Matt. 7:13-14, 21-29
Rev. Kit Billings
June 22, 2003
Today is a wonderful day in the life of our church community! Today we celebrate what has been known in Swedenborgian churches throughout the world as New Church Sunday! [If you're a newcomer, a first-time visitor, to this congregation, then I pray that what you're about to hear will stimulate and interest you, and entice you to ask more questions—rather than swallow this “hook, line and sinker.”]
New Church Sunday is something that only congregations affiliated with the Lord's New Church celebrate…so for some of you today this may be a first time experience. We're doing this this morning to celebrate a very special event that took place in Heaven on June 19, 1770 when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ actually gathered together His original twelve disciples, living in Heaven at that time, and told them the tremendous GOOD NEWS that indeed the Lord had finally come again! That is, at that point in time, in the late 1700's the Lord's Second Coming was completed and would then continue to have major, ongoing spiritually positive consequences on earth, in human history, not to mention in the realms of Heaven and Hell forever!
Our church's teachings describe this great spiritual renewal period from 1757-1770, using traditional Christian terms such as the “Last Judgment” and “Second Coming.” This time period was a profound cleansing and reordering time in the realms of the afterlife, renewing all the regions and realms of the spiritual world—which therefore blessed all of humanity in big and substantive ways. Some of them are:
A new and fresh way of delving into the spiritual symbolism in God's Holy Word making the Holy Scriptures much more personal and useful to our spiritual lives than ever before.
Also, that humanity would receive as a consequence of this “cosmic Second Coming” a fresh and wonderful passion for spiritual and political freedom, which in part involved a new passion for the search for truth!—truth in science and in issues of theology and the spirit.
If you know something about the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment history, I think you get my gist.
As Swedenborg records this auspicious event on June 19, 1770 in his great work titled True Christian Religion it shows Christ calling together the twelve to give them a very special mission: “The Lord called together His twelve disciples, now angels, and sent them forth into the whole of the spiritual world, commanding them to preach the Gospel there anew, since the Church He had established there labors to this day, reaching its consummation such that scarcely anything of it [that is truly spiritual] remains.” Swedenborg continues in section 791: “After this work [True Christian Religion] was finished, the Lord called together His twelve disciples, who followed Him in the world; and the next day He sent them forth into the whole spiritual world to preach the Gospel that the Lord Jesus Christ reigns, whose kingdom shall be forever and ever, according to the prediction in Daniel. This took place on the 19th day of June, in the year 1770 and is meant by the words of the Lord: `He shall send His angels...and they shall gather together His elect...from one end of the Heavens to the other.' (Mtt. 24:31) And thus we read in Scripture, `They are blessed who come unto the marriage supper of the Lamb.' (Rev. 19:9)”
“This new church is the crown of all the churches which have up to now existed upon earth, because it will worship one visible God, in whom is the invisible God, as the soul is in the body. In this way and no other is God's link with man possible, because man is natural and so thinks in a natural fashion; and linking must take place in his thinking and so in the affection of his love, and this happens when a person thinks of God as man. Linking with an invisible God is like linking the sight of the eye with the expanse of the universe, the bounds of which are not to be seen. Or it is like looking out in the middle of an ocean, when the gaze falls on air and sea and is frustrated. But linking with a visible God is like seeing a man in the air or the sea opening his arms and inviting you into his embrace. For any linking of God with man must also be a reciprocal linking of man with God; and this second reciprocity is only possible with a visible God.”
So, how's thatfor a sermon opener?!
No other church in Christendom preaches this awesome message, and now I think you can see why it is that our denomination has always tended to refer to itself as the Lord's “New Christian Church.” The reason being New Churchmen believe that the Last Judgment and Second Coming are an historical fact, and that they renewed Christ's Church in major ways. If you think about it, whenever God has chosen in history to make a renewing and awesome advent into human history, into creation, so that spiritual life in the spiritual world and therefore in this world might be fundamentally renewed, a new title for that age is warranted. Two other prior advents (yet you should know that Swedenborg identifies five spiritual epochs altogether) into human history have already happened. One being God's call to Abraham and the birth of the Israelitish Church (since that revelation to Abraham and the Jews fundamentally reordered and renewed human spirituality and religious understanding of God), and another Advent certainly being God's Incarnation into life in the person and body of Jesus Christ. The Advent of Christ began what we may call the First Christian Church era; while His Second Advent, a COSMIC ADVENT, started the Second Christian Church era, which is the last in a succession of five different spiritual epochs described in the symbolic sense of God's Holy Word.
These awesome events, and many others, were recorded in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, who in some people's estimation was the world's greatest Christian mystic, theologian and spiritual surveyor of the worlds beyond, whose theology is the basic doctrinal foundation of this church—one that is grounded in and inspired by the Lord's Holy Word which rests so beautifully on our altar at all times.
Big Changes In the New Church
There are some enormously important and impacting changes that came through the doctrines of the New Church, which turned certain classical Christian ideas on their head, and are, interestingly enough, simply based within God's Divine Word. The meaning of these doctrines stem from both the literal and the symbolic depths of truth found in God's Word. I'd like to talk with you now about three crucial Christian theological concepts, which I believe are divine truth. Let's see what you think. As we celebrate the awesome blessing of the Lord's Second Coming today and the gift of His New (or Second) Christian Church era, let us turn our attention to several profound concepts that can strengthen our faith and our living—let's talk now about the great Oneness of God, the reality that salvation is a spiritual journey, and that ultimately what determines our eternal destiny are the spiritual choices we make every day and the kind of character we allow the Lord to develop within us.
Without a doubt in my mind, the greatest and most powerful truth expressed in our teachings is one that the Bible stands upon as an immense and solid granite rock, namely that the Lord our God is One. So many Christian churches teach and preach a theology, and express their prayers in such a way, that essentially divides God into three separate divine persons. They teach that God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three distinct divine persons somehow mysteriously still in oneness, and that to reach the Father one must pray to Christ, whom they say is the Father's intermediary and advocate.
At this point let me express sympathy for this deep and serious misunderstanding, because without the tremendous help from a gifted theologian like Swedenborg, the Bible can be interpreted, or misinterpreted in my own way of putting it, to teach this confusing theology of Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit not essentially being One and the same. The point here being, you see, that the glorified and risen Christ came into creation as God Himself Incarnate within a natural mind and body, yet who became fully God the Father in all power and Love. Much of Biblical thought recognizes this profound truth, that risen and glorified Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of Heaven and earth, the One whom salvation belongs.
For you see, for the human spiritual mind to be able to perceive, feel and imagine the risen Lord and connect with God in that way is perhaps the most powerful and stabilizing truth in life, which is why Christ bids us to worship Him and love Him in complete trust. Indeed, God is Infinite and beyond our full comprehension, but in His mercy the Divine assumed a human form and can still do so in our minds, not to mention in Heaven after we die. By separating the Infinite All-powerful God into three distinct personages in language and prayer, the First Christian Church theological constructs fundamentally confuse and therefore weaken the Christian mind. This kind of confusing Trinitarian theology draws one's mind to rest the most important truth in life upon a sifting sort of sand, separating God into three, rather than on one extremely clear and edifying Rock, who is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Many churches essentially put the Lord Jesus underneath God the Father, rather than as the Lord Himself said, as “one and the same.” Or as Swedenborg described it, God Invisible who has become Visible to us in His Divine Humanity. Personally, I totally agree with Swedenborg that when God is substantively separated into three persons, that's trying to separate an Infinitely All-powerful Being, which is an insane proposition. The church with Christ's Second Coming has powerfully clarified and substantiated that simply put, Jesus Christ is God of Heaven and earth, in whom dwells the fullness of the Deity bodily, as Paul asserted in Colossians II. I feel that it's quite important to note that since Swedenborg's day there have been others who emphasize God's Oneness, and I continue to “bump into” a number of Christians out and around who without ever reading Swedenborg have zeroed in on this profound issue that both the Jews and the Muslims understand intensely, and which has created tremendous rifts between them and Christians for thousands of years. As Swedenborg himself wrote, the spiritual influx and broad scale effect on earth is that such great spiritual concepts would on their own SIFT INTO CHRISTIANITY AS A WHOLE.
Our Spiritual Journey
The New Church brings so many healing and helpful theological ideas, which when deeply perceived as living truth, strengthen and support us in our journey of life. A major one for me is that the Lord is not a wrathful God, but One who is love and mercy Itself, who will guide us along our enormously important spiritual journey of life and enable us to grow and transform over many years time. Personally, I'm deeply glad we're not the only church around anymore who understands this vital spiritual truth.
At this point let me lighten things up a bit with a joke you may have already heard. What do you get when you cross an Evangelical Christian with a Unitarian Universalist? Someone who rings your doorbell and upon answering your door they exclaim, “Who am I?” If I were to ring my neighbor's doorbell and ask to share about my church I'd say, “Hello, my name is Kit Billings, would you care to talk a bit about our spiritual journeys? And would you like to hear about the Lord's New Church which teaches about a God of love, who is only good and wise and never wrathful and punishing?”
At any rate, God's Holy Word when seen in its entirety is one massive and tremendous story or journey! This simple truth illustrates and symbolizes a crucial Christian doctrine, which can bring comfort to those who learn over time that while it takes many years for an acorn to become an Oak tree, so does it take many, many years, choices and blessings from God for a human being to become an angel, a citizen ripe and ready for the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe this truth inspired that wonderful refrigerator magnet that reads: “God isn't finished with me yet.” Now you see, if Christians get the sense that their salvation isn't dependent very deeply upon the Lord gradually transforming or regenerating their heart (their will) and their thinking (and therefore their behavior) throughout life by means of our choices to turn toward what is good and true, then we may not give our spiritual lives our VERY BEST! Our all!!!! When we deeply know that salvation belongs to God since our Heavenly Father is the Source of all goodness and wisdom, and only He has the power to literally change our natural will from a generally selfish one into a God-centered one, then this “choice-centered theology” does not put the ultimate merit on the human being but still on the Lord. And that's why in part that Swedenborgians lovingly refer to the Lord as our Savior.
The New Church's stance on salvation is that we're all born for Heaven and that your place in Heaven is determined by the substance and quality of the love and faith within you. Your spiritual character matters. In other words, who and what you are INSIDE really matters!!! Yet the fundamental and extremely deep spiritual transformation of YOUR NATURAL WILL is God's spiritual handiwork—we are each simply a cooperative agent in this saving change. One can see then why it's vital that we be not only hearers of the Word, but also doers of the Lord's Word. Christ preached it crystal clear, “only the one who does the will of the Father” will enter Heaven—and certainly part of God's will is that we seriously and joyfully believe in Jesus as God and all He's done for us.
But you see, believing in Christ and doing His will is a choice.
The truth is that the Lord wants everyone in Heaven, but our inherited lust of selfishness and “materialism gone overboard” if cultivated can ruin God's plans. In reality, we're not just sinfulness; in reality we're kept by the Lord in between Heaven and Hell throughout life so that we're free inside to choose either the narrow way that leads us by degrees into Heaven, or the broad way that leads us by degrees into Hell—one important day at a time! And the only way for the Lord to get you into Heaven is for you to cooperate substantially with Him throughout your life. Ups and downs and many mistakes and hopefully less and less sinning are part of the learning journey, but an overall movement forward and upward is the concept here.
In Swedenborg's great work titled Heaven and Hell he explains what happens to everyone after we die. The first period is a light and easy one, of seeing old friends and family. Then things get more serious. As the Book of Revelation describes, the Lord does indeed “open your Book of Life” and lets you review your whole life from start to finish. The key issue being for you to understand without confusion what your choices have been. Gradually, the outer layers of your mind and spirit are peeled away and the truly real and substantive YOU is what remains. This is your personal, individual “last judgment” and as the Lord Himself said, “...and nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.”
In the New Church we teach that God is here to help you to choose to believe in the power and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, and more and more in gradual ways come to trust in His guidance, support and holiness in your life. He's here to help you to choose to let Him help you to see what is both good and true and what is evil and false within you, so that you may let the Lord help you to separate out the spiritual “wheat from the tares” inside of you, which is a long and crucial journey in and of itself.
Are you willing to believe in your tremendous potential and understand that you are a precious blessing to God and the one and only unique you that Heaven will ever hold, capable of performing a certain and deeply needed use there after death, if spiritual love is your ruling concern?
Not A Big Seller
This theology may not be a “big seller” in today's spiritual marketplace, but it sure is a wonderfully sensible one! For it calls you to let the Lord bring you into a deeper, stronger and softer place within you, a deeper part of you where our Risen Christ lives and breathes. There are so many vital and important teachings that make the New Church what it is, and a core thought is that the Lord lives within you, and needs you to seek Him and feel Him there, and open yourself to your own higher potential as you embrace the joy of worshiping the Lord and praying to Him about your real needs and concerns. He gives you the awesome strength, equal to or greater than the muscles of the Incredible Hulk, or Samson within the Book of Judges—strength that is to see and know the evil tendencies within your natural will and tear them up as Samson tore that ravenous lion into many pieces on his way to Timnah.
Today is a day to celebrate the wonderful and challenging and invigorating teachings and vision of the Lord's New Church. I don't know about you, but I'm so passionately grateful that in this blessed church our worship and classes are so open to not only singing and preaching that inspire the heart, but also ones that tantalize and stimulate the mind—that inspire you to think deeply and rationally! Here we really get it that it really matters how we live each day, every single day.
May the essential meanings within this great theology help you on your way, and strengthen your deep grasp of God's true Oneness, the simple yet powerful truth that the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns and His kingdom shall never end! May you take comfort in knowing that salvation is a journey, a great adventure! One that calls you to develop, with the Lord's great help, a character that will stand upon the Rock of Christian faith, and enable you to develop a character not built on sand but on the truth in God's Holy Word as you are able to perceive it.
Happy New Church Sunday everyone! Amen.