18th Sunday After Trinity, 2016. A Church Loses Its First Love. Divine Service, Scripture.
18th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 25, 2016
“A Church Loses Its First Love”
There is a reason why so many songs and poems speak about the experience of falling in love. Love is powerful, intoxicating. It almost makes someone new. It changes the expression of a person’s face, gives light to their eyes. It gives people courage and zeal to do things they would never otherwise have tried.
But the ecstasy of falling in love has to be followed up by action. People who fall in love but don’t make a pledge to one another to forsake all other loves, or who don’t follow through on that pledge by continuing to give themselves to the other, find that their love grows cold. Instead of first love growing into a deeper and more mature love, it gradually dies.
In the first letter to the churches in Asia Minor, our Lord Jesus Christ writes to the church in Ephesus that it has lost its first love for Him.
The church in Ephesus was the oldest of the seven churches to which Jesus told John to write. It had been founded by the apostle Paul about 40 years before the writing of the book of Revelation. He wrote the Ephesian church a letter while he was in prison in Rome that we still read today because it is holy Scripture. Later, tradition tells us that the apostle John lived in Ephesus and taught there into his old age.
Being the oldest church in the region, and having had two apostles dwell there and teach them, the church in Ephesus might have been proud of their history, boasted of what God had done for them. That boasting and pride would have been no sin if it was pride in the goodness and love of their Lord, who made them first among the seven churches solely out of His grace.
But something was wrong in Ephesus. Jesus introduces Himself as the One who walks in the midst of the golden lampstands, the churches. “I know your works,” He says. And the works He mentions He is pleased with: the Ephesians have toiled and worked hard as a church to spread the word of God. They have been patient and endured suffering and hostility in the world for their faith and their toil to make Christ known. And they could not tolerate false teachers. They tested those who claimed to be “apostles”—people sent by Christ—and when the supposedly God-sent men didn’t preach what accords with Christ’s doctrine, the Ephesians threw them out as false apostles and refused to hear them.
In addition, Jesus commends them because they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, a group that claimed the Gospel made them free to practice sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. That was like receiving communion from an idol—participating in its worship, and proclaiming fellowship with the idols worshippers.
So the Ephesian church was exemplary for its orthodoxy and its willingness to work and suffer for Christ.
But for all this apparent faithfulness, the Lord finds something lacking, something so important that it invalidates all the good things about the church in Ephesus. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first—“ or, “You have let go of your first love.”
“You don’t love me like you once did.” When two people are in love, those are among the most painful words one could speak to the other. They signify that love between two people is no longer strong and certain; love is passing away, the way everything beautiful in this world fades, grows old, and dies.
Hearing Jesus say, “You have lost your first love for me” would pierce the heart of anyone who loves Him like a dagger. After He rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to Peter by the Sea of Galilee, where He first called Peter to follow Him. Three times He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter was full of grief that Jesus had to ask if he still loved Him.
If Jesus asked you, St. Peter, “Do you love me?”, would you grieve? Would you get angry? Do you think, maybe, He does ask us that?
But Jesus doesn’t say the Ephesian church doesn’t love him anymore. He only says they have lost their first love. Their love toward Jesus has cooled.
They still love Jesus in Ephesus. They just don’t love Him as much as they used to. Or rather, they just don’t love as much—Jesus or other people. Yet just this—the cooling of love, the decline of love—is enough to draw this severe threat from the Lord of the Church: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5) In other words, Jesus will bring the church in Ephesus to an end because they have lost their first love. He will cause this church to cease to exist.
Eventually what Jesus warns of here happened to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a major city as well as a major center of the early Christian church. But it was destroyed by an invasion of Germanic tribesman in 263 A. D. After being rebuilt by a Roman emperor, throughout the 700’s it suffered from raids by Muslim armies. Meanwhile, its harbor gradually filled with silt. It lost trade as a result, and its standing as a center of commerce declined. By the time Muslim Turks conquered it about 1000 years after the writing of the book of Revelation, it had become a small village. In another four hundred years it was completely abandoned. Whatever remained of the Church of Ephesus, which had once been first among the churches of Asia, was taken away.
St. Peter Lutheran Church in Joliet has several things in common with the church in Ephesus. We were the first Lutheran Church in Joliet. Most of the other Missouri Synod congregations for miles around were birthed by St. Peter. No apostles ever occupied the pulpit of St. Peter, but God blessed it with at least three gifted pastors in its 159 years. There have been others who have perhaps not had as many gifts, but they were faithful in teaching God’s pure Word and administering His Sacraments.
Yet today we have declined to a shadow of the church’s former strength. Many of us wonder how many years St. Peter has left.
Like the Church in Ephesus, a lot of earthly factors have contributed to our declining attendance. Although the city of Joliet has grown numerically it has declined economically, causing many of the sons and daughters of our congregation to move elsewhere. Then there is the decay of the neighborhood from a prosperous area to a slum with the reputation of being dangerous.
Yet Jesus doesn’t say that the decline of the city of Ephesus will cause the Ephesian church to disappear. He says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” If the Ephesians in fact did not repent, then it wasn’t the invasions and earthquakes and the filling in of the harbor that caused the church in Ephesus to disappear.
Rather, Jesus caused those calamities in order to remove their lampstand from its place.
And if this is what happened, it was all because they had lost their first love. So as we see our church on the verge of being removed from its place, what should we be asking ourselves except, “Has St. Peter lost its first love?”
If we look back at our history, we can see evidence of St. Peter’s love for Christ, His Word, and those who do not know and believe it.
In 1870, St. Peter called a pastor from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. At that time the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States was only 23 years old. St. Peter was only 13 years old. The young bearded pastor that came fresh from the seminary, the Rev. Carl Rothe, spent 8 years here—and only at the end of his ministry did the congregation make its first steps toward becoming a confessional Lutheran congregation, when it accepted the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 as a summary confession of the faith held by the congregation. Prior to that, for 25 years, St. Peter had “Lutheran” in the title of their name, but apparently was not clear on what they meant by saying they were Lutheran. By accepting the Augsburg Confession, they publicly confessed the doctrine of the early Lutheran reformers as their own.
Pastor Rothe was followed in office by his brother-in-law, Pastor August Schuessler, who had been pastor in a small town south of here. Some time in the 1880s, St. Peter became a member congregation of the Missouri Synod, after it embraced the entire Book of Concord of 1580 as its confession of faith.
What does this show about St. Peter in those days? It shows that they had a love for Christ and His Word and were willing to be instructed from it. They went from being a congregation that called itself “Lutheran” in a generic way to being a congregation that received the entire doctrine of the Lutheran Church.
St. Peter then was a congregation that loved Christ. As a result, it was willing to test whether its faith was in line with God’s Word. And when they found that it was not, they were willing to repent and receive the full teaching of God’s Word.
St. Peter also had a desire to see Christ’s Kingdom extended on earth. They loved their neighbors and were willing to work to see the Gospel spread and bring people to faith in Christ. In the early part of the 20th century, for many years, St. Peter not only maintained a Sunday School for its own children, but operated one on the other side of town. They called it “the mission Sunday School.” One imagines that the “mission Sunday School” ministered to kids whose parents were not willing or able to bring their children up as Christians. St. Peter didn’t simply expect that parents be responsible to bring their children to Sunday School and church—they actively sought out the children who, for whatever reason, were not being taught the Scriptures at the age when it is most critical that children learn them. That was a measure of their faith in Christ’s Word and their love for those who were separated from it.
How do we measure up to the “first love” of our congregation?
The love that St. Peter showed in its early years for the word of God, evidenced by their willingness to grow in it, to learn from it and acknowledge when their knowledge and confession of it had been deficient—is that still present among us? By no means. As your pastor for ten years, I can bear witness that many of St. Peter’s members—most—do not remember the basic teachings of God’s Word found in the Small Catechism. It’s not simply that they no longer remember the words of the catechism—which itself should not be; it should not be that a congregation that says it adheres to the confessions of the Lutheran Church does not remember the simple form of the faith that “the head of the family should teach…to his household.”
But not only do very few remember the words of the catechism; very many also have forgotten the content of the catechism. Forgotten that the church of Christ is not everyone who can be enticed to show up to worship, but “the communion of saints…[that] those who believe in Christ…but only believers, are members of the church.” Forgotten that a person cannot become a believer in Christ by their “own reason or strength”, much less by means of techniques designed by men to appeal to unbelievers, but that the Holy Spirit must call a person by the Gospel, enlighten him with His gifts, sanctify and keep him in the true faith. Forgotten that when a person visits St. Peter with a different confession of faith than the one taught by the Holy Spirit, we are not permitted to share the body and blood of Christ with that person, but invite that person to first be instructed and confess with us God’s Word in its purity.
Yet not only have many people at St. Peter forgotten these teachings that they once learned and confessed, they have often responded to them with anger when they were presented to them again. But even where this is not the case, the majority of members of St. Peter have proven themselves less than eager to re-learn or to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word.
The love St. Peter had at first for God’s Word is not here anymore.
For the last ten years, I have conducted these series in the fall, in which I exhorted those who came to devote themselves anew to the Christian life, to Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer, Giving, Serving, and Witnessing. I pleaded with the congregation over the years to come to Bible Class during these weeks, if at no other time during the year, so that we could come together and examine ourselves as a congregation. To repent where we had been negligent in these things. To hear God’s pardon for our sin through the death of His Son. To encourage one another to grow in these things that are fruits of faith in Christ.
Early on, I sent out mailings and letters trying to gather the congregation together. In more recent years I begged and pleaded with those who were present in the Divine Service to come to Bible Class. And for ten years there has been little to no response. Those who didn’t come at all didn’t come. Those who do attend the Divine Service but not Bible Class, with few exceptions, ignored my pleading.
And even this year, when the church is in critical condition, and everyone knows it, there is no increased sense of urgency—at least no sense of urgency to turn to God and His Word. The love St. Peter once had amongst its own members is not like its first love. If this love still exists, it is not the love that recognizes that our mutual well-being as a church depends first and foremost on our listening to God and, believing His promises, walking in the ways of prayer, giving, serving, and witnessing.
Finally, what about St. Peter’s love for the lost outside the Church? Is there an earnest love that compels us to bring the Gospel outside of the walls of our congregation, like that which once drove St. Peter to start a mission Sunday School?
There is a zeal among some, to be sure, who devote countless hours to Vacation Bible School every summer, and others who have tried in various ways to bring God’s Word to the youth and to the families at Evergreen Terrace. But the congregation as a whole does not work as a body to reach out and to welcome in those who are outside. And that is what we need. How difficult a stumbling block we place in front of our new members when, after undergoing catechesis for several months, they join the church, and find so many members who have so little interest in what they spent the last several months learning, and who seem to have little joy about someone else confessing that faith and doctrine as their own!
What I am saying is very difficult to hear. It may make you angry to hear it. Perhaps you think I’m not presenting the whole story.
Yet I doubt that there are many who will dispute that St. Peter as a congregation has lost its first love. We can see clearly enough by their absence that in many people this love—for Christ, for His Word, His people—has died completely. And certainly in some, if not many of us, it has died or grown very cold.
The loss of their first love meant the removal of the church of Ephesus. And as we see our lampstand being removed, we should hear clearly Jesus’ words to them in our ears: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5)
Why did Jesus threaten to take away the church in Ephesus because they had lost their first love? Because faith and love are always together. We say correctly that “faith alone saves,” that “a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the Law.” (Rom. 3:28) But faith that saves, faith in Christ, is always followed by love. Because faith in Christ is worked by the Holy Spirit, who at the same time renews our heart, so that it is not the selfish, cold heart of the old Adam only. Instead, Jesus dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17)—the same Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us. Yes, the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:5). So where love is on the wane, faith in Christ is dying as well.
If only you would hear Jesus and not cast these words behind you! That you would realize the terrible seriousness of this, that Jesus truly and earnestly threatens to close a church because it abandon[s] the love [it] had at first! (Rev. 2:4) He threatens this to us not out of spite or vengefulness, but because He desires our salvation! When a church loses its first love, there will be members of whom this is not true. Those members Jesus will not abandon. But those who have fallen away or who continue on the path of falling are not simply in danger of seeing their congregation close, but of seeing themselves shut out of the Church of Christ in heaven. Jesus warns us so that this may not happen to us—not only the tragedy of Him removing a congregation like a branch on a vine that bears no fruit—but the tragedy of the members of that congregation individually being removed and cast into the fire and burned (John 15:5-6).
He warns so that there may be a change of heart—a repentance, in individuals, and in the congregation as a whole.
He says “Remember from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Then He will not remove your lampstand from its place.
That means that we return to St. Peter’s first love—to an eagerness to hear, learn, and grow in God’s Word; an eagerness to abide in all Christ’s teaching; an eager desire to proclaim and spread this Word. To return to newborn love for Jesus and the souls He died to save, inside and outside the Church.
It is not enough that we repent of our failure to hear God’s Word and spread it simply because we don’t want to see our congregation die. Repentance means to recognize our sin against the Lord who loved us, and to trust in the blood He shed to cancel that sin and purify us of it. And then, out of that faith and trust, to do the works of love the congregation once did—to gladly hear God’s Word and gladly proclaim it to the world.
Those who have not fallen from their first love repent of those inclinations and impulses they see in themselves that would dampen their love for Christ and His Word. Those who are growing cold turn again to Jesus with their dying love with sorrow. And those whose love has died fall at the feet of Jesus who is able to raise the dead.
You may rightly sense the difficulty of this—indeed, its impossibility. How can we restore love for Christ? Even human love is something difficult to keep, and difficult to revive once it has decreased—much less when it has died completely. But the love of God is not within our power to establish in our hearts. It must be poured out into them by the Holy Spirit.
All this is true, and there is no escaping it. Love is from God (1 John 4:7) says John in his first epistle. Just as the faith in Christ that saves us is not from ourselves but is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:9), God also must work His love in our hearts, or we will remain cold and loveless. Yet God desires to work both faith and love in the hearts of all people, because Jesus has redeemed all people through His suffering and death. And so God appointed means by which He gives the Holy Spirit and gives the gift of faith and the love that follow from it.
Those means are the Word and the Sacraments; if we are to regain our first love and the faith that produced it, God must do it. But He has promised to do it by means of the Word and Sacraments. Which means the salvation of our souls and of our congregation is to be found in the Divine Service and in Scripture.
But we have already had those things, and we still ended up where we are now!
That is true. But if the means God appointed to work faith and love in our hearts haven’t worked, it isn’t because those means are not effective, or that God only works through them sometimes. The fault is with us. Too often we have neglected the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and the reading of Scripture. We have received them a couple of times a month, or less. We have not read the Scriptures in our homes or been willing to study them in church. And even when we were present to hear the Word preached and receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, we did not really receive.
We didn’t listen. Maybe you didn’t think that preaching is God’s Word—you thought it was just the opinion of whoever occupied the pulpit. Or when you listened to the reading of Scripture you tuned it out because you figured you had heard it before. You came to the divine service, and particularly the Lord’s Supper, without preparation—not examining yourself to see whether you repented of your sins and believed what Jesus said He was giving. You came to church half-asleep because you were doing other things the night before. Or you came without prayer and readiness to hear God speak and work in you because you didn’t realize how badly you needed Him to do so. You came but got annoyed if you didn’t get to sing the right hymns, were irritated if I didn’t conduct the service as you thought it should be done. You had expectations of how the service was supposed to go and were certain of the rightness of your indignation if those expectations weren’t met.
You did not realize that you were closing your heart to the Holy Spirit who desired to work in you. Whether you neglected opportunities to hear or read God’s Word, or whether you physically presented yourselves but did not seriously listen.
Once a month for several years I have been teaching a class on the Book of Concord, the confessions of the Lutheran Church. One of the documents in the Book of Concord is called The Formula of Concord, written about three decades after the death of Martin Luther to settle certain controversies that arose after his death. It has a wonderful section in which it talks about how God always wills to work through His Word, preached, read, or taught, to bring about faith and love in those who by nature are without both.
It says, “We should never regard this call from God, which takes place through the preaching of the Word, as some kind of deception. Instead, we should know that God reveals His will through it, namely, that he wills to work through His Word in those whom he has called, so that they may be enlightened, converted, and saved. For the Word through which we are called is a ministry of the Spirit. It ‘gives the Spirit,’ or through it the Spirit is conferred (2 Cor. 3); it is a ‘power of God’ that saves [Rom. 1]. Because the Holy Spirit wills to be efficacious and to give strength, power, and ability through the Word, it is God’s will that we accept the Word and believe and follow it…
Therefore, if people wish to be saved…they should listen to Christ…He testifies to all people without distinction that God wills all people who are burdened and weighed down with sins to come to him, so that they may be given rest and be saved.
According to Christ’s teaching they should abstain from sin, repent, trust the promise, and rely completely upon Christ. Because we are not capable of doing this by our own powers, the Holy Spirit wills to effect to repentance and faith in us through the Word and the sacraments. And that we may complete this and persist and remain faithful in it, we should call upon God for his grace, which he has promised us in Holy Baptism, and not doubt that in accord with His promise He will convey it to us, as He has promised…
Next, the Holy Spirit dwells in the elect who have believed as He dwells in His temple and is not idle in them but impels the children of God to obey God’s commands. Therefore, believers should in the same way not be idle either, much less resist the impetus of God’s Spirit, but should practice all Christian virtues…and should diligently seek to “confirm their call and election” [2 Peter 1:10], so that the more they recognize the Spirit’s power and strength in themselves, the less they doubt their election…
According to His normal arrangement, the Father draws people by the power of His Holy Spirit through the hearing of His holy, divine Word, as with a net, through which the elect are snatched out of the jaws of the devil. For this reason every poor sinner should act in such a way as to hear the Word diligently and not doubt that the Father is drawing people to Himself. For the Holy Spirit wills to be present with His power in the Word and to work through it. This is the drawing of the Father.
The reason why not all who hear the Word believe it (and thus receive the greater damnation) is not that God has not allowed them to be saved. Instead, it is their own fault, for they heard the Word not so that they might learn from it but only to despise, revile, and ridicule it; and they resisted the Holy Spirit, who wanted to work in them through the Word… (FC SD XI: 29, 70-73, 76-78)
The Holy Spirit will restore all who have fallen and those who have faltered to their first love through His Word and Sacraments. So we should attend to them the way we would attend to medicine that would save our lives on earth, because indeed there is no other medicine to restore faith in Christ and love to our congregation.
Those who do this will rise from their fall to conquer their sinful nature, the world, and the devil. And Jesus holds out a great promise to the ones who conquer by faith in Him—He will give them to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
You may remember how in his final hours a criminal who was crucified next to Jesus turned to Him and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The man, dying on the cross for his own sin, under the judgment of God, nearing the final minutes of a life spent in wickedness, arose and conquered. Jesus promised him the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God.
Why? Because through His Word, Jesus brought this man to faith in Him. With this faith came love; in his final minutes He spoke in defense of Jesus. He loved the man he rebuked and sought to bring him salvation even while both were dying condemned for their sins. He loved Jesus and confessed the truth about Him—that He had done nothing to deserve crucifixion, nothing sinful at all. He loved Jesus because He believed Jesus’ word, that the suffering He endured was to redeem even the criminal from his life of disobedience to God.
We may be at the end of the road as a congregation. It may be that even with repentance and renewal we are not to continue as a congregation, for some reason known only to our Lord Jesus.
Yet the reward of conquering with Jesus is not our congregation’s future on earth. It is the right to eat from the tree of life and dwell in the presence of God in paradise. The fruit of the tree of life, however, begins for those who repent and believe the Gospel today. To eat that fruit, to taste and see that the Lord is good, is to believe in the Son of God, who came that we might have life, who came to bear our offenses. Whoever believes in Jesus “eats His flesh and drinks His blood” (John 6), receiving life from His sacrificial death. As they go on eating from this tree of life, they are transformed by Him; they taste His love, and desire more of it. And the more they receive it, the more they love Him in return, the more they love those that He loves.
You are about to come eat this fruit of paradise, the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for your salvation. Let us come with repentance for all the times we have eaten this fruit and not come forth from this altar to conquer with Jesus our natural lovelessness. Let us come with the bitter taste of repentance that we may begin to taste the sweetness of His love toward us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria