August 2, 2020. Sermon Title: I Know Your Affliction

First Mennonite Church

August 2 2020

I Know Your Affliction

Text: Revelation 2:8-11

  2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: 2:9 “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 2:10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 2:11 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.

The days following Jesus’ resurrection, according to the book of Acts of the Apostle, the nascent Christian movement became the target of harassment and persecution. John and Peter were flogged and imprisoned. James was kill with the sword. Stephen was stoned to death. As a result of the persecution, many Christians fled to other places within the Roman Empire, only to start new Christian communities to be persecuted as well. By the end of the first century AD, there were Christian communities throughout most of the Roman Empire. Domitian, the Roman Emperor, exiled John to the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. There, John wrote the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament. Since its early days, the Christian community has suffered persecution and continues to do so.

We should not forget that our spiritual forefathers/mothers, the Anabaptists, were a persecuted people as well. Interestingly, those who persecuted the early Anabaptist were not pagan authorities, but Christians: Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed. The Anabaptists were sent into exile, imprisoned, burn at the stake, and drowned in the freezing water of the Limmat River, in Zurich.  

Here is a story from the book The Bloody Theater, better known as the Martyrs Mirror. In AD. 1592, because Bartholomew Panten was baptized upon his faith in Jesus Christ, was arrested and tortured while in prison. In the last days of his life he wrote a farewell letter to his very young daughter in which he, among other things, admonished her, how she, when arriving at maturity should act with regard to the issue of Christian baptism. “My dear child,” he wrote, “take this to heart, and when you attain your understanding, my paternal request to you is, to join those who fear God, who are by far the least among all people, but who are nevertheless the true congregation and church of God; who practice their rule according to the ordinance of the Lord, and the practice of the apostles, namely, a baptism which is founded upon faith, and must be received as Christ has commanded, and as is written in Matthew.”[1] Bartholomew was pious man and shortly after writing this letter to his daughter, he was burned at the stake for refusing to admit that his baptism was a violation of the official church’s teaching.

Smyrna of John’s times is the city of Izmir in Turkey, today. It is the third largest city and the second most important seaport in that country. The church in Smyrna is second in the list of seven churches to which John was instructed to write his Apocalypse. Smyrna was rebuilt by Alexander the Great, after the city had laid in waste for many years. Therefore, by the end of the first century, Smyrna prided not only of having risen from the ruins and for its wealth but also for being a faithful worshiper of the Roman Emperor Domitian. 

In Revelation the church of Smyrna is addressed by the Lord who walks amidst the golden lampstands. And there is something worth noticing in the Lord’s address to this church. The Lord has nothing to say against this church, as he does with the other five. The church in Smyrna and the church in Philadelphia are the only two churches that are not rebuked by the Lord. The letter’s purpose is clear; it was to comfort her, to remind her of what she has, and to anticipate her of what lies ahead.

The Lord begins by reminding the church in Smyrna who he is: “These are the words of the First and the Last, who was dead and has come to life . . . .”   With parallel imagery about this city’s resurrection from ruins, the Lord reminds the church that He too was dead, once, but has come back to life. And this would become the strongest point of assurance the Lord would give this church undergoing severe persecution. If death is the worst that can happen, even that is not the end. Resurrection is possible and is the promise for the people of God.   

The Christ who was dead and has come to life and who is the Alpha and Omega reminds the suffering Christians in Smyrna that he is on their side. The promise of resurrection might not be fully grasped now. You see, while the Smyrnian church professed the Lordship of a risen Jesus, they were being slaughtered. While they offered worship to Jesus, the whole city professed allegiance and venerated the Roman Caesar. While the church confessed faith in the God who created everything, they lived in utter poverty. These Christians were the joke of all people. How could their God, Creator of all allow them to live in misery? It is not surprising that under this kind of pressure, ridicule, and torment even the larger Jewish community in Smyrna compromised its faith. The Jewish community aligned itself with the larger society and began to worship the Emperor; thus, it was not disturbed. That is why the Lord says of them, “I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.   

The resurrected Lord reminds the church of Smyrna that he is aware of their tribulation: “I know your affliction and your poverty. I know the slander you suffer…” These “I know” statements are more than just the awareness the Lord has about their reality. The Lord had experienced affliction and poverty in his own flesh. That is why He is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses and suffering.   

Suffering makes the heart grow tender. Suffering sensitizes the eyes and ears, making the heart capable to empathize with others. Churches that have endured persecution are marked deeply in their spirit and way of being. The persecution Mennonites endured in the Sixteenth Century continues to hold some of its effect even today. Mennonites are known around the world for their work towards peace, social justice, and in alleviating the suffering of the weak and needy. 

Dear church, for the last four months we have suffered not more than a mere inconvenience of not being able to gather for worship. This reminds us of the words found in the letter to the Hebrews where we read:  In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood (12:4). No one of us has shed a drop of blood for the sake of Christ, yet. Most of the suffering we experience is due to “natural” causes, illnesses, death of loved ones, mostly, after a full life, and loss of material things, sometimes.

The message the Risen Christ gave to the Smyrnian church was one of comfort and affirmation for its faith. This church was suffering persecution for the Name of Christ and the prospects was that it was going to worsen. These Christians were being dispossessed from the little possessions they had, sent into exile, tortured and put to the sword, all because they refused to worship the Roman deity. Caesar, the Divi Filius (son of god), was the representation of power, wealth, imposed peace, and yet was unforgiving toward those who would not give their allegiance to him. The same message the Risen Christ gave the church in Smyrna he gives us today: Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.

Let us remember that throughout the ages Christians have suffered. Some, like James, Stephen, and Peter of the NT, and Bartholomew of the sixteenth century, among many others, died because of their faith. Some like those in India, today, suffer harassment, marginalization, and, in some cases, the burning down of their church buildings. For us today, it might be not being able to meet together for worship. But the most pressure we have is to compromise our loyalty to the Lord. Every time something other than being a follower of Christ becomes our primary identity, we lose our saltiness and dim our light in the world.

The Lord knows our struggles. He knows what troubles us in our waking hours. The messageof the Risen Christ for us is:

“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich.

Do not fear …but

Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Amen!

Pastor Romero

[1] The Bloody Theater or The Martyrs Mirror: On Holy Baptism.