Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Rev. 3:14-22: The Message to Laodicea
‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’
As someone who was raised surrounded by more Fundamentalist versions of Christianity than the one I currently practice, the book of Revelation has a somewhat conflicted place in my faith life. I encountered this book most often as a threat in the broader culture. I remember reading religious comic books at a friend’s house about the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. That story is part of this book. Also, I heard lots of talk of the End of Days. When people talked about the Ultimate Judgment of Humanity by God, they nearly always referenced Revelation. For anyone who wanted to scare people into following Jesus, Revelation always seemed to be the book they hauled out to do it. Because that wasn’t how I understood my faith, I ended up avoiding the book as a whole, preferring to stick around with the Jesus I encountered in the Gospels. I wonder if any of you have had a similar experience with this book of the Bible?
Here are some things I have learned that have helped me more fully engage with this strange and also foundational Christian text. It matters that we take the era in which this book was written into account. In his introduction to this book of the Bible in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Jean-Pierre Ruiz says that the book was likely written sometime between 81 and 96 CE and was shaped by Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In a very similar way to how the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE shaped later Jewish ideas about exile, mourning, and the centrality of Jerusalem to communal worship, Rome’s destruction of the Jerusalem, which was distinctly tied to wiping out rebellion in the city, shaped how the prophet John would come to understand a Christian’s role within an empire that would do something so cruel. According to Ruiz, the prophet John, who had been exiled to Patmos and who’s prophetic visions were recorded by someone else, offered this instruction to Christians living under Rome: when living in the midst of a regime that is callous and cruel and interested mostly in maintaining its own power, the only proper response is resistance. There can be no compromise and no accommodation with the evil empire.
According to Dr. Ruiz, the prophecies that John received vary widely in style and content. Some parts are hymns, much like the Psalms. Some parts describe bloody battles. They also deploy a style of argument that is dualistic: there are two ways of doing things, the right way and the wrong way. All behavior seems to be able to be sorted into one of those two categories. Our reading for today is from the part of Revelation that is a series of messages to seven different churches in seven different cities in what we know call Turkey. This is the particular message to the members of the church in Laodicea. According to Mary Milne, Laodicea was a wealthy trading city, important enough to Rome to have an aqueduct. Milne also thinks that it is possible that John’s accusation that they were “lukewarm Christians” was a reference to not only their passion for Christ, but the only warmish water they had compare to neighboring Hierapolis, that was known for hot springs.
Regardless of actual temperature of the water, the accusation of lukewarmness was damning. I know that I quoted a Little Richard song in my sermon title, but I think another song might have been more appropriate. During what was known as the Harlan County War, a union activist wrote a song called “Which Side Are You On?” One of the verses goes:
They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there
You'll either be a union man or a thug for J. H. Blair
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?
This song, born of the crisis of mining companies taking advantage of their employees, sounds much more like Revelation than that fun song about rejecting a romantic partner who messed up. Sorry, Little Richard. Whomever wrote “Which Side are You On?” understood the power of dualistic thinking in a crisis. There are only two sides: miners or bosses. There was no room for lukewarmness.
In her book about Revelation, Adela Yarbro Collins spoke of Apocalyptic literature, in general, and Revelation in particular, being literature that arises out of a crisis. She also notes that sometimes the feeling of being oppressed is as important as actually being oppressed. I read an article this week by historian Diana Butler-Bass who pointed to the rise of some apocalyptic preachers in the ever-growing Christian-Nationalist movement in our country. People who are drawn to Christian-Nationalist prophecies feel a crisis, but the crisis is mostly one of them losing power they had traditionally held. They become drawn to religious images of God, and eventually them, doing battle with unjust rulers in order to justify themselves hoarding power and money.
While the instability they feel is real, our country, and maybe the world, has been shifting, pushed really, to allow more and different kinds of people places of dignity and leadership. This shift is only a crisis if you believe you benefited from the system that had been in place. If we want to make good and proper use of the book of Revelation, we must tend to our own impulses in reading it and making use of it. If we are looking for justification for our most desperate and fearful inclinations, we will find it here. On the other hand, if we are looking for an example of moral clarity and a clear example of siding with Christ on behalf of the oppressed, regardless of the cost, this is here, too. And, I think that reading is closer to the spirit in which the prophecy was offered. In his commentary on this text, Ron Allen argues that the primary goals of this text are to provide the faithful with encouragement to stand against a powerful Empire, even when it would be easier to just go along, and, also, to remind those who are living according to the empire’s rules, and probably getting rich from it, that that kind of appeasement is not the life that Christ calls us to.
Notice that the imagine of Jesus in this story is not that of a flaming-sword-wielding warrior. It is instead, Jesus, persistently knocking and asking to be let in. Once Jesus is allowed in... notice that he doesn’t kick the door in, he must be let it... he sits down and eats with his friends. The presence of Christ is homey and domestic. This is not a battlefield... it is a kitchen table, a fellowship hall table, a communion table. Not that there won’t be conflict. There is conflict in all of our homes and in all of our sanctuaries. At the table in this prophecy, Jesus retains the right to rebuke those who stand with Rome. Conflict isn’t the antithesis of faith but a sign of a rigorous and trusting relationship... A relationship that is centered around the table. May we be good stewards of the table. Because they are where we meet Jesus and take care of each other. May we always pick the side where Christ is most clearly before us.
Resources consulted while writing the sermon:
Jean-Pierre Ruiz's introduction to "Revelation" The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994)
Mary K. Milne, "Laodicea, "The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996)
Diana Butler Bass: https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/on-prophets-and-politics?r=45vbf&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web
The lyrics to "Which Side Are You On:"
Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.