Revelation 3: 14-22
February 5, 2012
The sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, NC has lots of the same things that our sanctuary does – pews, windows, a pulpit, an organ. But at the same time, it’s very different from ours. Reflecting the typical mid-20th century sanctuary style in which it was built, it’s shaped like a large rectangle set on its skinny end, with a center aisle running down the middle. At the front there’s a pulpit on the right and a lectern – a “mini-pulpit,” as some call it – on the left. The choir sits behind each, and the communion table is dead center at the very back.
Now there’s a main entrance to the sanctuary, off the street and the church parking lot that leads into the narthex. But the door that gets the greatest use on Sunday mornings is one at the right front of the sanctuary, not far away from the pulpit. This one leads out to the main hallway, the church offices, the Educational wing, and the Fellowship Hall. So, naturally, this is the door that most people enter through before worship as they come from Sunday school classes and such.
Over time, all that use started to take a toll. After years and years of opening and closing, the latch inside the door had weakened to point where it wouldn’t always stay closed. It would open randomly, day and night, making a slight “clicking” sound as it did. You can imagine the odd and humorous scene this created when it happened during the worship life of the church!
It’s Pentecost Sunday, and during the pinnacle of the minister’s sermon on the power of the Holy Spirit as it blew into that room where the disciples were gathered, the side door of the sanctuary opens. The Holy Spirit has entered! It’s a funeral service, and in the middle of a homily which went on and on about the deceased – a very humble and unassuming man who would’ve never wanted any of that – the side door opens. Mr. Brown must’ve come back to put an end to the rambling! It’s the Christmas pageant, and as the angel Gabriel is sharing the good news with Mary, the door opens. And everyone wonders: did a real angel just grace them with its presence?
I had forgotten all about that door, until last August, when I was back at the church to participate in the ordination service of a good friend. We were laying hands on Sydne, and deep into the prayer of ordination – you guessed it – that door opened!
At the reception afterwards, I asked one of my former church members – Lexington’s version of our Mike Branch, actually – I asked him why the door had never been fixed. He told me that they tried many years before to fix it, but the door handle and lock unit were no longer in production, and there was no good way to put a new one on there without destroying the door. So they just left it as it was. And maybe that’s all for the best, you know? That self-opening door had become part of the church’s lore, their collective story. Besides, doors were meant to be opened!
If only the church in our scripture reading would’ve felt the same. You know, it’s always a bit of a challenge to read anything out of Revelation, because there’s all this deep symbolism and metaphor going on. But in the second and third chapters we are greeted with this vision that John of Patmos experiences – a vision of letters, or prophetic messages if you will, shared with seven churches in the Mediterranean. It’s almost like they’re getting graded for their work in ministry. Some of the grades were high, reflecting a job well done. Others were lower grades for things they’d done wrong, or left undone.
The poorest rating is reserved for the last of these churches – the one in the wealthy Asia Minor city of Laodicea. And it’s interesting – because it’s not their affluence that’s the problem. It’s not that they’re doing anything horrible or wrong. The reason this church receives a message of condemnation is because they were “lukewarm.” Not cold or hot, as the scripture says, but just lukewarm. In fact, the one speaking here says they really wish they were either cold or hot instead. Because being lukewarm is like ending a soccer game or hockey match in a tie. It’s almost worse than a loss – it is the absence of any definitiveness.
That church in Laodicea was lukewarm. Stale. Stagnant. They weren’t on either side of the proverbial fence; they were putting on a clinic on how to straddle that thing. When it came to being a witness of Christ to the world, they weren’t doing a stellar job, nor were they doing a terrible job. They were doing something worse – they just didn’t seem to care.
Now there are many things that can bring a church down. A pastor or church leader can have some huge scandal revealed. Dissention and disunity can wedge itself in and tear a church apart. A congregation can be confused or unclear as to what its mission and vision, its purpose in the world, is. Members can treat the church and staff with a “country-club” mentality, where the church is viewed as nothing more than a provider of goods and services. All of those can spell trouble for a church.
But it is hard for me to imagine anything more devastating to a church than being lukewarm. Apathy – from the minister, from the staff, from the members – apathy can flat-out suck the life out of a church. I was trying to find some powerful, insightful quote on this when I googled the words “church” and “apathy” this past week. Who would’ve thought I’d find a website for “The Church Of Apathy!” I found “Reverend Bob’s” message on the home page quite insightful:
The Church of Apathy won't help you do anything. We’re not trying to help you become more focused, motivated or confident. We’re not qualified to do so, and furthermore, we couldn't care less. If you're deluded enough to think your life could be made meaningful if only you found the right church, that’s fine; but please understand, this isn’t that church. Be sure to bookmark this site, so you can return again and again. Millions of visitors begin their day by spending 15-30 minutes here and report that it helps them resign themselves to the pointless drudgery the remaining twenty-three and a half hours is certain to bring. (from www.chuurchofapathy.com)
Inspiring. I’m not entirely sure if this is a joke or not, but I wonder if this is what that church in Laodicea looked like, had they had websites back then. Because make no mistake, that church was an apathetic, lukewarm bunch – and there was perhaps no greater evidence of this than what we find in verse 20, where Jesus is standing at the door knocking, but they refused to answer the door. Jesus is right outside, and they weren’t letting him in.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those persons who has a hard time not opening a door when someone’s knocking on it. When the doorbell rings, I’ve got to answer it. When the phone rings, I have to pick it up. I can’t just ignore an email in my inbox, a Facebook message or text.
And yet here is Jesus, knocking at this church’s door, trying to get in. He’s knocking and knocking and knocking, and no one is answering. And the thing is, Jesus isn’t going to open the door himself. That’s not his style. Jesus needs the community of faith inside to open the door themselves and welcome him in. He needs the church to accept his presence in their midst – not because it’s something they have to do, but because it’s something they choose to do. But no one in this church is letting Jesus in. No one. Because they’re lukewarm and apathetic. Because they just don’t care.
Listen! I’m standing at the door, knocking. Hello!
And why does Jesus want to get in?
If you open the door, he says,
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
You know, I find it kind of odd that, of all the things Jesus wants, of all the things Jesus could engage in once that door is opened, I find it odd that he wants to have dinner. Sit down at a table and have a meal with us. No healings, no preaching or teaching, no massive miracles. What’s so special about gathering around the table and eating?
Could it be that Jesus is being not just a “Door-Knocker” here in the third chapter of Revelation, but a “Party-Bringer” as well? Check out this thought offered up by one pastor and writer:
There is Jesus! He has in his hand a giant tray of goodies that he's bought at Whole Foods Market, or Fresh Market, or any place you'd like to name -- as long as the food is outrageously expensive and fabulously good. So when he finally appears in your house, having made short work of all the closed doors in your life, make no mistake about what he'll say. He won't say, "What have you got for supper?" or "Why don't you get us something to drink?" He'll say, "Have some caviar! Have a quail egg! Have the flourless, double-chocolate cake!" He'll say, "Take, eat!" – not "Fetch!" He'll say "Have!” – not "Get!" And he'll say "Enjoy!” – because all his gifts are now yours. (adapted from Robert Farrar Capon, The Foolishness of Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel Against the Wisdom of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 118-119, 125-126)
Don’t you see? Jesus wasn’t knocking at the door of that church in Laodicea because he wanted to call them out on their apathy. Jesus wasn’t being the pesky neighbor incessantly ringing the doorbell because he couldn’t wait to tell them how lukewarm they were. Jesus is constantly knocking at our door – persistently, unceasingly, faithfully – because the one thing that Jesus wants most is to sit around the table with each one of us and enjoy a good meal. To dine with us, party with us, celebrate God’s goodness with us.
And you know why he wants to do that? Because when we finally open that door and let Jesus in; when we finally sit down at the table Jesus has prepared for us over and over and over again, it becomes very, very hard to continue being lukewarm. It’s near impossible to be apathetic when you’re sitting at the table, eating with Jesus. When we are met face to face with just how much Jesus loves us, how much he gave up for us, and how magnificent and extraordinary this kingdom he’s coming to build on earth with us really is, we cannot help but care. And great things happen when the church starts caring about being the church.
Which is why I think we ought to be more like that rickety old church door that would always open on its own, in the middle of worship, reminding the people who it is that’s trying to get inside to be with them. Or, better yet, the slogan for Welcome Swiss Hotels: Where Doors Open Before You Even Knock. Jesus is knocking at the door. Let’s let him in! Thanks be to God. AMEN.