Thyatira's Fifth Column

Revelation 2:18-29 and Luke 18:15-17
© Stacey Steck

If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you heard me talk about the four characteristics ascribed to the early Church at Thyatira, that love, faith, service, and faithful endurance, as the four columns of Thyatira, those ways of being and doing which provide the bedrock of support for the church of Jesus Christ in this community. Yes, Jesus Christ is our foundation, so I suppose we can say that those four columns rest on Christ, and in turn the rest of the structure depends on those columns. Those columns support whatever we might try to do together as a church, whatever efforts we make to raise our children in the faith, whatever impact we might make in our community. It is essential that we are always seeking to strengthen our love, our faith, our service and our patient endurance. Those columns need to be inspected from time to time, checked for rot or pests or damage from the storms of life. If any one of them were to give out, the rest of the structure would be in a precarious position.

Of course, the second chapter of Revelation doesn’t call those characteristics columns. That’s my own invention, but I think it is a helpful way to think about our church. What Christ calls them in his words to the angel are “works,” which suggests the daily activities of the faithful in that place. And as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, perhaps it was because those same works were evident in the lives of the faithful in Millbridge in the late eighteenth century that this church received the name Thyatira. Evidence of that reasoning has yet to surface, but let this sermon be preserved to note in the history books that in the early twenty-first century, the church at Thyatira is still known for those same works of love, faith, service, and patient endurance.

The other day a couple dropped by the church looking for some information on their ancestors, and asked to see the museum. So I went over and opened it up and they looked around, and as they did so, I noticed that although a few artifacts from more recent times have been added, that most of the collection is stuff from and about a fairly long time ago. And it occurred to me that the impetus for the museum in the first place was curiosity and interest about the past, but that the past is always creeping up on us, and that there will be future generations who will be interested not only in what happened here in the eighteenth century, but also what happened way back when in the twenty-first century, and that perhaps we should give some thought not only to preserving some of the artifacts of our time, but also consider what this period would be remembered for. When Thyatira celebrates its 400th anniversary, what characteristics will this generation be remembered for? Our ancestors here started this place, and kept up the cemetery, but what will we have contributed to Millbridge and the world?

I’m provoked by this question because Jesus doesn’t make the praise of the works of Thyatira his last word. He doesn’t say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest.” No, he says, “I know that your last works are greater than the first,” in other words, “I’m not finished with you yet! You still have something to accomplish before I come back in glory. And what you WILL do is even greater than what you HAVE done.” It’s not just that they have improved since the church was founded, that they have merely grown in love, faith, service, and faithful endurance, but that those great works are just the starting point. The Greek word Jesus uses for “last” is a common word for things done most recently, but it is also a word used to describe the ultimate end of things way on into the future, and I think that it the way it is to be taken here. The church at Thyatira, in any age, should never be content to be praised for its good works but to always strive toward even greater ones.

So I was thinking about what might be Thyatira’s fifth column, what good work this generation of the faithful at Thyatira could be praised for if Jesus got up to do a two thousand year checkup, give or take a few years, if Jesus gave another message to the Angel of the Church of Thyatira. It seems reasonable to think that adding another good work or two might be something to shoot for. And in light of what I know about your most recent works, in places like Zambia and Brazil and Jamaica, and in the way I have experienced you interacting with me and with one another and with your community, I’d like to think that the additional characteristic, our latest work, our fifth column, should be generosity, your spirit of giving and sharing with each other and with those in great need. Wouldn’t it be incredible if that were what Jesus chose to commend if he sent us another message? I can’t think of a better complement to the other four that would help ensure that this church does in fact make it to that four hundredth anniversary.

But is that what church is all about? Making it to a milestone anniversary? Well, I know that none of you believe that any more than I do. There’s more to it than that. You can describe church in a whole lot of ways but in the end they all boil down to being part of God’s desire for creation to become all that God created it to be, that wonderful, abundant, growing, thriving place that is described in Genesis, but that was nowhere to be found in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time. And when we see the description of Thyatira’s works in the second chapter of Revelation, they are all things that ran contrary to the way the Empire conducted its business.

So what Jesus is saying to the church at Thyatira is, “I know your subversive ways of love faith, service, and patient endurance. Keep on doing them there in Thyatira, while I’m making my plans to come back and pull it all together.” Yes, that little church in the middle of nowhere was a living, breathing, revolutionary front working in the middle of hostile territory to help bring God’s purposes for the world into being. It was bearing witness to a way of being human that gave glory to the one true God of eternity rather than the one human leader who by whatever means necessary had ascended to the throne.

Despite our own country’s founding on the basis of a Revolutionary War against the English, revolution is a word people feel a little uncomfortable with today. We’ve had our 240 years of stability and we’d like to keep it that way, thank you very much. We want to avoid the turmoil other nations seem to face on a regular basis as they twist themselves up in revolution. So it might seem hard to view ourselves as Christians in revolutionary terms. But we don’t need to look any further than Jesus sitting down with some children to see how revolutionary the founder of our faith really was. In Jesus’ time, people didn't think about children and childhood the way we do now. Childhood was largely a necessary waiting period for people to become adults who could contribute to a family’s or a nation’s survival. Mostly, kids were kind of an expensive nuisance one had to abide until they could one day provide for their parent’s wellbeing in their old age. It was a harsh life for children. They were second class citizens, only a small step above slaves and other kinds of property.

And that’s what makes Jesus’ invitation to children such a remarkable and yes, even revolutionary, act. Jesus was turning his society’s notions upside down and showing them what they could be, instead of what their culture had shaped them to be. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Sounds almost as tough as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. But with God, and a fifth column, all things are possible.

Yes, back to that fifth column of generosity. Maybe you’ve heard that term, “fifth column” before. It’s a political term actually, one born out of a revolutionary struggle. It comes from the Spanish Civil War that took place between 1936 and 1939, and a general on the Nationalist side, the side seeking to overthrow the existing government, coined the phrase when he suggested that in addition to his four military columns, or units, that were advancing on Madrid, that there was a “fifth column” of his supporters who were already in Madrid who would rise up at the right time and join the battle from behind enemy lines. The phrase caught on and today basically describes any group that is working subversively behind the scenes against the status quo.

Now, I’m not a big fan of using military language to talk about ushering in the reign of God, but there’s something about that metaphor that rings true. I think it is fair to say that there is no society that is as just or righteous as God would like it to be, that takes care of its widows and orphans and foreigners the way the Bible tells it to, that makes sure that the least and the last and the lost are cared for as well as the movie stars and the sports heroes. Our nations are at war, our planet is polluted, and our children are sold as slaves right under our noses. I’d like to think, however, that God’s got a plan for turning all of that upside down, to stage a revolution so to speak, and that right now there are four columns advancing on the headquarters of whatever and whoever holds the power over this earthly empire. And while those four columns of love, faith, service, and patient endurance are marching forward, there’s also a fifth column at work from within, a fifth column called generosity that slowly but surely undermines the greed and materialism that keep that empire rolling, a fifth column that demonstrates that there is another way to live, a way that doesn’t depend on accumulation, and keeping up with Joneses, but a way which helps us all become the little children Jesus said we needed to be to enter into the kingdom of Heaven. If we can’t protect our children, we’ll never become one of them.

This morning, we’re celebrating the Children’s Sabbath, a day which shouldn’t even have to be celebrated, because there shouldn’t be any children who need a break from poverty, or malnutrition, or illiteracy, or human trafficking. But as long as there are, as long as there is even one child who is in slavery of any kind, our fifth column needs to be at work, undermining any kind of thinking, or any activity that that keeps God’s kingdom from becoming a reality for every single child. It will be our generosity, of spirit and of wallet, that will make that possible, and that’s what this church, and indeed any church needs to be known for.

You have a chance to express part of that revolutionary generosity each week as you come to worship. That’s why we have these offering plates and why we take up an offering, because we need constant reminders that we are a kind of fifth column. And we need to remember what Jesus said to the church of Thyatira, that their last works would be greater than their first. Let me suggest that although any kind of generosity is revolutionary, there are some kinds which are truly, divinely subversive. These are the ones that come from the wisdom of the Bible, and maybe the most outrageous and powerful is the idea of the tithe, or giving ten percent of our income toward the revolution of grace. On one hand, ten percent seems like a lot. We like our inflation at less than three percent, our unemployment rate at less than five percent, and our sales tax, heaven forbid, at no more than seven percent. So ten percent may seem like a lot. But on the other hand, it sounds like a discount. A discount? Yes, and a pretty big one when you consider that what God really asks of us is our whole life, all of our possessions, all of our love, faith, service and patient endurance. And yet, God only asks for ten percent, which even by my mathematically challenged brain turns out to be a ninety percent discount.

You may not yet be ready, willing, or able to tithe to Christ’s ministry through Thyatira. And that’s OK. It really is. Jesus did say, “Your last works will be greater than your first.” But let me encourage you to start somewhere, at some disciplined, thoughtful point by which in the future you will be able to measure just how subversive your generosity has become. Proportional giving is the best way I know to strengthen the fifth column for which Thyatira should become known, and by proportional I mean a specific percentage of your income. No matter what you’re already giving, you’re at some percentage. But do you know what it is and how close it is to being revolutionary? Once you figure that out, pray about it, and if you’re at one percent, think about going up to two percent, and if you’re already at ten percent, think about going even higher. You see, the sky’s the limit with God’s generosity. And it can be with ours too. May God help each of us to answer the question, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give so that every child, myself included, might truly experience the kingdom of God.” Amen.