Archive for March, 2010
Redefining the Messiah
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
Palm Sunday, March 28, 2010
Zechariah 9:9-17 Matthew 21:1-11 Psalm 118
Palm Sunday is all about joy. Yes, it is the prelude to Good Friday, the blackest day in human history. And it is also a step toward Easter Sunday, the happiest day in human history. But being placed before these two important days in the church calendar should not detract from the message that Palm Sunday gives us in and of itself. On Palm Sunday, the people of Jerusalem joyously welcomed Jesus into their city with singing and waving palm branches. It is a day of joy, as we reflect on Christ’s entry into our lives and the liberation, love, and joy He brings to us all.
In the Palm Sunday story, Jesus was seen as a triumphal king by the common people and by the Roman authorities. Seeing Jesus this way was a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding relates to the concept of the Messiah. Throughout his ministry, Jesus was constantly redefining for the Jews what the Messiah meant.
In this morning’s reading from Matthew, we heard a reference to the Zechariah prophesy we heard from the Old Testament. Zechariah describes the kind of things that the Messiah was supposed to do. First of all, Zechariah promised that a king from David’s line would rule in Zion. The term “Messiah” means “anointed,” and the anointing refers to the way a man is made king. A prophet anoints his head with oil to establish him as king. This is why Jesus was welcomed with such pomp and ceremony when He entered Jerusalem. The Jews there were welcoming a king. But there was more to the Messiah prophesy from Zechariah. When the Messiah came, there would be peace among all the foreign countries around Israel. This hope for peace also brought joy to the hearts of the Jews in Jerusalem. Furthermore, their Messiah would rule over all the known world. Zechariah says that the Messiah would rule from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth. The king of the Jews would be at the center of world power, and Jerusalem would be the political capitol of the world.
One can understand why the Roman authorities would have a problem with Jesus, understood this way. Herod was a local king, who served under the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. A Jewish king was a direct threat to the Roman Empire. In fact, a Jewish king was a criminal threat. Thinking ahead to Good Friday, we can understand the reasons why Jesus was brought to trial before Pilate. He was brought before Pilate as a rival to the Roman King. Pilate even asks Jesus if He is a king.
But there was more still, to the Messiah prophesy than just the Jewish King. When the Messiah came, God would appear to the world, flashing like lightning. The whole world would be reconciled to God and all the wrongs of the world would be set right. We can see again, why there was so much joy at the coming of the Messiah. All this is what the Jews thought would happen when Jesus came to Jerusalem. And this is why they threw the palm branches in front of His glorious entrance to Jerusalem.
Yet Jesus did none of these things. Jesus was none of these things. None of these things happened. Throughout His ministry, Jesus continually tried to reshape these ideas. When he told Peter that the Messiah would suffer and be handed over to the Roman authorities, be killed and rise on the third day, Peter protested against such talk. He said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matt 16:22) Jesus’ response sounds harsh, “Out of my sight, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (23). And in His trial, Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world. He said his kingdom is within. God had appeared to the world, as Zechariah had prophesied, but He didn’t come flashing like lightning. No, He came as a human being, a carpenter’s son. He touched people; He healed people; He dined with people; he taught people. This God was all too human for many of the Jews to accept. And Jesus did usher in a new age, as Zechariah had prophesied. But the peace that Jesus brought to the world was within. Jesus fought with the hells throughout his life, and opened a new passageway for God’s saving love to touch everyone. Through His Divine Humanity, God’s Spirit became embodied in the flesh. Spirit became matter, and God became Human. We know that in time, the world was transformed as the gods of Rome were replaced with Christianity. But Jews at the time of Jesus did not know this, could not know this. Jesus’ kingdom is within. As he lived out the lessons of love, he showed western civilization a new way of life. He showed that forgiveness, joy, and love are what make life meaningful. And when we welcome forgiveness, joy, love in our own lives, we are welcoming Jesus into our world.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus sought to reshape people’s understanding of what the Messiah means. Likewise, throughout our lives, God is continually reshaping our own ideas of what and who God is. I think that a little reflection will show that our ideas about God have changed over the years. All our life’s experiences lead us to reshape our understanding of who God is, and how God acts. Over time, we come to shed old ideas about God, in favor of more true images of God. As a young adult, I thought God was harsh and strict. I was sometimes afraid to come to God in prayer because I thought he judged me so strictly. I have no doubt that I thought that way about God because my father was harsh and strict. Furthermore, my father was not religious, so it was hard for me to feel a male God possessed of spirituality. Finally, my father was mechanically inclined, while I was artistically and literarily inclined. So none of my values were reflected in the most powerful male image of my early life. Jesus has a male form, so powerful males can be projected onto Jesus’ personality. I know of some people who have abandoned the image of Jesus Christ altogether, as their God-image. Some prefer to see God in the feminine form. As a Christian, for me, I feel that God seen as the Divine Human Jesus Christ seems central to our faith. Jesus may have feminine qualities inwardly, but outwardly I visualize the Jesus of the New testament when I pray. When I went to the Swedenborg School of Religion, away from my family, and in the company of very different men of authority, my view of God changed. At the Swedenborg School of Religion, I met professors who were sensitive, gentle, spiritual, and who outwardly showed their care and solicitude for my welfare. I also encountered male role models who were caring, sensitive, spiritual, in my professors at Harvard. These men helped me to reshape my concept of God.
I think that one’s concept of God is an intersection of many factors. We understand God by our faith communities. There we come together for worship, and the worship experiences we have contribute to our feelings about God. Our conceptions of God are also formed by the discussions and sharing of faith perspectives from others we encounter in our faith communities. I know that my own feelings about God have changed and grown by interaction with others and comparing and sharing our understandings about God. Of course, our understanding of God is shaped by the theology and sacred texts that we study. But I think the most fundamental way we come to know God is by what happens to us in our faith journey. It wasn’t until I personally changed my own state of mind, that God truly became the loving, forgiving God I now commune with.
I think that the God we encounter has much to do with the God that dwells within us. All through our lives, God is regenerating us. God is bringing us into greater love, and into clearer wisdom. And when God does this, God is actually entering into our hearts and minds. It is the God within us that communes with God when we pray. We can hear many teachings about God. We can listen to many sermons. We can attend church and go on spiritual retreats. But from all these sources, we are only able to take away what resonates with us. We may hear much, but we will only listen to what we can relate to personally. Our concept of God will evolve in step with the way our soul evolves in its acceptance of God.
How different was Jesus’ message from the one that devout Jews thought He was bringing. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was not in external rituals, but in your heart. God’s kingdom is within, not outside the self. Jesus taught that love is at the heart of religion, and for those who love, limitless joy fills the heart. Every free bestowal of love on another is what religion means, and when we bestow love freely, we come to find a God who does the same.
Palm Sunday is a day for joy. It is a day of celebration for all the love that has entered our lives. It is a day to celebrate Jesus’ presence when we are touched by love and when we touch others with love. Wherever we are, at any time, when we are open to feel Jesus’ presence, let us respond with joy. Let us welcome the one true God of love into our lives with joy and with celebration. As Jesus continually reshaped the ideas of the Jews in the first century AD into a truer and truer understanding of His kingdom, so God will continually reshape our conceptions of who and what God is. As God enters our hearts, our understanding of God will grow into a truer and fuller understanding of His Holy nature. So let us continue to engage in a worshipping community. Let us continually share and discuss concepts of God with others. And, above all, let us ask God into our souls and lives. Then the Messiah will come to us in fullness, in power, and in truth.
And the House Was Filled with the Fragrance
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 21, 2010
Isaiah 43:16-21 John 12:1-8 Psalm 126
Today we heard about Mary anointing Jesus with expensive perfume. This happens at the home of Mary and Martha. Judas protests that anointing Jesus was a waste of money. He says that they could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. The Bible tells us that the value of the perfume was a whole year’s wages. This was a very costly display of love, indeed. Jesus replies, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” These are the basic elements of the story.
This story is found in all the Gospels, but the characters are different in the different Gospels. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is not at the home of Mary and Martha; He is at the home of a certain Simon the Leper. In Matthew, we are not told that it is Mary anointing Jesus, but an unknown woman. The Gospel of Mark agrees with Matthew. Jesus is at the home of Simon the Leper, and an unknown woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume. Mark tells us that the perfume was nard, as it is in the Gospel of John. In the Gospels of John, Matthew, and Mark, we find the same saying of Jesus, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” The Gospel of Luke is quite different from any of the other accounts. In Luke, Jesus is at the home of an unnamed Pharisee. And in this account, it is a sinful woman who anoints Jesus. The whole story is about forgiving the sins of this woman, and Jesus does not say anything about the poor.
It is interesting that in John’s Gospel, Jesus is at the home of Mary and Martha. John is the only Gospel that has Jesus there. There is some history between Jesus and this household. In the chapter just preceding this one, Jesus had raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. So we can understand why Mary was so grateful to Jesus, and why she might have wanted to show her love by anointing him with perfume. There is another account of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha. This account comes from Luke. In this story, Jesus is invited to dine at their home. Martha is busy running around preparing the dinner while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him teach. Martha complains that Mary is not helping, but Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way by listening to Jesus. This may be a dim recollection of the time when Mary anoints Jesus, or it may be the other way around. Perhaps John recalls Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and thus makes her the one who anoints Jesus in his story.
As our reading is from John this morning, I will focus on the story elements from that account. We have Mary showing her devotion to Jesus by anointing him with a kind of perfume called nard. This is the same Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet listening to Him teach in the Luke story. And in John’s account, We have Judas complaining that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. This agrees with the story in Matthew and Mark. And in all three accounts we have Jesus saying, “The poor you always have with you, you will not always have me.” John’s account is the only one who states that Judas is a thief and wants to purloin the money for himself. I will pass over this aspect of the story.
I think that this story tells us a great deal about the life of charity. In Mark and Matthew, the disciples are genuinely concerned about helping the poor. They are trying to get a handle on Jesus’ teachings about love for the neighbor. It must have confused them to hear Jesus telling them that pouring perfume on his feet was a beautiful gesture, and that they would always have the poor with them.
I take this to be a refinement of what the life of charity means. Swedenborg’s understanding of charity is very different than that of traditional Christians. Many traditional Christians think that the primary act of charity is just as the disciples saw it–giving money to the poor, and like causes. Swedenborg’s view is so different that modern translations don’t even use the term charity. Instead they use the term “goodwill.” So we find Swedenborg saying,
It is a common belief that goodwill consists solely of giving to the poor, helping the needy, caring for widows and orphans, and making contributions to build, enhance, and endow hospices, hospitals, hostels, orphanages, and especially church buildings. Many of these actions, however, are not integral to the exercise of good will; they are extraneous to it (TCR 425).
I think the disciple of Jesus, hearing him talk so often about just these things, must have thought that that was how to express their love for the neighbor.
But Jesus showed them another way. Devotion to Himself is inseparable from the life of goodwill. This is because all love for the neighbor comes from God. It isn’t as if Jesus needed to be honored. Rather, what He was pointing out is that turning to God is the first and primary activity of goodwill. This is what Mary was doing when she showed her love for Jesus by anointing Him with expensive perfume. Here, I think we can consider the cost of the perfume. The perfume cost a whole year’s wages. It is as if Mary is showing total devotion to Jesus. This teaches us that turning to God first is the way to find love to the neighbor. And turning to God means a total devotion to God. Our heavenly loves come to us from God. We need to turn to God as the source for all the holy loves that we experience. Swedenborg explains how love for God is the source of our love for the neighbor.
I will briefly explain how loving God and loving our neighbor are connected. With all of us, God flows into our concepts of him and brings us true acknowledgement of him. He also flows into us and brings us his love for people. . . . If we accept both types of inflow . . . we receive the inflow with our will and then our intellect–that is, with our whole mind. We then develop an inner acknowledgement of God that brings our concepts of God to life. Our state is then like a garden in the spring.
Goodwill makes the connection, because God loves every one of us but cannot directly benefit us; he can benefit us only indirectly through each other. For this reason he inspires us with his love, just as he inspires parents with love for their children. If we receive this love, we become connected to God and we love our neighbor our of love for God. Then we have love for God inside our love for our neighbor. Our love for God make us willing and able to love our neighbor (TCR 457).
So it is only by turning to God and opening our whole consciousness to God that we can truly love our neighbor. The work of regeneration is a process of bringing God more and more into all areas of our life. God is with everyone in the highest regions of our soul. But we need to bring that love and life down into our very behavior. We have several layers to our personality. We have a higher and a lower aspect to our soul. In our higher aspect, or what Swedenborg calls the internal person, we have all our higher aspirations about being good and showing others love and kindness. But having good feelings and good thoughts are not enough. We need to ask God into our lives so that we show and practice the love we aspire to. Bringing God down from the highest regions of our soul right down into the practices of our lives is the first, and primary work of charity, or goodwill.
God’s life is present in all its fullness not only in people who are good and religious but also in people who are evil and ungodly. . . . The difference is that evil people block the road and shut the door to prevent God from coming down into the lower areas of their mind. Good people, on the other hand, smooth the road and open the door. They invite God to enter the lower areas of their mind since he is already in the highest areas of it. They change the state of their will so that love and goodwill may flow in–they open themselves to God (TCR 366).
This, I think, is why Jesus praises Mary for anointing Him with costly perfume. It is to show that devotion and love for God is the first and primary aspect of charity, or goodwill. Then, and only then, are we truly able to love our neighbor. And the love we show is not just giving money to the poor, or endowing hospitals, or caring for orphans and widows. Rather, according to Swedenborg, “Goodwill is all the forms of good that we do for our neighbor combined” (TCR 392). Or again, “Fundamentally speaking, goodwill is wanting what is best for others” (TCR 408). “Goodwill is wishing our neighbors well and therefore treating them well” (TCR 444).
With love for God at the center of our life, then all our loves fall into a blessed heavenly order. Then all our actions are like the fragrance that filled the house. Everything we touch will turn to gold. God will be in us, and we will be in God. That is why Jesus praised Mary for sitting at His feet listening to Him teach. And that is why Jesus praised Mary for anointing Him with expensive perfume. Then, as Swedenborg puts it, “we have love for God inside our love for our neighbor (TCR 457).
Doing Good Well
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 14, 2010
Joshua 5:9-12 Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 Psalm 32
“There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). This sentence from Luke concludes the short story about the one lost sheep which the shepherd finds. And it also applies to the famous story about the prodigal son. When the prodigal son returns home, after spending his inheritance on wild living, his father holds a great celebration in his honor. His father says, “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (15:32). While these passages from Luke talk about repentance, I want to go in another direction in my discussion. What about the good son? He faithfully obeys his father, and doesn’t get into trouble? I have to admit, that I feel for that son. He resents the celebration for his lost brother, and won’t even go in to the party. His father has to come out to talk with him. The good son says,
Lo these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf! (15:29-30).
So here the good son is doing the right thing. He is living a good life. He is serving his father faithfully. Yet he gets no celebration or reward. But his brother who has lived riotously gets the fatted calf and a big party. I think I would be like the good son, and also resent the big celebration for the prodigal son.
What are we to take from this story? That it is better to live wildly and then repent instead of living a good life? Certainly not. I think that there are two messages working in this story. The first message is one of repentance. The message we learn from the prodigal son is one of self-examination and humility. The Bible says that the prodigal son, “came to himself” when he realized his woeful state. He humbles himself before his father and says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (15:18). These words are a recognition that we are nothing when left to our own devices. We have all fallen short of God’s laws at one point or another in our lives, and need to continually ask God’s forgiveness, and to ask Him into our hearts. The good things that God gives us are gifts of grace, not deserved by our own work.
This idea brings up where the good son falls short. He is a good and faithful son. But it appears that he expects a reward for his good deeds. In our Old Testament reading, we heard about eating food from the land of Canaan. Eating food from the promised land means accepting God’s love into our hearts and bringing that love into good actions in our behavior. It is imperative to our eternal life to be bringing God’s love into our lives by living well–by living a good life. Swedenborg writes,
The means of salvation are manifold, although they each and all have relation to living well and believing rightly, thus to charity and faith, for living well is charity, and believing rightly is faith. . . . by means of them a person can procure for himself eternal life from the power implanted in him and given him by God; and so far as a person uses that power and at the same time looks to God, so far God makes it effective . . . (TCR 340).
Living a good life, and turning from sin are things we do apparently by our own effort. But here I must emphasize that very important word, apparently. Swedenborg’s wording is critical about this. He says that, “a person can procure for himself eternal life from the power implanted in him and given him by God.” Notice here that the power to procure eternal life is given us by God. When we do the good works of repentance and when we implement love in our good actions, the power to do this is from God. Swedenborg generally doesn’t like the word grace, but that is what he is talking about here. The power to live well is given us through God’s grace. I think that the lesson we learn from the good son in this story is not to expect a reward for the good that we do. The good son is angry because he never got a lamb to celebrate with his friends, while his prodigal brother got not just a lamb, but a fatted calf. The problem with the good son is that he is looking for a reward for his good life. Expecting a reward for the good we do, or taking credit for the good we do can be very harmful to our spiritual life. Swedenborg calls this placing merit in good works, as if we merit salvation from them.
In the exercises of charity a person does not place merit in works so long as he believes that all good is from the Lord. To ascribe merit to works that are done for the sake of salvation is harmful because evils lie concealed in so doing of which the person is wholly ignorant. There also lies hid in it a denial of God’s influx and operation in a person; also a confidence in one’s own power in matters of salvation; faith in oneself and not in God; self-justification; salvation by one’s own abilities; a reducing of Divine grace and mercy to nought; a rejection of reformation and regeneration by Divine means; especially a limitation of the merit and righteousness of the Lord God the Saviour, which such claim for themselves; together with a continual looking for reward, which they regard as the first and last end; a submersion and extinction of love to the Lord and love towards the neighbor; a total ignorance and lack of perception of the delight of heavenly love as being without merit, and a sense of self-love (TCR 439).
When we do good, our reward is the joy of doing good in and of itself. We don’t look to our reward for being so upright. We don’t pray in the public places like the Pharisees. We don’t pat ourselves on the back for how righteous we are. When we do good, and it is essential that we do good, we need that same humility that the prodigal son had. We need to realize that we are not worthy. We need instead to recognize that it is God working salvation in us. Furthermore, when we do good from a heavenly love, we do not want to take credit. We find joy in the act of doing itself. Taking credit, or wanting praise for the good we do tarnishes the free expression of our love.
To think about getting into heaven, and that good ought to be done for that reason, is not to regard reward as an end and to ascribe merit to works; for thus do those also think who love the neighbor as themselves and God above all things . . . Such do not trust to reward on the ground of merit, but have faith in the promise from grace. With such the delight of doing good to the neighbor is their reward. This is the delight of the angels in heaven, and it is a spiritual delight which is eternal, and immeasurably exceeds all natural delight. Those who are in this delight are unwilling to hear of merit, for they love to do, and in doing they perceive blessedness (TCR 440).
The father of the good son does reassure him that he has inherited all the father’s estate. He also assures him that he has the joy of being with him always. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (15:31). This is how we may hear God’s voice to us, when we come into a good life. What more can we want than always to be with God? Further, what more can we want than to receive all that God can give us. That is the good food in the land of Canaan. We receive God’s life and love when we realize its source. And when we recognize that all the love we receive and all the good we do is given to us, not done by our own power, then we are truly in a heavenly path. How blessed it is to ponder the father’s words, and realize that they are meant to be God’s words to us. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 7, 2010
Deuteronomy 10:12-22 Matthew 13:44-45 Psalm 25
Today’s Bible readings were selected as texts about love. In Deuteronomy we read, “The LORD set His heart in love upon your fathers” (10:15). And although this passage specifically speaks about the children of Israel, it also applies to the whole human race. And we, in turn, are told,
What does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the LORD with all your heart and with all your soul” (10:12).
A life filled with love for God, and a life that receives God’s love is God’s kingdom with us. In the New Testament, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a pearl that a merchant sold everything he had to possess. Selling everything he had to obtain the pearl is exactly what is meant by serving the LORD with all your soul. We give everything to and for God.
Love is our life. Whatever we are is a form of love. We don’t often think of love in those terms. We think of loving a certain person, or maybe loving to do a certain something, but we don’t usually think of love as our very life. Bu Swedenborg teaches us that love is our life itself:
Love is our life. For most people, the existence of love is a given, but the nature of love is a mystery. . . . Even though the word “love” is so commonly on our tongues, still hardly anyone knows what love is. . . . We are wholly unaware that it is our very life–not just the general life of our whole body and of all our thoughts, but the life of their every last detail (DLW 1).
We can grasp this somewhat, when we reflect on our lives. We feel so alive when we are doing something that we love. And we feel unhappy when we are compelled to do something that we don’t love. This is because the source of our very lives is a special form of love that is unique to each of us.
Thinking of love as our very lives, not just a part of our lives, but our very life itself brings up another point that follows. We say so often that God is love. And this is true, God is love. But if love is our very life, then God is our very life. We live because God is in us. The love that activates everything we do is God acting in us. We do not live by our own power. We live by God’s life in us. This is because only God is life itself. We are vessels of God’s life. We are receivers of the one and only Source of life and love.
God alone–the Lord–is love itself, because he is life itself. Both we on earth and angels are life-receivers. . . . The Lord, who is the God of the universe, is uncreated and infinite, while we and angels are created and finite. . . . No one can be created directly from the Uncreated, the Infinite, from Reality itself and Life itself, because what is divine is one and undivided. We must be created out of things created and finite, things so formed that something divine can dwell within. Since we and angels are of this nature, we are life-receivers (DLW 4).
All of heaven is God’s outflowing Spirit. The very atmosphere, the very light, the very heat are all God’s own Spirit emanating from His Being. Angels live in that atmosphere, that light, that heat when they have God’s love in them. It is true that everyone has God in them as their life. And it is true that everyone’s soul is near God. But when it comes to a person’s experience and life, only when God’s love is active in a person’s heart, thought, and behavior can we say that God is truly in them. Only then does a person feel God’s love and experience heavenly delight.
The Lord, being love in its very essence or divine love, is visible to angels as a sun; that warmth and light flow from that sun; that the outflowing warmth is essentially love and the outflowing light essentially wisdom; and to the extent that angels are receptive of spiritual warmth and spiritual light, they themselves are instances of love and wisdom–instances of love and wisdom not on their own, but from the Lord. Spiritual warmth and light flow into and affect not only angels but also us, precisely to the extent that we become receptive. Our receptivity develops in proportion to our love for the Lord and our love for the neighbor (DLW 5).
Swedenborg breaks down human psychology to three basic categories. First, there is our voluntary part. This part of our psychology is what feels. It is all the various emotions that we have for different things all taken together. Second, there is our thinking part. This is everything we believe to be true, everything we know, and everything we remember. It is also our decision-making aspect. Finally, there is our behavior. This is the action part of us. This is where the two other levels come into play. Whatever we do is the result of our voluntary part and our thinking part acting. So our actions are the sum total of everything we are. Our voluntary part and our thinking part act into our behavior. We don’t think about it, but everything we do is an instance of our voluntary and thinking part. We usually just pay attention to what we ar doing, and we don’t think about the love that is motivating our behavior, or the decision making that goes into our behavior. In this sense, our behavior is the grounding of our whole pershohood. It is sometimes called the container of our higher aspects.
Everything in the three levels of the earthly mind is enclosed in the works that are done by our physical actions. . . . Everything proper to our minds, to our volition and discernment, is enclosed in our actions or deeds . . . and the deeds of people whose earthly minds are moving up into heaven contain everything they have that is good and true, and also that angels perceive both simply from what we say and do. This is why it says in the Word that we are to be judged according to our works and that we will have to give an account of our words (DLW 277, 281).
So in a very real sense, our behavior is a measure of the way we are receiving God’s life and love.
We can get an idea of the quality of our love by looking at what we enjoy. We find expressions of our love to be delightful. Another way to see this is to pay attention to our delights. What we find delightful is a measure of our love. We feel greater joy as our love approaches God more closely. To the extent that our loves rise above selfishness and the materialism, we come into heavenly happiness. Maybe we have felt this in our own experience. If not, we are nevertheless told that the more elevated our loves are, the more happy we become. Swedenborg describes this in a most remarkable passage that I found in the Arcana Coelestia. Like Plato, Swedenborg describes loves ascending toward God as if a person were climbing up a ladder. But what really caught my attention is that people were described as being elevated up into higher heavens after they had entered the spiritual world. I had previously thought that a person could only enter the heaven he or she had come to in their life in this world. But this passage talks very plainly about God elevating spirits from one heaven up even into the third heaven. Swedenborg describes this while talking about how much happier we become as we are lifted upward from one heaven to another.
For it is the nature of every enjoyment to be more vile as it goes more to externals, and more happy as it goes more to internals. For this reason, . . . in proportion as externals are stripped off, or rolled away, enjoyments become more delightful and happy–as may be evident enough from a person’s enjoyment of pleasures being vile while he lives in the body, in comparison with his enjoyment after the life of the body, when he comes into the world of spirits; so vile indeed that good spirits utterly spurn the enjoyments of the body, nor would they return to them if all the world should be given them. The enjoyment of these spirits in like manner becomes vile when they are taken up by the Lord into the heaven of angelic spirits; for they then throw off these interior enjoyments and enter into those that are still more interior. So again to angelic spirits the enjoyment which they have had in their heaven becomes vile when they are taken up by the Lord into the angelic or third heaven, in which heaven, since internal things are there living, and there is nothing but mutual love, the happiness is unspeakable (AC 996).
There is another passage that reinforces this one. In this passage, Swedenborg talks about spirits being elevated into higher heavens according to the instruction they receive in the spiritual world.
But from the first or external heaven one cannot be taken up into the second or interior heaven before he is instructed in the good things of love and the truths of faith. So far as he is instructed he can be taken up, and come among angelic spirits. It is the same with angelic spirits, before they can be taken up, or come into the third heaven, or among angels (AC 1802).
We are elevated in heaven, and on this world, by our reception of God’s life and love. We are nothing but vessels that receive God’s love and life. And we are receivers of God by how we act. All the levels of our minds come into play through the way we act in this life. We feel more peaceful and happy as we grow in our love for our neighbors and for God. Some of these spiritual experiences lie buried beneath the demands we have for life in the material world. But there are times I think we all can point to when we are lifted up and when we feel keenly the joys of spiritual love. The process of elevation into the joys of heaven begins as we turn from selfishness and cravings for the rewards of this world and turn toward the Source of all life and love. We will increasingly come to believe and maybe even to feel, that all the life and all the love in us are actually God in us. We are but the lamp that God lights with His holy fire.
Doubt and Consolation
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
February 28, 2010
Genesis 15:1-20 Luke 13:31-35 Psalm 27
Both of this morning’s Bible passages deal with doubt. Abram had no heir and was sad that his property would revert to his servant from Damascus. He also doubted that he would take possession of the Holy Land as God had promised. In the New testament, it is not exactly doubt that we confront. But we do see a similar sorrow. Jesus is sad that the inhabitants of Jerusalem seemed to spurn the love God held out for them. This is one of those few passages where we are given a window into Jesus’ own state of mind. We see His great love for the Israelites, and his sorrow at their rejection of God. He says, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).
In the internal sense, these two Bible passages are remarkably close. In the Abram story, Swedenborg interprets this as Jesus’ doubt about the future of the church and the human race, while He was on earth. Throughout His life, Jesus was tempted and filled with doubt and even despair. These temptations happened as the human body He took on at birth was brought closer and closer to its divine origins. All through His life, God and man were being united in one body. But this means that Jesus sometimes was in his humanity and in some distance from God, who was deep in His soul. Sometimes the way was dim for Jesus. Sometimes, He was disconnected from His divine origin. And when He was in that condition, He was tempted by all the hells. In the story of Abram, Swedenborg teaches that Jesus had doubt about the spiritual state of the human race. Swedenborg writes,
Here in the internal sense are continued the things concerning the Lord after He endured in boyhood the most severe temptations, which were against the love which he cherished toward the whole human race, and in particular toward the church; and, therefore, being anxious concerning their future state (AC 1778).
When a person is tempted, the loves that they know are twisted by the hells so that one feels doubt and despair about those things that they love. This is because the hells are continually trying to destroy humans, from a love of killing. The Lord’s love was infinite and devoted to the salvation of the whole human race, so His combats with the hells were the most profound that can be imagined. Yet we need to keep in mind that it was Jesus’ desire for the salvation for the whole human race that caused the doubt and despair He experienced. Swedenborg writes, “He was fighting for the salvation of the whole human race from pure love,” and we are told that, “He could not but conquer” (AC 1812).
According to Swedenborg, at the time of Christ, the church was in a state of external ritual, and not the heavenly love that truly makes a church alive. This caused the Lord grief, as He wills for everyone to be with Him in the highest heaven.
There are in the Lord’s kingdom those who are external, those who are interior, and those who are internal. Good spirits, who are in the first heaven, are external; angelic spirits, who are in the second heaven, are interior, and angelic spirits, who are in the third, are internal. They who are external are not so closely related or so near the Lord, as they who are interior; nor are these so closely related or so near as those who are internal. The Lord, from the Divine love or mercy, wishes to have all near to Himself; so that they would not stand at the doors, that is, in the first heaven; but He wishes them to be in the third; and, if it were possible, not only with Himself, but in Himself (AC 1799).
We see this desire to unite Himself with the whole human race in this morning’s New Testament Passage, “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
But the story does not remain in despair and doubt. God promises Abram children as numerous as the stars and that he will find peace in his final days. And Abram believes this promise. And we are told that this symbolizes consolation Jesus felt that a new church would be raised up and heaven would be filled with an immensity of souls who love God and their neighbour. This is the way it is with all things in the world. There is a springtime, or a beginning, a summer, or active life, an autumn, or time of dimming life, and winter, which symbolizes the end of a day, a season, or a year. So it is with the church, or with those who love God and the neighbour. There are the early days of a church, when love is mutual and all see one another as brothers and sisters. Then people fall away from this early love. In the history of Christianity we can see this as the church became a world power and actually warred with princes and kings. We see this even more graphically in the atrocities of the Inquisition. For Swedenborg, the church was at its final stage, or winter, during his lifetime. But even as the early Christians were a ray of light and love in a troubled world, the book of Revelation, and Swedenborg’s interpretation of it promises a new church, or a new beginning for Christianity.
Will we be children like Abram, and trust in God’s promise? Or will we live in doubt and despair. There are certainly enough signs that Christianity is in a decline today. I attended a meeting of the National Council of Churches, and across denominational lines, churches are showing a weaker presence in society. Some churches are closing their doors. The only churches that are showing signs of strength are fundamentalist churches. I see all these facts as signs of a church in decline. But I have a strong belief that the new church promised in the book of Revelation will follow the decline of the old Christian Church. I had my doubts about the future of the church before I researched for this sermon. But what I came away with is the kind of consolation that Jesus received. That is, I came away with a consolation that a new church is being raised up as the old church is declining. I can even look at the present state of the church with hope. Maybe we are in a winter of the old, while a springtime of the new is emerging.
Where are we in this process? Are we the children of the spring, bringing heaven to earth? Or are we children of the winter? I remember asking one of our ministers what evidence she saw of the new church? She said, “It is all what is in the hearts of the people. It is in a person’s relationship with God.” She put the issue right on my own faith and life. The new church is right here in this building if it is in our hearts. The new church is everywhere in the world where people find a heartfelt connection with God. We can’t see any of this from the outside. We can’t look around us and see who has the Christ light in their hearts and who doesn’t.
It may look to us as if the church is losing its influence in society, as the church looked to Jesus while He was on the earth. But I take heart in the fact that infinite love wants me to be one with Him for eternity. He wants to be one with everyone. That is a power that can hardly fail, if we but do our part and turn toward God. This is a God who would gather us all under His wings as a hen does her chicks, if we are but willing. All we can do is to respond to God. Bringing the human race to Himself is God’s work. We can be a witness to God’s love in the life we lead. And to that extent we can aid God in His mission to gather the human race under His wings. But ultimately it is God who is drawing the human race to Himself. It is His concern, and, if you will, it is His worry—not ours.
This church and Christianity in general are in God’s caring hands. They are in the hands that want to bring everyone up into the highest heaven, and into intimate relationship with Himself. Are we children of doubt, or of the promise? Are we like Abram? Will we look up at the stars and believe?