Those who read the Bible with some regularity often stop before the last book. Skipping over Revelation is an age-old sport in the church. Nearly seventeen hundred years ago, Cyril of Jerusalem forbade the reading of Revelation in public and private. Some early church leaders wanted to replace Revelation with one of the extra gospels left behind, like the Gospels of Peter or Thomas or Judas. Maybe it was not these extra Gospels, but the Book of Revelation that should have been left behind. For all intents and purposes, in mainline worship and life, it has.
Maybe that is a good thing. Revelation’s vivid depiction of natural calamities, cruel torture, and cosmic battles is confusing and chaotic, as if we need more confusion and chaos in our lives right now! The Bible has sixty-five other books to read and try to understand, what is the harm in skipping Revelation, especially on Mother’s Day?!
Throughout the centuries, Revelation has been mistaken for many things – a mysterious blueprint of heaven, a literary, haunted house, a diving board for religious lunatics who would have us think that Revelation is the last great warning lest we be left behind in a cloud of divine dust. Revelation gets mistaken for everything but for what it really is – a long, ancient, coded, often violent, always powerful, unmistakable love letter.
No, it is not a Shakespearean love sonnet or sappy love letter about fleeting emotions written in the midst of an adolescent hormonal frenzy. Revelation is a love letter about a God whose love for us is timeless and certain, and whose claim on our lives takes precedence over all other claims. Revelation is about a God who faces violence and transforms it, a God who will not be finished with creation or with us until violence and enmity find no home in our language or our actions.
Revelation opens with seven letters to Christian communities at the edge of the Roman Empire and Asia. Like most everything else that Revelation purports to reveal, these seven letters to seven churches are actually one theological prism through which a word from God flows to the church in every time and place.
The first letter is addressed to the church in Ephesus, a church in modern day Turkey where the Apostle Paul labored for three years. It reads like a church getting an above average personnel evaluation. The Ephesian church is rock solid. This church does not go for the latest fads of faith. You will find no billboards in front of First Church Ephesus advertising a “Contemporary Worship Service” or screens next to crosses lining out the lyrics to vapid praise songs. Ephesian Christians know what they believe and how everyone else should believe. Unlike other churches among the seven, John does not worry about their faith flagging in zeal.
John’s evaluation, though, does have one of those nagging, dreaded “needs improvement” comments: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” First love lost is the presenting issue in Ephesus, but what does losing your “first love” mean? It cannot be a critique about loosing their zeal for the faith, slacking off and sleeping in on Sundays. They receive high marks for standing firm in the faith. It cannot be about being too busy to put their faith into practice. John has already commended them for their consistent work for Christ in the world.
By almost every measure, the Ephesians are exemplary Christians, quick to worship, resistant to sloppy theology, refusing the temptation to “do in Rome, what the Romans do.” They have fought the good fight against tremendous odds, have stood fast for truth with courage amid Roman harassment and persecution, and they have persevered when others have given up.
And, yet, such a fine church resume has come at a high price, for despite all their faith and Christian virtues, the Ephesians have lost their “first love.” They have lost their love for those Christians who do not understand the faith the way they do and for those sisters and brothers whose evaluations are littered with “needs improvement.”
“Can you hear the irony?” writes my friend, Brian Blount, “The church in Ephesus--the mother of all the churches in Asia, zealous for orthodoxy, and resistant to all temptations to compromise with the evils of society – could be destroyed, not because it has lost the pure doctrine or because it has compromised with the world but because love no longer reigns in it. The church had become so pure, that it was now impure” (Brian Blount, Revelation – A Commentary).
I have never traveled to modern day Turkey, but I have traveled to Ephesus. Ephesus is an attitude that sometimes seeps into me and into the church like an invisible virus. We are in downtown Ephesus when we win church fights by belittling, demeaning, or destroying the faith of those who think or believe differently than we do.
We are in the heart of Ephesus when the church door is narrow though our theology claims to be “broadminded.” You know how the rhetoric goes: “No real Christian would ever believe such nonsense;” “no real Christian would ever be caught dead singing that kind of music;” “no real Christian would ever support that political position;” “no real Christian would ever be caught dead going to that kind of church.”
It does not take long before we, peace-loving, inclusive-minded, bridge-building Christian types find ourselves sitting in our Ephesian pews, managing to send people running from the church, perhaps for a lifetime, because we have demonstrated everything about the Christian faith but the one thing without which everything else is worthless. Love.
Revelation is not a “Jesus loves me, this I know” kind of book and yet, perhaps more than any other New Testament book, Revelation knows that Jesus does love me and you and sees no faith worth leading and no church worth attending that is not finally marked by love. “Genuine love expands, it doesn’t contract,” writes the late William Sloane Coffin (A Passion for the Possible, p. 4).
Mary Oliver says it another way in her poem, “Not Anyone Who Says”:
Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be careful and smart in matters of love,” who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,” but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all but were, as it were, chosen by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable — only those know what I’m talking about in this talking about love.
That is precisely the kind of first love that John calls the Ephesians to reclaim. Love we did not “choose at all,” but love that chose us. Love that draws outside the lines. Love that does not calculate what it might cost or strategize how it might gain us some advantage. It is love that many of us received from a mother or a grandmother, an aunt or someone who stepped into our lives from totally out of the blue. It is the kind of love that Jesus is, a love that chooses us and shapes us and reshapes us, a love that sends fear running and hatefulness after it, a love that never tires in extending welcome, even to those we are told we should send away.
For any who call themselves “Christian,” it is our first love, a love that is “invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful.” If it is a love that has been lost not only by ancient Ephesians, but by you or me, may this be the day when we reclaim it, celebrate it, and jump into it like a cool refreshing pond on a hot, August day.
First love re-found. May that happen today.