Sermon: Remembering Your First Love

When John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ, he was told to write down what he saw and send it to the seven churches – to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodocea.

The vision John received was not just for him, it was for the church. In particular, it was sent to these churches in Asia Minor – modern-day Turkey. Included in the vision were letters from Christ to these churches, in all their particularity.

Very early on, the church noticed that there were seven churches of Revelation. Seven is a significant biblical number. It is the number of fullness, of completeness. So while there were seven churches who each received a copy of all these letters, these churches represent the fullness of THE church. These seven churches, with all their strengths and struggles, are repeated throughout history as individual congregations and larger communions seek to live for Christ as they await his return.

We are Ephesus and Smyrna and Pergamum and the others. Our churches today have the same strengths and the same struggles. Eugene Peterson notes that “There is no evidence in the annals of ancient Israel or in the pages of the New Testament that churches were ever much better or much worse than they are today.” It is a claim I find both comforting and uncomfortable.

For those who have an ear to hear, the Spirit is always speaking to the churches. The words to the church in Ephesus echo down the canyons of time to us, in order that we might hear the voice of the Spirit calling as well.

Before we listen to the voice of the Spirit through Scripture, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able able, I invite you to stand as we hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write:

“These are the words of the one

who holds the seven stars in his right hand,

who walks among the seven golden lamp stands.

I know your work, your toil, and your patient endurance.

I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers:

you test those who claim to be apostles, but are not,

and have found them to be false.

I also know that you are patiently enduring

and bearing up for the sake of my name,

and that you have not grown weary.

But I have this against you:

that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

Remember from what you have fallen,

repent and do the works that you did at first.

If not, I will come to you

and remove your lamp stand from its place,

unless you repent.

Yet this is to your credit:

you hate the work of the Nicolatians,

which I also hate.

Let anyone who has an ear,

listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

To the one who conquers,

I will give permission to eat from the tree of life,

which is in the paradise of God.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

Each of the seven letters to the churches follows a similar pattern. It begins with who the letter is to and who it is from.

To the angel of the church in Ephesus – This short letter is to the church that gathers in the city of Ephesus. Ephesus was, at that time, a major port city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in what is today the country of Turkey.

In particular, the letter is to the angel of the church in Ephesus. While this may refer to a literal angel for each church, we are also being told about the identity of the church.

There are seven angels, one for each of the seven churches. The seven angels of the churches correspond to the seven spirits of God spoken of throughout the book of revelation. The identity of the church is spiritual. While the church is located geographically, it is located in a particular place, Ephesus, or the corner of 120th and Q Ave, it is defined theologically. The church gets its identity from God. Apart from Christ, apart from the indwelling work the Spirit, the church would have a location, but no life.

Every generation there is the temptation to reinvent the church and transform its identity. In order to live in this time, there is always the temptation to try and make the church something other than what it is: a self-help group, a political-action group, a social club, a concert. But none of these things define the church. The church’s identity is angelic – to the angel of the church in Ephesus write – it is a created thing, just as angels are created, but it moves in the heavenly realms, it is the community whose very atmosphere is permeated by the Spirit of God. “The church is what it is by virtue of the Father’s gift, the Son’s word of address, and the Spirit’s enlivening power.”

This is the letter to the church in Ephesus from Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Church. “These are the words of the one

who holds the seven stars in his right hand,

who walks among the seven golden lamp stands.

Jesus Christ is seen holding the church in his right hand, protecting, equipping, using, and sustaining it. And Jesus is seen walking among the church, present right in the middle of it.

The pattern for these letters is first to whom is it written, then from whom it comes. Then there is a word of affirmation, a word of correction, and a word of promise. Let us look at these three in turn and listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.

Affirmation

Verse 2: I know your work, your toil, and your patient endurance. The church in Ephesus was filled with hard workers. When things got tough, when work turn to toil, when it became difficult to follow Jesus, even when they suffered because of their faith, they kept going. They endured the hard times. They bore the slings and arrows and kept the faith when it would have been easier to give in. They never gave up, never grew weary, and never backed down from faithfully following Jesus.

O, that all of our churches were like Ephesus. Jesus says I know your work. Not, “I heard about”, but “I know.” Jesus knows our work intimately. He knows what we do when no one is looking, he knows the hardships we face and endure. He knows when we keep the faith and stay true to the name of Jesus. He knows and says ‘well done.’

Ephesus was not only a church of patient endurance and fortitude, but also one of purity.

I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers:

you test those who claim to be apostles, but are not,

and have found them to be false.

Jesus commends them for testing the spirits and holding fast to the truth of the Gospel. The Ephesians cared deeply about the truth, making sure that their teachers were sound, were filled with the Spirit of God, and were truly sent by God. They did not tolerate evil actions or false teaching. The Ephesians lived out what John had urged the churches in his letters, 1 John 4:11, Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. They did this consistently and Jesus commends them for it. The Ephesians lived out Psalm 97:10, You who love the Lord, hate evil and Psalm 139:21-22, Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies. It was to the credit of the Ephesians that they hated the work of the Nicolatians, verse 6, who were a group, we believe, that promoted immoral living.

The Ephesians were passionate for the truth. They regularly sought to separate truth from falsehood, and in the face of opposition, they held fast to the word of God and the truth of the gospel. They were zealous and faithful in all things. They lived out what the Spirit said through Paul in Romans 12, Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good.

O, that all of our churches were like Ephesus. O, that we had the zeal, the passion, and the faithful endurance of the Ephesians. When we encounter people claiming to teach about God, to teach the Word of God, we are called, like the Ephesians to test whether their claims are true or not. And we test them by their faithfulness to the Word of God. That requires that we know the word of God, that we eat it, drink it, talk about it when we sit at home and walk along the road, when we lie down and when we get up. The Ephesians were so zealous because they knew the dangers of false teaching, which is a sickness and danger to the soul. What are we doing in our lives to live more like the Ephesians, patiently, faithfully enduring in the truth and rejecting all falsehood?

Correction

Jesus knows what is good in the church. He sees it, he knows it, he commends them for it. But the Ephesians also had a struggle. I have wrestled with this letter this week, because I feel both its affirmation and correction very sharply in my own life. You might have even heard it a bit in my voice as I was expositing the affirmation of the Ephesians as those who patiently endure and passionately sift truth from falsehood. This is what gets me fired up. I get this. I was the kid at Christian Summer Camp who jumped onto the table in the middle of a camp event and called out the leadership of the camp for false teaching, at 15. I get this. I get the Ephesians and their passion for the Christian faith and the truth of God’s word. Romans 12:9, Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good.

I get the passion of the Ephesians, but I also get their struggle. But I have this against you: that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Jesus has something against them, against us, against me. That hits right in the heart.

They had abandoned the love they had at first. They were doing good work, separating truth from falsehood, but for all their endurance, love had faded. They had gotten so wrapped up in the good work of keeping the faith that they had forgotten that love was the beginning and the end of the Christian life.

The passage tells us that it wasn’t God, who loves them, who walked away, but the Ephesians. that you have abandoned the love you had a first. They walked away.

I don’t know about you, but I feel the sting of this word from Jesus. There are times where our heads are in the right place, but our hearts are not. There are times where loving God and, in turn, loving our neighbors are not as important to us as winning, as being right, as getting our way – having our project done in the church, making sure the other person knows you were right. There are times where loving God takes a back seat to all the other little commitments that take up space in our life. We run back and forth from this practice to that concert to this meeting to that job site, and we find that not only are our calendars full, but our hearts are full of all the other things we claim are less important than God.

I don’t know about you, but I feel the sting of this word from Jesus. But Jesus is honest with us, not to beat us down, but to correct us. Remember from what you have fallen, repent, and do the works that you did at first. The solution to waning love is memory. Remember. Remember when you last felt your heart throb with love for Jesus. Remember what was going on and what you were doing when you first knew that God loved you, not because you deserved it or could earn it, but just because He did.

Remember from what you have fallen, repent, and do the works that you did at first. Think for a moment of those times when you felt the greatest love and affection for God, when you knew deeply in your heart that you wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of your life serving him. What were you doing? Were you singing? Praying? Studying his word? Giving to others? Receiving from others? Do the works that you did at first.

There are many moments, but I think back to a one that is intimately tied to why I am standing before you right now. It was a year before the table-jumping false-teaching-rebuking incident. I was fifteen and feeling pretty lost in life. I was angry at everyone. I went to church camp that summer and felt peace and healing from God that I didn’t know was possible. I sat there on the last day of camp and I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go back to the mess, back to dealing with it all. I just wanted to stay there, where I felt God was close. As I sat there, one of the counselors stood up and said, “I have been called by God to be a pastor. For every 250 people who are ordained in the church, 400 retire. Soon there will be a crisis of pastoral leadership in the church. I believe that God is calling at least one other person in this room to become a pastor.” In that moment, I knew I was that person. I can’t tell you how I knew, but I knew. No, I told God. This is stupid. I can’t do this. I am too messed up. I am not smart enough. I am not good at speaking in front of people. I don’t have any of the gifts that one should have in a pastor.

In those moments when I knew I was not worthy of God’s call, I felt the most strength and peace. God would go with me. He was not just in that place, but he would be with me as I go home, go off the school, train, and preach, and teach. And so, by the sheer grace and power of God, I stand before you this morning.

There are times where I have forgotten this – not my call to ministry, but the overwhelming love and power and grace of God in my life. I can get so wrapped up in getting done all that needs to get done in a given week, that love gets pushed to the side. Have you ever been there?

Remember, then, from what you have fallen, repent, and do the works that you did at first.

Remembering what set my heart to loving God more deeply, even as I tell it, fills me with joy and gratitude. What moments do you think of in your life? How do they stir you to love our wonderful, gracious, and loving God?

Promise

The letter to the church in Ephesus ends with a promise:

To the one who conquers,

I will give permission to eat from the tree of life,

which is in the paradise of God.

The promise of God is nothing less than everlasting life. It is a return to the Garden, where Adam and Eve walked with God. It is a return to a place we have been barred from since our first parents fell into sin. The promise is life and life everlasting the paradise of God.

To those who conquer, who endure to the end, who belong to Jesus Christ, who hung on a tree that we might have life, the promise is everlasting life with God.

If that does not stir our hearts to love our gracious God, there is little that will.

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

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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