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The Lord’s Universal Mercy
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
October 23, 2011
Jonah 3:10-4:11 Matthew 20:1-16 Psalm 145
Our Bible selections this morning treat an important religious principle. They treat God’s relationship with the whole human race on the one hand, and on the other hand they treat our own personal feelings about each other. We find a reflection on God’s will and on our will. The readings point to a possible disjunction between the way God governs the world and the way we would like to see it governed.
In the story of Jonah we see that God’s love goes out to the whole human race. In this story we see that God hears prayers of everyone who call upon Him. This theme is first introduced when Jonah is in a boat. God has told Jonah to preach the Word of God to the city of Nineveh. But Jonah rebels against God’s call, flees and buys passage on a boat bound for another city called Tarshish. While he is on the boat a terrible storm breaks out and the sailors cry out to their several gods. The storm grows worse and they ask Jonah about his God. Here we find the first statement of God’s universal power and mercy. Instead of calling Yahweh the God if Israel, Jonah calls Him, “the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.” So here we see that God governs the whole world, not only the people of Israel. Jonah admits that he is fleeing from God, and even tells the sailors to throw him into the sea. Hesitant to do this, the sailors pray to Yahweh and ask forgiveness for throwing Jonah into the sea. When they do so, the sea instantly becomes calm. God has listened to the prayers of the sailors, who weren’t Jews. Awed by this, the sailors offer sacrifices and make vows to Yahweh. God’s power and mercy is recognized by these non-Jews. As we all know, Jonah is swallowed by a great fish who carries him to the shores of Nineveh after all. Jonah preaches to the Ninevites, telling them that God will destroy their city in forty days. The Ninevites believe Jonah and they all repent, fast, and put on sack cloth. When God sees their humility and repentance, He has compassion on them and doesn’t destroy the city. This is the second instance in the story where we see that God’s mercy extends to the whole world, even to the inhabitants of Nineveh. Jonah admits that God loves everyone. He says to God, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
Nineveh was chosen in this story for several good reasons. First of all, the Ninevites were considered idolatrous. They worshipped foreign gods and made statues and idols to their gods. Israelites would consider this breaking the first and second commandmenst. Second, and probably more important, Nineveh was the capitol of the Assyrian kingdom. And it was the Assyrian kingdom that had conquered and devastated the northern Kingdom of Israel. An Israelite would no doubt cherish hatred for this kingdom.
We see this hatred in Jonah. After he preaches the Word of God’s impending destruction, he sits under a shelter and waits to see if God will destroy this hated city. He already has told God his anger at being called to save the Ninevites. He is so angry that he wants to die. But the conclusion of the story tells us, in a final note, that God cares about the whole human race. God says to Jonah,
Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?
This story teaches us that God loves the whole human race. It teaches us that God can and does save followers of all faiths–Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and all the different forms of Christians we see in the world. This story calls us to see other people and faiths the way that God sees them–as our fellows, as our sisters and brothers, as fellow angels on the path. Swedenborg has a vision of hope that all of Christendom would come together and worship God as one church. He says that if only worship of God and love for the neighbor are held up as principles of faith, then all the theological differences that separate us would be seen merely as differences of opinion. The doctrines that divide us would be seen as varieties of ways to understand the mysteries of faith, which each Christian would leave to the conscience of each other.
In the Christian world the doctrines are what distinguish the churches; and from them people call themselves Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists, or the Reformed and the Evangelical, and by other names also. It is from what is doctrinal alone that they are so called; which would not be at all, if they would make love to the Lord and good will toward the neighbor the principal things of faith. The doctrines would then be only varieties of opinion respecting the mysteries of faith, which truly Christian people would leave to everyone according to his or her conscience, and would say in his or her heart that one is truly a Christian when he or she lives as a Christian, or as the Lord teaches. Thus from differing churches there would become one Church; and all the dissentions which exist from doctrine alone would vanish; yea, the hatreds against one another would be dissipated in a moment, and the Lord’s kingdom would come upon the earth (AC 1799).
When Swedenborg speaks of the hatreds among fellow Christians, this is no mere theological speculation. The thirty-years’ war that erupted just before Swedenborg’s birth was largely caused by Protestant rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire. It was a devastating war that ultimately engulfed all of Europe It left Germany decimated and reduced its inhabitants by half. The country of Sweden played a large role in this war. The thirty-years’ war, and other national hostilities based on religion, inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to create a system of morality that is based on reason alone–not religious affiliation. Even if war is not the result of intolerance, still Christians are often divided by their faiths. Some even think that other Christians are damned to hell for not thinking as they do. Swedenborg himself writes many damning passages against other Christian sects of his time. While he does want to put forth his doctrines, I don’t think it serves us to judge other faiths according to their beliefs. We can’t see into the hearts of other Christians and know whether they are good or evil. In my experiences with the National Council of Churches and with the Interfaith Centre, I meet such friendly people and people who show such good will. Their actions and spirit speak for themselves. And I am happy to be living here in such a diverse and cosmopolitan city as Edmonton is, in which so many cultures and faiths are represented.
Swedenborg shows a tension in this. In the passage I just quoted, we see Swedenborg accepting other faiths as mere differences of opinion. Then there are those passages in which he denounces what he calls falsities of other faiths. The tension is there. I think our best course is to assume sincerity in other faiths, and to see doctrinal differences just as Swedenborg sees them in the passage above–as “varieties of opinion respecting the mysteries of faith.” This does not mean that we are to give up our own voice and belief system. Not at all. Our opinions respecting the mysteries of faith need to be honored as much as we honor others. The image Swedenborg gives of religious plurality is not a melting-pot. Rather he sees it as complimentary jewels on a king’s crown. He sees,
the church in the whole aggregate, which in itself is one, but various according to reception. These varieties may be compared to the various jewels in a king’s crown; and they may also be compared to the various members and organs in a perfect body, which still make one. The perfection of every form exists from various things suitably arranged in their order (AR 65).
Perfection is in variety that works together, not in uniformity.
The same is true of faiths outside the Christian world. Some Christians think that only those who accept Jesus as their savior can be saved. I have met these Christians–here in Edmonton and in Florida. They refer to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This doctrine is stated even more forcefully in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” I was going to do an internship with a Lutheran Minister in Florida. He did an internet search about our church and studied it diligently. When we met, he had many passages highlighted in yellow. One was our teaching that everyone can be saved who practices their religion as best as they know how. He pointed to that line and said, “I can’t accept this.” For him, it was Christ’s passion on the cross that saves us, and without faith in Christ’s sacrifice, one couldn’t be saved. This is the view held by many Christians. Swedenborg himself is aware of this. He writes,
It is a common opinion that those born out of the Church, who are called heathen or gentiles, cannot be saved, because they have not the Word and thus do not know the Lord, and without the Lord there is no salvation.
Reason alone tells us that God could not, that God would not damn all the billions of other faithful people who worship other religions. What kind of God would do that? We have seen in our Bible reading, too, that God’s love goes out to the whole world. It went out to the sailors on the boat, and it went out to the idolatrous nation of Nineveh. Swedenborg teaches the same God, whose love is universal for the whole human race. In Heaven and Hell Swedenborg writes about those born outside of the Christian faith.
But still it may be known that they also are saved, from this alone, that the mercy of the Lord is universal, that is, toward everyone . . . for the Lord is love itself, and His love is to will to save all. Therefore He has provided that all may have religion, and by it acknowledgement of the Divine, and interior life (HH 318).
So we say in our faith every Sunday, “God is present to save everyone, everywhere, whose lives affirm the best they know.”
Swedenborg’s vision of churches all uniting together in love of God, and appearing as beautiful jewels on a king’s crown is in reach. Movements like the National Council of Churches of Christ, movements like the Edmonton Interfaith Centre, and celebrations like the Parliament of World’s Religions are all testimonials to a greater unity in worship of the One God. Our church has a proud history in this. It was a Swedenborgian, Charles Bonney, who was president of the World’s Congress Auxiliary in 1893, of which the Parliament of World’s Religions was one convocation. It was no doubt his Swedenborgian faith that taught him God’s love for all peoples of good will and devotion to God. As always, Swedenborg’s theology is founded on the Bible. And the story of Jonah teaches us that God loves the faithful of the whole world. Will we be like Jonah and protest against God’s compassion for those we personally don’t approve of? Or will we embrace our fellows–Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians of other faiths. I think the answer for us is clear.