When in Rome

Published: Sunday, 15 July 2018

When in RomeThis sermon was presented on 15 July 2018 at the Ashburton Baptist Church by Geoff Pound and is the final in the series from the book of Revelation. It concludes with some questions for personal reflection and group study.

Scripture Reading: Revelation 1: 9-20

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is that satirical film about a man who’s born at the same time and place as Jesus of Nazareth.[1]

In one of their sketches the leaders of the People’s Front of Judea are seated in a dark room, plotting how they can break into Caesar’s Palace and overthrow the Roman oppressors.

One leader, with the unlikely name of Reg, says to the group of masked activists:

“They’ve bled us white … They’ve taken everything we had … What have the Romans ever given us in return?”

Xerxes says: “The aqueduct.”

Reg concedes: “Oh yeah, they gave us that. Yeah, that’s true.”

Another says: “And the sanitation.”

Stan says: “Yes, sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.”

Reg says: “All right, I’ll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.”

Matthias says: “And the roads…”

Reg says with exasperation: “Well, yes, obviously the roads … the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads…”

By this time others start to add more: “Irrigation… medicine, education, health and the wine…Yeah that’s something we’d really miss if the Romans left … The public baths. And it’s safe to walk in the streets at night, now.”

“All right … all right,” says Reg, “but apart from sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a freshwater system, baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

Xerxes says: “They’ve brought peace.”

“What,” says Reg, who’s not having a good meeting at all. “Peace, yes … shut up.”

How do we live under a foreign rule? How do we live under a foreign regime? This was not only the challenge of the People’s Front of Judea but it was a challenge for the early Christians to whom the last book of the Bible was first intended.

The everyday greeting in Palestine was: ‘Peace be unto you’ to which you’d respond: ‘Unto you be peace’. Under the Roman Empire the greeting increasingly became ‘Caesar is Lord’ to which the reply was ‘The Lord is Caesar’ because ‘When in Rome, do what the Romans do’. And woe betide those people who’d reply, ‘Jesus is Lord’.

Isn’t this still the challenge for those of us who live in a selfie culture that encourages getting ahead, accumulating and lording it over others? Yet we’ve been called to follow Jesus, to walk in his servant way and to pray, “May your kingdom come.”

Lyn and I have spent the last month walking from Florence to Rome. Most of the time we walked in forests and bush and we stayed in rural villages but in our last two days we could see in the distance the huge city of Rome glistening in the sun and twinkling in the night.

The closer you get the more daunting and overwhelming Rome becomes. The Basilicas with their mind-boggling architecture, the chapels and galleries with their extravagant art, the Colosseum with its sport, the forums with its festivals, the Pantheon with its gods, the piazzas, the fountains.

It’s all so grand and so seductive. If that’s not enough, the city’s size, pride and arrogance have become proverbial: ‘All roads lead to Rome’. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’.

So how do we cope when our eyes are filled with the might and power of another regime, like Rome or ‘Babylon’, as its referred to in the book of Revelation?[2] How do we cope when we’re filled with fear and dread?

John’s introductory words provide us with some answers:

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Revelation 1: 9

What have the Romans done for us? They might have given bridges and roads and education and water but they ruled with an iron fist. With fear and not love. They didn’t grant freedom of worship so political and religious non-conformists like John were dealt with harshly. He says to his readers that he too, shares with them ‘in Jesus the persecution’ probably under the Emperor Domitian.

The punishment for speaking out the word of God and his allegiance to Jesus was banishment to the Greek island of Patmos situated about 30 kilometres off the western coast of modern Turkey. Don’t think here of a holiday in the Greek islands. Think of a prison, banishment, and isolation.

Then John writes:

I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day

Revelation 1: 10

Cooped up in his island prison, John’s not complaining and feeling sorry for himself. John is engaged in worship. Something significant happens in worship on a certain Sunday. That phrase ‘on the Lord’s day’ is reminiscent of that occasion that Luke describes when “Jesus went to Nazareth… and on the Sabbath Day he went into the synagogue as was his custom.” (Luke 4: 16)

Like his Lord, John’s worship wasn’t haphazard. His commitment to worship wasn’t spasmodic. This is a reference to the holy habit of worship.

The vision recorded in the book of Revelation comes to him when he’s at worship. This revelation of hope, this quality of hanging on, this vision that gave courage, this gift of ‘patient endurance’ comes out of the experience of worship.

In worship, John hears a voice. He looks and he sees the living Christ and lamp stands depicting the seven churches holding their lights high and steady in the dark times. What a personal encounter this was. John writes:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.

Revelation 1: 17-18

For John fearing for his life and anxious for those scattered among the churches whose loved ones had been martyred, what a strong hope this vision must have given them. And such comfort and hope came through the experience of worship.

When we live under another regime, worshipping the living God will shape us. If we neglect worship, if we pervert worship, if we water worship down, we and our communities will fall into chaos and despair.

We called in to lots of churches when we were away in this last month in Italy, not to gaze like tourists but to sit and pray like pilgrims. We attended many services. Some felt lifeless, like going through the motions. It’s hard to be fresh when a preacher and leader of worship has four services a day to deliver. And some people we noticed got up and left before the benediction as if to say ‘we’ve done our duty for another week’.

One of the gifts of such a holiday is the conversations you have with other people. Those encounters which aren’t planned and there’s that serendipity—those surprising meetings that are short but none the less significant.

One night we shared a delicious meal of pasta and pizza with a man and he told us his story. Growing up in the USA, getting involved in addiction but at a point of great despair he called out to God for the first time with earnestness and genuine intent. That was the start of a relationship with God through Jesus that’s become real and growing. Today he’s a spirituality professor in a university.

It’s that earnestness, that desperation, that fair dinkum attitude that’s the key to real prayer and the life-changing worship in which God delights.

We may not be able to get out through the week to a worship space like this or to midday prayers at WellSpring but being banished to a remote island didn’t stop John from regular worship.

It’s been wonderful to see the photos and videos of Baptists from all over the world meeting recently in Zurich. Ken and Rhonda Edmonds from Ashburton were there at this gathering. They were taken on a walk to a remote place where there was a large cave. They heard Dr Karen Bullock tell the story of the early Baptists who believed all people should have the freedom to worship in their way, without the state prescribing and ordering their worship.

So, in this large, plain cave these persecuted Baptists would gather in the sixteenth century. Two weeks ago, Baptists from all round the world gathered in that same place. They worshipped and they joined in the singing of that same song:

 

Praise God from whom all blessings flow

Praise him, all creatures here below.

Praise him above, ye heavenly host;

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Have you got a cave at your place where you can retreat for regular worship? Or simply a room or part of a room, where you can close the door, where you can light a candle and form a focus and like John, be ‘in the Spirit’.

In Italy we visited many caves, where Francis of Assisi and his followers gathered. High in the mountains above the busy life of Assisi is a sanctuario called the carceri. There’s a number of caves where they’d often go for quiet and prayer.

Or much further along our walk we went up into a forest and arrived at the beautiful spot in Monteluco. This was another place where Francis loved to come. Now there’s a small church in the midst of a beautiful forest. Today you can walk through the woods heeding the request to keep silent. Approaching this sanctuary, there is this notice that reads in Italian and English:

This place is holy.

People come here in silence to listen to God,

To grow in the faith and in communion with God,

To renew their hearts and minds

And to return home stronger

And as a creative force

For good in society.

What a beautiful statement about the rhythm of prayer and action, of listening to God and living it out, of communion and creativity.

Since the mid 1500s, one of the pilgrim traditions is to visit the so-called Pilgrim churches around Rome. On our last day we visited some of these seven churches that remember and revere many of the apostles and martyrs.

One of those destinations is the catacombs in Rome where there are miles of underground passage ways and chambers where tens of thousands of the early Christians were buried.[3]

It’s outside the city walls. Because Christians were not allowed to own property in the city[4] It has crypts and galleries and in the larger spaces for worship there’s a range of art. The early Christians loved art. You can see on the cave walls pictures of the Good Shepherd and the symbolic first two letters C H of the Greek word Christos. You can see the dove depicting the Holy Spirit and divine peace. There are drawings of a fish which was another secret word to indicate you were a Christian.[5] The Alpha and the Omega (the A and the Z) is common and the anchor of salvation.

It’s all so inspiring. You’re reminded of how during the persecution by the Romans (AD 64) Christianity was considered a strange superstition. It was deemed to be illegal. Christians were mistrusted, kept aloof and accused of the worst crimes. Christians were persecuted, imprisoned, exiled like John or condemned to death. They were not allowed to profess their faith or worship together. No wonder they were forced underground. No wonder they adopted secret symbols. It’s such a reminder of the cost of following the One who died on a Roman cross.

When you come up to ground level and you are blinking at the sunlight, it’s good to walk along the Appian Way. There is the site of a story about the soon to be called ‘Saint Peter’ who was scurrying away from the Christian persecutions in Rome.

As he was running away, he had a vision of Christ blocking the road. The surprised and nervous Peter asked, “Domine Quo Vadis? Which is Latin for “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus said, “To Rome to be crucified a second time.”

Peter was chastened because it seemed that Christ was going to take his place. He realized that what he was doing was cowardly. So, Peter turned around, went back to Rome and to his martyrdom.

The church on this site is called Domine Quo Vadis. There’s a sign on the front door which says: “Stop your walking traveler and enter this sacred temple…”[6]

Yes, it’s in the place of worship that the risen living Christ may stop us in our tracks.

It’s in in worship that we come to see and confess we are cowards.

It’s in worship that we find forgiveness and the courage to return and take up our cross.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Reading: Revelation 1: 9-20

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.”

12 Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. 14 His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. 19 Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

“How do we live under a foreign rule and regime?”

What aspects of the political, legal and cultural system that we currently live in create conflicts and challenges for you in living out your faith?

Living under the shadow of Rome or ‘Babylon’, as its referred to in the book of Revelation?[7] must have filled the early Christians with fear and dread.

How do you describe your feelings as a Christian living in Australia?

I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Revelation 1: 9

How might John’s introductory words have provided his readers in Asia Minor with good news?

“The Romans didn’t grant freedom of worship so political and religious non-conformists like John were dealt with harshly.” In what countries of the world where religious and political freedom is curbed or cut do you have a special interest and a prayerful compassion?

I was in the spirit on the Lord’s day

Revelation 1: 10

“The vision recorded in the book of Revelation comes to him when he’s at worship. This revelation of hope, this quality of hanging on, this vision that gave courage, this gift of ‘patient endurance’ comes out of the experience of worship.”

How and when have you found the experience of personal prayer and/or public worship to give you hope, courage, patient endurance or some other quality that you’ve needed?

John writes more about the personal impact of this experience in worship:

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.

Revelation 1: 17-18

How do you think such a vision would have helped John and his readers?

Any ideas from John’s experience about how we should engage in worship today?

Geoff referred to attending many services, “some of which felt lifeless, like going through the motions. It’s hard to be fresh when a preacher and leader of worship has four services a day to deliver. And some people we noticed got up and left before the benediction as if to say ‘we’ve done our duty for another week’.”

How can worship leaders and preachers stay fresh?

How can the worship experience be vibrant and life-changing as it was for John, not a routine duty like brushing our teeth?

“It’s that earnestness, that desperation, that fair dinkum attitude that’s the key to real prayer and the life-changing worship in which God delights.”

How is this fair dinkum attitude to worship inspired, developed and sustained?

Any reflections on the recent (July 2018) Baptist World Alliance visit to a cave where the early persecuted Baptists met for worship?

Cave Dwelling

“Have you got a cave at your place where you can retreat for regular worship? Or simply a room or part of a room, where you can close the door, where you can light a candle and form a focus and like John, be ‘in the Spirit’.” Discuss.

Francis of Assisi and his friends often retreated to caves for prayer. Read and reflect on this sign at a sanctuary in Monteluco, Italy:

This place is holy.

People come here in silence to listen to God,

To grow in the faith and in communion with God,

To renew their hearts and minds

And to return home stronger

And as a creative force

For good in society.

Anything that strikes you as you reflect on this statement?

Church Underground

We reflected on the early persecuted Christians who gathered, worshipped and were buried in the catacombs.

How do their lives impact on yours today?

Art on the underground walls is in the catacombs in abundance. What pictures, images or symbolism inspires and sustains you especially when you’re in a difficult spot?

Prayer

Pray for believers who are persecuted for their faith?

Pray for each other that we might have the courage to live out our faith naturally and well.

Pray that our pray and worship might continue to grow and become more vibrant.

 

[1] What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Epicure.

[2] See especially Revelation chapter 18.

[3] The Christian Catacombs of Rome, Catacombe, Rome, Italy.

[4] On an earlier visit we went to the part of the catacombs know as St Callixtus.

[5] In Greek the word fish is ichtus. These letters form an acrostic: Iesus (Jesus) Christos (Christ), Theou Uios (Son of God, Soter (Saviour).

[6] Church of Domine Quo Vadis, Wikipedia.

[7] See especially Revelation chapter 18.