‘And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:
‘I know your works; you have a name for being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is at the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. Yet you have still a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes; they will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
In my first pastorate I worked with three churches, and one bore the name of Sardis. It is, in fact, quite a common chapel name in Wales. Which is very surprising given that this is the only Sardis in the Bible, and it is hardly an exemplar for those seeking to build a church! Perhaps those who baptised these churches did so with typical Welsh melancholy as a warning to the congregations of what might go wrong! It will all end in tears as my grandmother would say cheerfully whenever it looked as if her grandchildren might be enjoying themselves too much.
We have no idea what went wrong in Sardis. No particular sins are referred to. This was not a church full of gluttons, drunkards or abusers. Nothing so dramatic ever happened there. In fact, it appears that nothing much happened at all. The church managed to do enough to appear alive, but in fact it was virtually dead. I guess we all know some churches of this kind, and it may (or may not) be comforting to realise that they already existed within a couple of generations of Jesus.
Verse 3, like my grandmother, warns that this superficially enjoyable church life will one day end in tears. It has no substance, and Jesus will arrive like a thief in the night – because the death of such a church will be the arrival of Jesus, who always seeks life rather than death. The good news is that there are still some who walk with Jesus, clothed in white. They will be spared the fate of the church, and will share in the genuine, deep life of Jesus.
A few months ago I experienced for the first time the closure of one of the churches at which I have ministered. It was not called Sardis, and its closure was a big surprise to the local community and to other local churches, because it had seemed so alive. But when we held the closing service, Jesus was there. And a good dozen of the remaining members have transferred their allegiance to another church a few miles away, where they are becoming a valued part of the new congregation. I will not remove their names from the book of the living.
And Sardis, where I began my ministry? Its handful of members remain a vibrant living congregation of God’s people in a remote Welsh valley – determined that they will never live up (or down) to their name.
you call your people into worshipping communities
to serve you in the name of Jesus.
Free us from the desire to appear alive
by being superficial in our faith,
or to avoid intimations of mortality
with ever more frenetic activity.
Instead, breathe deep into us the life
that transcends the death of even our church,
that we may walk with you.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is the Policy Officer for Cytun – Churches Together in Wales and a member of Parkminster URC in Cardiff.