Back in 1996 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of New Philadelphia. I took a text I would like to revisit today. It is one of seven letters to seven churches found in the Revelation of St. John the Divine. I want to bounce off this text, but before I do, I want to be completely honest before it, as we seek to discover what the original writer sought to say to the original reader.
First, it is worth noting that the letter was addressed not “to the church at Philadelphia,” but to “the angel of the church at Philadelphia.”
A church is made up of its members in a particular time and a particular place; but a church is “something more” than the sum total of its members. The phrase “the angel of the church” invites us to stop and consider that “something more.” After considerable study of this language, which echoes the language of the ancient Jews about the “angel of the nations,” I believe that the angel of the church stands for the church as a power. It stands for all the members of the church past, present, and future, and for their shared centers of value and power, including their traditions and teachings, etc. When we recently studied the principalities and powers in the New Testament, we concluded with several notable teachers of the church that the powers include “all nations, all governments, all corporations, all institutions (including all churches), all ideologies, all traditions, all symbols, all idols and the like.” According to Colossians 1:15-20, the powers were created in Christ. However, the powers exist in a sin-filled and dominated world. Thus like all powers, the individual church can be good or bad. In this regard we need to remember the warning of Reinhold Niebuhr who said that there is no guarantee that a collection of moral individuals will produce a moral society. Let me illustrate: I knew a pastor who accepted a call to a small church, several hundred members, at most. After a couple of months, he had visited in every home. One day he said to himself, “It is funny, every single member of this church is a nice person, there is not a bad apple in the barrel, I like these folks; but “the corporate personality” of this church stinks, and it is dragging us down.” Perhaps “the angel” of that pastor’s church was in danger of becoming a fallen angel?
This was not so in the case of the church at Philadelphia. The angel of the church at Philadelphia was a good one, and the church still had a future and a hope.
Likewise, I think the angel of the church at New Philadelphia is a good one. We have a healthy corporate personality. I can testify to 28 years of peace, love, and service; and some of you can double that witness. As a church, we have made some mistakes, but we have moved, and are moving beyond them. Likewise, though our decisions have not always been timely, they have been well thought out and fair. The major criticism I would lodge against our life together—and this weighs heavily upon me, is that we have sometimes settled for the good when we ought to have been pressing on toward better and striving for the best. Like my mother used to say, “Good, better, best, never let it rest until the good is better and the better is best.”
Second, it is worth taking note of the one who dictated the letter.
In verse 7 he identifies himself as the Holy One the True One. He has the key of David, that is, he has the key to Kingdom that God promised King David. He is Great David’s Greater Son. In Hebrew he is called “The Messiah.” In Greek he is called “The Christ.” In English he is called “The Anointed One, the King of kings, and the LORD of lords.” He was crucified, dead, and buried, but on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. He has received the promised Holy Spirit, and poured out his Spirit upon the church that he might be with us to guide and empower us. That is what he is getting at when he says that he has the power to open doors than no one can shut, and shut doors that no one can open. When God’s Christ decrees a thing, that thing comes to pass, and no amount of resistance can prevent it. When God’s Christ denies a thing, that thing is denied, and no amount of labor can accomplish it.
Third it is worth taking note that though there were seven letters to seven churches, the letter to the church at Philadelphia was the only complimentary letter, and it was barely complimentary. In verse 8 the Risen Christ declares:
“‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut; I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
The church at Philadelphia has something to be sorry for: they “have but little power.” Power is the ability to accomplish work and get things done. The church at Philadelphia has but little power because and they have never done all that they might have done. They have something to regret, but they also something to celebrate: They have kept the word of Jesus, and they have not denied his name. Let’s break that down. In John 13:34 Jesus says:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Five times in the gospel of John, Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another.” Five times in the three epistles of John we are told to “love one another. “ This command is assumed in the Revelation of St. John the Divine, and it is picked up verbatim and repeated by both Peter (1st Peter 1:22) and Paul (Romans 12:10; Romans 13:8).
This commandment is easy, because there are some people who are easy to love. I never saw a child who was unloveable, and those who maintain even the smallest fraction of a childlike spirit are easy to love. It is small wonder that Jesus said we have to turn and become like children to enter into the kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3).
The commandment is hard because there are some people in this world who are hard to love, because they themselves are unlovely and unloving. Just this week I read that children have to be taught prejudice. The author went on to say that there are plenty of adults around who want to teach them. Some people are hard to love and we cannot easily love them, but “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)
I am not talking about love as a warm fuzzy. Real love is not an emotion. Real love is a choice and an action. St. Paul makes this clear in 1st Corinthians 13. He says:
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends;
In his novel, “Love Story,” Erich Segal wrote, “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” That is a beautiful sentiment, but it is simply not so. There is too much human in our being. Eventually we all fail at love, and when we fail, love compels us to say we are sorry. Conversely, eventually, some people will fail to show us the consideration and love we would like to have. Most of them will regret it, and they will apologize if we give them time. Love compels us to accept their apology, for as we read in 1st Corinthians 13:5 GNT/TEV, “love does not keep a record of wrongs.” In Matthew 18, Peter asked Jesus how many times we ought to forgive our brothers and sisters. He suggested that seven is about right, because Jews regard seven as the number of perfection. Jesus said, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” Real forgiveness is unlimited because real forgiveness is rooted in love, and love is unlimited. In fact, love is an expansive force, the more we give away, the more we have.
The church at Philadelphia kept the word of Jesus to love one another, and they did not deny his name. This means that when they were threatened they continued to call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. This took courage. In the time of the Revelation, Christians faced dungeon, fire, and sword. They were hacked to pieces and sawn asunder. They were bear bait and lion food, for Christians often provided the citizens of Rome with sport. Today, things are different. It is rare that we who live in America are asked to suffer for our faith. Of course, from time to time we are forced to think about how we might respond if our lives were challenged. Just a few weeks after the death of Osama Bin Laden I rode a tram through the streets of Paris that was filled with Muslims. They showed me no unkindness, and I believe that most Muslims are a loving, accepting people. That said, I was more than a little anxious, and I found myself wondering what my fellow passengers were thinking about the American tourist in their midst. More than that, I wondered what I would do if I was called upon to face the ultimate challenge. Would I have the courage of the Christian martyrs which are mentioned in Revelation? (Revelation 12:11) In the age or terror, you and I might have to someday answer this question. An African American congregation in Charleston suffered much for their faith, and the hands of a bigot. More likely, we will have to answer it in a different way. The name of Jesus stands for his person. When we deny the name we deny the person. Conversely, when we deny the person we deny the name. According to Matthew 25 the day is coming when the nations will stand before the Son of Man, and he will say:
“If you fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger, and visited those who were sick or in prison, then, in as much as you did it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it unto me. If you did not, then, in as much as you did it not unto the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it not to me.”
The church at Philadelphia had but little power. They did not do all the good they might have done, but they kept the word of Jesus and they did not deny his name.
Fourth, it is worth taking note that the church at Philadelphia was promised a reward for its endurance. They are promised a crown and more besides.
In verses 10 to 13 Jesus speaks to the angel of the church at Philadelphia saying:
10 Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth. 11 I am coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
Jesus calls upon the Christians at Philadelphia to endure to receive a reward, and the reward is both substantial and eternal. The word “endure” may be one of the most important words in Scripture. The message of endurance is a recurring theme. Endure. Hold Fast. Don’t give up. Don’t quit. Jesus, says, I am coming soon, hold on just a little longer, and I will be there to help you and reward you.
Dr. Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision International had a famous sermon entitled, “God Room.” The gist of the sermon went like this. Most of us who call ourselves Christians take up some task that we believe to be from God. Then we go and work at it for a little while, and when it does not yield the results we had hoped for in a timely fashion, we go back to God and say,” God, this is not working out as I had hoped. It has cost me more than I imagined. Don’t you have another task for me; one that is better suited to me and to my gifts?” He said that, all too often, whether we get God’s o.k. or not, we do not endure, or hold fast, or hang on. Instead, we move on, we abdicate, we quit. Pierce said it is a shame when we quit just as we reach what we believe to be the end of our resources, or it is only when we have come to the end of our resources that we have entered what he calls “God room.” He says God room is the place where only God can work, and when God starts to work, watch out! For the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, and the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men (1st Corinthians 1:25); and, we might have little power, but God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. (2nd Corinthians 12:9)
The late “Miss Sally” Reed who used to be head of nursing at old city hospital once said to me, “Worth, when you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot, and hold on, for God is coming to help you.” That is precisely what the Spirit said to the church at Philadelphia, and that is what the Spirit says to the church at New Philadelphia.
On the occasion of our 150th Anniversary, having delt honestly as I could with the text itself, I bounced off the text, and I was bold to tell the church at New Philadelphia that God had set before us an open door which no one can shut. I said the only thing we had to do was endure, hold fast, hang on, and continue to work at the tasks that God had set before us until the Spirit of Christ arrived with reinforcements. I then noted the number of assets we had. This morning, I would like to speak to those assets then and now.
First, I noted our location. Real estate agents say that when you buy a house there are only three things to consider. Location. Location. Location. In 1996, our location was a good one. It must still be a good one, because we now have many new churches in our geographical areas, and several new churches have opened within a mile of us. Secondly, I noted our campus. In 1996 we had a great physical plant, and it is better today. Today we have added a magnificent fellowship hall, we have made many other improvements; and we have money in the bank. Many congregations would envy our resources. That said, I remember how Jesus said, “to whom much is given much is required.” (Luke 12:48) Third, I noted our congregation. In 1996 we worshiped just under 400. I said more were coming, and you did. We went on to worship more than five hundred for over a decade. Today, we are again worshiping just under 400. Of course, today, things are very different. We are an older church in an older city. On the one hand, a number of our hardest workers of 1996 have been promoted to the higher service of the Lord, and we have sent several hundred of our young people off to college and into careers. Many of them have moved to other cities and to other churches. On the other hand we have assets we did not have in 1996. We have each and every one of you, many of whom were not here in 1996, and all of you together can make the difference. I am not saying that it will be easy for us to climb the next peak. I am saying it is possible because with God all things are possible! I am so positive about this, that I wish I was just arriving as your pastor. That brings me to a fourth point. We have a strong and dedicated staff. Of course, that staff is changing,so let me speak about some of the changes. First, Christy Clore. Christy has revitalized our Sunday School, and our Bible School, and she works closely with our preschool. We may not have the quantity we once had, but we have quality. I wish we could keep Christy forever. The truth is that we will not. It was not long after we had begun our search for a new associate pastor that Christy let our board of Elders know, as she may have let you know, that she would like the opportunity to serve as the pastor in a church of her own. Christy wants to preach and lead worship regularly, and she wants to bear the primary responsibility of caring for a congregation. I am sure that day is coming for her, and it may come sooner rather than later. It will be sad for us when she leaves. However, we can be glad that Christy continues to do everything she can to make our Christian Education program something that will excite anyone who follows her. At present she is working to recast our Christian Education Program to meet the needs of the immediate future. Second, Joe Moore. Joe will be installed as our associate pastor on October 9th, and I think you will find that he will brings wonderful gifts to our church, not just gifts for preaching, and teaching, and caring, but also the gift of administration. As you know, we can really use his help there.
People have asked if Joe is to be my replacement. He is not. That is not the Moravian Way. When I leave, you will be urged by the Provincial Elders Conference (PEC) to hire an interim pastor, someone like Joel Long, whom many of you will remember. This interim pastor will help the church to move beyond the habits of my long pastorate, and when he or she has finished that work, with the assistance of the PEC you will call a new senior pastor, and he or she will lead you to new heights. Now, I don’t know when this process will start. I am not yet ready to quit. I don’t have a done by date. I will promise only this. I will stay as long as I believe God wants me to stay; and, at the same time, I will leave when you are ready for me to leave. I believe we will all recognize that time. Just this week one of the elders said to me, “Worth, it is not about you; it is about us.” That is absolutely right, and I believe that God is concerned for us, each of us, both individually and collectively.
In 1996 I told the New Philadelphia congregation that God had set before us open door that no one can shut. In 1996 I said that all we had to do was to keep the faith, and keep the door open, and people out there would walk through it, and they did. Twenty years later, I say to you that God continues to set before us an open door. Of course, now, more than ever, we all realize that the door opens not just inward, but also outward, and if people are to continue to walk through the door, we must go out there, and bring them in.
This, I think, is the Word of the Lord. This is what the Spirit is saying to not just to us, but to the churches. And in the months ahead, you are going to be hearing a lot about it.