A Letter written from Patmos Island about AD 90

Read to St Augustine's Grove Park, July 14th 1991

Some of you will remember that earlier this year I gave you some imaginary letters written by St John, the "beloved disciple" from Jerusalem to his parents in the fishing village where they lived in Galilee where he and James had been brought up. These letters were written during the time he was working with Jesus on his mission to the people of God, together with his brother James.

Well, the following letter is one which might have been written by John towards the end of his life, say about 95AD, a few years after he had finished writing his gospel; written to a church not so very different from yours in a place called Grekparvo ("little Greece") somewhere on the north-eastern Mediterranean coast in what we would now call Turkey.

John himself had been banished for life to a tiny island called Patmos, about 10 miles by 5 for daring to preach the Christian Gospel when it was illegal to do so. Patmos was used as a penal colony for those prisoners whom the government of the day decided it would be unwise actually to kill but who needed to be kept firmly "out of the way".

So St John found himself, rather like Terry Waite today, cut off from his friends and his people by the sea, and thinking and worrying about the churches he had helped to get started in places like Smyrna, Laodicea and Grekparvo and Thyatira.

News sometimes reached him of their doings, and somehow or other he managed to send the occasional letter to them, seven of which letters are preserved for us in chapters 2 and 3 of the last book of the bible, Revelation. We don't know if he was officially allowed to write such letters, but you may remember that John was a resourceful person, a fisherman by trade, and it's usually not too difficult if you get to know the local fishing community well to get them to transport letters and packages to the mainland and elsewhere whatever the law says about it!

So here is his letter written to the Church in Grekparvo. John had been told that they had been without a parish priest for some time, and now one of his former disciples was going to minister to them. The source of this information was another disciple of his called Polycarp, a young man who had recently been made bishop of Smyrna in whose diocese Grekparvo lay.

As with the other letters, John intended that this one should be read aloud in Church on Sunday when the people came together for Mass, and he addresses it to what he calls the "Guardians" of the church, those people who have not only kept things going during the interregnum but (so Polycarp assured him) actually looked upon the inter- regnum as an opportunity to grow stronger and firmer in the faith which they had first learnt from John.

Dear Guardians (he writes),

In the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ I John, who knew him in the flesh during his early ministry and now, like you, know him by faith in his eternal, risen and glorified body, send you greetings in the name of him who lives for ever and ever. Amen.

So, your time of being without a parish priest of your own is nearly over. By all ac- counts which reach my ears (though I must not for their sake reveal their names of course for fear that they, like me might be persecuted), I hear that you have made good use of the intervening period and that you are now stronger and firmer in the faith than ever before.

I thank God for this good news, because it means that you must have understood so much better than many other churches what that faith in our Lord Jesus Christ really is all about. Time and again I hear of other churches in your area who seem to feel that when the parish priest leaves there must follow a period of marking time and getting nowhere (or even walking backwards!) until a new incumbent comes. Not far from you there is a church whose name has become a byword for this sort of lukewarmness (no names, no pack drill!) and I am sure that this has come about because of the unrealistic view of the priestly ministry which they have come to have.

For although our Lord Jesus Christ indeed intended his ordained priests to be Fathers in God to the parishes they serve, he certainly never intended that their sons and daughters in God (that means YOU, dear people) should never grow up! Just try and imagine a family where that happened: where all the offspring remained crawling around the floor in nappies. You'd see at once, wouldn't you, that there was something wrong? Well there are, I'm afraid, some churches just like that where, spiritually, the people never grow out of nappies.

Which isn't to say, of course that there's nothing left for you to learn about God and his love for us revealed in Jesus Christ. Learning that is a lifetime's work as I have discovered even though I, unlike you, had the enormous privilege of knowing and touching and talking to and eating with Jesus himself during his earthly life. The longer I live, the more I find I have to learn, and I suppose that even the world itself is not big enough to contain all the books which should be written about him.

Speaking of learning brings me onto the next point. To both your selves and your new parish priest I would say "never underestimate your (or his) intelligence; never overestimate your (or his) knowledge".

To be really intelligent is to know that you don't know everything; but it is also to know that you have at the same time the ability to learn what as yet you don't know. Think back for a moment to that illustration of the family which I used above. Babies are born almost totally ignorant of everything; but a wise parent knows that his children will have throughout their life an almost unlimited capacity to learn. That is one of the joys of parenthood, seeing children take on board the knowledge one possesses oneself and, at the same time realising, as a parent, how ignorant one is oneself and resolving to be a learner to the end of one's days; learning not least from the very same children we have begotten, taught and brought up. So to the young people of Grekparvo I would say: "learn all you can from those who are older and more experienced in the life of faith than yourselves"; and to the older people I would say: learn all you can about innocence, enthusiasm and dedication from the young people in your midst. For each of you, young and old, has an infinite about to learn from each other.

And don't forget, by the way, that we can all learn from each other's mistakes: it's just as valuable to know how not to do something as to know how to do it.

So never despise one another, even when people get things wrong. I remember Jesus being especially hot on that one. "Saying 'Raca!' or 'Silly old fool' (or 'silly young fool' for that matter!) about any of your Christian brethren will put you in danger of hell fire", he said to us. Strong words! And yet like so many of the things he said to us, its truth has gradually dawned on me.

Certainly we're not to overlook each other's faults. That wasn't what he meant at all. But we are to see other people's shortcomings as part of our responsibility to help them to put right. So whatever you do, don't despise one another. Jesus doesn't despise any of us, though he might have good reason to do so (I speak as a fellow-sinner with you, of course). So we must learn gently to correct in each other what we see to be bent or misshapen.

By the same token I would say this to your new parish priest: never underestimate the power given you in your ordination to loose people from their sins. The sacrament of confession and absolution is widely ignored and underused today everywhere. Try by all and any means to persuade your people to bring their shortcomings to you as we learnt to do to Jesus. Many was the time in those three years we had with him that the twelve of us fell out with each other in some way. Who was to be chief? How was the money to be spent? or even Where was the next money to come from?. Well little by little we learnt to "cast our cares upon him" as Peter once put it; and we found that Jesus actually cared about all those petty mundane things that bothered us out of all proportion to their real importance. Bringing them in confidence to Jesus really did work. Jesus himself has commissioned and ordained your new parish priest to do the same for you.

And now a word of warning. Ever since Day One of the Church on Earth, the firs Pentecost, there have been people who have distorted the message which we have been commissioned to preach and teach.

These distortions usually come in pairs, reacting to each other. For example, I well remember how in the early days of the church there were those of us who said that the end of the world, the Second Coming of Jesus in glory to judge the living and the dead was going to happen at any minute. Of course in one sense they were right because that is still true. It may happen any day. But I was one of those who believed it was going to happen shortly after Pentecost.

This belief, however, persuaded some of our brethren to draw the false conclusion that this meant that they could give up their jobs and sit back and wait for things to happen. Well, as we all know, the devil finds work for idle hands to do and it wasn't long before these selfsame people were living a life of idle debauchery "making hay whilst the sun is shining" as one of them said to me, and behaving morally even worse than the pagans.

Then a reaction set in and another school of thought appeared which said that the Second Coming wasn't going to happen at all; only to be followed by a third reaction which said that the Second Coming had happened already and that many of us, so to speak, had missed the boat!

Now I write all this to you not because these are the heresies which are abroad today with you but because in each and every case I have mentioned, heresy has brought with it a sever moral degeneration in its wake. Behaviour which would not so much have been mentioned by Christians before became accepted and acceptable as commonplace and even commendable once false teaching gets a grip on us. Divisions, divorce, fornication, adultery, abortion, infanticide, power politics and many other grave sins grow prolifically in the seedbed of false doctrine.

Of course I don't know how things are at Grekparvo, but news has reached me from other churches from time to time, and piecing it all together the pattern seems pretty consistent as to what is going wrong with people's thinking in the present day.

It is this. In the very understandable desire to "get alongside" the unchurched masses, certain Christians have chosen to adopt the attitudes and morality of the secular world in which they live. But that is just as grave a mistake as thinking (as others have done from time to time) that the world is something wholly evil and to be avoided.

Let me put this straight in your minds. We know that God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Saviour. He sent him not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.

However, that didn't mean that he meant us to adopt the world's standards as our own. On the contrary, because we have passed from death to life we must not be surprised if the world actively hates us!

So you see we have here what is called a "paradox", that is to say, two truths which appear to contradict each other but which need to be held together if the real truth is to be grasped. As one wit has said, the only way to deal with a wild paradox is to grasp it by both its horns and hang onto both of them.. In this case we must love the world as god loves it and because he loves it, but not love the world on the terms on which the world wants to be loved, its own terms. The world wants to be told that everything's all right with it really and dear old Grandfather God in the sky wants nothing so much as to see the young people (and the not-so-young for that matter) enjoying themselves and having a thoroughly good time.

No, my dear brothers and sisters of Grekparvo, don't let yourselves get misled in this way. We are to love God with all our heart, our neighbour as ourselves, the world because he loves it, but (in Jesus' own words) we are to "love one another as I have loved you".

I shan't forget the shock that those words gave us at the Last Supper in the Upper room. At first sight they sounded so natural, so ordinary. then it began to dawn on us that this really was a "new commandment" and that something quite extraordinary was being demanded of us by Jesus. We the twelve, were being commanded to love one another in a quite different way.

And then, as so often happened, Jesus followed up his saying with doing something. He took bread and wine, said the blessing, broke the bread and gave them to us saying "Take, eat, this is my body and my blood; go on doing this like you've just seen me do it".

Little by little over the years as we have done what he told us, we have found that we have come to love one another as parts of a body might be said to love one another. Just as the body needs food, it is the hand that carries the food to the mouth, the mouth receives it, the teeth break it up, the throat swallows it and the stomach digests it. The body is fed, but all those members, teeth, hand, throat, and the rest being part of the body need the food to do the work they were designed to do. There is in the parts of a body a complete interdependence. Remember then that you are the body of Christ in Grekparvo and everyone members one of another. It's not easy to love as a body. Jesus never said it would be. The outside world (which he still loves, remember!) hasn't the faintest idea of what we are really doing when we come together to break bread on a Sunday. Insofar as the world thinks at all it imagines that the Eucharist is something we do because "we're the sort of people who find that kind of thing helpful".

But the truth of the matter of course is that we come together to meet Jesus and to be incorporated into his mystical body which is the blessed company of all faithful people living and departed. We are the embodiment of Christ in the place where we worship whether it be Patmos, Antioch, Jerusalem or Grekparvo. Your new priest will only be an effective part of that embodiment if you all work without ceasing to make him so. "Without me" said Jesus, "you can do nothing". Well, without you the body of Christ in Grekparvo your new priest won't be able to do anything either. You've simply got to "let him in".

Speaking of "letting him in" reminds me of some other words of Jesus which don't appear in any of the gospels so far written, but which I heard him once say and passed on in my last letter to the church at Laodicea. Jesus said:

"Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in and sup with him and he with me".

God bless you, good people of Grekparvo. Your guardians have served you well. Keep up the good work all of you in the years ahead.

Your beloved friend and servant


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