7th Sunday after Pentecost (C)
June 2, 2019
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon is the Epistle, the letter to Pergamum, which was read a few minutes ago.
When two people begin dating, an important skill they must learn is the art of compromise. The relationship must be one of give and take where the couple meets in the middle. If one of them insists on always having their way, the relationship isn’t going to be very happy and it’ll probably end. If the couple gets married, their families must learn to compromise as their children begin dividing up holidays between the families. Usually compromise is good, it shows a willingness to work with others. But is there ever a time in our lives when we shouldn’t compromise? Is there a time, or are there times, when we must insist on things being our way? There is, and in Jesus’ letter to the church at Pergamum we see when compromise is unacceptable and how compromising can lead to death.
Like we’ve heard in the other letters so far, it wasn’t easy to be a Christian in Pergamum. Jesus sums up the city quite well, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” One reason that Jesus calls Pergamum the location of Satan’s throne is because Pergamum was the center of imperial worship. Christians were pressured to burn incense to acknowledge Caesar’s divinity and to demonstrate their loyalty to him. As citizens of the Roman empire, this act wasn’t optional, and when Christians refused, they were tortured and killed. The ancient authors write that the Antipas mentioned by Jesus was burned alive for refusing to compromise his faith.
Official persecution was not the only threat the Christians of Pergamum faced. Just living in the city threatened their faith and life. Pergamum was noted for its wealth and sophistication. Its pagan temples were filled because it was believed that proper worship was essential if the city was to prosper. The Christians were under intense pressure to worship and offer sacrifices to show that they were good citizens. Their refusal to compromise led them to be treated with hostility.
Worship of Caesar and the gods was enforced with the sword, so Jesus identifies Himself as the one whose sword trumps that of Rome. His “sharp two-edged sword” represents His judgment and condemnation of evildoers, as well as His invitation and assurance to those who repent. He praised the Pergamum Christians for their faithfulness and His words encourage us to also be true to His name. But Jesus was also concerned about something going on in Pergamum church. He told them, “I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.”
If you remember Balaam from the book of Numbers, you probably remember his talking donkey, but there was more to the story. Balak, the king of Moab, hired Balaam to curse Israel as they passed through Moab on the way to the Promised Land. God ordered Balaam not to do it, but Balak kept offering more and more pay and Balaam’s greed grew. Despite God’s warning, Balaam went to Balak and when it was time for Balaam to curse Israel, he blessed them instead. He tried two more times, but each time he ended up blessing Israel instead of cursing them.
As you can imagine, King Balak wasn’t too pleased. Balaam though still wanted the reward, so he told Balak to have the Moabites seduce Israel by extending invitations to their pagan feasts and the debauchery that went with them. Then he spread the idea among the people of Israel that it didn’t matter what they did or how they lived if they believed they were God’s chosen people. And it worked! Moses says, “The people [of Israel] began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.”
At the time Jesus’ letter was written, the insidious advice of Balaam was being echoed in the churches. Some believed that as long as a person was baptized and believed that Jesus is the Savior, he could compromise with society and his neighbors. “It’s okay to burn incense to make people happy. It’s okay to go to the temple of Zeus occasionally to show that you’re a good citizen. It can’t hurt.” Now, that’s a teaching that the sinful nature loves to hear! It’s a you can have your cake, and eat it too theory and some in the Pergamum congregation believed it! They were continuing to go with pagan friends to the pagan feasts at pagan temples and involving themselves in the corruption – all the while continuing to be part of the Church.
Most of the Pergamum Christians hadn’t fallen into this trap, but they were tolerating those who were compromising their faith. So, Jesus warns them, “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth.” If they weren’t going to do something to deal with those in the church who were involved in immoral lifestyles, Jesus Himself would come and take decisive action with His sharp, two-edged sword of judgment.
While times have changed, the temptations have remained the same. Like the Christians of Pergamum, we live in a secular society in which Satan has established his throne. You would have to be blind and deaf to not recognize the constant pressure Christians are under to compromise their faith. We’re told to go along to get along. But notice that the secular society doesn’t meet us halfway. We’re encouraged to compromise but this sinful world really wants us to capitulate.
To be sure, there are plenty of Christians being pressured by society and the government to compromise so they show they’re good citizens. Calligraphy artists being sued so they have to do invitations that conflict with their beliefs. Nuns being forced to pay for abortions and birth control. Cake decorators having their lives ruined for politely referring potential wedding cake customers to other businesses. We pray for these Christians and encourage them to keep the faith instead of compromising.
The pressure to compromise won’t get most of us sued, but that doesn’t mean the pressure isn’t there. How many Christians are told that Sunday morning sports are no big deal, that a little compromise is necessary for the good of the team. Christians who claim that abortion is wrong, except when it isn’t, are compromising. Christians who keep their faith quiet to avoid offending others are compromising. Christians who ignore the parts of the Bible they don’t like are compromising. Christians who think that God comes second or third to everything else are compromising. Christians who imitate Balaam by saying they believe in God, while still willfully engaging in sinful behavior are compromising.
Saint Peter wrote in his First Letter, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Willful sin is deadly. It wars against the soul; it deadens and destroys life in Christ. When Christians compromise, when they go along with the world to get along, they’re spiritually harmed. We do not become so comfortable with the attitude of the unbelievers around us that we end up compromising because it’s the easy thing, or the fun thing, to do. That’s why Jesus says clearly, “Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of My mouth.”
Jesus is not only saying, “Watch your lifestyle,” but is also telling us to watch the lifestyle of fellow Christians, and to do so in love and concern for them. Is one of your Christian friends or relatives compromising with the world? Ask the Holy Spirit to give you an opportunity to reach out to him or her with loving admonition. The Christians at Pergamum weren’t doing this, they were ignoring their responsibility. We can’t do that! We all have a responsibility to lead those who have compromised back to the truth of Christ and His Word. Saint James puts it this way, “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” We watch out for one another so that no one who bears the name Christians will miss out the reward that comes to those who remain faithful to the end.
Jesus promises, “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna.” He wants us to experience the mystery of His forgiving love, not the sins of a world that has rejected Him. When we focus on the Good News that He gave Himself to atone for our sins, to redeem us and make us His own, it feeds our faith and strengthens us in a way that glorifies our Lord Jesus. Repenting of our sinful compromise leads us to hear the words of live and forgiveness.
In the Roman world, a defendant was found innocent if the judge or the jury displayed a white stone at the time of the verdict. It was also a first-century practice that after a serious illness a patient who recovered would add a new name to his name to signify his complete recovery. It implied that he felt like a new person. Jesus says, “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” The point of the white stone with the new name on it that Jesus gives us is this: In the grace of God in Jesus Christ, there is healing, approval, victory, and renewal of identity as a child of God. Hold on tight to your identity as Christians, refuse to compromise, repent of the times that you do, and when Jesus comes, you’ll not hear a word of judgment, but of praise and reward.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen