John 8:12, 31-36
Rev. Kit Billings
July 4, 2004
Nearly 250 years ago very brave men like John Quincy Adams debated and organized carefully to wind up fighting against tough odds and the British Empire to win us our political and religious freedom. They fought for the sake of freedom and release from unfair taxation and control. Rag-tag soldiers, otherwise known as farmers, learned how to fight and win under the brilliant leadership of General George Washington, not to mention with some help from the French military.
This morning I do not want to focus on political freedom, except to mention that in a more external sense even in a “free society” no one has absolute freedom. There are rules and laws within a free society, and if a person wants to live according to these laws then she will feel wonderfully free indeed. If we choose otherwise, then the awful sound of prison bars will one day close behind us. Likewise, if an automobile driver chooses to stay within the boundaries of lawful driving, such as choosing to drive on the right side of the road, then a freedom to explore seemingly endless landscapes around America is her joy! But choose to drive on the left side of the road and soon one's freedom to explore comes to a terrifying halt.
There are natural or civic laws of life that enable us to enjoy the freedom to learn, work, and develop a good and enjoyable life in this natural world we call Earth. And when we work and play within the laws of a free society in a real sense our natural freedom tends to increase through accumulation of wealth. In a similar vain, our spiritual minds are given many great laws of Heaven, which our Lord brought into our world in abundance, so that we can learn and grow spiritually in the truth and therefore gradually break free from the slavery of selfishness and the desire to control others. For you see, the natural degree of our minds (what some call the natural self) comes into this life in bondage and in love with a way of life that puts ourselves always as the highest concern, instead of God and His will. The natural mind wants to keep material and worldly things and aspirations as much more important than God's spiritual world and the laws and values of His Kingdom of Heaven; the natural mind comes into this world, in fact, with a great ease and comfort with wanting to make others subservient to us, just so that we can get our way, rather than cooperate and perhaps compromise.
Perhaps some of you are tennis fans like I am. Well, this past week or so my favorite tennis championships have been on television, the Wimbledon Championships, which take place in London, England. Seeing a little bit of those matches this week reminded me of when I used to play a lot of tennis as a teenager and in my 20's. Boy how fun it was to be able to run and hit that tennis ball, to work carefully on my tennis game—on groundstrokes, serving and volleying, and playing both singles and doubles matches. I have many fond memories of playing great matches with my brothers and sister and our friends, and I thank God for all the playing we did. But I also remember another aspect of playing that sport, which is something most of us wrestle with when in the midst of playing competitive sports, and that is a deep frustration when one finds one's self losing to want to control the play and ability of one's opponent. Most of the time I was able to keep those frustrations in check, yet the boiling hotbed of pain and anguish at losing was something I'll never forget. Later on in my early 20's as my spiritual regeneration moved on and as God had been able to slowly regenerate aspects of my natural will, a whole new perspective took hold. I began simply to relish the thrill of competition and could feel some joy in the joy of my opponent whenever he or she did something great. Love for us both began to take hold as the Lord kept taking me deeper into the spiritual degree and depths of my spirit.
Sports, I find, are an excellent way for human beings to come face to face with our “unregenerate self”—the natural mind, which our theology deals with at length. The unregenerate part of the lower self can often hate losing or looking defeated. If you want the epitome of examples in the sport of tennis, just go and play old footage of John MacEnroe back in the 1980's. All of his cursing and carrying on were more overt, albeit extreme, illustrations of the kind of pain and anguish the unregenerated natural will experiences when we cannot control life and others to suit our needs.
Swedenborg, like the Greek philosopher Pelagius (who wrote in the Fourth Century A.D.), learned that essentially speaking we all come into life in a state of equilibrium—right in between Heaven and Hell. Pelagius denied the doctrine of original sin and wrote that Adam's fall affected only Adam and believed that every human being is entirely free to choose between good and evil. Other theologians like St. Augustine said, “No! Adam and Eve's fall into sin made everyone after them slaves to sin, and that freedom consists in being born again as God's children, in loving the Lord and becoming aligned with God's will.”
Swedenborg discovered in his dialogues with the angels of Heaven and in his close, prayerful study of God's Word that really both Pelagius and St. Augustine of Hippo were right, however each theologian was dealing with two different aspects of spiritual freedom. Pelagius was talking about our core spiritual freedom, given us by the fact that the Lord sustains us in between Heaven and Hell so that we can choose between the forces working for good and those for evil, allowing us to tip the balance one way or the other during this lifetime on earth. The evil spirits in Hell try hard to drag us “downward,” so to speak, into their darkness and evil, while the angels strive to draw up “upward” into Heavenly love and truth. Both forces are extremely powerful, but each is only allowed a certain amount of pull at times due the Lord's constant success in keeping us in balance, and free. Augustine, I believe, was in touch with another aspect of spiritual freedom, which is the kind of freedom the angels in Heaven enjoy, the freedom to always do God's will and never again get trapped again by the bondage and shackles of the allurements of Hell.
There will come a point, in the next life after this one, if heavenly goodness and wisdom is our ruling love within us, when we will no longer be tempted to want the pleasures of hellish living. We will have grown beyond such evil, and our entrance into Heaven will embed us so powerfully and immensely that practically speaking, even though the choice to choose Hell over Heaven always exists, we simply will always prefer the joys and peace of God and His Kingdom. And this will happen only because during our life on earth we have chosen mostly to follow the Lord and His will and truth. This, Swedenborg and others have asserted, is TRUE FREEDOM!—the freedom to always want and embrace God and His love for you and all people.
Why? Because you simply have grown to love the Lord and His love and wisdom and way of life so very, very much.
But let us unpack this wonderful vision of life in Heaven…or rather, let us unpack some of the crucial spiritual journey it takes to one day get there. As Christ taught us, the only way to enter into life is to live by the Divine Commandments, which He reminded the rich young man who once asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life. The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes are but a few of the spiritual laws of life God has given us to learn and use every day of our lives here in this world. Thus, taking up the challenge of daily honoring and loving the Lord in our hearts so as to worship Him above all else; choosing to always honor God's holy names and also to live within the quality of what His names correspond to; learning how to honor our parents in spite of the fact that they are not perfect human beings; choosing to tell the truth and to align our thoughts every day with the spiritual truths of the Lord's Word; avoiding the evil of coveting that which we do not own; keeping the Sabbath Day holy, and more.
I have found that it can be pretty challenging, and very difficult at times, to live up to the standards of God's Word, yet how crucial it is to strive so very much each day to do so. For example, when we look at Christ's example of how He journeyed through His life we see a man who lived in times more full of desperation and injustice than our own. But did He let the harsh worldly dynamics, the injustice, the evil and the darkness overwhelm Him and rule His thoughts? No. He did not. He saw all the “bad news” but did not complain or make a big fuss over it. He named injustices to be sure, and once or twice called the religious leaders on to the carpet in a most vehement way. But instead of harping a bad attitude and judging others left and right, the Lord Jesus taught people the tremendous importance of leaning on God in prayer and never losing heart.
You see, the Lord knew so very well that we must dwell daily within spiritual truth and goodness, and “the truth shall set you free.” In doing so you allow your spiritual freedom within heavenly goodness to grow and increase!
Do you recall the Lord's parables in Luke's eighteenth chapter? First He taught us about the widow who would not stop from pestering a certain unjust judge until her case was heard. Christ then reminds us that if an unjust judge eventually heard the widow and vindicated her case, how much more with our Heavenly Father respond to you in your many prayers and concerns for what is right? Then Jesus told his followers another parable, about the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The Pharisee was looked down upon given that he focused on the sins and unrighteousness of others and never upon his own errors and sins. The Pharisee said, “I thank thee, O God, that I am not like the rest of men, greedy, dishonest, adulterous; or, for that matter, like this tax-gatherer. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all that I get.” And while the Pharisee was focusing upon the negative in others and in life the humble tax-collector beat his breast with shame and prayed to God, “O God, have mercy on me, sinner that I am.” And Jesus then said, “It was this man, I tell you, and not the [Pharisee] who went home acquitted of his sins. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
In other words, everyone who chooses to humble themselves in light of others will be lifted high by God in this life and the next. We who choose to focus on what we see wrong in people may one day find ourselves living in Hell, rather than focusing on how to contribute to the positive will of the Lord.
In His Sermon On The Mount the Lord made it so powerfully clear that there is no excuse for always being down and focused always on what is wrong, rather than being rooted in God and His Divine Providence, centered within the immense and awesome Love that God feels for us. In that sermon, which Christ preached to a bunch of peasant Jews like Himself, the Lord preached with zeal that when we face and live life in God's Kingdom, which dwells within us all, we have all reason to be happy and motivated toward God's good ends in life. Now, before I remind you of the Lord's greatest sermon and the words He chose to express, first let me offer some education about the reality of what it meant to live in First Century Palestine as a peasant farmer or worker under Roman occupation.
George Foster wrote descriptively of the harsh realities of peasantry in a famous article in 1967 (the year your pastor was born!) titled, “Peasant Society: A Reader”. He wrote that “the model of cognitive orientation that seems to me best to account for peasant behavior is the `Image of Limited Good.' By `Image of Limited Good' I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned. Not only do these and all other `good things' exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities.” Historically we know that peasants often felt hungry, and often a parent might have to give up most or all of his dinner meal to keep the children from starving. Peasants were simply poor and powerless. They were slaves to their occupiers. They often only lived into their 30's and were known as the untouchables of their time. If you were poor back then, you were seen as unclean most likely. If peasants tried to make political defiance, they were typically clubbed harshly, either that or simply killed or tortured.
Now, it was toward a crowd of Jewish people living as peasants that Jesus preached: “How blessed (or happy) are you who are in need; the kingdom of God is yours. How blessed are you who now go hungry; your hunger shall be satisfied. How blessed are you who weep now; you shall laugh. How blessed you are when men hate you, when they outlaw you and insult you, and ban your very name as infamous, because of the Son of Man. On that day be glad and dance for joy; for assuredly you have a rich reward in heaven; for in just the same way did their fathers treat the prophets.” (Luke 6:20-23)
Now, with this said, for true there is injustice, adultery and poverty all around the world. No question about it. However, instead of waxing in complaint about what we see as wrong, turn a brighter eye follow the advice of Paul: “Whatsoever things are true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely, and of good report—if there be any virtue or any praise (and you will find much of these things if you just look for them!), fill all your thoughts with these things.” (Phil. 4:8) In his prior verses Paul reminds us to not get lost in anxiety, “but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which is beyond our utmost understanding, will keep guard over your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.”
God and His Kingdom of angels are constantly around and within you. As you keep your heart and mind focused daily upon the side of spiritual freedom belonging to the Lord, your natural mind changes and your tastes will change. Then those unhealthy things you once enjoyed will lose their tastiness, and the miracle of regeneration unfolds! Swedenborg refers to this as the Lord slowly opening you up to the spiritual degree of your mind, whose goodness and mercy and strength have no end.
We can always experience a gradual increase of spiritual freedom to further embrace and use the Lord's divine truth as we give ourselves out to others, rather than in trying to make others do what we want. As spiritual freedom increases, we gradually come to discover and feel that the Lord is working right along side of us and sharing something of His infinite power.
So go! Go and claim greater freedom in the infinite spiritual power of our Savior! Your current life circumstances are perfect for you to do this…you are now in the balance point in between Heaven and Hell. Raise your head high and rejoice, for the Kingdom of God is here! As Paul boldly wrote: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37-39)
Gracious Lord, we praise You and give You our thanks for this blessed Fourth of July and this Sabbath Day. It's a joy to celebrate Your Sabbath—a day of rest from worldly cares, a day to learn about and meditate upon Your Word, a day for spiritual charity and love for our neighbor, a day for prayer and supplication. We are grateful for Your special protection we receive this day to rest from spiritual combat, and gain strength to begin again when Monday rolls around. We are thankful that we are free inside to choose to follow You and learn about You. We are thankful that we are free to love You and others, as You have loved us.
Thank You, Father, for maintaining our spiritual freedom to pick up our cross each day and join millions of others as Your disciples. Help us to use the freedom You provide wisely, so that one day, when this life ends, we may join others within the greatest freedom there is—life with You in Heaven. Amen.