Today we continue our sermon series on the seven letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation by looking at the sixth letter, the letter to the church at Philadelphia. The city of Philadelphia was founded around 150 BC by King Attallus of Pergamum. The city was given Attallus’ nickname, Philadelphus, which means brotherly love. Attallus earned that nickname when he refused to buy into pressure from Rome to turn against his older brother.
Philadelphia was built in a volcanic area in Asia Minor. In 17 AD, the city was destroyed by an earthquake, as were surrounding cities, like Sardis. Many people in Philadelphia lost their lives. The Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, recorded it as the “greatest earthquake in human memory.” The other cities rebuilt quickly but Philadelphia was beset with aftershocks for quite some time. Citizens had to flee Philadelphia several times.
That kind of trauma lives in your memory and in your body for a long time. You pass the story down to your children. It becomes the defining moment of your life. If you were alive at the time you remember where you were when the World Trade Center came down. Imagine if you lived in ancient Philadelphia when the earthquake hit or New York City when planes flew into the towers or New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina landed and the levees broke.
After a cataclysmic event like those just mentioned, people live in a post trauma reality. Maybe some of you in this sanctuary have a personal event like that…a date when the world changed for you…a day of trauma so embedded in your body that you can still hear and taste and feel it like it is happening all over again right now. Maybe it was an earthquake or a fire. Maybe it was the death of your beloved or a child. Maybe it was a diagnosis. Maybe it was your spouse coming home and announcing he or she wanted a divorce.
If you haven’t had a traumatic moment in your life, I say “Hallelujah.” If you have, then you know what it means to carry that shock in your body for the rest of your life. It changes you forever. Suddenly you know what is precious in life and what is just superfluous. Things that seemed important just yesterday do not matter at all today. When you can finally hold your head up again you have a whole new focus.
That was the reality for the church members of Philadelphia. Death, destruction and trauma had left them depleted and yet clear. Sure, the earthquake happened before they ever heard about the way of Jesus, but when they heard it they knew it was filled with truth and life. They recognized the way of love in a way that only the broken and bruised truly can.
That is why the things that stand out about this letter are its differences from the other letters, rather than its similarities. If you remember each letter begins with identifying Christ by titles, which are taken from the vision John of Patmos has of Christ described in chapter 1 of Revelation. Christ is identified in this letter but not by that earlier vision. Christ is given three names: the holy one, the true one and the keeper of the Keys of David. The keeper of the Keys of David refers back to a story from the book of Isaiah.
Back in the days of King Hezekiah there was a man named Shebna who was in charge of the palace. Think chief-of-staff. He was caught running a personal scam and was replaced by a man named Eliakim. God says of Eliakim, “I will place on his shoulder the keys to the house of David. “What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.” The letter to Philadelphia alludes back to Eliakim in Isaiah by naming Christ the chief of staff of Philadelphia. Christ is the one who opens the doors for them…doors that no one else can shut.
The image of the open door is found more than once in this letter. The Jewish tradition honors the doorways and thresholds of life. Since the days of Moses, Jewish households have attached a mezuzah to the doorways of their homes. The mezuzah is a container that holds a piece of paper with the words of Deuteronomy 6 on it: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children…inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” Observant Jews touch the mezuzah with their right hand anytime they cross the threshold of a door to which it is attached. It is a reminder throughout their days that God is with them and they are to keep God’s words in their hearts and minds.
Christians of the first century still attended synagogue, took part in ritual worship, had mezuzahs on their doorways and used the Hebrew scripture as their sacred text. Then on the first day of the week they met with other Christians to learn more about the way of Jesus. A letter to them from Jesus saying that he is the one who holds the keys and who opens the door would have been a powerful reminder of the centrality of the way of love….a doorway that Christ has opened up for them…a marker on the threshold of their faithfulness.
As the letter continues we see that Philadelphia, like Smyrna, receives no rebuke in their letter. Instead, the letter acknowledges their post natural disaster reality and the clarity and steadfastness with which they now enact their faithfulness. The letter recognizes that, compared to others, the church in Philadelphia is just a little group without power, at least as far as the world is concerned. They have been through a lot of trauma and they have remained faithful. They have kept their focus. Christ sees their strength and endurance. Christ names them strong.
One of the few books I owned as a child was the Little Engine that Could. It is the American Folk Tale of a train that needs an engine to haul it over a steep terrain but for one reason or another the larger engines can’t do it or won’t do it. But the little blue engine decides it will try. It repeats its mantra over and over again on the way up the hill, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” When it crests the hill and starts down the other side it says, “I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could.” I loved that book as a child. I felt small and insignificant in my world and it taught me that there was power in my focus and my endurance. I’m sure it taught me the Protestant Work Ethic too, with which I am now unfortunately saddled. But in a world that is focused on large and strong and wealthy and impressive, the little engine and the church at Philadelphia tell a completely different story.
The Apostle Paul also told that same story. We heard it in the letter to Corinthians that Analise read earlier in the service. Paul prayed that he would be freed of whatever “affliction” it was that made him feel weak or less than and the answer he got back was “My power is made perfect in weakness.” And so Paul says, “I will boast of my weaknesses, for that is when I am strongest.” We see it all the time.
King Attallus refused to turn against the brother he loved. In Rome’s eyes it was weakness to love like that. But I bet a very few or none of us heard of King Attallus when we walked into this sanctuary today but we all know his nickname ….Philadelphia. His weakness for his brother was his strength and an inspiration for others. A little church in Philadelphia was filled with people who had survived trauma and they knew endurance. They knew how to focus on what truly mattered. In their pain they were strong.
I’ve never met anyone who got out of this life without some trauma. Jesus’ words to the church at Philadelphia are also true for us. He says, “I see you. Hold on. Hold fast to what is true. Run the race that is set before you. Keep your eyes focused on what truly matters for you are the living temple of God. You are the very pillars. I see your strength.”
In a city beset by earthquakes, the pillars were often the only things left standing when the rest of the building was destroyed. Pillars of temples were often inscribed with the names of the important citizens of the city. Jesus promises these church members, that they themselves will be the steadfast, sturdy pillars of the church…the living temple of God. On them will be written the very name of God, the name of the new city of God – the New Jerusalem and Christ’s new name.
Christ promises this church, that carries trauma in its body, that he is giving them a new way to see themselves: strong, enduring, faithful, focused, seen, named, whole, loved. That promise is for you, as well. Amen.