The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      15th April 2018
Revelation - Letters to Ephesus and Smyrna
Jeremy Fletcher

Revelation 2. 1 - 11

The Church of England’s pattern of Bible reading – the Lectionary – is reasonably shy about the Book of Revelation, but tonight we begin a month of Evensongs in it, which may or may not excite you. It does me, perhaps because I spent some years of my life gazing at it, in the form of the Great East Window of York Minster, now stunningly restored. 

Revelation is a complex book. Luther could “in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.” D H Lawrence said that Revelation was to the New Testament what Judas was to the disciples. Reading it immerses you into a fantastical world of a war in heaven, great beasts, lakes of fire, visions of the future, lots of numerology, and enough stuff to keep whole denominations in the wilder parts of the church in business for eternity. 

Revelation says of itself that it is three things: ‘apocalypse’ - a disclosure of the things of the future; ‘prophecy’ – the word of God as encouragement and warning; and ‘letter’ – a means of teaching. The danger in studying Revelation is to over interpret it. Much of it is seeped in a culture where the references would be clear, a bit like it’s obvious to us what the rules of a pantomime, or Mornington Crescent, are. It’s hard to reconstruct it if you’re not in it. 

As a general rule: whenever someone has worked out the exact meaning they are probably wrong. A couple of weeks ago a friend’s timeline was taken over by an argument about whether Revelation was clear that the Roman Catholic Church was Babylon and Antichrist. I let him get on with it: he’s just written a commentary twenty-five years in the making.

But…there is much to be trusted and learned here. Written at the very end of the first century AD, in a time of great persecution under Domitian, John (which John we do not know) holds out a vision which recognises the certainty of suffering, the victory of God and the remaking of heaven and earth through the triumph of the crucified Christ. John claims only to be the one who sees and listens. It is Christ who speaks, and those who read and heard the visions in times of desperate suffering will have held on to the hope it held. 

Parts of Revelation describe the worship in heaven (from which we get various texts we sing today, including lots of the Messiah). Parts describe the reality of suffering and natural disasters. Parts symbolise the experience of being in a battle of good and evil: not too difficult today in a world of Storm Shadow missiles launched from Tornado jets. Parts look to the new heaven and new earth, in passages which take their place in the funeral service, and one of which I will use tomorrow. 

Our Evensong readings are another part: direct letters to seven churches. They are real places, and you can visit them today in modern Turkey. But seven was a symbolic number too, and we can take it that people in other early churches heard that these letters were also for them. There are two tonight: to Ephesus and Smyrna. Ephesus, now ruined and near Selcuk, south of Ismir, was massive. When Paul preached the city rioted, partly because the silversmiths who lived off pilgrims couldn’t face losing their trade when people abandoned the worship of Diana. The place was a meeting place of beliefs and faiths and thoughts. 

Somehow a faithful church survived. The Ephesians are congratulated for holding firm and clear where others might have become diluted and disillusioned. But they have been so concerned to hold on that they have lost their ‘first love’: the reason and drive to follow Christ. They will not be the first or last group to be sparked into life, establish a pattern of belief, and then get fossilised into continuing the pattern but forgetting why. In our own mission action planning process it is my main aim for us to reaffirm our purpose, mission, and vision, and only then to sort the details of the things and processes and systems. Above all we need to remember why we follow Christ, as well as how. 

The letter to Symrna is unusual. Of the seven churches only Smyrna and Philadelphia receive no overt criticism. The church at Smyrna has both held on in a time of suffering and clearly posseses all it needs to continue. It looks like they thought of themselves as poor and small; perhaps for this reason they relied more radically on God than on the edifice they had built. The encouragement here is constantly to refresh, to pray, to be alert, and not to wilt when persecution comes. 

Today’s churches are planted in a staggering variety of settings, in contexts even more varied than the early church at the end of the first century. In the letters of Revelation are to be found encouragements and warnings, and I would commend the study of the different settings here, to see what lessons our own church life might learn. From tonight I might suggest that our social, economic and intellectual setting is more Ephesus than Smyrna. My prayer is that we will demonstrate both our first love for God in Christ, and in the power of the Spirit that we will persevere in times which are exciting and challenging. May we have an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Amen. 

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