But I have also added a photo of Patmos to the left because I want those "traveling with me" to remember this is a real place you can still go visit. You can get on a plane and go there. Context matters. It may also help to take a look at a modern-day map of Turkey, as a reminder that this journey is not simply back in time to "Bible-land" as a kind of Narnia you get to in your imagination, through the wardrobe! I've traveled to the Holy Land three times now and each time I have this keen awareness that you aren't traveling "back in time" - but rather, as Faulkner put it, the past is never really past. So notice Greece and to the west of Greece is Italy. Notice Syria, and Lebanon - both in the news. There is a particular culture and time in which John has this vision.
As to time? Most people think it was written during the time of Emperor Domitian which puts it between 81-96 CE. The thing is that it was not so much a time of systematic persecution of Christians, but it was a challenging time politically. If this date is right it is almost as if John is saying, "be the Church! If you are really the Church, if you live out your faith - it's going to get you into trouble! But don't be afraid to do that - it's what you are called to!"
In my work with congregations I'm often called to spend time with vestries (aka leadership councils) and one of the things I do regularly is called a Mutual Ministry Review. I ask them three basic questions in the simplest form: what is going well? what are the challenges? where might God be leading you to make some changes?
I didn't think this up, but it's interesting when I read the second and third chapters of vision that John is doing something similar. You could compare and contrast the seven churches but you could also imagine them as one body, in that region - not unlike a "diocese" perhaps. This is early on; they don't have buildings. They are young church plants; house churches. Even so they have been at it a while and there are things they do well, challenges, and perhaps some next steps. If you think of these chapters as an MMR, note the responses (at least as John sees things - he does not seem to have asked them!)
Strengths? They are hard working. They are patient. They have endured and held fast even though difficult times. They show love and faith and service.
Challenges? They've sometimes abandoned love. They've embraced some false teachings. They seem to be dead. One congregation in particular is "neither hot nor cold" but kind of like warm spit.
Next Steps? Get your act together! Turn around (aka "repent.") Wake up! Be the Church - be what you were called to be - be faithful!
And then this wonderful image. If this really was an MMR, this would surely be offered by the little old lady who has been running the altar guild for decades who hasn't yet said a thing and we've been at this for an hour now. She's just been listening carefully and taking it all in and letting the extroverts say their thing. But you know when she finally opens her mouth it will be to say something really, really important. So naturally she is the one who says:
You know, Jesus is at the door knocking! He wants to come in to our church! I can almost hear him knocking and saying, "let me in! I want to be with you! I want to be present in the Eucharist and at coffee hour too." I think we just need to open the door and let Jesus in! (See Revelation 3:20)In any case, like all congregations, they are "a work in progress." They are in danger of becoming a zombie church, however, as Michael Battle puts it - a church of the walking dead. The clarion call is to be an alive, hopeful church. While it's on a different Biblical text, I think of Dr. King's sermon, A Knock at Midnight as deeply relevant here. Whether in the first century, or in the middle of the twentieth century or now in the early decades of the twenty-first, the church is called to wake up and to be the Church by letting Christ in.
Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.