Continuing in the book of Revelation, in this apocalypse that is 2020…
Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 2:1-7:
To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write: these things says the one grasping the seven stars in his right hand, who walks around in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: (2) I know your works and weariness and your steadfast endurance, and that you are not able to bear evil things, and you tested the ones calling themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them liars, (3) and you have steadfast endurance, and you bore on account of my name, and you have not grown weary. (4) But I have against you that you have left your first love. (5) Remember, then, from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works; but if not, I am coming to you, and I will move your lampstand from its place, if you do not repent. (6) But you have this, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (7) The one who has ears, let him/her hear what the spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him/her to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
I don’t know if it would be very fun to be a part of this church in Ephesus. It sounds like a lot of work. A lot of weariness―a word which could also be translated as toil, labor, or trouble. A lot of endurance―or, in an alternate translation, perseverance. A lot of having to test so-called apostles to see if they are actually good and faithful leaders, or if they are liars―or, in other translations, false, deceitful, or untrue―and a lot of them are liars. (This is all from v. 2.)
It sounds like there were a lot of hard things to bear, and a lot of reasons why one might grow weary (v. 3). On top of all this, there was also a religious sect called the Nicolaitans who were behaving badly enough that Jesus says he hates what they are doing (v. 6).
(Side note: it seems important that Jesus says he hates the works of the Nicolaitans, not the Nicolaitans themselves. In a similar vein, in v. 2, I’m not sure why most translations read something like “you are not able to tolerate evil ones.” The Greek word here could actually mean either evil ones or evil things, and it makes more sense to me as evil things.)
At any rate, this was the kind of stuff you had to deal with if you were a part of the church in the city of Ephesus at that time. Lots to endure, lots to hate.
In the middle of all of this language of perseverance and weariness and evil, v. 4 says, but I have against you that you have left your first love. In other words, Jesus is asking them what The Black Eyed Peas have been asking us since 2003: Where is the Love? (The love…the love…where is the love, the love, the love.)
Jesus says, well done for all of your endurance, even though I know it’s hard. Well done for hating the bad things the Nicolaitans are doing. (Perhaps things like, I don’t know, creating a special VIP section in your church and making celebrities sit in it, or treating church volunteers like piles of poo, or cheating on your spouse…see this NY Times article about recently fired Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz if none of that rings a bell.)
Jesus says, well done for being against the right things. But what are you for?
He says, remember your first love. Remember the earliest days of your church community, when faith felt like a buried treasure you dug up in a field that you would sell everything for (like the story Jesus tells in Matt 13:44-46). Remember when you were all so excited and happy to be able to get together and eat and pray and share everything you had with one another (like the early Christian community in Jerusalem, described in Acts 2:42-47).
This church thing is not just about enduring, and working hard to resist evil, and being against the right things―although, in this world full of so much injustice and evil, all these things are very real and necessary. It’s also about celebrating the ways God is present, right in the midst of this unjust world and the darkest places in it. It’s about finding things to be thankful for, and sharing that joy with one another. It’s about connection and belonging, about being a community of radical acceptance and welcome. It’s about love.
It’s about learning to trust that God is love. It’s about learning to love one another, and learning to love ourselves.
When I read this passage and think about those Christians in Ephesus, who were marked by a lot of hate―not in a bad way, since they hated the things God hates―but not by a lot of love, I think of a phrase I often hear in (evangelical) Christian circles: we want to be known for what we’re for, not (just) what we’re against. It’s sort of another way of saying, we want to be known for what we love, not (just) what we hate.
Which is what Jesus wants for the church in Ephesus. Sort of.
It seems that, somewhere along the way, somebody snuck in this idea of what we’re known for. The idea that we have to worry about what we look like to people outside of the church. As if there are loads and loads of people out there who don’t identify with Christianity but who are actively thinking about Christians and churches all the time and watching to see what they look like.
The sense is that (evangelical) churches’ problems are mostly a matter of public perception. We need to develop a better reputation. We need to look better. We need to be known for better things.
I don’t know where people got this idea―that what we look like to the (imaginary, perhaps, or aspirational) “watching world” is so important.
Maybe it’s just easier to say gosh, people don’t think very well of us than gosh, we’re kind of the worst sometimes. It’s easier to say that we have an image problem than to admit that we have a substance problem. It’s easier to try to brush up our public appearance than to admit that there are real, substantial things we actually need to change.
I don’t think Jesus―the one who grasps the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven lampstands―wants the Ephesian church to look better to outsiders, to give a better impression, to appear more loving. I think he wants them to actually be more loving. To actually experience more of God’s love in their lives, and to embody that love more fully to one another and to the world around them.
Who cares what people think. Let’s care about what we’re doing, how we’re giving and receiving love in our lives.
Let’s be about enduring and bearing the hard things together, about resisting evil and injustice together, and about celebrating and sharing and living lives of love together. All of the hard things of 2020 and of this world we live in call for nothing less.