A Holy Imagination – Hearing from the Seven Churches

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Revelation 2.7,11,17,23; 3.6,13,22

Imagine God speaking to your church.

What would he say? What commendations would he give? Where would he call your congregation to make changes? What warnings might he give?

Some 2000 years ago 7 churches didn’t have to imagine what God would say to them. Through the apostle John, Jesus spoke to the seven churches of Asia Minor. The story of each of these seven churches have stirred the imaginations of congregations for centuries.

Each letter carries these words,
“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

Vibrant Congregations works with churches to imagine their God-given, hope filled future. Together we listen to God’s words to these seven churches.  These words stir our holy imagination.

As we expand our holy imaginations we are shaped into vibrant communities of Jesus who display and bring God’s shalom* to the world.

*Shalom is a rich biblical world that is woven into the scriptures. In our translations of the Old Testament and New Testament it is often translated “peace”. But it is so much more that how western people think of peace. *Shalom is a rich biblical world that is woven into the scriptures. In our translations of the Old Testament and New Testament it is often translated “peace”. But it is so much more that how western people think of peace. “Shalom is often translated as ‘peace’, but it means more than the absence of conflict or simply having individual inner calm. Shalom is about having a restored relationship with our Creator, human flourishing, a flourishing creation, and justice. Shalom speaks to relational wholeness in families, between genders, and between ethnic groups. Shalom speaks of healing the rift between nations and beating our swords into plowshares. Shalom is about leaders and nations that end oppression and the lift up the poor. And shalom is unmistakably beautiful.”

Together we listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Questions

  1. How has the Spirit been growing your imagination to live out God’s shalom over the past few months?
  2. How does your congregation/leadership best discern what the Spirit is saying?

If you’d like to explore taking fresh steps in ministry and mission we invite you to take the Next Step Survey on this website.

One of the most beautiful pictures of Shalom was spoken my Mary in her Magnificat. Jesus pictures the move toward shalom in Matthew 25 when he portrays the sheep as people/nations of shalom. Psalm 72 pictures a leader who pursues shalom.

Imagine a Congregation that Loves its Enemies

Read: Revelation 2.1-7

Imagine being part of a congregation that is getting so many things right.

Listen to the words given to the Church of Ephesus

I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false.

You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Imagine being part of this church:

    • deeply committed to God’s story of a good creation, a fallen world, and God’s work to redeem the world by turning toward it in love, sending his son to live, die, be raised and ascend to heaven
    • deeply committed to God’s work through the church to move his redemption plan forward
    • deeply committed to doing good, standing up to persecution, caring for the poor, assuring that God’s story is told clearly and taking up their cross and following Jesus

Imagine that for all of this the church has a deep flaw:

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first.

Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” (Rev. 2:4–5 NIV11)

This amazing group of disciples has abandoned the love they had at first. Certainly it is not a love for Jesus or God or the poor or a love of the truth, it isn’t a lack of love for each other—all of those things are powerfully at work.

So what’s missing, what is the love they have abandoned? What love is so important that Christ tells this Church that if they don’t get pursue this he will close them down? What’s missing? Simply this: they don’t love their enemies.

It’s understandable, after all, their enemies are persecuting them, their enemies are people who are living outrageous lives, and immoral lives. These people are the opposite of how church in Ephesus lives. It is hard to love them and hard not to feel superior to them. One of the leaders in Ephesus said of the people in his city,

They are fit only to be drowned and the reason I can never laugh or smile is because I live amidst such a terrible uncleanness.”

The church in Ephesus: has become angry and arrogant so that they abandon the love they had at first. Or putting it another way they has dismissed  and stopped living a part of God’s shalom. They had dismissed Jesus’s words on the cross toward his enemies, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are dong.”  They had dismissed Jesus’ in Luke 6,

Love Your Enemies 27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

They had abandoned the first love that they had for their enemies. They had abandoned the wonder that Miroslov Volf points out, that on the cross God makes space within himself for his enemies, that on the cross God in Jesus Christ welcomes his enemies into his kingdom Volf writes,

…since the God of Christian belief is the God of unconditional love and the God who died for the ungodly, the will to embrace the other, even the evil other, is a fundamental Christian obligation’. We find at the heart of the Christian faith…the call and the means to ‘make space’ for the other.

To make space, to love as God loved by sending his son to die for us while we were still his enemies, while we were still sinners. To make space, to love as Jesus loved, when he died on the cross for us, took the punishment we deserved.

Imagine a congregation that loves its enemies.

Questions to reflect on

  1. Why does Jesus consider loving our enemies to be so important?
  2. If being a vibrant community of Jesus begins with loving your enemies, how would your congregation imagine living into that call?

If you’d like to explore taking fresh steps in ministry and mission we invite you to take the Next Step Survey on this website.

Imagine a Congregation that is Faithful even though it Means Suffering

Read Revelation 2.8-11

February 156 A.D., the Bishop was on the run the Roman authorities. They were done with  his unwillingness to sacrifice to the emperor declaring Caesar to be lord. The running just slowed down the inevitable. The Romans tracked down the Bishop to his hiding place.  He made no attempt to flee. Instead he invited his captors in and offered them food and drink and asked for time to pray.  After praying for 2 hours they brought him back to the city. He was roughly pushed out of the carriage and brought before the proconsul at the amphitheater, who called on him to give up his allegiance to Christ. The bishop replied, “80 and 6 years I have served him and he has done me no wrong; how them can I blaspheme my king who has saved me.”  The bishop was taken and wood was piled around him. He asked not to be tied to the stake, he would stand in the flames on his own.  And then he prayed, “O Lord, almighty God, the Father of your beloved son, Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you….I thank you that you have thought me worthy, this day and this hour, to share the cup of your Christ among the number of your witnesses.”  The fire was started, but a wind kept it from burning the Bishop, finally a soldier took out his sword and killed him.

Killed Bishop Polycarp of the city of Smyrna.  The church to whom Christ says in Revelation 2.10, “Be faithful, be loyal even to the point of death.”

Stay faithful. The city of Smyrna was known for its loyalty, its faithfulness. It was one of the traits of the city. If you were riding down one of the street and they put up banners like so many cities are doing these days to advertise their good qualities, the streets in Smyrna would have on those banners the words, loyalty, faithfulness, devotion, fidelity, reliability. The people of Smyrna had the first temple to Rome, they were a center of worship of emperors, they had statues of Roman Emperors scattered throughout the city, once when Roman troops needed clothing, people in Smyrna stripped off their own clothing to send it to the troops, these people were sold out to Rome, totally and completely faithful.

When Jesus tells the people at the church of Smyrna to be faithful to -the point of death all they had to do was look around them and they got his meaning.

But the question for them and for us who seek to be faithful to Jesus is: “Why stay faithful to Jesus when it is going to mean suffering? Why not join with the people of Smyrna who are sold out to Rome and are reaping the benefits? Why not join with the people of North America who are sold out to consuming stuff, consuming experiences, crazy about being loyal to their sports  team—why not join with the people of North America, why not join with the people of Smyrna, especially when being a faithful to Jesus is going to lead to suffering.

Jesus answer: Invest in him for “I am the first and the last, who died and came to life”. After all, which of the Caesars has died and come back to life?  Which of the Caesars can give you a crown of life i.e. eternal life—meaning living out God’s life of shalom. A life that has suffering now, but ends up with God in his new creation where we and all of creation are redeemed, liberated, and made new.  Tell me, says Jesus can your emperor promise you that? Can your North American lifestyle deliver that? Little wonder that Jesus says to Smyrna “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich)…” Revelation 2.9.

Jesus offers true riches— a lot of people figure that out, but it’s really hard to live it out because the pressure to live the story of Smyrna or the North American Story. But when we figure it out and live it out, it makes a huge difference in our willingness to be loyal to God. Because we know that if our riches come not from living as a North American, but they come from belonging to God and living his way of shalom, then we are willing to suffer, for that suffering for God can make us richer than we were before—even though the road is hard.

Imagine a Congregation that is Faithful even though it Means Suffering

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Questions to reflect on

  1. Why does following a crucified Savior lead to our suffering?
  2. If being a vibrant community includes a willingness to suffer for the kingdom, how would your congregation engage that call?

If you’d like to explore taking fresh steps in ministry and mission we invite you to take the Next Step Survey on this website.

Pergamum: Imagine a Church Shaped by the Name

Read Revelation 2.12-17

Names — in the time when the letter is written to the church of Pergamum names tell something about the person. To talk about a person’s name was to talk about the person himself.

Listen to this to the church of Pergamum, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Anitpas, my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” You hold to my name i.e. the church is doing his holding fast to Jesus and all he is, to his name.

We read in Revelation 1,

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.

Jesus means Savior because he will save his people from their sins. He will save us from the sin as we often think of it—but to be saved from sin means so much more. It means to be rescued from the sin that keeps us from being part of God’s kingdom of shalom. It means being rescued from sin so that we can join with God’s work of bringing shalom. And it is always important to remember that Jesus does just die for my sins, but as Paul says, “Christ dies for our sins” 1 Corinthians 15.3. The sin of the community must be forgiven so together as a community we live fully for Jesus’ name.

To be saved from our sins is richer, deeper, more amazing than many have ever imagined.

In Revelation 1 we hear of Jesus and that he is the Christ, the Messiah. When the Jewish people imagined the coming Messiah they thought of the one who would be king over them, like King David who ruled over the golden age of Israel. When the Messiah came every person would live under his vine and fig tree—which is the Jewish way of saying they would live in great community enjoying the multiple gifts of God, fully serving God, living under his rule and reign, and in particular, enjoying God himself.

Scot McKnight points out that what Jesus as Messianic king is all about ruling over God’s Dream society on earth. McKnight writes,

When Jesus said “kingdom” … he envisioned God’s people living before God and with others in a way that embodied the will of God in a new kind of society. Thus, Kingdom is an interconnected society; Kingdom is a society noted by caring for others; Kingdom is a society shaped by justice; Kingdom is a society empowered by love; Kingdom is a society dwelling in peace; Kingdom is a society flowing with wisdom; Kingdom is a society that knows its history; Kingdom is a society living out its memory; Kingdom is a society that values society; Kingdom is a society that cares about its future” Scot McKnight One Life

Jesus: the one who fully saves us from sin. Jesus Christ, the Messianic King: the one who rules over God’s people as they live out God’s Dream society on earth. Jesus Christ: the faithful witness—the one who has told the truth about God, what God is doing in the world, and has done it in word and deeds, in life and in death, and in coming back to life. Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead. Jesus is the one who is raised from the grave and so he make possible a new life for his people, but not just for his people, his resurrection makes possible a new life for all of creation. And one last thing: Jesus, the Messianic king is the ruler over all the kings of the earth. He is, king of kings and lord of lords.

When the church at Pergamum holds fast to the name of Jesus, this is what they hold fast to. They believe with their heart, their soul, their mind, their strength in Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth; they believe all that means, they believe it so deeply that it shapes them into a kingdom people who are running hard to be God’s dream society on earth.

Imagine a Church Shaped by the Name.

Questions to reflect on

  1. How has your congregation demonstrated a life of holding fast to the name of Jesus?
  2. If being a vibrant community is being a demonstration of God’s dream society, how would your congregation engage that call?

If you’d like to explore taking fresh steps in ministry and mission we invite you to take the Next Step Survey.

Thyatira: Imagine a Church that has a Good Year

Read Revelation 2.18-29

How do you measure a year in the life of your congregation? What do you look back on and think to yourself, “That was a good year for our church” Does a good year mean that all went well with the budget? Does a good year means that there was little stress? Does a good year mean that new people became a part of your congregation? How do you measure that it has been a good year? If your congregation has been able to love, does that make it a good year? Whether that love was filled with joy, with tears, with hope, with pain, if you were able to love did that make it a good year?

..to the angel of the church in Thyatira write, The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.

I know your works, your love…and that your latter works exceed the first.

When we read with our eyes wide open we find that Jesus makes it clear, Paul makes it clear that congregations that follow Jesus are marked by loving God and loving people (Mark 12.28ff, 1 Timothy 1.5, Romans 13.8-10, 1 Corinthians 13) And Paul, Peter and John put a spotlight on loving people (2 Peter 1.5-7, 1 John 4.20-21).

Congregations that love Jesus love God and love people. For these a good year when above all else when they have invested in love.

Love: the Greek word is agape. Agape is not a romantic love, it is not a love based in positive feelings we have for the other person, it is not a love of gratitude, at least when it comes to people, where we love that person because they have been so good to us. Rather agape love gives us a picture of a person who is poised for action, the action of doing good to others so that those people can be fully who God made them to be.

Agape love gives us the picture of a congregation that  resists certain feelings and is open to other feeling. So they resist the feeling impatient and are open to feeling patient. They resist the desire to be rude and are open to be being civil. They resist the desire to insist on their own way and are open to hearing and responding to the needs of others. Congregations who live out agape love are poised for action to bring good, they resist certain feelings and are open to others. They are open to certain ways of thinking while they reject others. They are open to thinking about whatever is pure, whatever is honorable, whatever is lovely, commendable, excellent. At the same time they reject thinking about things that block them from being shaped into lovers of God and lovers of people.

How does that happen, how do we grow in being lovers of God and lovers of people? There is a good pathway we find in Thyatira (Rev. 2.19). Thyatira is growing not only in love, but in faith, in service and patient endurance. Faith in this instance means what people believe about God which then deepens their faith in God. The folks at Thyatira knew how to get in deeper when it came to what they believed about God. They know how to pull this off, it’s the way that happened since the first days of the church.  Acts 2.42 says, They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. To grow in love they have to listen to, study the words of people like Paul and Isaiah and Jeremiah.  Because it’s from these sources that they will learn more about God, deepen their faith, and keep other gods from getting traction in their lives.

And the more they got to know God the more they loved him, but also they loved others more because they deeply experienced God’s love for them, a love which God extended even when they did not deserve it—just like a lot of people we are called to love don’t deserve it; and because when the knew more about God they knew more about people who are his image bearers, his icons in the world that God wants to see flourish.

Imagine a Church that has a Good Year, a year marked by love?

Questions to reflect on

  1. How has your congregation demonstrated that love is central to having a good year?
  2. If being a vibrant community is being loving community, how would your congregation engage that call?

If you’d like to explore taking fresh steps in ministry and mission we invite you to take the Next Step Survey.

Sardis: Imagine being an [In]Complete Church

Read Revelation 3.1-6

Complete, a complete life. There are all kinds of experts who will tell you what you need for a complete life. They will talk about how much time you should spend each day exercising, how much time each day you should spend sleeping, being with your spouse, hanging out with friends, working and more. A reporter decided to take all the advice of all the different experts and put together a life, a complete life and then test drive it for awhile to see how things went. The only problem: when he put together all the things he was supposed to do in a day it took 36 hours. Apparently the complete life takes a bit more time than we have available.

Or does it? Maybe we’ve just got the wrong definition of a complete life. The book of Proverbs is all about teaching us how to do life in God’s good but fallen world. As it teaches us such things it gives us some good information on what a complete life is all about. Here’s what it says in Proverbs 10.9,

The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out.

A person of integrity. Integrity is the art of being a complete person, a person whose life reflects what they truly believe, their actions match what they tell others matters to them, what they tell others is in their heart. To live a complete life is to live a life of integrity.

A life of integrity, however is not just about individuals. Jesus makes it clear in Revelation 3.1-6 that he is looking for congregations of integrity. He is looking for complete communities do the work: love, faith, service, patient endurance.

Let’s start taking that apart so we can see just what a life of integrity and a community of integrity looks like. The first mark of a church that has a life of integrity is love (for more on love see the post on Thyatira: Imagine a Church that has a Good Year).

The second mark of a church that has integrity is faith. This may seem a bit odd to us since we don’t normally think of faith as something we need to work at, rather it is the gift of God. But the word faith is that it is used in different ways in the Bible. For instance, we’re told in 1 Corinthians 12 that faith is one of the gifts of the Spirit. So in Revelation when we’re told that faith is a work we need to think of faith in terms of believing the promises of God, inspiring other congregations to believe them, and goes forward in God’s work based on his promises–going forward when others will not because they so firmly believe in God’s promises. This is the kind of faith a congregation can work at growing in and the kind of faith that gets work done. This is the kind of faith that we see over and over again in Hebrews 11 where people believe the promises of God–even though they never see them come to completion–and live their lives based on those promises. We are told over and over again that “by faith” people did things–left home and family, gave up places of power, brought down enemies and more.

The third mark of a church that has integrity is service. The Greek word for service is diakonia. One of the really important things to understand about this word is that it has strong connections with the idea of caring out the commands of another with especially strong connections with being a servant of the king. Service, then, is not what we think it is or what we want it to be. No, congregations who are complete carry out the commands of the one they serve. When you make your way through the Bible you find that to be congregations of  service means to be people who speak the good news of Jesus Christ to others, it means to be congregations that are financially generous toward God’s mission and those who are in need, it means to be willing to do lowly tasks to serve others and it means to be congregations of justice and mercy.

The last mark of a congregation that has integrity is patient endurance. Patient endurance is all about sticking with what God calls us to no matter what comes our way. Difficulties, hard times, trials and tribulations–doesn’t matter, this congregation will stick with God’s call.  The result is that this congregation produces fruit that causes the kingdom to grow.

Imagine a Church that is [In]Complete

Questions to reflect on

  1. How has your congregation demonstrated a life of integrity?
  2. If being a vibrant community is being a community of integrity, how would your congregation engage that call?

If you’d like to explore taking fresh steps in ministry and mission we invite you to take the Next Step Survey.

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