Jesus among the lampstands – local and global Church
Jesus among the lampstands – local and global Church
A sermon by Kenneth Padley on 19th November 2023 from Revelation 1: 4–18
Atop a low hill in western Turkey sit the ruins of an ancient city. A grand, stone-flagged road running east from the city centre was once lined with shops, temples and high-end houses. Among what remains is a pillar. And on that pillar, at the height of a human standing, is a carving. The carving is a menorah, a seven-branched candlestick, traditional symbol of Judaism. And this menorah is very unusual: it has been adapted by a later Christian who added a cross, sprouting from the top of the central branch of the candlestand.
Although unusual, we should not be surprised. Because the carved pillar is in the city of Laodicea, one of the seven mentioned in tonight’s second reading from the book Revelation. That cross-laden menorah is an attempt to visualise Laodicea as a lampstand, amongst which walks the Lord Jesus. And although this image may seem bizarre on first encounter, it has much to tell us about the book Revelation and the nature of Christian community.
Revelation is one of the strangest books of the Bible. It is full of obscure and sometimes violent imagery: bowls of wrath and mythical beasties. And yet, it is not so very different for other parts of the New Testament such as the letters of Paul. Because Revelation is, in part, an epistle. We know this, because of what we heard of the instructions given to the author, John. Like Paul composing his letters, John was told to write, write to seven ‘churches’ in ‘Asia’.
‘Churches’ in this context mean ‘people’ not ‘places’ – a gathering of Christians, not a building for worship. Remember, when the book Revelation was written, it was illegal to be a Christian; Christians did not celebrate publicly in big buildings but assembled covertly in private houses.
And ‘Asia’ in this context does not mean a continent. It does not even mean Asia Minor, the landmass of Anatolia, which makes up most of modern Turkey. ‘Asia’ in the book Revelation means a province of the Roman Empire, a region in central western Turkey no more than a hundred and fifty miles square and whose leading city was Ephesus. Revelation was written just off the coast of Ephesus, on an island called Patmos. And so it was natural that the Christians of Ephesus were the first intended recipients of the document. However, as we heard, Revelation was then to travel on to six other churches in the province: Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.
When plotted onto a map, you can see that these seven cities are listed in a clockwise circle. From this we deduce that Revelation was a round-robin. It contains a short introductory message for each church, but the bulk of the document was for all of them.
I do not think it insignificant that Revelation was sent to seven cities. Seven is the Jewish number for God, perfection and completeness – think of the seven-day week in the story of creation. This means that Revelation was ultimately for all God’s communities on earth, of which the seven Asian congregations were symbolically representative.
Here we see a tension which echoes across the Christian centuries, the tension that God’s people are both local and global. We are grounded in everyday communities while simultaneously being part of a bigger whole.
Appropriately, this tension is captured in the two major words which we use for gatherings of Christians. The first is ekklêsia, from which we get the English ‘ecclesiastical’, French Eglise, Welsh Eglwys, and so on. Ekklêsia is used throughout the book Revelation for the religious communities to which John was writing. It is a compound Greek word, made from two smaller words and meaning ‘called-from’. Ek-klêsia – literally, ‘from-called’.
Ekklêsia was a word which the first Christians adapted from secular usage. An ancient Greek ekklêsia was a political gathering, a town folk moot. If the village over the hill was going to attack your village, you might meet with your neighbours in an ekklêsia to discuss your response. At that ekklêsia, the people were called from, from their daily tasks, to discuss matters of common interest. So ekklêsia is very much a grassroots, bottom-up word: is about people coming together at a local level.
It is not hard to see why the first Christians saw themselves as ekklhsia: it was a good description of a gathering for worship, but it also had spiritual undertones. After all, as Christians, are we not ‘called from’ past sinfulness to live lives of holiness following the example of Jesus?
Ekklêsia is therefore also an inherently prospective word – it looks to the future. Commentators on Christianity may think we are desperately traditional, stuck in the past, out of touch. And there are some Christians who sadly collude with this pastiche. But our calling to be ekklêsia is the opposite. Christians are inspired by past story but, ultimately, are called from the past and into God’s future. As ekklêsia, we are always looking forward, always open to God’s change, always affirming that the best is yet to come.
Remember in this regard that we heard that John received his vision on a Sunday, that is, the first day of the week (Revelation 1.10) and that much of Revelation is about what God has yet to bring to pass. As a member of an ekklêsia, John was excited to stand on the threshold and glimpse into God’s amazing future.
So much for bottom-up. Our second word for Christian community is, of course, ‘Church’. This also comes from the Greek language, in this case a word which means ‘of the Lord’, kuriakos. Christians belong ‘to the Lord Jesus’ and so the Church is made up of those who are summoned and saved by Jesus. We meet in his name, and we celebrate his presence. We look to his example. And we await his return in glory. We are ‘of the Lord’, kuriakos.
In contrast to ekklêsia, the connotations of kuriakos are top-down and Christocentric. It is a word which reminds Christians of our shared identity. It is about our unity in faith with brothers and sisters around the world. Very importantly, this also includes Christians in different denominations – even in different ages. As members ‘of the Lord’, we are united with those who have gone before us in faith and with all who will follow after, each and every Christian a saint.
I am often asked about that line in the creed, ‘I believe in the holy Catholic Church’ Why do you say Catholic? ask my interlocutors. Aren’t you supposed to be Protestant? Well, yes, I reply. It’s a both/and. To say the Church is Catholic is to affirm its universality. The creeds and their use of the word ‘Catholic’ date from the third and fourth centuries, long before the divisions of the Reformation. So to say the Church is ‘Catholic’ is to affirm that the people ‘of the Lord’ – kuriakos – are one. Someone who likes baroque, jazz and heavy metal might be said to have ‘catholic’ tastes in music. Just so, Christians are Catholic because we belong to something that is bigger than us, bigger than our local congregation, bigger even than the institutional Church on earth.
That carving of a cross sprouting from a menorah in ancient Laodicea is pretty crude. And yet it captures a profound truth. Each Christian is called to shine as a light in the world. Yet no Christian candle shines alone, just as no congregation exists in isolation from the universal Church. Each and every branch of the candlestand is bound into a bigger whole, reflecting the inherent radiance of the Lord who walks amid the golden lampstands. Amen.