John Stephen Akwari…Never stood on the winner’s podium at the Olympic Games, he never had a medal placed round his neck or a wreath placed on his head, he lived his whole life in poverty in the dirt floored hut of his home village… But he has inspired millions worldwide and his name is synonymous with the modern marathon.
Mexico City 1968. The sun is setting and they are about to turn the lights off in the Olympic stadium most of the crowd has already left for the day. News comes through that there is still one more runner; one more competitor out on the marathon course. He is injured, hurt and staggering along but he is determined despite all he is suffering to finish the race. Little know Tanzanian runner John Stephen Akwari steps onto the world stage. A story told best in the great Olympic sports movie ’16 days of glory’
“My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race but to finish it” John Stephen Akwari’s faithfulness in the face of suffering backed in this film clip by the tune of the great resurrection hymn ‘Thine Be The Glory Risen Conquering Son’ captures the essence of the letter to the church in Smyrna. A church that has persevered in the face of tribulation, poverty and slander and that Jesus is telling will face further persecution, violent detention and even death. A church that is called to be neither faithful nor fearful as it goes through these trials.
We are working our way through the seven letters to the seven churches in the province of Asia Minor, in modern day turkey, looking at what the spirit is saying to the churches, then and there and to us here and now. ‘If the first mark of the true church is love” says John Stott, “the second Mark is surely suffering. You cannot love without suffering”. Maybe in our comfortable western society we have forgotten that cost of following Jesus. But from its start and even for many of our brothers and sisters in the world today to follow Jesus is to suffer. There have been moments when we touch that kind of issue first hand I remember when I was younger our Church held a Passover dinner and the man who lead us through it talked of his orthodox Jewish family holding a funeral for him when he became a Christian. . And Jesus call to the church in Smyrna and to us is to be faithful not fearful, and we need to listen to what the Spirit saying to the churches.
Smyrna may sound like Russian vodka but is a city that sits to the north of Ephesus. It was Ephesus’ rival for prominence in the province. It was a major sea port and the main Imperial trade road through the province went inland from it. Therefore it was a rich and prosperous city. It was known for two things; its beauty and its loyalty or faithfulness to Rome. It was the first city to be rewarded with the right to build a temple to the worship of the emperor Tiberius. Smyrna today is still standing and is the second largest city in Asiatic Turkey and known by the name Izmir.
We do not know much of the origins of the church in this city. Apart from the letter here in revelations we do have letters written by Ignatius in the middle of the second century in Smyrna and a written account of the martyrdom of the bishop of Symrna in 156 AD. The bishop’s name was Polycarp and tradition tells us that John the elder had ordained him personally as bishop.
Polycarp was a saintly man, his church had convinced him to flee but he was betrayed to the Roman authorities. In deference to his old age they invited him to recant his faith and to offer a sacrifice to the emperor, which he refused to do… he said “eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me.” He was burned at the stake. In the end as an act of mercy a soldier ran him through with a sword because the wind kept blowing the flames away from him. It gives us a picture of the extreme that the church in Smyrna is warned of and of their faithfulness.
Like all the letters this one starts with the speaker being introduced, Jesus is the one speaking to the church. In all the letters Jesus introduces himself through aspects of the vision that John has on Patmos. The way Jesus introduces himself here is a source of encouragement for the Church. Here Jesus says he is the ‘first and the last’ that he is the eternal God. In the face of difficulties suffering and persecution it is important for us to remember that the situations and suffering we face now can be seen as having a place in the eternal plans and purposes of God. It is not simply theological sentimentality to acknowledge that God has our times and situations in his hands, but a source of hope of the ultimate victory of Justice of the ultimate victory of Christ.
Jesus identified himself as the one who was dead and is alive again. Jesus is not just eternal Jesus lets them and us know that he has gone before, he has walked the road of suffering… of slander, poverty, imprisonment and torture, and yes even death. The encouragement that comes from that is encapsulated best in the words of the Spiritual from African American Slaves “ nobody knows the trouble I seen nobody knows but Jesus’.
More than that is the hope and encouragement in the resurrection, that Jesus overcame, that he is alive again. The hope and comfort for God’s people is that the crown of thorns is a victor’s crown. The promise for those who overcome is that they will receive eternal life that Jesus has won.
The letter outlines the present and past suffering of the Church; which seem to be a result of the reaction of the Jews in Smyrna. One of the things that Roman Society valued was civilizations more ancient than themselves. This meant that for the Jews that they were exempt from making sacrifices to the emperor as a sign of their loyalty. The early church was seen as a sect of Judaism and was originally afforded the same protection. But as Christianity continued to grow the Jews wanted to differentiate themselves from Christians. Jesus predicted in the verses that followed on from our reading in John 15 this morning that a time would come when they would put Christians out of the synagogue and would consider they were doing God’s work in killing them.
We do need to unpack some of the strong language used about the Jews in this letter. Jews who are not really Jews refers to the fact that the early Christians saw that in Jesus they had found the messiah and they were the true continuation of the Jewish faith. In Roman law for someone to be punished, imprisoned and bought before the justice system their needed to be accusers. In Jesus trial the gospels tell us people were found who were willing to bring false accusations, and Paul in the book of acts seems to have had to deal with similar issues. The Jews in Smyrna were willing to accuse the Christians …The word Satan means accuser and in this letter John is highlighting that they in their slander are acting in that role, and also pointing out that behind this is a darker evil force. But we need to note it is specific to this context and sadly this terminology has been picked up and used as anti-Semitic propaganda.
In the face of increasing suffering and persecution even to the point of death, the Church is encouraged to be faithful and not fearful.
We as humans naturally react to fear in one of three ways… It’s the freeze, flight or fight reflexes. When we are faced by opposition to our faith be it from unkind words and unfair critiques of our faith by friends or work mates through to the kind of situations mentioned in this letter, it can cause us to freeze, to simply stop talking or living out our faith, or we can run away retreat, our faith becomes private or confined to Sunday mornings and the walls of a building, or we walk away or its to fight, to aggressively argue, maybe even to respond in un-Christ like ways.
But we are called not to be fearful but to be faithful… During the week I have been made aware of the stories of faithful people and to talk of what it means to be faithful in the face of suffering is best explained in their stories.
Maybe not really persecution but the Ebola Crisis is something that has makes people fearful, right, that causes great suffering. There has been some criticism in the west of the number of Christian medical workers in the area. Stephen Rowden volunteers for Doctors without borders in Monrovia Liberia, his role is to manage the teams who collect the bodies of Ebola victims, they deal with about ten to twenty five bodies a day and risk becoming victims themselves. In a Radio interview with typical English understatement he spoke of "the sad case" of going into a house to collect the body of a four year child from its parents. Asked if he was a religious man he replied yes he was a committed Christian. The interviewer then asked if this was testing his faith to which he replied No “I Get great strength from my faith and the support of my family.” There is some criticism of the fact that there are so many missionary medical people involved in west Africa but no one is really lining up to replace them.
ISIS the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is also something that people are afraid of today… right… I’ve even had conversations with people who worry about it sparking a world war. We’ve heard stories of beheadings and the ultimatums to Christian populations as well as moderate Muslim populations of converting leaving without anything or facing death. What we don’t hear is the stories of Middle Eastern Christians quietly at work in the refugee camps caring for the needs of the refugees. Not too far away from the deadly frontlines they are there to care for the homeless and displaced. One Christian aid agency sends money to those on the ground to be able to buy locally sourced tents and food and gas stoves to give out. They share their stories…
An officer in the Kurdish militia fighting ISIS came to the Christian aid workers to see what was going on. He was suspicious of where the aid was coming from. But as the conversation continued he was impressed by the fact that the people doing the work were Christians, helping displaced Muslims…“You see the Arabs around you in the Gulf states, which claim to be religious Muslims, have not sent us anything but terrorists,” he told the ministry team members. “But you who follow Christ send love and peace and goodness to people every day.” After a long conversation he too became a follower of Jesus and said it was the happiest day in his life.
In refugee camps tent churches are springing up. Centres of both aid and worship at one a muslim women was attracted to one by the singing and came to see what was going on. She asked if she was allowed in. She stayed and became a follower of Jesus. The next day she was back with her family and within a short period over sixty of her extended family had become Christians.
When the aid agency how the Christian workers were coping the reply was that their faith is maturing and they are learning to be more and more dependent on Christ in new ways each day.
We to are called to be faithful and to show Christ's love and proclaim Christ's saving love.
The letter to Smyrna expresses the Christian hope in the face of suffering in a series of paradoxes. They are poor but in Christ they are rich. They face death but in Christ they will find life. Satan is accusing them and causing suffering and death, but the sovereign God is using that to test and to refine their faith. About 20% of the logos for the city of Smyrna that archaeologists have found show the laurels of the roman victory crown a sign that the city is being rewarded for its faithfulness to Rome but to those who remain faithful to king Jesus they will receive a greater crown, they will receive eternal life in Christ. The call to us as a church facing struggle and trials is to be faithful not fearful listen to what the spirit is saying to the church.