Incomplete: Lost Love
Topic: Christian Living & Discipleship Scripture: Revelation 2:1–2:7
How many of you remember when the state quarters first came out? Yeah… I remember I was a teenager when they first started advertising them. And they also started advertising those books to collect them in. But it wasn’t until 2008 that the last state, Hawaii, become the final of the 50 states quarters. I can remember seeing so many of those state quarter books at yard sales back in PA. And do you know what every single one of those books had in common? They were all missing one or a few of the quarters. Whoever had purchased the book in the first place had given it a shot and many were impressive in the number they were able to get, but they had fallen short. Their collection, their work, was missing something. This week we’re starting a new message series called just that: Incomplete. We’ll be exploring a few different churches that are the focus of the second and third chapters of Revelation, the very last book of the Bible. Now the book of Revelation has a reputation that precedes it. We hear mention of Revelation and maybe we think of the apocalypse, the end of times, or figures like the Four Horsemen or even the Anti-Christ. And, yes, all of those things are mentioned later in the book.
The trouble that the book of Revelation often faces is that it is made the victim of so many misconceptions. Some have said Revelation is a kind of cosmic timetable Others have made movies and written works of fiction trying to defend and proliferate their particular brand of theology. And some have made the decision to try to ignore it all together and not deal with all the trouble.
Unfortunately, we rob ourselves of rare and insightful truth if we do either of those things. Whether we attempt to disregard the book as a whole or try to squeeze and smash it so that it will fit into the box of beliefs we like, we cut ourselves off from the words of God. With this series, I hope we will discover that the book of Revelation has much to offer us, both as a church and as individuals.
Over the course of the next several weeks, we’re going to look at a collection of letters where Christ Himself speaks to several different churches of that time. Imagine that with me for a moment. Imagine if Jesus wrote a letter to our church, to First Pres. What do you think He’d want to say to us? Do you think Jesus would commend us for certain things? Are there aspects of our identity here that Christ would challenge or call us to change? We might not be able to read a letter written specifically for First Presbyterian Church of Normal - but in these letters, we receive the voice and affirmations and warnings of our Savior. In Revelation 1:3, we read that blessing will come to those who hear the words of these letters and take their message to heart. Our church might not be in Ephesus or Sardis or Laodicea but the words of Christ offered to those ancient churches are offered to us as well. So let’s begin by exploring the letter to the first church. We’re starting in Revelation 2:1-7.
* Read Revelation 2:1-7 *
So what does Christ actually say to our first church? Have you ever heard someone say that it’s a good practice to say a kind word of encouragement before you offer a criticism or complaint? Well, Jesus takes that approach here. Jesus starts by building them up and sharing with them three things they do well. They work hard at doing good, they do not tolerate wicked people or false teaching, and they persevered and endured much in the name of Christ. And these are all very, very good qualities. This church is made of hard-working people who have no tolerance for any kind of teaching or belief that strays away from the Gospel. And even more so, they are a people who have endured persecution and strife because of their faith in Christ, and have stood amidst and through that opposition.
So Christ gives them these words of encouragement. But one of the realities we will find to be true for almost all of the churches in this portion of Revelation - is that they are Incomplete. They have several pieces of the puzzle put together but they are missing something, something crucial and vital. And what is it that Jesus says the church of Ephesus is missing? What are they lacking. Well, Jesus says that this church has lost something central to their identity. They have Lost Love.
Jesus says that this church has forsaken the love they had at first. Now, this is a fascinating kind of problem when we think about it. This church possessed love at its founding and beginning, but, somewhere along the way, that love got lost. There are essentially two ways that scholars explain what this love was. The first is the love of other people, love of neighbor. At one point, Ephesus, like most churches I hope, were known for being a warm and welcoming community. Not the building but the people. And somehow, perhaps over the years of rooting out false teachers and bad doctrine and having to endure so much persecution, this church became cold and even abrasive with its people, and any who came among them. In short, the people of this church weren’t nice people.
Now we might kind of scoff at this at first. Is Jesus seriously reprimanding a church for not being nice enough. He sure is! And that’s because being a loving, welcoming, warm community is central to the identity of the church. That warmth and affection should never be plastic or fabricated, mind you. No, instead it should spring forth from our love and affection we have for and in Jesus Christ. There’s a serious problem when the church stops being nice, when it stops being a place where you feel welcomed and valued.
If I can take a step of faith here in sharing this, this is why I have such a hard time reconciling the idea of a church curmudgeon or a church member or Christian in general, who is always contrary or grumpy or upset about something. We are supposed to be people with Good News. We’re supposed to have the joy joy joy joy down in our hearts. Where? Now, and please here me with this, there are absolutely seasons of our life where we might find it hard to be joyful or to be peppy and energetic. That’s part of the human experience, and I’m not talking about people in those albeit brief periods of life. I’m talking about the people at church that are always frowning, always complaining, always unhappy, always sarcastic, and always biting. And it appears that’s what happened to the church of Ephesus here in Revelation 2. And that reality has dire consequences.
In truth, if a church loses its love for others it threatens its very existence. One commentator says that “Without love, the congregation ceases to be a church.” And this is so true. Every single one of us could be the first impression another person has of our church. If we’re gruff or cold or disinterested, we very well may be ending that person’s experience of our church. This goes double for the younger folks who come to church. One of the main reasons so many young people end up leaving the church after high school is because of this lost love. On the one hand, it’s because many of these students don’t have any warm, meaningful relationships with adults from their church other than their youth director. Another reason, I believe, many leave the church is actually connected to the second way we can interpret what this lost love means.
Young people will, indeed, walk away from church due to a lack of warm and invested relationships. They’re also just as likely to walk away because they no longer feel the sense of wonder and draw that their faith offered them earlier in their life. In truth, this can be the same for adults too. Think back with me to the time in your life where you felt closest to God. Maybe it was when you were younger or away on a certain trip or surrounded by certain people. I’m talking about a time in your life where you genuinely wanted to know Jesus more and become closer to Him. A time where stopping to read Scripture was a joy and not a chore. A period of life where prayer felt like an intimate conversation. And now, with the memory of that time of your life, hold it against where you are now – where your love and faith are now. The church in Ephesus had suffered a decay of that love along the way. Maybe you notice one as well.
In one of the commentaries I read, the author said this about the Ephesian church: “They didn’t have a head problem but a heart problem. Obedience out of duty had replaced obedience out of love for Christ. The difference between the two is massive.” We know this to be true in other parts of our life. Your spouse doesn’t want you to begrudgingly agree to go out with them to spend some time together. They want you to be genuinely excited and anxious to be with them. Our children don’t want us to reluctantly make the time to talk with them or play with them, and support them in something they’re doing. They want a parent that actively cares and seeks them out. And Christ is the same. Jesus doesn’t want our time and devotion to be a labor of duty or responsibility. He wants it to be an expression of joy. And somewhere the Ephesian church lost that. Maybe you have as well. Maybe the space where faith occupies your heart, once bright and vibrant and coursing with enthusiasm, has now become a duller and fastidious cubicle of obligation.
So what do we do? Well, we should follow the same instruction that Christ gave to those in Ephesus. And it’s all right there in verse 5: “Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” There’s another way, maybe an easier way, for us to understand this and it’s with three words. Three R words. Who doesn’t love a good alliteration? Those three R words are Remember, Repent, and Return.
“Consider how you have fallen!” This is a call for us to remember where we once were. A call to think back to a time where our love for God was the strongest and the most pure. Perhaps there are some here who, for them, that time is right now. But for many, likely most of us, it is a time some distance away. During a certain time of life or in a certain place, even like the Great Banquet which is such a moving and powerful part of our town here. I talked about this only moments ago but I love how one scholar puts it: “The place where you first fell in love was probably somewhere near the cross.”
So the first is Remember. Remember where your love for Christ once burned its brightest. The second word is Repent. Repentance is a fascinating term and I have found that it either doesn’t get spoken of enough in some spaces, while in other spaces, it gets talked about almost too much and in too harsh of a light. For us, this morning, I want you to view repentance this way: a turning away. Turning away from those things, places, habits, and people that have contributed to the dimming of your faith in God. Turning away from thinking like the Ephesians had in Revelation 2, in thinking that your good works or your time spent or your championing of a cause equates to a vibrant faith that is pleasing in the eyes of God. Labor is no substitute for love and deeds are no substitute for true devotion.
And then, finally, Return. You’ve remembered the time and place and circumstances where your heart was drawn the most powerfully to God. You’ve repented and taken the steps to turn away from any of the things in your world that distract you from that love or, even worse, that actively serve to squelch it. The last step is to Return to the only true and first love we as human beings can have. To return to the God who has formed us, given us breath and story, and the same God who has given us freedom and relationship. The answer is found in drawing closer to God through a variety of ways. Reading Scripture, finding a new practice for our prayer life, serving others, joining or starting a small group where you can grow in Christ in a community, taking part in the life of the church.
We are all called to Remember, Repent, and Return. No matter where we are in life right now. And while moments in life might rob us of happiness from time to time, there is no excuse for us as the followers of Christ to consistently be the crankiest people in a room. The church in Ephesus was doing a lot of things right. They did the mission work and they taught the hard-hitting doctrine. They became watchdogs for Christianity. But all of that was threatened because of what they had lost. We can’t be the same. As a church or as individuals. We can’t be found having Lost Love.