Archive for February, 2014
The Nature of Spiritual Love
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 23, 2014
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Mark 12:28-34 Psalm 119
Our readings from the Old and New Testaments are all about loving our neighbor. Our Old Testament reading speaks about love from a “case law” perspective. By that I mean love is treated on a case by case basis and rulings are given to cover several examples of how love should be shown. In our New Testament reading, Jesus teaches about love as a wise rabbi. He is asked about how to interpret the law, which was and is the job for rabbis.
Let’s see how the Bible teaches us to love, beginning with the story of Jesus. In our reading from Mark, we have a fairly friendly discussion about love. A scribe, or someone well versed in the scriptures, hears Jesus discussing. This scribe sees that Jesus, “answered well.” And because Jesus answered well, the scribe asks Jesus a very hard and provocative question. He asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Now in the Jewish tradition, there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament. This provocative scribe is asking Jesus to effectively rank all 613 commandments and pick the highest one–the first of all the commandments. Jesus, the Word made flesh, knows the answer. And Jesus responds as a rabbi. Jesus actually quotes from the law–that is, from the first five books of the Bible. (The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, are also called The Law.) Jesus says that the first of all the commandments is Deuteronomy 6:4,
Hear O Israel, The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Jesus adds a second commandment, which He takes from Leviticus 19:18, which we heard this morning, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe agrees with Jesus and says,
You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one, and there is no other but he; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more that all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
The scribe is making a powerful statement. He is saying that personal morality matters more than the formal sacrificial rituals that were common in that time. This conversation occurred in a time when the priests were governing Israel, under Roman rule. This meant that performing temple sacrifices was the primary way religion was understood. People were taught that they were supposed to bring sacrifices to the temple for religious holidays and for all manner of reasons like atonement for sin. But this rabbi, and his master Jesus, said that personal morality mattered more than sacrifices at the temple. Being a loving person is more important than all the sacrifices. Jesus is pleased with the scribe’s answer and tells him, “You are not far from the kingdom.” So in Mark, we have a friendly encounter about a central teaching of Jesus, the law of love.
The Gospel of Matthew puts a different spin on this story. In Matthew, the question about the law happens as Jesus just finishes an argument, and it is an argument, with a group called Sadducees. The Sadducees were aristocrats in the time of Jesus, and they maintained the temple. When Jesus silences the Sadducees in an argument about life after death, the Pharisees gang up against Jesus. They ask him the same question we heard in Mark. But Matthew tells us that they did it to test Jesus,
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:34-35)
Jesus gives the same answer about the two great commands that he does in Mark. in Matthew, this silences the Pharisees. And in both Gospels, we find the conclusion, “And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.” I presume this means that no one tried to challenge Jesus any more with trick questions.
Leviticus gives us some practical ways to implement this teaching of love for the neighbor. I think one of the primary case laws that we find in this reading from Leviticus is one about impartiality. Leviticus tells us, “In righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (19:15). This impartiality is explained in terms of wealth and poverty, “You shall do no injustice in judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great” (19:15). This case law extends to all our dealings with our neighbor. God asks us to deal justly with all we come in contact with–friend, acquaintance, or even enemy. Swedenborg tells us that loving spiritually is loving the good that is in a person, not just the person. So wherever we see good, we are to love that in whomever we find it. Loving and doing good only to our friends is not spiritual. Swedenborg writes,
To do good to a friend, of whatever quality he may be, if only he is a friend, is natural and not spiritual; but to do good to a friend for the sake of the good in him, and still more to hold good itself as the friend to which one does good, is spiritual natural . . . (AC 4992).
I see three levels in this discussion of friendship and love. The first, and lowest level is to love our friends whatever they do, just because they are our friends. This kind of love is not spiritual. The second level of love is to love our friends for the good that is in them. At this point, we are verging on spiritual love. Finally, the third level of love is to love good itself. And wherever we see good, in whomever we see it, we befriend that person and the good in him or her. This is loving spiritually. But our love extends to everyone in the whole human race. Swedenborg says, “To love the neighbor is not merely to will and do good to the relative, friend, and good person, but also to the stranger, enemy, and bad man” (TCR 407). Though we love everyone, we show our love differently according to the quality of the person we love. We do good directly to good people, but we show our love to wicked people by attempts to modify their behavior. We don’t want to enable destructive behaviors,
But charity is exercised . . . toward a relative and friend by direct benefits; toward an enemy and wicked person by indirect benefits conferred by exhortation, discipline, punishment, and so by correction” (TCR 407).
I don’t think the idea here is the methods we use to modify destructive behaviors, as much as it is the idea that destructive behaviors are not to be enabled.
We are not asked to have no friends. Rather, this teaching tells us to scrutinize our friends, and become attached to what is good in them, not to their person regardless of their personality. This sounds judgemental. And being judgemental has negative connotations today. But I do think that we need to be aware of the personality of the friends we make and love. And I think, equally, we need to be aware of the people with whom we form friendships. As for me, I begin all my acquaintances with positive regard and I give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I try to remain open to friendships with everyone I meet. It is only when my trust and positive regard meets with ethical challenges that I pull away and begin to distance myself from others. If another person shows me that they cannot be trusted, then and only then do I revise my decision to befriend them.
The list of case laws in Leviticus goes on to name several instances and means of being a good neighbor. But then it concludes with a general statement that includes all the forgoing cases,
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love the neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:17-18).
This law tells us to look within. Just as the sum of the Ten Commandments talks about the inner feeling of covetousness, this list of laws is summed up with an inward turn not to hate and to love. This commandment tells us that if we hold hatred in our hearts, we sin, not our neighbor. Neither are we to hold grudges or take vengeance. Rather, as Jesus tells the scribe, and tells each one of us, loving God and loving our neighbor are the sum of all 613 commandments in the Old Testament.
Lord, you have given us two commandments that are not hard to understand. You have asked us to love you above all and with all our mind and all our might. And you have asked us to love our neighbor as our selves. You have taught us that everyone in the whole human race is our neighbor. We are called upon to love distant strangers and those in our own household. We are called upon to love enemies and friends alike. We pray that you soften our hearts, so that we may remain open to our neighbor wherever we encounter him or her. We pray to be filled with your all-encompassing love, so that we may embrace our fellows when we meet them. And we pray, Lord, for your wisdom. We pray for wisdom to guide us into effective love. We would know how to best encourage what is good in our neighbors, and to amend what needs to change. For even as we support our neighbors, we do not wish to enable destructive character traits. We pray in Your Most Holy Name, amen.
You Can Do It
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 16, 2014
Deuteronomy 30:11-20 Matthew 5: 38-48 Psalm 119
God encourages us in the book of Deuteronomy. The reading we heard this morning tells us that it is not too hard for us to do what God commands. God tells us plainly, “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you” (Deuteronomy 30:11). God elaborates His gentle command by saying that it is not far off and difficult to obtain,
It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” (Deuteronomy 30:12-13)
God tells us to look into our hearts, and that we will find His commandment there. And God reaffirms that we can do it, “But the word is very ear you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (30:14). So God tells us that His commands are obtainable, we know them, and they are not too hard for us.
But in our reading from Matthew, we heard some hard teachings from Jesus. Jesus reinterprets the Ten Commandments. He emphasizes love, which is at the heart of the Ten Commandments. But in doing so, He asks some very demanding things of us. At the conclusion of His treatment of the Ten Commandments, Jesus says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It simply isn’t possible for us to be perfect. And as if that weren’t hard enough, Jesus asks us to be like God, “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is this the same voice we heard in Deuteronomy? Is this the voice that says, “This commandment which I give you this day is not too hard for you?” Logic gives us two possible interpretations of these two sayings. First, it is indeed possible for us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Or second, the two sayings are in conflict.
There might be a third interpretation. That is, Jesus was using hyperbole. That is, He was exaggerating what He expects of us. Maybe Jesus is saying, “Strive for perfection.” Let’s look at some of the other passages we heard from Matthew this morning.
Jesus gives us a strong statement of non-violence in Matthew 5. He tells us, “Do not resist one who is evil.” Jesus then elaborates with a few examples. He says,
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles (Matthew 5:39-40).
These statements remind me of those who have made the greatest contributions to social transformation. I think of Mahatma Gandhi. He overcame the English Empire without waging war against it. His was peaceful protest. And the power of peaceful protest threw off the imperialism of England. And I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King not only made living conditions equal in the segregated parts of America, but he also made great strides toward equality of heart and mind for African Americans and the dominant Caucasian majority. And Dr. King did this not by mobilizing African-Americans to fight, but rather by peaceful resistance. Dr. King learned from the tactics of Gandhi, and he and his followers bore violent attacks without fighting back. They did cover up against fists, clubs, and batons, but they did not exchange blow for blow. They did not return eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And both these peaceful reformers overcame incredible odds and great power. They overcame without war and fighting. So there is power in the words of Jesus.
Jesus, Himself, of course, set the example in His crucifixion. Jesus, as we know, did not resist the evil powers of Rome and the mob of Jerusalem. Even when He was arrested, Jesus did not fight. One of Jesus’ followers drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus would not let this man fight, either. He told him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
That truth stands up to human experience. “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Or as folk wisdom has rephrased it, “All who live by the sword, die by the sword.” Responding to violence with violence will only perpetuate the dynamic. Anyone who has had any experience with this can confirm it. I recall when I was in school a former roommate that I had conflict with. I can’t remember all the details, but I got into an escalating circle of antagonism with him. I don’t think it ever came to a physical altercation. But one morning I woke up to find the headlights on my car smashed. I didn’t have any proof, but I knew it was him. I thought of retaliation. But then I had the presence of mind to see the inevitable results. I break something of his, he breaks something of mine, and so on and so on until the windshield of my car gets smashed. I looked at the broken headlights of my car and let it end there.
This doesn’t go only for physical violence. We can be aggressive verbally, too. We can be argumentative and try to beat up someone else verbally. In fact, the law recognizes verbal abuse as a crime as well as physical abuse. Any time we throw our weight around in any way, we are acting violently. And acting violently starts the cycle of violence that only ends when someone has had enough and turns the cheek or calls in the law.
In fact the law about an eye for an eye has an interesting history. This law was given to soften retaliation. In the history of Israel, sometimes vengeance would be carried out to the seventh generation of the victim. That means that the children seven generations down would suffer for the offences of their great, great, great, great grandfather. But Exodus says that vengeance, or punishment, must equal the offence. So the law says,
you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Exodus 21:23-24).
So the law about equal retaliation was meant as a progressive step forward in justice. And for its time, it was. But Jesus makes an even further step forward in the nature of justice. He teaches,
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil (Matthew 5:38-39).
Well do we have the presence to resist one who is evil? Are we more likely to draw our sword and fight? Will we initiate the cycle of violence that can only result in our ruin? I think that there is a final teaching in this section of Matthew that we may be able to do, or strive to do. Again, revising the laws of the Old Testament that call down curses on those who hate a person, Jesus says,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:43-45).
As Christians, we are called to love our friends and our distant relations. We are to love the members of this church, and the Muslims in Egypt. I think of the extraordinary encounter of the past Pope, John Paul II. Do you remember when Pope John Paul II visited in jail the man who attempted to assassinate him? I recall the photo of the Pope in jail visiting his would-be murderer posted in Time magazine and all over the media. This is the message of Christian forgiveness that runs all through the Gospels. And I think that it is the only way to peace–in our lives, and perhaps on a global scale.
Where are we, now, with respect to the Deuteronomy passage we opened with. God tells us in Deuteronomy that, “This commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you” (Deuteronomy 30:11). God tells us that it is not far off so that we need to send someone up into the sky or across the ocean to get it. Rather, this commandment is in our hearts. I think that it is possible for us to love our fellows. We can pray for those who persecute us. And we can abstain from the cycle of violence. Jesus showed us the way of love and the way of peace. It but remains for us to read the stories about Him and to follow in His footsteps.
Lord, we pray that you lead us in the path of peace. We are tempted at times to want to retaliate when we are wronged. But you have told us clearly to turn the other cheek. You have taught us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Give us the inner peace to follow your example and not to respond and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. May we not lash out in anger, but seek to moderate conflict and resolve differences peacefully.
And, Lord, we pray that the world may learn from your lessons of peace. We pray especially for the people of Syria. May the rulers of that country realize that war and conflict are not the means for preserving society. We pray that all the civil unrest and war we see may understand that all are like in wanting love and the good things of this world.
We ask for your healing love to fill those who are ailing in body and soul. Lord, send your healing love to all who are in need.
What Is Essential in Worship
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 9, 2014
Isaiah 58:1-9 Matthew 5:13-20 Psalm 112
Our readings from Isaiah and from Matthew this morning teach what is essential in worship. They both point to the simple truth that doing good is what God asks of us. For doing good to the neighbor out of love for the neighbor is what the heart and soul of worship is. Swedenborg makes a simple statement about this, a statement that should be obvious,
All religion is of life, and a religious life is doing good. Every person with any religion knows and acknowledges that one who lives a good life is saved . . .” (Doctrine of Life 1).
Yet, at the same time, when we do good, we cannot take credit for it. For when a person does good spiritually, it is actually God doing the good in the person. So Jesus says that our good works will point to God, not to our self, “Let your light shine before men, that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father” (Matthew 5:16). Here, even as Jesus urges us to do good works, He also says that glory goes to the Father. Paul says something similar in Philippians. He tells us that it is God who works in us to do good acts,
Therefore, my dear friends, . . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:12-13).
This is why Swedenborg’s theology is considered mystical. The mystical aspect to Swedenborg’s theology is that he talks about merging our souls with God. The wisdom in our minds is God’s Divine Wisdom in us. And the love in our hearts is God’s Divine Love in us. So we are finite vessels that hold our individual expressions of the infinite God. Swedenborg is not alone in this mystical view of our relationship to God. The Eastern Orthodox Church, for instance, talks about a process called “theosis.” Like Swedenborg, theosis means that we merge with God and God animates our actions, filling our hearts with God’s love and enlightening our minds with God’s light. And notably in Hinduism, throughout the Upanishads, ways to merge with the ultimate Brahman is taught. In fact the root of the word, “yoga” means “to yoke” or to join–with God.
God’s love and wisdom in us flow forth into good deeds and love for our neighbors. This is what true worship is. true worship is loving and caring for our neighbors. So Swedenborg teaches that, “internal worship, which is of love and caring, is real worship” (AC 1175). This is what the prophet Isaiah was getting at in the reading we heard this morning. He criticizes the Israelites for doing only rituals while forgetting the essence of living worship. Isaiah criticizes them for fasting, for wearing sack cloth and ashes, for saying prayers, all the while ignoring their brothers and sisters who are in need. In fact, they are not only ignoring their brothers and sisters, they are actually breaking out into evils of all kinds: quarrelling, fighting, and oppressing their workers. Yet they continue to fast, wear sackcloth and ashes, and pray. What they are doing is ritual only, or what Swedenborg would call “external worship.” So Isaiah says,
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, your fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with wicked fist. . . .
Is such the fast that I chose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58:3-5)
The Israelites that Isaiah is declaiming are fasting while they quarrel, fight, and oppress their workers. Their worship is external, with no soul to it.
Isaiah then tells the Israelites the kind of fast that God wishes. The true fast is the way a person treats his or her neighbor. Religious ritual has meaning only when it comes from a loving heart. Isaiah spells this out clearly:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard (Isaiah 58:6-8).
When we care for our neighbors, then the worship rituals we do have a soul. But if we do rituals without caring for our neighbors, then our worship is external and dead. The essential thing about worship is love for God and the neighbor. When we have these in our hearts, then when we go through worship rituals, God is in our hearts and in everything we do. Swedenborg explains this quite clearly,
Let it be supposed, for example, that people place the very essential of worship in frequenting churches, going to the sacraments, hearing sermons, praying, observing feasts, and many other things which are external and ceremonial, and persuade themselves that these, with talking about faith, are sufficient–all which are formal things of worship. They indeed who make worship from love and caring essential, do these things likewise, that is, they frequent churches, go to the sacraments, hear sermons, pray, observe feasts, and the like, and this very earnestly and diligently; but they do not place the essential of worship in these things. In the external worship of such people there is something holy and living, because there is internal worship in it; but in the external worship of the former there is nothing holy and nothing living (AC 1175).
So the symbols of worship have power to bring God’s presence only when the heart of the worshipper has love in it. The Israelites Isaiah criticizes are like those who think that the essential of worship is the rituals and not the heart of the worshipper. Isaiah tells them, and us, too, that what matters is how we treat those around us.
Notice, too, that for Swedenborg it isn’t a matter of internal versus external. It is both-and. He states that even for those who have love in their hearts, the external things of worship are important. He says, “They indeed who make worship from love and caring essential, do these things likewise . . . and this very earnestly and diligently.” Thus we need church, the community, the support, and the symbols that awaken in us a feeling of holiness and of God’s presence. This, even though we meet God everywhere.
The symbols and rituals of religion are meaningful for a person who is united inwardly with God. For such a person, church does bring God’s presence. This is what Isaiah means when he says, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;/you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.
Lord, we call upon your name Sunday by Sunday when we come here to worship you. And, Lord, we call upon your name when we leave this building. For each time we do a good turn to our neighbors we are calling upon your name. We pray that you fill our souls with your Divine Love and Wisdom. We pray that your holy presence drive away dark clouds of evil and selfishness. For when you are in our hearts, we know and feel what is good and loving. May we come to know heavenly joys as we grow nearer and nearer to you day by day.
Lord, we thank you for this church, where we come to worship and share Christian love together. We ask for you to watch over this congregation.
Lord, we pray for peace in this troubled world. Where there is hatred and discord, we pray for love and harmony. We pray for those nations torn by civil unrest. May they find your peace and love. May warring factions see that they are like in their wishes for love and for the good things of this world.
And Lord, we pray that you heal those who are suffering with illness. Lord, send your healing love to all who are in need.
What Is the New Church?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 2, 2014
Isaiah 65:17-25 Revelation 21:1-16, 22-27 Psalm 135
Last Wednesday, January 29 was the birthday of Emanuel Swedenborg. I believe that it was the 326th birthday of this great man who was born in 1688. Swedenborg mastered nearly every discipline of learning in his day. He published massive books about philosophy, chemistry and metallurgy, human anatomy, psychology, and he even wrote poetry. In his fifties, Swedenborg began to experience spiritual visions and he saw into the spiritual world. The remarkable thing about Swedenborg’s visions is that he didn’t enter into a trance to see his visions. Rather, as he emphatically stated, he spoke with angels, demons, and spirits in a state of full wakefulness.
But Swedenborg wasn’t just a spiritual voyeur. He did more than merely see spirits and angels. He experienced a mode of enlightenment in which he learned about God and the nature of salvation that was very different from his inherited Lutheranism. He was raised in a thoroughly Lutheran home. His father was a Lutheran bishop who was a minister to the royal court of Sweden. For the majority of Swedenborg’s life, Swedenborg believed the tenets of the typical Lutheran Church of his day. But his visions, his dialogues with angels and spirits, and his enlightenment from God taught Swedenborg a new way of understanding spirituality.
Swedenborg published his new understanding of spirituality in a series of volumes. In the Standard Edition of Swedenborg’s theology, there are 30 volumes. There are interpretations of the Bible, there are volumes treating theological topics such as Divine Providence, or God’s Love and Wisdom, or Marriage, and his most popular book about Heaven and Hell.
Swedenborg makes a bold claim in his theological books. He claims that a new era in human history is dawning, which he called The New Church. This New Church was foretold in Revelation 21, which we heard this morning. Just what this New Church is, is a great question.
Way back at this church’s very beginning, a man named Robert Hindmarsh thought that the New Church was a new denomination. Accordingly, he applied for a dissenter’s license and with a small group, broke off from the national Church of England. The group then founded a new denomination, The Church of the New Jerusalem, in England in 1787. There were voices of opposition to this new denomination among readers of Swedenborg. One was an Anglican minister named Jeffrey Clowes. Rev. Clowes preached Swedenborgian ideas from the pulpit of his own church. He thought that the New Church foretold in Revelation and proclaimed by Swedenborg would happen as Swedenborg’s writings became absorbed into the greater world. He did not think that another denomination was what Swedenborg had intended. Another prominent voice was that of Henry James, Sr.—the father of William and Henry James. Henry James, Sr. thought that the New Church was a new world order, and not another denomination alongside other denominations.
In the anniversary of the birth of Emanuel Swedenborg, it makes sense to speculate about just what the New Church is. What did Swedenborg mean by the New Church foretold in Revelation?
One thing that Swedenborg said about the New Church is that the whole spiritual world was changed and reordered. He said that the Old Christian Church had reached its final days, when no truth remained in it. One example of this claim that no truth remained in the Old Christian Church is the idea of the trinity. Traditional Christianity asserts that God is a trinity of persons who have one essence. There are strong and weak formulations of this doctrine. Stated strongly, the trinity means that there are three persons. This idea, if it is believed without much thought or reflection, leads to the notion that there are three gods. I have heard Christian ministers tell me that many ordinary Christians do, in fact, believe in three gods. And I have heard a rabbi question whether Christianity could be considered one of the great monotheistic religions like Islam and Judaism. The New Church holds that God is only one Person. God the Father is as the soul in Jesus Christ, who is as the body. The Holy Spirit is the influence of God on humans and in the created world. There is essentially no trinity for the New Church.
Another example of traditional Christianity being bereft of truth is the idea of salvation by faith alone. This doctrine holds that if we believe that Jesus died for our sins, we are saved. It is our belief that saves us. Swedenborg states that the New Church teaches that good works and faith are both important. True belief about God, coupled with good actions flowing from love are what make a person angelic.
One final note about the New Church. The New Jerusalem as described in Revelation is said to be of equal height and breadth. Swedenborg interprets this to mean that love and truth will be of equal import in individuals of the New Church. And in the Arcana Coelestia n.1799, Swedenborg makes a plaintive plea for church unity. He says that if only belief in God and love for the neighbor are the primary things of religion, then all the churches of the world would be one.
In the Christian world the doctrines are what distinguish the churches; and from them people call themselves Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, or the Reformed and the Evangelical, and by other names also. It is from what is doctrinal alone that they are so called; which would not be ay all, if they would make love to the Lord and love toward the neighbour the principal things of faith. The doctrines would then be only varieties of opinion respecting the mysteries of faith, which truly Christian persons would leave to everyone according to his or her conscience . . . Thus from all the differing churches there would become one Church; and all the dissensions which exist from doctrine alone would vanish; yea, the hatreds against one another would be dissipated in a moment, and the Lord’s kingdom would come upon the earth” (Arcana Coelestia n. 1799).
The irony in this statement is that much in Swedenborg is argument about doctrinal issues—the very thing that separates churches. I say this because there are some very positive movements today that seem to be bringing all the different religions together.
One such movement is the National Council of Churches of Christ, of which I am our denomination’s representative to the Faith and Order Convening Table. All the major Christian churches belong to the National Council of Churches of Christ. And there is such an air of acceptance and mutual love that we feel like one body.
Another movement is the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action. In this organization we have not only Christians, but members of all the major world religions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and several different denominations of Christianity. We all feel connected in a loving relationship. Despite our different religions and different nationalities, we are one in a spirit of love, or what Swedenborg would call charity.
This kind of harmony would have been unthinkable only 100 years ago. True, the first Parliament of the World’s Religions was in 1893. But this was the very first time that religions of the world all gathered to celebrate their unique identity in a feeling of fellowship. It may well be that movements as I am describing are evidence that the New Church envisioned by Emanuel Swedenborg is happening in this world. Belief in God and love for each other are becoming controlling doctrines in many of the world’s religions.
But there are alarming things, too. Even as religions of the world are beginning to see each other as brothers and sisters, their numbers are dwindling. The National Council of Churches of Christ has just undergone a serious restructuring because they could no longer afford to continue as in the past. The reason for their inability to continue business as usual is because donations from their member churches have dwindled. And the reason for the fall in donations is because church membership has diminished severely. We are not the only denomination whose numbers have fallen since the sixties.
What does this mean? Is Christianity fading? Is society becoming less religious? Where is the New Church in all this? These are questions for us all to ponder in the years ahead and in our Annual General Meeting today. I have faith that the New Church foretold in Revelation is going to come, and is coming even now. But I am not sure that the New Church means the survival of the Christian religion as practiced now. There are many people I know who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. And there are many spiritual programs out there like AA, or Al-Anon that may suffice for religion.
One other thing Swedenborg said about the New Church. He said that the old false doctrines like the trinity or the doctrine of salvation by faith alone need to die out before the New Church can take hold and blossom. Perhaps that is what we are seeing today. Perhaps in the dwindling numbers of traditional Christianity we are seeing the old, bad doctrines fade away. Remember that this church was modelled after traditional Christianity, being one denomination among other denominations. Despite our progressive doctrines, maybe this organization is going the way of all major Christian denominations.
Perhaps the New Church is a new form of spirituality that we can’t see yet, or even imagine yet.
Lord, this morning we rejoice in your promise of a new church to descend on the earth. Your prophets have foretold such an event, and Swedenborg testifies to the same. Yet these are difficult times for your church on earth. We pray that you watch over us and our fellow Christians, and our brothers and sisters of every faith. Give us to find assurance that your new church will come to the earth. Give us eyes to see it in its new manifestations and in the power of the old ways made new. Console our hearts, Lord, when we look at the world and we see violence and sorrow in so many places. The unrest in our world can lead us to question the reality of your new church on earth. Give us hearts filled with hope and confidence in the words of your prophets and in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. May we celebrate and see the new church coming on the earth.
And Lord, we pray that you heal those who are suffering with illness. Lord, send your healing love to all who are in need.