Church of Pergamos: “stumblingblocks”

June 22, 2016

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,

Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

I would not change it.

These lines are from Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It,” and the first three lines are also quoted in Science and Health (p. 66).  Today’s readings on “stumblingblocks” are much like Shakespeare’s sweet adversity, and here’s some history to go along with the Bible stories.

Last December, we had readings from the Book of Numbers about Moab’s King Balak who wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites, but Balaam was prevented by his wise talking donkey.  (It is one of my favorite stories, and you can find it using the search bar under “Angels: Intuitions of Blessings.”)  Although Baalam could not curse the Israelites, he did find a “stumblingblock,” which was to have Balak send in foreign prostitutes, and there is a reference to this sensualism as a stumblingblock in the church in Pergamus.  “The stumbling block of sensual thinking is always disastrous to spiritual growth” (Studies in the Apocalypse of John of Patmos, by Edith Armstrong Hoyt, p. 34).

Pergamos was a noted center of Roman emperor worship, and the reference to “Satan’s throne” (Rev. 2:13) may refer to either the temple of the Roman emperor or to the monumental altar of Zeus, both at Pergamum (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, p. 2158).  Pergamos was also the location of the Aeschylapium or College of Medicine. (Hoyt, p. 34)

In both the church of Ephesus and Pergamos, there is a reference to the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. When the Gentiles became Christians, the Jerusalem Council ruled that they did not have to observe all the Jewish law, but the Gentiles did have to “keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication” (Acts 21:25). The Nicolaitans did not adhere to these rules, resulting in controversy in the early church.

I was trying to think of a contemporary equivalent to ancient Christianity’s food debate, such as not eating meat in front of a vegetarian. But then I remembered a recent conversation with an artist friend who had attended many gallery openings which only served wine and cheese. She was aware that many of her friends were struggling with alcohol addictions, so we talked about some non-alcoholic beverages she might substitute at her own art party, such as pretty creative fruit water, etc.  I admired her alert concern for those facing this stumblingblock and for her desire to build up others. It is a perfect example of Paul’s comments in I Corinthians which are paraphrased here:

Looking at it one way, you could say, “Anything goes. Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.” But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well. (The Message,  I Cor. 10:23)

In reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, I also realized that this discussion didn’t have to be limited to food at all, but that it could refer to stirring up controversy.  Of course, this argumentative attitude made me think of many national political and social debates.  The following article applied Paul and John’s disdain for the Nicolaitans to our own church:

“In her Message to The Mother Church for 1900 (pp. 12, 13) Mrs. Eddy writes, “Nicolaitan church presents the phase of a great controversy, ready to destroy the unity and the purity of the church.” If faced with the heat and confusion of controversial views, the body of members should unanimously detect and resist the attempt of error to becloud their vision of the true Church and church member. The unity of Truth and true thinking affords protection from this mischief-making influence. The self-importance of mortal mind, evidenced in a tendency to cling blindly to personal views, must be unmasked and made to yield to the far greater importance of serving one’s church with alertness, teachableness, and always in the spirit of Truth and Love. So doing, the entire membership may take refuge from the pettiness of mortal mind in the grandeur of divine Mind.” (Violet Ker Seymer, “Church and Church Member,” from the February 1934 issue of  The Christian Science Journal)

Here is another article about idolizing personality:

“When one’s sense of Truth has been adulterated by mental malpractice, one falls into the danger of personality,—of seeking good through persons and of believing that one’s own personality is good. Accepting adulation, taking to one’s self that which belongs to God, offering gifts or yielding obedience and adulation at the shrine of personality, is equivalent to eating “things sacrificed unto idols.” (Caroline Getty, “The Seven Churches,” from the October 1917 issue of  The Christian Science Journal)

This is a wonderful verse to ponder in the King James Bible:

“We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock and unto the Greeks foolishness.” (I Cor. 1:23)

Here’s one translation of that verses:

“While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one.” (The Message)

And in an essay on “How to Understand Science and Health,” Mrs. Eddy wrote,

Truth is, and ever has been, simple; and because of its utter simplicity, we in our pride and selfishness have been looking right over it. We have been keeping our eyes turned toward the sky, scanning the heavens with a far-off gaze in search of light, expecting to see the truth blaze forth like some great comet, or in some extraordinary manner; and when, instead of coming in great pomp and splendor, it appears in the simpleness of demonstration, we are staggered at it, and refuse to accept it; our intellectual pride is shocked, and we are sure that there has been some mistake. Human nature is ever the same. The Jews were looking for something transcendently wonderful, and the absence of it made the Christ, Truth, to them a stumbling-block. It was foolishness to the Greeks, who excelled in the worldly wisdom of that day; but in all ages of the world it has ever been the power of God to them that believe, not blindly, but because of an enlightened understanding. (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 469)