The Second Sunday after Easter April 22, 2007

INI

How Does a Christian Congregation Survive?

Revelation 2:1-7

Scripture Readings

Ezekiel 34:11-16
John 21:1-14

Hymns

201, 735 [TLH alt. 206:1-5], 767 [TLH alt. 421], 193(1-3)

“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place; unless you repent. But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.’”

Dear fellow redeemed in Christ:

There were only two people that saw Jesus after His ascension. One was the apostle Paul as he was traveling to Damascus. The other was the apostle John many years later when he was exiled on the island of Patmos. In John’s vision Jesus appeared as no one had ever seen Him before. He was standing in the middle of seven golden lampstands. “His eyes [were] like a flame of fire; His feet were like fine brass…He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword(Revelation 1:14, 16). Each of these features emphasizes an attribute of Christ that is mentioned in Jesus’ letters to seven churches. Today we have before us one of those seven letters—the letter to the congregation at Ephesus.

The letter to the Ephesians begins, “These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of seven golden lampstands.[v.1] We learn from chapter 1 that the stars are the messengers, that is to say those who bring the Word of God, and the lampstands are the churches.

The emphasis is that Jesus supplies those who proclaim His Word and that He blesses churches with presence. Without Jesus’ gracious presence sustaining congregations they would be nothing but empty shells. They would not survive. This is the point of emphasis that we will focus on as well. How does a CHRISTIAN congregation SURVIVE that is, keep that gracious presence of Jesus? Let’s look at the plans and work that went on in Ephesus and what works and what doesn’t. May we take to heart today what it takes to survive as a Christian congregation. I. Hard work against false teaching is necessary but it is not enough. II. Hating what Jesus hates is commendable, but it is not enough. III. The first love of Christ is what sustains us.

I.

Jesus told the Ephesian congregation: “I know your works, your labor your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.[vv.2-3] Two thoughts are repeated here: they were hard-working and they knew how to endure. These are two qualities that any congregation should aspire to. We are told to “test the spirits(1 John 4:1)—to be in a constant period of evaluation of any teaching that we hear. We have to be able to know if what we hear is a legitimate teaching from God or not. This constant vigilance is necessary, but it is by no means easy.

Years earlier, as recorded in Acts chapter 20, the apostle Paul warned the leaders of this very same congregation: “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves(Acts 20:29-30). There would be those from outside and inside their congregation who would bring in teachings that would lead them away from their Savior. It was evident that the group had taken this warning to heart because they tested those who claimed to be apostles but were liars. In spite of all this controversy and strife that had come their way they had endured. They had worked hard to remain immune from false teaching, and to retain what was true.

There is a constant barrage against a Christian congregation. There is pressure to conform and to be like every other congregation. The questions come up, “Why don’t we have open communion? Why don’t we have women pastors? Why don’t we use different groups for fund-raisers?” The temptation is to run out of patience and to become indifferent. There is the temptation not to work hard in defense of Jesus Christ, but rather to relax. It’s easier to give up and give in to pressures, but easier is not always better.

Each generation will have its own battles to fight. One hundred years ago there was a great debate over the doctrine of predestination that split synods apart. Fifty years ago the battlefield moved to arena of lodges and scouting. Today there is the large-scale assault against a six-day creation, replacing that with a combination of creation and evolution. Even the verbal inspiration of Scripture is questioned among some Christians. We recognize the inherent value in working hard, being patient, and being diligent in our defense, but that in and of itself will not be enough to preserve a Christian congregation.

II.

Let us go to verse 6 to see what else this congregation at Ephesus had going for them: “But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Jesus makes it clear that there are only two sides—either someone is for Him or against Him. This is true in time as well as in eternity. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that we can be spiritually neutral. So when this congregation at Ephesus came upon a group that promoted deeds that were against what Jesus had told them, they hated those deeds also. They wanted nothing to do with them. And for this they were commended by their Lord.

Here also we can learn a valuable lesson. We dare not conform to societal pressures when it comes to our behavior. This is a particularly difficult time in which to live because there is societal approval of many things that Jesus is against. Sin has always been around and it will be until the end of time, but there has been an ebb and flow to the approval of sin. There has been a great expansion of that approval just within the last 30 years, and for those who are older the difference is even more pronounced. Just consider what society no longer blinks an eye at: a couple openly living together outside of marriage, gambling being sponsored by the state, parents allowing their children to hold drinking parties for their friends in their own homes, high schools handing out contraceptives to students, abortion being lawful, a movie promoting homosexuality being nominated as best picture… It’s tough to hate all those deeds when our society and government for the most part have put their stamp of approval on them.

How much better to get a pat on the back from Jesus rather than society. Even if everyone else says that you’re wrong, but your Savior says that you’re right, that’s enough. You are showing a great love for your Savior when you not only know what sins caused Him to be crucified but disapprove of those sins and take a stand against them—first and foremost in your own heart—but also then in your sphere of influence in this life.

However, being against evil deeds is not enough to save a Christian congregation. Even the combination of being against false doctrine and evil deeds is not enough. It is like a political party being out of office—it’s easy to criticize and to make yourself look better by knocking down ideas. Traditionally the party out of power does real well in mid-term elections. But eventually to get people to vote for you, you have to have your own ideas. The same is true for a Christian congregation. We don’t want to be the congregation that is always against something. It can be easy to have a reputation for that. If people only hear what we’re against, then we have blown it when it comes to our purpose. The reason that we’re against things is that we’re for Jesus. We are for forgiveness. We’re about love. We are about Jesus. If we’re always and only against things, then we’d better soak in these words that Jesus spoke to Ephesus:

III.

Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent.[vv.4-5] When we go back to verse 1 and recognize that the lampstand is the congregation and that its place is by Jesus, we can see what a dire threat this. If there is no repentance and renewal in the first love and the first works, then a congregation will be removed from the presence of Jesus. At that point it is gone.

It is critical not to lose the first love of Jesus. Losing that first love, that intensity and freshness happens in many areas of our lives. A new job can turn from an exciting prospect into drudgery. Marriage can turn from romance into routine. These can be destructive, but not more so than when the first love of Jesus and His Word is lost.

The symptoms are there. How often are we cynical when we see somebody excited about worshiping Jesus or excited about being a Christian? Oftentimes isn’t our first instinct to think that something must be wrong with person? We wait for him to come back to earth, or maybe we drag him down to a dull spiritual life that doesn’t know how to be for anything, but only against.

This verse should wake us up out of our slumber. If we do not repent and regain that first love, Jesus will leave our congregation and He is the only reason that we exist. The key to revitalization begins with repentance. We need to admit when we have lost our enthusiasm for God and His Word. Then we need to step back and consider again what Jesus has done for us and what a glorious future we have with Him. We then need to constantly refresh ourselves with those reminders of His work in His Word and sacrament.

There is no worse news than you’re going to Hell, and there is no better news than you’re going to Heaven. Day after day, week after week, we have a chance to hear that news. Just consider the fact that you are going to Heaven. If you lose all your money, you don’t lose Heaven. If you lose you’re health, you don’t lose Heaven. If you lose your friends, you don’t lose Heaven. If you lose your life, you still don’t lose Heaven. It doesn’t get any better than that. If we are not excited about that prospect, then repentance is needed. If we are not excited, then something is wrong with our focus and our faith is getting throttled out by the drudgery of daily life.

If we have that first love of the Gospel, then everything else falls into place. We’ll know why we’re battling against false teachings. It’s because we don’t want Christ overshadowed. We’ll know why we have to hate sin and immorality. It’s because it will overwhelm our faith in Christ and drag us down to Hell. We’ll even know why we give our offerings and why we’re for Jesus. He is our Savior from death and Hell.

For our congregation to survive, it’s not going to be by what we’re against. It’s that first love of Christ. May Jesus renew us and allow us not only to survive, but also to thrive as His flock. Amen.

—Pastor Michael M. Schierenbeck


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