Ruth 1:8-22 #3 “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”
John 15:1-17 #28 “God Is Love! The Heavens Tell It”
Valentines Weekend Sermon
Rev. Kit Billings
February 13, 2005
The month of February is essentially known as a month to celebrate love, love in all of its forms. I am in full support of this custom of celebrating Valentines Day, which has both Christian and pagan roots. Why? Because wherever genuine love lives and exists God is there too, for indeed God is love as the New Testament reveals. Even when those feelings and energies are not attached to God’s name, still the Lord is present wherever loving attitudes, thoughts and feelings reside and flow.
But things get even more interesting than this! Indeed they do. What we will be dealing with today is the distinction between the love God shines into His Christian Church as compared with all non-Christian hearts and minds. And yet, we will also be reflecting today about how marvelously interconnected and interdependent we all are with one another as people that are interdependent through goodness and justice, just as every cell in the human body depends upon the rest to fulfill its life and function. This morning we are talking about the love God shares in His Church specific as well as in His Church Universal, which is made up of all people of good will everywhere.
In the Lord’s dispensation of truth into our world through our church teachings we learn that a synonym for the first name in the Christian trinity, namely the “Father,” is Divine Love. In other words the Father of life, our Creator God, is infinite, eternal Love itself—our theology reveals that this pure Love is what God is in His core or essence. As God’s Holy Word is opened from not only seeing it in literal ways, but also in its deeper meaning, God the Father is also to be seen as infinite, all-powerful Love.
The truth is that far from being an easily angered being, the Father that Christ spoke of so often is actually infinite, pure Love, which is uncreated and indestructible. And it is this pure, uncreated and therefore eternal Love that was the very soul of Christ our Savior when Jesus was working his great ministry on earth, blessing so many, many people with the Light and heat from that Father-Love in his soul. It was that Divine-Father Love growing fully in Jesus’ mind that enables Him to be rejected, beaten, scourged and tortured, and then hung to die crucified on a cross and be able to respond to His killers with lovingkindness and mercy. This is something great and wonderful for us to meditate upon as disciples of our Lord God, and meditate upon it often. Valentines Day is but a sweet reminder for us to meditate and reflect upon the existence and flow of God’s Love in all of its many streams that blesses human lives everywhere, often times through the lovingkindness of people while at other times through the gift of the loving approach of God as a beautiful, mystical, soft inner experience of the mind.
This morning I’d like to talk with you about the greatness of love in terms of this amazing concept and vision that our New Church theology describes so beautifully that we may call the Lord’s Universal Human presence in both His Kingdom beyond and within His Universal Church on earth.
Our theology teaches that endless, Almighty Love is the actual Powerhouse of all life in both the spiritual and natural universes, which is seen, felt and experienced in Heaven as a great and luminous Sun burning away up in the sky there in God’s Kingdom. The Lord spoke of this wise, universal Love he has for all people in Matthew’s fifth chapter in these words: “For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The difference between the Sun of Heaven and the sun up in our solar system is that the Sun of Heaven is the common manifestation of the Lord’s Divine presence, and the heat and light of that Sun in Heaven is Love and Wisdom, pouring into creation!
I would invite you, therefore, the next time you have the pleasure of experiencing a bright, beautiful day outside to open your mind to that experience and try to perceive the image, the form, the substance and the light of that gorgeous golden orb up in the sky as a representation…a correspondence if you will…of how God often appears to people in Heaven. For it is the vital, deep-down heat and energy from God’s Divine Love pouring forth into life from the spiritual Sun shining in Heaven that gives every thing and every person in existence the vital heat of life at the core of what we are. For in truth, Pure Love Itself is the very essence of our Creator, of our Lord and Savior Jesus. And that infinite Love cannot be angered or made wrathful. It does not condemn and it does not punish. But for those who oppose it, they will find themselves pursued, limited and thwarted by the Lord (sometimes from a serious and passionate zeal), which is why some back in ancient Bible times described God as angry and wrathful. It is easy to ascribe natural human emotions onto God, but we are taught in our church not to do this.
The Holy Bible teaches that Jesus Christ gradually was glorified by the Father, which is saying more deeply that Jesus was glorified by the Divine Love that was His soul, which reminds us that when we are in the presence of the Lord we are in the presence of pure Love manifesting…making itself known and personal. Anyone who has actually experienced the presence of Christ feels and knows this down to the marrow of their bones. Paul described the “body of Christ” which was an extension of what Jesus taught that being God-manifest we are to be in Him and He in us, and thus we are to eat His flesh and drink His blood, are we not? This is the typical language of correspondence that the Lord often used: for in this we understand Christ’s flesh to be His body of love and His blood to be the life-giving force of His Divine truth, and both combining within us give us heavenly spiritual life!
The basic point here is this: the Lord is passionate about His children spiritually being in His love and truth every day, as well as in Him dwelling personally within our hearts and minds. Christ teaches us this in our Gospel lesson in John today. His language is, He is the vine and we are His branches. Apart from Him we can do nothing.
After Jesus became fully glorified God entered life in His universal Divine Humanity. Practically speaking this simply means that once Jesus ascended, the Lord God the Almighty brought much more Divine Love into life by means of the victory God had in Jesus Christ. St. Paul was aware that Christ now has a “body” if you will, different from the natural body Jesus inhabited before He rose from His grave. And now instead of having physical organs and flesh, Christ’s Divine body has various societies and functions within His Kingdom for people to inhabit and enjoy! Thus, Heaven is a diverse grouping of human beings. There are various organs and kinds of people in that one body. Swedenborg discovered that when God looks upon His Kingdom of Heaven He sees it in the shape and form of a gigantic human being, which is really the Lord’s Divine Humanity being our eternal home and we being organically a part of the Divine (as branches on a vine), while the Lord also lives in us.
What is so important for people to learn is that Heaven exists in this Divine Human form, and that the great and pervasive Love of God, that vital spiritual heat we spoke of before, spreads itself from the interior regions of Heaven out and into the outward regions too. God’s Love is therefore as the very heart of Heaven, and His truth is as the lungs of Heaven. The people of Heaven who have chosen to embrace God in Christ draws them into the more central regions of Heaven, and here on earth the same principle is happening all the time. We people on earth are connected in some way to the Lord’s Kingdom when we are living a life of goodness. The central organs of Heaven can be described as the heart and lungs of God’s Universal Human…the Grand Man as some have called it. These central areas of Heaven are where the genuine, loving, faithful Christians find homes after death—the people who have made both the love and truth of Christianity their higher passion, that is, those who possess the Word of God and understand it according to true doctrine and who worship the Lord God in His Divine Human. For indeed, those open to God’s incarnation of Love and Truth in Jesus Christ are choosing a more intense and deep revelation of God in His Divine Love, which saves people from our selfish evil. The other regions of the Universal Human often called “Heaven” are the home of non-Christians of varying faiths and perspectives, whether they be the good, peace-seeking, justice-centered faithful followers of Islam, Judaism, and the like. Thus, as we envision Heaven in one Grand Human form, non-Christians would live somewhere in the arms, legs, hands or feet. Genuine Christians make up the heart and lungs of heaven, which means that it is through soulfully pure Christianity that God’s Love and Wisdom is poured into Heaven and His Universal Church on earth.
For indeed, the Love that God brought into life and our world through our Savior Jesus sends His Love and Light into every good place and religion on earth, whether or not the people of those religions recognize this or not. Genuine Christianity simply gets a more full, intense and glorious degree of the Lord’s Love and Light than the others, and all are free to choose what degree of intensity we are happiest with. As we reflect for a moment upon our own physiology, the pumping action, movement and work of our heart and lungs keeps the whole human body alive and renewed—so too does the presence and work and life-force of every Christian enable all love-oriented people to remain connected to God. Yet still, any person on earth or in the spiritual world who has love and faith in God and charity and kindness for his fellow man as his central principle and passion in life is a part of God’s Universal Human in Heaven, or if living on earth a part of God’s Universal Church on earth.
We can feel and experience this in tangible life, can’t we? For whether the person we are working with is a Christian, Jew or Muslim, does not that person’s warm affection and cheerful smile bring a blessing from God into our hearts? Have you ever watched the Dali Lama, for example, talk warmly about the great importance of a loving, compassionate heart in life, knowing that he does not believe that Jesus was and is Divine? I have. And I was moved very deeply by the spiritual truth the Dali Lama is conscious of in how he understands the deep centrality of compassionate caring. Does not charity and goodness join us and connect us with one another?—that is what love does! Genuine love joins us all together while accurate, discerning truth distinguishes and separates us.
Valentines Day is a time to celebrate the reality that God has joined us all together in his Spirit of love and goodness. This is a time, in this month of February, to feel joined in spirit with all people who celebrate love regardless of their faith and orientation. Today we are celebrating God’s Universal and His Christian Church on earth. For indeed, God is love…thus, all love is God.
We can see and recognize the universal presence of the Lord’s Spirit and the Love, which is His essence working and moving among all people, within the great story of Ruth in the Old Testament. Ruth was a Moabite woman, not raised in the company of the people of Israel. Yet when Naomi (her Hebrew mother-in-law) was facing easy death in her attempt to journey home from the land of Moab back to Judah after their significant men were all killed (most likely in battle), see how Ruth displayed this moving, heartfelt spiritual love and compassion for her mother-in-law. How awesome it was when she said: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” Clearly, that woman was deeply and powerfully in touch with real, spiritual love and devotion.
Do true stories of tremendous love and compassion just “get” you where it counts, whether or not the people in them are overtly Christian or not? We know when genuine love is chosen and happens in life, and when it does it seems to feed us or inflame us in the most positive of ways. Spiritual love, like the kind that Ruth felt in her heart, is very open to sacrifice…loving someone else more than ourselves, being willing to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of another. This is how Christ described the nature of love at its greatest in John’s fifteenth chapter: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
We see this kind of good, sacrificial love brought into the month of February by the legend of St. Valentine. The legend has it that St. Valentine lived in Rome during the third century. At that time, Rome was ruled by an emperor named Claudius II. Valentine didn't like Emperor Claudius, and he wasn't the only one. A lot of people shared his feelings! The Emperor, it turns out, wanted a huge army and he chose to build it by means of volunteer participation. But most of the men of Rome preferred a life of marriage and spending time with their children to joining the Roman Army. In order to persuade the men otherwise, Claudius II made marriage illegal, and many people were very upset about this. One special priest of the Catholic Church chose to defy the Emperor; he had a wonderfully crazy idea and he began performing illegal, small, private wedding ceremonies for young lovers, often by candlelight. They would keep their ears open for approaching footsteps of Roman soldiers while the ceremony was performed. One night those fateful steps were heard and the young couple escaped, but not St. Valentine. He was captured and thrown into prison, sentenced to death. Valentine tried to remain cheerful, and in order to help him many young couples came to the window of his cell and threw flowers and cards of support to him, reminding him that they too still believed in love.
One of these young people was the blind daughter of the prison guard. Her father allowed her to visit Valentine in his cell so that he could teach her the classic story. He also taught her about Jesus the Christ. Sometimes they would sit and talk for hours. She helped the death-row inmate to keep his spirits up. Legend says that she agreed that the Saint did the right thing by ignoring the Emperor and going ahead with the secret marriages. On the day before St. Valentine was to die she asked him why a loving God who performed miracles would allow her to be blind. He told her that we did not know why but that sometimes when people prayed from their heart a miracle would indeed happen. She asked him to pray and together they prayed for a miracle. They prayed for a long time and then suddenly the cell was filled with light and her sight was restored! She left the cell that day a believer in the love and healing power of Christ. The next day when she came to the Saint’s cell, she found they had taken him away for execution. She found the note he left for her thanking her for her friendship and loyalty—it was signed: "Love from your Valentine."
I believe that note started the custom of exchanging love messages on Valentines Day. It was written on the day St. Valentine died, February 14, 269 A.D. Now, every year on that day, people remember. But most importantly, they think about love and friendship. And when they think of Emperor Claudius, they remember how he tried to stand in the way of love, and they laugh -- because they know that love can't be beaten!
And we can know, as striving members of the Lord’s New Church specific who hope one day to live within the very heart and lungs of Heaven, that whenever love is aspired to or celebrated it is actually our Lord and Savior, God Himself, who is being honored and loved. May our work and ministry as Christians help more and more people to come to personally know and understand the Lord as the one Source of all love in life. Amen.
PASTORAL PRAYER: We give You thanks, O Lord of life, for giving us such great stories and lessons in Your Word that teach us of the nature of love. Thank You for the stories in Genesis that teach us that both men and women are made in Your image and that marriage love is sacred and good. Thank You, dear God, for Moses and his Egyptian mother who taught the world that adoption is a good and loving deed. Thank You for the story of Ruth and the depth of love she revealed to our world, and that being an in-law is a sacred calling too. Thank You for your many acts and words of love and compassion that You brought through Your incarnation, in Jesus, which fill our hearts and minds with great Light! And thank You, dear Lord, for inspiring the day called Valentines Day, and for this month of February, which is a month of celebrating love in all its forms—between spouses, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, and between friends of all kinds. We pray that You would help us in our growth into Your love, O God our Savior.