I used to be called Hollywood Howard by some of my fellows ministry students because I would always make film references in class or in sermons and there are two movie scenes that sprang to mind when I read the letter to the church at Ephesus in revelations. One was the breakfast scene from the 1941classic movie Citizen Kane… The movie tells the story of fictitious newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane, it’s told in a series of flashbacks as a news reel reporter interviews people to try and make sense of Kane’s life through his famous and paradoxical dying word “rosebud”. The scene tells the story of Kane’s first marriage in a montage of the only time they seemed to spend together… breakfast…
“They married for love” says the man being interviewed but as the scene goes on we find that they seem to simply go through the motions of married life the spark is gone. The growing distance between them is graphically shown by the position and size of the breakfast table. Business and standing up for what Kane sees as truth seems to have driven a wedge between them. This is a good picture of how Jesus sees the Church at Ephesus, its busy, they labour to uphold the truth but there is something lacking, they go through the motions but they had forgotten their first love.
We are working our way through the letters to the seven churches in the province of Asia, which is in modern day Turkey, to see what Jesus has to say to his people. Just recently in our country who is reading our electronic mail has been a big issue, we want things to remain private, but here John is very open in letting all the churches know what has been written to each one of them. Each letter is very personal and close to the heart of where each community is at. But it is open to all of us. One comment on the website I sourced the clip from citizen Kane said “this is the story of many marriages” and as one commentator has said on these 'open' letters “if the shoe fits we need to wear it.” We need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Ephesus is the logical place for John to start his correspondence; it is the closest sea port to the Island of Patmos where he is exiled. And it is the principle city and port in the Province. It was famous for its temple dedicated to the worship of the goddess Artemis and also later as the centre of Emperor Worship, It also had a large Jewish population. Paul goes there on his third missionary trip recorded in Acts 19. He stayed for two and a half years, giving public lectures encouraging the church and preforming many healing miracles. There was a great impact on the whole province. Paul had to flee when a riot broke out because the silver smiths were concerned that the gospel might ruin their idol trade. Paul left Timothy to build up the believers. At the end of his third missionary trip he visited and spoke to the leadership at Ephesus warning them of false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. He wrote to the church while he was in prison in Rome and also wrote to encourage Timothy. We know that sometime towards the end of the first century John replaced Timothy as the leades of the church there. Now John is in exile and writes to the next generation of believers in that place.
AS with each of the letters, Jesus is seen as the one speaking to the church and identified by one of the images used in John’s vision that we looked at last week in revelations 1:12-16. In this case Jesus is the one who walks amongst the lampstands and holds the churches stars in his hand. The letter is written by Jesus who is the head of the church and also present with them to see and to know everything that is going on.
To start with Jesus acknowledges their strengths. They had managed to blossom in a hard place. They are hardworking, if you went to the church at Ephesus you would see that they are doing all the things that you’d expect in a church. It functions well, probably had effective programmes for the kids, good worship, even care and outreach programmes into the community. It had endured hardship; a quick look at the history of the church in Acts and we see that it was best by opposition from the pagan environment it was in. They were very good at holding on to the truth of the gospel. They tested people who came and taught to make sure they were orthodox, even those who claimed to be apostles. Not only by looking at their teaching but the people’s lives as well: They didn’t want anything to do with evil men. You could imagine their liturgy and their prayers and their sermons being theologically deep and rich and true. Even Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is not written to correct any false teaching or problem but to convey a deeper understanding of the gospel. John mentions one group in particular the Nicolaitans that we don’t know much about, except that the Ephesians were not taken in by them either.
But Jesus goes on to look at the one thing they lack, that despite all they had done and did they had lost their first love. Now scholars are pretty split over whether John is meaning their love for one another; they had become so strict about orthodoxy and who was in or out, they had become cold when it came to how they viewed each other. Or their love for Jesus; that in seeking to be correct about belief and practise they had forgotten that at the centre of it all the Christian faith is about a love relationship with God. I actually think it was both, in the passage from the epistle from John we used as our call to worship this morning, we see that for John the two are invariably linked, how can we love God whom we have not seen says John if we do not love one another. Jesus had tied to two great commandments together as well. John Stott says “ Love is the true and first mark of the Church indeed, it is not a living church if it is not a loving Church”… he goes on to apply that to the Church in Ephesus “toil becomes drudgery if it is not a labour of love” The endurance of suffering and hardship can be hard and bitter if it is not softened and sweetened by love” Orthodoxy, and truth is important as ever in our day of relativism, can become cold, dead and grim legalism without the warmth and life and beauty with which love invests it.” We are to be about the truth but to speak the truth in love.
Perhaps the best analogy of what this means for a church comes from the city of Ephesus itself. This letter warns the church that unless they do something about returning to their first love Jesus will remove the lampstand from its place. Ephesus today is a set of ruins many miles in land. It was a harbour city at the mouth of the Cayster river, which over time slowly silted up and so the city no longer served any good purpose and was abandoned. Love like that river is the life source of the church and if it is allowed to silt up the church too will become just a set of interesting ruins.
But there is hope and John’s letter gives the Church three imperatives, three commands that will reignite and revitalise the flame of that love. It’s a bit like the three “R’s” that we talk of when we talk of going back to the basics in education… (and I've never really understood how thesee are seen as three 'r's in education circles)it’s reading, writing and Arithmetic… or more likely these days when it comes to the environment the three "r's" are … reuse, recycle reduce…”… But for Jesus it is the three 'r's' of Remember, repent, and return or redo.
Remember says John, from where you have fallen… Remember you r first love. On the alpha marriage course one of the first exercises we invite couples to do is to write down the things that first attracted them to each other, to remember. Kris’ smiley eyes always come to mind and a beautiful young woman who loved to splash barefoot in puddles after the rain. They are not being asked to simply remember an emotion here… the feeling that you feel when you feel the feeling you’ve never felt before’ but to remember the love God has for them for us. AS John tells us in his first epistle this is love, not that we first loved God but that he first loved us and sent his son to be a atoning sacrifice. In the Old Testament, each generation is invited to remember and identify with God’s saving acts by bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt, to remember God’s love and thus to live afresh as God’s people. For the church at Ephesus and for us today it is to remember what Christ has done for us. The grace of God shown in the incarnation; becoming one of us; the grace and love of God shown in the cross; for God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son… The love of God shown in the resurrection: an invitation to new life in Christ. The love of God shown in sending the Holy Spirit: companionship with us in all life’s joys and trials. Remember that first love… God first loved us.
Repent says John. We often thing of the word repent as being to feel sorry for what we have done wrong… But just like remember is not about an emotion. John is not telling the church they should feel sorry or guilty, rather it is a call to turn back to God. To stop going the way they are going and to come back.. John does not articulate what this means for the church at Ephesus but maybe it is summed up in the sentiment of the last line of Isaac Watts great Hymn “when I survey the wondrous cross”… thinking of what Jesus had done for us it concludes “ love so amazing so divine demands my life my soul my all.” They and we need to recapture that.
Well actually John does tell the church what it means to repent, that is that they return to what they did at first. IN the first night of the Alpha marriage course the thing that is presented as of paramount importance in making a good marriage great is that couples actually make time for each other, they set aside time for a date, time for romance doing things they enjoying doing together, because it is easy for the business and sameness and harshness of everyday life to rob them of love and the time they need to invest in their relationship. John calls the church to do what they did at first, I’m sure it didn’t mean that they stopped the things they were already doing, or that they simply had to add more things, rather it was the invitation to invest more time into that relationship with Jesus and that would flow out into community life and social justice and outreach. It’s interesting that in times of renewal and revival down through history people find that worship becomes more important in their lives; there is a passion for prayer and for spending time reading and studying the word of God. That one of the hopes we have had as a church leadership in encouraging a season of prayer and inviting people to take on the E100 bible reading challenge. Out of those things comes a genuine desire for unity, compassion for the poor and a passion for evangelism and justice. They rekindle and re stock our love for Jesus because he first loved us and for others, because they are God beloved.
The promise that Jesus gives at the end of this letter for those who overcome draws us back to the garden, to the idea of fresh and new creation, a promise of eating from the tree of life. In the garden Adam and Eve shared complete fellowship with God and with each other and the promise is that for those who overcome that we will have that again, that we will know that life and love for eternity in Christ.
I mentioned at the beginning that two movie scenes came to mind when I thought of this letter. Well let me finish with the second one. It is again a wonderful montage that in a four minute sequence tells the story of a lifelong romance, a great marriage. It comes from the Disney Pixar movie “Up” which tells the story of an old man Carl who find life again after his wife Elle dies, he finds it at Paradise falls. But it starts with a wonderful montage telling the story of his one true love, a lifelong marriage to his childhood sweetheart. They go through some great times and some hard times, dealing with childlessness, financial problems, hard work and everydayness, and finally illness and death but all the way through there is a sense of deep abiding love for one another. One setting in particular plays through the montage plays through the years, the couple going up a hill to have a picnic together… To spend time, to invest in one another… Yes it is Disney but one of the great things is that for a whole generation of people who see it their most romantic film moment is about a good life long marriage. This is a great picture of both marriage and the church that remembers and holds onto its first love. I’ll play it as we leave our service this morning… not now because I want to us to simply stop and hear what the spirit has to say to the church… an invitation to remember that first love, that God so loved us… Repent… turn again towards God…Return to doing what we first did… not out of duty but living out of God’s great love for us.