The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 9/29/96

Text: Rev. 2:1-7 (John 13:34-35)

I have a story for you this morning about a man named Antisthenes, a good church member, a good officer, a genuinely committed Christian...a man who went wrong. It is a story that is played out all over the world day after day...a tale that is as old as Christian history, but as current as tomorrow's newspaper.

Antisthenes' story is set almost 2,000 years ago in what was then the most important city in Asia Minor - Ephesus. It was a city that lent itself to every opportunity. It was a major seaport. It was a city through which all sorts of traffic passed. Ephesus was called "the market of Asia." There was a degree of political freedom there, despite the fact that the whole world at the time was under the domination of Rome. Ephesus was one of those rare "free" cities - self-governing within its own limits; the citizens were not even forced to garrison Roman troops. But Antisthenes did not care too much about politics. As long as he was able to conduct his affairs without too much interference, he was content to "go along to get along."

Actually, what consumed most of Antisthenes' energy was his religion. In a way, that might not be thought of as unusual because most of the rest of the people of Ephesus were right religious as their own way. The city was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of the goddess Diana where many people chose to worship...but not Antisthenes.

Of course, Ephesus also had a temple to the goddess Roma - after all, the emperor claimed that he was directly descended from the gods and was worthy of public veneration. Most folks did not seem to mind that. After all, the emperor did not say that he was the ONLY one to be worshiped. If people came and paid him the proper respect once a year, they were free to serve any god they chose all the rest of the time. But Antisthenes could not even go along with THAT.

You see, something special had happened to him. A friend of his had invited him to come and meet a man from Jerusalem, a man named Paul. Antisthenes had gone to his friend's home and heard Paul speak. This traveler had come with a message of hope and joy and forgiveness of sin, a message of love.

Paul had said that the God of heaven, the God above ALL gods - above Diana, above the emperor - had come to earth in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus had taught that real religion was not just ritual but proper relationships between people and their neighbors, between people and God. It was a message that made sense. But what Jesus had had to say had offended the religious hierarchy of his day - it threatened their powerful position among the people. In fact, they felt SO threatened that they arranged to have Jesus murdered. But the grave could not hold him, Paul said. After three days in a tomb, Jesus arose, victorious over not only those who hated him but even victorious over death itself. Finally, Jesus returned to heaven where he reigns once again over all the earth.

Antisthenes was impressed. But the message did not stop there. Paul said that same victory was now available to anyone who would want it. People no longer needed priests or temples or sacrifices to earn favor with God, to be forgiven of their sins. The final sacrifice had already been made - Jesus on the cross. And now salvation was offered as a free gift of God's grace to all who believed.

Antisthenes believed, and he became a Christian. He became a part of that small band of loving folks who affirmed "Jesus is Lord," not Caesar or Diana.

Paul stayed on in Ephesus for about three years. It was a special time for Antisthenes and his new-found friends. They spent hour upon hour listening to the apostle teach and preach. They saw miracles of healing. They even saw people bring handkerchiefs and aprons for the apostle to touch hoping that their sick friends and relatives might be cured of their ailments by contact with them.

That probably could have been anticipated. Truth be known, the most important religion of Antisthenes' home town was superstition. Ephesus was particularly famous for what were called "Ephesian Letters," amulets and charms which were supposed to be infallible remedies for just about anything. Our friend had about the normal amount of superstition in him (as we all do), but it did not control his life. No, Antisthenes was now a Christian.

To be sure, that fact did occasionally cause some difficulty in the city. There was the time when the silversmith Demetrius accused Paul of destroying his trade in little shrines to Diana. Too many people were becoming Christians; that meant not enough were interested in the goddess, at least not as many as before. Paul barely escaped being thrown to the lions. It took the intervention of public officials to get him out of that one.

Those were special years for Antisthenes and his friends. But, all good things must come to an end. Finally, it was time for Paul to leave. He had other churches to see, other cities in which to preach.

The apostle did eventually get back by Ephesus some time later. His ship had put in at the port of Miletus about 30 miles to the south of Antisthenes' hometown. So Paul took the opportunity to send for the elders of the Ephesian church for a brief reunion. By this time, that select group had come to include our friend, so he and the others went down to the ship to say goodbye to their mentor.

In many eyes there were unshed tears. It was an emotional meeting - this was the last time they would see one another. Paul too was emotional. His parting words to his friends were full of heart-felt warning about those who would come later to teach and preach in their church. Paul wanted them to be careful about what doctrines they listened to, about what teachings they would take to heart. He said, "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert..." (Acts 20:29ff.). They ended their reunion on their knees in prayer. Then Antisthenes and the other elders slowly left.

The little band talked together as they made their way back to Ephesus. What could Paul have meant about "fierce wolves" and people in their own church speaking "perverse things?" They were not quite sure what to make of it at that moment, but in time they would learn.

The church in Ephesus continued to grow. Under Paul's preaching their numbers had expanded remarkably, and now that the apostle had passed on the mantle of leadership to a resident pastor, the growth continued. The gospel was being preached; the needy were being cared for. Just as in the church in Jerusalem, no one felt that he or she was being taken advantage of when asked to give of time or talent or treasure. They were in this magnificent adventure together. It was one big, happy family.

But that was a while ago...some years, in fact. Oh, the church had continued to grow. People saw the great work that Christians did to provide for one another and for those who had special needs. They heard the good news of forgiveness in Jesus. There were opportunities for worship and learning. And more and more wanted to be a part of it. And for a while that was fine. True, there were some folks becoming a part of the church family who were a little different, folks with whom decent people might not normally plan on associating - thieves, drunkards, prostitutes. But they had been saved from their lives of sin by the power of the gospel; they had been won to new lives in Christ under the influence of the church. Now, they too were in the family, brothers and sisters to Antisthenes and the others.

To be painfully honest, though, the Ephesian church had stopped feeling like much of a family. Through the years there had been some strange teachings which had gotten loose among them that caused problems. There were some who had come under the influence of teachers who taught that since Jesus was born a Jew and had lived life as a Jew, all Christians now had to observe Jewish ritual. There was some division because of that. There were some called the Nicolaitans who came saying, "Look, why not go ahead and make that annual trip to the Goddess Roma's temple and say `Caesar is Lord?' We know it is not true, but what is the harm in it? A little compromise never hurt anybody. That way we will not get in trouble." As might be expected, there was division about that. As those things happened, Antisthenes and the other elders remembered what Paul had told them years before about "fierce wolves" and "perverse" teaching. They had taken that to heart, and any time a doctrine came along which would deny the power or grace of God, they would stamp it out like a bug.

Frankly, they got right good at it. As teachers came and went, Antisthenes and the other elders began to sit, not so much as learners anymore, but rather as judges, testing everything that they heard by a system of doctrine that by now was carved in their minds in stone. Their attitude became "No new ideas allowed," no matter how good those ideas might be.

But there was a problem with that. You see, the rest of the congregation picked up on the attitude and let it spread into other affairs. The old guard began to look askance at anyone new coming into the fellowship. They began to murmur to each other about how the church was not the same anymore, how the "family feeling" that used to be there was gone. And they were right. The church at Ephesus had lost something.

Antisthenes could feel it. He had been a part of this fellowship for almost 40 years. He remembered the way it was in the beginning - the sense of excitement, the joy they all felt when they were together, the feeling of commitment that each one shared. But now things had become routine. It was not so much of a struggle for someone to commit his or her life to Christ and the church as it once had been.

To be sure, it still was not easy - there were times when people had to pay a price for their faith: the rejection of parents, the discrimination in the marketplace, the annual problem of having to get around mouthing "Caesar is Lord" so the legionnaires would let you alone. Being a Christian in Ephesus was no bed of roses. But the church was not the same. Something was gone.

Antisthenes and the rest of the old guard were not the only ones who felt it. Even the bishop knew. The bishop too was one of those who had come to know Christ in the early days of that Ephesian church. He could not worship with them from week to week any longer, and not just because of his responsibilities for overseeing the ministry of the other churches in the region. No, Bishop John had run afoul of the empire in his outspoken opposition to the requirement of the once-a-year affirmation that "Caesar is Lord." John proclaimed that "Jesus is Lord," and no earthly emperor could claim that title. So John had been exiled to a prison camp on the island of Patmos. But even in exile, John worried about his churches, and especially his home church there in Ephesus.

One Sunday, as Antisthenes and the others gathered for their weekly worship, the pastor stood up to speak. He said that he had received a letter from Bishop John that he wanted to read to them. John was writing, not just as their friend and fellow Christian, but in the name of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It began on a most complimentary note, a word of congratulation for their ability to withstand the emperor's pressure. There was mention of their care in adhering to sound doctrine and keeping false shepherds from leading the flock astray. So far, so good.

But then a bombshell: "BUT I HAVE THIS AGAINST YOU." What? How could the Lord have anything against this church? We have done what we were supposed to. We have kept the faith. We have made sure that everyone toed the mark, and we have even gotten rid of some who just did not fit. What have WE done wrong?

"But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." Oops. That is what had been missing. That is what had caused Antisthenes and the others to notice that something was different. There WAS a difference. That "family feeling?" Of course it was gone. They no longer loved each other like in the old days. Oh, the old ones, the ones who had been in on the early struggles, still loved each other well enough. But as for them loving the new ones...well... Toleration, maybe, but not love. "But I have this against you, that you abandoned the love you had at first."

What a sad thing. But as I said at the beginning of all this, it is a story as old as Christian history and as new as tomorrow's newspaper...the church that loses its love.

Fortunately, the Lord, speaking through Bishop John, offered a remedy, not only for the church at Ephesus but for any congregation that begins to fall into that same trap. "Remember then from what you have fallen, repent, and do the works you did at first."

First, "Remember." Just like the Prodigal Son, the first step for a Prodigal church is to recall the way things used to be. That is why the philosopher can say, "Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history...those who refuse to remember...are condemned to repeat them."

Second, "Repent." Which means more than simply feeling sorry for what has happened. It means taking responsibility for your own sin. And then it means a change of direction.

Finally, "Do the works you did at first." If the church is different now than it used to be, get back to DOING the things that made it special in the first place. The Lord's message is that Christians cannot be content with inaction. Because a lack of action on this kind of problem ends up killing the church.

But there was a word of hope at the end of Bishop John's letter. "To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God." The message to the church which had lost its love was clearly, "Clean up your act." But the promise that followed was eternal life.

How well did Antisthenes and his fellow members do after they heard the bishop's letter? Who knows? The city of Ephesus is no longer around to tell us. But Henry Ward Beecher once said, "The churches of the land are sprinkled all over with bald- headed old sinners whose hair has been worn off by the constant friction of countless sermons that have been aimed at them and glanced off and hit the man in the pew behind." Hmm.

Antisthenes and the story of lost love. The tale can only end with the words that Bishop John used to end all his pastoral letters: "Let anyone who has an ear listen..."


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