Summary: ONe chrch appears alive but is dead, one feels as good as dead but there’s still ife there if only they’ll persevere.
Today we read about two churches with a significant contrast of characteristics. One thinks it’s alive but is dead, the other feels as good as dead but is alive.
Sardis was a sophisticated city and perhaps that was the reason that persecution against Christians wasn’t such a problem as it was in places like Smyrna and Philadelphia. It seems that the Jewish population of Sardis was well accepted despite the fact that they rejected pagan worship and that acceptance may have rubbed off on the Christian church since it was considered just a sect of Judaism.
In fact the Jewish synagogue in Sardis was one of the largest synagogues in the ancient world. And it may be that the Jewish people in Sardis had so integrated into this pagan, Gentile society that their tolerance of difference even extended to the Christian church unlike other cities in the region.
In any case there’s no hint here of any persecution against Christians. In fact the description seems to imply that this was a flourishing church. They have a reputation of being alive.
You can imagine what this might have been like. What would a church like this look like? It’s reputed to be alive so you can imagine their meetings overflowing with worshippers. Their social welfare program would have been extensive, perhaps mimicking the distribution of aid carried out by the seven deacons in the early Jerusalem church. They may have had numbers of groups meeting in homes around the city. Their worship band would have been a professional ensemble. Their preachers would have been top notch. Their children and youth programs would have been extensive. This would have been the sort of church that people hear about all over the country, that visitors seek out whenever they’re in the area.
But what’s the reality beneath the veneer of success? In reality they’re dead. Their works don’t actually match their image. They’re like the daffodils in my garden a the moment: plenty of green, but not a flower in sight. Their productivity as a church is minimal. The outward form seems OK but the fruit isn’t there.
Mind you they’re not quite dead. There’s still time for them to recover. There are still some who remain faithful. But they need to wake up, to recognise the crisis they’re in and begin to strengthen what remains alive.
Those of you who are fans of Lord of the Rings may remember the scene where Gandalf and the remaining members of the Fellowship of the Ring arrive at Rohan, the home of the horsemen of the plain. They discover that the king, Theoden, has had his mind polluted by an evil counsellor, Grima Wormtongue, to the point where he’s just waiting for death. Gandalf manages to overcome the evil influence of Grima and convinces the king to strengthen his arm again, to lead his people to fight for their freedom.
That’s what this church is being called to do. Flex your muscles again. Rediscover your gifts. Stop taking life for granted and begin to produce the fruit that Christ expects of you.
Do you remember me suggesting that the church suffering persecution is more likely to produce fruit than those living in comfort? Well here’s a good example of the latter. There’s no suffering mentioned but no fruit either. Instead they seem to be coasting along, taking for granted their status as God’s people.
At the same time there are those in this church who remain faithful, who haven’t soiled their clothes. I take that to mean these people haven’t succumbed to the temptation either to compromise, as we saw last week, or to simply withdraw from active ministry into coasting along as a Christian.
As in other letters there’s a severe warning given to those who are asleep or nearing death: Jesus will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour he will come to you. This was part of Jesus’ warning to his disciples about the unexpected nature of his return, remember. But here it’s in the context of him coming to judge their inactivity. In fact the warning is heightened by the promise of reward to those who are still remaining faithful. Look at v5: "If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life." The implied threat of course is that those who fail to persevere will be blotted out of the book of life, will lose their inheritance. It was the practice in some places at that time for citizens who were to be executed to have their names erased from the register of citizens, just before their death.
So this deathly inactivity on the part of the majority in the church in Sardis was a real danger as far as their long term future was concerned.