting to Christianity. This appears to be the case in Philadelphia. The Jesus believers seemed to have suffered a lot of ridicule, pressure, and scorn. Reading between the lines one of the common things these believers in Philadelphia must have been told is that they were not truly saved and in fact may now be lost for following something as wrong as the gospel. This is why this letter to the church in Philadelphia begins with talking about opening and shutting doors. Jesus is assuring these believers that he and he alones has the power to save, to open the door to kingdom of heaven, and he is assuring these believers that he has indeed saved them. Revelation 2:8 states “I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and not denied my name.” Despite being weak by some measure, they were strong in faithfulness. To the point that they are promised in this letter protection from trials and when God’s kingdom fully comes this weak little church will be lauded and celebrated in God’s temple.
As I mentioned last week, the book of Revelation begins with seven letters to seven churches, of which this morning’s letter to Philadelphia is one. One of the more common ways to interpret and understand this beginning section of Revelation is to view these letters to the seven churches as describing seven different spiritual states that churches can find themselves in. That means that this morning’s scripture is not just applicable to the late first century church in Philadelphia but it is also relevant to churches today. Many biblical interpreters see Philadelphia as representing the ideal church. Unlike most of the other six letters, there is nothing listed against the Philadelphia church. They are praised for their deeds, for keeping Jesus word, and for not denying him in any way. The church in Philadelphia managed to avoid the pitfalls that the other churches found themselves falling into. Even though they were under pressure, they did not crack. Even though they were tempted they remained faithful, and even when they may have felt afraid they held the line.
What I find most interesting and exciting is that this ideal portrait of a church is described as having little strength. We live in a cultural that deplores weakness. We go out of our ways to cover up our flaws, we position and posture so that we can never be seen as weak, and we are obsessed with being stronger, better, or improved. Yet, here is a description of what many consider the ideal spiritual state of a church and they are described as weak. Perhaps, the most interesting part is what exactly made this church possess little strength. Clearly, they were not weak in faith or in spiritual gifts. In the 19th century Heinrich Meyer wrote a very well regarded biblical commentary that specifically focuses on the Greek. On this section of scripture Meyer wrote that his understanding of the Greek is that the weakness refers to their size. What made the Philadelphia church weak was that they did not have many people, which means they did not have a lot of resources. Despite being small, they are still lifted up as an example church to emulate. It appears in the kingdom of God, quality is valued over quantity.
To quote the wise and ever insightful Yoda, the diminutive green Jedi Master from Star Wars, “Size Matters not! Judge me by my size do you?” So often when it comes to churches, we treat size as the primary indicator of health and vitality. There are large churches that are healthy and vital. They are large because they have been aggressive at making disciples and they have tirelessly sought to transform the world for the better. There are also large churches that are have hundreds of people, but are not healthy because they have attracted crowds instead of making disciples. In the same way there are small churches that are toxic and are shrinking for all the wrong reasons, but there are also small churches that are vital and every Sunday have faithful disciples who gather to worship in Spirit and truth. What makes a church vital is not how many people fill its pews or it’s offering plates on Sundays. A vital church is a church that have kept the word and not denied the name of Christ. Perhaps a way to unpack and put this in our modern day context, is a vital church is a church takes seriously the commandments of Christ. It is a church that earnestly seeks to love God, but also has a strong focus on loving their neighbor. It is a church that seeks to emulate Jesus example by radically serving others, and it is a church where the love of God is made known and demonstrated by how the church members care for one another. A vital church is one that does not deny the name of Christ by watering it down. It does not seek to change the gospel, that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life in order to appease a pluralistic culture. A vital church is one that puts an emphasis on the spiritual truths that salvation is through faith alone and that Jesus is Lord. It does not matter if the church has 6, 60, 600, or 6,000, a church that does those things is the kind of church like the one described in this morning’s scripture is a church that can be considered vital and victorious. A church like that is one that holds the line.
If a church, even a small church, is faithful at keeping His word and not denying his name, then something inevitable will happen. That church will be fruitful, and fruitful churches by the definition grow. They grow deeper and they grow out. There are some who believe that the only way for a church to grow and attract new people to a life of faith is by being a new church plant, that an established church like ours it is impossible, that we are dried up, to old, and unable to be fruitful. I say hogwash! If we hold the line, if we are faithful to the gospel of Christ and to following Jesus as our savior then revival, vitality, and fruitfulness can happen. It has happened before, happens today, and will happen again. A good example of this is Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio. This small rural church outside of Dayton averaged about 90 people in 1978 when Pastor Mike Slaughter started there. He came and urged the people to take seriously the words of Jesus. He urged the people to be committed to loving God and have their actions show they loved others. After the first year the attendance had changed. . . to about 60. A third of the people left, because they were interested in a church that was focused on them, then on loving God and loving others. After that, this small church in rural Ohio has experienced steady growth. Now, over 30 years later, Ginghamsburg is a multi-campus church that has about 5,000 people worship at one of their sties a week. The hallmark of all these sites is a focus on meeting the needs of others, not just in Dayton, but around the world.
More recently, Pfrimmer’s Chapel UMC in Southern Indiana, has experienced a revival. This church had experienced years of stagnation and slow decline. When their average attendance reached their lowest point, people began to panic. The pastor led the church in discovering who they were and committing to that. Through this process the church dedicated themselves to serving their community of Corydon, IN. They took seriously following the example that Jesus gave when he washed the feet of his disciples, and the church was dedicated to putting others first. In just a few short years things have turned around for what was a small country church to a growing church of close to 400. Most impressive though is that 80% of this church’s budget is committed to ministries of outreach and service to the community.