Well, I’m sitting in a pavement cafe in Istanbul reflecting on my visits to the seven churches mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
Of the seven cities Laodecia is no more, Ephesus has gone, Sardis has moved from its original site. Pergamum no longer inhabits the Acroplis but the modern town, Bergama, is growing. Philadelphia and Thyatira are thriving towns. But where they still exist the towns are relatively unimportant. They are mainly backwaters and serving mainly agricultural areas. They are no longer the important Greek or Roman cities that they once were. There is only one exception. And as far as I know the only one of the 7 where churches still exit. That one is Smyrna (modern day Izmir). A city of over three million where several churches cling on.
Our guide as we went around the different sites of the seven would point out where churches once were. Where once they had thrived. There was the once impressive Basilica of St John at Selcuk. Once a major church now a shattered ruin amongst which resides the grave of the Apostle John. There is the church of Mary in Ephesus where one of the great Ecumenical councils met in 425, now a ruin. But it isn’t just that they are ruins many have now been made into mosques. So there is the church known as the Little Hagia Sophia – originally dedicated to the Saints Sergius and Bacchus. There are many examples of churches being transformed into mosques (as Temples were taken to produce churches).
All around are signs of the collapse of the Christian faith in a land that was once the heartland of the Christian faith. To Turkey we owe many of the stories in the book of Acts. Without Turkey we wouldn’t have Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Philemon, 1 Peter, the letters of John and probably even the Gospel of John and of course no book of Revelation.
To lose these would be to lose some of the great passages of the New Testament:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them (1 John 4:16)
And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:17-19)
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.Against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-3)
The woman at the well in John’s Gospel
The raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
Our debt is huge and unending to these beleaguered communities working out what it meant to stay faithful to the way of Jesus. By no means always getting it right “You foolish Galatians…”
But today the faithful are few and scattered. What all too many could not resist was the pressure to conform. Whether in Roman times it was to conform to the pagan practices as the book of Revelation keeps pointing out or when the Muslim era came into being it was to resist the higher taxes placed on non-muslims. So much easier to convert and not have to pay the punitive taxes or have the danger of having your children taken to join the Janisseries (an elite fighting force).
The pressure to conform, to be silent, to look away in our society, to not stick out in our society where consumerism is rife, where the self rules and where to hold out for Orthodox Christian values are seen as a sign of madness. Where instead of focussing on the Good News of Jesus we let ourselves create a sense of being besieged.
We live in a generation in the West, that like the churches that John wrote to, have a choice. We can run into large citadels draw up the drawbridges and let ourselves be whittled away or we can begin to regain our confidence in the love of Jesus that the Apostles had. The church in the day of John were small bands of people turning the world upside down. Bands of people not trying to preserve monuments (however beautiful) or an Empire or buildings – rather a group of people longing and working towards changing the world. Who believed that the God of the entire Universe had broken into history and called all people into a way of love and sacrifice and grace-filled living. That was why it appealed to the marginalised in society. Pliny the Younger writes of torturing two female slaves to find out about Christianity – he dismissively says that they were deaconesses – in other words females and slaves were leaders in the early church, a massive social change in their society.
The call of Jesus to the Seven Churches is still there for us today. Besides the call is also the warning. If we don’t wish to follow the way of Jesus, if we decide we would rather play church politics or if we would rather keep in a safe haven or if we would rather stay in “safe” churches then all too quickly we will find our lampstands taken away from us. Sometimes I get the impression from people that the church will always be around in the UK – that revival will come or that something will turn up if only we would be more faithful in our personal walk. Rarely, if ever, does it appear to mean living a cross-shaped life sharing the love and grace of Jesus with our neighbours and inviting them to join us in this Way of life.
The call to the church at Laodecia still packs a punch and we could well do with remembering the call made to Christians at the end of that segment:
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
Visiting these sites has been a haunting reminder of the faithfulness of the early church and what happens when we forget the way of Jesus. This visit has been an amazing time and a reminder that the Christian faith in our country depends on the faithfulness and love and grace that we display. That the call of Jesus is as powerful now as it was in the first century. The call to follow in the way of peace and justice but about above all self-sacrificial love that Jesus walked in.