At first sight and first reading Revelation is a very peculiar book. There’s nothing else quite like it in the New Testament, or in the Scriptures as a whole, with the possible exception of the second part of Daniel. We are therefore not used to this style of writing and to the conventions of apocalyptic literature, with its careful structures, literary devices, symbols and images. If we dip into Revelation as unwary readers we may find that it consists of the kind of lurid dreams and visions that may stand as a warning against eating cheese just before going to bed. I’m glad, therefore, that the reading appointed for this evening doesn’t take us into the stranger parts of the book. They have been a happy hunting ground for interpreters ranging from the harmlessly eccentric to the frankly certifiable. We are asked instead to address ourselves to a couple of the letters with which the book opens. Revelation is a kind of circular letter with seven different introductions, each one tailored for a particular Christian community in Asia Minor, probably towards the end of the first Christian century. So we’re going to look briefly at the letters to Sardis and Philadelphia, but before we do, let me quickly introduce those two places to you.Sardis was a famous city in the Ancient World, the city of the legendary King Croesus, whose fabulous wealth rested partly on local gold deposits and partly on the position of Sardis at a junction of important trade routes. Badly damaged by an earthquake in AD 17 and rebuilt by the Romans, Sardis was a powerful and populous city, maybe two thirds of the size of modern Oxford. It was a place with an influential Jewish community and one with an impressive reputation.Philadephia, about thirty miles from Sardis, was an altogether less imposing place. Flattened in AD 17 by the same earthquake as Sardis and then rebuilt, it suffered such regular tremors that the geographer Strabo reported that fresh cracks appeared daily in the city walls and few people actually dared to live in the city itself. Philadelphia depended on agriculture for its prosperity, particularly on the cultivation of vines, and it has been suggested that this was under threat at the end of the first century because the Roman government had decreed the destruction of provincial vineyards to boost grain production. Philadelphia, then, may have been an anxious place.Two cities. Near neighbours, but very different in culture, character, confidence and reputation. And the church in each place reflects its particular context.One theme running through the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3 is the injunction: ‘Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’ So, what is the Spirit saying, to these particular churches, and to the Church as a whole, and to the churches we ourselves know best? Let me suggest four messages, one each to those contrasting communities of Sardis and Philadelphia, and two to both churches. We’ll start with the specifics.First, then, in the letter to Sardis, with all its wealth and power, a warning to the self-satisfied. ‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains.’ (3:1, 2). The church in Sardis, like the city itself, seemingly has a high reputation. It looks good, and is well spoken of, but it fails to deliver. Its reputation is a carefully crafted pretence, a façade concealing a disappointing reality. It reminds me of a church in East Anglia I used to visit, with a pretentious Classical portico in stone tacked on to a building of cheap brick. Unfortunately, the job hadn’t been well done, and the stone portico was gradually falling away from the rest of the building. In a world of spin and poise – or should that be pose? – God is concerned with our inner selves, with the sincerity of our faith, our obedience and our love. That’s what matters. And if we’ve slipped away from that, we need to wake up and to repent, to turn around and go back to where we ought to be. However good we look, God isn’t taken in.Second, in the letter to Philadelphia, with its wobbly walls and shaky economy, an encouragement to the faithful under pressure. ‘Look, I have set before you an open door, which no-one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.’ (3:8). It seems that the Philadelphian Christians are a small group, and perhaps in conflict with a well-established Jewish community in the city. Whatever the precise details, there are people around making life difficult for the Christians and pressurising them to abandon their loyalty to Jesus Christ. That story has been repeated in every age of the Church, and it isn’t at all unusual today for Christians to feel out of step with the general drift and tone of society. Pressure to conform, to let the world squeeze us into its mould, in Paul’s phrase (Romans 12:2) is strong and pervasive. This letter encourages us to recognise the pressure and to resist it, confident in God’s presence, power and love.Third, in both letters, a reminder of the challenge of discipleship. All seven letters share a reference to ‘the one who conquers’: maybe an athletic metaphor, but more likely a military one. Christian discipleship isn’t a pleasant afternoon stroll: it’s a struggle. It means living a counter-cultural lifestyle, and resisting external pressure, as we’ve seen. It also means self-discipline: cultivating a pattern of prayer, Bible study, worship and fellowship and developing a sensitivity which can detect and sidestep temptation. These qualities don’t come naturally. Sometimes they may seem easy and straightforward, but at other times we may find that prayer is a chore, the Bible a closed book, worship uninspiring and other Christians a pain in the neck. Then it’s hard work. The closest I got to rowing when I was an undergraduate was living next door to someone who went out at what seemed to me like the middle of the night to practise. I had a sneaking admiration for his commitment, even though I didn’t want to do it myself. Sometimes as disciples of Jesus Christ we need that sort of determination, and it’s hard.Fourth, and finally, the promise of belonging. Someone has said that Revelation is a book full of graffiti. Time and again John speaks of things written: in books, on scrolls, on gates and foundation stones and even on people. The Christians in Sardis have their names written in the book of life, a heavenly version of the roll of citizens common in the cities of the Hellenistic world. The Philadephians go one better: they are personally inscribed with the name of God and the name of the New Jerusalem. The point is that they belong. They are known and accepted by God. Their standing is secure. As Christian people we are already citizens of the New Jerusalem. Our calling and our joy is to live up to what we are.There is warning here, and encouragement; a reminder of the challenges we face, and an assurance that faithful discipleship confirms our place as citizens of heaven. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. So be it. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Martin Wellings, Wesley Memorial Church, Oxford
10th May 2009