Love is a Battlefield Part 1
So the marriage was falling apart. We realized that we were just two lonely people living in the same house on separate couches, watching TV. It would be so easy to part ways and walk off into the horizon as strangers. But we sought counseling, hoping to resuscitate our relationship. In one of my individual counseling sessions with Dr. Jane, she asked me what our early days were like, when we first fell in love. I admitted that we fought regularly in college, before we were ever engaged.
“We would sit for hours in the lobby of my dorm and have epic arguments over our plans, our beliefs, our habits, and who said what when and why. I spent half my college experience crying.” I was building my case that my husband and I never should have married. Were there fireworks? Yeah, our relationship started with fireworks—fireworks are loud and dangerous and painful, right? We were destined for failure.
I wanted Dr. Jane to say, “Oh yes, that is a terrible sign. The first year of love should be all chocolate and roses! You poor thing.” It would set me free from the boulder that my marriage had become. Instead, she proposed a scary idea: Passion and love are explosive. Where there is great chemistry, there is friction. First love isn’t easy love. First love is volatile.
For two people whose love had atrophied to the point of giving up, this news was liberating. We should fight. We had quit fighting. We should fight.
Our first love was complicated and messy and ugly. We didn’t know how to love each other yet, how to say the right things at the right time. We didn’t know how to not go to bed angry or how to use the 5 Love Languages. We hadn’t been to a marriage conference. We didn’t always fight fair. This was our first love.
When the passion faded, we continued to do the right things. We were growing in maturity, so our interactions became more patient, tempered, responsible. That was all well and good. The 5 Love Languages actually do help. But nothing could alter the fact that we were tired of love. Chemistry is exhausting. Saying the easy things and turning on the TV feels better after a long day at work. Don’t talk to me. Pass the pizza. No fights.
When Jesus speaks to the church of Ephesus, they are doing the right things. They do what it takes to remain faithful to the truth. But somehow they receive a devastating message from John’s Revelation: Even though they may be doing the right things, they have forsaken their first love. The fireworks are gone.
What Happens in Ephesus, Stays in Ephesus
First century Ephesus was a banking hub, a medical mecca, a haven for entertainers and artisans, and home for all kinds of idolatry and witchcraft. Citizens of Ephesus demonstrated their wealth and worship outwardly with elaborate shrines, temples, statues, and fountains. Artemis was the preferred deity, and the most respected priests of Artemis castrated themselves in her service. Most of the priestesses engaged in prostitution as a form of worship. Sacred services involved elaborate dances and choirs. There were yearly processions, athletic events, surgery competitions. Ephesus knew how to put on a good show.
In the face of Ephesian culture, the church of Ephesus buckled down and clung to the truth. The original word John used for labor gives us more information about the Ephesians’ hard work: the word kopos. William Barclay describes kopos as labor to the point of sweat, exhaustion, “the kind of toil which takes everything of mind and sinew that a man can put into it.” Barclay goes on.
The Christian way is not for the dilettante and for the man who fears to break sweat. The Christian must spend his life going all out for Christ and for his fellow-men….even if physical toil is forbidden to him and impossible for him, he can still toil in prayer.
Persevering in Ephesus would be exhausting. In a place where pagan expressions of worship are loud, boisterous events, where prostitution-as-religious-dedication is advertised on city blocks, where slavery is rampant, and entertainment abounds, endurance requires fortitude.
Besides the cultural pressures, the Ephesians also faced the more slippery foes of false prophets and liars. The city of Ephesus was located on the Highway to Rome. Every kind of prophet, heretic, and con artist came through the city. There were professional beggars who took advantage of Christian charity, moving from church to church. There were Jewish emissaries who attempted to entangle Christians against the law. There were heretics within the church. The Ephesians faithfully tested the men and women who came into their circles. They labored to the point of exhaustion, keeping the flock safe from wolves in sheep’s clothing, such as the Nicolaitans.
The Nicolaitans professed to ideas which perverted the great truths of Christianity to make life more comfortable for Christians living within Greco-Roman culture. They took the liberty of grace and turned it into license to live a life of indulgence, idolatry, and conformity. Clement of Alexandria describes them saying that they, “abandon themselves to pleasure like goats…leading a life of self-indulgence.”
Into this environment of external and internal pressure and attack, John relays a message from the Living One:
I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
How precious it must have been to receive this encouraging message through John! Jesus recognizes our efforts. As we struggle to keep this church on the straight and narrow path, Jesus has observed our kopos, our toil. He knows how bad it is here. He knows what we’re going through. What a relief.
Love is a Battlefield Part 2
At this point I imagine the Ephesian church congratulating one another. Whoever is reading the message aloud pauses for a moment and the men and women weep for relief and joy. They pat one another on the back and sing praises. It may have been a sweet moment. Then they turn to hear more and it breaks their hearts.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
When crisis hit my marriage, I wrung my hands to the heavens, “how did this happen? I was doing everything right!” I had remained steadfast to a husband I believed I never should have married. I was the hero in the story. I followed all the rules. Facing great opposition I had held us together. This was my kopos. I was so brave.
Once again during our journey a pivotal moment occurred in counseling. This time my husband and I were together. Our counselor was a wise, old man named Norm. Norm didn’t let me be the hero. He didn’t even let me be the victim. He recognized my hard work, much like Jesus recognized the labor of the Ephesians. But he saw right through my heart.
“So, tell me about your part in this.”
I had forsaken the love I had at first. I sat in his office, confronted with my loveless marriage, and held accountable for my half. It hurt. It hurt my pride.
Despite the anguish this message must have brought the Ephesians, embedded within the words is a way to process the heartbreak and find love again. It’s kind of romantic.
Jesus begins with the word “remember”. Dr. Jane forced me to remember my first love with my husband. Thinking about all the fights reminded me of the chemistry we used to have, how far we had fallen. When the Ephesians looked back at their first love, they probably didn’t remember chocolate and roses either. They remembered persecution and hardship. They remembered navigating their way through a complicated new set of ideas. They remembered a radical faith in an even more radical guy whom they had never seen. The early days were hard. But worth remembering.
Jesus also commands the Ephesians to repent. Repenting for stealing a candy bar is pretty easy. Simple. I admit I made the mistake and I regret it. I won’t do it again. Will you forgive me? Sure. Repenting of a lifestyle of apathy and coldness requires time and effort.
Post-crisis, my husband and I probably spent our first year repenting to each other continuously. This wasn’t for lack of forgiveness. We forgave each other readily at the beginning. We felt compelled to repent for the past because the whole thing was so sad. As we were falling in love with each other again, the crisis we had suffered seemed so much more tragic. We were grieving our story.
We also repented continuously as we were trying to live a new life of love. We had to make the choice to love on a regular basis. Each time we would be tempted to slip back into our individual corners, we would be forced to confront the urge and repent. Our love language was repentance that first year. Things got better.
The third piece of the remedy is “do the things you did at first”. In college when my husband and I weren’t fighting, we were sitting at a coffee shop or in a park, discussing the big ideas. We could sit for hours and have fun without having a tv on. But years later, when we were in the midst of crisis, that world seemed like an old fantasy. We tried it out anyway.
In the evenings after work, we didn’t sit on separate couches watching TV anymore. We engaged each other. We played games. We talked. We fought. We watched the entire X-Files series on DVD, discussing each episode. (We are both total geeks.) We refused to pretend that the other didn’t exist. And we began to find love again.
The Ephesian church was busy. They weren’t sitting around, letting the world go by. What did they do in the beginning that they had forgotten? As they were crusading against heretics and false prophets, what had they let fall by the wayside? Would loving Jesus change their priorities at all? If they embraced their first love again, would they have different goals? Perhaps they would have new priorities. Or maybe they would continue standing their post on the Highway to Rome, but with a different spirit of love and charity. It’s a mystery.
We don’t know what they did “at first”. As men and women of the church of 2011, we must examine our own hearts and agendas. What are we doing that is motivated by an obligation to toil? Are we working ourselves to the point of exhaustion for the right things? Is it motivated by a first love for Jesus? He sees our labor. Is it coming from a place of romance?
Happily Ever After
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
Love may be messy, volatile, complicated. It may keep us up at night as we work out our thoughts and beliefs. It may not be easily described or put away in a neat box. But we know it’s love because the earth moves when we hear his name. We hear music in a good sunrise. He lends meaning to every breath we take. He changes the way we want to live.
We don’t have him all figured out. He makes us furious when he says things the way he says them. Sometimes he embarrasses us in public. We ache when we hear his name attached to evil. His other followers irritate us. He doesn’t make sense. He’s so quiet. But we keep fighting.