Archive for June, 2011
The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 19, 2011
Revelation 21:1-16, 21-27; 22:1-7 True Christian Religion 791 Psalm 68
Today we celebrate New Church Day. On June 19, 1770, the Lord called the 12 Apostles together in heaven and sent them out to preach the message of the New Church. That message is that the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns. This was the institution of the New Church in heaven that was prophesied in the book of Revelation. We heard about the New Church this morning. In the book of Revelation, the New Church is called the Holy City, New Jerusalem. It descends from heaven as a bride. The descent of the Holy City comes after all the terrible calamities of the Last Judgment. It is a picture of peace after turmoil. This is also the Second Coming of the Lord, which was prophesied in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. In the Gospels, the Last Judgment is prophesied, as in the book of Revelation. However, in the Gospels we don’t have the descent of the Holy City New Jerusalem. Instead, after the Last Judgment, Jesus appears in the clouds of heaven with glory and power. But this, too, is in the book of Revelation. Within the Holy City, the Lord Himself is present and we will see His face. Also, in Revelation 22:7, Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon!” So in both the Gospels and in the book of Revelation, the coming of the Lord is prophesied. We call this the second coming. But the Bible doesn’t call it that. The Bible simply calls it the coming of the Son of Man. That is what Swedenborg calls it, too, in his discussion in True Christian Religion. The coming of the Lord and the coming of the New Church are connected. But they are internal events that will not manifest to the physical eye.
The coming of the Lord is not an event that we will see with our physical eyes. The Gospels say that Christ will appear in the clouds of heaven in glory and power. Swedenborg tells us that this event will not happen in the physical world–that is, in the sky that we can see with our natural senses. In fact, Jesus Himself says the same thing. “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). So it looks like we have two contradictory passages in the Bible. One says that we will see the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven. The other says that we will not see it and say, “here it is,” or “there it is.” Swedenborg reconciles these two apparently contradictory passages by means of the internal sense of the Bible. Swedenborg says that the clouds of heaven refer to the Bible in its literal sense–that is, the Bible as it appears when we take it at face value. The glory and power of the coming of the Lord refer to the internal sense of the Bible–that is, the meaning of the Bible when it is seen as symbolic of deeper meaning. “By the clouds of heaven is meant the Word in the sense of the letter is meant, and by the glory and power in which He is then to come the spiritual sense of the Word is meant” (TCR 776).
Swedenborg tells us that Jesus cannot appear to the world so that we would see Him with our physical senses. He says that since the glorification, when Jesus ascended up into heaven, we can only see Him if our spiritual eyes are opened. This is why Jesus could walk next to two Apostles all the way to Emmaus and they didn’t recognise Him. They didn’t recognize Him until their spiritual eyes were opened.
He is not to appear in person, because since He ascended into heaven He is in the glorified Humanity, and in this He cannot appear to any person unless He first opens the eyes of his spirit, and this cannot be done with any one who is in evils . . . Therefore when he manifested Himself to His disciples, He first opened their eyes; for we read, “And their eyes were opened, and they knew Him, and He vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:31) (TCR 777).
The appearance of the Lord in the clouds of heaven, then, means that the Lord will appear in the Bible in its literal and in its internal senses. So we will see the Lord through the Bible, not in the sky.
Swedenborg says that the coming of the Lord is when a person comes into relationship with the Lord. This first happens when Jesus Christ is recognized as the God of heaven and of earth, and a person’s Savior. This is the beginning of spiritual life with a person. From this beginning, a person advances in wisdom and into greater spiritual love all through life, and even through the next life to eternity.
The Lord is present with every person, urging and pressing him to be received; and when a person receives Him, which he does when he acknowledges Him as his God, Creator, Redeemer, and Savior, then is His first coming which is called dawn. From this time the person begins to be enlightened . . . and to advance into more and more interior wisdom; and as he receives this wisdom from the Lord, so he advances through morning into day, and this day lasts with him into old age, even to death; and after death he passes into heaven, to the Lord Himself, and there, although he died an old man, he is restored to the morning of his life, and develops to eternity the beginning of wisdom implanted in the natural world (TCR 766).
The recognition that Jesus Christ is the one God of heaven and earth is at the very center of the New Church. The central truth of the New Church is that the invisible God is in the visible Christ as the soul is in the body.
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).
This is still a novel claim in Christianity. Every Christian church today, still holds to the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed teaches that God is three Persons who have one essence. This teaching is impossible to understand, and Swedenborg claims that most Christians think of God as three Persons. He accuses Christians of being polytheists–that is, of believing in three Gods. Swedenborg is the only Christian theologian to radically reject the Nicene Creed, and to teach that God is only one Person–namely Jesus Christ, whose soul is the Old Testament God Yahweh.
Swedenborg claims that we can only form an emotional connection with a God we can picture in Human form. The Humanity of God is a central teaching in Swedenborg’s theology and central in the New Church. So Swedenborg says,
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. Thus and not otherwise can there be conjunction of God with a person, because a person 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 Human. 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 to his arms (TCR 787).
People have asked me, “How important is the way a person views God? How important is it whether they see God as the Human Jesus Christ, or as cosmic energy, or as Nature?” Well, for Swedenborg, the Divine Humanity of Jesus is extremely important. As we just heard, Swedenborg thinks that conjunction is not possible with a god who isn’t human. I, personally, hold with this view, as well. I can’t speak for others who claim that they feel connected to God in different forms.
The New Church was formed first in heaven, and will descend into the world gradually. Swedenborg says that it will descend as the falsities of the old Christian church dissipate. Sometimes it looks to me like even the most progressive Christian churches are digging in their heels and tenaciously holding onto the ancient falsities. At other times, it looks like this descent of the New Church is indeed happening. One example is in the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. They talk over and over again of Christ’s reconciling love. This puts Christ, or God in the Divine Human, if you will, in the forefront. It also puts reconciling love in the center. Now, I know that this wording implies one of the old falsities of Christianity. Traditional Christians believe that Christ’s death on the cross reconciled God to the human race. But I think that the NCCCUSA is taking reconciling in its broadest possible meaning. They mean reconciling all the hatreds and injustices in the world through Christ’s love. That’s a pretty New Church perspective.
Our Swedenborgian church was formed to embody the life and teachings of the New Church. Whether we are that New Church depends on each of us individually. The New Church will be one where the divinity and unity of God in Jesus Christ is at the center of worship. But it also means that love will be united with wisdom in each person’s soul. This is what is symbolized by the Holy City New Jerusalem being as long as it is wide. Length signifies what is good, or love, and breadth signifies what is true (AR 906). The New Church is formed in the soul of each of us, and then it exists in bodily form on earth. Whether this Swedenborgian Church is the New Church on earth is a question for each of us to answer as we look into our own heart and soul.
Receiving the Holy Spirit
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 12, 2011
John 7:37-39 Acts 2:1-21 Psalm 104
This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost. As we heard from our reading from Acts, Pentecost was when the Holy Spirit was poured out into the Apostles and into the whole world. In the history of Christianity, Pentecost was a high feast day, celebrated by elaborate meals. So it is fitting that we are having a barbecue today, here at this church.
There were miracles associated with Pentecost. First, there was a noise as of a rushing wind. Then, flames came and rested above the heads of the 12 Apostles. Then, miraculously, the Apostles stood up and started speaking in foreign languages. Although uneducated fishermen from Galilee, they spoke in languages understood by Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Asians, Egyptians, Romans, Cretans, Arabs, and others–all in their own languages. Some cynics made fun of the Apostles and said that they were drunk. But Peter stood up and said, “These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!” Peter goes on to quote the prophet Joel about the days when the Holy Spirit would be poured forth upon the world. In our reading from John, Jesus breathes on the disciples and they receive the Holy Spirit from Him.
Different Christian churches vary in the weight they give the Holy Spirit. Some churches make the Holy Spirit the center of their worship life. They speak of being on fire with the Spirit. Some churches make it part of their services to act as if they are receiving the Holy Spirit. They roll in the church aisles and start talking in tongues. They think that talking in tongues is a gift of the Holy Spirit. And they support this belief with the passage from Acts that we heard this morning. In the King James Version of the Bible, it says that the Apostles spoke in tongues. Now in Old English, speaking in a tongue meant speaking in a language. And the same is true of New Testament Greek. To say that someone is speaking in a language, you say that he or she is speaking in a tongue. And the passage from Acts is very clear. The Apostles were speaking in foreign languages. People from foreign lands heard the Apostles in their own tongue. But the Pentecostal churches think that speaking in tongues means spouting out nonsense gibberish. And they think that such babbling is what being filled with the Spirit means. They totally misread the Bible and the translation that they have. But these are extreme cases. Other churches speak of the Holy Spirit as one Person of the Trinity. They assign powers to the Holy Spirit like enlightenment, and sanctification.
It is difficult to briefly talk about how Swedenborg views the Holy Spirit. In one sense, it receives only minor treatment. In another sense, it is absolutely central to his whole theology. Like so much in Swedenborg, it is not a matter of either-or. Rather, it is a matter of both-and.
Traditional Christians speak of the Holy Spirit as one Person in the Trinity of persons who make up the Godhead. Swedenborg rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, so when he talks about the Holy Spirit it is done very carefully. He begins his comprehensive final book, True Christian Religion with his interpretation of the Trinity. We will have more to say about this next Sunday, which is called Trinity Sunday. This Sunday, we will discuss only the Holy Spirit.
As I said, Swedenborg is very careful when he talks about the Holy Spirit. In his discussion, Swedenborg says that he is talking about the Holy Spirit only because the church in his day talks about it. In Swedenborg’s day, different powers were associated with the different Persons of the Trinity. Creation was associated with God the Father, Salvation was associated with God the Son, and Sanctification and enlightenment with God the Holy Spirit. For Swedenborg, there is only the one Person who is God, and that Person is Jesus Christ. So for Swedenborg, the powers that the churches give to each Person of the Trinity are all contained in the one Person of Jesus Christ. So Swedenborg begins his discussion of the Holy Spirit by saying that it is none other than the Lord, Jesus Christ. “By the Holy Spirit is properly signified the Divine truth, thus also the Word, and in this sense the Lord Himself is also the Holy Spirit” (TCR 139). In this sense, Swedenborg minimises the Holy Spirit. He would rather talk about the Lord. But then, Swedenborg does go on to talk about the Holy Spirit. But he does so merely because it is a convention of his day. In his day, the Holy Spirit was said to justify, or save the human race. Swedenborg follows this convention, and attributes God’s justification to the Holy Spirit–but only because that is how people in his day understood it. So Swedenborg writes, “but because in the church at this day the Divine operation which is called justification is described by the Holy Spirit, therefore this is here assumed as the Holy Spirit . . .” (TCR 139). Swedenborg then goes on to talk about the Holy Spirit according to his understanding of justification and salvation. But he wants us to remember that he is really talking about the power of the Lord.
So the powers that Swedenborg ascribes to the Holy Spirit are all those powers that save the human race. In traditional Christianity, justification happens immediately when a person accepts Jesus as his personal savior. But for Swedenborg, justification is a life-long process of actual character reformation. For Swedenborg, a person is not justified in an instant, but by a long process whereby he is purified from evil. He calls this process reformation and regeneration.
The Divine power and operation which are meant by the Holy Spirit are, in general, reformation and regeneration . . . and, according to these, purification from evils and the remission of sins and finally salvation (TCR 142).
Again, purification from evil is a slow, life-long process. To be purified from evils, a person first must learn what they are. Once identified, a person then must desist from doing them. To learn what evil is, a person needs to be instructed by truths. Another way to phrase this is to say that a person needs to acquire faith. Faith is nothing more than truth. So whether one says truth or faith, it amounts to the same thing. So we need to acquire faith, or learn truths to show us the way into the light.
By means of Divine truth from good, that is, by means of faith from charity, a person is reformed and regenerated; also renovated, vivified, sanctified, justified; and, according to the progress and increase of these, is purified from evils, and purification from evils is remission of sins (TCR 142).
So purification from evil is the life-long process called reformation and regeneration. Reformation means to be reformed. And regeneration means to be reborn. The way this process works is to learn truth and use truth to guide us into good. Truth tells us what is evil, which we are to shun. And truth tells us what is good, which we are to accept. It is as the prophet Ezekiel says, “Make you a new heart, and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:31). Swedenborg’s commentary on this is, “By a new heart is meant a will of good, and by a new spirit, the understanding of truth” (TCR 143). Reformation and regeneration is nothing more than finding out what is good and incorporating that good into our life as we turn from evil. Since it is truth that shows us the way to good, we can say that reformation is the union of good and truth. As higher and higher truths lead us into higher and higher good, our soul is gradually lifted out of the world and into heaven.
But this exaltation of mind is not effected except from time to time; and it is effected as a person procures for himself truths and conjoins them to good (TCR 152).
This process of reformation and regeneration is all done by the power of the Holy Spirit, if we want to use traditional Christian language. In this way, the Holy Spirit is in the very center of Swedenborg’s theology. But the union of good and truth is also how the Lord is described. So Swedenborg would really say that it is that the Lord who reforms and regenerates us. It is only according to traditional Christian language that Swedenborg ascribes this power to the Holy Spirit.
In this process, God is completely on our side every step of the way. God wants nothing more than to lift us into heaven’s delights and into company with Himself. “The Lord wills the salvation of all, and therefore salvation of all is His end” (TCR 142). This is being filled with the Holy Spirit in Swedenborg’s sense. For Swedenborg, being filled with the Spirit means opening our minds to truth and letting good into our heart. This union of good and truth is God in us. God is Goodness and Truth itself. So when we have good and truth in us, we have God in us. This is what makes heaven in a person–whether they are still on earth, or whether they have passed over to the other side.
The angels taken together are called heaven, because they constitute heaven; but yet it is the Divine proceeding from the Lord, which flows in with angels and is received by them, that makes heaven . . . . The Divine proceeding from the Lord is the good of love and the truth of faith. In the degree, therefore, in which they receive good and truth from the Lord, they are angels and are in heaven (HH 7).
This Divine proceeding of good and truth from the Lord is what we could call the Holy Spirit. In order to be in heaven, we need to accept this divine good and truth into our souls. Since God is divine good and truth, we are actually accepting God into our souls when we do this. This is why Swedenborg is called a mystic. Mysticism means a direct experience of God. And in Swedenborg’s system, we all have that direct experience of God when we let His good and truth into our hearts and souls. When I talk about this with people from other churches, I say that we believe in letting the Spirit of God into our souls. And using this language, many understand and accept Swedenborg’s teachings. Swedenborg used traditional language to talk about the Holy Spirit. But he was clear in saying that actually, it is the Lord Jesus Christ who fills us with His good and truth. Call it good and truth, call it the Holy Spirit, call it what you will. Our final salvation is nothing more than letting God into our hearts and souls. This is what Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you” (John 15:4).
God’s and Human Forgiving
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
June 5, 2011
Numbers 15:22-31 Matthew 18:21-35 Psalm 103
The Bible passages for this morning concern forgiveness. I can think of two ways to consider the theme of forgiveness. There is God’s forgiveness of us and there is our forgiveness of our fellows. In our responsive reading from Psalm 103, we heard that God, “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” Healing our diseases corresponds to healing our spiritual evils. And in the passage from Numbers, we heard about sacrifices to atone for sins that were committed unintentionally. In our passage from Matthew, we heard about a king forgiving the debt of his servant. And we also heard about this unthankful servant not forgiving his fellow servant.
It is in God’s very nature to forgive humans when we sin unintentionally. God is mercy itself. And God wants to enter into a loving relationship with the whole human race. God created us in order to have a heaven from the human race. And being in heaven is not going to a place. Being in heaven is being in a love relationship with God. So being in heaven is the same thing as being in a love relationship with God. This is what salvation means. Salvation, from a Swedenborgian perspective, is nothing else than being in a love relationship with God. This love relationship is what God longs for. So we can say that God wishes to save the whole human race, for salvation is that very love relationship.
Jehovah, or the Lord’s internal, was the very Celestial of Love, that is, Love itself, to which no other attributes are fitting than those of pure Love, thus of pure Mercy toward the whole human race; which is such that it wishes to save all and make them happy for ever, and to bestow on them all that it has; thus out of pure mercy to draw all who are willing to follow, to heaven, that is, to itself, by the strong force of love (AC 1735).
There is a power emanating from God that lifts everyone up toward Himself. It is always operating. We may not be aware of it, but all through our lives, God has been elevating us toward Himself, into that heavenly love relationship.
There is actually a sphere elevating all to heaven, that proceeds continually from the Lord and fills the whole natural world and the whole spiritual world; it is like a strong current in the ocean, which draws the ship in a hidden way. All those who believe in the Lord and live according to His precepts, enter that sphere or current and are lifted (TCR 652).
It is out of pure mercy that God forgives us and draws us upward toward Himself by the strong force of love. But this forgiveness is not excusing wrongs that we continue to commit. We have a part to play in God’s saving love for us. We need to cooperate with God’s love and take action from the power God gives us. We need to restrain ourselves when we are moved by unholy desires. We need to ask God into our lives. And we need to ask God to lift us out of sin and error and into goodness and truth. We need to act as if our salvation were completely in our own hands–all the while acknowledging that it is God who actually acts to bring us out of our errors.
Divine mercy is pure mercy toward the whole human race to save it, and it is likewise with every person, and never recedes from any one; so that whoever can be saved, is saved. And yet no one can be saved but by Divine means, which are revealed by the Lord in the Word. Divine means are what are called Divine truths; these teach in what manner man is to live in order that he may be saved; . . . So far therefore as a person abstains from evil, so far the Lord out of pure mercy leads him by His Divine means, and this from infancy to the end of his life in the world, and afterward to eternity (HH 522).
So when we think of God’s forgiveness, or of God pardoning our sins, we are to think of the process of regeneration. We need to think of moving out of darkness and error and into light and truth. Regeneration is the purification from all that blocks the Lord’s inflowing love and wisdom. All that blocks love, in other words. So we can think of sin as anything that stands in the way of love, anything that inhibits our reaching out to our neighbor and to God with open arms and love. When we remove those blocks, love and truth enter us from God, and we are reborn. Then, what we did in the past is forgiven as we accept new life from God. So Swedenborg writes,
The pardon of sins . . . are nothing else than purification from evils and falsities, implanting of good and truth and their conjunction, thus regeneration (AC 10042).
One of the obstacles to love for our neighbor is when we harbor a grudge or a resentment against them. We can build up in our minds anger against others, so that it is hard for us to face them, let alone to reach out to them with love. Forgiveness is an essential aspect of love for our neighbor. When we feel we have been wronged, we have several ways of reacting. We can bury that wrong in our hearts, and let it build and build until it poisons our relationships with that person and makes us resentful, angry, and vengeful. William Blake wrote a poem that captures this attitude very well.
A POISON TREE
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see,
My foe outstretch’d beneath the tree.
We can take a perverse delight in meditating on all the things wrong in someone else, and all the things that they did to wrong us. But then we are just making a poison tree in our minds and hearts. Furthermore, we are filled with disturbing and unpleasant thoughts. If we don’t forgive, we will carry around with us the person we are upset with. They will live in our head. We will be giving them free rent in our head. Swedenborg tells us that whoever we are thinking about will be present in spirit. This means that if we are thinking about someone in anger, they will be present. And that’s the last thing we really want! We need to release ourselves of that bondage to the other person, and to release them from our own bitterness. Only then will we find peace of mind. Then, when we confront that person again, it will be as if it is the first time we have seen them, having let go of the difficult past.
Sweet forgiveness is the answer. Though we may feel that we have been wronged, we need to let it go. We need to release the bitter feelings that can develop. We need to forgive. Jesus tells us to forgive seventy seven times. The number seven means holiness, and the act of forgiveness is a holy act. It brings with it holy peace. Even on the cross, Jesus forgave the human race.
I can think of a few strategies to help us forgive. One is simply to stop thinking of the other person. Don’t fill your consciousness with them. Think of something else, something happy. Don’t dwell on them. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of mind, out of heart. Another way is to make allowances for why they may have acted in ways that bothered us. When Jesus forgave the human race on the cross, he made allowances for our terrible actions. He said, “They don’t know what they are doing.” Sometimes someone will cut me off in traffic, and I’ll say to myself, “He must be in a hurry to get somewhere.” Or, “Maybe he’s late for work.” At other times, I may say other things to myself, but this is a talk about forgiveness. If we can look into another’s heart, we would understand why they do the things that hurt us. There may often be some reason that causes others to act in ways that hurt.
But forgiveness does not mean that we are to be a doormat and let people walk roughshod over us. In the Blake poem, when his friend offends the poet, he confronts his friend. “I told my wrath, my wrath did end.” We do need to draw boundaries between what we find acceptable behaviors and what we will not tolerate. Even the forgiving Jesus confronted the Pharisees. Sometimes with strong language. In Matthew 23:25-26 we find one such confrontation:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
Here, Jesus isn’t just denouncing the Pharisees. He is modifying their behavior. He tells them how to act in the future. “First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside will be clean.”
It seems hard, sometimes, to live and let live. Yet this is what we are asked to do by Jesus. Only by forgiving can we live in peace with our neighbor. Only by forgiving can we reach out in love to our brothers and sisters. Only by forgiving will we be the image and likeness of God, who forgives us continually. Since we are forgiven, let us forgive. This is the message we heard this morning in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Let us not build a poison tree, but instead let resentments fall away, forgive, and live in peace with the neighbor.