Checks and Balances

04-15-2018Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

In the Book of Revelation John begins by writing to the seven Churches that were near Patmos, the penal island on which John was incarcerated. He writes to these living communities with a word from Jesus, a word that affirms them and also a word that challenges them. These churches or Christian communities are referred to by John as the 7 lampstands among whom Jesus walks. As lampstands they are to give light to the culture around them otherwise their light will be extinguished. Their light will burn out if they are not faithful to Jesus the faithful witness.

These churches are in the seven cities of: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. The seven letters all begin with an address to the angel, the bishop or pastor of the particular Church. John was writing to the Church as a spiritual community of faith, the Body of Christ. He was also writing to the physical community celebrating the liturgy in house churches in the seven cities. The most interesting feature of these letters is their message that the real threat to the churches is not external persecution but internal moral and spiritual problems. How well we know this and yet it seems like we never learn the lesson.  Let’s look at a few of the messages Jesus gives to the churches:

Jesus speaks to the Ephesians as a divine leader, holding a symbol of power in his hands: the royal scepter with seven stars emanating from it. After complimenting them on their astute rejection of harmful teachers, Jesus confronts the Ephesians with their fatal spiritual flaw: “I will hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first”. Fear brought on by persecution damaged the Christian love which the Ephesians should have for themselves, others and God. They must repent, convert, return to the vision of love or else they will cease to be a lampstand, a light of true Christianity.

Jesus promises the Christians of Ephesus that their fidelity would assure them of the reward of eternal life: they will eat from the tree of life that is in the Garden of God. Already in the Eucharist they are partaking of the Bread of Life. The sooner they learned to permit Divine Love to possess their hearts, the quicker would they begin to live, even here on earth, in the love that characterizes eternal life.

How many of us lose the love we had at first? Why do we let it grow cold? Why do we let our hearts be consumed by other loves? Why are we so promiscuous with our hearts? A great custom that many Catholics had in the 20th century was to enthrone an image of the Sacred Heart in their homes. It was a simple but visible reminder of the great love that we are called to.

The last letter is addressed to the Church at Laodicea. The Christians at Laodicea were infected with selective belief. Cafeteria Catholics we now would call them. They picked those parts of Christ’s teaching that suited them and made easy their acceptance by the local community. They espoused what seemed to them to be a reasonable middle way, a theology of compromise with the culture. Jesus confronts them with their major weakness, he tells them: I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot or cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Some Catholics in today’s culture are the new Laodiceans. They select teachings of Christ which do not hinder their acceptance by the culture. They insist on being relevant. They reject those parts of the Gospel that make them stand apart from the culture. Such Christians buy into the culture’s position on birth control, abortion, sexuality, marriage, and other moral issues. Jesus speaks to them with affection, but also rebukes them in order to bring them to repentance and conversion. He says, “Those whom I love, I reprove and chastise. Be earnest and repent”.

The messages to these Churches are really to the universal Church of every age of history. Inspired by the vision of Jesus, John sends his beloved people pastoral letters to call them to renewed faith. He uses imagery that lifts local problems above present circumstances to focus Christians’ attention on the final goal of history as well as the ultimate outcome of their personal lives.

What letter would John write to the Church here, that portion of the Body of Christ that is in Tempe? Would he praise us for our faithfulness and love? Would he call us to task for our acceptance of false teachings, would he confront us on our compromise with the culture, would he accuse us of being selective in what parts of his teaching we believe? Remember like the seven churches in Revelation we too are expected to be a lampstand shining brightly as a witness to Jesus who is coming soon.


Fr. John B.