The Apostle Paul acknowledges something of a split personality. He was weighty and strong in his letters, but his bodily presence weak and his speech of no account (2 Cor 10:10). I understand this tendency. Our modes of communication, such as texting, can blur the boundary, but in person one is often not willing to be quite as strong as with a pen. The reality of a physical person stirs empathy and fellow feeling where writing quickens the blood toward polemic and argument. That is definitely one of the reasons I write my sermons prior. If I didn’t have the text, I might not have the nerve to say some things that are necessary.
I haven’t written much recently not for lack of topics or subjects, but more because of that distinction. So much of what I want to write ends up falling into the “why” bucket. Nobody has ears to hear. It will just cause divisions. Those who show up on Sunday morning are different in that I am the called Pastor here at St. Mark’s. Newsletters have the same functions. Musings and speculations I’m not as sure they have any real worth other than as grist for what eventually is preached. This one I think does.
Rob Foote, the Pastor over in Ithaca, is a great preacher. It comforts me that a preacher as good as he is feels the same struggles over numbers that I do. That is no excuse and might be a sin in itself, but if the man with five talents is breaking even, the man with three talents has some space. Pastor Foote in what was essentially a homiletical footnote (it was that good a sermon that I could ponder of footnote for a week) made a comment about the Letter to the Church at Ephesus. If you don’t know it, it is the first of the seven letters of Jesus in the book of Revelation, specifically Revelation 2:1-7. The seven letters depict seven churches is various states of health. There are different schemas, but most people recognize a decline. Ephesus being the most healthy to Laodicea barely being a church. All the letters have roughly the same outline. Jesus praises them for something, but then he rebukes them for something, finally he leaves them with a promise. Ephesus is praised for: its works, its toil, its endurance, its testing and wisdom in doctrine, its bearing of the name. If you were trying to put metrics on discipleship, Ephesus is taking it to 11. But then Jesus notes “I have this against you, you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Being about love it is obviously very important to the God who defines Himself as love. But what does that mean, especially in the context of endurance they are praised for?
Pastor’s Foote’s speculation hinges on what comes next. Ephesus is correctly called out for “hating the works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus hates.” The juxtaposition of love and hate is enticing. Who were the Nicolaitans? Clement (1st Century) is quoted by Eusebius (4th century) in his work Church History as saying that the Nicolaitans were: a) a heretical group led by Nicolaus, one of the first seven deacons chosen (Acts 6:4) and b) a heretical group given to “unrestrained promiscuity among the members”. A story is related that Nicolaus, “had a beautiful young wife, after being commanded to ‘treat the flesh with contempt’, he brought her forward and said that anyone who wished could have her.” The result of originally perusing such asceticism was eventually a rejection of the law. The works of the Nicolaitans were gross immorality and rejection of the law. These Jesus rightly hates. But Pastor’s Foote’s speculation was the falling from their first love was a giving into hate of the people. Instead of sincerely desiring and working for their repentance, which is the act of love, the Ephesians cast them out without a moments regard.
The first love of Christ was for sinners. “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” “While we were still sinful, Christ died for us.” We are not far removed from the passion story. What those disciples wanted, what we often want, is exactly what the Chief Priests were hurling at Jesus. “If you are the Christ, come down from that cross.” The implied action is to come down and kick some butt. Kill those who nailed you to the tree. Deliver your people, Israel. Restore the Kingdom. Man up. In a time where the church is the butt of many jokes, is pushed the edge of respectable society and feeling the pressure within to capitulate to gross immorality by changing the law, that feeling is recognizable.
Let me share a more personal example. Recently there have been rumors of a second Supreme Court Justice retiring. As someone who thinks the Roe vs. Wade stands as the most inhumane and evil rulings in Unites States history (and yes that includes slavery, how can you compare the death of 1 million babies a year and turning mothers against children to anything else), that is welcome news. But my thoughts quickly went past simply replacing say Justice Kennedy. They flew to the thought, wouldn’t it be great if Ginsburg were to die tomorrow. My hate of her works is justified. My hate of her is a sin. The proper thought is a prayer. “Lord, forgive her, she does not know what she does. Convert her to the truth.”
The first love of Christ was willing to endure humiliation and death to save sinners. We have fallen from our first love when we can no longer witness to the truth even if it is tough. We have fallen from our first love when we give in to hatred not of the works, but of the person. In reality, that is a fine line. It calls for being as strong in person as in letter. Something that even Paul struggled with. Christ ends the letter of the Ephesians with this promise, “to the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life.” In Christ we are right now more than conquerors. He has already given us the victory. Our life is hidden with Him. We should live like it. Not being given to hate, but to love. Not to love in a weak way as in “I love you man”, but love in a strong way, a way that endures the cross.