The Seven Churches - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The Seven Churches

Revelation 1: 1-8

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The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:

Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.

Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;

And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,

And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.

Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

The Seven Churches

St John on Patmos - Poussin Photograph by Steven Zucker

In the whole of my forty years of ministry I think I have only preached on the Book of Revelation a handful of times. Just a few sermons in forty years. And that is largely because it is an odd and difficult book, full of strange stuff about beasts and battles, visions and weird bits of symbolism. And yet this book has probably had more influence on religious aspiration and political ideology than almost any other part of the New Testament. Think of Hitler and the Third Reich, think of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints - Mormons, think Jehovah's Witnesses. It has, as a book, had an extraordinary impact so when the chance came to visit the Seven Churches of Asia, which are mentioned in the first three chapters of Revelation, I was intrigued.

Our parish pilgrimage covered all seven sites, as we journeyed through the peninsula of Asia Minor, or Anatolia, which protrudes into the Aegean Sea. Just off the coast is the island of Patmos, which is where St John the Divine wrote his book. He is, in many people's minds, identified with John the Evangelist, and he seems to have lived for a time in Ephesus before being exiled to Patmos, probably having been accused of being an agitator against pagan cults or maybe because he refused to sacrifice to the Emperor Domitian, who wanted people to regard him as a god.

Revelation begins with John's letters to the seven churches. Now, there were, of course, more than seven churches in Asia at the time but John intends us to read these as addressed to every church: these, he says, are the strengths and weaknesses which every church is prone to. But from the details that John gives of each town - their particular history, topography, buildings, trades etc - it's clear he knew these places at first hand, and he wanted to use local references to drive home a particular point.

So we began at Ephesus. At Ephesus the danger was from false apostles who tried to usurp the authority of the local leadership. John commends the church for standing firm, but he also accuses them of not being as strong or loving in the faith as they were when they first believed. They are, he says, to remember their faith and repent. While at Ephesus we saw the Temple to Emperor Hadrian, remains of the huge Temple of Artemis and visited the vast Theatre where 40 years earlier, St Paul had caused a riot by the silversmiths of the town who were afraid that he was undermining their trade by condemning the worship of Artemis. We saw too, the Church of St John the Theologian. This is regarded as the traditional burial place of St John of Patmos. It's a large church built and then rebuilt until it came to its final form in the 6th century with an octagonal baptistery and all around, many Christian crosses carved into the marble.

Then on to Smyrna, the second of the churches. Smyrna and Isthmia, almost obliterated by the modern city, only the remains of the market place survive. A poor people, says John in his book, but rich in faith. John warns them that persecution is coming. They are to patiently endure. 'Be faithful unto death.'

And then Pergamum. Pergamum was an important city and atrading post. The original city is on the Acropolis which is 1,000 feet above the valley. We ascended to it in a cable car. It was the first city where imperial cult was established; the cult of worshipping the Roman Emperor as a god. It also has an important medical centre, the Asclepion, which was established by the Romans and which Paul didn't like because it was tending to the worship of pagan gods.  Despite this the early Christian community kept the faith, although St John says, some were falling away. So repent!

And then the fourth church, Thyatira. Thyatira is now a modern town. It was the church in John's day that had a false prophetess, Jezebel. It was only a small church in this manufacturing town. Turn aside says St John, from exotic mumbo jumbo of the mystery cults and embrace the truth of God.

Then Sardis, the fifth church. There are remains of a number of churches at Sardis and the remains of a very substantial synagogue. But it sounds as though the glory days of the city and of the church are in the past. It was a church, St John said, that had fallen asleep. But a faithful few remained and they, he said, shall walk with Christ.

Philadelphia. There John is less critical, more gentle; he doesn't say anything bad about the church in Philadelphia. If they are faithful Christ will protect them in their hour of trial.

And then finally, Laodicea. A wealthy,  prosperous community, a commercial and banking centre, but it had become self-content and self-satisfied. It was, in John's words, neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. Where did he get that image of hot and cold from? Well, from the hot-springs nearby at Pamukkale. We visited them in these extraordinary calcium outcrops. And then nearby at Hierapolis, we walked in the early morning through a lovely Christian burial ground, and at Aphrodisias we saw a well-preserved Roman site with a superb stadium.

Surrounded by all this prosperity; the pagan temples; the power of the imperial cult; the might of Rome, it's easy to picture these small Christian communities struggling to remain faithful to the faith they inherited and always facing the threat of persecution. St John of Patmos wrote to them to encourage, to warn and to reinvigorate those churches and his words speak to the church today.

We leave St John with Mary in a little house about six miles from Ephesus where she ended her life, so the story goes, tended by St John. There we celebrated communion together and reflected on the fragile Christian communities of 1st century AD whose ruins we had seen, and how Christianity has now almost vanished from that part of Asia. One of the cradles of the early Church, now a place of ruins and ghosts. It makes you think. What of the future of Christianity here in Britain and in Europe? What will pilgrims find in 100 years time when they visit our churches and our cities and our towns? Surely we can take nothing for granted.

Well, if all this sounds a rather sobering conclusion to our travels, reflect on this. Amidst all the ruins of the past glories that we saw, we did see many crosses. Crosses on tombs, crosses on walls, crosses on marble panels, crosses on mosaics and on pillars. The church in Asia minor may have vanished but the cross remains. St John of Patmos makes the same point in his book. Through the Cross of Christ God has won the ultimate victory over sin and over evil. And though kingdoms can rise and fall, no power can frustrate his ultimate victory. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. As John ends each of his letters to those seven churches: 'Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear what the spirit is saying to the churches'.  Amen.

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