Archive for October, 2012
He Bore the Sin of Many
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 28, 2012
Isaiah 53:3-12 Mark 10:35-45 Psalm 91
The Bible readings we heard this morning are sources for a doctrine called the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement states that Jesus bore our sins like a sacrificial lamb when He was crucified. This doctrine teaches that Jesus’ crucifixion was like the sacrifice of lambs that the ancient Israelites used to do to take away their sins. And those who have faith in Jesus will have their sins removed. This doctrine of atonement is held by many Christian churches, particularly the mainline Protestant churches. The atonement doctrine seems to be very clearly taught in the Bible readings we heard this morning. Our church does keep some of the Biblical language of the atonement, but we interpret this language differently than do many mainline Protestant churches. Although I respect my fellow Christians and support them in their different beliefs about the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, I must confess that I find the strong statement of the atonement distasteful. Furthermore, it gives a picture of God that I can’t affirm.
But the language of the Bible certainly supports those who believe in the doctrine of the atonement. In the Isaiah 53 passage we heard, this doctrine comes through loud and clear, repeatedly:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows . . .
But he was wounded for our transgressions
and was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole . . .
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . .
he bore the sin of many,
and made intersession for the transgressors.
And the idea that Jesus took away our sins through His death on the cross seems to be stated in Mark: “For the Son of Man also came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Then there are John the Baptist’s words in the gospel of John, when Jesus came to be baptized. John the Baptist exclaimed upon seeing Jesus, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). This idea becomes a strong voice in the letters of Paul. Paul’s letters are often contradictory, but some Protestants read his statements on the atonement as central to his teaching and central to Christianity. In Romans 3, Paul states that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that takes away the sins of all who believe in Him,
But now righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known . . . . This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood (Romans 3:21-25).
To some extent our church agrees with this basic idea. That is, we believe that it is the Lord alone who has the power to take away our sins. It is the Lord alone who raises us up out of our selfish cravings and worldly ambitions into loving generosity and heavenly delights.
Swedenborg uses language of struggle to talk about our relationship with sin. He says that the Lord fights against the evils and falsities that can erupt in our lower nature. We have no power to resist evil or to discern truth. The Lord alone has the power to deliver us from evil and to enlighten our minds with truth. In this sense, Jesus is our savior; He saves us from sin by removing it from us. Since it is the Lord who fights against hell, evil and sin, it is said that the Lord bears our sins. So Swedenborg writes,
He, therefore, Who alone fights for a person against . . . evils and falsities . . . is said to bear sins, for He alone bears that burden (AC 9937).
In this idea we are not too far from traditional Protestant beliefs. But there is a further step in this process of the removal of evil. That further step is our cooperation. The Lord can only remove evil when we desist from it as if by our own power.
the hells are continually with a person . . . so far as the Lord does not remove them; and He removes them just so far as a person desists from evils (AC 9937).
So we do believe that the Lord saves us from our sins. In this we are like traditional Protestants. But by bearing our sins, we do not mean that the crucifixion wiped out our sins, but rather that the Lord raises us up out of sin, evil, and falsity by His own power. This is how we understand the idea that the Lord bore our sins.
by bearing iniquities something else is meant; but what is meant may be evident from the bearing itself of iniquities or sins by the Lord. For the Lord bears them when He fights for a person against the hells, since a person of himself cannot fight against them, but the Lord alone does this, and indeed continually for every person (AC9937).
Our apparent effort in this process would distance us from some mainline Protestants, who hold that faith, and not works saves us. Emphasizing our own apparent work in the process of salvation, and Swedenborg’s description of spiritual purification locates us closer to Eastern Orthodox Christianity or Roman Catholicism.
The Biblical language mentions distress and sorrow that the Lord bore on our account. Isaiah says that He bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, that He was wounded and bruised, that He was chastised, and other deep distresses of soul and body. In Swedenborg’s theology, these distresses refer to the Lord’s struggles against the hells while He was on the earth. Struggling against the powers of darkness is what Swedenborg means by temptations. And it was by means of the humanity that the Lord acquired from Mary that the hells could approach the Lord. For God is infinitely good. And nothing evil can approach what is infinitely good. But with a humanity the same as the humanity that we have, hell had access, if you will, to God while He was on earth. So it was our very human nature that allowed hell to approach God. We say this every Sunday when we recite our Faith:
To save us from evil, He became as human as we are. He endured temptations, even the passion of the cross, yet never succumbed. He defeated the demonic power, destroying its hold on the world, releasing us from bondage.
Through the human He inherited from Mary, Jesus faced the totality of human sin. Through temptation struggles, Jesus overcame the source of sin, the hells, and restored order in the world and spiritual world. This is how we understand the language of Christ bearing our sins,
it is said that He bore our sickness, and carried our sorrows, that He was pierced for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities; that Jehovah made to fall on Him the iniquity of us all . . . and that by His wisdom shall justify many, because he hath borne their iniquities, and hath carried the sin of many. . . . That by being pierced and bruised by them, is signified a state of temptations is plain, for in such a state there are sorrows of mind, distresses, and despairs, which cause anguish (AC 9937).
Jesus’ very being was and still is love for the whole human race. God wills nothing else but to be conjoined with each and every one of us forever.
The Lord’s love was the love of saving the human race, and this love was the being of His life, for this love was the Divine in Him (AC 9937).
The despair that Jesus felt in the depths of His temptations was for our welfare and salvation. It was our welfare that occupied Jesus’ final thoughts on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus overcame the forces of darkness and in His risen and Glorified Humanity now continually fights against the evils that can assail us from the hells. Sometimes, we also may know the sorrows of mind, the distresses and despairs and anguish that the Lord knew on earth. If we are growing and developing spiritually, these feelings are likely. Change is never easy, spiritual or psychological. But there is One who has all power. That One is God. God has overcome darkness, and in doing so is continually working to deliver each and every one of us from our own worst tendencies. We need but ask God into our lives, and the process of heavenly ascent is a promise. The Lord alone has power to lift us into His world, and He can and will if we but ask Him to.
Lord, we praise you and we give you thanks. For you care for us always, and you never cease to lift us upward and inward into your kingdom. We are grateful for all your mighty acts of redemption. You have all power, and we have none. We implore your help as we wrestle with temptation, for we must cooperate with you in desisting from evil. Through the power of your Divine Human, you come to us in whatever state we are, be it in lofty, holy rapture, or in the depths of sorrow and distress. For you have wrought redemption for the whole human race, and you remain our personal savior, each and every one of us, your children.
Seek the Lord and Live
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 14, 2012
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 Mark 10:17-31 Psalm 22
Our readings this morning concern the issue of faith and charity, or good works and belief. This morning’s readings make it very clear that doing good matters for our eternal life. Amos says, “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live” (5:14). And in our reading from Mark, the rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus points him to the ten commandments,
You know the commandments: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.”
And when the rich man tells Jesus that he has kept the ten commandments since his youth, Jesus looks on him and loves him. This tells us that Jesus loves those who keep the ten commandments. (Of course Jesus loves everyone. But when we keep the commandments we enter into a reciprocal relationship with Jesus and the love He has for us is returned.) And Amos tells us that we will live if we seek good. Doing good matters for our eternal welfare.
Paul agrees with this teaching. He is often contradictory, but there are clear passages where Paul teaches that doing good matters in our eternal life. In Romans 2, Paul says that doing good alone will justify a person whether he is a Jew or a Greek, God will see the good, not the ethnicity of the practitioner,
He will render to every man according to his works; to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Romans 2:6-11).
So we have seen that Paul, Jesus, and Amos all teach that doing good matters for our spiritual welfare.
But that is not the whole story. Jesus tells the rich man something astonishing.
You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me (Mark 10: 21).
This saddens the rich man because he had great possessions. I don’t think that the idea here is giving away possessions to the poor. Indeed, Jesus would appear to be contradictory on this if that is the idea. When the sinful woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, the apostles are indignant with her. They think she should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. It may very well have looked like that was what Jesus would have wanted. But he, in turn, in indignant with the disciples,
Why do you trouble this woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me (Matthew 26:10-11).
So in one instance we have Jesus telling a rich man to sell his possessions and give to the poor and in another instance, we have Jesus telling the disciples that the woman should not sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. This looks like a contradiction. But there is one thing that both stories have in common as a controlling idea. That idea is putting Jesus first. For the rich man, it isn’t giving his riches to the poor that matters, but following Jesus. And the reason why the sinful woman is praised is because she anoints Jesus with the expensive oil, again putting Jesus first. So the main idea in these readings is that Jesus is to assume the first place in our life.
This brings us to the issue of faith. We have already looked at charity. Charity for Swedenborg is doing good in every aspect of our lives–not just those special cases such as giving to the poor, to food banks and soup kitchens, donating to non-profit groups, visiting prisoners and the sick, and other special cases of charity. Charity for Swedenborg is love finding expression in every aspect of our lives. It is hating evil and loving good, as Amos puts it. But charity is not enough. To be whole spiritual persons, we need truth, or faith. In Swedenborg’s symbolic interpretation of the book of Revelation, the church in Pergamos symbolizes “those who place all of the church in good works, and nothing in truths of doctrine” (AR 107). We need truths of doctrine because truth teaches us who we are to believe in, what we are to believe, and it also teaches us about our place in Creation. A solid belief structure gives us a firm footing for our lives. Truth teaches where and how to do good. It also prevents us from straying innocently into harmful situations from misguided affection or ideas of who the neighbor is. Finally, truths teach us about God. Spiritual life is not only doing good, it is also believing in God. Believing in God and doing good both make us whole spiritual beings.
Here, Paul seems to overboard a little in talking about faith. He makes it sound like faith is all we need for salvation–or at least that is how some Protestant churches take Paul,
No human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe (Romans 3:20-22).
This is where Paul’s contradictory teachings are most manifest. Just above we found Paul saying that works matter,
He will render to every man according to his works; to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life . . . There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good.
Now it looks like only faith matters, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” I think that the solution to this apparent contradiction is to say that we need both, belief in Jesus Christ and good works.
This brings us to the problem of the rich man. I think the problem with the rich man was that he valued his worldly riches more than he did God. Jesus tells him to sell his riches and give to the poor and follow Him in order to lift the rich man above worldly treasures. Typical of so much in Swedenborg, we find that the letter of Scripture is misleading. It is reason and the spiritual sense of Scripture that points us toward sensible spirituality. Swedenborg says, contrary to the a literal reading of Scripture, that rich people can come into heaven as easily as do poor people.
They therefore who take the Word only according to the literal sense, and not according to any spiritual sense, err in many things, especially in regard to the rich and the poor; as that it is as difficult for the rich to enter heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle . . . . But those who know anything of the spiritual sense of the Word think otherwise; they know that heaven is for all who live the life of faith and love, whether they be rich or poor. . . . it has been given me to know that the rich come as easily into heaven as the poor, and that a person is not excluded from heaven because he lives in abundance, nor is received into heaven because he is in poverty (HH 357).
Swedenborg teaches that we can enjoy the good things of this world, including amassing wealth, provided only that we believe in God and love the neighbor, and do not become lovers of wealth and become selfish,
Since a person can live outwardly as others, can grow rich, keep a plentiful table, dwell in an elegant house, wear fine clothing, according to his condition and function, can enjoy delights and gratifications, and engage in worldly affairs for the sake of offices and business, and for the life both of the mind and body, provided he inwardly acknowledges the Divine and wishes well to the neighbor, it is evident that it is not so difficult as many believe to enter the way of heaven. The only difficulty is to be able to resist the love of self and the world, and to prevent their becoming predominant (HH 359).
I think the problem with the rich man was that his wealth became a ruling love. And if he loved his wealth above all, even keeping the ten commandments was not good enough.
The issue for us is not just wealth. Anything worldly that we put above God and the neighbor becomes a snare to our spiritual development. I think Swedenborg puts is well, “The only difficulty is to be able to resist the love of self and the world, and to prevent their becoming predominant.” We can grow rich, drive a Mercedes, wear designer clothes, seek high professional positions. The only issue is whether we still believe and honor God and we live in harmony with our neighbor. So the Psalms say, “If riches increase, do not set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). It is up to each individual to decide how hard this is. Driving a Mercedes may mean setting one’s heart on achieving this status symbol, and craving the wealth and position that will make this possible. Or we may strive to be excellent and be rewarded for it with the wealth and position that makes the Mercedes possible. And so on with other things of this world.
The basic issue is faith and charity, not money. The issue is belief and good works. Believing in God and learning truths about Him and His Kingdom constitute faith. And doing good and hating evil constitute charity. It is both of these virtues that make us whole spiritual beings. Jesus, Amos, Paul, and Swedenborg are all in accord. Doing good and believing truly make us fit for eternal life.
Dear Lord, we humble ask you this morning to raise our minds to you. Lift us up out of the worries of daily life and our concerns for our needs in this world. We wish to follow you, and to put you and your kingdom first in our hearts and minds. We know that we don’t need to withdraw from our life in the world in order to follow you. But we need a constant reminder that we are only pilgrims in this world, and that your kingdom is our final and eternal home. Give us an open mind to learn truths about your kingdom and a willing heart to follow the teachings we learn. Strengthen our faith and inspire our hearts so that we may become whole spiritual beings in this world and in the world to come.
Food, Fruit, and Joy
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 7, 2012
Deuteronomy 16:13-17 John 15:1-11 Psalm 126
This is the Thanksgiving Season, and when I think about Thanksgiving several thoughts come to mind. I think of three things: food, fruit, and joy. First of all, of course food is the first thing I think of. We get together with family and friends and all eat more than it seems our bellies can hold. Another way to think of food, is the harvest season. In the Jewish calendar, this is this season marks the festival Sukkoth. The English translation for this festival, or feast, is the Feast of Booths, or tabernacles. The Feast of booths is one of three great harvest festivals in the ancient Israelite calendar. The earliest harvest festival is the Passover Feast. Mid-way through the growing season is the Feast of Weeks. And in this Thanksgiving season, or Sukkoth, the ancient Israelites celebrated the final gathering and storing of crops for the upcoming winter. The Feast of Booths is also a reminder of the time when the Israelites wandered in the wilderness immediately after their deliverance from Egypt. Devout Jews build small huts on their property during this season, and Rabbi Kunin told us that in the West End we might see some of these huts built on the lawns of houses there. These huts symbolize the makeshift structures that the Israelites built as they wandered through the wilderness before reaching the Holy Land.
My second thought is fruit. We can think of the harvest as gathering in the fruit of the land. But there is a spiritual sense to bearing fruit. In our reading from John, Jesus says that He is the vine and we are the branches. With Christ’s Spirit in us, we bear fruit, “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5). To bear fruit is to produce good and loving acts in our daily lives. At this time of the year we think of the many things we have to be thankful for. I was very impressed with a part of the Jewish worship services that Rabbi Kunin spoke of. In many of the chants that are recited in Jewish services, the worshippers give thanks that they are able to do good. This struck me profoundly. We think about being loving, we think about bearing much fruit, but it never occurred to me to give thanks that God gives us the capacity to do good. Doing good is at the heart of Christian life. Doing good is when God is in us and we are in God. When we love doing good for good’s sake, then we are the branches and Jesus is the vine. Then we are in heaven, whether on the material earth or in the next world. So among the many things we think of to give thanks for this season, we can thank God for His gift of love, and the loving acts that flow forth from it like fruit from a vine or tree.
The third thing that comes to mind at Thanksgiving time is joy. We find this theme in all our Bible readings this morning. In Deuteronomy we read, “The Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful” (16:15). Here we find that God will bless us in what we get and what we give out. God’s blessing on all our produce is what we get, and the work of our hands is what we give out. This tells me that we have enough and that we have the power to do good. When we accept that we have enough, we are joyful. If we continually want more and more, bigger and better, we will always be dissatisfied and unhappy. But when we accept what we have as just what we need, then what we have is plenty and we are joyful. Reflections like this remind me of a couple striking lines from Walt Whitman:
It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy;
Whoever in not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.
Then there is the power of doing good. This, too, is a source of joy to us–perhaps the greatest source of joy. When we do good, we are joyful. Doing good without the thought of reward is when God and we are working together. When we do good we are filled with unselfish love. This is particularly evident in the passage from John we heard this morning:
By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:8-11).
When we have a conscious contact with God, then we know overflowing joy. And this conscious contact happens particularly in the doing of good.
Uniting our consciousness with God may involve spiritual struggles and temptation. Yet the final result will be that joy known only by those whose soul rests in God. Psalm 126 tells us:
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy
He who goes out weeping
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
As we till our plot of soil, as we cultivate spiritual life, we are planting seeds that will bear much fruit. When we are in our lower selves and slaves to unhealthy thoughts and passions, we are in that place of tears that the Psalmist speaks about. But as we progress, and we are lifted into God’s holy love, then His joy will be in us and our joy will be full. We will reap with songs of joy, bringing in the sheaves.
All three of these themes come together in our Thanksgiving gatherings. We enjoy food and stuff ourselves to the point we feel we will burst. We do good when we give food to others, as we do with our church’s food bank. We bring our own contribution to the Thanksgiving Day dinner. We think of all the things we have to feel grateful for. And perhaps chief among the things we have to feel grateful for is the capacity to do good and in that be united with God. There are other things, too, that are good to remember. I like to think of all the small things I have in life. I have a warm apartment to come home to. I have reliable transportation. I have enough food to sustain me. I have clothes to wear. I have friends, loved ones and family in my life. What more do I need? Then there is the joy of our Thanksgiving dinner. All of our friends and family getting together to enjoy each other’s company and to socialize. This is the joy of love and community. This is the kind of love that the whole world could enjoy if people would put God first, and the command of love Jesus taught. We can look forward to a brighter day for humanity. But we need also realize that we are the agents of that brighter day. Let us always see ways that our Christian love can make the world around us closer to heaven. The reading from Deuteronomy says that we are not to present ourselves before the Lord empty-handed. Rather we are to “give as he is able.” We are to give of ourselves, of our bounty, and of the love God has instilled in our hearts. We may be a way off from the heavenly city New Jerusalem that our church is named after. But little by little, each in our own way, we can work to bring our little world closer to it. As we are thankful for what we have, let us also give as we are able from what we have to transform the world. For these two messages are both the Thanksgiving Day spirit.
Dear Lord, We give you thanks for all the blessings of life that you give us. For we freely acknowledge that all we have is a gift from you. It feels like we are responsible for the achievements that we have been successful in, but we realize that our very talents and skills are from you. We give you thanks that we can act in partnership with you to do good. It is just another of your great blessings that we can do good in the world and to those around us, our neighbors. Lord, this fallen world is in need of redemption. Yet we know that we are the agents of that redemption. Give us to see where and how we can bring your kingdom to this material world.