The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      22nd April 2018
Revelation - Pergamum and Thyatira
Jeremy Fletcher

Revelation 2. 12 - 29

This is the second of four Evensongs with texts from the Book of Revelation. I said last week that I may be more excited about Revelation than other books of the Bible because I spent some years of my life gazing at it, in the form of the Great East Window of York Minster, now stunningly restored. If you don’t believe the description of that window as the ‘Sistine Chapel of Stained Glass’, do have a look at my latest prize possession, Sarah Brown’s book Apocalypse.
Another acquisition is the latest commentary on Revelation by Ian Paul. In his introduction he says this:
The Book of Revelation is … one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature ever written…Its engagement with the canonical Old Testament scriptures, its use of contemporary first century culture and mythology, its elaborate structure and multiple echoes, interweaving, repetition and development of themes, its extraordinarily sophisticated use of numerology …, and the sheer power of its rhetoric and impact of its imagery – all these make it a remarkable and endlessly fascinating text. Outside of the Christian scriptures, there really is nothing in all of human literature to compare with it.

He points out that we are quoting Revelation when we use phrases like the ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ (6:1–8); the ‘pearly gates’ (21:21); the ‘number of the beast’ (13:18); ‘Jezebel’ (2:20) who features tonight; being ‘lukewarm’ (3:15); the ‘grapes of wrath’ (14:19); a ‘scarlet woman’ (17:3); and ‘streets paved with gold’ (21:21).

I said last week that Revelation says of itself that it is three things: ‘apocalypse’ - a disclosure of the things of the future; ‘prophecy’ – the word of God to the present as encouragement and warning; and ‘letter’ – a means of teaching. I also said that, as a general rule, whenever someone predicts the future using Revelation they are probably wrong. The latest is that something major will happen tomorrow, but that is from a chap who has tried a few dates before now, none of them correctly.

Our readings in these four weeks are words to seven churches, and there is less scope here to over interpret. They are real places, and you can visit them today in modern Turkey. But seven was a symbolic number too, and we can take it that people in other early churches knew that these letters were also for them. Last week we heard letters to Ephesus and Smyrna. Tonight we have Pergamum and Thyatira. Each letter has a similar structure, and some identical words:
1. To the angel of the church in (place name) write:
2. Thus says he who (appellation drawn from the vision of Rev. 1)
3. I know …
4. But …
5. (Command to respond, including the requirement to repent)
6. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
7. To those who are conquering (promise drawn from the vision of the New Jerusalem)
(From Ian Paul’s commentary)

The ‘angel’ is likely to be the embodiment of the church itself, rather than a supernatural being. These are direct words of encouragement and challenge, and we are invited to recognise ourselves here: a good reason to look at all seven letters carefully. All of them contain details whose meaning is lost to us, but the general message is clear.

Jesus’s encouragement to Pergamum is that their difficult situation is known, and they are commended for holding fast and not denying Christ. The challenge is that, like Balaam in the book of Numbers, they have been misled in their behaviour, particularly around food laws and the worship of idols, here characterised as sexual immorality. They have had so much contact with those who believe differently that they have lost their distinctiveness. The promise is that those who turn from this and are faithful will be given food from God – the hidden manna – and know that they are secure – the symbol of the white stone.

Thyatira was a trading and manufacturing city, and it gets the longest letter. Lydia, the trader in purple cloth whom Paul meets in Acts came from Thyatira. The name might also be familiar because the Greek Orthodox Diocese which covers these islands is called Thyateira and Great Britain. There was a church in Thyatira from the time of St Paul until it was finally ejected in 1922, and the newly formed orthodox community here took its name to honour it.

The earliest Thyatirans are commended for love, faith, service and endurance. In times of challenge both through attack and through the temptations of materialism the church has developed its depth of discipleship and observance. But (and all but two churches get the ‘but’), they have been too open to inclusion without challenge. Jezebel stands for false prophecy: Thyatira has been strong in love but weak in doctrine. The challenge is stark and profound, and if they get it wrong the consequences will be great. But if they get it right the rewards will be great too: as Ian Paul puts it, ‘a share in all that [Jesus] is and has.’

In the letters of Revelation are to be found encouragements and warnings, and I would commend the study of the different settings here, to see what lessons our own church life might learn. From tonight I might suggest that the tensions in Thyatira between inclusion and challenge, and those in Pergamum between distinctiveness and engagement, are complex. My prayer is that we will be fed by God’s manna, be as secure as those who hold the white stone, and shine with the light of the Morning Star. May we have an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Amen. 

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