It was at about this time last year that I lost interest in the subject matter we were covering in class; studying the plagues in Egypt got a little boring. In addition, I had gotten a much closer look at the inner workings of the organization that sponsored the study. After my first rotation in the children’s program, I called a close friend back in the northeast to tell her what I had witnessed and compared it to Mao Tse-tung brainwashing. Maybe that was harsh. What is considered normal in the south is still, in many ways, outside my comfort zone. At that time, I chose to write about my need to recalibrate .
We are now weeks into the study of Revelation and I’m eager to get to the controversial content. These early passages are relatively speaking, pretty straightforward. Why are we investing so much time on them? Did the controversial content make the curriculum writers too uncomfortable? The point was made early on that biblical scholars are not in complete alignment with the meaning of Revelation. That’s what I love about it; discomfort facilitates growth!
The lesson this week wraps up the last two letters to the churches, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The messages follow the themes of the other five: faithful followers will be rewarded with eternal life; those who have fallen off the wagon must repent before they will be rewarded with eternal life, and bad apples get no rewards.
Christians in Philadelphia, like Smyrna, got straight A’s on their report card in Revelation 3:7-13. They endured consistent political pressure from the Jewish community in a city devastated by earthquakes and slow economic recovery. Their faith never wavered. As a reward, since Jesus holds the key of David, he promises the pearly gates will be open for the church of Philadelphia.
The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. Revelation 3:12
This imagery of the pillar is something the people of Philadelphia would have understood clearly. Often the only components of a building standing after an earthquake are the pillars. Jesus is saying here that after enduring such hardship so faithfully, the church in Philadelphia will abide permanently with God. Never again will they leave it. This passage is of particular interest to me. It suggests the possibility that humans come and go, in and out of God’s presence (reincarnation) and that in this case, the Philadelphians will stay with God.
The lecturer did a great job summing up the moral of the Philadelphia story. She said that following the teachings of Jesus will not take away our struggles, but they will empower us to endure. This is consistent with that famous Epictetus quote; It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Adversity is an opportunity for personal growth and is what teaches us to be hopeful.
The church in Laodicea, on the other hand, was failing miserably. In contrast, the class notes describe a wealthy city with a strong economy driven by the production of luxurious black wool and Phrygian powder (medicine for eye and ear ailments), banking, and a medical school. The citizens of Laodicea were also impacted by earthquake, but their self-sufficiency secured a quick recovery. Water, however, was a consistent problem; both cool and hot water traveled extremely long distances via aqueduct increasing and decreasing temperature respectively, degrading its quality. This background information is useful in understanding the imagery in Revelation 3:14-22.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm-neither hot nor cold- I am about to spit you out of my mouth. Revelation 3:15-16
Here Jesus is tells the community of Christians in Laodicea that they are neither refreshing nor passionate and that they make him sick. Telling someone they make you sick is about as low as it gets. He goes on to say that although they think they are rich, they are wretched and pitiful which implies the medical school can’t help them. They are poor, blind, and naked which is imagery to counter their wealth derived from banking assets, eye medicine, and expensive wool. Clever I think.
I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich: and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Revelation 3:18
Jesus is dishing out some tough love. Getting a letter like this must have made the Laodicean church pretty uncomfortable. There’s a message here about sharing the wealth with those in need (Philadelphia) because it can’t be taken with you. Perhaps there is even a message about how arrogance robs us of our spirit; never get too comfortable, there’s always work to do. Jesus is knocking on the door to Laodicea and offering to come in. Right now I’m visualizing a Looney Tune clip where Sylvester gets hit on the head with a hammer by Tweetie Bird. I’m also hearing the idiom knock some sense into you and the line from an old Tony Orlando song, knock three times on the ceiling (a heaven metaphor?) if you want me. Philadelphia is in front of an open door no knocking is necessary.
I’ve always believed that an environment of comfort and safety is required for facilitating personal or spiritual growth. That’s true, but it is when we take ourselves to a place of discomfort that we expose the things holding us back from true transformation. Like the Laodiceans, some of us are very comfortable, very self-suffient, very secure in our beliefs about ourselves. Brene Brown defines narcissism as a fear of being ordinary. Have you ever considered that? What about greed as a fear of loss or control as a fear of abandonment and a long list of other things? Facing our fears is hard, especially when we are comfortable, but I’ve come to believe that those moments of discomfort are very often divinely guided clues to empower and transform us into something even better.
Lovingly, I encourage you to not get too comfortable, no pain no gain doesn’t just apply to the gym. It’s a spiritual mantra as well. Be brave.