An Old / New Story

Revelation 3:7-13 (The Message)

Write this to Philadelphia, to the Angel of the church. The Holy, the True—David’s key in his hand, opening doors no one can lock, locking doors no one can open—speaks: “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut. You don’t have much strength, I know that; you used what you had to keep my Word. You didn’t deny me when times were rough. “And watch as I take those who call themselves true believers but are nothing of the kind, pretenders whose true membership is in the club of Satan—watch as I strip off their pretensions and they’re forced to acknowledge it’s you that I’ve loved. “Because you kept my Word in passionate patience, I’ll keep you safe in the time of testing that will be here soon, and all over the earth, every man, woman, and child put to the test. “I’m on my way; I’ll be there soon. Keep a tight grip on what you have so no one distracts you and steals your crown. “I’ll make each conqueror a pillar in the sanctuary of my God, a permanent position of honor. Then I’ll write names on you, the pillars: the Name of my God, the Name of God’s City—the new Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven—and my new Name. “Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.”

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I'm always amazed at how the author of Revelation could have known that Christianity would make its way to North America and that it would be at a church in Philadelphia where an angel of God would carry a message containing words of encouragement and blessing. I'll admit that I'm a little disappointed at the same time because if the author had that much foresight, I would imagine that they could have written the name of the church in Philadelphia… Perhaps it was a Presbyterian church, but we'll never know.

I don't wanna get too carried away, so I'll let you know that I'm having a little fun here this morning… I understand that the Philadelphia named in this mornings reading is not referring to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but is instead referring to a city that is located in what is today known as Turkey. Perhaps though it is fitting  to mention that the name for both of these cities, Philadelphia, comes from the Greek language, which translates to English as, "The City of Brotherly Love."

It's vital that  before we dive too deep into the passage that we acknowledge Philadelphia as, "The City of Brotherly Love," because it sets the background for how we are to understand the "passionate patience" or the "steadfast love for God," that the church in Philadelphia maintained through some pretty challenging and tough times. But what does it mean to live a life, to live in a community, that embodies a spirit of "brotherly love?" I doubt that we can all relate to what it means to possess and express brotherly love, so let's take a moment to unpack it.

The Greek language has many different words for love… You've probably heard agape before, which refers to one of the highest forms of love, which has sometimes been translated as meaning charity. You have eros, which is used to describe a love that is passionate or romantic. And then in today's reading we find philos, which can mean love or friendship, paired with adelphos, which means brother.

We might be tempted to think that "brotherly love," is less meaningful than that of agape or eros, and if we went down that path, I would say that we are sorely mistaken. Because what we find is that it is in that community of friendship, or partnering with one another, that we come across the place where God calls us to be a part of and go. We are reminded of this in other parts of Scripture as well such as, John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." Imagine having a love like that for everyone and for God?

The brotherly love that the church in Philadelphia had for God is one that reflects a story that is both old and new. Old in the sense that most stories about love have common themes to ones that we have today and unique in the sense that the settings in which those stories take place has changed from the original stories. The church in Philadelphia had "passionate patience," a "steadfast love for God," even when the world around them made it seem impossible to maintain such a faith. It makes me wonder how the church in Philadelphia remained faithful in their identity as being claimed by God. It makes me wonder how their story plays out in our world today.

I think the key lies in the phrase that I have mentioned already this morning… The author of this passage says the church in Philadelphia is having "passionate patience." I'd note as well that some other translations include the phrase "steadfast love." And these two things are essential because when we think about patience and about being steadfast, we don't usually associate these words with action or intensity. It would probably be fair to say that when we talk about patience and being steadfast, we would relate them to words like static, unchanging, or immovable.

But when we tie these words with the idea of "brotherly love," we discover that the church in Philadelphia's love for God was patient and steadfast, because it was living, breathing, and changing. Their love of God didn't change, but it was their expression of that love that changed. It was this evolving expression of love that drove their desire to behold onto the promises of God and remain steadfast in a world that seemed very uncertain and chaotic. Just as there are many kinds of love, so too are there many forms of expressing love.

The story of the church in Philadelphia and the story of our church today is that we are meant to be connectional. We're called to love our neighbor, regardless of whether those neighbors respond by coming to church on Sunday morning, because if that is how we judge ourselves, then we've lost sight of what is essential! Loving people is a messy, dirty endeavor! We live with people who struggle with addiction, mental health issues, toxic relationships, and other deep pains that we might never know. We're not called to judge people's behavior; we're called to love them as God loves us simply. And that can be difficult because it means that we have to allow our hearts to be vulnerable, trusting that God will lead us.

We don't know much about the church in Philadelphia, besides what we find here in this passage this morning. But as I talked about how this story is one that is both old and new, we can quickly identify how we have heard this passage speak in our own lives. Like the church in Philadelphia, there are the voices that try to lead us astray or keep us down:

There are voices that say we aren’t good enough…

There are voices that say that our goals are foolish…

There are voices who say hateful things just because of our gender or skin color…

There are voices that echo with words of “What it?”

What are those voices that attempt to bring us down? These are voices that still haunt us today. They were voices that the church in Philadelphia heard and they are voices that we hear today. Can you identify them? Can you name where you have listened to them in your own life and where you have listened to them here in this community of faith?

But there are another series of voices that push back against the negativity that we find ourselves being bombarded with. Voices that call out with power louder than hate, louder than bullets, louder than the unjust powers of this world… But we have to listen to them. We have to look with passionate patience and steadfast love:

These are voices that remind us that we are beautifully and wonderfully made…

These are voices that bring light to the darkened corners of our lives…

These are voices that sings songs that pick up our weary and heavy laden souls…

These are voices that bring God’s peaceable kingdom into our midst…

Can you hear them? They’re the words of encouragement we offer to one another. They are how we show love and care that embodies Christ’s spirit. They are how we build ourselves, others, and the community around us up instead of tearing them down. Can you hear them? Or as the author of the passage would say, “Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.” Just as we have heard and remembered stories of old, there are stories being re-written as well that point us in a new direction of hope when we think there is no hope, love when we feel there is no love to be had, and courage when we feel as though our strength has been wiped away.

These past few days, I was away on a retreat for young ministry leaders who are in the Synod of the Northeast. It was a wonderful time for pastors, elders, deacons, and non-ordained members to be together in fellowship and worship. One of the things we talked about was who we understood ourselves to be and who God understood us to be. I find it hard to show the kind of brotherly love that the Bible talks about when I’ve lost sight of who I am in a relationship with God. We all have a story like that, an account where we have lost sight of who we were in relation with God. We all have a story that we can tell about ourselves and about the communities of which we are apart.   They are stories that challenge us to envision something that exists beyond ourselves.

Like all stories, there was a time when they were still being written, and the same is true for the ongoing story of our lives and of our church. The door hasn’t been closed as we are reminded in the reading, “I see what you’ve done. Now see what I’ve done. I’ve opened a door before you that no one can slam shut.” The door is open, the opportunities are there before us. What will be our decision?… will we go out that door, will we dare or will we stay inside and fall back on what we think is safe, secure and end up losing the very thing we tried to hold onto? The church in Philadelphia didn’t have it easy… The church in Philadelphia embraced the opportunities it had, and boldly went through the doors God opened because they had faith that they were called to something that went far beyond anything they could have imagined.

As we go forward, we will have time to reimagine what our own love for God looks like. Perhaps we will rekindle the fire of our spirit to pursue the gifts and talents that God has given to us. Maybe we will take risks and dare to dream big all for the sake of being faithful stewards and true believers of ourselves and of God. The church in Philadelphia didn’t remain faithful to God by playing it safe, they didn’t manage to persevere by taking the easy or familiar route. No instead the church of Philadelphia most likely had to adapt, had to change, and had to be creative in how they manifested their love for God.

Chapters are still being written… sections about you, me, the Church, this church, Watertown, and all other things you could possibly name. The countless possibilities that wait for us are only limited by ourselves. Will we take “passionate patience” and “steadfast love” to mean that we are immovable? Or will we go boldly into the unknown with the faith that our creativity and love will carry us through whatever lies ahead? Because that is an old/new story, I would like to read. Amen.