THE CHURCH IN PHILADELPHIA
Here we are. This is the last sermon I will preach as your lead minister. How does it feel? Weird but strangely appropriate. There comes a time for all good things to come to an end and so it is with our pastoral relationship. It’s been an amazing ride.
I was wondering what scripture reading to use today. It is Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and that is a significant day in the life of the Church for where would we be without the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen us? I could have used the lectionary readings that go with Pentecost but I decided to choose something different. if you know me, you will know that my favourite book in the Bible is Revelation.
It is, after all, when properly read, not a crystal ball that tells us about future events. Rather, it is the discipleship manual for the Church. It tells us all that we need to know about how to live faithfully, with grace and compassion, in a fallen world. The passage I’m going to use today is Revelation 3:7-13. This is one of Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. This particular letter is to the church in Philadelphia.
Why did I choose this letter? Because the church in Philadelphia is the perfect church, at least as far as perfection can be found on this earth. Most of the other churches in Asia Minor have issues that they need to deal with. They were listening to false prophets or they were wandering away from the truth, or they were lukewarm and not on fire for Jesus. But not so the church in Philadelphia. Jesus has nothing bad to say about it. He encourages them to keep on doing what they were doing.
Does this represent the church in Cottam? It would be a bit high handed to say that we are perfect but we’ve done some amazing ministry together and I believe Jesus has smiled on us. We may not be as perfect as the church in Philadelphia but it is the standard for which we strive and so I think it’s more than appropriate to use Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia today.
JESUS HOLDS THE KEY
Let’s begin with Revelation 3:7 (NIV) where Jesus says to John:
To the angel in the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open.
Jesus begins by saying something about himself. In verse 7, he makes three vital personal claims. First, he declares himself to be holy. This is an interesting term because “The Holy One” is a title that is used for God in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 40:25. What Jesus is saying very clearly is that he is divine, he is God. He is not merely a man who taught good things, was crucified and rose again. He is God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us. This is who Jesus is. We should never forget this. It’s important.
The second thing that he said was that he is true. He hates error and evil. There is nothing false about him. In a world which constantly looks for truth, he is the place to turn for he himself is truth.
The final thing that he says about himself is that he holds the key of David. This is very important because a key in prophecy is a symbol of authority. Jesus has the key. Since he holds the key, he is the one who has the authority to lock and unlock the most important doors. What he opens no one can shut and what he shuts no one can open. But what doors is Jesus talking about?
We are going to consider two doors today. The first door is the door of salvation. Where do we find the door to salvation? In John 14:6 (NIV) Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the door of salvation and he reminds us of this in his letter to the Philadelphians.
Jesus holds the key to the door of salvation. He also holds the key to the door of opportunity. The opportunity that he is talking about is the opportunity to share the Good News and witness to others about the amazing love of God and the salvation that is available through faith in Jesus Christ who is the door of salvation.
We’ve mentioned doors quite a few times these past few weeks and how God opens door for us to walk through both as individuals and as the church. Perhaps the most difficult doors of all are the ones where we are called to witness to others about our faith in Jesus.
All of us want to do the right things but how many opportunities have we missed because we were afraid that our faith might offend someone. Maybe we were afraid of appearing too religious or of being pushy. I know how hard it is to share something as personal as faith. There are all sorts of reasons why we don’t always take advantage of those opportunities but the uncomfortable truth is that we often don’t.
How do we change that? Let’s look at two things we can do. The first and most obvious one is that we can share Jesus’ message with our words. What do you believe about Jesus and who he is? Why do you believe? What is your story? What difference has your faith made in your life?
Use your words but also use your actions because your words about Jesus and your actions in life need to line up. If they don’t others will spot your hypocrisy a mile away. But if what you say and what you do are consistent, you might just plant some seeds of faith in the life of someone who desperately needs them. So, share your story but also make a difference. I see this Cottam United Church doing more and more of that. I see it with our prayer garden. I see it with the Kyiv House. I see it in the way we have tried to make our building accessible to the community as a gather place, a hub for our neighbours in Cottam. Those things speak volumes not just of your strong community spirit but also of your love for Jesus and the difference he makes in your life.
Never forget, that the purpose of the Church is to equip Christians to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those who need to hear. When we go out into the world, we should seek opportunities to share, by our words and by our actions, the message that has changed our lives. This is the message of Jesus who is holy and true, who holds the key to the doors of both salvation and opportunity.
JESUS OPENS DOORS
I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
Jesus sees what the Christians in Philadelphia are doing. He knows their deeds. He hears their words and sees their action and, quite frankly, he is pleased. They are a church that has seen Jesus open doors for them and every time he has opened a door they have walked right through. This is in stark contrast to what Jesus said to some of the other churches. Clearly, these brothers and sisters, more than any other church in Asia Minor, are on the right path.
Here’s something else to consider. Jesus is not about to allow his doors to be shut on the Christians in Philadelphia. As long as they are doing what they are called to do, the doors of opportunity will remain wide open. This reminds me of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. In that story, before the Master went away he left some of his servants with money to use. Some of the servants used it wisely and some did not. The lesson here is that, to those who are faithful in using what God has given, even more will be given to them. But those who are not faithful will lose even what they have. In our context, as long as we are faithful in using the opportunities that Jesus gives to us, he will continue providing more and more opportunities. As long as we continue to walk through the doors that he opens for us, he will open more doors. As we are faithful, so is God faithful.
It’s interesting, however, to read what Jesus says next. He says that although they were of little strength, they have kept his word and not denied his name. Here is something pivotal. It is okay not to be strong. It is okay to need help because it is in our weakness that we reach out to Jesus and receive the strength that we need from him. Do not let your own weakness stop you from walking through the open doors. Know that you are not alone and that the power of God is with you.
Moving on to Revelation 3:9-10 (NIV), we read this:
I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews through they are not, but are liars – I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.
In these two verses, Jesus is clear that the faithful will face opposition. He also gets specific about the kind of opposition that the Christians in Philadelphia face. Ironically, much of it comes from within the church itself. This is what Jesus refers to as the synagogue of Satan. These are the religious people who don’t want to walk through the doors that Jesus opens. They try to put the brakes on the ministry of the church.
Jesus holds the keys to the doors of opportunity but how many times have forces within the Church tried to prevented faithful Christians from stepping out in faith? We’ve all heard the excuses. Someone comes up with a new idea and they get stared down for not supporting the status quo. Someone else wants to change something and they get, “But we’ve always done it this way. Why change it?” Someone else has an idea for new outreach ministry that will require some start-up money and they are told, “That’s not in the budget and, besides, the church needs a new roof before we even think about outreach.”
And, to be honest, we need to hear those who would have us put on the brakes. There is a risk in walking through the doors that Jesus opens. Walking through door brings change and change brings tension. Churches can be divided between those who want to walk through the doors that Jesus opens and those who don’t. Some people are timid. Some are anxious. Some lack faith.
But Jesus says something interesting about these people. He says that even they will eventually fall down and acknowledge Jesus’ love. This is good. This is a sign of humility and humility is always godly. What this means is that those in opposition within the church will eventually get it. They will get on board and walk through the doors too.
This is good news because it says that even the naysayers will see the light. They will humbly repent and the church will become united again. Jesus heals the divisions that open doors can create. And so the churches, united in Jesus, walks through the doors he opens to do his work in his world.
There will be opposition within the church. Jesus looks after that. There also can be opposition from outside the church. We can expect that too. The interesting thing here is that it is our experience that the most faithful churches can expect the most opposition to their ministry.
Going back to the image of Satan, Satan does not want the church to succeed. That’s why he concentrates so much of his energy on those congregations that are walking through the doors that Jesus opens. That’s why they are the ones that often feel as if they are under attack. Satan couldn’t care less about dying churches that are not moving forward. They aren’t the slightest threat to his evil schemes. It’s the faithful ones that are the target of all of his efforts. Never forget that. So, is everything going smoothly in your church? Are there no disagreements or heated discussions about the direction your church is taking. Is everything like a hunky dory bowl of cherries. Is Satan leaving you alone? If so, you may want to rethink what you’re doing because faithful churches can expect opposition.
But despite the opposition, Jesus keeps opening doors that no one can shut. And he calls us to keep walking through them. And he brings us together humbly to do his work.
We finish this letter with Revelation 3:11-13 (NIV):
I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will write on him my new name. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
In these final verses, Jesus encourages the people to hold fast in the face of opposition, to keep walking through the doors. If they do, he promises to give a triple honour to those who overcome. First, he promises to make them into a pillar in the temple of God. The temple that Jesus is talking about is the eternal life that is ours through him. And what about the pillar? A pillar is a sign of stability and strength. It is something that endures through the ages. Think about the ancient Greek and Roman architecture that is still standing today. Do we see roofs? Do we see doors and windows? Do we see walls? No. What strikes us as we look at the architecture of the ancient world are the pillars that are still standing. They are stable. They are secure. Jesus promises stability and strength.
The second honour Jesus promises to those who overcome is that he will write on them the name of God. In the days when this letter was written to have a person’s name place on you was a sign that you belonged with them. It was like in days gone by when cattle were branded. If a cow ever got lost from the herd and someone found it wandering around, all they had to do was look for its brand and they’d know where it belonged. Those who have God’s name on them know to whom they belong.
Jesus’ third honour is that he will write on them the name of the city of God, the new Jerusalem that will come down out of heaven. This New Jerusalem is the Kingdom of God in which peace and justice will we established forever. This is the fulfillment of the prophecies that say that the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will live with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child shall lead them. Not only will the faithful know to whom they belong – to God – they will also know where they belong – in God’s holy kingdom.
These are Jesus’ promises to the overcomers who keep walking through the doors that he opens for them.
The question remains. When we stand before God and the book of life is opened will we be numbered with the overcomers? Will God’s name be written on us? Will we be marked with the name of the New Jerusalem? If so, we will be welcomed into our heavenly home. We will stand with those who overcome like pillars that bear the name of our God and of his Holy City. The choice really is ours. Jesus holds the keys. The door of salvation is wide open. It is up to us whether or not we walk through it. Make sure that you choose wisely for our choices have eternal consequences. There is more here than meets the eye. Whoever has ears let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
God of Grace and Glory, shine upon us with the light of Heaven. Radiate within the deepest recesses of our souls so that we may glow in response to your never ending love and care. How wonderful you are and how good to us. Who are we that you defend us? What have we done to deserve your compassion? Your gifts to us are unearned and undeserved, given freely by your grace. For your many blessings we give you thanks and praise.
We give thanks this day for nineteen years of ministry here in Cottam. We are grateful for your wisdom, your guidance, your strength and your patience which have guided us on this journey together. May the work that we have done together for Jesus continue perhaps with difference names and different faces but always focused on you who are the author of all good things.
In the midst of our praise and thanks, we come with our concerns. For a world divided by prejudice. For people crippled by fear. For families wounded by unforgiveness. For the lonely who need to feel loved. For the hungry who need to be fed. For the prisoners who need to be freed. For all of these and more we pray.
We remember before you those who are suffering from any number of natural disasters that we hear about on the earth. Rains, winds, fires and floods have taken their toll. And yet we still ask for your protection and blessing as we live within the world of your making. Help us to live with respect in creation and to turn towards you in all things.
We pray for those who need healing this day especially for Mark, Brian, Ron and Carol. We also pray for peace for the family and friends of those who grieve in their loss, that you would be their comfort and their strength.
God of all the Ages, we pray with open hearts, knowing that you hear and answer our prayers. We pray in Jesus’ name through whom you gave us the great gift of eternal life. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
May 28, 2023 / Pentecost
Numbers 11: 24 – 30; Psalm 104: 24 – 34, 35b; Acts 2: 1 – 21; John 20: 19 – 23
CALL TO WORSHIP
The earth is full of your majesty, O God.
As long as we have breath we will sing to you.
May our words and rejoicings be pleasing to the Living God;
Praise the Lord forever!
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Breathe on us, breath of God, and fill us with life anew. Help us to love what you love and do what you would do. Send the Holy Spirit into our gathering. Anoint us and refresh us. Blow through us and around us. As we worship this day, may we glow with the divine fire of Pentecost. Make us like Jesus who brought your divine healing to a hurting world. Make us like the disciples who shared his salvation with all people. Come, Holy Spirit, come! Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We confess, O God, that the fire of your Spirit does not always glow as brightly within us as it could. We want our comforts instead of your compassion. We seek power over others and neglect your passion for justice. We hold onto our opinions and judgments when you call us to listen for your truth. We remain silent when we are supposed to speak your Word and share your Gospel. Forgive us, O God, and open our hearts, that we may celebrate your Spirit within and among us. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
Like a gentle breeze, God fans the flame of the Spirit within us. Like a strong wind, God reminds us of the need to forgive and be forgiven. Like a mighty storm, God cleans away the past and forces us to look at a new future. Forgiven and renewed, we are free to dance where the Spirit leads us.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING Your Spirit breathed upon the Church at Pentecost giving life and purpose. As you gave your Spirit to us, we surrender our spirits to you. We bring our gifts with the courage and hope that you will bless us with the wisdom to us them for your holy purpose. Amen.
As we go to our daily living, may the Spirit come to us in new and exciting ways. God comes as a gentle whisper, as a strong wind, as a mighty storm. Let us go, filled with the Spirit to share the Good News of salvation with all people.