On Sunday we continued our series in 1 Timothy, and I talked about how this letter is written for a church transitioning from a movement to an institution (listen here). That's why we used stained glass images on the slides for this sermon series (until we switched to paper bulletins!) — these images hint at the permanence, history, and enduring beauty of the institutional church.
But the institutional church is complicated, and its legacy is not entirely beautiful. The pages of 1 Timothy show us some of the challenges facing the growing church at Ephesus: abuses of authority, false and harmful teaching, morally compromised leaders, and confusion about the church's relationship to civic authorities and the marginalized.
This early institutional church was incredibly messy, and it still is today. We see the trajectory of this messiness in the book of Revelation, written just a few years later than 1 Timothy. There, in a vision to the apostle John, Jesus tells the Ephesian church:
“I know your works, your toil and your endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring and bearing up for the sake of my name and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, then, from where you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first.” (Rev 2:3-4)
We learn here that the church at Ephesus managed to fix its false-teacher problem that Paul wrote about in 1 Timothy. It has worked hard and stood firm in the face of opposition. It actually looks like a pretty successful church! But at its center, it has lost its love for Jesus.
This is always the danger facing the church, isn't it? That as we grow and change, and especially as we experience things that look like success, we begin to abandon our deep, central, primary love for Jesus.
I think about this a lot as I watch our little church grow and change over time — may we never lose our first love. And I think about this more broadly as I watch the reckoning taking place throughout the church in America over issues of abuse and political compromise and so much more. Jesus is calling his church to repentance, and I pray we will listen.