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

THE RICHEST CHURCH IN TOWN

Delivered 10/13/96
Text: Rev. 2:8-11 (Ps. 37:1-17)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Once upon a time, there was a little band of folks who were so broke that the only thing they could pay was attention. It was not just that they had no money for anything other than necessities; they had no money...period. They were quite literally reduced to begging to keep body and soul together. They were almost the "street people" of their day.

The shame of their plight was that, just as those who find themselves in that situation in modern America, they were surrounded by plenty. The time was about a hundred years after the birth of Christ. The place was Smyrna, one of the richest cities of Asia Minor.

Smyrna was an old city. It had been founded about 1000 BC as a Greek colony and eventually grew to some renown. But in 600 BC the city was destroyed in war and lay waste for over 300 years. Finally, it was rebuilt according to the design of Alexander the Great - one of the few planned cities in the world. The streets were laid out in rectangular blocks and were known for the excellence of their paving. It had a large stadium, a magnificent library, one of the largest theaters in Asia Minor, and a host of temples. The people of Smyrna took pride in their hometown; in fact, they were more than a little conceited about it.

Smyrna was a great trading city. Alexander's plan had made it convenient for shipping. It had a large outer harbor for mooring the great ships and an exceedingly safe inner harbor that was surrounded on three sides by land. The inner harbor could be closed by extending a chain across its mouth in time of war. Sailors loved it because there was a constant west wind. Unfortunately, the city's sewage drained into the gulf on which Smyrna stood and the breeze tended to blow the odor back to the city rather than out to sea. Ah, well - nothing is perfect. Despite that, Smyrna was universally regarded as a lovely place - it was called the "Crown of Asia."

Like Ephesus, its neighbor 35 miles to the south, Smyrna was a "Free" city - it had the privilege of self-government within its bounds. The empire had no worry about Smyrna; the city had been loyal to Rome long before the Caesars had conquered everything in sight. Smyrna had been the first city in Asia to erect a temple to the goddess Roma (195 BC). Cicero once said, "Smyrna is the city of our most faithful and most ancient allies."

Smyrna was home, not only to those poorest of the poor we mentioned a moment ago, but also to an especially numerous and influential Jewish community. The Jews took just as much pride in their town as anyone and, in fact, had contributed large sums of money for various beautification projects. But as was often the case, the Jews of Smyrna were particulary antagonistic to that small band of people who, by now, were called Christians.

The Christians in Smyrna had no influence to compare with the Jews. As a matter of fact, the Christians were those street people. They had nothing...except their faith. And even that proved a problem for them. Life was hard.

One Sunday morning, that little band gathered early for worship. They enjoyed quiet fellowship and prayer. They would regularly reflect on the words of comfort they found in the Psalms:

The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly; their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken. Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked. For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the LORD upholds the righteous. (Ps. 37:14-17)
For folks who lived their lives on the edge of desperation, words such as these were like food and drink. Their pastor then continued by telling them that a letter had come from their bishop, John, the one who had been sent off to a prison camp for his outspoken opposition to the Roman Emperor's demand that people think of him as a god. John was writing to his impoverished friends with a message from their Lord, another message of hope and encouragement for hard times. The pastor began to read.

It began with a word to indicate whose letter this was...not Bishop John's. No, this came from the one who was the "first and the last, who was dead and came to life." Interesting choice of words, these folks thought. After all, their own hometown had done the same thing - it had been dead for 300 years and now was alive again, a thriving metropolis. Christ had been dead for three days, but now was alive and reigning forevermore. He had experienced the worst and conquered it. His people there that morning, poor and downtrodden though they might have been, got the message that they TOO could expect to overcome.

It was a nice thought...overcoming. But for that little group, it was a victory just to get the next meal. But the Lord knew that. He said, "I know your affliction and your poverty..." He was right. Things were so bad with that group that it felt like a great weight was crushing down on all of them. They were destitute. Overcome? Hmm. How about just eat?

But then something strange. The Lord called them "rich." In fact, that little band in Smyrna is the only church in the entire New Testament to be called "rich." Obviously, their riches were in things that money could not buy. What could the Lord have meant?

Was he saying that there was some virtue in poverty? I doubt that those folks there that morning would have found any. They were like you and me - they liked the idea of having a decent home and nice clothes and three squares a day as much as anyone. They saw no virtue in poverty.

But apparently these folks were SO poor that they had stopped worrying about those things. Perhaps they took comfort in remembering that their Lord had said, "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them...Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (Matt. 6:26-29). Are you not worth more than birds or flowers? That little group KNEW they were worth something because they had faith in a living, loving Lord who had promised to care for them and to deliver them from their powerful enemies.

It is hard to imagine that such a raggedy little band would have enemies. What threat could they be to anyone? But there were some who saw them as a threat. Those Jews in Smyrna had it in for that group. You see, the Jews had a position of privilege within the empire - they were exempt from military service; they were not forced to participate in Caesar worship; they could even collect their own taxes to support their synagogue. The Jews were the only group anywhere under the emperor's control that was allowed that kind of freedom. And they did not want to lose it.

The problem was that some folks thought that the Christians were just an offshoot of the Jews. After all, the one whom Christians called LORD, this Jesus of Nazareth, was himself a Jew. Some 65 years before, when the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem had arranged for Jesus' murder, it was because he had been considered a danger to their position of privilege within the Roman system. Now, all these years later and hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, the danger to the Jews was still there because of this man, and they did not want to take any chances.

The Lord took note of the problem in his letter that morning. He mentioned one of the weapons the Jews had been using against the little group: slander. They had accused them of cannibalism because of their weekly commemorative ceremony that talked of eating Jesus "body & blood." They accused them of having orgies because the Christians called their meals together (when they had any food) "love feasts." The Jews accused the Christians of tampering with families because there WAS difficulty in some homes after a householder had been converted. In an orthodox Jewish home, if a family member became a Christian, the rest would go so far as to have a funeral for him; he was considered DEAD.

Such treatment of the little church apparently angered Christ. That is why he called those Jews a "synagogue of Satan;" it was a turn-around of the favorite Jewish expression, "synagogue of the Lord."

But, of course, the Jews were not the only threat to that band of believers. The Romans were even more dangerous. After all, they had the real power. They were no more happy about these Christians than the Jews. The Romans accused the Christians of atheism - they could not understand how people could claim to be worshiping when there were no images around. They accused them of being arsonists because Christians foretold the end of the world in flames. But more important, the Romans accused the church of political disloyalty - the Christians flatly refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. They said Jesus was Lord and that no one had the right to usurp that title from him. No, the Romans and others who ran things in the name of the emperor were no more happy with Christianity than were the Jews. The difference was the pagan authorities could do something about their displeasure.

And apparently they were about to...and Christ knew it. So his letter to the church offered a word of comfort. "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil (Rome) is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction." Gee, what a comforting word! Things are bad and they are going to get worse. Whoopee.

It was not much to look forward to. You see, imprisonment in those days was not just incarceration; it was generally a prelude to death. It was really rather amazing that the bishop was still alive over on the island of Patmos. And now here came the word that more of the group would suffer the same fate. But at least it would not be forever. What was it the Lord said? "Ten days?" That was the normal idiom for a short period of time. The looks that went around the room as the pastor read on conveyed the message from face to face: "We have handled everything else; we can handle this."

It almost was unnecessary for the Lord to have said "do not fear." They had known what fear was like - fear of starvation, fear of exposure. But they had survived. And now, of all the folks in Smyrna, these impoverished Christians had learned that fear is always worse than the things of which you are afraid, a good lesson for anyone in any age.

By now, these folks were not even afraid of dying. So the call of their Lord to "be faithful until death" was one to which there was the soft murmur of an "Amen" as the pastor read on. They knew there was the possibility of martyrdom, but they were not worried. They trusted the promise that what awaited them in glory was a "crown of life." Their Savior had once worn a crown...of thorns. But he had gone beyond that. The life that these Christians in Smyrna were living this day was thorny, but something far better awaited them on the other side. That was truly good news.

Finally, the letter was over. After the little band of disciples celebrated their weekly ritual of the Lord's Supper, they sang a hymn and went their separate ways. We do not know for sure, but probably there was a young man there that day who, many years later, would become the bishop of Smyrna. His name was Polycarp. Polycarp took seriously Christ's call to be faithful unto death and made it a rule for the rest of his days.

Polycarp lived to be 86 years old and might have gone on longer had it not been for the Roman proconsul. The aging bishop was called before the tribunal in the arena and told to condemn Christ and acknowledge the emperor. He refused. He said, "For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?" The Roman threatened the old man with being thrown to the lions, but Polycarp would not budge. The judge threatened him with fire, but still Polycarp would not deny Christ. Finally, the proconsul cried out to the crowd, "Polycarp has confessed he is a Christian," and the shout came back from the stadium that he should be burned alive. In minutes wood had been gathered and the old bishop tied to a stake. Soon the flames engulfed him and he was gone...faithful unto death.

One wonders how the church of modern America would handle such a thing. Not very well, I suspect. It has been said that the church began to decline in 312 AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted and declared Christianity an accepted religion. The persecution ceased. No longer was the church forced to live like that little band in Smyrna - impoverished, downtrodden, endangered.

The American church is not like that. There is no danger in professing our faith. Fearlessly, we can shout, "Jesus is Lord." But because we can do that without worry, our confession has lost some of its luster. By now, for many in the church, it hardly means anything at all. In fact, according to the latest research, church attendance, across denominational lines, now has decreased to its lowest level in decades.(1) Why? I believe it is precisely because we are NOT poor - we can afford to choose other activities than worship on Sunday morning...the mountains, the beach, fishing, golf, most anything we like. Worship has become one option among many, and it often loses out. Folks bemoan the loss of traditional values in our nation (especially when trying to get elected to political office). The values are NOT lost. They are simply buried under our prosperity. Someone very wise once said, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."(2)

I recall an old story that has often been used in Pledge Sunday sermons. A man came to his minister in some distress. He told the pastor that, early in life, he had promised God that he would tithe his income, but at the time, it was not so much of a problem - he was only making $5,000 a year. Now his annual income was $50,000 meaning that the tithe was a significant amount. Would the pastor please pray that the man be released from his promise? The minister responded that, yes, he would surely pray...pray that, to overcome the temptation to renege, the man's income would go back to $5,000 a year. I wonder.

There are millions of Americans who publically call themselves Christians this morning. Some are even gathered for worship. Relatively few would resemble that group in Smyrna so long ago. We have money; we have power; we have influence; we are safe. But as we go out of this place to fine homes and lovely dinners, I would ask you to remember one thing: if those early Christians in Smyrna were magically transported to this day and this time, according to Jesus, theirs would be the richest church in town.

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

Amen!


1. Survey by the Barna Research Group, Glendale, CA quoted in The Christian Century, 9/11-18/96, p. 843

2. Matt. 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25

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