In many professions there will be a process of appraisal. Within medicine all doctors have an annual appraisal which provides an opportunity to reflect back on the year that has been and look forward to the year ahead. In educational supervision, a similar process takes place and there is much written about how to give feedback in a supportive manner. Reading the messages to the 7 churches is very like reviewing 7 appraisals or 7 supervision sessions. Most of the feedback is given in a well-established manner: something good, whatever is not so good and then something positive to finish, often described using a sandwich metaphor the bread being good, the filling not so good; e.g. I can see you have worked really hard at this – it’s rubbish – but it’s beautifully presented. The work is then to explore how to move things forward.
Although our reading this morning just focusses on Laodicea, it is worthwhile looking at the messages to the other churches. In the message to Ephesus John is told to write “I know your works, your toil and patient endurance…” but he later says, “but I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first” and then further on he gives a positive example, “Yet this is to your credit…”. Having challenged them to correct the area that is going astray, Jesus then says, “to everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.” A review of what’s going well, a review of what’s not going well; a challenge to get it right and a promise of what results from that reframing of purpose. And because we are talking about God’s plan, that promise is eternal and everlasting.
When we reach Laodicea its straight to the sandwich filling and not a very palatable one! Best practice is always to make feedback specific and the messages to these churches is accurate and meaningful to each of them, although as is true of all Jesus’ teaching, there is truth for us centuries later as well. “I know your works” says the Lord and there is nothing good to say about them, “you are lukewarm”. Now this imagery would have meant so much to the Laodiceans. Laodicea was in an area that is now Turkey. To the north there were hot springs with rich minerals, but the water that ran from there to Laodicea gradually cooled en route, much of it evaporating and by the time it arrived it was lukewarm and unpalatably full of chemicals. To the south were high mountains, from where sparkling, clear, icy water ran down to the valley, but by the time it arrived in Laodicea it was similarly lukewarm and the supply was not good. So this image of foul, tepid water that sometimes dried up is a powerful metaphor indicating that something is badly awry. If this was the feedback you were giving to someone in your organisation, I think you might be considering a further discussion along the lines of “I don’t think this type of work is quite right for you, have you thought of looking elsewhere and if not, now is the time!” But this is Jesus the Son of God, who loves us and who seeks to bring all of us into the love of the Father.
Laodicea was a rich city with a lot of trade, a lot of material wealth, a rich wool industry and it had a medical school specialising in the treatment of ocular conditions. Jesus uses this as he works with the Laodiceans to help them move forward – see verse 18 where he says “come and clothe yourself not in the cloth produced in your city but in pure holy robes, not in the wealth of materialism”, and “come and receive salve to heal not simply your eyes but salve to heal your blindness”. Jesus does not want to send them away; he says in verse 19 “I reprove and discipline those whom I love” and goes on to say, “look I am here beside you, I am at the door of your heart, just open and let me come in to where I should be and then live with me and I will live with you”.
Jesus seeks to call these Christians back to himself, to help them find that vibrancy that was central to the early church and should be central to the church today; to find again that passionate love of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord and redeemer.
It’s quite a supervision session. What would my appraisal be like, what would your appraisal be like?
Firstly, God loves each one of us, not because of what we do, but because he made us to love us. I wonder if this is a good time, in this peculiar year of 2020, to look back at how it has been and what we may have learnt about ourselves and then look forward, acknowledging our hopes and fears. As a church family we face questions about the opening of our church building for worship and about the future of our church buildings. I know that being a dispersed community has been and remains so very difficult, but let’s seek God’s guiding hand to take us into the weeks and months ahead. What can we do within the current guidelines to find that vibrancy of our church life together again? Can we meet in small groups, worship in a new more intimate way, study scripture together, break bread together. Let’s really pray for guidance especially for the vestry as they discuss the options for our church buildings. Let’s ask the Spirit to give us that passion to follow Christ, even if the future looks a bit scary and unfamiliar.
Although we have heard again and again the term “unprecedented” in fact God’s people have struggled like this before and cried out as reflected in the words of the psalmists. Have another look at our psalm this morning and find comfort and constancy in God’s word,
12 Their hearts were bowed down with hard labour;
they fell down, with no one to help.
13 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he saved them from their distress;
14 he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
15 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to humankind. Amen