We spend one Sunday a year praying for persecuted Christians around the world. Of course there’s the “Martyr of the Month” column in the newsletter, and occasionally our bulletin inserts will highlight a trouble spot or a new martyr. But that’s all the time most of us spend on it, because it’s not part of our daily life. The closest most of us will come to persecution is to hear someone condemning Christians for being intolerant. But it’s closer than you might think. How many of you read about Patrick Cubbage, an honor guardsman at a New Jersey veterans' cemetery, who was fired last October for saying "God bless you" at gravesite flag presentations?
Have any of you wondered how you would react if you had to choose between your faith and your job? What about your faith and your freedom? What about your faith and your life?
The Christians of Smyrna were intimately acquainted with persecution. Smyrna lay just 35 miles north of Ephesus on the west coast of what is now Turkey, on the Aegean Sea, almost due east from Athens. It was the loveliest of all the cities and was sometimes called “the Ornament of Asia,” “the Crown of Asia,” or sometimes “the Flower of Asia.” The word “Smyrna” itself means “myrrh,” a sweet perfume used in embalming dead bodies, and included in the holy anointing oil used in the Tabernacle worship in the OT. [Ex 30:23]
Smyrna is the only city still standing to whom Paul wrote one of these letters. The new name is Izmir, and there is little evidence of the city that throve there 2000 years ago. But it’s still there, and thriving. It’s Turkey’s second largest port, after Istanbul, and the third largest, with over one and a half million inhabitants.
Smyrna had been a Greek colony as far back as 1000 B.C. Around 600 B.C. it was invaded and destroyed by the Lydeans, and for 400 years there was no city there at all. Then in about 200 B.C. Alexander the Great had it rebuilt and repopulated. It was built with streets that were broad, straight, sweeping, and beautifully paved. The city had experienced death and had literally been brought back to life.
Smyrna had also been granted the status of “free city” since, unlike many other cities in the region, had been staunchly faithful to Rome. It was the first city in the world to erect a temple to the goddess Roma and to the spirit of Rome. It was also a center of emperor worship. It was a city which gloried in its idolatry, and was rewarded for it. Other literature from the period shows that the city was also noted for its wickedness and its opposition to this new Christian religion.
Now, the outlines to the letters to the seven churches are very similar to one another, so in order to pick out what’s important we have to look at the differences.
The letters all start with Jesus introducing himself, saying “I am. . . “ To Ephesus he described himself as “he who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” [Rev 2:1] But to Smyrna he introduces himself as “the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.” What do you suppose the significance might be? First, it’s a reminder that Jesus is God, because that title “the first and the last” is one used of The God of Israel in the Old Testament. “I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me.” [Is 44:6] It’s a reminder that Jesus has unlimited power. The reference to the fact that Jesus “was dead, and has come to life” may also refer to Smyrna’s own history, as a city which had died and come back to life. Jesus was even greater, even more powerful than Alexander the Great, the one responsible for their previous resurrection.
The next section of each letter is the diagnosis, the inspector’s official report on the condition of the church. It always begins with the words “I know.” It’s a reminder that this Jesus, the blazing figure with a sword in his mouth, knows everything about each one of us, including the things we’d just as soon no one ever knew. Jesus is the living word, and the writer to the Hebrews tells us,
“the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. [He 4:12-13]
This is a reminder that would set the average sinner quaking in his or her boots. “I know... “ Jesus knows about the time you were unjust to your children, or cut a corner at work, or told a little white lie to get out of something. He knows it all. Imagine how you would feel standing before Jesus waiting for him to read your report card to the assembled multitudes?
If you were in Smyrna, you could breathe again. Unlike all the other letters, except the one to Philadelphia, this letter has no word of rebuke at all. It may well be that the trials that faced the Smyrna church were what kept them focused and faithful. You may recall that under Mao Tse-Tung there were no missionaries of any kind in China, and no word of Christian activity escaped to the outer world. And yet when the bamboo curtain began to come down, we discovered to our astonishment that the church had grown more than a thousand-fold during the years of blackest repression. Today China puts more believers in prison or under detention than any other country, and the confiscation of church property and Bibles continues, yet the Church grows at an estimated rate of 3,000 converts each day.
Anyway Jesus tells them what he knows, what he has observed about them. "I know your affliction.” It might be better translated as “I know the pressure you’re under,” since the Greek term translated affliction is “thlipsis,”, which means, literally, "pressure" as in “pressure cooker.” It is the same word used both of a man was tortured to death by being slowly crushed by a great boulder, and of juice being pressed out of grapes.
What the Christians in Smyrna were being subjected to wasn’t just insults and irritations. This was pressure designed to crush the Christians into submission to the power of Rome.
But that’s not all they’re enduring. Jesus also knows their poverty. Scholar Leon Morris notes that the Greek word used, “ptocheian”, doesn’t mean they didn’t have much. It means they didn’t have anything. It's not ordinary poverty, its utter destitution. And it’s quite likely that their poverty was part of their persecution. Not only might they lose their jobs, like honor guard Patrick Cubbage, their goods might be confiscated on trumped-up charges or stolen or destroyed with no recourse to law, as happens nowadays to Christians in places like Pakistan and Indonesia.
But then Jesus goes on to say that this poverty of theirs is actually irrelevant - in fact, he says they are rich! This echoes, of course, what he said in the Sermon on the Mount, about treasures in heaven. And of course it’s a reference as well to the eternal crown of glory which is theirs - and ours - because we are heirs along with Christ. But they were also rich in the present, in their spiritual lives, because they were living close to God by faith, just as in many ways the persecuted Christians in Sudan and Myanmar and Vietnam have a deeper, more vibrant reliance on God - because he is all they have. As the old saying goes, you won’t find out that Jesus is all you need until he is all you have.
Then Jesus goes on to say something rather puzzling. “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” These were the religious Jews who claimed to be the seed of Abraham. They despised the Christians, especially the Jewish Christians, believing that they had abandoned the true faith of Abraham. And in many case the Jews were the first to point the finger at the Christians, because it deflected any bigotry onto an even smaller and more despised minority than they themselves were. So Jesus reminds his followers - in case they may be doubting the wisdom of breaking completely away from the synagogue - that the Christians were the true heirs of the covenant, and that they should not look back. Since their Jewish persecutors were enemies of the church, they were serving the cause of Satan, and not the cause of God, no matter what they thought.
Now, it’s extremely important not to over-interpret Scripture, that is to be too hasty in drawing parallels between the 1st century cultures and conditions and our own. But we can draw some general principles.
The first is that internal religious conflict can be just as vicious as fights between different religions. Remember that Christianity began as a subsect, a variant of Judaism. Sometimes they can be even more intense, because you’re fighting over your identity - that is, who has the right to call themselves the “true” Christian” - as well as to your belief system. And we can see that on a small scale right here in our own country. I suspect that some of the people who applauded Cubbage‘s firing on the grounds of separation of church and state actually go to church on Sundays.
It doesn’t take much looking to find other examples. For instance, a week before a recent March for Jesus event in Minneapolis, leaflets were given out at the nearby university which read:
“Say ‘No’ to bigotry and hatred. Defend reproductive freedom and queer rights. A group of so-called religious right wing bigots are marching in a ‘March for Jesus,’ on Loring Park in Minneapolis on June 12th . . . to advance their antiqueer, antiwoman political agenda.”
The opponents of Christianity oppose us not by saying that we are wrong, and arguing on the merits, but by saying that we are evil and dangerous. A recent American Family Journal publication quoted Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria denouncing conservative Christians in an article entitled “Time to take on America’s Haters.” According to Zakaria, anyone who points out the facts of Mohammed’s own life - replete with violence and sexual immorality - is an “extremist, a hater, akin to terrorists. . . .” New Testament scholar D. A. Carson says, “If I have strong views and articulate them, I am, by definition, intolerant. . . . The group that [claims it is right] is no longer perceived as standing for something and thus in some sense heroic, but is merely bigoted, narrow, right-wing,” outdated. And the more publicly we hold to our claims, the more strident will be the denunciations.
In the face of these pressures, in a recent U.S. News and World Report Survey, only 19% of Christians believe that their faith was “the only true religion.” What do you believe? How sure are you? What will you say, when someone calls you narrow-minded or intolerant? Can you tell the difference between loving the Muslim or the Buddhist and rejecting their belief systems? Can they?
Maybe we can begin to get a glimpse of the pressures the Smyrnan’s were under after all. . . .And maybe we’re just discovering that many Christians are so unsure of what they believe and why they believe it that they cannot hold onto it when challenged. Even though that testing is only social and cultural pressure! We’re very much in the same case as the Christians to who the writer to the Hebrews spoke, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” [He 12:4] Is it easier, do you think, to stand up under imprisonment or death, as the Christians in Smyrna were doing? It’s more dramatic, certainly, but is it more important? Is it worse to compromise the gospel in the face of verbal abuse or physical danger? Think about it!
And that brings me back to a question I asked at the beginning of the sermon. Have any of you wondered how you would react if you had to choose between your faith and your job? What about your faith and your freedom? What about your faith and your life?
The answer is simple. Not easy - simple. The kind of faith that will stand up against all pressures has three key elements:
The first element can be found in the letter to the Hebrews: “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” [He 12:3] Consider Jesus. There is nothing being done to the Christians in Smyrna, or in Laos, or in Philadelphia that was not first done to Jesus. He was poor - in fact, “for [our] sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty [we] might become rich.” [2 Cor 8:9] He was slandered. He was beaten. He was imprisoned. He was killed. The first element in a lasting faith is to Know Christ. Think about him. Learn his life and character..
The second element is in today’s gospel reading:
"I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house." [Luke 6:47-49]
If you build into your life the habit of acting on Jesus’ words, when the time of testing comes you will not fall away. Your natural response will be to turn to him. And so the second element of a lasting faith is to Obey Christ. Do what he says.
And finally, the last element - and the most important - is to Love Christ. It isn’t enough just to go through the motions. The glue - the mortar - the cement that holds us to the foundation of obedience - is love. And this love is not just a feeling, but an identification. It’s a matter of commitment, of allegiance. How many of you remember the TV miniseries Roots? I can’t even remember how many years ago it was but it took the country by storm. It was the story of an African American, a descendant of slaves, who went on a quest for his family - his ancestors - his roots. Because only when he found out where he came from could he be sure of who he was.
Well, each one of us needs to know our roots, too. The more we know about our family history, research shows, the more connected we are with the extended family of grandparents and cousins, with the people and places that formed us, the more sure we are of who we are. The more connected we are, the more sane and stable, successful and content we become. And the most important family tie is our identification with the family of God. From all the way back to Abraham, we have a family tree like no other. And we have brothers and sisters everywhere in the world. As that great hymn goes, “God our Father, Christ our brother, all who live in love are thine.”
Christ is the solid rock, and he will stand through any storm, no matter how fierce. But for us to stand with him, not to be torn away by the pressures of the world, we must be bound fast to him by strong, deep roots of love.
Know Christ. . . Obey Christ. . . Love Christ.
If we do these things, by the grace of God we will be able to stand fast, and we will share in the promise at the end of the letter to the church at Smyrna: Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. [Rev 2:10 ]