“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” ’ (Rev 3: 1-6)
I include the whole message to the church in Sardis here to put the heading in context. I do believe that the Spirit is saying to the churches today to “strengthen the things that remain;” I don’t believe He is saying that every church today is as dead as Sardis was. (Having said that, I believe that we all need to be humble enough to say, “Lord, is that me?” For if David could say: “I will be more lightly esteemed than this and will be humble in my own eyes,” (2 Sam 6:22) and if Jesus described Himself as “meek and humble of heart,” (Matt 11:29) then the precedents are there, and it can only bring us blessing if we are open to the possibility that the whole of the message to Sardis is for us. However I want to focus here on just the one line.) So what does it mean to strengthen the things that remain?
I used to think, particularly when I Iistened to Bob Dylan’s rendering of these words in his song “When you gonna wake up?” that the things that remain were the things that were still left when everything else had died. In a sense of course they are, but I believe that the focus of these words is the context given to them in 1 Cor 13:13: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. … But the greatest of these is love.” The church at Sardis was “dead” because it was weak in these three things. The foundations of church life – the molecular structure of its DNA – are our faith in Jesus, our hope of eternal life, and our love for one another. As we know, the greatest of these is the final one. And since we know from 1 Corinthians 13:2 that if we “have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and … have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love” we are nothing, I think we can reasonably guess that it was the third and greatest of the “things that remain” that was most lacking at Sardis. Are our churches alive because of the worship, because of the prayers, the preaching and the prophesies, and even the manifested power of the Holy Spirit in signs and wonders – or are they alive because we are loving one another?
It’s only God’s love that connects Heaven to Earth, and it’s His love that connects us to one another. I think that Jesus is saying to His church today – certainly His church in the West – that we are fragile in the “things that remain,” and that we need to be stronger in them to face the challenges ahead. The picture above is of a model of the molecular structure of DNA, the carrier of life. If each molecule is an individual within the Body of Christ, it is the “things that remain” that are the connectors which hold us together. Without them there is no life – it is “without form and void,” (Gen 1:2) in fact. Jesus promised, more than once, that persecutions would come upon the church. When they do, it will be the connectors that are going to be important. When it seems that our provisions are threatened, we will need to encourage one another in faith in the God who keeps His promises of provision. If we find ourselves in a situation where our life itself is threatened, we will need to tie ourselves to the anchor of our souls, the promise of eternal life in Christ, to face that threat. And to hold each other up in that faith and that hope we need to love one another. Without the connector of Love, the promise “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20) loses meaning, because His name is Love. If we are not gathered in Love, we are not gathered in His name, as I have written in the article “The testimony of Jesus (2): when two or three are gathered in my name.”
James writes: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. (James 1: 2-4) And Peter writes: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” (1 Peter 4: 12-13) Unless we are strong in faith, hope and love we will miss that joy through times of trial which comes from perseverance. I think our faith, our hope and our love are tested in different ways, but one thing is sure throughout: we will need to be connected to one another if we are going to persevere.
Sometimes it can seem as though we are on an express train that rushes through a mixed landscape of pressures and of pleasures: there are demands and deadlines to meet, places to go, people to see, texts to write, things to buy, stuff to do, fun to have – and the train doesn’t stop to allow us off. But Paul writes: “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” (Rom 14: 17-19). Paul is exhorting the Romans not to prioritize that which feeds the flesh, but to pursue the things that feed the Spirit. The Kingdom of God – “Righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” – is built in the places where we connect with one another and strengthen the faith, hope and love that we share.
Jesus teaches us that if we “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, … all these things shall be added to you.” (Matt 6:33) If we are fragile in the “things that remain” we need to pursue the Kingdom of God in order to strengthen them. I think that means above all that we have to strengthen the love that connects us to one another: not because God will judge us if we don’t, but because we will break if we don’t. Seeking first the Kingdom of God means putting our relationships above our needs, our deadlines, and our ambitions – even, and for some, especially – our ministry ambitions; it means that we “pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another,” as opposed to chasing after those things on the express train by which we feed ourselves. Sometimes we have to jump off the train, as dangerous as it may seem, in order to seek His Kingdom. But when we do, we find everything that we were looking for, and most of all we find Jesus waiting for us when we land.
“When you gonna wake up?” from Slow Train Coming, by Bob Dylan