Zombie movies have gripped audiences around the world for many decades. There is certainly something about the living dead that captures the attention of people. And yet, this concept of one who is dead yet still alive has been around for centuries. In fact, Jesus uses this very image when describing the church of Sardis. We’ll find an undead church that is on critical life support, an undead church that still has a faithful remnant, and an undead church that is uncomfortably similar to our own experience of church.
The Church of the Undead
Let’s zoom in to our main character here, the church of Sardis. As we investigate Jesus’ message, we’ll notice three main points that indicate there’s something fishy going on with the Sardinian church (no, they probably weren’t called nor associated with a type of small fish, but let’s just roll with it for now).
“You have a reputation of being alive…”
The church in Sardis was well known for their outward works and appearances. The word reputation is typically used when referring to someone’s name. Not only does it carry the identity of whoever bears that name, but it encapsulates the whole character of that person. For example, the name Kobe Bryant may bring to mind the iconic greatness he displayed on the basketball court. Similarly, when Christ proclaims that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”, it shows that Christ’s name carries the power of salvation (Romans 10:13). So when the church of Sardis “have made a name” for being alive, it means that the Sardinians have built an identity of life and vitality. If you asked someone who attended the church in Sardis how things were going, they would likely respond with only positive news. Another important detail is that this reputation is something that the Sardinian church has actively built and would be proud of. As a church, they’ve constructed the image of being an outgoing devoted community dedicated to the work of the Lord.
“…but you are dead”
It seems like you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover. How can a church that appears alive be dead? Well, Jesus sees right through the vibrant, lively church of Sardis and addresses the ugly truth hidden behind their veil of life. He pronounces “I know your deeds… for I have found your deeds unfinished in the sight of my God” (Revelation 3:1-2). The deeds and actions of the Sardis church have been worthless in the sight of God. This echoes a similar diagnosis God gives to the Israelites in Isaiah 29:13: “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”. It seems that not only are their works hollow and empty, but that many of their works have either died or are soon about to die. And this makes sense right? After all, how can one produce good works for God if they’ve forgotten about the very person who they worship?
If there was ever a warning that needed to be heeded, this is it. Similar to a sleep-deprived teen being ushered out of their bed by their parents, the church of Sardis is rudely awakened from their dream and made to face the reality of their sin. The call is one of urgency, one that if drastic isn’t taken immediately, the consequences will be eternal. The church is instructed to hold fast to the gospel they first heard and repent of their current ways. It’s interesting to note that Christ doesn’t call the Sardis church to do more deeds that are in line with God’s will. Rather, similarly to their brothers and sisters in Ephesus, Christ calls them to go back to the basics, the fundamentals.
The faithful remnant
And yet there is still hope for the church, not all is lost. Contrasting to the disgusting image of the many who have “soiled their clothes”, there are a few that “will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy.” These few will be worthy and victorious when they meet Christ in Heaven, even getting a personal shout-out in front of the Father and his angels! Christ makes this point not only to praise the faithful remnant, but to encourage many that this hope that only few in Sardis possess, will be given to all who repent and believe in the gospel. Jesus promises this hope of eternal life is given to those who are alive in name and deeds, saying “I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father” (Revelation 3:5).
It would be easy to say that the issue of empty, heartless worship was only a major problem for the Sardis church. But it wouldn’t take much reflection to recognise that this sin is still extremely relevant for believers today. Surrounded by a culture of pleasure and comfort, it is easy to go through the motions of Sunday service, Christian conferences and events without ever having a true heart for the gospel. It wouldn’t take too much introspection for us to remember the times where we’ve chosen the comfort of our bed instead of waking up early to read the Bible. Many of us could recount times when we’ve attended a church service, but our mind is elsewhere. The spiritual apathy that the Sardinians were called to wake up from applies to us too.
Maybe you’ve been to church all your life, but never really understood what the point of it is. You rock up to church, and everyone seems to just get it, but you don’t. Your ‘Sunday best’ is just a face that you put up to mask the fact that your life on every other day is completely different to what you claim to be on Sunday. Living this double life might be pleasing those around you, but it is not glorifying God at all. Christ can see through your actions and that your heart lies far from him. Similar to the Sardinians, He knows your empty deeds but yet He still calls for you to come to Him. Putting up an act at church or attending bible study isn’t enough for you to have a relationship with God. Instead, trust in Christ’s work on the cross. He died so that you don’t have to live a life to please everyone! Instead, find your worth in Christ. May these words from 1 John 1:9 will encourage you: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Another group would be those who profess confidently that Christ is Lord and Saviour. This warning from Christ is not something that we should take lightly too. There is a sense of urgency in Jesus’ words that should alert us. We ought to examine our lives closely, asking ourselves this key question: Do our deeds match where our hearts are? If there is a disconnect between our head, heart, and hands, then we need to quickly repent of our folly and make amends. Are we too comfortable in the ministries we are involved with? In our relationships with non-Christians, are we being salt and light to them, or do we happily accommodate sinful living to the detriment of our own faith? Besides asking these questions, continue to engage in the ordinary means of grace, that is, the Word, prayer and the sacraments. We must remember that this is the very means by which God by the Spirit grows and shapes us to become more like Christ.
We must heed the warning of Christ seriously. After all, the church of Sardis was likely unaware of how far they had strayed from the gospel. This is a wake up call for all followers of Jesus. And yet just as Christ pointed the dead Sardinian church back to the life giving gospel, may we too go back to the very foundation of which our faith rests. If you’ve been attending church but your heart is honestly elsewhere, let me encourage you to let go of this front that you are holding up for people to see. Instead, trust in Christ, who is calling you to live a life that is full of purpose and meaning. For the Christian, I pray that Christ’s warning to the Sardinian church makes us reflect on our own lives, grow in our love for God and actively engage in the ordinary means of grace.