Archive for April, 2016
Those Who Have Not Seen
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 24, 2016
Isaiah 61:8-22 John 20:19-31 Psalm 133
In our New Testament reading this morning, Jesus appears to his disciples and shows them his hands and side. The disciples are overjoyed when they see Jesus. But Thomas is not with them. When the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Jesus, Thomas does not believe them. He declares, “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 it.” In the course of the story, Jesus appears to Thomas, too. He invites Thomas to do just what Thomas wanted to do to prove Jesus had risen and is alive. Jesus tells Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.” Humbled, Thomas can only say, “My Lord and my God!”
The disciples and Thomas are fortunate. They have actually seen and touched the risen Jesus. Jesus tells them, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This is where we are. We believe, but we have not seen. At least this is the case for most of us. There are those who have had near death experiences and tell of a dazzling white being who appears to them. But for most of us, all we have is the gospel testimony to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And John tells us that he has recorded the life of Jesus, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
There are two issues that come to my mind in this line that I would like to discuss this morning. The first issue is that of belief from the testimony of the gospels. The second issue is just what is meant by having life in the name of Jesus. For John tells us that we “may have life in his name.”
Let’s begin by talking about belief. Most of us haven’t seen Jesus. And I would say further that most of us probably don’t know anyone who has seen Jesus and come running up to us exclaiming, “I have seen that Lord!” as did Mary of Magdala. We are those of whom Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We are those for whom John has written his gospel. It is through the Gospels that we know about Jesus. And it is through the Gospels that we come to Jesus.
When I read the gospel stories, I have a feeling inside that this is true. My heart grows warm and I actually feel God’s presence in my heart. The may be called the emotional content of the gospels. This may be called an inner conviction that these stories are true. Not everyone has this feeling. There are those who read these stories and nothing happens. There are those who read these stories and doubt. There are those who read these stories and outright disbelieve. You could say that my feelings of conviction are entirely subjective. That is, my conviction depends on a feeling that I have inside me. This feeling of conviction is one that I can’t give to someone else. I can tell others that when I read the gospels I have a feeling of conviction. But I can’t give that feeling to another. And I must admit that that is the limit of my faith. My faith is an inward feeling that I can’t give to someone else. My proof for God’s existence is subjective, locked within my own feelings and thoughts, and I am unable to present others with anything more than my own feelings of conviction.
But there’s another aspect to the gospel stories. I have talked about the feelings that arise in me when I read the gospels. There is also a cognitive aspect to my experience of the gospels. There are all those beautiful teachings of Jesus. Reading the gospels also educate me in the way of love. The gospels show me how to walk in a Godly way. They teach me to be meek, humble, innocent, peace loving, and to be filled with love for God and my neighbor. So the gospels enkindle my heart and illuminate my mind.
Those qualities I just mentioned as the gospel lessons are included in the name of Jesus. So John says that “we may have life in his name.” By His name, much, much more is meant than just the word “Jesus.” All the qualities that Jesus embodied are meant by His name. Swedenborg writes that, “a name in the Word signifies the quality” (AC 2009). So the name Jesus means all the qualities that He stands for, taught, and demonstrated by His life. It is not just the word Jesus. When we say in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed be thy name,” it is not just the word God that we are talking about. It is all the holy qualities of God that are hallowed. So Swedenborg writes,
here also by name is not meant the name, but all the things of love and faith; for they are God’s or the Lord’s and are from Him. Because these are holy, the Lord’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in the heavens when they are held as holy (AC 2009).
So by God’s name, or Jesus’ name, more is meant than just a word. All the holy things of love and truth that constitute God’s being are meant by God’s name.
This is what is meant by that controversial verse, John 3:18. The verse reads, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Some Christians take this to mean that a person must believe in the name “Jesus” in order to be saved. They take this to mean that all the people in the world who have another name for God will not be saved. So the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jews, and all the other billions of people who are not Christian will not be saved. Common sense alone dictates that this cannot be true. And in our faith we say that God “is present to save all people, everywhere, whose lives affirm the best they know.” For it is not the word “Jesus” that saves. It is all the qualities that Jesus stands for that save.
It is the qualities that Jesus embodied and stood for that save. It is the love, the forgiveness, the meekness, the wisdom, the Godliness that were demonstrated by Jesus and that He stands for–these are the things that save regardless of what faith they are found in. These are the qualities that give life. When we ourselves embody these qualities, then we can be said to have life in His name. These are the qualities we heard in our Isaiah reading, “For I, the Lord, love justice . . . so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” It is righteousness and justice that are encompassed in the name of the Lord in this passage.
So wherever we find these Godly qualities, we find spiritual life whether the word “Jesus” is used or not. William Blake points to spiritual qualities when he talks of the divine image. God is not just a word, it is all the holy things of love and all the truths that teach the way of love. For Blake, some of these words are mercy, pity, peace, and love. And he writes in his poem, The Divine Image,
To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.
For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart
Pity a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace
And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.
Blake says it so well. Wherever we see qualities like this, we are seeing God. Maybe we are more like the disciples than I thought at first, who believe and who see.
Lord, we call ourselves by your name. And we follow your ways in our own lives. But it is not your name alone that we worship. We honor all that you stood for. We emulate in our own lives what we see you doing in the gospels. We learn your teachings and we apply them in our own lives. For when we call upon your name, we call upon all the divine qualities you embraced on earth. We call upon all the divine qualities you embody now in your risen and glorified Humanity. We ask you to inspire our will, our intentions, and our hearts with those same qualities. That by living a life in keeping with your ordinances, we may truly be called by your name.
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. We pray for Linda, and for John, and for Irene, for Erik. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.
A Real, Substantial Savior and God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 17, 2016
Isaiah 42:1-7 Luke 24:36-53 Psalm 4
When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His death, they were frightened, overjoyed, and amazed. They were frightened because they thought they were seeing a ghost. This is understandable. If you or I saw someone appear to us whom we knew had died, we, too, might think that we were seeing a ghost. But Jesus seeks to calm their fears. He says that He is not a ghost, and invites them to touch Him and see His hands and side. This wasn’t enough. They didn’t believe their eyes for amazement and joy. So Jesus eats a broiled fish.
Jesus is trying to convince the disciples that He is a real, living, substantial being. He is not a spirit, or a ghost. He has physical powers and also spiritual powers. He can walk through locked doors, and He can eat a broiled fish. His risen body is real, substantial and present always, everywhere to aid us in our spiritual journey.
Two story elements come to my mind when I read this Easter account. First, there is Jesus’ greeting to His disciples. He says, “Peace be with you.” It was, and still is, a standard Jewish greeting to say, “Shalom.” This means, “Peace be with you.” But I think that with Jesus more than this standard greeting is meant. I say this because Jesus is the very bringer of peace. He is Peace Itself. So we call Him the Prince of Peace. And those who are in right relation with Jesus are in peace, themselves. We are in peace to the extent that we are in God and God is in us.
And in this story Jesus tells us the way to peace. This is the second story element that comes to my mind when I read this Easter appearance. Jesus says that, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” In this verse we hear about forgiveness in the name of Jesus. And many jump too quickly to the forgiveness that they think comes in the name of Jesus. But the full verse is repentance and forgiveness of sins. For it is only through repentance that sins are forgiven. Repentance means that we actually see sin in ourselves and we stop doing it. This is a lifelong process and a process that gradually fills a person with spiritual life and love for God and for his or her neighbor. We don’t need to expect instant perfection in this process. In our society we want instant gratification. But sometimes this isn’t possible, as is the case with spiritual growth. Swedenborg is quite gentle when he talks about the process of repentance. He talks about taking on one or two sins at a recurring season. Perhaps he has in mind seasons like Lent. He talks about preparing to receive Holy Communion. From his Lutheran background and the experience of the Anglican Church he found while living in England, Swedenborg talks about repentance and the promise to begin life anew as part of the whole process of receiving Holy Communion. And in describing how this repentance process works, Swedenborg is concerned about us beginning the process more than he is in our completing the process.
Actual repentance, if performed at recurring seasons, as often, for instance, as a person prepares for the communion of the Holy Supper, if he or she afterwards abstains from one sin or another that one discovers in himself, it is sufficient to initiate him into its reality; and when he is in this, he is on the way to heaven, for from being natural he then begins to become spiritual and to be born anew from the Lord (TCR 530).
The process of repentance is one of letting love and faith into our hearts and minds. And as these come in, they push evil and sin to the periphery of our souls. Sin breaks apart and becomes quiet and troubles us no more. This is what forgiveness of sins is. It is actually the removal of sin.
The interior things of worship are those which are of love and faith, and hence the forgiving of sins, that is removals from them, because sins are removed through faith and love from the Lord. For so far as the good of love and of faith enters, so far sins are removed (AC9938).
It is God who instills this good of love and of faith. So we very much need that real, substantial Savior and God for spiritual life. It is God who lifts us up and out of self-interest and all the evils that stem from it. Swedenborg tells us that we “are withheld from evil and held in good by the Lord, so that it appears to [us] as if [we] were in good of [ourselves]” (HH 342). Whatever we feel of heavenly happiness and joy is from the real, substantial Savior and God, not from our own power. Angels and humans are in heaven,
not from any merit of their own, but from the Lord; and thus they may not boast before others of the good which is with them–for this is contrary to the good of mutual love . . . . (HH 342).
So we need Jesus and Jesus is here for us. In His risen, real and substantial body, Jesus is just as present to us as He was to those disciples that day long ago.
Most of the world religions I know of have a system of ethics, or what Swedenborg would call repentance and doing good. This system of ethics is what repentance in the name of Jesus means. Last Sunday I said much about the meaning of Jesus’ name. By His name, we mean all the qualities that Jesus stands for. We do not mean the word, “Jesus.” So wherever we find a system of ethics and repentance, we find life in the name of Jesus.
In both Isaiah and Luke we find an element of future looking. They look forward to a time when God’s faithful servant will,
bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth (Isaiah 42:3-4).
And Jesus says that, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Isaiah and Luke have a vision of the whole earth finding forgiveness through repentance and justice flowing like a river. Forgiveness through repentance and justice are the things that bring peace to a person’s soul. And we look forward to a time when justice and forgiveness will fill the political world also.
If nations only knew forgiveness, how much conflict would be averted! If nations practiced repentance so that they knew when their ambitions were threatening the welfare of other nations, wouldn’t peace reign on the earth! If rulers established justice in their nations, atrocities like genocide, civil war, and rebellion would cease. We have the recipe. We have the program for peace. But it remains only an ideal, foreseen by prophets and foretold by Jesus in the words of Scripture. These are healing words. But who hears them? So the Psalmist sings, “How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?” Yes, there is much vanity in the lust for self glory we see too often in the rulers of nations.
It is no wonder that Voltaire concludes his novel Candide with the words of resignation, “Yes, but we must cultivate our garden.” We can advocate for world peace; we can contribute to causes that seek to end world hunger; we can welcome refugees from cruel governments–we can do all these things to advocate for the world justice and peace the Bible speaks of. But finally, it is our own garden that we must cultivate. It is in our own heart and soul that the warring factions of darkness and light contend. And when through repentance, God’s love and faith fill our souls, then we will know the words of the Psalmist. Many see ruin and distress, but the Psalmist finds joy and the peace that Jesus gives to all. A real, substantial peace, from a real, substantial God,
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, O LORD!”
Thou hast put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for thou alone, O LORD, makest me dwell in safety.
Lord, we know of your compassion, your mercy, and your forgiveness. And knowing your love and compassion for us, we present ourselves before you. We ask you to shine your light on our souls, as we fearlessly examine ourselves. Let us see where we need to make changes in our attitudes, our feelings, and our behaviors. We ask you into our hearts, our Lord and God. Open up the chambers of our hearts and fill them with love and faith. And, Lord, as you fill us with your Holy Spirit, drive out all our shortcomings and sins. We know that our growth in the spirit is gradual, and we do not ask for an instant cure for the spiritual maladies we inherit with this mortal flesh. But step by step, inch by inch, may we measure our ascent up the mountain to the summit with you.
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. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.
Do You Love Me?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 10, 2016
John 21:1-19 Revelation 5:11-14 Psalm 30
In our reading from Revelation, we hear praises to God from every living creature. John tells us that,
I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (5:13)
Then the elders fall down and worship the Lamb. What a wonderful vision! Every creature worshiping Jesus. For the Lamb that Revelation refers to is Jesus. So the question arises, “How do we worship Jesus?” And I think that our reading from John tells us how. That would be the questions Jesus asks Peter, “Peter, Son of John, do you love me?” Worshiping God is loving Jesus, for Jesus is God with us.
There is some kind of dynamic going on between Peter and Jesus, when Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him. The first two times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Jesus with an all-giving spiritual love. Peter answers that he is Jesus’ friend. Peter does not answer by saying he loves Jesus with the all-giving spiritual love Jesus asks. In the Greek language that the New Testament was written in, there are three words for love. There is the spiritual love that is all encompassing and all-giving. The word for that love is agape. Then there is love between friends. The word for that love is philos. Finally there is love between lovers, or desire. The word for that kind of love is eros.
So Jesus first asks Peter if he loves Him with the spiritual love that is all-encompassing, all giving. “Do you love me?”—agape. Peter responds by saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I am your friend.” What is going on here? Jesus asks Peter about spiritual love and Peter responds with friendship. Is love more than Peter wants to commit to? Is love more than Peter is capable of? Does Peter want to lighten things up and not talk about love, but friendship? How would you feel if you asked someone if they loved you, and they said, “Yes, I’m your friend?” Would we feel slighted? Jesus asks Peter a second time, “Do you love me?” A second time Peter says, “Yes, I’m your friend.” The third time, though, Jesus perhaps comes to where Peter is emotionally. He asks, “Are you my friend?” This time Peter gets his feelings hurt because Jesus asked him three times if he loves Him. Peter again responds, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I am your friend.”
I think that Jesus is calling all of us to love unconditionally. Being friendly is good. But I think that Jesus really wants us to love. When we love, we are friendly, that is true. But love means a lot more than being friendly. The Apostle Paul gave us one of the most enduring testimonies to what love is like. Let’s hear the words of the great Apostle,
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. . . . So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:1-8, 13).
The core Christian message is to love. Even after Paul’s glowing testimonial to love, we may ask ourselves how do we do this thing called love? I think that Jesus tells us in His words to Peter. When Peter says that he is Jesus’ friend, each time Jesus says, “Feed my sheep,” or “Tend my sheep.” Some people read this passage to be only for ministers, pastors, and priests. They think this because of who Peter was. Jesus told Peter that he was a rock on which Jesus would found the church. And Peter was a strong Apostle who started some of the churches of early Christianity. The Catholics believe that Peter was the first pope, and that all the popes could be traced back to this first pope, Peter. And every minister, or pastor, is charged to be a shepherd of his or her flock, meaning their church. But I think that this message is for every Christian.
When Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, Jesus is actually asking each one of us if we love Jesus. And the message Jesus gives to Peter is given to each one of us, “Feed my sheep.” We show that we love Jesus by caring for each other. There’s an old blues song that seems to capture some of what it means to care for each other. The refrain to this song goes, “When things go wrong, go wrong with you/It hurts me too.” Caring about others means that we hurt when they hurt. But not only that. For Christian love to be true, we also rejoice and are happy when others are happy. We could add to the blues song, “When things go right, go right with you/I’m happy too.” But then it wouldn’t be a blues song, I guess.
Caring about other people is different than friendship. Caring means that we try to help other people and make things good for them. And this for everyone, not just our friends and family. When we love other people with spiritual love, we want what is best for them for their own sake.
When we consider how to love other people spiritually, we need to consider all kinds of people. We need to consider people who seem to be in a bad place and people who seem to be in a good place. We would respond differently to each kind of situation. If someone is in a bad place, we want to make things better for them. If someone has a drug problem, for instance, we would want to encourage them to get clean and sober. Of course we give them loving support along the way. But we don’t want to be an enabler and make it easy for them to continue to harm themselves. As I’ve said before, I used to have a problem with alcohol. People used to tell me all the time that I drank too much. That’s one of the reasons this denomination wouldn’t let me be a minister when i was younger. Things came to a head when I was teaching. I showed up drunk to teach one day, and one of my students went to my department head. Well, I got fired. That was the best thing that could have happened to me. That student did me a favor. That student was acting from truly Christian motivation (though I don’t know if she was a Christian). She was looking out for the best interests of the school, and intimately for me. I got help for my addiction, and my life got much, much better. So much better than it was when I was spending my time in bars getting stupid.
Now I’m living a healthier life. I am in a loving relationship with Carol, as many of you know now. It is a relationship I could never be in if I were still a drunk. I have held this job for nearly 10 years, ten happy years. I can celebrate with others and I do celebrate with others. My friendships now are solid and caring. Caring for other people isn’t just intervening when others are in a bad way. It is also living well with others and enjoying healthy activities with them. It is mutual support. And, yes, it is friendship. It is a willingness to be friendly to everyone. Sometimes our offer of friendship is not returned. Maybe this is what was happening in the story of Jesus and Peter. Maybe the all-giving spiritual love Jesus wanted from Peter was something Peter wasn’t capable of. But finally, Jesus came to Peter where Peter was, and asked him to be His friend. We won’t be loved by everyone or be befriended by everyone. But we can leave the door open, and hopefully share in another’s joy with a few treasured friends.
Jesus did come to Peter where Peter was. And Jesus comes to each of us where we are. We don’t have to be saints or angels for Jesus to love us. Jesus loves us wherever we are, in whatever spiritual condition we are in at the moment. And Jesus is always calling us to love. To love Him and to care for our fellows as we walk the road of life. And Jesus’ love is God’s love. For God came to earth in Human form as Jesus. God walked with us. God touched us. God loved us, and loves us. And God asks all of us, “Do you love me?”
Lord, we know that you call to us all the time. You ask us if we love you. You ask if we care for our fellows. Sometimes, we may not be ready to hear your call. Sometimes we may not feel charitable toward our neighbors. But you come to us however we are disposed. You call to us on our level. And when you call to us, you gently lift us upward toward heavenly life, toward heavenly love, toward heavenly love. Take our lives and make them 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. Comfort their family and friends. We pray for the grace of your healing power for all who are ailing in body or soul.