Archive for April, 2014

Apr 27th, 2014

Those Who Have Not Seen
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 27, 2014

John 20:19-31 Revelation 1:4-8 Psalm 118

In our reading from Revelation, John exhorts us to take to heart the things that are written it that book, because the time is near. John says further that Jesus Christ has made us a kingdom of priests, as was said of the Israelites as far back as the book of Exodus (19:6). And in John’s Gospel we are told that we have true life in the name of Jesus Christ.
The time when we will confront Jesus Christ is always at hand–every moment of our lives. The potential for us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy people is always with us–every moment of our lives. And living in Christ’s name is a reality that we can experience always–in every aspect of our lives.
More is meant by living in the name of Christ than simply calling ourselves Christians. And more is meant than that detestable doctrine that says only those who worship Jesus are saved. I heard of a fundamentalist church who said that Gandhi was in hell, because he didn’t worship Jesus. Yet I think that Gandhi embodied the Christian life more than many of us who call ourselves by Jesus’ name. Living in the name of Jesus Christ means living in the things that He taught. And foremost among those things are love for the whole human race, peacefulness, and humility. These are all virtues that Gandhi demonstrated in his life. And living with these character virtues are what make a person Christian.
Also among the important things that go along with living in the name of Jesus Christ is the belief that He rose from the dead. This is important to believe because the resurrection is what makes Jesus one with God. Jesus Christ was the only human who rose body and soul. Ordinary humans leave behind their physical bodies and only our souls rise into the eternal life. But Jesus had made his body so divine that even His physical body rose into eternity. He proved this to His disciples by eating a fish when they thought they were seeing a ghost (Luke 24:42-43).
This concept was hard for Thomas to accept. In John’s Gospel, he says,
Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe (John 20:25).
Jesus appears a week later to Thomas and asks him to put his finger in Jesus’ hands and side. Thomas in humility says, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus says something that is of special relevance to us all. He tells Thomas,
Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (20:29).
That is where we all are. Few of us, perhaps none of us, have actually seen Jesus. And I would venture to say none of us have put our finger into his pierced hands, feet, and side. And yet we believe. We have not seen, and yet we choose to live in the name of Jesus Christ. And I would also venture to say that the more committed we are to life in Jesus’ name, the more we feel connected to Jesus, and the more we feel ourselves filled with Christ’s Holy Spirit.
Swedenborg calls this living in an affirmative principle. He describes two ways to approach spiritual realities. One is the affirmative way, the other the negative way. The affirmative way is to begin our faith journey with a belief in truths because they are in the Bible and because God has taught them. From there we develop more sophisticated belief systems. The negative way is to doubt everything spiritual until it is proven to us by means of reason or by means of scientific evidence. In other words, the negative principle doubts everything spiritual unless it is seen, heard, touched, or otherwise proven first.
There are two principles, therefore; one which leads to all folly and insanity, and another which leads to all intelligence and wisdom. The former principle is to deny all things, or to say in one’s heart that he cannot believe them before he is convinced by things which he can apprehend, or perceive by the senses: this is the principle that leads to all folly and insanity, and it is to be called the negative principle. The other principle is to affirm the things which are of doctrine from the Word, or to think and believe in one’s self that they are true because the Lord has said them: this is the principle that leads to all intelligence and wisdom, and it is to be called the affirmative principle (AC 2568).
For those in the affirmative principle, spiritual truth makes more and more sense as we live a spiritual life. Wherever we look, we find confirmations of what we believed early in our faith journey. Every bit a man of the Enlightenment, though, Swedenborg is all in favor of using science, knowledge, and rationality to support and to confirm spiritual truths.
But those who are in the affirmative, that is, who believe that things are true because the Lord has said so, are continually being confirmed, and their ideas enlightened and strengthened, by what is of reason and outward knowledge and even by what is of sense; for a person has light from no other source than through reason and knowledge . . . (AC 2588).
This has always been the case in the history of Christianity. Great theologians have supported their ideas with philosophy and reasoning. Augustine, for instance, drew on Platonic philosophy. And Thomas Aquinas on Aristotle. And Anselm came up with a proof of God based on pure reasoning and the philosophy of Parmenides. Swedenborg describes this way of seeing things in a beautifully poetic passage. He says that angels in the highest heaven do not see physical things, but when they see objects, the correspondence of what they stand for flows into their minds.
They do not see the objects, but the corresponding divine realities flow directly into their minds and fill them with a blessedness that affects all their sensory functions. As a result, everything they see seems to laugh and play and live (HH 489).
So it is for us, too, when we are in the affirmative principle.
The case is different for those who are in the negative principle. If a person starts out doubting God, or doubting Jesus’ resurrection and won’t believe without proof, the proof they want will never come. They will confirm themselves deeper and deeper in doubt, and rely more and more on scientific facts alone and unenlightened reason. They will always find a way out of spiritual truth no matter how many arguments are given them.
Those who are in a negative state in regard to a thing being true because it is in the Word, say in heart that they will believe when they are persuaded by reason and outward knowledge. But the fact is that they will never believe; and indeed they would not believe if they were to be convinced by their bodily senses, by sight, hearing and touch; for they would always be forming new reasonings against the things, and thus end by altogether extinguishing all faith . . . (AC 2588).
But we need to be clear about one important point. The affirmative principle that we are talking about is not blind faith. This church affirms healthy questioning. we encourage people to question the truths they grew up with and to see whether one’s early doctrines are genuinely true or not. So while affirming early basic truths, we challenge people to test them against sound reason, experience, and Scripture to see if they are, in fact, genuine truths we want to accept and live by.
First the doctrinals of the church are to be learned, and then exploration to be made as to whether they are true; for they are not true because heads of the church have said so and their followers confirm it, inasmuch as thus the doctrines of all churches and religions would have to be called true, merely according to country and birth. . . . From this it is plain that the Word is to be searched and it is to be seen there whether they are true (AC 6047).
This procedure needs to be done with Scripture itself. For there is much in the Bible that is not true from a literal viewpoint. Those passages about God being vengeful and angry, for instance, are not the way God actually is. Reason tells us that, along with the teachings of this church. I, myself, have rejected some of the truths I grew up with in this very Swedenborgian church. And I imagine that some of you who have come here from other faiths have also done some searching into the doctrines you were brought up with. This kind of inquiry is not the negative principle Swedenborg talks about. Rather, it is a good way to discover what is genuinely true and what makes the most sense. For, as Swedenborg says in True Christian Religion, faith is nothing other than truth.
After we have sifted through the doctrines we believed early in life, then we can explore all the sciences and systems of knowing that the world has to offer.
Afterward when he or she is confirmed and thus in an affirmative mind from the Word that they are truths of faith, it is allowable for him or her to confirm them by all the knowedges that he or she possesses, of whatsoever name and nature; for then, because affirmation reigns universally, he or she accepts the knowledges which are in agreement, and rejects those which by reason of the fallacies that they contain are in disagreement. By means of knowledges faith is corroborated. Wherefore it is denied to no one to search the Scriptures from a desire for knowing whether the doctrines of the church in which he or she was born, are true, for otherwise he or she can in no way be enlightened. Neither is it to be denied to him or her afterward to strengthen himself by means of knowledges . . . (AC 6047).
This church is rather unique in its emphasis on reason and questioning. Many other churches preach that church doctrines are to be accepted on faith alone and without question. We, on the other hand, encourage questioning, searching, and testing the truth value of our teachings. When we find truths that make sense to us, we can strengthen them by other doctrines–even from other faith traditions from all over the world. We can strengthen our beliefs by philosophy, by science, and by common sense. This, in fact, makes our own belief system all the more strong, because we have been convinced by our own intellect.
But all of this depends on an affirmative attitude with regard to faith. We need to begin by affirming the basic truths of religion or spirituality. Then we can refine our belief system and search its doctrines for more and less true concepts. Finally, when we have searched our beliefs for genuine truths, then we can strengthen it with other truths and by reasons. Thomas required actual physical confirmation of Christ’s resurrection. We don’t have that possibility. We are those who believe without seeing. Yet for us, to see things any other way just doesn’t make sense. To see things any other way is blindness.

PRAYER

Lord, we think back to your apostles in the early days of your resurrection. They saw you risen in the flesh–and yet out of wonder, bafflement, and joy, they doubted. You told Thomas that he could touch your hands and side and be convinced. And, Lord, here we are 2,000 years later. And we do not see, we cannot touch you, and yet we believe. We pray that you strengthen our belief. We pray that you confirm us in an affirmative perspective toward you. Many are the reasons for us to believe, but there are reasons for disbelief. We pray that you continue to enlighten our minds with affirmations of your reality, your presence, and your power. Though the temptation is there to doubt, we would be believers.

Lord, we pray for those who are sick. Send your healing love to those ailing, and comfort their family and friends. Lord, we ask for the grace of your healing love for all in need.

And Lord, we pray for peace in this broken world. Be with the people who are suffering in unjust regimes. Heal the nations of their conflicts. Let all peoples see that they are alike in wanting what is good for their country and for themselves. Where there is misunderstanding, grant that there be recognition of our common humanity. Bring your peaceable kingdom here to this broken world.

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Apr 20th, 2014

A Garment of Praise
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Easter 2014
April 20, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-3 John 21:1-14 Psalm 136

Jesus was resurrected in the spring. There are several reasons for His resurrection in the spring. First, in spring all of nature is reborn from the death of winter. Second, the Jewish Passover is celebrated at the same time and Passover is a celebration of liberation from slavery. Jesus’ life and resurrection liberates the whole human race from the bondage of sin.
Nature celebrates the resurrection of the Lord with budding blossoms and flowers, and the warming of the weather. All the world rejoices in the resurrection of Jesus. The world comes alive with new life, even as Jesus gives new life to all who come to Him. The world dies in the winter, when all is covered with snow and the temperatures are without warmth. This corresponds to Christ’s death and the time when He is in the tomb. Then, in the spring, nature comes back alive and we celebrate Christ’s resurrection and the new life He brings to all seekers.
Springtime is also the time of the Jewish Passover. Passover is a celebration of the time when God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. This is a historical fact. But deliverance from slavery assumes symbolic meaning when we consider the resurrection. The New Testament records that Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples just before His betrayal. So the crucifixion and resurrection occur at just about the same time as does Passover. Even as the Passover celebrates freedom of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt, so Jesus’ resurrection frees us from the bondage of sin and brokenness. Because Jesus overcame the forces of darkness, He can give the whole of humanity life and love from His resurrected Divine Humanity.
This is why I selected the passage from Isaiah for this morning’s Old Testament reading. It was probably written during the Israelites’ release from Babylonian bondage. So it refers to another historical fact of deliverance from bondage. But if this passage may have been written during the release from Babylonian captivity, it is also a metaphor for release from all oppression–including psychological and spiritual oppression. Isaiah’s prophesy is indeed general enough to cover spiritual and psychological distress. He preaches, “Good news to the poor.” God sends him, “To bind up the brokenhearted,” “to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners,” “to comfort all who mourn.” The prophet brings, “The oil of gladness instead of mourning,” “a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:1, 2, 3). While these hopeful words can be applied to Israelites being released from the bondage of Babylon, their meaning goes beyond that specific historical event. The prophet will bind up the brokenhearted, comfort those who mourn, preach gladness instead of mourning, and praise to salve despair. These words are for all people, when they turn to God. And Jesus uses this same passage to describe His coming on the earth. In Luke 4, Jesus reads this passage in a synagogue and says that it is fulfilled “Today in your hearing.” Since He had just read the scripture, Jesus was pointing to Himself as the one who would do all those liberating things. So the historical facts of the liberation of the Israelites first from Egypt and second from Babylon become symbols for the liberating power of the risen Jesus Christ.
For we are all in need of liberation from the bondage of sin. We are all in need of a Savior. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” The horrors of human brokenness were apparent in the events of Good Friday. Humanity in a frenzy of mob violence sent an innocent Man to a horrible death. We have to capacity to injure others, to hurt others, or simply to ignore others when we are consumed with selfish desires. When we do anything harmful to others, to the least of God’s children, we are doing it to God. For Jesus is in each one of us, and each human being is a branch on the vine of Jesus’ loving community.
But Jesus is always calling to us, and has the power to bring us all into loving community with Himself. That is the message of Isaiah and of the resurrection. Jesus will heal the brokenhearted, will comfort those who mourn, will fill us with praise instead of despair, and anoint us with the oil of gladness instead of mourning.
I chose the reading from John for a reason. It is one of the more intimate resurrection stories. Jesus provides for the disciples a miraculous catch of fish–so great that they have to tow it back to shore behind their boat. This is an image of the countless good things that God will fill our life with, when we come to Him. This is why the Psalmist says that his cup runneth over. To those who come to Jesus, it will feel like our hearts are overflowing.
And what I like most about this story is what happens when the apostles come ashore. They find a fire of coals burning with fish on it, and some bread. Jesus asks the disciples to bring some of the fish they have caught to cook. Then Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.” Jesus gives the apostles bread and fish and they eat breakfast together around the fire. This strikes me as an early kind of Holy Communion. It is a holy meal eaten in the very presence of God. As at the last supper, Jesus gives the apostles their food and they all eat together. I can just picture the breakfast. All sitting around a campfire in open nature beside the sea. There is a special mood that comes over me every time I am at a campfire. It is an intimate feeling. We sit together, enjoying each others’ company and watching the crackling fire. Even without the ritual and the church elements of bread and wine, the intimacy of campfires wherever they are makes for a kind of holy communion.
The early Christian churches were just that. Followers of Jesus who would come together to share a common meal together. As they were eating, they would tell stories that they remembered of Jesus’ life and His teachings. These were called “Love Feasts.”
In fact, Jesus gave little instruction as to how He wanted the church to be. Whether it is God’s will that the church grow up into the world institution that it has become is an interesting question. The Protestant Reformers thought that there was too much in the church that was man-made, not ordained by God. They rebelled against the Catholic institutions of their time. But the Protestant Churches have also grown into man-made structures, too. We are a long way from the common love feasts of the early church. We are a long way from merely sitting down to share a meal and stories about Jesus. Maybe we need to go back.
Today we see numbers in present churches dwindling. And yet we see that there are many spiritual people who do not align themselves with a denomination. Religious literacy is dramatically low. And yet culture is so filled with Christian ideals that I think that Jesus’ message survives. I think of a Canadian songwriter who sings about love. Some of the lyrics are, “One thing I know for sure/Loving one another is the only cure” (Lestor Quitzau/Mae Moore). And who can forget the Beatles, “All you need is love.” And Leonard Cohen writes spiritual music that reaches millions and millions of people. One such mega-hit was simply a chant of “Alleluia.” These songs, and songs like them, carry us back to the core message of Jesus Christ. It is the message of love. There are other cultural institutions that are replete with Christian ideals–such as social services, food banks, equal rights movements, universal health care, and so many other cultural expressions of Christian teachings about love and care for the neighbor. These songs and these social institutions carry us back to the experience of Jesus and His ministry on earth. And each time we help someone else–be it as a society or individually–it is as if we are sitting down to enjoy a common meal together with Jesus, with or without the campfire.

PRAYER

Lord, we give you heartfelt thanks. For you came to us when we had strayed far from your precepts. Your came to us when we were in darkness and you brought us light. You came to us and healed us. You were tempted as every human is, and you overcame hell. The forces of darkness thought that they had silenced you in your death. But you rose body and soul and are still present to us in your glorified Divine Humanity. The force of light that comes from you is unstoppable. No evil force can stand before the goodness and love that you are. You have performed the greatest miracle ever when you conquered death, to rise on Easter Day. And your resurrection from the grave is a promise that each one of us will rise, too, and come into your kingdom. To you we give our heartfelt thanks.

Lord, we pray for those who are sick. Send your healing love to those ailing, and comfort their family and friends. Lord, we ask for the grace of your healing love for all in need.

And Lord, we pray for peace in this broken world. Be with the people who are suffering in unjust regimes. Heal the nations of their conflicts. Let all peoples see that they are alike in wanting what is good for their country and for themselves. Where there is misunderstanding, grant that there be recognition of our common humanity. Bring your peaceable kingdom here to this broken world.

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Apr 19th, 2014

We Had Hoped
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Good Friday, 2014

Mark 15:1-41

I would like us to try to imagine what the crucifixion would have been like for the followers of Jesus. This exercise may be very hard for us. We know of the resurrection. And we have 2,000 years of history behind the Christian Church. We are nothing like the ancient followers of Jesus just after the crucifixion.
Just a few days before, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a Divine Man, and received a ruler’s welcome from the people. Now the people had turned against Him. It was a mob in Jerusalem that shouted for Jesus’ death. Mark tells us that, “The chief priests stirred up the crowd” (Mark 15:11). And these were the very people who rejoiced to see Him arrive just a few days earlier. We are told that the priests had stirred up the crowds. So we have the Israelites authorities finally taking tangible action against Jesus, as they had planned all through the Gospels. And even the rulers representing Rome, who tried to be indifferent to the whole matter, even the Roman rulers had pronounced the death sentence upon Jesus. The common people, the rulers of the Israelites, and even the powers of Rome had all turned against Jesus. They thought they had silenced Him for ever. And it certainly looked as if they had.
Let’s try to imagine how this must have looked to Jesus’ followers. All through Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had performed wondrous miracles and showed a miraculous love that the people hadn’t seen anywhere. There were indeed signs that Jesus was walking a thin line with regard to the religious authorities and even with the crowds. People in Jesus’ home town were indignant at His claim to divine authority and tried to throw Him off a cliff (Luke 4:29). And at least once before His trial, the religious authorities tried to stone Jesus for claiming to be divine (John 8:59). But for the most part, the crowds were amazed, overjoyed, and were heartfelt followers of Him. Jesus’ followers also thought that He would deliver Israel from Roman rule and make Israel into the most powerful nation in the world and a light for all the gentiles. They saw all the miracles He did, and hoped that this indicated that Jesus was that Messiah who would restore Israel.
Now all these hopes were dashed to the ground. The mob that had adored and followed Jesus had turned against Him. His followers were dispersed. The religious authorities had won and apparently overcome this prophet of love and healing. The kingdom of Israel had not been restored. It was all over. An indication as to how much grief the apostles knew is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Two Apostles express their grief at all that had just recently happened. They say of Jesus,
He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel (Luke 24:19-21).
After all the high hopes that Jesus’ ministry had inspired in the people, all had come to this. Remember, I am talking about the time just after Jesus’ death, and before His resurrection. All the hopes of the apostles were broken. Jesus was dead; the crowd turned against Him; the Pharisees and priests won. It was over.
Perhaps there is another aspect to all this. I think that there was also confusion. It didn’t make sense. How could all the wonders that Jesus had done, how could all His beautiful preaching end up like this? Where was all the power and wonder that Jesus had previously shown? Could it actually be that this was it? Was this all it was going to come to? In addition to grief, I think that confusion was also what the followers were feeling.
Thus far I have been discussing this distress from the point of view of the apostles. But there are some other voices that don’t often get mentioned. There were women who followed Jesus, too. At the crucifixion they are mentioned. Of them, Mark says, “In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs” (Mark 15:41). Two of these women are mentioned by name. There is Mary Magdalene, and Mary who is mother of James the Younger, Joses, and Salome. And we are told that “Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (Mark 15:41). Although they do not receive much mention in the Gospels, we see that among Jesus’ followers were many women.
These women cared for Jesus’ needs and no doubt were taught by Jesus along with the men. In Luke we are told that Mary, sister of Martha, sat at Jesus’ feel, listening to what He said (Luke 10:39). These women continued to care for Jesus even in His death. They go to the tomb after the Sabbath is over to anoint Jesus’ body with spices.
Did all these events strike the women in the same way as the men? I ask because of a short line in the birth story of Jesus. After the shepherds tell everyone of the wondrous vision of the choir of angels and the words told them from on high, everyone is amazed. But we are told that Mary, Jesus’ mother, had a different reaction. A contrasting reaction. Luke tells us, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The Bible doesn’t tell us much about the many women who followed Jesus. We don’t know if their understanding of Jesus’ teachings was different than that of the men. Had they also treasured up all these things and pondered them in their hearts? Had they heard and understood Jesus’ words about His resurrection after His death? We don’t know.
But it was the women who first saw the risen Jesus. It was the women who first saw the stone rolled away. It was the women who first saw the angels who told them Jesus had risen. And this was because they went to care for Jesus body in death, even as they had cared for Him in life.
The women, though, were amazed at these things and ran to tell the others. They were not believed. The apostles were too confused and overcome with grief. We do not always understand the things that happen to us and to others. We, too, can lose hope in the things of religion. And often we can despair as to God’s governance in the world. I believe that in these times, our hopes will find understanding as time passes. The problem the apostles faced was not understanding Jesus’ teachings about His death and resurrection. Their hopes were in a Messiah of their own understanding. Our faith is only and always finite. There are falsities and fallacies in our best understanding of faith. And such a faith must run into contradictions when it is tested by reality. It is my belief, and my faith, that we will come to understand, when things don’t seem right at first. It is my belief and my faith that behind all the hard things we see, there is a loving God. It is my belief and my faith that we will see. For now we see in a mirror darkly. In time we will see face to face. Now we know in part, in time we will understand fully. In the meanwhile, as we go about time and life here in this world, perhaps we can best proceed as did Mary. With what we do know of God and spirituality, perhaps we best proceed by treasuring up all these things and pondering them in our heart.

PRAYER

Lord, we are aware that we can be inconstant in our devotion to you. While we want to turn to you always, we are aware of the presence of sin in our lives. The crowds in ancient Israel both favored you and turned against you. The inconstancy of human hearts led you to a horrible death. Yet despite our capacity to turn away from you, we know that you never turn from us. You forgive, you continue to call to us, and you never cease in your efforts to bring us into holy communion with you. We give you thanks for your unfailing love. We praise you for your constancy in turning yourself to the human race.

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Apr 13th, 2014

Blessed Is He Who Comes
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 13, 2014

Zechariah 9:9-11 Matthew 21:1-11 Psalm 118

Our readings this morning are all about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In Zechariah we have a prophesy about the coming Messiah who will ride into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of an ass. And in Matthew we have the fulfillment of this prophesy with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a white colt, the foal of an ass. The majestic entrance into Jerusalem is the climax of the Gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Two considerations make this entry into Jerusalem the high point of the synoptic Gospels. First, Jerusalem was the very centre of Israelite life in the days of Jesus. The temple was there, which made Jerusalem the centre of worship life for Israel. You could think of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Only it was also the greatest city in Israel. You could imagine it as a cross between Ottawa and Toronto–combining the authority of the capital with the greatness of the largest city in the country. (In the US we would think of a cross between New York and Washington DC.) With Jesus entering Jerusalem, we have the power of the Messiah entering the very core of Israelite life.
Second, in terms of the storyline of the Gospels, Jerusalem is where Jesus is crucified and resurrected. The final conclusion to Jesus whole life–the crucifixion and resurrection–occurs in Jerusalem.
From the perspective of our spiritual life, Jerusalem represents the place where God dwells in our consciousness and heart. It is the holy place in our souls where God lives. Before we can unpack what it means to our lives to have Jesus enter Jerusalem, we need to talk a little more about the story.
The accounts in the four Gospels differ when they write about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. And their differences are significant. In Mark, Jesus is a triumphant king and also a divine God-Man. The crowd cuts palm branches and casts them in front of Jesus shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (Mark 11:9-10). The crowd sees Jesus as a king who will restore David’s throne, so they say, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” The whole act of throwing branches and shouting the words that they do is another reference to kingship. In Psalm 118, which we read this morning, we have the words that the crowd shouts,
Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord . . . Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar! (Psalm 118:26, 27).
This Psalm was used to celebrate the king in Israel’s past, when the king would go up to the temple amid rejoicing, music, and the casting of palm branches before him as he climbed the steps up to the temple. By the time of Jesus’ day, the Messiah was a divine being as well as an earthly ruler. So Jesus’ divinity is proclaimed by the crowd, as well. They shout, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Luke’s account is essentially the same. The crowd shouts the same dual acknowledgement of Jesus as Divine king, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). In John we have a similar dual acknowledgement of Jesus as God and King, but kingship is emphasized even more strongly,
Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel! (John 12:13).
But in Matthew we have a subtle shift in emphasis. Jesus is affirmed as the Son of David, since the Messiah was prophesied to come from David’s lineage. But there is no mention of kingship or of a kingdom. Instead, Jesus’ divine qualities are emphasized. As in the other Gospels, the crowd cheers Jesus as coming in the name of the Lord,
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! (Matthew 21:9).
Jesus as God on earth is the message in Matthew. So Jesus as the conquering king, which is in the other Gospels, is not in Matthew.
The first thing that Jesus does when He enters Jerusalem is to go to the temple, the very heart of Israelite life. And Jesus passionately purifies the temple, driving out the money-changers and all those who “sold and bought.”
This is a clear image of how Jesus acts as our Savior. Jesus comes into our heart and purifies it. Jesus breaks up the destructive passions that come with life in this world. And Jesus fills us with His own Spirit of love. Then the temple is truly a house of prayer. In Swedenborg’s system of correspondences, the temple symbolizes those who live in the good of love and in faith. So he writes,
Everyone who lives in the good of charity and faith is a church, and is a kingdom of the Lord, and hence is called “a temple,” and also “a house of God” (AC 6637).
Our understanding of Jesus as the Savior is Jesus who purifies us and regenerates us. We are saved when we are purified from evil and sin and our hearts are filled with healthy feelings of love. It is the risen and glorified Jesus who does this work in us. So this church emphasizes the resurrected and glorified Jesus Christ. Other Christians emphasize the crucifixion as a sacrifice that takes away our sin. So they emphasize the sin that Christ took upon Himself. The Common Lectionary selected a reading from Isaiah that brings out this doctrine. In Isaiah 53, we find a prophesy of the suffering Christ underwent,
I gave my back to the smiters,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I hid not my face from shame and spitting (Isaiah 53:6).
Rather than the crucifixion, it is the story of the resurrection that gives us hope. It is hope in the power of Jesus to come to us, drive out everything unholy from our personality, and give us a new self. Thus and thus only are we truly born again.
This is the meaning of Jesus coming into the holy city Jerusalem. It is a story of Jesus coming into our hearts. This is the meaning of Jesus driving out the money-changers from the temple. It is a story of Jesus purifying our hearts from unhealthy and unholy passions and rendering our consciousness clear with the light of truth.
Certainly, this process is one that has its road of sorrow. The crucifixion is a symbol of all the trials and deep temptations we go through in this purification process. But that is a story for Good Friday.
This Sunday is Palm Sunday. And on Palm Sunday, we consider the prefiguring of Jesus’ resurrection. And we consider the symbolism of God entering our hearts and purifying them from everything unholy. Palm Sunday is a beautiful metaphor of how Jesus comes into the lives of each of us, making us a holy temple of our God.

PRAYER

Lord, on this Palm Sunday we think back to your triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. You were welcomed by cheering multitudes, who were overjoyed at your arrival. Give us to feel likewise. Give us to feel like joy when you come to us. For we, too, would welcome you into our hearts to purify us from all sin and fill us with your holy love. When you came to Jerusalem, you drove out the money changers in the temple. So, we pray for you to drive out of our personalities all unhealthy feeling and passion. We pray that you purify the temple of our hearts with your power and love. And instead of self-seeking, my we be filled with patience, tolerance and mutual love with our fellows.

Lord, we pray for those who are sick. Send your healing love to those ailing, and comfort their family and friends. Lord, we ask for the grace of your healing love for all in need.

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Apr 6th, 2014

Life from Life
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete

Ezekiel 37:1-14 John 11:1-45 Psalm 130

Both of our Bible readings this morning are about life. And in both readings, we see that it is God who gives life. In our reading from Ezekiel, God gives dry bones the gift of life, from the Holy Spirit. And in our reading from John, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead into life. The raising of Lazarus from the dead prefigures Jesus’ resurrection, and it also symbolizes our being raised from the dead into heaven. And in both these readings about life from God, Jesus’ own words summarize the issue. Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
The life we all have is a gift from God. We don’t live by our own power. We live because the Source of all life is continually flowing into us. God is life itself. We are merely vessels that receive life.
Let me delve into science a little bit to illustrate this point. Where does life come from? We know that we humans come from our parents. And we know that our parents come from their parents. We know that some animals come from eggs. And that their parents lay the eggs. We know that plants come from seeds and fruit trees come from fruits. And we know that the seeds come from grown plants as do the fruits–oak trees come from acorns, apple trees come from apples, flowers come from the pollen of mature flowers. In the science of biology, there are few laws, unlike the sciences of physics and chemistry, for instance. But in biology there is one hard and fast rule that has no exceptions:” Only life can create life.” There are no instances of non-life creating life.
So this brings up the old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” We know that our parents gave birth to us, and their parents to them, but try to follow the sequence back to the beginning. Somewhere way back in humanity’s origins, the first parent had to be made. There would be no parent for the first human. Something like the creation of Adam and Eve would have had to happen.
But I do think that evolution happened. Human life can be traced back to hominoid creatures. More complex creatures came from simpler forms. But there are two problems with the theory of evolution. First, there is a problem with the doctrine called “survival of the fittest.” This doctrine teaches that when mutations occur, the mutation that best suits its natural environment will survive and perpetuate itself. So in an environment where there are mostly tree-tops for food, animals will grow longer and longer necks and we will end up with giraffes. But the doctrine of the survival of the fittest works only if the gene for long necks is present in the animal. All the genes have already to be present in order for a change to happen. In other words, survival of the fittest cannot change one species into another. A cat can’t become a dog by survival of the fittest. A monkey can’t become a human by survival of the fittest. So biologists have a big problem. They need to have a way to explain how the different species differentiated–lemurs into proto-humans, into humans. And ultimately, how one celled creatures became a thinking, reasoning human being.
The second problem comes from what I was saying about our parents’ parents. Somewhere along the way, life had to come from non-life. Biologists will talk about the primordial soup. That was the ocean way back in life’s origins. The sea then was rich in carbohydrates from which amino acids are made from which proteins are made. But there is a huge difference between a protein molecule and a self-replicating DNA strand. There is a huge difference between a protein molecule and a living cell. According to the theory of evolution, non-life had to create life. And that violates about the only law that biology has.
When we consider the question of life, we have to turn to religion. Life had to come from life. Life existed before anything else. God existed before there was the Big Bang. And the whole act of creation was spun out by an all-loving God who wants there to be a heaven of humans whom God can love as a parent does his or her family. Swedenborg tells us,
God in creating [the universe] had one end in view, which was an angelic heaven from the human race; and all things of which the earth is composed are means to that end. . . . The Divine Love can intend no other end than the eternal blessedness of people from its own Divine . . . (TCR 13).
And Swedenborg reiterates the same idea later in the same book,
The very end for which the universe was created was no other than that an angelic heaven should be formed from humans, where all who believe in God shall live in eternal blessedness; for Divine love which is in God and essentially is God cannot intend anything else (TCR 773).
We can now consider our creation and our birth. We are born into this natural world as a living being. But our first birth is into an image of the world. In order for us to come into heaven, we need second birth.
Second birth is symbolized in our story from Ezekiel. It begins with dry bones scattered in a valley. This is our state before God begins to recreate us into a spiritually living being. This is also symbolized in the creation story in Genesis. Our state before second birth is compared to void and unformed darkness. This is called our proprium. It is the self that biology creates which is concerned only with self-preservation and the advancement of self.
But God, wanting so much to give us the blessings of eternal joy, moves over the waters and over the dry bones. God joins bone to bone and fixes tendons on the joints and flesh on the tendons. The final act of creation in the Ezekiel story is when God breathes into the person the breath of life. In the ancient world, wind and breath were the same. So when God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath, the breath comes from the four winds from the four directions. The four winds come and fill the newly recreated human beings with life.
This living wind reminds me of two things. First it reminds me of the original creation story in Genesis 2. There a human being is formed from the dust of the ground. To give it life, God, “Breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Our word “spirit” comes from the Latin word “spiritus” which means breath. The second thing this passage reminds me of is what little I know of Native Spirituality. The four directions are sacred to Natives. I recall a ceremony I attended at city hall that was put on by local Natives. To open the ceremony, a song was sung to the four directions. We all stood up and turned in the direction to which the cantor was singing. The opening ceremony was completed after we had one by one turned to the four directions and we ended facing front again. In Ezekiel, the wind comes from all four directions and fills the dry bones with life.
Being filled with the wind from the sacred four directions, with God’s Holy Spirit, is what gives us eternal life. As we heard in the story of the woman at the well a few Sundays back, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). It is not only Swedenborg’s mysticism that teaches our need to be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to enter heaven. In the Greek Orthodox tradition and in the tradition of many Pentecostal churches salvation means being filled with the Holy Spirit. Since God is Spirit, and since heaven is where God is, we need to partake of God’s Spirit to be “in God” as we read in John 15. There Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you” (John 15:4). Later in that passage, Jesus clarifies what it means to remain “in Him,” by saying we are to remain in His love,
Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (John 15:9-11).
With these words, the whole of salvation and blessedness to eternity are contained. When we do Jesus’ commands, we are in His love. And when we are in his love, our joy is complete. The end of creation is complete–a heaven from the human race. Our birth into this world is completed by rebirth into heaven. And our birth and our rebirth are both a miraculous gift from the Source of all life and love. God fills us with the breath of life and eternal life, and we live. And when we live in God, we live in blessedness to eternity.

PRAYER

Lord, we know that you are the source of all life. We know that we do not live by our own power, but by the influx of your life and love into us. We know that your influx of love into our hearts and of wisdom into our minds is what sustains us and renders us angelic. We pray that you help us to rid ourselves of the things that block your influx. Help us to put away worldly cravings and self-serving drives. For these are the things that come between our neighbor and ourselves and between us and you. As we put away the drives of this world, we pray that you fill us with the affections of heaven. As we break up the complexes that serve self and world, fill us with love for our neighbor and for you. And in doing this, give us heavenly life, as you have given us life in this world.

Lord, we pray for those who are sick. Send your healing love to those ailing, and comfort their family and friends. Lord, we ask for the grace of your healing love for all in need.

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