For those of you who were not here last Sunday we began a seven-week sermon series on the Book of Revelation. More specifically, our focus is the seven letters written to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the second and third chapters. The whole purpose of the Book of Revelation is to communicate with the Christians of Asia Minor this message: “Stay strong amidst persecution, assimilation and hyper-patriotism.” John of Patmos wants these Christians to hold fast in the troubled times in which they live.
As we heard last week, these letters follow a specific pattern. Each of them has similarities in structure. Christ is the author and John of Patmos is the one who takes down the dictation.
The letter we are looking at today is to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was the oldest city on the Aegean Coast. It was founded in 1200 BC but was destroyed in 600 BC. The city lay fallow for 300-400 years before it was rebuilt, following the plan of Alexander the Great. It is one of the few planned cities in the ancient world and so it was beautiful in its forethought and construction. Like Ephesus, it was a center of Caesar worship. It was the first city to erect a temple to the goddess of Rome. In the third decade of the first century the city competed and won the privilege to build a temple to Tiberius. The city of Smyrna boasted that it was the most loyal city to Rome of all the Asian cities.
Persons living in Smyrna were required to worship the emperor regularly and certificates were issued for such worship. However, there were some exceptions made. The Jewish population was usually exempt from Caesar worship and this caused friction between Jews and Christians in Smyrna.
That is the important background. Now let’s take a look at the letter to the church in Smyrna…a letter written by the hand of a man who is living in exile under persecution by Rome to a church living in persecution at the hands of Rome. This letter is in your bulletin, in its entirety. You can follow along as we walk our way through this scripture.
In each letter we are reminded that the author is Christ. Christ is identified by a title, not a name. Each title is different depending on what that particular church needs to hear. “These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life.” “The first and the last” are words used to describe the living God in the book of Isaiah. But they are also a reference to Christ in contrast to the city of Smyrna who boasted that they were the first in Asia. “…who was dead and came to life” is again a juxtaposition to a city that was destroyed and rebuilt. The church of Smyrna is being reminded that Christ is greater than the great city of Smyrna.
Jesus says to this church: “I know your affliction and your poverty.” These are Christians who live under persecution. The word for “affliction” here means “crushing weight”, the kind of pressure that is used to squeeze oil out of olives. Their poverty was the result of their persecution. It is hard to earn a living when you refuse to worship the empire. “Just remember amidst this pressure and poverty,” Jesus says, “that you are the rich ones.” I think that is hard to hear when you are being crushed.
The next sentence is a hard one: “I know you are slandered by those who say that they are Jews but they are not, they are a synagogue of Satan.” I want to unpack this sentence a bit. In Smyrna, Jews were allowed to pay a “Jewish tax”. By paying this tax they were then exempt from participating in the cult activities of the emperor. The money collected from this tax was then used to build a Roman temple.
This was hard for the Christians of Smyrna to watch. The friction that arose between the Jews and the Christians of Smyrna led some Jewish citizens to accuse the Christians of pretending to be Jewish so that they could pay the tax and be left alone. But this letter assures the Christians of Smyrna that Christ knows that is just slander. In fact the letter accuses of accusers of pretending to be Jewish while actually colluding with Rome…the beast. The letter refers to the slanderers as the “synagogue of Satan.” These are strong words.
Then Christ says, “Don’t be afraid…you are about to suffer.” Really? It sounds like they have something for which they should be afraid. This is how Pastor Tom interprets these words in his book, It’s Revealing! Looking at the Apocalypse: “…the risen Christ doesn’t give them a pep talk and tell them, ‘Cheer up things could be worse.’ Instead he says, ‘Cheer up things will get worse.’”
My oldest son, Matt, is a union organizer. He said that there is a word they use in his line of work to describe what Jesus is doing here. He said the word is “inoculation”. When things get tough for union workers he warns them what will happen. He says, “When you demand your rights you will be threatened with these words.” He does that so that the workers aren’t surprised when that very thing happens and back out. When we are told the potential for what might happen we go in with our eyes wide open. We make a decision that despite the consequences we will stand up.
Jesus is inoculating the church in Smyrna. He tells them: “You will suffer. Bad things are about to happen. I know you are going to suffer because the Empire cares more about being respected and profit than any human life and so they will not respect your life. Don’t be afraid because we are talking about something bigger than your security.” No wonder the Book of Revelation leaves us shaking in our boots. No wonder we just pretend this book isn’t even in our Bibles.
The letter goes on, “Be faithful even to death and I will give you the crown of life.” The letters to the church of Smyrna and the Church at Philadelphia are the only two letters out of the seven that don’t have a rebuke in them because some of the members of this church are about to suffer and die for their faith. There is no room for rebuke here.
The letter reminds the Christians of a city that describes itself as the most faithful to Rome that they are to be faithful to Christ instead. Their reward is the crown of life…offered to the people who are about to suffer and die for their faith.
The crown was an important image for this city. Smyrna was known as the Crown of Ionia. A crown was the symbol on their ancient coinage. Jesus promised the church in a Smyrna a different crown though…not a crown of the Empire but a crown of life that is beyond death….given to those who were faithful to a Gospel that values love and justice and sacrifice above profit and power and privilege.
The question for us in this room is if we can find anything relevant in this letter for our church? Most of us in this room live without persecution for our beliefs yet we come from a long history of oppression and suffering. Our spiritual ancestors were slaves in Egypt. Our Christ was hung on a cross by the Empire. There are more martyrs in our Christian history than we can begin to list. The early Brethren were jailed, fined, made to be galley slaves and finally exiled themselves to America. Our history is filled with persecution and oppression.
Most of us aren’t persecuted. We aren’t worried that we will be rounded up and thrown into prison. We don’t worry that our livelihood will be compromised. But there are people in this church who are oppressed…who are persecuted…who are threatened. They are our church family. They are us and we are them. We are church together.
I think a letter written to the La Verne Church of the Brethren would have a rebuke in it. We wouldn’t have a letter of encouragement written to us to stay strong amidst all our suffering and persecution. Our letter would rebuke us for not identifying with the oppressed….for not joining our long line of spiritual ancestors and our Christ to stand collectively with those who the Empire persecutes.
At the end of August, Eric Bishop preached a powerful sermon and at the end he said that he had been asked what he was going to do about the racism he experiences daily. He said this: “…the better question is what are we going to do about it?….And maybe the time has come to draw a line in the sand and ask my church whether it is with me, or would it rather be without me.” Eric gave us a powerful call to action. He reminded us that he is us and we are his. We are needed as members of this body of Christ to stand up against the powers that harm during these troubling times. We need to stand with the oppressed members of God’s beloved community. We have work to do. We have sacrifices to make. We have justice to demand. We have love to share. We have an Empire to transform.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that the oppression of the Empire isn’t the end of the story. The rebuke of Jesus Christ is that for some of us it is the beginning of our story of standing up in faith and love and sacrifice for the good of God’s beloved community.
Let anyone who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is telling our church. Amen.