Monday, May 04, 2015

If you have ears to hear ... Revelation 3 sermon for Evensong Coventry Cathedral Easter 5 B


Quite a command!

Here we are, gathered in the Cathedral church of St Michael, Coventry...doing what we do, Sunday by Sunday.
Meeting to worship God, to learn more of his ways, to form community and to practice reconciliation.
But – today is different.
Today we have what sounds just a bit like the spiritual equivalent of OFSTED for churches.

The Spirit – GOD's Spirit – the Spirit who sees into the heart of all things – of each of us and of our community too – is speaking...
And She is speaking about the life and health of seven churches

Time, then, to sit up and take notice.

Of course, this final book of the Bible is hard to negotiate.
Revelation is a book that most people struggle with, one that was for many years only grudgingly included in the canon of Scripture, a source of controversy from the first century to the present.
Strictly it isn’t a book at all. It 's a pastoral letter, written by a Christian leader to the churches for whom he was responsible,- and what’s more, it is a letter that was designed to be heard, to be read aloud during worship,- and much of its apocalyptic imagery is most effective when it is encountered by the ear and the imagination…

We need to remember, too, that like Paul's epistles, this pastoral letter is not actually addressed to us. It comes from a particular person and is intended for a particular audience, belonging firmly in a specific context which we need to understand before we can rush off and apply its words to ourselves with cheerful abandon.

Maybe this isn't our OFSTED after all...
Let's see what common ground we share.

The Christian churches in the Roman province of Asia had been established by Paul and his team in the fifties of the first century Common Era. Scholars suggest that John had his vision towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian, some 40 years later. At this time the Empire was troubled, and Christians were often adopted as scapegoats, blamed for both natural and man-made disasters, since they presented a threat to political stability with their refusal to adhere to the state religion and cult of the Emperor. Though full-scale persecution was not yet in sight, John was clearly expecting life to become harder and harder for the communities he served...Would they go with the flow and declare “Caesar is Lord”, as prudence dictated, or would they take the opportunity to bear witness to the reality and meaning of the Christian faith by standing firm, til death if need be?

John encourages them to hold on to their faith, for it is here that they will find meaning for their sufferings, beyond futile waste as part of God’s plan for the consummation of history.
For John’s original hearers, the meaning of his words was clear…only their own response remained uncertain. What would they do? What would WE do in their shoes?

That's something to ponder, right enough – even as we try to get our heads around the reality of persecution for our brothers and sisters in Christ today.
But it's not the whole message.

For each church addressed, there is greeting, an reflection that recognises and commends what is good in its life and witness, a challenge to bring that life into closer conformity with God’s will and finally a promise, to “those who overcome”…
A pattern for us too. Reflection on our current identity, challenge on our shortcomings, and a promise of future hope.

So, let’s consider what John actually says to the churches, or specifically the angels of the churches – for we are lifted from the mundane to the transcendent...
In the apocalyptic tradition, earthly realities have their counterpart in the heavenly realm and so each congregation has its own representative and guardian, the angel of the church, the embodiment of the spirit of each church, sharing her DNA, the characteristics of the congregation.

It can be really helpful to consider what the angel of our church might be like...for the angel provides a kind of snap shot of the state of the church, something to pray with and reflect on.
If you're a visitor, forgive me for being rather cathedral-centric for a might want to reflect on your home church, and your perception of the angel that guides and represents it...

Here with our dedication to St Michael – and our west screen that invites us to see the world through eyes of the ever-present holy ones – it should be easy enough to glimpse our angel...
We might use those represented in the art that surrounds us to get us started on our reflection.
Perhaps our angel is the one from the Gethsemane chapel - the angel of the agony, presenting Christ with a cup that he can only drain through obedience to the Father?
Perhaps he one of the heralds from the west screen – reminding us that we have a gospel to live and proclaim.
Perhaps he is Michael the archangel, stamping down the forces of darkness and despair.
Perhaps he quite different...
How do you see him...
Diffident or bold?
Nostalgic or enthusiastic?
Reflective or frantic?

LISTEN to what the Spirit is saying...for there will be a message for us and our angel, as the Spirit speaks to us of who we are now, our current personality and state of being, but also our future vocation.
For us, as for the churches of Revelation, the source of that vocation is the risen Christ and his action in the world.
But we do need to take a long hard look at's easy to miss something. Saris, after all, seems to be doing quite well
‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death '

All OK on the surface...a flourishing community....thriving congregation, lots going on....Christian service, outreach, youth and children's programmes...but beneathr the surface all is not well. Reall life doesn't match the image...the angel is almost dead, it seems...
Time to wake up, recognise the crisis and strengthen what remains alive before it's too late.

Things are different in Philadelphia – which seems to be struggling, but is hanging on
"You have but little power but have kept my word"
Externally, there is little to celebrate...It would be so easy to despair and walk away, maybe to join a community that seemed more vibrant. Let's all move to Saris. ..or maybe not!
Hold fast to what you have so that noone may seize your crown
So...What of us in Coventry...?
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, for the message is focussed on the particular gifts of these people, your neighbours sitting around you at this time, on the particular needs which exist in our context and above all on the faith that is the source and motivation of everything we do and are.

We have a wonderful story to share here – the Easter gospel expressed in solid form through our cathedral, ruined and recreated – but unless it impacts on our lives then we might as well keep silent.
We have a clear vocation – to reconciliation within our community – but beyond as well as we are called to be an active sign of God's healing and reconciling love in a church and world in desperate need.

That's quite a gift...but a challenge too.

Put simply, if we fail to live our vocation, then we become just another museum of 20th century art...With no justification for existing.
Of course The Revelation of St John was not written for Coventry Cathedral in 2015...but that doesn't let us off the hook.
Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Listen and act.

1 comment:

UKViewer said...

A message straight from the shoulder that strikes you between the eyes.

And reflective for me. Our Parish is All Saints therefore, quite a choice to seek out it's Angel.

For me it's St Francis, gentle, worldly, but in an other world way. Someone who continues to speak into my life on a daily basis and his prayer to be made a Channel of God's peace is gentle direction for us to be disciples in the Spirit of Christ.

And our parish does reflect him in many ways. All comers are received with peace and welcome and which encourages us all when they stay and become part of the body. Slowly, one at a time we're increasing and making disciples - and surely that's the Vocation we're given at Baptism as we live out the Gospel day to day, hanging on steadily to what we have, but also ensuring that it's fit for today's people, not just a relict of the past.

Led by a Saint (in my view) who has encouraged me from day one, I now share her ministry as I train to do more.

God'ss Kingdom is being advanced in this place, but his people reaching outside the church to extend his peace and welcome.

Thanks be to God.