The book of Revelation in the Bible is, in general, such a difficult book to read – full of visions, dreams and mysterious imagery. There seems to be about as many interpretations of the book as there are theologians. A dragon knocks stars down from the sky. Prophets slay their enemies with fire from their mouths. A beast rises from the sea. It’s wild. Except for the very beginning. The beginning is curious for how incredibly down-to-earth it is. God addresses the major churches of that day in Philadelphia, Pergamum, Laodicea and other places, and He gets specific and names names. “You are doing this and not doing this.” “You excel in this area but not in this other.” It’s practically a “how-to” guide on what healthy church life should look like. And on one particular day, the passage being read for Mass was the message to the church in Ephesus.
First, God encourages the church: “I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary.” Rev. 2:2-3
My goodness! what better compliment can a church get? The church in Ephesus was not some seeker-sensitive congregation with an anesthetizing faith that gave them all the warm and fuzzies but never challenged them. They had a faith that pushed them and formed them through fire into the image of Christ. They endured. They persevered until it hurt. This was a people who did not march to the world’s drum. They didn’t care if people called them fools or if they happened to fall on the “wrong side of history.” They believed what they believed with stalwart resolve. But just as the inner zealot in me was beginning to bang the war-drum, God had this to say:
“Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” 2:4-5
You have lost the love. God, like a volleyball player, throws the church’s reputation up high so as to slam it to the ground. “You have lost the love you had.” You do all these fantastic things for God like a husband who buys his wife flowers and takes her out to dinner just so he can have the satisfaction of checking “Do Something Nice for Your Wife” off his to-do list. (It’s right there between, “Say Something Nice to Your Kids” and “Compliment a Co-worker.”) Oh, how good it feels to accomplish something. It gives meaning to our otherwise dreary and boring lives. We compliment ourselves on getting such high marks in “Spirituality 101”.
In other words, God is telling Ephesus that they are getting everything right, except the one thing that matters most: their motivation. They are like this body of believers who have a healthy brain, bones, muscles and organ tissue, but no beating heart. It echoes the words Jesus spoke to Martha in the Gospels. The story goes that when He came to His good friends’ Mary and Martha’s home, Martha was busy trying to make food for Him and be the good host. Mary, on the other hand, just sat at Jesus’ feet, wrapt in attention to His every word. Martha was quick to make the solid doctrinal point that a good follower of Jesus ought to help in mercy ministries – namely, cooking food for the hungry. But Jesus was quick to rebuke Martha. “There is need of only one thing,” He said. “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:42) Martha chose ministry. Mary chose love.
Now, of course, this is not to say that ministry is bad. God praised Ephesus for their ministry. He praised them for being the hard-nosed, conservative Catholic church they were. They called a sin a sin. They didn’t mince words. They weren’t afraid to call out heresy when they saw it. And they’d lose their tax-exempt status (who needs it anyway?) if it meant they could stay true to their convictions.
But they forgot the whole reason they started doing this in the first place. What they once did as an act of hopeless romance had grown into an empty habit. The holy sacraments they had once come to with joy and trembling had grown into an empty ritual. What they once did because their hearts were overflowing had now become something of a cultural thing. And their children did them simply because that’s what had always been done.
I think this is why Jesus found such joy in the tax-collectors, the prostitutes, and sinners. Sure, they struggled with more baggage than the average person. But they knew what love was, and that was really all that mattered. Their hearts were beating, and so long as that was the case, they were alive. But what can be done for the Christian with no heart? “Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place…” A dead church deserves a decent burial.
Of course, as I listened to this passage, I saw myself in them. That’s why I’m blogging about it now. It describes me. It has described much of my life from back when I was a Protestant and now as a Catholic. I have zeal. But zeal isn’t the same as love. I have the force of habit, but habit isn’t love either. I can spout good theology, but theology, as well, is not love. Love is not a set of legalistic rules I check off because I’m Catholic.*
Love, if I can describe it, is coming to the Cross of Christ and realizing there is no way I could repay Him for what He’s done. Love is surrendering to the overwhelming forgiveness and mercy God has for me. Love is letting myself be broken over my own sin and the sin of others because I’ve become aware of how much havoc it wreaks in our lives. Love is letting that feeling of gratitude – for being remembered by God though I am so small and sinful – wash over me and humble me. Love is the stuff of relationships, not business transactions. Becoming a Christian is not like signing a contract that says, “I give my life to Jesus, and He gives me Heaven”. It’s like meeting someone and realizing you can’t see your life without them. You can’t live without them simply because of who they are, and nothing more. You must have them with you, always, forever, in your life. That’s love. And if we don’t have that, then whatever right doctrine we have and good works we do will mean next to nothing. Without the beating heart, we are dead.
*although, a list can be helpful. I’m notoriously forgetful.