The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      29th April 2018
Revelation - Rebuilding the Church
Jeremy Fletcher

Revelation 3. 1 - 13

This is the third of four Evensongs with texts from the Book of Revelation. Thought a complex book with some challenging subject matter and imagery, the readings in these four weeks are direct words to seven churches. They are real places, and you can visit them today in modern Turkey. Seven was a symbolic number too, and we can take it that people in other early churches knew that these letters were also for them. 

So far we have heard letters to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum and Thyatira.  Tonight there are words to Sardis and Philadelphia.  As with the other churches there is a pattern to the letters, with a reminder of the power of Christ, and an encouragement to be faithful. Five of the churches are told off for not getting it right. Only Philadelphia and Smyrna receive no rebuke. Each church is living in a time of challenge, either from direct attack or through the insidious effects of indifference and affluence. What is the church to do when we are ignored, or when we are vilified? 

The physical state of our buildings might offer an analogy. I was in York this week, and next month will be there to celebrate the completion of a £19m project to secure and restore the East End, including the magnificent window which depicts the book of Revelation.  Our buildings can decay either through attack – literally in York in the Civil War, or when the Quire was burnt down by an arsonist in 1829 – or through neglect, as at Beverley Minster, when in the affluent seventeenth century money was spent elsewhere and the North Transept was about to collapse.  Wise church authorities and skilled architects and builders down the years have done the work to make the buildings secure. Thanks be to God. 

Two thousand years ago the churches were under challenge and failing.  It was not all their fault. Christians had become visible, and as a minority they started to be blamed for things, as minorities often are. Some had challenged the requirement to worship the Emperor, and the state sought them out to gag and imprison them. In certain cases other faiths attacked them. And, more subtly, in busy towns and cities, with many Gods to worship, some churches lost their identity and their reason for being. It was too tempting just to go along with everyone else. Whether by faithfulness or compromise, the church was under threat.

In Sardis they just hadn’t noticed that they were sleepwalking into oblivion. Sardis was a by word in th ancient world as a place which had fallen to the enemy not once but twice by not posting sentries and by being captured when the town was asleep. The church was like that. It was there, but it had no real life, no distinctiveness, no effect. Where other churches are commended for their service, faith and endurance, there is none of that in Sardis. It’s almost like a dead body: recognisable, but lifeless. 

In Philadelphia it’s the opposite. Faithful and open to the opportunity to preach good news, they find themselves actively opposed.  When someone is really out to get you it is natural to feel useless and discouraged. They think they have little ‘power’, and it must have been tempting to give up. To these two churches with their different challenges the message is the same. You can be rebuilt. You can find life. You can conquer. At Philadelphia they are reminded of a great building, held up by magnificent pillars. However small and insignificant they may feel, God can make them like one of the great pillars which hold up York or Beverley Minster. Their version would be the temple in Jerusalem, and they are pointed to the hope that they will take their place as pillars in the heavenly temple. If you are lifeless, ask for life from the Spirit. If you are crushed, ask for strength to endure and hold on to welcome the one who will take your hand and lift you to glory. 

It is not hard to find contemporary examples of churches like Sardis and Philadelphia, churches which have lost their way, or churches which are being crushed despite their faithfulness.  In London today it is much easier not to go to church than to do so – even for committed Christians. There are many more fun things to do than worship, and many people hurry past to other things. We as a church are still there, like the church in Sardis, but we can feel lifeless and irrelevant. Across the world there are Christians who are in grave danger, like the church in Philadelphia. The fact that we continue to hear the word ‘martyr’ on the news is a sad reminder that some Christians are called upon simply to endure. 

I take heart and courage from this. The survival of York and Beverley Minsters as buildings is nothing short of remarkable. It might have been easier to let them  fall down. But the vision was to secure them, to strengthen them, to offer them again to a world which then, as now, needed to hear the word of God and see it proclaimed in stone and wood and glass. The church at Sardis was offered life where they were nearly dead. The little powerless church at Philadelphia was offered the vision of being huge pillars in Gods new temple. 

Whether we are looking for life or hope, the vision is everything. God is faithful. You will find life. You will be secured. A church which is falling down is perhaps in the best place to discover the God who rebuilds. May we all then be like those who rebuilt, and find strength hope and vision as we reshape the church, and look to be pillars in the Kingdom of heaven, to the Glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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