Archive for May, 2012
And Was Carried Up into Heaven
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 20, 2012
Isaiah 25:6-9 Luke 24:44-53 Psalm 47
This Sunday is traditionally called “Ascension Sunday” because on it we celebrate Jesus’ ascension up into heaven. With the ascension, God and Man became one completely and totally. There are some statements in Swedenborg about this process that I don’t fully understand. But as some of you might, I will cite them for you to ponder.
First, and this may not be too hard to understand, God had a Humanity even before His incarnation. It is from God’s Humanity that we, ourselves, have our humanity. So it says in Genesis,
And God said, “Let us make a person in our image, after our likeness” . . . So God created a person in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26, 27).
But God’s Humanity was spiritual and made of spiritual substances. It had not reached all the way down into the ultimates of creation, or our natural world. God’s Humanity did reach the lowest level of creation, or this material world, when God took on flesh in the form of Jesus. So John testifies,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God; all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1:1-3, 14).
So Sw, in a very short sentence says that God always had a Humanity, but God’s Humanity was only in what Sw calls “first principles.”
That God is a Human, and that every angel and spirit is a human from God, is shown in several places in the treatise concerning “Heaven and Hell,” and will be more fully shown in the treatises concerning “Angelic Wisdom.” But God from the beginning was a Human in first principles, though not in ultimates; yet, after He took on the Human in the world, He also became a Human in ultimates (Doctrine of the Lord, n. 36).
So God’s power and His Humanity came down into the ultimates of creation and took on human flesh in Jesus Christ. (As a footnote to this citation, we see that in this book that Swedenborg already had in mind the ideas for the book that became Divine Love and Wisdom.) It may not be too hard to understand that God came down to earth and took on human flesh–believing this doctrine is another matter. But then Swedenborg says something that is hard for me to understand.
Swedenborg goes on to say that Jesus put off everything of the humanity thatHe had from Mary, and put on Divine Humanity in its place. He calls the human that Jesus had from Mary a material human, and the Human that He put on a “substantial” Human. Swedenborg discusses this idea in the light of the Athanasian Creed,
So we read,
He had a Divine essence and a human nature,–the Divine from the Father, and a human nature form the mother; and thence he was equal to the Father as to the Divine, and less than the Father as to the human: also (as the doctrine of the faith which is called the Athanasian Creed teaches) that He did not transmute this human nature from the mother into the Divine essence, nor commix it with it; for the human nature cannot be transmuted into the Divine essence, nor can it be commixed with it. And yet from the creed is our doctrine, that the Divine took on the Human, that is, united itself to it as the soul unites itself to the body, until they were not two, but one person. From this it follows, that He put off the human from the mother, which in itself was like the human of another man, and thus material, and put on the Human from the Father, which in itself was like His Divine, and thus substantial; from which the Human also was made Divine (Doctrine of the Lord n. 35.
I don’t understand what a substantial Humanity is, compared with a material one. I looked at the Latin and didn’t find much helpful. I did find one interesting thing, though. The Latin word Materia has for its root the word Mater. Mater means “mother” and so one meaning for the Latin word Materia would be “maternal.” Another meaning is our word, “matter.” So Jesus’ material body could be both His maternal body, or His material body, or the body made of matter.
The process by which Jesus became one with God the Father was a mutual turning of God to Human and Human to God. God came down into the Human Jesus and the Human Jesus turned toward His Divine origins. So in order for God to fully become one with Jesus, there had to be a mutual movement of Human to God and God to Human. So John 17 reads, “Father glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee,” and, “Thou, Father, are in me, and I in thee” (1, 21). God glorifies the Son–which is movement of God to the Human–and the Son glorifies God–which is movement of the Human toward God. Swedenborg comments on this doctrine as follows,
The Lord said these things because the union was reciprocal, of the Divine with the Human, and of the Human with the Divine . . . Thence union was full. It is the same with all union: unless it is reciprocal, it is not full. Such, also, there must be, of the Lord with humans, and of humans with the Lord (Doctrine of the Lord 35).
This brings us to our part in the process of spirituality. As the Humanity of Jesus turned to God, we also need to do our part and turn to God in like fashion. God is always coming to us; God is continually turned to us; God continually wants to enter into relationship with us. We have a part to play in order to make this a reciprocal relationship. We need freely and of our own choice to enter into a relationship with God.
Jesus tells us what our part in this mutual love relationship is. In Luke 24:47 Jesus says, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” Forgiveness is perhaps the sweetest message of Christianity. But forgiveness is not cheap grace, a term that the Christian theologian Bonheoffer used. Forgiveness is not just a free gift. It is the result of a process of character transformation. Forgiveness is the product of repentance.
There is a story from the 1600′s that shows us how some Christians view the gift of forgiveness. The story is called Pilgrim’s Progress. In the Christian display in city hall here in Edmonton, the doctrine I am referring to was written up as representative of Christianity. This doctrine holds that faith is what saves a person. We see it in Pilgrim’s Progress, a story from the 1600′s, and this doctrine hasn’t changed since.
The story Pilgrim’s Progress is a story about salvation told from the English Protestant perspective. Almost every Protestant church subscribes to the doctrine of salvation we find in it. In this story, the main character is a man called Christian. The story begins with Christian described as a man in rags with a heavy pack on his back,
I saw a man clothed with rags . . . a book in his hand, and a great burden on his back.
As he read, he burst out . . . crying “What shall I do, to be saved? I perceive by the book in my hand that I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment.”
In this description of Christian we see the old Christian doctrine of original sin. This doctrine teaches that Adam’s sin of disobedience to God is passed down all the way from him to each one of us. We inherit Adam’s original sin at birth. That original sin is the burden on Christian’s back.
But according to Protestant teachings, faith in Jesus will make all our sins fall away. Someone gave me a tract here in Edmonton that said faith in Jesus would cause all my sins to be forgiven–past, present, and future. Our hero Christian holds this belief. After describing what heaven is like, he tells us how to enter heaven. He claims that the doctrine of freely given grace, cheap grace, is Biblical.
The Lord, the Governor of that country, hath recorded that in this book; the substance of which is, If we be truly willing to have it, he will bestow it upon us freely.
The doctrine of free grace is illustrated in the course of the book, when Christian sees the cross of Jesus. Upon gazing at it, the pack instantly drops off his back.
Just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till is came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by his sorrow, and life by his death.” Then he stood still awhile to look and wonder; for it was very surprising to him, that the sight of the cross should thus ease him of his burden.
This church sees the process of salvation differently. Notice that in Pilgrim’s Progress, it is Christ’s death that frees Christian of his burden. This form of Christianity sees Christ’s crucifixion as a sacrifice that atones for our sins, just like the animals that the Jews sacrificed in the temple were thought to atone for their sins. But in the light of our Bible reading, we see things differently. It is not Christ’s death that saves us. Rather it is the power of the risen and glorified Christ that gives us the ability to repent and change our lives. It is when Christ rises from the dead that repentance and forgiveness is preached to all the nations.
Our salvation is a love relationship between God and us. While God comes to us, we need to open our hearts and let Him in. We need to respond to God’s invitation to the wedding feast. We do this by actively turning away from the things that would come between us and God. It is just like our relations with friends and lovers here on earth. Sometimes we have to hold our tongue in order to keep our relationship positive. Sometimes we need to sacrifice our own wants to rejoice in the delights our friends have. Sometimes we need to put our own needs second in order to help a friend through a difficult time. In short, sometimes we need to let go of self-interest in order to live in relationship with our friends and lovers.
It is the same with God. We need to put God first, self second. Just as we sacrifice our own ego-driven wants in order to stay in relationship with humans, so we need to put selfishness aside in order to find a loving relationship with God. This is what repentance means. But repentance is a subject for a sermon in and of itself. All we need to know today is that forgiveness is the product of repentance. Forgiveness is not cheap grace. And relationship with God is not with Jesus in agony on the cross. Relationship with God is the blessing of the risen and glorified Lord. Jesus said to his disciples,
“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” . . . Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God (Luke 24: 46-47, 50-53).
A Mother and the Child She Has Borne
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 13, 2012
Isaiah 49:8-18 Luke 2:41-51 Psalm 139
Today we celebrate the special love that mothers have for their children, and we have for our mothers. There is a bond between mother and child that is perhaps the strongest bond of love humanity knows. Our actual body partakes of our mothers’ body as we are being formed in her womb. The Psalmist writes, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). In the miracle of birth, God’s creation is mirrored in the formation of each human in the body of our mother. It is no doubt this intimate and indeed physical connection that mothers have with their children that generates the special love of mothers for their children.
There are not many Bible passages that mention mothers–except in passing. But those in which mothers have significant role are extremely instructive. When God wants to tell us about His boundless love for humanity, He uses the image of mothers and their children–not the image of fathers. In Isaiah, God says, ”
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15)
This passage uses hyperbole. No mother can forget her baby. So great is God’s love, even if a mother can forget her baby–which she can never do–God will not forget us. This is the poetic way that Isaiah speaks of God’s infinite love. And the image He uses is the closest thing we can know on earth of God’s love–that love of a mother and her children.
And it is a mother’s love that we see illustrated so well in our story from Luke. On the return home from Passover in Jerusalem, Mary, Joseph, and their friends and family don’t notice at first that Jesus has remained back at the temple. We can imagine a grand company of relatives and close friends who have celebrated this most holy festival together. It would be like a Christmas dinner we might celebrate with our extended family and maybe visits to friends’ homes. But we celebrate Christmas dinners indoors, while for Mary and Joseph, the festival involved a pilgrimage to the sacred city of Jerusalem. It is not implausible that a child could be missed as the friends, relatives and family begin to depart for home in a grand caravan. Well the family only travels a day before they notice that Jesus is missing. We are told that they looked high and low for Jesus for three days in Jerusalem before they find Him in the temple! And we see the most concern and anxiety Jesus expressed by His mother. It is Mary who says,
Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you (Luke 2:48).
This short story tells us a lot. It tells us, first of all, that it was Jesus’ mother who was raising Jesus. She it was, who talks to the young Jesus. She it was who oversaw Jesus’ early development. It was His mother who primarily raised Jesus.
This story tells us, too, that Mary could guide or even shall I say discipline the young Jesus? Was Mary giving Jesus a mild scolding? How are we to read the words, “Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” She was no doubt expressing her love and concern for Jesus, but Luke adds the following words later in the story, “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them” (2:51). If Mary wasn’t scolding Jesus, she was teaching Him about concern for others, especially His parents. Was she teaching Him the respect and manners society would expect of Him?
But there is more still to the story. After Mary’s exclamation to Jesus, Jesus responds,
“Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” We are told that the friends and family of Jesus didn’t understand what He was saying. All except Mary. Luke tells us that, “His mother treasured all these things in her heart.” Jesus’ mother pondered what Jesus said, and meditated on who her son was and would grow up to be. This is the second time that Luke tells us Mary pondered who and what Jesus was and would be. Earlier, after Gabriel announces to Mary that her child will be the Son of God, after the star stops over the manger, and after the shepherds come to the cradle telling tales of a vision of angels, after all this, Luke tells us that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). It is often our mothers who know our dispositions best, who meditate on the kind of person we are, and who guide us as we grow up into our own persons. It is often our mothers who meditate on our talents and nurture our development. These are some of the things Mary pondered, when Jesus said He “must be in His Father’s house.” This is what Mary pondered after the miracles and wonders of Jesus’ birth. Mary and every mother meditates and reflects on her child’s character and guides his or her development.
And it was Mary, Jesus’ mother, who initiated His first recorded miracle. Mary had been raising Jesus. She had been reflecting on who He was. She had observed His nature. She knew Him best, and knew what He could do. Jesus and His disciples were at a wedding feast in Canaan. The host ran out of wine. And it was Mary who knew what Jesus could do to remedy the situation. She goes to Jesus and tells Him, “They have no more wine.” There is a note of humor in this passage, I think, because Jesus appears to try to get out of it. He says, “Dear Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Mary apparently ignores this, and being a bit pushy tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:4-6). So despite Jesus’ protestations, his mother tells Him to go ahead and help out, anyway. This is the occasion when Jesus turns the water into wine, the first miracle credited to Him. And it was His mother who got Him to do it when He apparently didn’t want to. His mother knew Jesus could help out the host, and she urged her Son to do so.
Swedenborg sees mothers as symbolic of the church. For just as a mother nurtures us, raises us, and teaches us right from wrong, so does the church in a spiritual way. This is why we have in our hymnal the song, “O Mother, Dear, Jerusalem.” Learning right from wrong, and learning all about God and His kingdom can all be called truths. These truths are what we learn in church, and so we can say the function of the church is to teach us truths. Truths, then, are what the church is spiritually made of. So the church is truth in an organized form. The church stands for truth, and symbolizes truth when we read about it in the Bible as Jerusalem, or the temple. When we are doing what we know to be true, we are in heaven. For heaven is not a place–it is a state of mind. So heaven also is made of divine truth, and as a place of truth, Heaven is symbolized by mothers. And further, since all Swedenborg’s symbols end up representing God, We have the remarkable symbolism of mothers with the Lord Himself as to Divine Truth. So Swedenborg writes of
the signification of mothers, as truth, and in the supreme sense the Lord as to Divine truth, thus His kingdom, since Divine truth which proceeds from the Lord makes heaven (AC 8897).
In fact, families signify our spirituality and in the highest sense God’s nature. So some of the symbols go as follows: fathers symbolize good and mothers truth. Children and more distant relatives symbolize loves and knowledges in our lower or more external selves. God is both Father and Mother, as divine love and divine wisdom, just as heaven is the union of love and wisdom, or good and truth. And when we have God in us, we are images of God’s nature. So we too, are that marriage of love and wisdom, good and truth.
So it is very clear that for Swedenborg, Motherly imagery is just as appropriate for God as is Fatherly imagery. Christianity is largely dominated by Father imagery–or at least Protestant Christianity is dominated by Father imagery. In Catholicism, Mary has a much more powerful role.
In today’s society, families are made up of various relations. There are adoptions, step-parenting, live-in lovers, and single parent families. In many families we don’t have both father and mother. This means most often that single parent families are single mother families. The burden of work, housekeeping, and raising children all being born by the single mother is tremendous. Society doesn’t seem to care about aid for single mothers, and they are most often left to fend for themselves–often living near or below the poverty line. Even establishing day care for working mothers was a battle hard fought, and still isn’t always available. And the cost of paying day care facilities is again born by the single working mother.
But this is a price that most mothers are willing to pay for the child they love so dearly–since that is the only way to uphold the bond of love between them. The love of mother and child is perhaps the closes image we have for God’s love for us. Recall Isaiah’s words,
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15)
God wants to compare Himself to a mother when talking about Divine love. Recall Mary’s solicitude for Jesus, pondering His nature and guiding Him in the manners of home, family, and society. Given all that we have seen from the Bible this morning, I will make the controversial statement that when we pray “Our Father” we may want to add or think “Who loves us as our mother.”
If You Abide in Me
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
May 6, 2012
Deuteronomy 7:7-15 John 15:1-8 Psalm 98
Both of our Bible readings this morning connect love of God, love for God, and bearing fruit. Both of our readings are very clear about God’s boundless love for us. In Deuteronomy, God says,
Know therefore that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations (7:9).
This beautiful statement shows the circle of love between God and humanity. It talks about God loving us and we loving God. This is the nature of love, that it wants to be loved back. There are also moving passages about God’s forgiveness that accompanies His love. For their sheer beauty and comfort, I would like to share just a few of the many passages in the Old Testament about God’s love and the forgiveness that accompanies it. When God passes in front of Moses, He says,
Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).
And David, too, sings of God’s love and forgiveness,
Yahweh is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:8-12).
Likewise the Prophet Micah praises God for His forgiveness and mercy,
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy (7:18).
And the Psalmist comforts us, telling us that with God is unfailing love,
If you, Yahweh, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption (Psalm 130:3, 4, 7).
Some think that the God of the Old Testament is an angry, punishing God. Indeed there are passages that make Him look so. But that is far from the whole story. The Bible is a huge book. And we have just seen only a few of the many passages that show the Old Testament God to be loving and forgiving.
It is this loving, forgiving God that we encounter in our reading from John. In Jesus, we have the loving God of the Old Testament personified. Through Jesus we have the complete union between God the Father and humanity. For it is the Old Testament God the Father who is living in Jesus. And through Jesus, God comes to us and we come to God. So Jesus says,
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love (John 15:9-10).
Love wants to shine forth divine rays into the world around it. God’s love and our love for God show themselves in bearing fruit. When we have God in our hearts, we want goodness to flow forth from us in loving deeds of kindness. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (15:5). We all have a sense of calling, and we all have our own special ways of doing the good that is uniquely our own. There are grand ways of showing God’s love. I think of the words of Beethoven. He said on one occasion, “O it is wonderful to approach the divine more closely than most and to shower the world with His divine rays.” Listening to his music, I don’t think Beethoven was being conceited when he claimed to approach the divine closer than most. He did have the leisure to do so, as his life wasn’t consumed with the worldly concerns so many of us have to contend with. Then there are modest and humble ways of letting God’s love shine forth. I knew a man whose career was waste disposal–a humble garbage man. He was proud of his calling and said, “That’s being useful!” Where would we be without our garbage men? In fact, I knew a man who made a good living at waste disposal. He took me and a group of friends out to breakfast one morning. When we all wanted to pitch in and pay our own portion of breakfast, he insisted on paying for us all with the words, “The waste industry has been good to me.” God’s love will, God’s love must shine forth in good works, good deeds of kindness.
Our passage from Deuteronomy connects love of God with bearing fruit, also. Hearkening to God’s ordinances will multiply good things.
And because you hearken to these ordinances, and keep and do them, Yahweh your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love which he swore to your fathers to keep; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will also bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock (7:12-13).
For an agrarian community, children, grain, and cattle were extremely important. Such a culture struggled to maintain its numbers alone. And their prosperity depended on fruitful harvests and multiplied cattle and flocks. We see in this reading the belief that honoring God would have power over the forces of nature.
We find many today, too, who believe that good things will come to them if they are faithful in their religious practice. Some even think that wealth and prosperity will come to them if they believe and pray correctly. This church looks at these matters differently. We see the fruitful harvest that God promises the Israelites in symbolic terms. The frutful of crops from the land symbolize truths multiplying in our consciousness. The increase of livestock we see as symbols of healthy and loving emotions arising in our hearts. So we understand the blessings that God promises the Israelites as all spiritual. These are the blessings that God gives to the faithful. I was very interested in talking with a rabbi about this. He said the most interesting thing. He told me that modern Judaism has a way of spiritualizing the agrarian imagery in the Bible. I didn’t have time in my interview to go into details about this, but that short statement of his really caught my attention. Perhaps I can pursue this discussion with some of the rabbis I am getting to know at the Interfaith Centre.
Spiritual gifts are what John has in mind as well. Jesus’ words are sometimes taken to refer to material things when we ask for them in prayer. Jesus says,
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (John 15:7).
Sometimes this statement is abbreviated to mean only, “ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” But that isn’t the whole statement. I think that the preceding line is very important. Jesus doesn’t say we’ll get anything we ask for. He will give us what we ask for if we abide in Him and His words abide in us. We need to have Jesus in our hearts when we ask for things. We need to ask from a Christ-centered heart. This means that we need to ask for Godly things, Christian things, things that are of Christ and His words. These will surely come if we ask for them.
Wherever we are in our spiritual journey, we can always ask Jesus to show us where and how to let our light shine. We can start our day by asking God to show us what His will for us is. We can always call out for direction if we feel we are lost. We can always ask for patience and love when we are inclined toward judgment or resentment. We can always ask for a more loving, a more caring disposition. These are prayers with Christ’s words abiding in us and we abiding in Jesus. These prayers will be granted. These are the blessings which will be multiplied in us as grain, oil, wine, and flocks. These are the blessings that a loving God will hear, remain faithful to His covenant of love with us, and fulfill, in His own way, in His own holy time.
Lord, you have told us that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. We trust in your promise of forgiveness and compassion. If you, dear Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness. We put our hope in you and in your unfailing love. Lord, as we are filled with your Holy Spirit, we wish to shine in the world in which we live. We wish to flow forth in good fruit and kindly deeds. Give us the awareness of how and upon which occasions we can bring forth the love we have in our hearts for all those around us. Give us insight into where we can let our light brighten the lives of those we touch, and the world we know. For our love for you will, must bear good fruit in the society in which you have placed us.
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, may good hearted aid come and satisfy the needs of those who want. Where there are natural disasters, may help come from good neighbors and from compassionate governments. Where there is hardship 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.