Can I have everyone stand up for just a minute, if you’re able of course. Now, sit down if you’ve never run 5K. That’s 3.1 miles. Ok, so now we’ve identified our runners. Now, sit down if you’ve never run 10K. That’s 6.2 miles. Sit down if you’ve never run 15K, 9.3 miles. Sit down if you’ve never run a half marathon, 13.1 miles. Any marathoners here today? That’s 26.2 miles. Who’s run the farthest in a workout or race? I have a gift card for you. Now do the same thing with bicyclists.
This past summer Traverse City hosted a triathlon, a half ironman. A total of 70.3 miles that included a 1.2 mile swim on the bay, a 56 mile bike through southern Leelenau county, and a 13.1 mile run around Boardman Lake. On top of strength and endurance training, athletes who do this kind of thing have to learn the concept of pacing. Only the world’s most elite athletes enter something like this hoping to win. For almost all of the competitors the goal is simply to finish. To be able to say “I did that.” To put those 70.3 and Ironman stickers on the back of your car. It’s the satisfaction of knowing that you tackled the mountain. So most of the competitors have to learn to pace themselves, going fast enough to really push their bodies to the limit but with enough pacing to make it through the grueling race.
Mark Batterson shares this story about his attempt at a triathlon. “I discovered the importance of pacing when running my first triathlon. I did all my training for the swim leg of the race in a pool. And my times were fantastic. But the Atlantic Ocean is no pool. I was confident going into the race. And so on the opening swim leg, I sprinted from the beach to the first buoy. I wanted to be at the front of the pack so I didn’t have to embarrass everybody by swimming past them. That’s just the kind of guy I am.
Well, let’s just say that the ocean ate my lunch! Or more accurately, I drank the ocean. It’s amazing what a couple gallons of salt water will do to your stomach. Lora said I looked like a dazed boxer when I finally hit the beach. She was being kind. I started so fast that I couldn’t catch my breath the rest of the swim. I’m embarrassed to say that I ended up doing the backstroke instead of freestyle for much of the swim leg. And I learned an important lesson: how you start is not nearly as important as how you finish. And pacing is the key.”[i]
“How you start is not nearly as important as how you finish.” Have you ever started something, a project of some kind, and left it unfished? Anyone can start a race. Finishing the race? That’s much harder. A race was one of St. Paul’s favorite metaphors for life. It was an image that he came back to often. In fact, as he faced the end of his life and a martyr’s death in Rome, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). In his case, given that early in his life he was a passionate persecutor of the church, Paul would probably say, “I didn’t start this race well at all. But I finished well.” Today we’re starting a new sermon series called “Becoming A Healthy Church.” That isn’t to say that we aren’t a healthy church right now. We are. But we have to be intentional about health. If I don’t eat well and exercise and purposefully do the things I know I need to do to stay healthy, I won’t make it very far past the starting line, will I? Health requires me to be purposeful with my diet and my activity level and rest and balance in my life, doesn’t it? Health in the body of Christ, the church is no different. It requires us as a body to be purposeful.
At the beginning of the book of Revelation, there are letters from Christ himself, through St. John, to seven churches in Asia Minor. And over the next several weeks we’ll be looking at those letters and what they have to say to us today as 21st Century followers of Christ, because as with all of Scripture, they’re for the original recipients, but they’re for us today too. In each of these letters, Christ reveals himself in a special way and then typically offers praise and criticism to each church, along with a challenge and a promise. And our goal in doing this is to come to a better, deeper understanding of how we are to function as a healthy body of Christ in the world. Turn with me to Revelation 2:1-7.
This is the first of seven letters to seven churches. And the thing we have to understand is that over the two millennia since these letters were written, every one of these churches ultimately LOST. They lost their way, lost their focus, and lost their regions for Christ. Christ calls each one of these churches a lampstand, a light shining in the darkness, and every one of them had their flame snuffed out. This is the part of the world in which the church was born, churches started by St. Peter, and St. John, and St. Paul and the others. Most of these churches were located in what is today modern Turkey, and it is estimated that there are at most 320,000 Christians in Turkey, about 0.2% of the population. This region went from the birthplace and epicenter of Christian growth to virtually no measurable impact for Christ. Is it dead? No. There is no place on earth where the winds of the Holy Spirit do not blow. And the race isn’t over. But right now, that runner has fallen down and is struggling to get back on her feet.
Now, look at V. 1. Weird imagery maybe, but Christ has already told us what that imagery means. In the previous verse, the last verse of chapter 1, he says “the seven starts are the angels of the seven churches …” Whether that means the pastor or regional bishop of each regional church, or the personified spirit of each church, we don’t know. “And the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). And now Christ says that he is the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand. In other words, this is his church. It doesn’t belong to the apostles. It doesn’t belong to the pastors. It doesn’t belong to the people. It doesn’t belong to the denomination. It belongs to Christ. The church is HIS body. HE is in charge. We are to be about HIS mission in the world. We are to set aside our own agendas for HIS.
And Christ walks among the seven golden lampstands. Christ is always present with his church, his body. We are never without his presence. But the real imagery here is one of an owner’s inspection. He knows what’s going on, and what isn’t going on. Nothing, not the good, not the bad, and not the ugly, is hidden from his sight. He knows the challenges we face. He knows the cultures in which we minister. He knows the mistakes we make, the wrong paths that we take as his body. He sees it all. But he doesn’t just see it all. He’s there to help when we mess things up.
Look at V. 2. A healthy church lives well. Christ isn’t just some overly critical, overbearing supervisor who only sees what we’re doing wrong. He sees what they’re doing well, and he applauds them for it! Have you ever thought about the truth that God doesn’t just see our mistakes and our mess ups? He sees us when we get it right too, and he applauds. Man, look at you guys go! Look at your good works! The word translated as “good works” here actually refers to their overall manner of life. It wasn’t just one or two things. They were living well. And you’re working so hard at it. Your doing so much, in very difficult circumstances. Ephesus was probably Rome’s most important city in Asia Minor. It had a big harbor, so sea trade came through, and several major highways to other major cities converged in Ephesus. Because of that, Ephesus was wealthy, and prosperous, and magnificent. Ephesus was also famous. It was home to the incredible temple of Diana, one of the most important gods in the Roman pantheon. And the influence of the Ephesian church was so strong in that city that people stopped buying silver statues and images of Diana to worship, because they had given their lives to Christ, so the silversmith guild got together and started a riot and ran St. Paul out of town. At one time, after Antioch and Jerusalem itself, Ephesus was the most important city of early Christianity.
And Christ looks at his church in Ephesus and sees all that is happening and says man, y’all are knocking it out of the park. Your food pantry is feeding the hungry in your neighborhood. And your Saturday night community meal? Wow! There aren’t very many of you right now but you just keep serving that meal. Your worship glorifies me, and your pastor? Well, he tries hard. “I know your works, your toil …” It’s not just the good that you’re doing but how hard you’re working at it.
But pastor, isn’t the Christian life supposed to be about grace, not works? I mean, wasn’t it TO THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS that St. Paul wrote “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Of course. And that’s a central truth of faith in Christ. We are saved BY GRACE through FAITH. We do not, in fact cannot earn our salvation. It’s a gift. But we CAN and DO work hard to follow Jesus after we’ve been saved. Dallas Willard said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”
Christ also noticed their “patient endurance.” In a culture completely at odds with them, moving toward if not already requiring worship of Caesar, they were remaining faithful to Christ. When life got hard, they hung in there. They didn’t quit at the first sign of trouble or difficulty or challenge. And perhaps most importantly, because this is the one Christ goes into the most detail about, they’re passionate about truth. When people come along claiming to be apostles, they test their teaching against what they have learned from St. Paul and Timothy, their pastor, and others. And not only were they willing to do the hard work of discernment, testing what people were saying and teaching against Scripture, they had the backbone to actually take a stand against erroneous teaching. In fact, at the end of the letter, Christ comes back to this again. Look down at V. 6. The Nicolaitans were a heretical sect that tried to synchronize the worship of Christ with culture at large. Instead of seeking to “go against the flow,” to stand for truth in the face of opposition, the Nicolaitans retained idolatry, specifically the knowing consumption of meat sacrificed to idols, and sexual immorality, which was rampant in Ephesus. In other words, they tried to be Christians who didn’t stand out.
But the Ephesian Christians rightly recognized this teaching as in error and rejected it as not being truth. They were passionate about Truth, and the stood for it, worked hard for it, often at great personal risk and cost to themselves.
But there was a problem. Look at V. 4. They have abandoned the love they had at first. What love is Christ talking about? Clearly they were passionate about God and God’s truth revealed in Christ. They were taking great risks to remain faithful. It wasn’t their love for God that had waned. It wasn’t their passion for Christ that had waned. It was their love for one another. In John 13:35, Jesus didn’t say to his disciples, “all people will know you are my disciples … by your good works.” Or “by your patient endurance.” Or “by your hard work for me.” Or even “by your passion for truth and right belief.” No, he said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In their zeal for truth, they had created a climate of suspicion. They had kept truth, but lost love in their passion for keeping truth. They may have even claimed to love one another, but their lives didn’t show it. They weren’t engaged in loving acts. Love is always, always a verb. And they weren’t loving one another anymore. They believed all of the right things, but they had forgotten love.
St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, emphasized the importance of love by saying, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Now remember, Christ has commended them for their passion for truth, for right belief. In fact, it’s the single biggest thing he commended them for. The problem wasn’t truth. It was truth without love. A healthy church is passionate about truth and fights for the truth WHILE LOVING WELL. We don’t sacrifice one for the other.
This means when we disagree, we do so within the context of a relationship. It’s so easy to tell everyone else what they’re doing wrong. How they’re thinking is wrong. It’s easy to come on heavy handed like a ton of bricks. But when we do that, we’re in danger of sacrificing the relationship. The flip side of that is that we can become so afraid of confrontation and losing a relationship that we refuse to speak the truth. I suspect that the Ephesian church had always struggled with this, because when St. Paul wrote to them from prison, he said “no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). Mature in truth, live in love. Speak truth in love. The word translated as “speaking the truth” would literally be translated “truthing.” “Truthing in love.” Live truth. Live love. Speak truth wisely, and with compassion, in a way that doesn’t sacrifice your relationship with the other person, because the truth is, God loves that person and Christ died for them.
And this isn’t some ancillary thing. It isn’t a side note. Christ wasn’t saying, “You’ve got pretty much everything right. Try to work on this if you get the chance.” No! He calls them to do two things: remember and repent. Look at V. 5. Remember the love you once had for one another, and the way you showed that love, and repent. Get back to that. Don’t sacrifice the truth. But get back to loving one another. To repent is to feel sorry for what you did, to acknowledge it, AND TO STOP DOING IT. It is a radical redirection of life.
And if they don’t? “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” Remember, the lampstands are the churches, right? What’s Christ saying? No love = no church. A healthy church truths well. A healthy church loves well while truthing well. How are we doing?
[i] Mark Batterson, Wild Good Chase (Multnomah, 2008), pp. 52-53