The Reverend Canon Mark Oakley looks at the Christians of Laodicea in relation to the recent General Election and says "if we as Christians fail to
step up to the debates...we will be the church of St Laodicea."
We use a lot of words in the Church but we are not always quite as good with them as we like to think. I remember once seeing a service sheet
which said: ‘this being Easter Sunday we have asked Mrs Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar’. And then there was the big advert I
saw in north London outside a church. It just said: Tired of sin? Then come in’. To which someone had scribbled at the bottom – ‘and if not
Well, the Christians in Laodicea were not tired of sin, they didn’t even know that anything was wrong. And in the revelation that St John has,
Christ speaks to them and says he’s sick of them, in fact, he’s about to spit them out of his mouth. Strong stuff. So what’s up? What’s gone wrong?
Laodicea was an incredible city on the river Lycus, in modern Turkey, and was a banking city, home to some very rich people – so rich that when
they suffered an earthquake they refused Rome’s offer of money to help rebuild the ruins. It was a major manufacturing city, especially known for
high quality clothing from local black wool. It was also the home of a world famous medical school that had developed successful eye ointments.
This was a self-sufficient place. And it became one of the first places that a Christian community formed. It is mentioned four times in Paul’s
letter to the Colossians which suggests Christians were there in Laodicea by the mid 50s, just a few years after the resurrection. But already, in
this vision, Christ is wanting to spit them out of his mouth. Why?
Well, it seems that you could barely tell the difference between the city of Laodicea and the church of Laodicea. Jesus speaks to them and says
‘you say I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing’. And then to show that Jesus knows them very well and can see inside them he uses images
that would have struck them hard.
I wish that you were hot or cold. Well, Laodicea was 10 km from Hierapolis which was famous for its hot springs, even today. 16 km to the south of
Laodicea was Colossae, famous for its cold spring waters. Geographically Laodicea was in between. Not hot, not cold. Spiritually, they were like
their geography, they were tepid, lukewarm. They saw themselves as rich but Jesus says to them ‘you are wretched, poor, blind and naked’. So you
may have money, but you are poor, with nothing to give or celebrate. You may make fabulous textiles and fashion, but you’re naked, nothing to boast
about. You may have developed great medical technology, an eye ointment even – but you are still blind. You can’t even see yourselves.
Are any of you, like me, finding this a bit uncomfortable and close to home? This is Christ exposing the poverty of a people who have lots to live
with but nothing to live for. This is Christ demanding we take a look and see the circle that traps us of spending money we don’t have on things we
don’t want in order to impress people we don’t like.
But there’s something worse. Jesus says to them – and you say you are Christians, you are supposed to be following me and yet I can’t see anything
that makes you different from anyone else in that godless city. And then St Paul’s cathedral comes into it. Because one of our famous paintings
here, The Light of the World over there, takes up the story depicting Jesus saying what he says to the Laodiceans next: look, I stand at the door
and knock. If any hear my voice and open the door I will come in and eat with you and you with me’. Holman Hunt painted the door with no handle on
the outside, the heart can only be opened from within and, by the looks of it with all the brambles covering the door, it hasn’t been opened for
quite some time.
Now when people look at that painting I think they often interpret it as Jesus knocking on the door of an unbelieving individual’s heart, will they
open it to Christ and be converted? But that’s too convenient. Because actually what’s going on in this story is that Jesus is knocking on the door
of the Church, asking to be let in. He is knocking on the door of those who say they know him and follow him and yet have locked him out
completely. When the Laodicean Christians heard about this vision it would have been like St Paul’s being confronted with the truth that Jesus is
outside the great west doors, tapping, to see if we’ll let him in. And if he comes in, would he be able to recognise by the way we behave, the way
we speak to each other, the way we treat one another, the priorities we live our life by, the hope or the jaundice that infects everything we are.
This country has just had a general election and there is much talk about the future, about very important things – the welfare of the vulnerable,
the care of our sick, the upholding of human dignity and rights, the way we relate to other nations, the question of who and what an economy is
for, the limits of welcome to immigrants and the boundaries of a united kingdom, the treatment of refugees, the future care of our planet, the
education of the next generations. If we as Christians fail to step up to the debates, if we fail to realise that these are not just words but
people’s lives that are being argued about, if we fail to offer ourselves as answers to others prayers, we will be the church of St Laodicea.
You’ll be able to spot that church: when given a platform it won’t say much that is controversial, when given a room it will tend to talk about
itself, God will be forgotten in discernment, prayer will be tagged on as a second thought, there will be little reference or change for those whom
the world forgets but whom Christ had a special love, rhetoric will be confused for reality, love will grow cold and will be replaced by gossip,
scandal or bickering or, at worst, a total indifference: not hot, not cold, not Christian. This will be a church where we might say thy kingdom
come but mean my kingdom stay. Is this the faith for whom brother and sisters are dying as we speak in other parts of the world? Is this the faith
they would recognise and offer their lives for?
And its no good us lashing out and saying it’s the bishops, or synods or leaders or the vicar or whoever that needs to change. It’s us. All of us.
That’s where change must begin. Just because you’re in the garage doesn’t make you a car. Just because you’re in church doesn’t make you a
Christian that Christ recognises – that’s the hard challenge of the book called revelation – well named, because it’s revealing something about us
that needs attending to. Or as Christ says in that reading: be true and turn around. This also means coming out. Coming out as Christians in your
workplace, in your conversations, in your localities, in your spare time and what you do with it. Coming out will always mean courage which means
being as frightened as everyone else but doing it anyway.
So, finally, one of the other things that will be on the political agenda in the years ahead is the role of the church in our society. A tepid
church will be very easy to dismiss. A church without conviction, a church that hasn’t developed a spirituality of speaking up for others,
Christians who have just gone native to low expectation frankly deserve to be spit out. They leave a nasty taste. But a church that is true to its
master, to his teaching, to his love for the poor and discriminated against, a church more willing to be loving than just being right, will be a
church that witnesses to the freshness of the gospel – the good news that tells each and every one of us that God loves us just as we are but God
loves us so much he doesn’t want us to stay like that.