‘And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling-block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practise fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.
This reading was the last in a set of 6 Bible studies for new Christians. After it was read through there was, not surprisingly, silence. Then a voice asked “Is that why grave stones are white?” The answer is that it depends where you are, what stone is available and the local tradition. I wonder what the Pergamums made of this letter – like the new Christians of that group it requires so much “other” knowledge it’s almost easier to start somewhere else.
They would have been more familiar with the two edged sword than we. These are the heavy battle-swords that cut the opponent twice, on the fore swing and the back stroke. Next, more in Eastern Orthodox than western tradition, Antipas is said to have been ordained by John the Apostle, became Bishop of Pergamum and was horrifically martyred around the time of Nero.
Then there are the opposites of Balaam (meaning ‘he destroys the people’) and the Nicolaitans (the name Nicolaus means ‘he conquers the people’). Both stories being about those committed to one way of life being drawn into activities and attitudes that deny them. Balaam, a non-Israelite, Mesopotamian travelling seer – have prophecy, will travel – is hired by the Moabites to curse Israel; instead God uses him to bless Israel. We know little about Nicolaus, by implication he is non-Christian who has set up another way of thinking and behaving.
However, as in all 7 letters, there is a starting commendation: in this case of holding fast. This is borne out in the promise of hidden manna, a white stone and a new name. The white stone is the deckle- edged posh invitation to the feast, manna, of God. The new name – how often we have a special name for someone we love – showing God’s love for us “To be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be named.”*
*Quoted by the Rev’d Sue Fender, daily devotion service 07/02/21
Lord, through the pandemic we have held fast. Now, as little by little we settle into a new normal, help us to hold on the knowledge that vast changes are always followed by new understandings of who we, the church, are: we are known, loved and named. Amen
The Rev’d Ruth Browning. Retired minister worshipping in Thornbury URC