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

THE PILLARS OF THE CHURCH

Delivered 11/24/96
Text: Rev. 3:7-13
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Has anyone ever called you a "pillar of the church?" It would be quite a compliment. There are not many of them, you know. But in most every congregation, there are a faithful few who can be depended upon to keep things going. When teachers are needed, they volunteer; when chicken needs frying, they are at the stove; when something needs repair, they get out their hammers; when the money runs short, they dig deep to get the bills paid. In short, they do just about anything they are asked to do. Some of you qualify to be called "pillars of the church," and I thank God for you. You make a minister's life and work very satisfying. You are wonderful people.

Have you ever wondered how the designation "pillars of the church" came to be? The obvious answer is that these are the folks who keep the place from caving in. But there is more to it than that. Centuries ago, there was a lovely custom in Asia Minor. When a priest died after years of faithful service, a pillar with both his name and his father's name inscribed on it was erected to honor him in the temple where he had served.(1) He became literally a "pillar of the temple" in recognition of his dedication and sacrifice.

Everyone knew the tradition, even those little bands of Christians who were scattered about. They no longer worshiped in temples, and they paid a stiff price for that, but they knew what went on. In fact, one particular group was reminded of the practice one Sunday in a letter from their bishop, but more about that later.

They lived in a not particularly ancient town. It had been founded by colonists from the capital in Pergamum only 250 years before, not as a fortress town as so many were, but almost as a missionary enterprise. Those early colonists came with one idea in mind - to share the magnificence of Greek culture with the "barbarians."(2) That took in a wide territory because, remember, the Greeks thought that anyone who was NOT Greek, WAS a barbarian. This missionary city came to be known as "the Gateway to the East."(3)

They chose a lovely name for their new home: Philadelphia, which means "brotherly love." You see, the colonists had been sent out by Attalus II. Attalus had a brother named Eumenes whom he loved more than anything, with the result that he got the nickname Philadelphos. Thus, the name of the city.

Philadelphia was situated on the edge of a great volcanic plain which was very fertile. It became famous for the grapes it grew and pleasant nectar that came from the fruit of the vine. As might be expected, the chief deity of Philadelphia was Dionysius, the god of wine. There were also hot mineral springs in the area and folks would come from miles around for healing in the medicinal waters.

But every coin has two sides. Because it sat on the edge of this huge volcanic area, the city was subject to frequent earthquakes. Shocks were an everyday occurrence and homes were damaged regularly. In fact, most of population lived outside the city in huts for fear of danger from falling masonry. Those who remained were on constant alert to flee. The lovely pillars in the temples would routinely come crashing down.

Philadelphia was totally destroyed in 17 AD by the same earthquake that leveled Sardis and would have been left as nothing but a footnote in history had it not been for the generosity of the Roman Emperor. Tiberius took it upon himself to fund the rebuilding process and was honored by the grateful citizens. They gave their city a new name - Neocaesarea. Some years later, in the time of Emperor Vespasian, the city was renamed once again, not to honor a gracious sovereign this time, but just to build his ego. It was called "Flavia" (because Flavius was the emperor's family name). Neither name lasted though, and people still thought of their town as good old Philadelphia.

As we mentioned, there was a little band of Christians in that city, not very powerful or influential. In fact, they regularly had trouble with their Jewish neighbors as well as those who demanded that EVERYONE worship Caesar. They suffered socially, economically, and politically because of their allegiance to Jesus Christ. But they hung in there, put up with all that their enemies could throw at them, and remained steadfast in the faith.

Someone has wisely said, "Life is a grindstone: whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on what you are made of." Well, these Christians in Philadelphia were apparently made of the best material around. Theirs was one of those rare congregations where virtually everyone would be thought of as a pillar of the church.

One Sunday morning, as they gathered for worship, the Philadelphia Christians heard that a letter had come for them. Bishop John, over in the prison camp on the island of Patmos, had some words for them from their risen Lord, "the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens." These were titles of God - if the Jews of Philadelphia wanted to say that Jesus was a false Messiah (which they did), let them do it at their own peril.

"I know your works," says the Lord. You bet he does! "Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut." Indeed he had. Christ had placed this little band of believers, these missionaries, right smack in a missionary city. True, their mission was different from those who surrounded them - they had come to share Christ, not Greek - but nonetheless, the opportunity, the "open door" was there.

"I know that you have but little power..." The church in Philadelphia was a small one, not much money, not much influence. Just a group of rock-solid pillars...which, to this day, is not unusual in small churches. Every member realizes how important his or her participation really is; each one knows that if they miss worship for some reason, their seat will be empty and their absence will be felt; each one knows that if they do not get their offering in each week, there might not be enough to get the bills paid. Every member becomes a pillar of the church because they have no choice - there is no place to hide; if any of them fails to carry his or her proper load, things will indeed cave in. There is no question that wonderful ministries can be carried on in very LARGE churches because of all the human, material, and financial resources available, but wonderful things can happen in SMALL churches too, and the group at Philadelphia proved it.

In the Lord's eyes, one of the best things those folks did was to remain faithful in the face of serious danger: "...you have kept my word and not denied my name." There were lots of church folk in that day of whom that could not be said. They made their annual tribute to Caesar and burned the pinch of incense in the temple of the goddess Roma - after all, it was a matter of economic and social survival...even if it was idolatry. But not the congregation in Philadelphia. They could have authored the words,

Faith of our fathers, living still
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword:
O how our hearts beat high with joy,
Whene'er we hear that glorious word.

Faith of our fathers, Holy faith;
We will be true to thee till death.(4)

For some, that last word was literally true. Death WAS the price their faith required. There was hostility from the Jewish community; there was danger from the emperor. These folks took their lives in their hands when they proclaimed that "Jesus is Lord." But they must have felt it was worth it and their Savior that morning wanted to tell them why: "I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but are lying--I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved YOU."

Those pillars of the Philadelphia church who had come out of a Jewish background, and suffered terribly for their conversion, must have chuckled when they heard that. After all, the ancient Hebrew expectation had always been that the world would come and bow down before THEM. But now these who were thought of by their own Jewish families as no better than dead heard from the Messiah himself that a day would come when their faith in him would be vindicated, and that the love they had for him was not in vain.

"Because you have kept my word of patient endurance" - because you hung in there the same way that Jesus did - "I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon;" Those were welcome words to folks who faced trying circumstances every day. But a word of warning too: "hold fast what you have so that no one may seize your crown." Be careful that you not give in to the temptation to compromise your faith - after all, just like the pillars in the local temples, the pillars of the church can crumble in the earthquakes of life.

But there is a choice about it. When "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" come - and they always do - we can either give up or get up. Most of the Psalms were born in difficulty. Most of the New Testament epistles (including this letter to the Philadelphians) were written in prisons. John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress from jail. Florence Nightingale, too ill to move from her bed, reorganized the hospitals in England. Louis Pasteur was tireless in his fight against disease despite being semi-paralyzed and in constant danger of strokes. Mother Theresa, recovering from heart problems again this week in a Calcutta hospital, goes about her work in the midst of the most incomprehensible poverty. There is a choice.

Still and all, the Lord has a word of promise and hope for those who keep the faith: "If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God;" What a wonderful prospect! Just as faithful service was honored in the temples of Asia Minor, it will be honored in heaven as well.

But even better, the pillars of GOD's temple will stay standing. That is why the Lord would say, "you will never go out of it." As often as the citizens of Philadelphia had to evacuate their city because of the threat of an earthquake, these folks would be thrilled to know that such dangers would never be faced in eternity. For a change, life would be safe.

"I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name." Just as a faithful priest's father was noted on the pillar erected to honor him, so the family relationship that the faithful disciple has with the God of heaven will be noted. But best of all, the name of the city will not be one that comes and goes with the popular whim or the egocentric wish of a temporal ruler - it will not be Philadelphia one day, and Neoceasarea the next, and Flavia the next. No, the name of THIS city will stay constant, because the Lord of this city is himself constant. After all, HE is the faithful one, the true one, the one who holds all the keys.

The morning that those pillars of the church in Philadelphia heard the letter from the Lord must have been a good one. There was no word of blame or censure as was the case with the letters that came for many of their sister congregations. All their risen Savior had for them was praise and encouragement. They were not perfect, of course - no congregation is. But they were handling the pressures in such a way as to be genuine missionaries for the gospel of Jesus Christ in that missionary city. The Lord had opened a door for them, and they had faithfully gone through it. Would that the same could be said of the churches of our day.

Apparently, that little congregation in Philadelphia CONTINUED in their faithfulness for a long time. For centuries, that city remained a bastion of Christianity in the midst of Islam and did not fall until 1300 years later. The city still exists - it is modern Alasehir in Turkey - and there is a large Christian community there, the result of those steadfast missionaries of the first century.

One wonders what the state of Christianity would be in that part of the world if the missionaries who established the church there had come from our day and time. Not good, I fear.

I was intrigued to read something the other day on the state of today's church and the painful subject of "Clergy Abuse," an unfortunate phenomenon that is becoming more and more common.(5) It was an interview with one of the nation's leading authorities on the subject, Dr. Lloyd Rediger, and the question of WHY we have this atmosphere in the church these days was asked. Dr. Rediger responded:

One answer is that the church now mirrors rather than leads society. This means that with so much incivility and violence in society, there is bound to be some in the church.

A second answer lies in the enormous shift in American attitudes from rugged individualism to entitlement thinking. We once viewed America as a "land of opportunity." Now there is a growing tendency to think of it as a place for comfort and security on demand, with some "other" responsible to produce this. Given the reality that the church now reflects society, we can expect parishioners to feel unhappy and even vengeful when they are not comfortable in church.

A third answer lies in the business model for church operation. Most congregations and denominations are now run as a business rather than as a mission. This causes a radical change in expectations. The pastor, though never trained for such a role, must now function as a manager, responsible to keep the customers and stockholders happy. Without a sacrificial sense of mission, parishioners know only whether or not they are happy with the pastor.

This contributes to the fourth answer, which is the loss of respect for the role of pastor. When the pastor is expected to please people rather than be their spiritual leader, the respect for God's called servant, the church's mission, and for the spiritual dimension of life is lost in unrealistic expectations of comfort.

"Without a sacrificial sense of mission, parishioners know only whether or not they are happy with the pastor." Intriguing. "Expectations of comfort..." Hmm. Four hundred years ago the Lord offered a mission and opened a door of opportunity on this continent just as he opened one in Asia Minor for the Christians of Philadelphia. You can assess how well we have done and are doing. My own feeling is that there have been too few PILLARS to keep things adequately propped up.

No "sacrificial sense of mission"..."expectations of comfort." It may even be fair to say that, for too many, the preference is not for pillars but pillows. Someone has pointed out that there are two classes of people in the church: those who lift and those who lean, those who support and those who have to be supported - pillars and pillows. But we have a choice. Which would you rather be? A pillar? Then you are called to be strong, solid, and utterly dependable. Or a pillow? Providing little support, not having much substance, and easily fluffed. There IS a choice, and the right choice makes all the difference in the world...and even the world to come. That small little band of Christians in Philadelphia made the choice, the RIGHT choice. PILLARS! What will YOUR choice be?

"Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."

Amen!


1. William Barclay, The Revelation of John, Vol. 1, Daily Study Bible Series, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), pp. 134-135
2. Much of the historical information here comes from Barclay, pp. 125-135
3. Richard Jeske, Revelation for Today: Images of Hope, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), p. 52
4. Frederick W. Faber
5. "Clergy Killers - Dedicated to Destruction," from ...On Our Minds: An Occasional Paper from Logos Productions, Inc. (Inver Grove Heights, MN) Reflecting upon the life and times of the Christian church today.

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