Sermon by Rev Stuart Simpson on 28 April 2019
Readings were John 20:19-31 and Revelation 1:4-8
Some of you may have seen the social experiment getting young people to use old technology.
I think that reading the book of Revelation is similar to young people being asked to use an old rotary phone. They apply their knowledge of smart phones to the rotary phone just as we place our understanding of our world onto the powerful images and prophetic words presented within the text; which was penned approximately AD 95.
Until someone explains, someone unveils what is going on, we will continue to make things up, which, in relation to this book of the bible, has led to often to anxiety and fear. The author of Revelation through prophetic vision, unveiled to the early church what God has done, is doing, and continues to do, behind the veil of the world. The Revelation proclaims what is really happening in the world and who is in control even if all the signs point in the other direction.
For us to fully grasp how profound Revelation is for us today, we do need to understand the context of the community it was originally written for. Revelation was a letter, which was most likely written by the Apostle John, although there is no hint of this in the letter. It was to be read aloud to the congregations in seven cities of the Roman province of Asia (now Western Turkey). The letter, rather than trying to confuse the congregations, was primarily pastoral in nature.
Most of the congregations would have known what the images meant. For example, seven golden lamps symbolised the seven churches but also because the number seven spoke of perfection or wholeness, in this context meant the whole Church. Some people think that the early church was under constant persecution and it often was. Christians had suffered considerably under the Empire Nero, who used them as a scapegoat for the fire of Rome.
And yet John’s pastoral letter wasn’t addressing this type of wide persecution. Rather the issues John wanted to respond to were:
- Jewish-Christian relations
- compromise with pagan society, in light of the Revelation of Jesus
Jewish-Christian relations were deteriorating
Outside Palestine, the synagogue had long attracted Gentile believers. But then Christians began to steal them with the offer of what must have seemed to the Jews, cut-price salvation, without the obligation to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses.
Their frustration and jealousy took the form of ‘slander’, in particular legal accusation by informers. Rather than having to deal with any legal issues, Christians began to downplay their faith and adopt a low profile, following a Jewish life style and not being too active in their ‘witness’.
Those who were accused by informers could be executed if they refused to deny. This is shown in a letter from Pliny, governor of Bithynia (the northern part of modern turkey) to the Emperor Trajan:
Many of those named by informers denied ever having been Christians; others said they had given up ‘some three years ago, some several years, a few even twenty years ago’.
Pliny’s strategy was to encourage apostasy by letting off those who recanted; at his direction they then ‘recited a prayer to the gods, made supplication with incense and wine to your statue, which I had ordered to be brought into court for the purpose together with the images of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ…’
Trajan confirmed that Christians were not to be ‘sought out’, but that they were to be punished if accused and convicted.
Compromise with pagan society
Although the seven churches existed in a region of Asia that had no direct part in the emperor cult (the worship of Caesar as divine), their political and social lives were heavily influenced by the cult.
The Christian community lived in an atmosphere permeated by the symbols of the old fertility cults and of the deified state and emperor, which were broadcast by the temples and public buildings, by the law courts, by the theatres and gladiatorial games, above all by the money. Some Christians were becoming absorbed into the culture to the point that their lives were no more different than that of non-Christians – one such example was that sleeping with prostitutes was seen as ok.
In the first chapter, John writes to the churches reminding them that no matter how long it takes for Jesus’ return, he is the one whom is their Lord. He is their king, not Caesar, even if it looks like it Caesar reigns, Caesar was not there in the beginning and neither will he be there in the end. Caesar hasn’t defeated death – Jesus has! You know this so don’t let Caesar’s kingdom tell you otherwise.
ANZAC day is a poignant time that commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders ‘who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peace-keeping operations’ and ‘the contribution and suffering of all those who have served’. There are people within the community of St John’s who lost loved ones due to these wars. Some of them are mentioned on the plaques around this building. For many people it is a day of powerful and often overwhelming memories and emotions.
I heard earlier this week that for many NZ’s ANZAC day is the most spiritual day of the year. It was interesting to hear this said so close to Easter. As much as I believe ANZAC is an important day, I was thinking to myself, would I have the courage to challenge the belief it is the most spiritual day? Would I be able to speak the truth that in Jesus, remembrance moves from death to life?
Although we remember Jesus’s death we know he rose again – we remember what he did but we don’t stay stuck there because we know Jesus is the first born of the dead.
The pastoral letter John wrote to the seven churches is also for us because we too need to be reminded that even though we don’t have the power to change the circumstances of the world or dispel the pain of loss, Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the first born of the dead, and ruler of kings on earth, does.
This revelation, this unveiling of what God has done, is doing and will do, encourages us, I hope, to live as faithful followers of Jesus no matter what we face. It give us the courage to live as Christ’s followers not followers of other people or other things. It might help me to remember that television, Netflix, work are not lords of my life.
What might the unveiling of Jesus Christ be saying to you today?