Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
Unlike many of our other “clever words,” this one is actually quite common in Classical Greek! In fact, νικάω (nikaō) is a verb that students often encounter early on in their Greek studies, in part because it provides an example of a distinct pattern of conjugation (but we don’t need to worry about that here). Its familiarity is probably due, in part, to its broad usage -- it can describe victories in battle, athletic contexts, law courts, and arguments, and might often be better translated as “to prevail.”
Wondrous things are promised to the churches that conquer or win νικάω: the morning star, manna, fruit from the tree of life, white robes, among other things. But how does the church go about winning? If we look to Jesus, victory does not involve fierce battles and daring deeds, but the cross. A Christian is victorious not through winning but through losing.
Not necessarily heroic losing either. Song, story, and cinema glorify the idea of a last stand. The hero dies in a fiery battle, resolving the problem through bloodshed, his enemies’ and his own. But if the cross shows us anything, it is that we are not the heroes in this story. Jesus is the savior and we are the saved, freed to lose because victory is not up to us. What if apostasy protects a loved one? What if denying Christ means we get to live and witness another day? What if lying about our belief shelters the vulnerable? And what if at the end of all of this apostasy and denial and lying we turn to Christ, trusting in his mercy for a messy world? It may not be heroic, it may not get us a halo or stained glass window, but it does proclaim Jesus, and Jesus wins in the end.
Questions for Reflection
When have you experienced failure as a Christian? How have you encountered Jesus in failure?
“I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first.
In Euripides’ Electra, the chorus expresses its “small” or “little faith” (πίστιν σμικρὰν, pistin smikran) in a story about the actions of the god Zeus (lines 726-736). This Greek word, pistis, is a pretty good match for the English word “faith,” with its range of both religious and secular connotations. We, too, speak of having “little faith.” Yet how do we really envision degrees or magnitudes of faith? How might we measure it? Is “faith” or pistis an either/or proposition (you have it, or you don’t), or can you have a bit of faith -- and what would that mean?
When we have said the Lord’s Prayer during parking lot church, I have invited people to place their hands on their car windows as a gesture of faith, Πίστις. Even though we cannot hold one another right now, it will not always be so.
Faith is not an easy thing to keep. Many of the churches addressed in the first few chapters of Revelation are starting to weaken in their faith keeping. Continuing to live out their faith in Jesus in a hostile environment day after day is exhausting. It is no wonder that John repeatedly urges them to repent and reorient their lives and priorities.
We too grow weary. We ache for normalcy, for the simplicity of a Sunday morning of singing, sharing the Lord’s Supper, and holding hands as we say the Lord’s Prayer. These practices do so much to keep us strong in the faith and without them it can feel like that faith is slipping away.
Thankfully, while we are disciples in the faith, Jesus is a master. In the life, death, and resurrection of Christ we see just how faithful God can be to God’s people. When we stumble and grow weary, when we give up and let our faith drop to the ground, God keeps holding on. God is faithful and will keep that faith and keep us too.
Questions for Reflection
What faith practices have helped you keep the faith over the past few months? Who is an example of faithfulness in your life?
“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.
Θλῖψις (thlipsis, say that three times fast) is not a common word in Greek literature. It shows up in medical writing as a term for physical pressure, before it is used to describe metaphorical “pressures,” or “oppressions.” In a treatise linked to the philosopher Aristotle and his school (the “Problems”), for example, the author explains how the application of “pressure” (θλῖψις) causes bruising and swelling.
Discomfort. Inconvenience. Awkwardness. We try to minimize these feelings as a church. We want all who join our community to feel at ease and welcome. But, as of late, we have all been struggling under an unrelenting pressure: masks are uncomfortable; maintaining social distance is inconvenient; enforcing new rules is awkward. We see other faith communities making different decisions and wonder if we’re getting it right. Welcome to the reality of living in a time of persecution, or what John calls Θλῖψις, thlipsis. Now, let’s not leap to the more gory stories of martyrdom. For many if not most of the Christians receiving John’s letter, the concern was less about being tossed to the lions tomorrow and more about the daily grind of hardship and uncertainty. To follow Jesus meant to refuse to participate in the worship of other gods. As a result, the early Christians were outsiders in their own culture where worship of the Roman emperor and other deities was part of doing business. Christians suffered economically and socially, while living under the real threat of being brought to trial for their faith. Day after day they had to deal with unrelenting pressure, discomfort, and anxiety; Θλῖψις. For John, however, Θλῖψις is not just hardship but also an opportunity to witness to the gospel. Patient endurance under daily discomfort and pressure, proclaims the gospel, then and now as well.
Questions for Reflection
How have you experienced the good news or proclaimed it during this time of unrelenting pressure?
Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
The verb μετανοέω (metanoeō) is composed of two parts: the prepositional prefix meta (with, after) and the verb noeō (to perceive, think). It thus underscores the way that “changing one’s mind” is an act of “rethinking” or “thinking again.” Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Euthydemus (279c), remarks that he has “changed his mind (metanoeō) once more (au) again (palin),” piling up adverbs that further stress an ongoing process of reconsideration, rethinking, and reassessing.
“When were you saved, Pastor?” I have known Christians who have the specific date of when they were saved: a moment when they confessed their sins and accepted Jesus into their hearts. I suppose I could say that I was saved early in January of 1987 when my family had me baptized, or I could say I was saved last night when I took a long hard look at my growing list of resentments and hurts and asked God to forgive my selfish self and remind me how to love (again).
John calls repeatedly for the churches to repent, μετανοέω: to change their hearts and reorient their lives toward Jesus. But let’s remember, this isn’t the first time the members of these churches experienced a change of heart. When they first heard the gospel and accepted Jesus as Lord, their hearts were changed and they experienced repentance and salvation. And yet, John sees them in their struggles and urges them to repent once again.
What John’s repeated calls for repentance show us is that God is constantly breaking into our hearts and reorienting our lives. Salvation is an ongoing process and repentance is best learned through repetition.
Questions for reflection
When have you had to practice repentance over the last several months?
Revelation 2:4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
Compared to other Greek words for love (philia, erōs), agapē doesn’t show up much in Classical Greek literature - it is very much a word that becomes prominent in the New Testament. Yet its earlier uses imply a mix of affection, devotion, and action comparable to what we see in Christian texts. In Euripides’ play The Suppliants, for example, a messenger (angelos!) describes how the Athenian king Theseus “tends lovingly” (agapaō, verbal form of agapē) for those who have died in battle (line 764).
It has been a hard year for love of all varieties. Dating in the era of COVID-19 is even more awkward and complicated than before. We are unable to express love for friends and family in the usual ways. Add to that, in this season of isolation, frustration, and strong feelings about what is right, wrong, and essential, it is hard to remember that we love each other at all.
For the Christians addressed in Revelation and us as well, love is at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus. In Jesus we experience a love that transforms. This love, agape, is more than a feeling of warmth or fondness. It is demonstrated not just through emotion, but in the active care for one another. Care that is demonstrated when we do things like forgo family gatherings to keep those who are vulnerable safe, wear masks because we want to make our community safe for everyone, and speak up for justice so that everyone is able to live and love one another in peace. For Christians, love is expressed through actions. And sure, when we are tired and discouraged it is easy to forget that sort of love. But even when we are unlovable and unloving we remain beloved to God. Consider yourself reminded; you are loved and you are capable of loving others.
Questions For Reflection
How have you practiced love in the past few weeks? When has someone shown love to you?
“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”
The word ἄγγελος (angelos) means “messenger” in Greek, before it comes to mean “angel” in the sense of a semi-divine/non-human messenger of God. Messengers (angeloi) are stock characters in Greek tragedy, where they generally report the dramatic, grisly, and often upsetting events that have occurred “offstage.” They thus play a crucial dramatic role, despite the fact that they often go unnamed and possess very little power or authority within the world of the play itself. The messenger of Sophocles’ Antigone is a particularly interesting case: he’s a somewhat comic figure, marked by cowardice and indecision, yet occasionally capable of manipulating and redirecting the powerful tyrant Creon. He’s no “angel” in the Christian sense, yet he’s an important and complex figure who speaks words of great significance.
A messenger can be good or bad, the bearer of glad tidings or horrific tragedy. In scripture, messengers can be human, such as John the Baptist (Matt. 11:10), or supernatural such as the angels of the seven churches in Revelation. Regardless of whether they have wings or not, messengers carry information from one setting into another. In Revelation 2 and 3, the angels of the churches receive information from the Lord to communicate to their respective earthly communities.
Messengers, earthly or otherwise, exist because we cannot be everywhere at once or know everything as it happens. When it comes to Revelation, that is especially true. The churches know that they are struggling, but not the full reason why. In Revelation John informs them that their struggles have underlying causes that are not of this world. The turmoil of the heavens is felt through human suffering.
Perhaps our holiday tendency to decorate our homes with sparkling angels bearing sweet smiles and beautiful wings is a reflection of our own limitations. There is more to this world than we know. Unforseen events occurring “offstage” impact our lives in unexpected ways. Even so, angels give us hints of hope and words of encouragement. We don’t need to know everything to persist in following Jesus.
Questions for Reflection
When have you been an angel: communicating new information to an individual or group? What was it like? Was the news good or bad? What about the experience sticks out for you?
Revelation 2: 1-2
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. 3 I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.
Classical Insight: In earlier Greek literature, we sometimes find this word (in its verbal form, ὑπομένω / hupomenō) in martial contexts, meaning to “stand one’s ground, to stand firm.” In the Iliad, for example, the poet describes how the “Argives (= the Greeks) stood firm, all together, and were not afraid” (Ἀργεῖοι δ᾽ ὑπέμειναν ἀολλέες οὐδὲ φόβηθεν, Homer, Iliad 5.498).
Devotion: Seeing as ὑπομονή shows up both in Revelation, a book where war breaks out in heaven and on earth and makes an appearance in the Iliad where war breaks out in heaven and on earth, one would expect the early church to be more warlike. The prophet John commends the church of Ephesus for its ὑπομονή, its patient endurance, the fact that these Christians are standing their ground. But what does that mean? Certainly, none of these churches are handing out swords and going to war. Whatever conflicts rage in the heavens, for the Christians addressed in Revelation, standing their ground meant, as my beloved Oma used to say “putting one foot in front of the other.” They are to continue following Jesus even when such discipleship is inconvenient or dangerous. For the churches named in Revelation, persecution could be anything from trial, to prison, to economic hardship, and cultural isolation. All these things must be endured and in being endured, the gospel of a God who also endures hardship in Christ Jesus is proclaimed. To endure, to get up day after day and put on Christ for one another, is how we follow Jesus, then and now.
Questions: What are examples of patient endurance from your own life? How can the church practice patient endurance in such times as these?
One of the lesser appreciated parts of Advent is the eschatological anticipation. What I mean is, even as the season looks forward to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, it also anticipates Jesus' arrival, his advent, in the here and now.
When it comes to the glory of God being revealed or "uncovered" in our own reality, the word we use is apocalypse, ἀποκάλυψις in Greek. And when we want to get a good dose of apocalypse we go to the Book of Revelation, which is actually a translation of the word apocalypse.
In Revelation we are treated to cosmic battles, demonic dragons, and visions of both utter destruction and transformative renewal. There is life, there is death, and there are demon locusts!
Yet, even as the Prophet John describes the unmaking of the entire universe, he has a particular group of people in mind, a specific set of congregations: seven churches located in what is now eastern Turkey. John wrote to these churches because they were in the midst of their own 2020 moment.
For these congregations keeping the faith of Jesus could be dangerous, leading to arrest and trial. Keeping the faith could also be exhaustingly inconvenient, resulting in economic hardship and cultural isolation. The churches were growing weary and discouraged. Being church was no longer a life giving, soul restoring experience for them, it was just plain difficult.
In Revelation, John uncovers for these churches the bigger, dare I say cosmic, picture. But before he begins to paint his vision of demonic tribulation and celestial glory, John addresses each of the churches, offering them encouragement and admonishment. These addresses all share a similar outline and a number of words show up again and again. Quite clever words, indeed.
Since we too find ourselves in days of tribulation and isolation, the Liturgisaur will be examining a number of the words that show up in the first three chapters of Revelation. On the Tuesdays and Thursdays in Advent this blog will have a new post about a different apocalyptic word accompanied by a devotion.
I hope you will be able to use these reflections as a spiritual resource as we enter into this season of hope and anticipation.
Pastor Emily and the Liturgisaur
Scripture gives us little information about the retirement of Mary the mother of Jesus. By retirement, I mean her life and work after the resurrection of Christ. In my particular context as pastor at Christ the King Lutheran, retirees are a potent force in the church and larger community. Many of CTK’s members claim to be more active in their retirement than they were before. I agree with them. Retirees get things done. I believe that the same was true for Mary. Our last glimpse of her in scripture is the mention of her in Acts, where she is among the faithful awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
Just as Mary mothered Jesus through his terrible twos, contrary adolescence, and into adulthood, she is among those nurturing and tending the young church.
While scripture has little else to say about Mary’s retirement, Christian tradition offers us additional stories about Mary’s adventures following the resurrection. In fact, there is such a rich store of extra-biblical legends about Mary that they sometimes bump against each other. There are multiple sites which all claim to be the location of Mary’s last decades of life, her death, and her bodily assumption into heaven: two in Jerusalem, one in France, and one on a mountain near Ephesus, Turkey. As pilgrims we visited this last location: the House of the Virgin Mary located at the top of Mt. Koressos.
Whether Mary spent her retirement in Jerusalem, France, or on top of a mountain in Turkey is anyone’s guess. What matters is the tradition of adoption that inspired Anne Katherine Emmerich to dream Mary all the way to Turkey. “Woman, here is your son…here is your mother”.
Even before the Holy Spirit was tearing through Jerusalem setting everyone’s hair on fire, the church has been about creating family in the face of loss. At the foot of the cross, John was there for Mary to cling to as her son hung in agony. Mary was there for John weep with as he watched his friend dying by inches. Jesus saw this sharing of pain and sanctified it from the cross: “Woman, here is your son.”
The House of the Virgin Mary honors this kind of love, the love of people who have been placed, drawn, or even thrown together, and are richer for it. For instance, Mary’s House is a unique holy site in that it is visited and cared for by both Christians and Muslims, since both faiths honor Mary.
You see as pilgrims, bus-mates, and friends, we, my parents, my roommate, all of us on this trip, are bound to each other, commended to each other as Mary and John were commended to each other. Placed, drawn, and even thrown together we are richer for each other. The care and kindness we offer each other is more than mere courtesy. It is the same kind of love Christ sanctified from the cross and the same love which is honored at Mary’s house: the love of people who have adopted one another in the name of Jesus and in honor of his mother.
Ancient Corinth is dominated by the Temple to Apollo which sits above the town center. Below sprawl the remains of shops, colonnades, and even the bema, or speaking platform, where the Apostle Paul was once accused before the proconsul Gallio.
Paul was a resident of Corinth for some time. He worked in the city as tentmaker alongside fellow believers Aquila and Priscilla. He spent time in the local synagogue, going there regularly. The spirit of God even urges Paul to continue to stay in Corinth, sharing the gospel of Jesus. For a time, a year and more, Corinth is home to Paul.
And Corinth like any city, town, or village was a chaotic mixture of sin, grace, and redemption. Paul’s words were heard by many: sailors just in from the sea, prostitutes plying their trade, Jews, God Fearers of various backgrounds, Roman officials, Greeks, and soldiers.
As Paul walked through this town, now little more than rocks with a history, he encountered humans at their best and their worst. Beggars extended their hands to him, Roman soldiers shoved past him, prostitutes beckoned him, slaves hustled by, and Believers, coming from any and all of these groups, greeted him with thanksgiving.
Just as God planted Paul in Corinth for a time, God plants us too and bids us flourish for the sake of the Gospel. We may also have misgivings about the place of our planting. Perhaps it is somewhere that disappoints us or frightens us. Maybe the place of our planting is not what it used to be or should be. Whatever the place of our planting, God is the one who put us there and God is the one who puts us to work enriching and renewing a tired, cynical, and despairing world.
Rarely is the place of our planting what it should be, but that is the very reason that God plants us there. We are not spectators to the coming kingdom of God, we are involved, rooted in God’s saving work.
Paul’s time in Corinth shows us what it is to claim the place of our planting. Jesus’ life on earth does the same. We are invited to love the soil where God has placed us, care for the people growing up around us, and claim the community God has given us to tend. This community will not be perfect. It may even be a place of disappointment, frustration, and discouragement. However, we have the assurance that this will not always be so. God is at work renewing and recreating our world and we are involved: in our homes, in our towns, in the places of our planting.
About the Blog
In this season of plague, flood, fire, hungry cats, and Advent, we invite you to reflect on the words (such clever words!) of the Prophet John in the book of Revelation.
Perhaps you have encountered the #Liturgisaur on Instagram or Facebook. He is a small, green, pants wearing, one armed dinosaur who makes the rounds in Gladwin County and beyond, highlighting the various ministries of Christ the King Lutheran Church.