Intro: the question of the gospel?
In the Gospel of today we find Jesus looking at the city of Jerusalem. He weeps over the state of the chosen city and people. He knows that in rejecting His mission, they have set themselves up to be given over to their nationalist aspirations in revolting against the Roman Empire, leading to the complete destruction of the city and the Temple. He enters the Temple to clean it symbolizing the need to cleanse their souls of sin and of misunderstanding of true religion.
This begs the question, what would Jesus be thinking – or maybe better: what is he thinking – when he beholds us, his new Jerusalem, after 2000 years. Would he weep the same kind of tears? Of course the testimony of scripture – and especially our weekly readings – guide us into the mind of the Lord. And the Epistle today especially calls on the Church to be filled with the gifts of the spirit, all related to illuminating our minds.
But more specifically we have the Lord’s own letters to the 7 churches, as given to St. John, which we find in Revelation 2 and 3. Those 7 churches represent the whole Church in every age and throughout the ages, as the Lord says in each letter “to heed what the Spirit says to the churches”, plural.
The 3 Cycles of 7 Sundays in Trinity Season
Reflecting on these 7 letters is the more fitting during the long series of Sundays after Trinity. In the Church’s year these Sundays represent that long story of the Church since its creation at Pentecost. That story ends with Advent: the coming of our Lord and the Marriage of the Lamb. Thus Trinity Season is about our preparation for that day: that preparation we call our sanctification. That process of sanctification and preparation is done in three steps, represented by the three steps in the Temple.
- First we purge ourselves outwardly from the disordered passions of the old man, represented by the Outer Court with its sin-offerings and burnt-offerings and cleansing with water.
- Then we are inwardly illuminated by the gifts and grace of the Spirit to serve in the mission of God, represented by the holy place within the Temple where we are illuminated by the candle-stick of the sevenfold Spirit of God (Rev. 4) and offer our prayers at the golden altar of incense.
- And finally we are led to union with God, represented by the sanctuary where we behold God dwelling between the Cherubim above the Arc of the Covenant and commune with Him in the Manna.
To each of the 3 stages we devote 7 Sundays in Trinity season. And each of these 3 aspects are found in the similar pattern of the 7 letters to the churches in Revelation. After the Lord introduces himself under a specific description, each letter contains:
- a word of purgation, diagnosing the state of the church, its virtues and/or vices
- a word of illumination, commanding the church what to do with a warning
- a promise of union with Him, each of which is fulfilled in the last three chapters of Revelation.
This Sunday, today, is the start of the 2nd cycle, focussing on our illumination with the gifts and graces of the Spirit. So let us follow where the first letter might lead us: the letter to the church at Ephesus.
Letter to Ephesus
Ephesus was the most prestigious cultural, commercial and religious centre of Asia, and was famous for its magnificent theatre which could host up to 50.000 people, and even more famous for its Temple of Artemis, which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. And citizens in Ephesus were proud of it. They had rebuilt the city with their own funds and refused any help. We can also see their pride in the history in Acts where they shouted for 2 hours: great is Artemis of the Ephesians. Nobody would be able to challenge them in their position. They were full of spiritual pride.
The purging word
And this is very much what the Lord sees in the church at Ephesus as well. He commends them for their doctrinal and moral purity and endurance: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” They were very well taught by Paul – his letter is one of the most doctrinally complex – and prudent in testing new teachers, and radical in pursuing holiness. She was the desired one, which is the meaning of the word Ephesus. Desired by our Lord for her bridal purity. She was full of the works of the Spirit as we read about them in 1 Corinthians 12.
Yet in all that doctrinal and moral purity of which she could boast, the Lord still finds something amiss. The beautiful bride lacks something quit fundamental: “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first”, or your first love. It is very much like our Gospel of today. The Jews of Jesus day boasted in their magnificent temple – much like the Ephesians – and in their zeal for the law, and their nation, but yet we find our Lord weeping over the city because of the coming destruction. They did not recognise the time of their visitation, nor did they recognise the groom. Their temple had become a den of thieves and they did not notice.
The church in Ephesus is in a similar position. Without that love, all their beauty is worthless. As Paul says about the gifts: “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.”
The illuminating word
So what is Christ’s illuminating word with which he calls them back and cleanses them inwardly: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.”
We can imagine these were the very words Christ used when he was teaching daily in the temple. The Jews in Jesus time and the Ephesian church first of all need to remember from where we went wrong. So it is with us. Maybe we have seen an outward action in ourselves that frightened us: we wonder, where did that come from? We need to look inwardly, to remember, to reflect on the thoughts that led to our outward action, where did I go wrong? The temple of our soul needs God’s cleansed that we may form new habits of love. This will bring us to the works we did at first. To exercise the gifts of the Spirit according to his will – allowing God’s Spirit to dwell in us and so to love in a more perfect way. If there is one thing to keep praying for, it is the gifts of the Spirit, not for own benefit alone but for the edification of the whole Church, the Temple of God.
The warning is very illuminating: If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Taking away the very source of illumination. As the lampstand itself represents the Spirit, it is even a threat to take away the life and light of the church itself, just as Jesus said of Jerusalem in the Gospel. This threat shows the serious state in which the Ephesian church and a soul full of pride is in. As in the Temple in the day of Jesus’ visitation, the mind is darkened by pride: “now they are hidden from your eyes”.
The promise of union
Finally the Lord’s promise of union: To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
Our first parents were excluded from paradise and of eating of the tree of life because they wanted to be as God. And now the way to the paradise is restored to those who become truly humble and whose souls are cleansed by Christ for that intimate communion with God, as shown in eating from the Tree of life. That promise will be fulfilled in the eternal paradise where we find and partake of the tree of life along side the river of the water of life (Rev. 22).
But that paradise is also an image of the Church and of our souls restored. That river of life flows here in the Church, and in the sacrament of the altar we taste spiritually of that tree of life.
So, today: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.