Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky Canon Theologian
Sunday, 28th August 2005
Readings: Ecclesiasticus11: 19-28; Revelation 3:14-end
The last book of the Bible is The Book of the Revelation. It begins with a vision of the Risen Christ and ends with a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. Within this vivid, cosmic setting, there are seven short letters to seven little churches in the west of modern Turkey. We heard the last one this morning. Each of these churches is struggling with division and persecution and each needs encouragement simply to survive. The encouragement that John, who saw the vision and wrote it down, has to offer, is that the Risen Christ is the victor over suffering and over death. Christ will bring his faithful disciples to be with him in the heavenly Jerusalem. Though the churches may not know it or feel it when things are so hard for them, they are securely held by Christ, and he will bring them safely through this time of trial. This is the message given by his Spirit for John to pass on to the churches.
The last of the seven letters is the most severe. It is written to the church at Laodicea, a city known for banking, and for the manufacture of textiles made from locally grown glossy, black wool, together with ointments for eyes and ears. According to the letter, the trouble with the Christians in the Laodicean church is they are neither hot nor cold about their faith; they are neither one thing nor the other; they are lukewarm disciples. Actually, it is worse than that, because they say, 'I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing' (Rev 3:17). Material wealth has made them complacent - like the rich fool in the Gospel parable who said to himself, "'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you'" (Luke 12:19-20). The Laodiceans say to themselves, 'I am rich. I have prospered, and I need nothing.' They do not realise they are 'wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked'. A bit like Michael Jackson, whom, it seems to me, has wretchedness written all over his face.
The advice to the church is put in terms they can understand: what they need is to go to the right bank, to buy the right clothes, and to use the right ointment: 'Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see' (Rev 3:18). In western society, where three of our major preoccupations are the security of the banking system, shopping till we drop - think only of the row this week about imported clothes from China not reaching the shops in time for the Christmas rush - and the immediate provision of healthcare, this is talking our language.
Then comes a very striking sentence: 'I reproveand disciplinethose whom I love. Be earnest therefore, and repent' (Rev 3:19). The overall context is clear: this is how the Lord deals with believers who have become spiritually complacent: one word is negative and one word is positive. The Lord shows them, sometimes very painfully, where they are in error and then he teaches them what Paul calls 'a better way'; he puts them down and he builds them up. This is exactly the strategy in this letter: first, it strips away the smugness and self-satisfaction of the Laodiceans, exposing their fundamental spiritual poverty, then it offers riches beyond anything they could have dreamt of; literally, the riches of a new mind (for that is what 'repentance' really means). But the riches Jeus offers can only be given to those who search for them in earnest; never to the lukewarm: 'The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he hadand bought it' (Mt 13:45).
'I reprove and discipline those whom I love.' In this one sentence we catch an echo of themes that are worked out in much greater detail in the Epistle to the Hebrews: 'Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?' (Heb 12:7). In Hebrews, the allusion to the Book of Proverbs is clear. Proverbs is quoted:
'My child, do not despise the Lord's discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves the one he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights. (Prov 3:11-12)
The word that comes back again and again as 'discipline' in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in the Greek text of Proverbs, and in Greek literature, is the word paideia, about which a great deal was written in the ancient world. Paideiais the word for everything that is good in the treatment of children. It is education and discipline rolled into one. In Proverbs, and in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the context is that of the relationship between a loving father and the son who learns from his father. Paideiais the way a loving parent trains a naughty child. It is the way God educates and trains his lukewarm people, putting them down (think of their Exile) and building them up (think of their Return). In the secular world, paideiawas what schoolmasters offered to children and philosophers to adults: training in life-skills, especially, of course, training in virtue. This is why learning to be a Christian was seen by the early Church as true paideia.
I suspect this reference to paideiain not the only echo of the Book of Proverbs in the letter to the church of Laodicea. Again and again, the Book of Proverbs returns to the theme of wisdom: 'Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? Riches and honour are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity''Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live.' (Prov 8: 1,18; 9:5). What we hear in the letter to the Laodiceans is the voice of Jesus, the wisdom of God, inviting these lukewarm Christians to give up spiritual snacking and start to feed on a healthy, spiritual diet: 'Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me' (Rev 3:20). Obviously, there is a reference to the meals shared with his disciples, to the way the Risen Christ was known to the disciples on their way to Emmaus in 'the breaking of bread' (Lk 24:30ff), but it seems to me the letter to the Laodiceans is even more about feeding on wisdom, growing up to spiritual maturity through Christian paideia, and leaving materalism behind .This is what the Spirit is telling the Church in Laodicea, and this is a message we need to heed today.
Each of has our own way of enrolling in the school of Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of his Rule, St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism, talks of the monastic community as 'a school of the Lord's service'. He lays down a pattern of Christian living, of daily prayer, of manual work, study, and hospitality, through which the monks are to learn the way of Jesus Christ. Even today, the Benedictine monk or nun has no savings: they don't look for security to the international banking system; they don't shop for the latest fashions on the high street; they don't spend money on private health insurance. For many of us, including me, this is an inspiration and a challenge, but it not the way we are called to be Christ's disciples. We are called to be disciples amongst friendships and family, in bringing up children, in dealing with banks and insurance companies, in spending money on the high street, and in deciding how much of a priority to make the best possible access to health care; through a host of difficult everyday decisions which we often get wrong. In the monastery and in family life: here are just two ways of being a Christian, two contexts for Christian paideia. There are many others. At the beginning of the Book of the Revelation, John the Seer writes seven different letters with specific pieces of warning and encouragement to seven different churches. He writes differently to each church so that the Christians in their own way experience the truth of the promise at the end of the letter to the Laodiceans: 'To the one who conquers I will give a place on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my father on his throne' (Rev 3:21). The point of Christian paideia, of Christian discipline, is nothing less than to bring us to maturity as children of God.