Pergamum Christians

Sermon at Evensong on Sunday 22.4.2018 at St Paul’s Cathedral.

All the Israelites in our reading from the Hebrew Bible knew what each of them had for breakfast. Theirs was the ultimate one list, and very public, one item, menu. They were all obliged to gather manna from the desert floor around them publicly! There was no privacy about it! That’s the way God ordered it for the grumbling group of ex-slaves wandering about the desert!

However, this is in stark contrast with the provision God holds out in the Book of Revelation. On offer to faithful Christians at Pergamum, was ‘hidden manna,’ not the sort that was lying all about in the wilderness. Besides, God also added the reward of a private new name, known only to the bearer.

The question raised is this: Why is privacy so integral to the comfort which God offers to faithful Christians in Pergamos? Why is privacy the hallmark of the justification (being made right with God), assured these group of Christians?

A look at the historical context in which Christians lived and worshipped in Pergamum would help.

Christians in Pergamum were a persecuted lot. It as was a city that demanded of all its inhabitants, loyalty to one creed: “Caesar First!,” “Caesar First!,” “Caesar First!” This insistence on Kaiser First! was nothing but a demand for the idolatrous worship of the Roman Emperor as Lord and King!

Caesar First!” was, of course, a ‘dog whistle’ for official nastiness against difference. Today we might well recognise it as a state-sanctioned regime of hostility (a ‘compliance/hostile environment’) against otherness.

So, you see the Christians at Pergamum endured a terrible quandary. It was the same horrible bind on which our Lord was betrayed and crucified. They confronted the same dilemma which forced Pilates’s hand (however much he tried to wash it off) to sentence Jesus to death. Recall the threat issued to Pilate: “If you pardon this man, you’re no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone setting himself up as ‘king’ defies Caesar.” – John 19.12.

Of course, no committed Christian could bear to do that publicly! The Christians at Pergamum were, like any oppressed minority, scared to defy the Emperor openly! It was a mighty risk. It was a dance with death. The mention of Antipas’ execution underlined the dire predicament they faced.

However, we must pause and think carefully, lest we imagine theirs to be a pickle far removed from our present-day situation.

Yes, we do live in a society that allows for freedom of religion. We can practice our religion freely but, the truth is, some matters also drive us to live our faith underground – whether as a group or as individuals.

We may not have a Caesar to force our hands, but there are still many circumstances that do compel us to decry Jesus as Lord. Some situations do force us to be mute about a conviction that we may both cherish and hold quite profoundly.

We may well have encountered or instigated, on our journey of faith, mouths that are determined to rise against us in judgment. Think of David having to flee in the face of the sea of judgement visited on him by his son Absalom. Or even in this Easter season, consider Peter and the disciples  – deserters all – frightened and cowering behind locked doors after the crucifixion of their Master.

Nevertheless, it was no exaggeration to say that these Christians in Pergamum worshipped in the very seat of Satan. On the one hand, they were at the mercy of the city authorities. On the other, members of their worshipping community also spied on them. There were enemies without! There were enemies within!

The enemies within were the Nicolaitans, who like the High Priest, the Sanhedrin and Judas in Jesus’ days, were quite willing to betray the faithful Christians of Pergamum. What is more, these weren’t enemies likely to be put off by an appeal to our rights or safeguards.

Given their context, we can begin to see why the ‘hallmark’ of privacy was precious to these Christians. The Pergamum Christians would have cherished this as a sign of God’s commitment to their private ways of keeping the faith of Jesus. It would have been enough assurance that despite their covert gatherings and uncelebrated exploits for God, they were not alone. It would have signalled to them that they were still a people of the covenant and that they would number with all the saints at the last day. Besides, they would be more than convinced that when that day arrived, they would hold their place only because of grace, God’s grace, and not because of anything they had or could have done.

The offer of “hidden manna” and of a “confidential new name” to Christians in Pergamum was an expression of God’s grace. It was an announcement that God valued their secret gatherings and often their private commitment to Jesus as Lord.  It was a sign that God recognised and was prepared to sustain their uncelebrated choices of life over death. It was an assurance of God’s unmistakable comfort to those who, behind closed doors, remained committed to Jesus as Lord. It is a restatement of Jesus’ words in John 10.27-28: “My sheep recognise my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them real and eternal life. They are protected from the Destroyer for good. No one can steal them from out of my hand.” (Message).

The proposal to the Christians at Pergamum is a reassurance to us too whenever and for whatever reason we are kept from openly displaying our trust in God.

As we well know, there is any number of reasons that may lead us to close-in on ourselves, to consider ourselves unworthy and to stop celebrating, openly, our trust in Christ.

In such moments, the message to the church at Pergamum reminds us that God does not abandon us if we would cling to him. In such circumstances, God assures us that He still has us in his reckoning. We can recall that, in the days of King Ahab,  Queen Jezebel had also created such a hostile environment for the Jews such that even Elijah thought that he was a solitary abandoned witness to God. It took God’s grace to alert Elijah to the presence of 7000 other servants of God who had not bowed to Baal. The truth is, where men and women may have discounted our trust in God, God holds on to us at a deep and intimate level. He will feed us and call us by name.

Read in this way, God’s proposal is a far cry from the clamour for the recognition of people’s right to privacy that is filling the airwaves across the globe these past few months. Revelations of flagrant abuse of private data culled from social media platforms have prompted demands for laws and guidelines to shield men and women from untrammelled public scrutiny.

The “privacy” that God graciously holds out to the faithful in Pergamos is quite different. It does not fit into the current clamour for privacy rights. In fact, to think that it does would be totally against the core tenet, the basic building block of the Christian religion – a faith built on the idea of INCARNATION, of God revealed to us in human flesh. As apostle Paul put it, the riches behind the mystery of our faith is none other than this: “Christ in you the hope of glory.

The Book of Revelation, however darkly in a looking glass it may seem, is focused upon the idea of the Incarnation, of God with us (Emmanuel), from its first word to its last metaphor. Regardless of its bizarre imageries, the Book of Revelation is not about built castles in the air. It is also not about building castles in the air. It is a book that sets its face against futility. The Book of Revelation is a work that turns the saying: “Man proposes, … God laughs” on its head completely. The Book of Revelation is saying: “God has a plan to make men and women praise Him!

So, the assurance of ‘private’ comfort and consolation to God’s faithful in the face persecution by the city authorities of Pergamos, of abuse at the hands of the band of brothers known as the Nicolaitans, is different. It is not conferment of the privacy rights by which nations win wars or corporations gain a competitive advantage in business. What is held out to the faithful is more than an assurance of “internet freedoms and civil liberties.” God’s gift of “hidden manna” and of “a secret new name” for faithfulness to His ways is not just to be able to live our lives as we choose, without having anyone comment on it or know about it!

In other words, all these, are not meant to dispute Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s insight that as human beings, we have three lives: “public, private and secret.” Instead, the aim is to ask us to bend that insight toward the greater glory of God’s plan of salvation. It is to appreciate that God’s plan of salvation is open to even nighttime believers in Jesus, like Nicodemus. God’s offer rests merely on His intimacy with us.

It is to say that whatever we may go through, however intrusive the state may be, or painful the hurt of brothers who betray us and put us to the sword; God is on hand to feed us with His special menu. He is at our side to call us by the name which we cannot mistake as anything other than His code for our comfort and peace.

Moreover, it is also to say that because in a kingdom of GLASS everything is transparent, then there’s no place for any darkness. And, since God’s kingdom is like “a clear crystal sea,” we can be confident that every shade, all blemish – ours and our detractors’ – will be redeemed by the light and the truth of God’s sanctifying presence.