Sermon: What would it take?
Last week I said that Church is the place where the Body of Christ is fed from the tree of life. We are the living body that receives love and become an instrument of God’s love. But what do we do when we don’t feel loved?
The reality is we are not living in the garden of Eden - and sometimes that tree of life is out of reach. This problem occurs everywhere in life, even inside the church. We are not protected from the harsh world around us.
Life is filled with afflictions of every sort: Sometimes it even feels like the world is actually conspiring against us, though we are doing nothing wrong. Sometime in despair we cry out “Why Lord Why - Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?"
But the Lord knows our afflictions and sometimes the Lord calls out to the Church -
"Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer."
These words of Christ to the Church in Smyrna change the tone of what it actually means to be church. The truth is - the church is not always the open garden of life providing fruit for the healing of the nations. Sometimes the church is the focal point of worldly affliction and to our dismay Christ does not promise protection, at least not the type of protection we would really like to have. But Christ does not ask the church to close up the garden and avoid the suffering - instead he calls us to embrace it.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
These are Jesus words to his disciples and the early church knew this. Smyrna wasn’t the only community that felt extreme pressure from the world around them. But Smyrna had what it takes to survive and even thrive.
And so I ask, what would it take? What would it take for us to be that place? A place of hope, forgiveness and love amidst the forces of fear, hostility and hate.
Recently the cauldron of fear hostility and hate overflowed between lobster fishermen in Nova Scotia. Every one seems to be struggling to explain why things got out of hand. The finger pointing is everywhere. The fishermen themselves, First Nations groups, the province, the prime minister and the RCMP. This particular problem has been a source of affliction for 20 years. Certainly each of these groups have demonstrated that they are willling to stand amidst the pressure. Some of the groups are trying to increase the pressure others are trying to releive it.
IOf the Church were involed I wonder what could we do. What will it take - to bring reconciliation and peace into that situation? Of course that is not the case. The Church is not formally invloved. In our country the media reports are clear: this is a civic problem. It’s up to the courts, parliament and the legislative assemblies. But I wonder is there a role for the church to play? What would happen if the Church got involved?
The early church had no part in the decisions that were made among the local or regional government. And yet somehow they were involved. And it caused afflictions. The tenisiom was great. The city of Smyrna itself took pride in its allegiance to Rome. The motto repeated in civic documents and sometimes even printed on their coins was this: “Rome First in all things”
But the early Christians thought differently: Jesus was first in their lives - and people were more important than the ideals of a roman empire. The took Christ's words seriously: “I am the first and the last, the one who died and came to life again.” It cost them dearly to proclaim and live this through: Christians with local businesses were boycotted, anyone who publically talked this way was publically admonished. But they clung to Christ even in the face of death.
A man named Polycarp Bishop of Smyrna, actually paid that price. As a direct disciple of John he lived through many of the Roman Persecutions of that age. He was 86 in 152 AD when he died at the hands of the Romans. His crime was all about allegiance to Rome. He had refused to burn incense to the Roman emperor at the shrine in the centre of the city.
Local Jews of course, were refusing as well. But many did not like his public refusal. They preffered a more passive way of resisting. Fear drove thier motivation. Perhpas they thought that the Romans would leave them alone if they just kept quiet about it. Some were violently opposed to such open defiance. One report about Polycarp's death testifies that some of these Jews gathered fuel for the fire that was used to burn him. It was a typical response to the pressures of the situation becasue this issue had been going on for a long time. It explains the hostile words and politically incorrect words, “Synagog of Satan”
But Polycarp made no mention of that. He did not blame anyone for his demise. He did not propogate the cycle of hate and violence. Some of his letters that are preserved even to this day, said nothing except to point to Christ. As the leader of that church he understood the battle was against powers and authorities, not flesh and blood.
Still the pressure came from everywhere - civic authorities, fellow Jews and followers of Christ, and I’m sure he had fears and doubts that plagued his mind too. Like a Blacklives matter portester he might have questioned the effect of his actions. "What is the way of bringing Christ's peace into this world?"
But Polycarp understood well: a life in Christ is not about shrinking back. “Be faithful, even to the point of death,
and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” These are the words he followed. Chances are he was there when the Letter to Smyrna was first read. He would have been a younger man, pehpas in his 30's. Pehpas his direct connection with John and the memory of that letter stuck with him all through his life.
His last recorded testimony was “Eighty and Six years I have served him, how then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour?”
You know… the Church in Smyrna is the only one of the seven churches mentioned in the book fo Revelation that still exists today. That Church wears the victors crown - even to this day. Unfortunately so does the persecution - Turkey is one of those places where it is still difficult to be the Church.
There are other places too, all over the world - Republic of Congo, Sudan, North Korea, India, Afghanistan, China, Nigeria - where People are still being placed in jail for their faith. I know - It is hard to imagine anything like that happening in the City of Vancouver. But the pressure is still there: The powers death still want to put out the light of Christ and Satan will use any opportunity to create fear and despair; affliction and confusion among people.
The pressure is still here. It’s not just the things big thing out ther in other countries or the things that happen in the news either. It happens in each of our lives. There are always things going on that put pressure on our lives in ways we don’t want. An exam we don’t have time to study for because of something else going on in our lives. An injury that keeps us from doing the things we love. A storm or plague that changes the way we have to live. COVID 19 - is one of those things that we all have to deal with There is no avoiding it and it is increasing the pressure on everyones life.
But Christ does not call us to walk away from the suffering. He calls us to share our burdens with each other. And so I repeat the question. What would it take for us to be that place? A place of hope, forgiveness and love amidst the forces of fear, hostility and hate.
I believe we can be that place. But we have to follow the lead of those who have gone before us. We have to be willing to put Christ first and have faith that he is also there with us through to the last as well. We have to be willing to be that place that shares the burdens of that pressure with those who travel the way of Christ too. It means trying to follow that narrow path of peace amidst the conflict of steadfast faithfulness amidst oppresion.
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28–30 NRSV)
This is who we are. A place that is willing to share each others burdens amidst the great pressures of life around us. A place where we will likely have to suffer afffliction from the pressures of life.
Church is not the place where our burdens disappear. It is not the place where we can avoid the first death either. But it is the place where we can be rich in faith despite the poverty of our situations.
What will it take my friends?
I'll tell you what it will take - nothing else except to continue sharing the love of Christ with each other and the world around us -no matter what the pressure is. Nothing else except the expectation that there is life beyond what we see and know and experience in our lives on earth. Though we die we will still live becaseu Christ has died that we might live. So let’s be that place that continues to give life, even if we have to die for it. Amen