A sermon for Evensong on the sixth Sunday of Easter
Imagine that you find yourself reading an email or letter and discover it was intended for someone else. You won’t get all the references, but you’ll probably pick up the tone – friendly, cross, whatever. Today we hear (or overhear) the last of seven letters at the start of the book of Revelation that John the Divine is commanded (by a vision of Jesus) to write. It’s to the church of Laodicea in what is now Turkey.
The tone is clear. It reminds me of a scene in that comedy classic, Fawlty Towers. Basil the hotel owner (John Cleese) is being uncharacteristically nice to a guest, Mr Hutchison (Bernard Cribbins), believing him to be a hotel inspector (though he is in fact a cutlery salesman). Hutchison orders a bottle of ginger beer. Basil produces one with an oily flourish. Hutchison tastes it, and screws up his face: ‘That’s tepid!’ he exclaims, and demands an ice bucket as a remedy. The church in Laodicea is that tepid drink, and the Lord’s reaction is more pronounced: ‘Because you are lukewarm, I am on the point of spitting you out of my mouth.’ So what is their problem?
Here we need help with the references in the letter, help of the sort you might find in a decent travel guide. We have one such guide from the ancient world, but it doesn’t cover Laodicea. So, working with what we know of the place, let’s imagine the entry in, say, The Rough Guide to the Roman Empire, the AD95 edition.
Nestling in the Lycus valley, Laodicea was built by King Antiochus II and named after his subsequently jilted wife, Laodice. Set on a major trade route, Laodicea has grown rich on banking and commerce (especially textiles), and it boasts a medical school, specialising in treatment of the eyes. Getting there will take you a short day’s wagon ride west from Colossae, or a rather longer haul eastwards from Ephesus, the regional centre. While it cannot rival its neighbour for sights, the eating, drinking and shopping opportunities of an affluent provincial city make Laodicea a pleasant stopover for those with deepish pockets, though budget travellers can refresh themselves at the various watering holes frequented by poor but thirsty medical students.
The Laodicean Christians, then, have the problems of wealth, and the complacency it can bring. And the ‘lukewarm’ idea may be the first in a series of local jibes. The city’s water supply comes from hot springs, and the water is tepid – too cool for cooking, too warm to drink – when it arrives in the city. And that describes the ‘works’ of this church, the way its members express their faith (or fail to) in what they say and do. So, though they have lots of money, they are actually ‘poor’, because they rely on themselves and not God; their city may be full of high fashion they are morally ‘naked’; and though they boast a centre of eyecare excellence, this congregation cannot ‘see’ the truth about itself. Jesus’ remedy? True ‘gold’ that money can’t buy, the ‘white robes’ of righteousness and ‘salve’ for the eye of the heart.
Now – if John were commanded to write to this church, what might the Lord say though him to us? Like Laodicea we are on a river, and we have medical connections as a vaccination centre; we even have an eye specialist commemorated here. Perhaps, though, his ironic eye might be drawn to our signature features. You have a fine spire, he might say, but how well do your lives point beyond yourselves to God? You have Magna Carta in your Chapter House, but how much love of liberty for the oppressed is there in your hearts? It’s an interesting spiritual exercise: to look at wherever you call home and, when you pray, to see what God might say to you through your surroundings.
Back in lukewarm Laodicea, the rest of the remedy the Lord gives them is also interesting: be earnest – though ‘zealous’ might catch the sense better – be zealous and repent. Notice which comes first. To repent is to change direction, but to do that you first need impetus, oomph. You need that energetic thing called zeal.
So that is where we must begin. If, as we emerge from lockdown, things feel limp, listless, lukewarm – like a tepid bath or a warm ginger beer – what might kindle your energies?
Be zealous and repent, says the Lord, and do it now because, ‘I stand at the door and knock.’ That’s an image that evokes the six o’clock knock in Line of Duty – but also the arrival of a lover you hate to disappoint: there is surely an echo here of the phrase we heard in the first lesson, from the Song of Solomon, ‘Listen! my beloved is knocking.’ That is the place to begin: ask God to rekindle passion, longing, then things might change direction.
Why should any of us be moved to do this? It could be from guilt or fear, the scary side of ‘I stand at the door and knock’. But it is better done as a response to love. For, here in the stately Tudor prose of Evensong, we meet the voice of someone who loves us beyond telling. And if you and I pay attention, we may hear our hearts whisper, ‘Listen! my beloved is knocking, “Open to me... my love.”’
Conditions in Laodicea: see John Sweet’s commentary on Revelation, Westminster Press, 1979, pages 105-10