It’s been a minute (like, since MLK Day) since I’ve posted a reflection on the book of Revelation. But I want to come back to it, and do at least a couple more posts—especially since we’re already through four of the seven churches Jesus has stuff to say to, and since it feels like a lot of what Jesus has to say is still a little too relevant today.
So, even though this one sounds a little goofy in places, here’s my literal translation of Revelation 3:1-6:
(1) And to the angel of the church in Sardis, write: these things says the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are living, and you are dead. (2) Become one who watches, and establish the remaining things which were about to die, for I have not found your works fulfilled before my God. (3) Therefore, remember how you received and heard, and keep, and repent. Therefore, if you do not watch, I have come like a thief, and you would certainly not know (in) what hour I have come upon you.
(4) But you have a few names in Sardis that did not soil their garments, and they will walk around with me in white (clothes), because they are worthy. (5) The one who conquers in this manner will be clothed in white garments, and I will not erase his/her/their name from the book of life, and I will profess his/her/their name before my father and before his angels. (6) The one who has ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches.
Jesus says to the church in Sardis, you have a name that you are living, and you are dead (v. 1). He says, your reputation is that you’re living and thriving, but I know the truth: you’re dead inside.
Jesus says, basically, sure, I hear the good things people say about you. I see all your retweets and your Instagram likes. I hear all your fancy name-dropping. I see how many views your Sunday church services have on Youtube. But I don’t really care about those things.
Jesus says, I don’t care that your church has a wide-reaching reputation of being awesome and cool and the place to be. I care about your works (v. 1). I care that you are watchful and attentive to what God is doing (v. 2, 3). I care that you actually follow through on the good things you like so much to talk about (v. 2). I care that you love God and love your neighbor, and that you seek justice. (After all, as Dr. Cornel West famously said, “justice is what love looks like in public.”)
One modern-day scenario that feels pretty relevant here is the whole Carl Lentz and Hillsong debacle that I mentioned briefly in my Where is the Love? post back in December. Since then, I’ve read this more recent Vanity Fair article, which offers a few different angles on the situation—including the perspective of a “Lentz insider” who said, strikingly, “[Lentz’s] name is bigger than ever and he knows that.” According to this unnamed friend, Lentz “wants to use all the attention he’s received to boost his post-scandal career, maybe land a faith-based Netflix reality series.”
“His name is bigger than ever.” That’s what’s on Lentz’s mind these days, apparently. (As well as a Netflix reality series.) He isn’t sincerely working on himself, or genuinely apologizing to everyone he needs to apologize to and trying to make amends, or trying to establish the remaining things that were about to die (v. 2), or remembering what he received and heard…and repenting (v. 3). He’s just thinking of all the fun things he might do next, now that his reputation is bigger than ever.
I was also reading rapper Lecrae’s memoir, I Am Restored, recently, and I was struck by Lecrae’s reflections on a similar kind of thing. “I started to see,” Lecrae writes, “how ‘Christian’ the entertainment side of the church actually was. I went on tours and saw substance abuse, womanizing, and other things most people would never expect. I was shocked to see what was acceptable even in greenrooms. So many were drinking and participating in debauchery to their heart’s content. To be clear, I was struggling with my own brokenness, so my response was not filled with judgment, just surprised at the facade” (p. 54).
Lecrae wasn’t judging, and admits that he took part in some of these things, too. He wasn’t surprised that these things happened. But he was surprised at “the facade”—that these famous Christian musicians, speakers, and other entertainers perhaps had a reputation that they were living, but, actually, were dead (v. 1).
Of course, it’s not just celebrity pastors and big-name Christian artists and super-cool megachurches that can fall into this kind of trap.
I’ve seen this sort of thing in less famous, less star-studded churches and organizations too. I’ve seen church leaders respond to difficult and complicated conflicts by controlling the narrative and throwing the “trouble-makers” under the bus, pretending to seek resolution and healing but actually just trying to salvage the church’s reputation. Things like this happen all the time.
I’ve seen it in my own life, too. Especially when I was deeply invested in evangelicalism, I was very concerned about my reputation as a Christian. I had been taught what an ideal follower of Jesus looks like, and I wanted very much to come across as that kind of person.
For a time, I thought Christians were supposed to be, basically, total extroverts—people who were friendly to everyone all the time, as outgoing as possible, who loved to get to know (and make a good impression on) as many people as possible—and I tried to do these things. I was so happy whenever someone was surprised to learn that I’m an introvert. It was exhausting. It has taken years of unlearning to begin to embrace the introverted personality God gave me rather than trying to build a reputation of extroversion.
I think part of being human, and of being involved in churches made up of humans, is that there are good things and bad things, beautiful things and messy things, brilliant things and flawed things, in and among all of us. I don’t think Jesus is blasting the church in Sardis for screwing up, or having conflict, or that sort of thing. That’s just natural. I think what he’s upset about is that they care more about maintaining their awesome reputation than about dealing with the stuff they need to deal with. Their focus on reputation keeps them from dealing with that stuff.
This is real. If we’re intent on maintaining our reputation at all costs, we won’t react well when someone tells us we’ve messed up. I think Jesus cares, deeply, about how we respond when someone calls us out on the ways we’re hurting people, the ways our reputation isn’t matching our reality. In this passage Jesus isn’t trying to discourage the church in Sardis, or shame them, or tell them they’re bad people. He says the things he says because he wants to invite them to turn around and walk a different path—to repent (v. 3). He wants them to become watchful, and to establish the remaining things which were about to die (v. 2).
I think this is really hard. I know from experience that it is easy to become defensive when called out. It is easy to make excuses. It is easy to find reasons to dismiss what someone is trying to say. It is easy to focus on our own good intentions, rather than the negative impact our words or actions have had.
I think Jesus invites us to more. Especially in the areas in which we experience privilege, whether due to race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or something else. I think Jesus invites us to listen, really listen, to people—and especially to people who have been marginalized in our society and in a lot of churches—who care enough to call us out on the ways our reputation doesn’t match our reality. This is the only way we can become people and churches who actually are living and thriving.
Let’s not settle for the mere reputation of life when—hard as it may be, and however much painful change, repentance, and difficult growth it might involve—we could have the real thing.