1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.
“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1–6 ESV)
You have the reputation of being alive… This letter is to a well thought of, highly respected, probably even envied church. One that, at least to those who hear of it, is vibrant and alive and bustling with work and energy and faith. And maybe they were, once.
But not any more. I worshiped at such a church for a while, a community of people I loved, but who were living off the tale they told themselves of another era, a time when they had lots going and were the center of attention.
Virtually every old and established church in America is that way. Breathing the vapors of another era, wishing desperately that the 1958 or 1963 or even 1971 they designed and built their church for — a time when the place was full, the money was abundant, and the programs easy to run — would come back. Some churches do this better than others, and that wonderful church I attended was coasting far on its heritage and its memories of who, as a community, they once were.
Note what Jesus tells Sardis here after he declares them dead. He does not tell them to go back to what they were, those glory days that were the truth behind their reputation. “Wake up, and strengthen what is about to die…” Not “grow and multiply and become wildly successful and deeply purpose driven,” but simply: repent and be faithful. And if they continue to sleep, if they continue to stumble toward death thinking only their reputation will save them, Jesus will come as a thief in the night and take from them even the little they have left.
Hold fast to what we have received from Jesus — the good news, our baptisms, the supper — for even if we are few, even if we are dying, we can still be faithful. We can still do and be what we have been called to.
In the face of death, Jesus calls us to live.