Summary: No matter how many and good the works you do for the church, if Jesus is not at the center of them you are missing the target.
Have you ever been in love? Remember back to those first dizzy days. Nothing else really mattered, did it, beyond when you would see your sweetheart next. Spending time with him or her was the most important thing in your life. Did you rush through chores to be ready earlier, or linger in front of the mirror, making sure everything was perfect? Could you think of anything else to talk about, or were you so overcome that you couldn’t talk at all?
Did you marry your first sweetheart? Even if you waited for the second or the third, there was still a time of “first love”, wasn’t there? And then you got married. And real life started to kick in. For all too many people, those bright emotional highs that made your early days together so meaningful wither away and die, instead of growing deep roots and becoming a new and different kind of plant, bearing rich and nourishing fruit, and one morning you wake up and realize you’re only going through the motions. That person you’re facing across the breakfast table - if you have time to breakfast together at all - is someone you no longer seem to know.
Nobody means for it to happen. And it almost never happens all at once. But that’s what seems to have happened in Ephesus. Remember that in Chapter One of Revelation Jesus appears in a vision to the beloved apostle, John, the last one of the 12 left alive to bear witness. But this was a vision is different from either familiar, comforting one of beloved teacher or risen Lord. This vision is
terrifying, bathed in flame and bearing stars and swords. It is a powerful figure who is, one day, going to come in judgment. Now, John has reminded the churches he is writing to that this terrifying figure is, yes, the same one who loved them enough to die for them, who has forgiven all their sins - but nonetheless, the churches that belong to Jesus will also come under scrutiny.
As Peter had said some years before, in his letter to the churches who were about to undergo the first round persecution under Nero, “...the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God... [1 Peter 4:17a] Once again, the churches were going to have to brace themselves. And the standards that would be required for them to stand up under persecution would be exactly the same the ones they needed to face the fierce, bright light of Christ on judgment day.
But they have an advantage that other people don’t have. They’ve got the key to the final exam, and they’re getting a review session to make sure they’re going to be ready for it. Or, to put it another way, they’re getting a final inspection before they get their certificate of occupancy.
Each one of these letters is an individually tailored evaluation from Jesus himself about how that particular community of saints is living up to their inheritance, the gospel. They are probably among the most-preached passages in the Bible, because as I said last week and the week before, these seven churches are not only representative of all the churches in existence at the time, to be passed around and read wherever there was a gathering of the faithful, so are they
representative of churches throughout time. The problems they face and the faults they have pretty much cover the gamut of Christian experience. And as we look at each one, we will find some things that apply to us, and some things that don’t.
But this letter to Ephesus, the first one in the list, the largest church in the largest city in the entire province of Asia Minor, is exceptionally apt for today, the day when we ordain and install our new officers for 2003. Because it’s a letter about keeping the right balance between doing and being. It’s a letter about how keeping busy is not the same as keeping faith. It’s a letter about priorities.
Can a person be so busy doing God’s work that they are too busy for God? I think we all know that the answer is yes. It happens to both clergy and laity. No one is immune. As a matter of fact, one common complaint that seminary students make is that they’re so busy studying God that they don’t have any time to worship or pray. And far too many of the most devoted church members find
themselves burned out because they want to do so much for God that they forget what God wants most.
Have you ever gotten so busy with church work that your relationship with God has gotten squeezed out? It’s really easy to do. After a while, people just begin going through the motions without even being aware that their activities have profound spiritual content. The technical term for this is habituation. It doesn’t happen just with church work, of course, and in some ways it’s a good thing.