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Archive for April, 2013

Loving–a Command, or a Blessing?
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 28, 2013

Deuteronomy 7:6-9, 12-13 John 15:1-12 Psalm 22

In our Old Testament reading and in our New Testament reading we are commanded to love. In Deuteronomy, we read,
Know therefore that the Lord you God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands (Deuteronomy 7:9).
And in John, Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). This is a strange command, I think. Can we be commanded to love? Can we love on command?
Perhaps the Old Testament is helpful in this regard. In Deuteronomy 7:9, it says that God keeps His “covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.” So in this verse, we see that loving God means keeping His commandments. And in the Old Testament, we find many behavioral prescriptions that we can do. The Ten Commandments come to mind.
And it is true that Jesus gives us a number of behavioral prescriptions that we can do–if we can. He tells us to be peacemakers, to be meek, to be merciful, to be generous, and many other things we can do. These prescriptions from the Old Testament and from Jesus are behavioral. And since they are behaviors, they can be commanded.
But what about loving? Can we love because we are told to? This question is deep, indeed.
This question drove the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop a whole system of ethics based on this question. He began with the realization that love is a feeling, and that no one can be commanded to feel. So he developed a way to make laws that we could do. But we do these laws not from love but from a sense of duty or obligation. So the only way that Kant could come to terms with the command to love was to come up with a system of ethics based on duty.
That doesn’t get us very far in our question about loving. But it does show how difficult a problem this command is. Let’s return to the idea that love is a feeling. Love is a good feeling. In fact, all the regulations spelled out in the Old Testament and all Jesus’ teachings come down to the two great commands: love for God and love for our neighbor. We are exhorted by Jesus to love, to fill ourselves with this good feeling.
How do we cultivate a good feeling? And I do believe that we can cultivate feelings. Swedenborg gives us a system by which we can cultivate that good feeling of love. The same system also gives us a definition of good and evil.
Swedenborg tells us that the first thing of love to the neighbor, or charity, is to put away evils. Evils all stem from self-interest as a dominant driving force in our lives. But we can put this another way that I like. We can say that evil is anything that gets in the way of loving. Evil is what keeps us from loving. So Swedenborg writes,
The first of charity is to put away evils, and the second is to do goods, which are of use to the neighbor. In the doctrine of charity this holds the primary place, that the first thing of charity is not to do evil to the neighbor; and to do good to him or her in the second place. This doctrine is as a door to the doctrine of charity (TCR 435).
Refraining from evil is something practical we can actually do. Most of us are law abiding citizens. And civil laws restrain us from harming our neighbor. We grow up learning the laws of our city, province, and country. This is like the first step of a ladder. When we make these civil laws personal, we are a moral person. And morality is the second step of the ladder.
What is the difference between a moral person and a civil person? A civil person may be called a law-abiding citizen. Such a person obeys the laws of his or her society. But what about situations where the civil laws don’t operate? I think of a time in college when I was editor of the school newspaper. I walked up and down main street in Urbana, Ohio visiting business owners and soliciting advertizing space in the school newspaper. I also collected the advertizing monies for the ads. Towards the end of the school year, due to a conflict of interest, the student government decided not to publish a final newspaper. I was still in possession of the monies I had collected from the advertisers. There was some nervousness among the student government that I would simply pocket the cash. There would have been no law to prevent this. We had put out papers with the ads placed for the monies I had collected. But what I did was a moral decision on my part. I used the ad money to pay for a final edition of the school paper that year. I did this from a sense of morality. It seemed a fair and right use of the money–money that didn’t belong to me.
Being a civil and a moral person is like the first and second steps toward heaven. The third step is to continue being civil and moral, but doing these things from a spiritual motive. Laws and morals tell us how to act. These are behaviors. A spiritual motive makes our behavior heavenly. Civil law is only a worldly motivation to act well with our neighbor. Spiritual motivation makes our civil behavior heavenly and Godly. It fills our deeds with spiritual life. Swedenborg explains this process,
one who is civil and moral can also become spiritual, for the civil and moral is the receptacle of the spiritual. One is called a civil person who knows the laws of the kingdom wherein he or she is a citizen, and lives according to them; and one is called a moral person who makes these laws his morals and virtues, and from reason lives them. I will now tell how a civil and moral life is the receptacle of spiritual life: Live these laws, not only as civil and moral laws, but also as Divine Laws, and you will be a spiritual person (DP 322).
This is where religious doctrine comes in. Religious doctrine has a two-pronged service. It tells the problems and evils that block mutual love, and it points the way to goodness and heaven. We can follow civil laws, but inwardly be full of spiritual maladies. We need to guard our thoughts, watch our speech, and moderate our emotions. It is so easy for me to fall into negative thoughts about my neighbor. I can dwell on perceived wrongs done to me, and nurture them, and water them like a poison plant. I can do this when I’m driving, or watching TV, for instance. This is called a resentment. And the word “resentment” literally means to re-feel an event. Re-sentiment. So I can remove this kind of unfruitful thinking in my mind, which leaves room for God’s inflowing love to fill my mind with good and loving thoughts. Another kind of unfruitful use of the mind is to think myself superior to others. Swedenborg calls this “contempt for others compared with self.” Actually, I suspect thinking this way is more a matter of insecurity than it is of ego. When we think of ourselves as a part of, rather than better than or less than, then mutual love follows.
These are just a couple ways that we can remove thoughts that would block God’s inflowing love. God is continually flowing into our minds and hearts with His love. And when we remove the blocks, then we are filled with God’s love, a love that is always striving to make a home in our hearts.
I have been talking about removing blocks that interfere with love. I can also talk about filling our mind with positive regard for our neighbor. We can think good and kind things about our neighbor, which will lead to good and kind feelings. The Dalai Lama gives us truths that I find very helpful in rendering my mind other-oriented. He writes,
True compassion does not stem from the pleasure of feeling close to one person or another, bur from the conviction that other people are just like me and want not to suffer but to be happy, and from a commitment to help them overcome what causes them to suffer.
According to my experience, the highest level of inner calm comes from the development of love and compassion. The more concerned with the happiness of others, the more we increase our own well-being. Friendliness and warmth toward others relax mental tensions . . . (My Spiritual Journey 20, 26).
The actual process a person uses to replace injurious thinking with healthy thinking about the neighbor is something for each individual to explore. I like the idea of thinking of people as being just like me, and wanting happiness and not to suffer. When I told someone about trying to resist negative thoughts, he told me the following joke: “If I tell you, ‘Whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant!’ what is going to fill your mind?” Maybe the best way to encourage loving feelings is to think as does the Dalai Lama–thoughts of positive regard for our neighbor.
We are free to choose the method that works best for us. Jesus and Moses give us the beacon light to steer toward. This is my command: Love one another.

PRAYER

Dear Lord, we thank you for your gift of love. We thank you for sharing with us your infinite love for the whole human race. We ask that you give us the insight to see where and how we might block your love from entering our hearts. And as we become aware of the ways we block your love, give us the power to remove those evils. Let us discard harmful thoughts regarding our neighbor, and fill our minds with positive regard for others. Help us, Lord, to see ourselves as a fellow with our neighbors, and as your children.

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Apr 21st, 2013

To Take it Up Again
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 21, 2013

2 Samuel 5:1-5 John 10:11-18 Psalm 23

In our John reading, we have the comforting image of Jesus as our shepherd. Jesus is in an intimate relationship with all of us. Jesus says, “I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” When we look to Jesus, we “will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Some use this John passage to argue for Christianity’s sole power to save. However, I see this passage differently. Some emphasize Jesus’ words, “I am the gate for the sheep.” They take this to mean that only Jesus saves. They support this belief with another line from this passage, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:7, 9). They take these lines to mean that if you do not come to God through Jesus you will not be saved. But reasoning this way is committing a logical fallacy called denying the antecedent. In logic you can say, “If you come to Jesus you will be saved. I was not saved, therefore I did not come to Jesus.” But you cannot say, “If you come to Jesus you will be saved. I did not come to Jesus, therefore I was not saved.” And this is exactly what they are doing who use this passage to say that Christianity and only Christianity saves. These two lines of reasoning sound similar, but they are very different. We are saved if we come to Jesus. But this does not mean that if we do not come to Jesus we will not be saved. That way of arguing is called denying the antecedent, and it is a logical fallacy. So those who use these verses to say that everyone is damned who is not Christian are making a logical fallacy.
But make no mistake, I am a Christian, and I follow Christ’s way in regard to my own salvation. However, I think that Jesus’ life and Jesus’ words show an inclusiveness for everyone. In His life, Jesus befriended the despised tax collectors, He allowed a sinful woman to anoint Him with perfume, He spoke with a Samaritan woman and offered her living water, and, let’s not forget, Jesus ate dinner with a Pharisee. Jesus’ love extended to all. He did not discriminate according to race, or a person’s place in life, nor by the way society looked at the individual. In this morning’s passage from John, I emphasize the words, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. But they too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
Who are these sheep who are not of this fold? Maybe they are not Jews. Maybe they are not favored by society. Maybe they are the marginalized and despised of the world. Maybe they are the Gentiles. But Jesus reaches out to those sheep who are not of this fold. He envisions a time when there is one flock and one shepherd.
I take these verses to mean that God reaches out to everyone: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and all believers of every faith. From a Christian perspective, maybe these are the sheep who are not of this fold. But God reaches out to them, too. Swedenborg tells us that God wishes to save everyone, to give everyone everything that God has, and to make everyone happy to eternity.
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)
We affirm this idea in our faith, which we say every Sunday,
As the God-Man who lives with us He is present to save all people, everywhere, whose lives affirm the best they know.
This brings up another point from our John reading. And that is the issue of the God-Man who lives with us. This is a reference to the resurrected Jesus Christ. And Jesus’ resurrection is what is meant by John 10:17-18:
The reason the Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.
For this church, this passage tells us about the complete union between the Father and Jesus. When Jesus lay down His life and took it up again, He rose body and soul and was completely one with God. That is why we call Jesus the God-Man. God’s soul was in Jesus, when He was begotten of the Virgin Mary. And that Divine Soul became completely one with the Human Jesus when Jesus rose from the grave. That union of God and Jesus is what gives God power to come to all of us, wherever we are spiritually, through the risen Humanity of God. That is how we understand Jesus giving His life for the sheep. He lay down His life so that He could rise in full union with God the Father. This gives Jesus the power to reach everyone, the sheep in the fold and those outside the fold. He is the God-Man who is present to save all people, everywhere.
Others interpret this passage differently. Others interpret this passage according to Paul’s atonement doctrine. The atonement doctrine teaches that Jesus took all the sins of the world on Himself when He was crucified. His crucifixion is seen as a sacrifice of atonement like the Jewish animal sacrifices were. So Paul writes,
But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood (Romans 3:22-25).
Paul sees Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice like the Jewish sacrifices of atonement we read about in Leviticus. The sacrifice of atonement is described in Leviticus 4:27-31:
If a member of the community sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands, he is guilty. When he is made aware of the sin he committed, he must bring as his offering for the sin he committed a female goat without defect. He is to lay his hand on the head of the sin offering and slaughter it at the place of the burnt offering . . . and the priest shall burn it on the altar as an aroma pleasing to the Lord. In this way the priest will make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.
It is according to this ancient ritual that some interpret Jesus’ words, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15).
Nearly every Christian church has a doctrine of atonement. And recently, the Catholic Church published a statement saying that their doctrine of atonement is in accord with the Lutheran doctrine of atonement. This is a great step toward Christian unity.
But this church teaches that one person’s sins cannot be transferred to someone else. That means that the sins of the human race cannot be transferred to a goat or to Jesus. We are responsible for our own sins. Jesus lay down His life for us in the sense that He would take it up and unite Himself with His Father. This is for us, in that through His Divine Humanity Jesus has a form we can see, relate to and a form that God can come to us in.
One thing that we can all agree on, is that in Jesus’ life, we have a story of complete self-sacrifice. In this sense, Jesus certainly gave Himself for the sake of humanity. Jesus came to save the whole human race, and He dedicated His entire ministry to humanity. He healed, He taught, He fed, He gave Himself to the human race that He loves unconditionally. Paul teaches that in Christ,
There is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all and is in all (Colossians 3:11).
I like this teaching in Paul. And it seems to agree with Jesus’ saying that there are sheep who are not of the flock who also hear His voice. Paul’s vision is remarkable in its inclusiveness. He includes Jews, barbarians, Greeks—in short, the whole world. And this teaching agrees with our understanding of the God-Man who is present to save all people, everywhere, whose lives affirm the best they know.

PRAYER

Lord, we give you thanks for your unfailing love for the whole human race. While you were here, you showed us by example how we are to act with our neighbors. You embraced all humans, and you showed no partiality. You embraced Samaritans, tax collectors, those who were thought sinful, and Pharisees, too. May we follow your example, and embrace our neighbors whether different from us, or like us. May we, too, show love for all members of society, the rich and prosperous as well as the marginalized and downcast. Your heaven is composed of infinite varieties of peoples, and our world is composed of great varieties of peoples. May we find room in our hearts for all of your creation.

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A Real, Substantial Savior and God
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 14, 2013

Isaiah 42:1-7 Luke 24:36-53 Psalm 4

When Jesus appeared to His disciples after His death, they were frightened, overjoyed, and amazed. They were frightened because they thought they were seeing a ghost. This is understandable. If you or I saw someone appear to us whom we knew had died, we, too, might think that we were seeing a ghost. But Jesus seeks to calm their fears. He says that He is not a ghost, and invites them to touch Him and see His hands and side. This wasn’t enough. They didn’t believe their eyes for amazement and joy. So Jesus eats a broiled fish.
Jesus is trying to convince the disciples that He is a real, living, substantial being. He is not a spirit, or a ghost. He has physical powers and also spiritual powers. He can walk through locked doors, and He can eat a broiled fish. His risen body is real, substantial and present always, everywhere to aid us in our spiritual journey.
Two story elements come to my mind when I read this Easter account. First, there is Jesus’ greeting to His disciples. He says, “Peace be with you.” It was, and still is, a standard Jewish greeting to say, “Shalom.” This means, “Peace be with you.” But I think that with Jesus more than this standard greeting is meant. I say this because Jesus is the very bringer of peace. He is Peace Itself. So we call Him the Prince of Peace. And those who are in right relation with Jesus are in peace, themselves. We are in peace to the extent that we are in God and God is in us.
And in this story Jesus tells us the way to peace. This is the second story element that comes to my mind when I read this Easter appearance. Jesus says that, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.” In this verse we hear about forgiveness in the name of Jesus. And many jump too quickly to the forgiveness that they think comes in the name of Jesus. But the full verse is repentance and forgiveness of sins. For it is only through repentance that sins are forgiven. Repentance means that we actually see sin in ourselves and we stop doing it. This is a lifelong process and a process that gradually fills a person with spiritual life and love for God and for his or her neighbor. We don’t need to expect instant perfection in this process. In our society we want instant gratification. But sometimes this isn’t possible, as is the case with spiritual growth. Swedenborg is quite gentle when he talks about the process of repentance. He talks about taking on one or two sins at a recurring season. Perhaps he has in mind seasons like Lent. He talks about preparing to receive Holy Communion. From his Lutheran background and the experience of the Anglican Church he found while living in England, Swedenborg talks about repentance and the promise to begin life anew as part of the whole process of receiving Holy Communion. And in describing how this repentance process works, Swedenborg is concerned about us beginning the process more than he is in our completing the process.
Actual repentance, if performed at recurring seasons, as often, for instance, as a person prepares for the communion of the Holy Supper, if he or she afterwards abstains from one sin or another that one discovers in himself, it is sufficient to initiate him into its reality; and when he is in this, he is on the way to heaven, for from being natural he then begins to become spiritual and to be born anew from the Lord (TCR 530).
The process of repentance is one of letting love and faith into our hearts and minds. And as these come in, they push evil and sin to the periphery of our souls. Sin breaks apart and becomes quiet and troubles us no more. This is what forgiveness of sins is. It is actually the removal of sin.
The interior things of worship are those which are of love and faith, and hence the forgiving of sins, that is removals from them, because sins are removed through faith and love from the Lord. For so far as the good of love and of faith enters, so far sins are removed (AC9938).
It is God who instills this good of love and of faith. So we very much need that real, substantial Savior and God for spiritual life. It is God who lifts us up and out of self-interest and all the evils that stem from it. Swedenborg tells us that we “are withheld from evil and held in good by the Lord, so that it appears to [us] as if [we] were in good of [ourselves]” (HH 342). Whatever we feel of heavenly happiness and joy is from the real, substantial Savior and God, not from our own power. Angels and humans are in heaven,
not from any merit of their own, but from the Lord; and thus they may not boast before others of the good which is with them–for this is contrary to the good of mutual love . . . . (HH 342).
So we need Jesus and Jesus is here for us. In His risen, real and substantial body, Jesus is just as present to us as He was to those disciples that day long ago.
Most of the world religions I know of have a system of ethics, or what Swedenborg would call repentance and doing good. This system of ethics is what repentance in the name of Jesus means. Last Sunday I said much about the meaning of Jesus’ name. By His name, we mean all the qualities that Jesus stands for. We do not mean the word, “Jesus.” So wherever we find a system of ethics and repentance, we find life in the name of Jesus.
In both Isaiah and Luke we find an element of future looking. They look forward to a time when God’s faithful servant will,
bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth (Isaiah 42:3-4).
And Jesus says that, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). Isaiah and Luke have a vision of the whole earth finding forgiveness through repentance and justice flowing like a river. Forgiveness through repentance and justice are the things that bring peace to a person’s soul. And we look forward to a time when justice and forgiveness will fill the political world also.
If nations only knew forgiveness, how much conflict would be averted! If nations practiced repentance so that they knew when their ambitions were threatening the welfare of other nations, wouldn’t peace reign on the earth! If rulers established justice in their nations, atrocities like genocide, civil war, and rebellion would cease. We have the recipe. We have the program for peace. But it remains only an ideal, foreseen by prophets and foretold by Jesus in the words of Scripture. These are healing words. But who hears them? So the Psalmist sings, “How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies?” Yes, there is much vanity in the lust for self glory we see too often in the rulers of nations.
It is no wonder that Voltaire concludes his novel Candide with the words of resignation, “Yes, but we must cultivate our garden.” We can advocate for world peace; we can contribute to causes that seek to end world hunger; we can welcome refugees from cruel governments–we can do all these things to advocate for the world justice and peace the Bible speaks of. But finally, it is our own garden that we must cultivate. It is in our own heart and soul that the warring factions of darkness and light contend. And when through repentance, God’s love and faith fill our souls, then we will know the words of the Psalmist. Many see ruin and distress, but the Psalmist finds joy and the peace that Jesus gives to all. A real, substantial peace, from a real, substantial God,
There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Lift up the light of thy countenance upon us, O LORD!”
Thou hast put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for thou alone, O LORD, makest me dwell in safety.

PRAYER

Lord, we know of your compassion, your mercy, and your forgiveness. And knowing your love and compassion for us, we present ourselves before you. We ask you to shine your light on our souls, as we fearlessly examine ourselves. Let us see where we need to make changes in our attitudes, our feelings, and our behaviors. We ask you into our hearts, our Lord and God. Open up the chambers of our hearts and fill them with love and faith. And, Lord, as you fill us with your Holy Spirit, drive out all our shortcomings and sins. We know that our growth in the spirit is gradual, and we do not ask for an instant cure for the spiritual maladies we inherit with this mortal flesh. But step by step, inch by inch, may we measure our ascent up the mountain to the summit with you.

And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. And may warring factions find their way to peace.

Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

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Apr 8th, 2013

Those Who Have Not Seen
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
April 7, 2013

Isaiah 61:8-22 John 20:19-31 Psalm 133

In our New Testament reading this morning, Jesus appears to his disciples and shows them his hands and side. The disciples are overjoyed when they see Jesus. But Thomas is not with them. When the disciples tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Jesus, Thomas does not believe them. He declares, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” In the course of the story, Jesus appears to Thomas, too. He invites Thomas to do just what Thomas wanted to do to prove Jesus had risen and is alive. Jesus tells Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.” Humbled, Thomas can only say, “My Lord and my God!”
The disciples and Thomas are fortunate. They have actually seen and touched the risen Jesus. Jesus tells them, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This is where we are. We believe, but we have not seen. At least this is the case for most of us. There are those who have had near death experiences and tell of a dazzling white being who appears to them. But for most of us, all we have is the gospel testimony to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And John tells us that he has recorded the life of Jesus, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
There are two issues that come to my mind in this line that I would like to discuss this morning. The first issue is that of belief from the testimony of the gospels. The second issue is just what is meant by having life in the name of Jesus. For John tells us that we “may have life in his name.”
Let’s begin by talking about belief. Most of us haven’t seen Jesus. And I would say further that most of us probably don’t know anyone who has seen Jesus and come running up to us exclaiming, “I have seen that Lord!” as did Mary of Magdala. We are those of whom Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We are those for whom John has written his gospel. It is through the Gospels that we know about Jesus. And it is through the Gospels that we come to Jesus.
When I read the gospel stories, I have a feeling inside that this is true. My heart grows warm and I actually feel God’s presence in my heart. The may be called the emotional content of the gospels. This may be called an inner conviction that these stories are true. Not everyone has this feeling. There are those who read these stories and nothing happens. There are those who read these stories and doubt. There are those who read these stories and outright disbelieve. You could say that my feelings of conviction are entirely subjective. That is, my conviction depends on a feeling that I have inside me. This feeling of conviction is one that I can’t give to someone else. I can tell others that when I read the gospels I have a feeling of conviction. But I can’t give that feeling to another. And I must admit that that is the limit of my faith. My faith is an inward feeling that I can’t give to someone else. My proof for God’s existence is subjective, locked within my own feelings and thoughts, and I am unable to present others with anything more than my own feelings of conviction.
But there’s another aspect to the gospel stories. I have talked about the feelings that arise in me when I read the gospels. There is also a cognitive aspect to my experience of the gospels. There are all those beautiful teachings of Jesus. Reading the gospels also educate me in the way of love. The gospels show me how to walk in a Godly way. They teach me to be meek, humble, innocent, peace loving, and to be filled with love for God and my neighbor. So the gospels enkindle my heart and illuminate my mind.
Those qualities I just mentioned as the gospel lessons are included in the name of Jesus. So John says that “we may have life in his name.” By His name, much, much more is meant than just the word “Jesus.” All the qualities that Jesus embodied are meant by His name. Swedenborg writes that, “a name in the Word signifies the quality” (AC 2009). So the name Jesus means all the qualities that He stands for, taught, and demonstrated by His life. It is not just the word Jesus. When we say in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed be thy name,” it is not just the word God that we are talking about. It is all the holy qualities of God that are hallowed. So Swedenborg writes,
here also by name is not meant the name, but all the things of love and faith; for they are God’s or the Lord’s and are from Him. Because these are holy, the Lord’s kingdom comes and His will is done on earth as it is in the heavens when they are held as holy (AC 2009).
So by God’s name, or Jesus’ name, more is meant than just a word. All the holy things of love and truth that constitute God’s being are meant by God’s name.
This is what is meant by that controversial verse, John 3:18. The verse reads, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” Some Christians take this to mean that a person must believe in the name “Jesus” in order to be saved. They take this to mean that all the people in the world who have another name for God will not be saved. So the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jews, and all the other billions of people who are not Christian will not be saved. Common sense alone dictates that this cannot be true. And in our faith we say that God “is present to save all people, everywhere, whose lives affirm the best they know.” For it is not the word “Jesus” that saves. It is all the qualities that Jesus stands for that save.
It is the qualities that Jesus embodied and stood for that save. It is the love, the forgiveness, the meekness, the wisdom, the Godliness that were demonstrated by Jesus and that He stands for–these are the things that save regardless of what faith they are found in. These are the qualities that give life. When we ourselves embody these qualities, then we can be said to have life in His name. These are the qualities we heard in our Isaiah reading, “For I, the Lord, love justice . . . so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” It is righteousness and justice that are encompassed in the name of the Lord in this passage.
So wherever we find these Godly qualities, we find spiritual life whether the word “Jesus” is used or not. William Blake points to spiritual qualities when he talks of the divine image. God is not just a word, it is all the holy things of love and all the truths that teach the way of love. For Blake, some of these words are mercy, pity, peace, and love. And he writes in his poem, The Divine Image,

To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk, or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Blake says it so well. Wherever we see qualities like this, we are seeing God. Maybe we are more like the disciples than I thought at first, who believe and who see.

PRAYER

Lord, we call ourselves by your name. And we follow your ways in our own lives. But it is not your name alone that we worship. We honor all that you stood for. We emulate in our own lives what we see you doing in the gospels. We learn your teachings and we apply them in our own lives. For when we call upon your name, we call upon all the divine qualities you embraced on earth. We call upon all the divine qualities you embody now in your risen and glorified Humanity. We ask you to inspire our will, our intentions, and our hearts with those same qualities. That by living a life in keeping with your ordinances, we may truly be called by your name.

And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. And may warring factions find their way to peace.

Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth. Grant all who are in need your healing love and power.

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Apr 1st, 2013

Confused and Amazed
Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete
March 31, 2013
Easter Sunday

Luke 24:1-35 Psalm 136

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ brought wonder, joy, and bewilderment to His followers. While He lived, His teachings astonished His listeners because they had never heard such wisdom spoken with such authority. They were astonished by the miracles He performed. But the end of His life and His resurrection confused and amazed His followers.
Consider what Luke tells us about the apostles on the road to Emmaus. We first learn that as they walk they are discussing everything that had happened. They are trying to make sense of it all. How could this powerful God-Man have been sentenced to death, and been killed by the Romans? What are we left to do, now that our Master and teacher is gone? We are then told that the apostles’ faces are downcast. Of course they would be. Jesus Christ, whom they hoped would deliver Israel from Roman rule, instead was a victim of the Roman judicial system.
But there was also an element of amazement and confusion in what they were discussing. For they say that some of the women they know went to the tomb and found it empty. And as was the case with Jesus’ birth, these women had a vision of angels bringing them good tidings of great joy. That is, they told the women that Jesus is alive.
So these apostles had much to discuss indeed. Their understanding of scripture did not tell them how to interpret these happenings. Their Messiah was here, but He didn’t deliver Israel from the Romans. The Messiah had been executed, which was just wrong. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Then Mary Magdala had actually seen Jesus alive and had told the other disciples about this. Again, no Old Testament literature that they knew of talked about the death and resurrection of the Messiah. So there was much to discuss. There was much to try to figure out. The disciples were sad, amazed, and confused.
This is their state of mind when Jesus appears to them, and walks with them on the road to Emmaus. Jesus teaches them on the way. Luke tells us that, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 27). What Jesus was doing was opening to them the internal sense of scripture. When Luke says that Jesus began with Moses and all the Prophets, he means the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, and all the Prophets. This means that the story of the people of Israel and the poetry in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and the visions of Daniel and the others are all about Jesus.
Having heard this long Bible exegesis, the apostles now have scripture explaining the events they have witnessed. They now understand Jesus’ birth, His miracles, His death, and His resurrection. And when Jesus breaks bread with them, as He did at the last supper, they finally recognize that this wise man on the road is none other than their beloved Jesus Christ. They now recall that as Jesus walked with them and opened the Scriptures to them, their hearts were “burning within us.”
Why did they not notice the burning of their hearts when they were walking? Why were they kept from recognizing Jesus? Why didn’t they notice that this man walking next to them knew an amazing amount about the Bible and about Jesus’ life and mission? Why did they not recognize that this stranger was the only one who seemed to know the answers to all the questions they were discussing?
Maybe they were simply too amazed, confused, and sad to lift their eyes to Jesus and to believe what Mary Magdala had said. There they were, trying to figure things out, and all the while, the man they were trying to figure out was right there, walking beside them. Jesus calls them “foolish and slow of heart.” They are foolish by their lack of understanding of the Bible, and slow of heart because they are not paying attention to the burning hearts they have inside them as Jesus walks next to them.
We can be similarly foolish and slow of heart at times, I think. The miracle of the resurrection is that Jesus and God are one as the soul and the body are one. The infinite Creator God is united fully with the Divine-Human Jesus Christ. Jesus is Very God and Very Man, the creeds say. This means that the risen Jesus can walk next to us just as he did with the apostles on the road to Emmaus.
This means that we have the potential to feel Jesus’ presence in us as the burning heart that the apostles speak of. Our hearts can burn within us as we feel the resurrected Jesus near us. This may happen as we are reading the Bible. Or perhaps, when we are in prayer. Or when we are talking with another person and we are lifted above the worries and anxieties of this world.
The truth is that Jesus is always present. Deep within the recesses of our souls, God is present. But we are not always aware of this presence. We block this God-spark with selfish anxieties and worldly concerns. These distractions drag our consciousness away from our essential nearness to God. When this happens, we do not feel that nearness to God. We do not feel that burning of our hearts within us.
The miracle of the resurrection is that God and Man are fully united. This union of God and Man in Jesus Christ happened gradually over the life of Jesus. We see union when Jesus is transfigured on the mountain top in Mark 9:2-13. In fact, the great Renaissance painter Rafael painted the transfiguration with Jesus up in the clouds–arms uplifted. At first I thought that this was a painting of Jesus’ ascension up into heaven. Another place in which Jesus’ union with God is spoken of is John 10:30, where Jesus says, “I and the Father are one.” And we see Jesus’ full humanity when He prays on the Mount of Olives, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” This very human Jesus is said to be strengthened by an angel. And this very human Jesus prays even more desperately, “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 42-44). And with the resurrection, full union with God occurs. So Jesus can say, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:17).
The miracle of Christ’s union with God, so that God is Man and Man is God, has special meaning for each one of us. For Just as Jesus grew closer and closer to God and God to Him over the course of His life on earth, so we follow a similar pattern in our life on earth. We will find periods of closeness to God and periods of obscurity from God. And as we are refined as in an alchemist’s crucible, we grow more and more intimately united with Jesus. Our hearts grow more fiery with God’s Holy Spirit and our minds understand truth more accurately with God’s illuminating light. The worldly distractions that dim our feeling of God’s presence break apart and we are filled with the sunlight of the soul.
God united fully with the Divine Humanity of Jesus Christ. We unite with Jesus. Even as God is in Jesus, so Jesus is in us. Jesus says, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:20). This one line sums up the glorification of Jesus and our regeneration. The glorification of Jesus is the process by which He is filled with the Father. And our regeneration is the process by which we are filled with Jesus. The Greek Orthodox Church calls this process theosis, or divinization. It is an ancient tradition that speaks about our ascent to God and God’s descent into our souls. Regeneration, theosis, or divinization, the result is the same, summed up in that one line from John, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
As we drop the anxieties and worries of life in the world, and trust in God’s love and care for each one of us, we will feel our hearts burn within us as the apostles did on the road to Emmaus. They did not realize that they felt the heat of Christ’s love as they walked because they were too confused, bewildered, sad, and anxious. But when they calmed down and broke bread with Jesus, they saw the risen Christ for the first time. Having listened to Jesus open the Scriptures to them, they then understood. Their confusion was dispersed. They were left in amazement and joy. So may we be, when our hearts burn within us as we open our hearts to Jesus.

PRAYER

Lord, we are overflowing with joy this Sunday morning when we contemplate your glorious resurrection. You lived a fully human life. You knew birth, you grew into manhood, and you died, as every human will. And yet unlike any human, you rose from the dead body and soul. And in your risen divinity, you can come to each one of us as a human and as our God. You came to the earth when the earth had forgotten about you. You suffered at the hands of evil and sin. And you forgave. Come to each of us, as we pray to you this morning and every day. Walk with us as you walked with the apostles in ancient days. And lead us in the pathway that will bring us home, to your eternal and heavenly home.

And Lord, we pray that you bring peace to this troubled world. May those who harbor ill will for their neighbors learn to understand and see the fellow humanity that they share. May those who strive against each other see that they are like in their wishes and in what they want for their land and nation. And may warring factions find their way to peace.

Lord, we ask for you to heal those who are sick. As you worked miracles of healing when you were on earth, how much more can you work healing miracles now that you have risen and have all authority in heaven and on earth.

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