Monday, April 12, 2010

Sermon on Revelation 2:1-7, for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, "Easter Letters: Ephesus--Eat of the Tree of Life!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia! Dear saints in Christ, the joyful celebration of Easter only just begun last week! It continues for the next several Sunday’s of Easter, leading up to the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. For these seven weeks of Easter until Pentecost, I’m going to preach a sermon series created by myself and Pastor Hazel from Trinity Lutheran Church on Oahu. Our series is titled: “Easter Letters” and each week will focus on one of the seven letters to the churches in Asia, in the book of Revelation. Today’s epistle from Revelation 1 provides the preface to each of those letters. We call them “Easter Letters” for several reasons: because the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus speaks these letters to His church; because they speak to the eternal hope of Christian joy, because they speak of living faithfully in the present day challenges of this world, and finally because they promise blessing to all who are victorious and conquer through the Great Victory of Christ on Easter morning. For all of these reasons, they are “Easter Letters.” Today, we hear Christ’s word to the church of Ephesus. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Each of the seven letters follows a basic pattern that I’ve marked for you in your Sermon Talking Points. I encourage you to follow along in a Bible and during or after the sermon, identify the main parts of the letter for each week. Every letter begins with a description of Jesus as the sender, and every letter ends with a variation of the phrase: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Jesus Christ, the faithful witness and firstborn from the dead is speaking. He loves us and frees us from our sins by His blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father.

This is an Easter Letter because Jesus has conquered death for us, and stands as the firstborn from the dead—the first to rise from death, never to die again. Also because the Risen Lord is also the one who shed His blood on the cross for our sins, and now stands as the conquering ruler of all the kings of earth. He stands above all power and authority. Those words He spoke to Ephesus some 19 centuries ago—those words bear repeating for us, His church today. Our Risen Lord speaks to the church who He has made a “kingdom, priests to His God and Father.” He calls and redeems us to be the priesthood of the baptized—people who declare the praises of God and live their sacrificial calling in life by acts of love and service. Notice also the union of Christ’s words to the Word of the Spirit. Every letter begins by affirming Christ is speaking, and ends by saying that this is the word of the Spirit to the churches. The Holy Spirit communicates Christ’s Word.

The church of Ephesus. A significant city in ancient Asia, located in modern-day Turkey, as are all of the seven churches of Revelation. This city was the site of some real controversy over the spread of the Gospel. Here at Ephesus, before an angry mob of people, Paul and his companions were almost killed. A silversmith who made shrines for the Temple of Artemis or Diana, which was in Ephesus, stirred up a crowd against Paul. They claimed Paul’s preaching against the worship of gods made by human hands, would destroy their business. Paul narrowly escaped thanks to a more level-headed government official. But in the years since, the Christian community in Ephesus had grown into prominence. For a few centuries, this was a prominent center of Christianity, and it’s said that John the Apostle was even bishop of this metropolis.

Having a world famous temple to a Greek & Roman goddess, and all the accompanying idolatry, presented a challenge to the Christian church there. Paul exposed the worship of idols as false, and pointed people to the living God—the resurrected Jesus Christ. Possibly a few decades later, when the letter in Revelation was addressed to Ephesus, the church there was marked by a strong sense of discernment and recognition of true and false teaching. Today the church faces an even greater challenge—we don’t have Temples to Artemis in our community…but we do have Mormon stakes, Buddhist missions, Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls, Unitarian-Universalist churches, the Church of Christ the Scientist, Baha’i, and other places of worship and religious gatherings that do not point to Jesus, the True and Only Son of God, and the way to God the Father. Some bring an openly non-Christian message—others use the name of Jesus but deny His teachings. We have a great challenge to remain discerning and alert to false teaching.

Jesus commended the church of Ephesus for their patience and how they would not bear with evil. They resisted those who did evil. They rejected the evil deeds of the Nicolaitans, who we know very little about, but apparently were leading people astray and bore evil fruit in their actions. He commends the Ephesians for testing those who came to them as apostles, and found them false. That called for serious knowledge of God’s Word, and the courage to identify and reject what was false. It’s a difficult but necessary job—because just a little false teaching spreads like yeast. Just like a tiny bit of yeast can spread through a whole batch of dough, so a little bit of false teaching can spread and rise and grow till it pervades the whole church (Gal. 5:9). Today the call to test and examine every word of teaching against the Holy Scriptures is an essential call for all Christians! Even my own words and teaching must be held against the scrutiny of Scripture, and you are to study and examine these things for yourself.

It’s common for people to think of a little false teaching as harmless—but how harmless would a few drops of sewage be in your freshwater drinking supply? Would you want to drink something that was 99% pure water, and 1% sewage? 0.1%? I don’t think so! You wouldn’t willingly put your physical health at risk in this way! But somehow we’re willing to put up with that in our spiritual health, which has eternal consequences. We downplay the importance of discernment. Discernment is simply recognizing the difference between right and wrong, true and false. It’s by having ears to hear the Word the Spirit speaks to the churches that we gain this knowledge and discernment. It’s by God’s Word, the Bible, that we test the claims of various religions and sects and find them to be true or false. You may even have people come to your own doorstep, coming in the name of Christ, but bringing false teachings to you. We need to know clearly what we believe about the Triune God, and Jesus Christ His Son, and what His work of salvation means for us, so we know the difference from false teachings. So be patient and don’t grow weary; follow the example of the Ephesians in exercising Godly discernment.

In every letter, Jesus also calls the people to repentance for some sin, or identifies their unique sin or weakness. Jesus does this because He’s both Lord of the church, and also its judge. So as judge of the church, He calls the people to repentance, because of His love and concern for them. He doesn’t desire that His sheep be misled or deceived, but that they would hear His voice and know what is truth. So His warning to the Ephesians is that He has this against them—that they’ve abandoned or forsaken their first love. There are two basic and related possibilities of what could be meant by abandoning their first love. It could refer to them abandoning their love for God and for Christ, or their love for their neighbor. Since the church is commended for its faithfulness to the Word and its patience in trial, the first possibility doesn’t seem as likely.

But what if the love that they have abandoned wasn’t their love for God, but only their love for the neighbor and zeal for doing good? John writes in His “epistle of love,” 1 John, that we cannot claim to love God if we don’t love our brother. So the loss or abandonment of love for our neighbor is no less serious, and this loss of love leads to the greater loss of love in God. But in either case, the situation was dire. Jesus warned them: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Their lack of love was endangering their place as one of Christ’s churches, so He called them to turn back—return to the works they did at first.

So we need the same urgent reminder, that faithfulness to God’s Word is not enough, by itself. Love must also follow our faith—actions must follow our words. As Paul wrote about love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-2). Love for one another is rooted in the Love of Christ living in us. The fruit of love is born in a repentant life that turns from selfishness and lovelessness, into a life that is reborn in baptism to a new identity—a new you(!) that has the deep love of Christ shining through your actions. Saying the right things outwardly does not excuse us from the debt of love we owe to one another in Christ. Being ‘in the right’ doesn’t excuse harshness, impatience, or demanding your own way. Love should cover all our actions—even times when ‘tough love’ is called for.

But as with each of the churches, Jesus also holds out hope and promise for them that they will turn from their errors and repent. He promises great reward to those who repent and hear the Spirit’s Word for the churches. We’re called to that same repentance from our lovelessness. We’re called to the same fervor and discernment that sees what is right and wrong, and carefully avoids the wrong. And what is the promise? Jesus promises: “To the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God.”

What was the Tree of Life? Remember back to the first chapters of Genesis, when Adam and Eve first dwelled in paradise? There was a Tree of Life, which bore fruit that gave eternal life. But Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, and barred from eating of that tree, because they had sinned and disobeyed God’s command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Humanity was cursed with death on that day. But here in the Easter letter to Ephesus, the Easter victory of Christ reverses the curse of death! He unbars the way to Paradise, and our resurrected Lord who has freed us from our sins by His blood invites us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life. All of the curse and effects of sin—death, pain, suffering, the evil deeds, the false teaching that would lead us astray—all that surrounds us in a sinful and broken world, is unraveled and undone by Jesus’ death and resurrection victory. Finally, the way to Paradise stands open again—Christ beckons us to repent, hear the Spirit’s Word, and to become conquerors through His victory. Celebrate that victory: Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleuluia!

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. For background on the church at Ephesus, read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Read Acts 18:18-19:40; 20:17-38; 1 Cor. 15:32; also 16:8; 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:18; 4:12. How do you evaluate the reception of the Gospel in Ephesus? By the time of Paul’s letter, the church seems quite commendable. What positives are mentioned in Paul’s letter? In Jesus’ letter? What negatives?

2. Identify the following in the letter to Ephesus: (these basic features are repeated in each letter)
Image of Christ:
Local detail about the church:
What Christ sees: A) Good B) Bad
Call to Repent:
Promise to the One who Conquers:

3. How discerning are we as a church? What is the basis for determining who are true and false apostles/what is true and false teaching? See Matt. 24:3-14; 7:15-23; 2 Peter 2; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 Tim. 3:16-17. How is hatred of evil works and false teaching different from hatred of the person(s) who are caught up and deluded by them? Eph. 6:12; 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 1 John 2:15-17; Psalm 5:4-6. How should we help those who are caught in error? Gal. 6:1.

4. What is the “first love” which we are to return to as a church? Cf. Jeremiah 2:2ff; 1 John 2:15-17. How is our Christian life and walk changed when we return to our first love? See esp. Rev. 2:5.

5. What promised blessing is there for faithful endurance and conquering? Through whom do we have victory? How is the promise to eat of the Tree of Life a reversal of the original curse in the garden? Cf. Genesis 3 and Rev. 22:1-4. How is this a promise of resurrection?

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