Archive for March, 2012
Whoever Serves Me Must Follow Me
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 25, 2012
Jeremiah 31:31-34 John 12:20-33 Psalm 119
Last Sunday I talked about the name of Jesus. I said that the name of Jesus is everything that Jesus stands for. It is all He lived out; it is all He teaches; it is all He is. This morning we heard about the name of God. Jesus says, “Father, glorify your name!” And a voice is heard from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again” (John 12:28). In the story this doesn’t make a lot of sense. When had God glorified His name? What name was glorified? Was it Jehovah? Was it Zeus (the story begins with Greeks asking about Jesus)? Was it Jesus? I think that in the light of this story, God’s name is one and the same as Jesus. Glorifying God’s name means the glorification process of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ glorification was the process by which the human Jesus became fully united with God in one Person.
The story opens with Jesus talking about His glorification. He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). In many places, Jesus refers to Himself as the Son of Man, as He does here. And clearly, Jesus is going to be glorified. So when Jesus says, “Father glorify your name,” He means for God to glorify Himself. Jesus is the name of God. Jesus is the perfect embodiment of God’s love. God is love. So we can say that God’s name is love. Since God’s name is love, and since Jesus is the perfect embodiment of love, Jesus is the name of God. Jesus is the body of God the Father. God the Father is Jesus’ soul. When Jesus rose from the dead, soul and body became perfectly one. God the Father became fully and completely united with Jesus. The risen and glorified Jesus Christ is now one with His Divine origins. Father and Son are one in the body of Jesus Christ. This is what the Glorification means. Christ’s glorification is at the heart of everything Swedenborg writes about.
The passage we heard in John talks about this process of glorification. Jesus uses the image of a kernel of wheat. He says that if a kernel of wheat falls to the ground, it produces many seeds. This is one image of Christ’s glorification. After Jesus’ resurrection, He took on a new power to save humanity. This is why the kernel of wheat produces many seeds if it falls to the ground. Jesus’ complete union with God the Father gives Him a power to reach us that He didn’t have before His glorification.
This is also why Jesus says ,”But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). Clearly, being lifted up means Christ’s resurrection. And it is with the resurrection that Christ and God the Father become fully united into one Person. Again, with the resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ, Jesus has a new power to reach humanity. So the kernel of wheat must fall to the ground and be lifted up. Jesus must be glorified.
What, then, is this process of glorification? The process of glorification is the process by which Jesus united His human nature and His Divine Nature completely. This is a wondrous and awesome process. At the heart of Jesus’ glorification we find His utter and complete humanity and we find His utter and complete divinity. When I read about this, and when I contemplate it, I am carried away in ecstasy with the miracle that Jesus’ glorification was.
According to Swedenborg, Jesus was born just as an ordinary human is. He grew up just as an ordinary human does. He had a physical body the same that an ordinary human does. Swedenborg writes the following startling words,
That the Lord might make the human divine, by the ordinary way, He came into the world; that is, it was His will to be born as a man, and to be instructed as a man, and to be re-born as a man (AC 3138).
The process of glorification is the process by which Jesus made His human divine by the ordinary way. I must immediately clarify this statement. There is no ordinary way to make humanity divine. But there is an ordinary way for a human to be regenerated. And it was this process of human regeneration that Jesus followed when He made His humanity divine. Let me explain a little.
Jesus was born as a man. This recalls our Christmas story. He was instructed as a man. Jesus had to learn the law the way we have to learn it. Jesus wasn’t born with all knowledge. Recall the words of Luke. Jesus parents find the young Jesus in the temple with the teachers of the law. And listen to what Luke says! “They found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46) Jesus was learning. When we read this passage, we usually emphasize the astonishing wisdom Jesus showed at the temple. We pass over entirely that Jesus was listening and asking questions. This section of Luke concludes with another emphasis on Jesus development. “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). Again, we so often pay attention to Jesus’ favor with God and men and pass over completely those few words, “And Jesus grew in wisdom.” Jesus grew. Jesus went through all the stages of human development that we go through. And Jesus, too, had to be re-born, or regenerated, as we are. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus’ humanity had to put off the impurities of its earthly nature and put on the Divine Humanity. That process is called Jesus’ glorification.
We follow an analogous path as we are regenerated. We need to learn God’s law. We need to put off earthly loves and desires and accept God’s love. This is why Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me” (John12:26). We must follow the path of glorification that Jesus walked, which for us is called regeneration. Our regeneration is a dim image of Jesus’ path of glorification. So Swedenborg writes,
Hence it may be seen that the regeneration of man is an image of the glorification of the Lord; or, what is the same, that in the process of the regeneration of man, may be seen in an image, although remotely, the process of the Lord’s glorification (AC 3138).
But there is a huge difference between our regeneration and Jesus’ glorification. Jesus made Himself divine by His own power. God’s Divine Love fully entered Jesus’ Human form. We, on the other hand, are regenerated by God’s power. We accept God’s love into our lives. It may look like we are doing the works, but God is the one who is making us new. God regenerates us, Jesus glorified Himself.
that the Lord might make the human divine, by the ordinary way, He came into the world; that is, it was His will to be born as a man, . . . and to be re-born as a man; but with the difference that man is re-born of the Lord, whereas the Lord not only regenerated Himself, but also glorified Himself, that is, made Himself divine; and further, that a man is made new by an influx of charity and faith, but the Lord, by the Divine Love which was in Him and which was His (AC 3138).
It was God’s Divine Love that took human form in Jesus Christ. And the human Jesus became fully united with His origins in Divine Love when He was fully glorified. Divine Love came to earth physically in the body of Jesus Christ.
And we are regenerated when God’s love finds a place in our souls. We follow Jesus, when we allow God’s love to come into us, even as Jesus became Divine Love itself. Jesus calls us His friends when we do what He commands, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14). And His gentle command is simply to embody God’s love. It means to love in all the areas of our lives. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Showing love in all the affairs of our lives is also at the heart of the Law in the Old Testament. This law of love is the new covenant that God will make with the human race. We heard about it in our reading from Jeremiah. This law will not be written down in any book. It will be written in our minds and on our hearts as we come to embody Jesus’ love.
“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel . . .” declares the LORD.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write in on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’
because they all will know me,
from the least to the greatest,” declares the LORD.
It is this law of love that is the delight of the Psalmist. This is the word of God that the Psalmist hides in the depths of his heart. Seeking God with all his heart through God’s law, the Psalmist says,
I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches.
I delight in your decrees;
I will not neglect your word.
My soul is consumed with longing
for your laws at all times.
Your statutes are my delight;
they are my counselors (Psalm 119).
And this law is our great delight. For only when we are living God’s law of love will we find true happiness. This is what is meant by following Jesus. We follow Jesus when we have His law of love written in our minds and on our hearts. Then we are Jesus’ friends. Then, where Jesus is, we, His servants will be (John 12:26). Then, we walk the path that Jesus walked. Then, our feet tread in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior. Then, as Jesus was glorified and unified with God, we will be regenerated and united with Jesus Christ.
Lord, as you did of old, glorify your name in our lives. Even as you glorified your humanity and made it divine, so we ask that you regenerate us and make us angelic. You trod the winepress alone and cleared a pathway for us to follow. Give us the willingness and the vision to plant our feet firmly on the path that you walked. Even as you became one with your Divine origins, so we ask that you make us one with yourself–that your infinite love find a place in our finite hearts. Write your ways on our hearts. Teach us your laws. May we find the delight in your word that the Psalmist of old sang about.
Lord, we ask for your peace to descend upon this troubled world. Where there is conflict and war, let there be understanding and peace. Inspire our leaders, and the leaders of other nations to govern their people with compassion and with your Holy Love. Where there is famine and thirst send your generosity. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is want and unemployment, lend your patience and hope.
Lord, send your healing love to all those suffering in body and soul. We ask you to give the gift of health to all in need.
The Light Has Come into the World
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 18, 2012
Numbers 21:4-9 John3:14-21 Psalm 107
The Bible passages we heard this morning bring up some long-standing Biblical problems. One problem is how God deals with humanity. Related to this problem is the issue of all those snakes. Then there is the problem as to what Jesus means by believing in His name.
Let’s begin with the snakes. The Israelites grumble about their life in the desert. The Bible then tells us that God sent fiery snakes to punish them. We are told that many Israelites were bitten by snakes and died. The people then repent, admit their sin, and Moses prays to God for them. Then there is an interesting episode in the story. Moses makes a bronze snake and puts it on a pole. If an Israelite gets bitten by a snake and looks at the bronze snake Moses made, he or she won’t die. This story has profound depth when we look at it from the internal sense, which we will do just after I clarify some theological problems.
We are told that God sent the Israelites snakes because they grumbled against God. This is an appearance of truth. Swedenborg says that the Bible contains many statements that aren’t strictly true. And the idea that God would punish the Israelites by sending them venomous snakes is not true. God never punishes anyone. Swedenborg makes this very clear.
in the Word it is frequently said that God is angry, takes vengeance, hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, and tempts, all of which pertain to evil, and therefore are evils. But . . . the sense of the letter of the Word is composed of such things as are called appearances and correspondences . . . when such things are read these very appearances of truth, while they are passing from a person to heaven, are changed into genuine truths, which are, that the Lord is never angry, never takes vengeance, never hates, damns, punishes, casts into hell, or tempts, consequently does evil to a person (TCR 650).
God is pure love and does only good to people. God cannot even look at us with a stern countenance.
as He wills only what is good he can do nothing but what is good. . . . From these few statements it can be seen how deluded those are who think, and still more those who believe, and still more those who teach, that God can damn any one, curse any one, send any one to hell, predestine any soul to eternal death, avenge wrongs, be angry, or punish. He cannot even turn Himself away from humanity, nor look upon anyone with a stern countenance (TCR 56).
So when we read that God sent snakes to punish the Israelites, we are dealing with an appearance of truth. When we understand this story from the internal sense, there is profound depth to this story about snakes in the wilderness.
The story of the snakes in the desert works very well with the passage we heard in John about Jesus saving the human race. John even says that just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up. Both of these images of lifting up relate to salvation–Moses saves life when he lifts up the bronze snake, and Jesus saves our souls when He is lifted up in the resurrection. To begin this comparison, let us consider the story about the snakes in Numbers.
The snakes appear when the Israelites grumble against God. Snakes symbolize the lowest part of our personality. The snakes symbolize the part of us concerned with our senses. We have many levels to us, some higher, some lower. Our senses are the lowest part of our personality. When we reject God we become increasingly interested in the life of our senses only. We believe only what our senses tell us. Since we can’t see God or heaven, a person who lives only by their senses denies God. Since it looks like we are all individuals separated from one another, a sensual person is only interested in self and what benefits self. This is when the snakes come. All the evils and falsities in which a person becomes involved stem from paying too much mind to our senses. When we deny God, or when we turn from God, we let evil and selfishness into ourselves. This is the affliction of the snakes. These evils are not imposed on us by God. Rather, we freely take them on of our own accord.
Now the way the story unfolds is critical for us to understand how Jesus is our savior. The next thing that happens in our story is that the Israelites repent. They say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you.” Just as one skinks into sensuality when one turns away from God, so one wakes up when he or she turns toward God. God offers a means of salvation. God doesn’t take the snakes away. But God does render them harmless. If an Israelite gets bitten by a snake, he or she will live if they look at the bronze snake that Moses put on a pole. Our fallen nature will always be with us. We will always have proprium. We inherit tendencies to evil and we act on some of these and make them our own. These tendencies, distorted feelings, and incorrect ideas about life are part of who we are. They are all in our proprium. But God plants holy loves and innocence in our proprium and gives it spiritual life. God lifts us up out of our proprium and into heavenly love. This is what is symbolized by looking at the bronze snake that Moses put on the pole. The affliction of the snakes are healed by the upward gaze to the bronze snake. And it is Jesus who lifts us up out of the affliction of our proprium; that saves us from the evils and sensuous thinking that the snakes symbolize. This takes us to our New testament story.
John compares Jesus’ resurrection to Moses lifting up the bronze snake in the wilderness. In John 3:14 we read, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” When John says that the Son of Man must be lifted up, he means several things. First, he means that Jesus rises from the dead on Easter and takes on all power and dominion. This is one meaning of the Son of Man being lifted up. He is lifted up from the grave and completely unified with God. It is the risen and glorified Jesus that leads us into heaven. It is the risen and glorified Jesus that fills us with His love and enlightens our minds. It is the risen and glorified Jesus that lives in us and us in Him that makes us Christians and makes us an image and likeness of God. So John says, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” But being saved by Jesus is not something that just happens.
We need to take action in order to let Jesus save us. Here we run into religious controversy. Some Christians use John 3 as proof that all we need for salvation is to believe in Jesus. They base this belief on John’s words, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). That looks like believing in Jesus would give us eternal life. But if we read further, things look different indeed. We find John talking a good deal about our deeds, and we see clearly that belief is not enough. John tells us, “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil” (3:19). John says further that when we do evil deeds, we turn away from Jesus and love the darkness. “For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come into the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (3:20). Then we find that coming into the light happens when we do good deeds. “But he who does what is true comes into the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God” (3:21). So coming to Jesus means doing deeds that are wrought in God. Deeds matter a great deal. In fact our salvation depends on the deeds we do that are wrought in God. Believing in Jesus is not enough.
This is how I read that controversial line that comes up very often in religious discussions. John 3:18 goes as follows, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” This line depends on what John means by the name of the only Son of God. To Christians who read the Bible strictly on the surface, the name means Jesus. Since Jesus is the Son of God, the name of the Son of God is Jesus. In this reading, only those who believe in Jesus are saved. But I think that John means more than just a name, like John Doe. A person’s name is all that they stand for. This is what we mean when we say that a person has a good name. When I say that I am known by my name, I mean I am known by what I stand for, not just David Fekete, my first and last name. When we say that those are saved who believe in the name of the Son of God, we mean what that all stands for. What does the name of the Son of God mean? It means all the things that God is known for: love, forgiveness, peace, innocence, wisdom, purity of heart, humility, and infinitely more than these few qualities. These qualities are the things that save, not just confessing Jesus’ personal name. If we believe in forgiveness, peace, innocence, wisdom, purity of heart, love, and humility, then we will seek out these qualities and make them our own. That is what we mean when we say something like, “I believe in love.”
These qualities are the light that came into the world with Jesus’ birth. But they are not unique to Jesus. The great religions of the world have their own words and traditions that bear witness to the light. The great world religions have their own list of deeds that are wrought in God. Notice how John moves from talking about Jesus first, and then generalizes his discussion to light and darkness, and finally opens it up to deeds that are wrought in God. This passage is a text that includes all who do Godly deeds and who believe in those qualities that the name of Jesus stands for. It is not a text to condemn other religions that are not Christian. Rather, it is a text that includes all the peoples and religions that believe in the name that Jesus stands for. When we lift up Jesus’ qualities, as Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the wilderness, then we are saved.
In this Lenten Season we look forward to Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead with power and might. This Sunday, we look at the name of Jesus and consider how it saves. We believe that when Jesus rose from the dead, He took onto Himself God’s infinite power. And the gentle God who showed compassion to the whole human race took on the power to fill the whole human race with that compassion. And we are filled with that compassion when we lift up the name of Jesus in our own hearts, as Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the wilderness. When we lift up the name of Jesus, let us lift up who He was and what He stood for in our hearts, and in our thoughts.
The Law of the Lord Is Perfect
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 11, 2012
Exodus 20:1-17 John 2:13-22 Psalm 19
We heard the Ten Commandments this morning. These Ten Commandments sum up God’s law. When we hear these Ten Commandments, we can think of them as a bunch of do’s and don’ts. We can think of the law of God as a list of rules of conduct that we must adhere to. We can think of the law of God as a list of things to do and things not to do.
But consider the words of the Psalmist. The Psalmist tells us that the law of the Lord refreshes the soul. We don’t often think of the Law of God as refreshing. But God’s law is refreshing. God’s law cleanses the soul. God’s law purifies our hearts. God’s law leads us into heavenly innocence and joy. These things are refreshing indeed.
The law of God does give us behavioral guidelines. It teaches us to have compassion, to love God, and to love our neighbor. The law of God guides our footsteps and points the way to God and to God’s kingdom.
But God’s kingdom is a kingdom of joy. God’s kingdom is not a dismal place where someone is watching over us to make sure we obey each and every rule God has laid down. No. God’s kingdom is a place where everyone loves everyone else. God’s kingdom is a place where everyone puts God first, not their own will. God’s kingdom is a place where everyone is trying to make everyone else happy. What great happiness and joy such a place is! So the Psalmist is right on when he says that the precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart. God’s precepts point the way to His kingdom, and His kingdom is a place of joy. Whether we experience it here, or after we transition over to the other side, when heaven is in us, we are in joy.
When we consider the things that make us truly happy, we will find that most of them are not material, or physical. There is much truth in the old saying, “The best things in life are free.” What can compare with friendship? Let’s consider a Mercedes car and the gift of a loyal friend. Each time we see our friend, we enjoy his or her company. And when we are apart, we think happy thoughts about them. When we are in trouble, our friend helps us. And when we rejoice, our friend shares in our rejoicing. It’s a very lonely and sad life without friends. Let me elaborate on this idea with a story from my school days. This story is about my dissertation defence. In order to complete a Ph. D. degree, a person has to write a book-length thesis called a dissertation. But that’s not the end of it. A committee of professors reads this dissertation and for a couple of hours drills you on every imaginable aspect of what you’ve written. If you pass this verbal examination, then you get your Ph. D. Well when my turn came, I planned out the whole thing. I reserved a hotel room near my favorite bar, so that after the examination I could go out and celebrate and walk to the hotel room from the bar. Well I went into the conference room where my dissertation committee was waiting for me. They kicked me around for about an hour and a half. Then they told me to leave the room so they could deliberate. After about fifteen minutes they called me back into the room. Now they were all smiles. They shook my hand. They congratulated me. I passed! I then proceeded to go to the bar to celebrate. I started drinking with the intention of getting really plastered. There was only one problem, though. I didn’t bring any friends with me. Many of my friends had already graduated and moved away. Furthermore, I was in Florida when I finished writing my dissertation and took the train up to Virginia where my interview took place. I was all alone. What happened was I just got drunker and drunker all alone. Nobody else in the bar cared about me or that I had just passed my Ph. D. oral exam. Instead of the celebration I thought I was going to have, I just got drunk all alone. It wasn’t a celebration at all.
Now I’m in a foreign country. I’ve only lived here for five years. And yet I have people who do celebrate with me when I am happy. I have people who help me when I am in need. I have people who care about me. Foremost among these people is the love of my life, Carol. Here in a foreign country that I’ve only been in for five years I have more than I did in my homeland drinking the night away in that bar after my dissertation defense. For that I thank this church and my friends in the program of AA–both spiritual enterprises. True friends are just one of the many spiritual gifts that the law of God gives us when we and others are following it.
But what about the Mercedes? I haven’t forgotten it–although my story was so long some of you might have forgotten about it. If we have the good fortune to buy a Mercedes, we may feel happy with it for a little while. When it’s really new, we may think about it with glee when we are away from it. But it won’t be long before the thrill of a new purchase wears off. In fact, it will wear off pretty quick. And you know what will happen then? We will only feel happy when someone else says to us, “Hey, nice car.” Our happiness with the Mercedes will depend entirely on someone else’s evaluation of it. And even when they say, “nice car,” it isn’t as if we’ve done anything. They aren’t complementing us. What has the Mercedes to do with us except that we have a title for the car with our name on it.
So the Psalmist is right when he says that in keeping the law there is great reward. He is talking about the spiritual treasures we get like friendship. The Psalmist says further that God’s laws “are more precious than gold, than much pure gold.” The rewards we get from keeping the law far exceed any other reward we can find in this world.
Jesus came into the world as the Word incarnate. This means that all the good and true teachings of the Bible were embodied by Jesus. Another way to say this is to say that Jesus was the law in the flesh. Therefore He demonstrated what the law means by the life He led. He showed forgiveness. He showed compassion. He showed love. He showed us the ways of God, which are the heart of the law.
This is why Jesus was so zealous to cleanse the temple. Cleansing the temple symbolized Jesus cleansing our souls. This is what the law does for us. This is how the law is refreshing–it refreshes our soul. In order to understand the symbolism of Jesus cleansing the temple, we need to consider a few things about the temple in Jesus’ day.
The temple symbolized God’s presence on earth. It was a holy place. At the temple, God and man met. The temple was different from our churches. In the temple, people didn’t gather to worship and sing hymns or listen to preachers. Rather, they would bring an offering for the priest to sacrifice to God. This offering was either an animal or grain. The priest would then sacrifice the animal and cook it over a flame, or roast the grain on behalf of the individual. The priests would eat the food that was cooked themselves. God would get the portions of food that were burnt up in the flames.
In Jesus’ time, the temple would sell animals for sacrifice at a profit. These transactions were a healthy business and the temple was making money off the devotions of the Jewish people. The temple had become a business institution run for profit.
The holiness had gone out of the temple. The temple was impure. God’s dwelling on earth was corrupt. The temple needed to be purified. The temple needed to be restored to its holy state as a symbol of God’s connection with humanity. As God incarnate, Jesus was intimately concerned with the symbol of God’s presence on earth–the temple. When Jesus cleansed the temple He performed a highly symbolic act. Cleansing the temple symbolized the power of Jesus to cleanse our souls. The temple was seen as the place where God came down to reside with humans. The temple was supposed to be a connection between God and humans. Driving out the priests who were profiting by the trade in the temple was an act of purification. God’s connection with humanity had been restored when the temple was cleansed. This symbolizes how Jesus cleanses each and every one of us. It is Jesus who restores our souls. It is Jesus who drives out the impurities that would block God from flowing into our hearts and into our thoughts. We can grow up with dysfunctional and limiting ways of dealing with others. We can have mistaken thoughts about the world and our place in it. We can be too attached to things that benefit us only and we can long for recognition from the world. Things like this interfere with care and mutual concern for our fellows. Things like this can interfere with our love and worship of God. We need Jesus to drive out these thoughts, desires, and behaviors so that God’s great love for everyone can be our own. Just as Jesus purified the temple, so He must purify us.
These things are driven out when we reflect on the life of Jesus. We change and grow when we look at how Jesus lived and the things He taught. This is what I mean by saying that Jesus is the law in the flesh. Jesus embodied the law, lived it out, and taught us about it. So it is, in fact, the law that is cleansing us. Jesus as the law in the flesh is opening up the windows of our soul to let in the refreshing spring air and sunlight of new birth. So the Psalmist is right when he says, “The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.” God’s laws enlighten. They make us bright. So let us welcome into our hearts the law of God. Let us recognize how much it can do to and for us. And when our heart shines with a holy brilliance, let us thank the Lawgiver, and say with the Psalmist, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.”
Whoever Loses His Life for My Sake
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 8:31-38 Psalm 22
Our Bible readings this morning are all about spiritual transformation, and it follows last Sunday’s talk about the proprium very well. Last Sunday we talked about the problem of the proprium. This Sunday we will talk about breaking up the proprium and changing our souls into an image and likeness of God.
In our reading from Genesis, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham by adding the letter “H.” This letter “H” is taken from God’s name, Yahweh. In a literal reading, it doesn’t look like much is going on here by changing Abram’s name to Abraham. But from a spiritual perspective it is highly significant. In the Bible, names all signify qualities. And by adding the letter “H” from God’s very name, it signifies that Abram is bring transformed into a person endowed with spirituality from God. Changing Abram’s name is symbolic of being reborn. It symbolizes spiritual transformation into a new self. It signifies the breakdown of proprium and the implanting of heavenly qualities. In short, changing Abram’s name signifies being spiritually reborn, or being regenerated.
This is what Jesus means when He says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 17:35). This short statement contains the whole process of regeneration. Jesus first says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” To save your life means to save the proprium. or all those selfish and worldly drives that vex the soul and come between us and God’s inflowing love. In this sense, to save yourself means to hold on to the things we are accustomed to in this world. It means to hold onto self-interest and to worldly ambition. This is why we lose our lives when we try to save it. We lose our lives, or die spiritually, when we try to save the things of this world we are accustomed to. But notice the second part of this profound statement. Jesus talks about losing our lives. But He says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” This means to dedicate our lives to the teachings of Jesus, which are the same as the gospels. If we dedicate our lives to Jesus, and if we lose our life of self-interest and proprium, we will save our lives spiritually. This is another way to talk about spiritual rebirth, or regeneration.
For Swedenborg, being reborn is a process. Some churches teach that being reborn comes in an instant when a person accepts Jesus into their heart. Though they say this, if pressed a little bit, they will inevitably say that a person still needs to be aware of the reality of sin. They will admit that combating sin is still part of the spiritual life, even though they are saved. Methodists and Lutherans do indeed talk about purification from sin. Even though Lutherans will insist that faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice saves a person, they still speak of the process of purification from sin. They and the Methodists call this “Sanctifying Grace.” They are careful to call it an act of grace, because they want the process to be all God’s doing. Calvinists have a similar notion. For them, the process is called “Sanctification.” I heard a Presbyterian minister say it is like God shining a flashlight on our soul. For Swedenborg, it is called regeneration. The process of regeneration involves the spiritual conflict of temptation.
Temptations are mortal struggles. They are conflicts between the life we used to live and the things we used to love–the life that must die–and the new life we are progressively growing into. The process is like this. Temptations begin with knowledge. We learn the ways of God and heaven. We then examine our lives and see if it matches up with what we know of spiritual life. We look at what we love. We look at our priorities. We look at our relationship to the world. We see if the life we live fits with the life of heaven. As we are doing this, God flows into our souls and minds, filling us with His love. Then, when God’s love meets our worldly loves, a conflict takes place. We want to tenaciously hold onto the way of life we know. We want to hold onto our comfortable life in the world. We want to hold onto our self-interest and all the drives and desires that come with it. We are torn between our old ways and the new life flowing into us from God. It is our old loves and life that must die in order to let in the new life from God. This is why Jesus says, “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Swedenborg’s description of this process is almost a paraphrase of Jesus’ words,
a man when he is in temptations is in vastation as to all things that are of his proprium, and of the body–for the things that are his proprium and of the body must die, and [this] through combats and temptations, before he is born again a new man, or is made spiritual and heavenly (AC 730).
Swedenborg grew up a Lutheran. His father was a Lutheran bishop. And there is much of Lutheranism in Swedenborg, such as Luther’s dependence on Paul in his sermons and theology. I think that Swedenborg had Paul in mind when he wrote passages like the one I just cited. Paul, too, talks about dying to the flesh and living by the Spirit. In Galatians, Paul writes,
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5: 16-25).
There is a question about temptations, though. It is a question I’ve been pondering over the past months. The question I’m thinking about is how tumultuous and difficult they have to be. The question I have in mind, is how much old life needs to die. There is no doubt that we need spiritual rebirth. Last Sunday, I referenced Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus,
Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again. Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again” (John 3:3, 5-6).
We all need to be born again of water and the Spirit. We all need to remove blockage that shuts out the sunlight of the soul. But how tumultuous a process this is, is an open question. It all hinges on the question of how attached to the world and to our own selfish gain we have become. If we are dearly attached to self and world, our transformation into a person oriented to God and the neighbor will be difficult. Those are the things that need to change. We need to become God-and-neighbor oriented from starting out self-and-world oriented. Swedenborg describes just how mortal a conflict this can be.
By continual sensuous pleasures and by loves of the self and the world . . . a person has acquired a life for himself of such sort that his life is nothing but a life of such things. This life cannot accord at all with heavenly life. For no one can love worldly and at the same time heavenly things. To love worldly things is to look downward; to love heavenly things is to look upward. Much less can a person love himself and at the same time the neighbor, and still less the Lord. He who loves himself hates all that do not render him service; so that the man who loves himself is very far from heavenly love and charity, which is to love the neighbor more than one’s self, and the Lord above all things. From this it is evident how far removed the life of a person is from heavenly life. And for that reason he is regenerated by the Lord by means of temptations, and so turned as to bring him into agreement. This is why such temptation is severe, for it touches a person’s very life, assailing, destroying, and transforming it (AC 759).
Temptations, then, touch our very life. Temptations assail our complacency and break up our old ways of living. Our very life must change. And this won’t be easy.
The open question I have been pondering over the years, though, is this. Does it have to be that hard? In the quote just above, Swedenborg says, “By continual sensuous pleasures and by loves of the self and the world . . . a person has acquired a life for himself of such sort that his life is nothing but a life of such things.” But what if a person hasn’t indulged in “continual sensuous pleasures” and “loves of the self and the world?” What if a person has been essentially good, gone to Sunday school and learned about God and tried to live according to what they learned? Is it possible that such a person would just naturally grow oriented to God, the neighbor, and heaven? It’s a point worth considering, and I don’t have an answer just yet. Swedenborg even says that it is not so difficult to live the life that leads to heaven. I’ll close with his words on this from Heaven and Hell,
It is not so difficult to live the life that leads to heaven as is believed. Some believe that to live the life that leads to heaven, which is called spiritual life, is difficult, because they have been told that a person must renounce the world, divest himself of lusts called lusts of the body and the flesh, and live spiritually. And by this they understand that they must reject worldly things, which consist chiefly in riches and honors; that they must walk continually in pious meditation about God, about salvation, and about eternal life; and that they must pass their life in prayers, and in reading the Word and pious books. . . . That it is not so difficult as is believed to live the life which leads to heaven may be seen from what now follows. Who cannot live a civil and moral life, since everyone from childhood is initiated in it, and from life in the world is acquainted with it? . . . Almost all practice sincerity and justice outwardly, so as to appear as if they were sincere and just in heart . . . The spiritual person should live in like manner–which he or she can do as easily as the natural person–but with this difference only, that he or she believes in the Divine, and acts sincerely and justly not merely because it is according to civil and moral laws, but also because it is according to Divine laws. For the spiritual person, because he or she thinks about Divine things when he or she acts, communicates with the angels of heaven, and so far as he or she does this, is conjoined with them . . . (HH 528, 530).
This passage suggests that it is possible to start out life good, and stay there.