Tuesday of Week 33 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22

Today we read two more of the seven letters to the churches in the Roman province of Asia. These letters are addressed to the churches at Sardis and Laodicea.

The first is to the Christian community in Sardis. Sardis, nowadays called Sart, was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia, and at that time a city famous for its wealth. Its acropolis, which rose 500 metres above the valley below, was a natural fortress on the northern slopes of Mount Tmolus.

This letter is far more critical than the one we read yesterday to the Ephesians. Quite bluntly, the church in Sardis, which seems to be alive, is in fact spiritually dead. They are urged to rouse themselves before they die out completely (sadly, dying churches are by no means a new phenomenon! – the problem goes back to the earliest days).

The letter comes from him “who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars”. The seven “spirits” are the seven archangels which stand before God.

‘John’ can find nothing in their present way of living that could be commended, and reminds them of the enthusiasm at the time of their first conversion. They should go back to that and sincerely repent of the situation they have let themselves get into. Otherwise, the Lord will come on them like a thief, and that could mean some unpleasant experiences. This warning is not about the Final Coming as mentioned in the gospels but of something likely to happen sooner.

In spite of that, some have remained faithful, they have “kept their robes from being dirtied” and, dressed in the white of goodness and victory, are fit to go with the Lord. Elsewhere in the book the faithful are described as dressed in white. Their names will remain recorded in the “book of life”. In the Old Testament this referred to a register of all citizens in the kingdom community. To have one’s name removed from this book would indicate loss of citizenship in the kingdom.

Could we say that the letter to the Christians of Sardis in any way describes the church community to which we belong? Even though there are some external signs of church activity (e.g. going to church), how alive are we in reality? The answer will vary greatly from community to community.

The life the Letter speaks of is there for the asking (“I have come that they may have life”), but it is up to us both individually and collectively to take the steps needed to experience that life.

The second letter today is addressed to the church at Laodicea. It contains some of the most striking and lovely phrases from the whole book and is totally relevant to modern readers.

Now known as Pamukkale (in southwestern Turkey), Laodicea was, in Roman times, the wealthiest city in Phrygia. We are told it was especially known for its banking, its medical school, and its textile industry. Its major lack was an inadequate water supply. These characteristics are all touched on in the passage that follows.

Again the message comes through John from the “Amen”, meaning God, who is described as “the faithful, the true witness, the ultimate source of God’s creation”. Isaiah speaks of the “God of Amen”, usually translated “God of truth” or “God of fidelity”. God’s fidelity is clearly contrasted here with the behaviour of the Laodiceans. He is the “first” (arche) of all creation – either in the sense of being the ultimate source of God’s creation or the first in rank above all creation.

John’s principal complaint against this church is its tepidity. It is neither hot nor cold. “Hot” could be a reference to the hot spa in nearby Hierapolis. The church in Laodicea neither afforded the healing power of heat for the spiritually sick, nor the cool refreshment for the spiritually weary. And, like a drink, which should be either piping hot or refreshingly cool but is neither – God says, “I will spit you out of my mouth.”

The problem is that the Laodiceans are blinded by material wealth which conceals their spiritual poverty from them. They are both spiritually blind and naked. To remedy this situation they are urged to buy real gold, i.e. spiritual riches that have been thoroughly tested in time of trial. Then, they really will be rich.

In addition to that, they should fit themselves out with the white robes of virtue and apply a spiritual ointment to their eyes so that they can really see what is most true and worthy of pursuit in life. This is a reference to their blindness and nakedness just mentioned. Each of these three items, in material form, financial wealth (gold), its extensive textile industry (clothes) and a famous eye salve were things of which the Laodiceans were particularly proud and renowned for.

Whatever sufferings come their way should not be a matter of concern for them. For God “reproves and disciplines all those he loves”. This is a phrase taken from the Book of Proverbs:

My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves the one he loves, as the father the son in whom he delights (Prov 3:11-12)

The Letter to the Hebrews also uses this text and enlarges on it (Heb 12:5-11). And Paul tells the Corinthians:

When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned with the world (1 Cor 11:32).

It seems at first to be contradictory and yet it is only when we are tested that our love can grow and mature. That is just as true of our relations with our parents as it is with God. The totally undisciplined child becomes ‘spoilt’ and often flawed for life.

And the trials we experience are often calls and reminders from God to redirect our lives more in his direction, in other words, to repent, to reform, to convert.

So the Lord tells the Laodiceans that he is standing at the door, knocking. If only some of them will open the door to him, he will come in, sit down, and share their meal with them. This is one of the most beautiful images in the New Testament and it has been extended to encompass the desire that Jesus has to come into and be part of all our lives. But his coming in depends entirely on us.

One of the most famous representations of the scene is by the English artist, Holman Hunt. It shows Jesus, wearing the crown of a King and holding a lamp in his hand standing outside the door of a house waiting to be admitted. The picture is entitled, “The Light of the World”. What has often been pointed out is that the door has no handle on the outside. It can only be opened from the inside. Jesus will not force his way in; he will only enter at our invitation. He is there right now and will be there all during this day and every day. Are we going to invite him in or not?

The letter concludes with a promise that the victorious, that is, those who have successfully committed themselves to following Christ and living the Gospel, will sit with Jesus Christ just as Jesus himself sits with his Father. As we read in the Second Letter to Timothy:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him
If we endure, we will also reign with him.
(2 Tim 2:11-12)

Echoing the words of Jesus, the letter’s final words are:

If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. (Matt 11:15)

This letter is probably the most powerful of the seven, and the one which speaks most eloquently to our day. It warns us of the tepidity, the “I-am-a-good-enough-Catholic” syndrome that can take hold of our lives and lead us to lead lives of spiritual complacency and even smugness. It reminds us of our basic poverty, even if – indeed especially if – we are doing extremely well on the material level. Further, sufferings, failures and disappointments in our lives should not be seen as punishments from God. On the contrary, God is showing his love for us through these experiences. It needs a special insight to be able to see this

Jesus our King is standing outside the door of our inner home and asking to be admitted. He wants to come in and share himself with us but it is up to us to open that door.

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