Archive for June, 2015
The New Church Is Coming and Is Come
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 21, 2015
Daniel 7:9-14 Revelation 21:1-5, 22-27; 22:1-7 Psalm 33 TCR 791
Swedenborg claims that a new Christian church has been formed in heaven, and that it is even now descending onto the earth. It is a new way of thinking about God, and a new way of living. It is a movement among all of humanity, so by a church, Swedenborg does not mean a denomination.
The New Church is predicted in various parts of the Bible. It is especially predicted in the beautiful concluding passage in the book of Revelation. There, the New Church is compared to a bride adorned for her groom, and it is said to be descending from heaven. It is also in the prophet Daniel. There, the New Church is said to be looked after by the son of man, and that his rule will be,
an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will ever be destroyed (Daniel 7:14).
This New Church will be the crown of all the churches that have existed in the past. There have been four churches in the past.
Four churches in general have existed on this earth from the beginning, one before the flood, another after it, the Israelitish Church third, and that called Christian fourth (TCR 786).
The New Church will be the final, the last, and the eternal church. It will be distinguished by the way it envisions God. The New Church will see God as the Divine Human whose soul is the Infinite Creator God.
This New Church is the crown of all the churches which have hitherto existed on earth, because it will worship one visible God in whom is the invisible, like the soul in the body (TCR 787).
Worshipping a visible God in whom is the Infinite Invisible God is crucial in Swedenborg. It is at the very heart of his theology. The whole reason for creation itself was so that God could have someone to love and who would love God back. So the purpose of creation is to form a mutual relationship between God and humans. Swedenborg claims that humans can be conjoined only with a visible God. He states,
Thus and not otherwise can there be conjunction of God with man, because man is natural and hence thinks naturally, and the conjunction must be in his thought and thus in his love’s affection, which is the case when he thinks of God as a man. Conjunction with an invisible God is like that of the eye’s vision with the expanse of the universe, of which it sees no end; it is also like vision in mid ocean, which falls upon air and sea and is lost. But conjunction with a visible God, on the other hand, is like seeing a man in the air on the sea, spreading forth his hands and inviting into his arms. For all conjunction of God with man must also be reciprocally of man with God, and there cannot be this reciprocation on the other part except with a visible God (TCR 787).
Swedenborg makes the unique claim that the very incarnation of God in the form of Jesus Christ was so that we could visualize the Human God in Jesus. So not only did Jesus come to save us, He also came to give us an image of God we could relate to in love.
the one God who is invisible came into the world and assumed the Human, not only that He might redeem men, but also that He might become visible, and thus capable of conjunction (TCR 786).
This New Church worships the one Human Christ in whom is the invisible Creator God. That form of worship allows for conjunction.
That is Swedenborg’s claim. Is it ours? For me, the image of the Divine Human stretching out His arms for an embrace is beautiful. It certainly gives me a God with whom I can relate in love. But when I pray, I can’t say that I form a mental picture of God. It is more a kind of communication of my heart to God’s loving presence. I know of some Swedenborgians who even think that God can’t fit into a Human form. They think God is too big for that. As for that, I find no particular difficulty. Then there are Swedenborgians who think that this is all so much theological niceties, and that how a person pictures God doesn’t much matter–just so they believe. Here, I respectfully disagree. I do think it matters how a person pictures God. A person’s concept of God fills their whole mind and orients their theology. It forms their consciousness. I think it does matter.
Swedenborg wrote much about how the people of the New Church believe. Much of his book The Apocalypse Revealed is about the doctrines of the New Church and how the doctrines of the Old Church differ. Primarily, two basic doctrines distinguish the Old Church from the New Church. The first is the nature of God. The New Church worships the One Divine Human in whom is the Infinite Invisible God. The Old Church worships the God called the trinity. There are various ways to understand the trinity. But the Nicene Creed, by far the most universally applied creed throughout Christianity, states that God is three persons who have one essence. The understanding of the trinity from the Nicene Creed is as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. . . . And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; . . . And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
Notice the triple use of the word “and.” What I mean is the passages that say “we believe in the one God, the Father . . . and in the Lord Jesus Christ . . . and in the Holy Ghost.” This triple use of the word “and” leads some to think of three beings. Notice, too, that the Holy Ghost is worshipped “with the Father and the Son together.” Language like this implies three persons. I think it is fair to say that many Christians think of three gods when they think of the trinity. It takes a supremely subtle reasoning to hold the idea of one God along with the statements from the Nicene Creed that sound like three persons.
Another doctrine that Swedenborg says the New Church will not hold as true is that of faith alone. The doctrine of faith alone says that no good works matter in our salvation. All that matters is faith, or belief, that Jesus died for our sins. In the New Church faith and charity are united. This perfect union of faith and charity is symbolized by the Holy City being in the shape of a square–as long as it is wide (Revelation 21:16). The length signifies charity, or good works, and the width signified faith, or truth.
When Swedenborg wrote, the New Church was just being born. Since then, I see many examples of its presence here on earth. One such example is the utter separation of church and state in the Christian world. Think of it! In Swedenborg’s day, a person could be brought to trial for the beliefs they held. Swedenborg himself was brought to trial in Sweden, and convicted of heresy. The ruling Lutheran Church forbad him to publish in the country of Sweden. Worse still might have happened, had not Swedenborg been friends with the Queen. Today, we can think and speak as we please without fear of religious persecution. As far as faith alone goes, I spoke with a Lutheran minister at the last Faith and Order commission. She told me that today, the official Lutheran doctrines speak not of faith alone, but of faith leading to good works. This in the Church that invented the doctrine of faith alone. And in the National Council of Churches I find a moving spirit of charity, love and mutual acceptance among different religions. These are religions that in the past have spawned wars and separation. Now we are sharing common meals and we relate to each other as friends. This is remarkable progress.
Some of the old ways of thinking are fading. And, unfortunately, so are many of the old institutions that held them. I mean the churches themselves. Maybe the passing of organized religion is a stage in the New Church and its new way of viewing the life of faith. Maybe it is how the old doctrines will be erased. Maybe the old ways need to disappear before the new ways of the New Church can descend to earth.
One final note about this denomination. There was a time when we thought that our denomination was that New Church. If you look at the wooden sign beside the church, it reads, “The New Church.” I grew up being told that my religion was, “The Church of the New Jerusalem”–that we were actually named after that vision in Revelation and actually were that New Jerusalem descending from heaven. It was in the late sixties, I believe, that we came to our senses, and realized that it was presumptuous to claim to be that New Church. As we are based on the writings of Swedenborg, we decided it made more sense to name ourselves after his theology. We are now Swedenborgians, with all the inconveniences that that clumsy name brings with it. But I think it is still easier to deal with than Church of the New Jerusalem, and all that that name implies.
I don’t know what the future holds for the churches we now know. But I firmly believe that the New Church described in Revelation and that Swedenborg speaks of is a fact. I have complete trust that this New Church is descending and is here in many ways even now. When we look out at the world we can see many things. Depending on how we wake up, I think, we can see either glorious progress in the world, or dismal decadence. It can very well be both. It is a central teaching that evil can only be dealt with and eradicated when it is seen. We should not be surprised to see cultural decay as we see great progress.
The Christian Bible ends with that beautiful image of the Holy City descending from heaven as a bride prepared for her groom. In this Holy City, God himself dwells so there is no need even for an altar. In it is the tree of life whose leaves are for the healing of nations. This is a beautiful vision of the way things will be in the end of time. I suggest that it is also a vision of the way things are now and are becoming for those who have eyes.
Lord, we thank you for the gift of the church. For in the church we find community. In the church we find spiritual guidance. And in the church we worship you. We give you thanks for the heavens that flow into us and fill our minds with truth and fill our hearts with love and every good feeling. We realize that you are the very soul of heaven, and we realize that you are the very foundation of the church. We give you thanks for coming to us in your Divine Humanity, and building the church in our souls.
And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. And may warring factions find their way to peace.
Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth.
The Birth of the Messiah
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 7, 2015
1 Samuel 8:4-22 Mark 3:20-35 Psalm 138
In our reading from 1 Samuel, we hear about Israel’s decision to anoint a king over them. This was a huge shift in their social and religious governance. Previously, they were governed by prophets and by individual moral intuition. There is an important verse at the end of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). In the passage we heard this morning, Israel’s decision to anoint a king over them is seen as a rejection of God as their king. God tells Samuel, “They have rejected me from being king over them” (1Samuel 8:7). The entire social order in Israel is shifting now. It is a momentous shift.
In many ways, choosing a king is a rejection of God. The desire for a king is so that the Israelites can be like the nations around them. They don’t want to be organized the way they had been with Yahweh as the central uniting force of their culture. They want to be like the nations they see around them who have a king. They say, “We will have a king over us, that we may like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (8:19-20). They are rejecting the form of society that was given them by God through Moses. That early form of society was a tribal confederation. The twelve tribes of Israel were each independent and yet united by the one God Yahweh. In places in the Bible we hear of them being a kingdom of priests. Each Israelite was responsible for his or her own behavior. Each one had land given them by God that was to stay in the family. Each one had the law of God in their heart. They would band together when an enemy opposed them and disperse to their own lands after the enemy had been dispatched. Worship of Yahweh and following Yahweh’s laws were the bond that held society together.
This all changes when the Israelites take a king. When they take a king, they are also taking the mythology that comes with kingship in the Ancient Near East. Under Ancient Near Eastern models for kingship, the king himself was the first and closest connection to God. God spoke to the king, and God’s divine power came through the king to the people. In many cases, the kings were considered divine or semi-divine. Such a concept slipped into Israelite culture. Psalm 2:7 states, “I will proclaim the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” The welfare of the whole kingdom depended on the king and the proper rituals he needed to perform. Among them were proper sacrifices and enacting sacred ritual dramas in order to secure God’s blessings. One such sacred drama was the re-enactment of the fertility cycle. The king goes through a ritual death and rebirth. This symbolizes the death of crops in the winter and their re-birth in the spring. By performing this sacred drama, God’s power was re-energized. This assured a fertile crop for the coming year. Peace and prosperity within the kingdom depended on the king’s relationship with God and the sacrifices he performed. If the king fell from favour with God, the land would waste away and war and potentially defeat from some foe could follow. So the welfare of the kingdom now depended on the king, not on each individual and their own relations with God.
So in a way, wanting a king was putting a man between God and the people. Instead of God governing the people through the laws given by Moses, now the king was governing the people. There was a real threat to the integrity of Israelite society when they chose to anoint a king. For potentially, the king could do whatever he wanted to do. He was king. The people wanted the king to rule over them, not Yahweh.
With the king came a new office in Israel. That new office was the prophet. The prophet was there to make sure that the king followed the laws of Yahweh. You could say that the prophets kept the king in check. Previously, prophets served the people at large. They would decide matters of justice, like judges. They would perform sacrifices. But they would be open to all the people. Now they had one specific target–the king. It was their role to make sure that the king was following the laws of God.
As I have been saying, choosing a king was a dramatic change in Israel’s society. It also changed their religion. I have spoken a few times about anointing a king. Although the king ruled over the people, the king needed to be consecrated by the prophet. It was the prophet Samuel who chose Israel’s first king, Saul. And Samuel made Saul king by anointing his head with oil. Every king in Israel’s history was anointed with oil in order to be consecrated into the role of king. So kings were called “anointed ones.” The Hebrew word for “Anointed,” is “Messiah.” When we hear the word, “Messiah,” it means, “Anointed One.” The anointed one is the king. So the Messiah is the king. Had there been no king in Israel’s history, there would be no Messiah. A whole new religious system evolved around the idea of the Messiah. And when we Christians hear the word Messiah, we think of Jesus. I think we can say that we wouldn’t have had the role Jesus filled if there had been no king in Israel. There would be no Messiah mythology for Jesus to fulfill.
In Israelite theology, The Messiah is most closely associated with King David. This is because of a promise that God makes with King David. It is called the Davidic Covenant. God promises that King David’s heirs will always be on the throne in Jerusalem. We find this promise in 2 Samuel 8:16. In this verse, God says to David, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” So God promised that King David’s kingdom and his heirs would continue forever. David’s “house” meant his heirs, and his throne meant his kingdom.
But this is not what happened. In 587 BCE the Babylonian kingdom conquered Judah, and destroyed the royal city of Jerusalem. Since that time, there were no more kings on the throne in Jerusalem. So the promise to King David got placed in the future. Israelites looked forward to the time when a descendant of King David would come and rule on the throne in Jerusalem. This was the hope for the coming Messiah. And without that hope, we would have no Messiah in the form of Jesus.
All the Gospels trace Jesus’ ancestry through King David. They do this to establish that Jesus is the Messiah, who was of David’s lineage. When Jesus came, people were expecting a king. They were expecting a divine king. This divine king would drive out the Romans and rule on the throne in Jerusalem. Throughout His ministry, Jesus kept trying to explain that He was not a worldly king. He tried to explain that His kingdom was spiritual. But the people didn’t get it. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, people cheered Him as a coming king. They said, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (Mark 11:10). When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn’t want to believe that Jesus will suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders and be sentenced to death. Jesus rebukes Peter sharply, again trying to redefine the mythology of the Messiah (Mark 8:27-33).
With kingship established in Israel, we have a theology in place that leads to a Divine King. Although kingship was imported into Israel as a foreign idea, it reshaped their whole theology. It led to the hope of a future king. This paved the way for the coming of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. With power concentrated in one person on the throne, the next step is that one Divine-Human can rule in our hearts. A king in Israel leads to a King of heaven. Jesus is the Messiah, but the Messiah of a spiritual kingdom.
We can see the whole scriptures as pointing to that one Savior of humanity. With the Messiah established in Israelite theology, we have a savior figure who will come to the earth. We know that Savior as Jesus Christ. In Luke we are told that Jesus showed the Apostles how all the scriptures were about Himself, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). While 1 Samuel 8 makes the anointing of a king look like a rejection of God, in fact it leads to the coming of God on earth. For the anointing of Saul is the birth of the Messiah.
Lord, we give you thanks for coming to us in a form we could relate to. You came not as an overwhelming God on high; you came not as a powerful emperor; but you came as a humble man. All your life on earth, humanity tried to make you a king. Yet you continually turned away these human vanities. You gave yourself the titles of Friend, and you even called us brothers and sisters. And yet, even though you did not appear in the awe due your name, humanity felt the power of your presence. While you would not be king, humanity felt you as God. The light of your love and truth could not be hid. It shined through your Humanity, filling it with Divinity. We thank you, Lord Jesus; we praise you, Lord Jesus; we worship you, Lord Jesus. All glory and power and wisdom is yours!
And Lord, we pray for the sick. May they experience the power of your healing love. Fill them with the grace of your healing power. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.