A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper
Preached in Mitchellville, Maryland February 11, 1996

“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

It’s obvious that each of us has made either a conscious or an unconscious decision to come to church today. Today’s sermon deals with the reasons behind a person’s decision to come to church, and attempts to answer why people feel a need to attend church, and to discover what it is in the human makeup that draws us together to contemplate the Divine influence in the course of our lives.

Many of us come to church without taking much thought about it. It is what we always do on Sunday. Attendance at church is for many a tradition, a habit, something that is done as naturally as walking. I think we can say with a fair degree of assurance that the angels themselves have just such a habit, and it gives them great delight to freely express it. After all, is not the process of regeneration a matter of getting rid of bad habits and acquiring good habits with the Lord’s help?

But there are others of us, who, for one reason or another, have never acquired the habit of regular church attendance, and so must make a conscious choice to attend church each week. It is necessary to speak in broad generalities here, for there are as many specific reasons as there are individuals making the choices, and of course each individual makes that choice each week after balancing many different options, but several general areas that are worth thinking about can be identified.

The first area to consider is that of the very nature of our church services. Our services are designed to attempt to balance two uses: worship of the Lord and instruction from His Word. The worship includes elements of both humiliation and praise, the prayers while kneeling representing humiliation and supplication, and songs while standing representing praise and adoration. The instruction includes both reading directly from the Word and preaching from the Word. In other words, our church services have been carefully designed to serve many needs in ways as appropriate as possible. However, the area of instruction in general and the sermon in particular have taken on a greater importance than the worship. Perhaps this is because the sermon is the largest single element in the service. Perhaps since the priest spends a far greater time preparing the sermon than any other element of the service, it takes on a pre-eminent status in the priest’s mind, and so subconsciously affects his attitudes which then eventually find their way to the congregation.

Because of our emphasis on reading the Word, and the sermon as the most important part of church, and perhaps because of our traditional emphasis on education as a special use of the New Church, many people choose to come to church to hear the sermon’s message, to be instructed. We come to church hoping to hear something from the Word that will help us out in the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. We hope that we will hear something that will help us solve our problems. Fortunately, that hope and desire is satisfied often enough that we continue to come. Obviously, very few people would continue coming to a church week after week if they were never satisfied with the instruction they received. So we can say that one major reason that people come to church is to learn things that will help them live more satisfying lives.

But the skeptic asks, “Why do you go to church for that when there are so many self-help books and special interest clubs available?’ Indeed, why do we need to come to church for these things? Why is church felt to be so special? If people choose to come to church to learn things, why not have a doctrinal class format? These questions focus our attention on another major reason for attending church: to satisfy some of our emotional needs.

The Heavenly Doctrines tell us why we hunger for more than just instruction when they tell us that a person is more than just his intellect, that his mind is both will and understanding. The affectional part needs to be stimulated and fed too. However, it is more subtle in getting its message across. Unlike the intellectual side, the affectional side of us cannot directly communicate ideas, so instead it supplies the desire, the inclination, to worship, and the intellectual provides the reason (which of course it couches in its own rational terms). So we feel an urge to go to church (from the affectional side of the mind) and the intellectual side provides the reason, which is to go and learn something.

This is illustrated by the way we act on vacation. We take our children to a zoo or to some historical spot and we then commence to lecture them about the important events that happened at that spot, or instructing the children in the various things that we have learned about the animals. The affectional side of us just wanted to have a family outing to some place new and interesting, and perhaps to enjoy looking at the animals, but the intellectual side is embarrassed at such a blatant waste of time, so it has to provide some rational reason for such otherwise frivolous behavior. As a result we make a holiday trip into an “educational experience” for the children so that we won’t be caught having fun. We need to remember that the affectional and intellectual sides of us are partners, that there is value in play for the sake of play, in doing something together for no other reason than to share a pleasant experience.

This should remind us of the memorable relations where we see the angel wives gently but powerfully leading their husbands by merely a look or a gesture, but the husbands were unable to communicate in that way and instead gave lengthy explanations of what they were doing. This should illustrate the idea that going to church is like a marriage. Worship is the “wife” and instruction the “husband,” that is, the affectional side of a church service is as essential to the churchgoer as a wife is essential to a marriage!

Our affectional side, our will, speaks in our mind without words. It acts as an “inner voice” that does not argue, does not fight, but when we begin to choose to do the wrong things, it makes us uneasy. At the same time, it makes us feel good when we are doing the right thing. Indeed, it has been said that the reason people attend church is to “attend to the inner voice.” The interesting thing is that this inner voice has a common message to all people, a message that gently draws them to worship in some way. The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that the Lord Himself flows into the mind of every person, from the beginning of his life to eternity, with the message that there is a God and that He is one (see TCR 8). The Lord Himself is that inner voice, gently, quietly calling us to Himself. There are many places in Scripture where the word “voice” is used, and we are taught that when it is the voice of Jehovah, it represents a “revelation” from God (see AC 219), and at other times it represents the “thought and affection, which are the interior things of the voice” (AC 10455).

We are also taught that doctrine, that is, how we understand how the Word applies in our lives, is formed by reading the letter of the Word from doctrine. The teaching about the universal influx shows how this is possible. The Lord flows into the interior degrees of the mind of every individual from the first moment of life with this central doctrine: that there is a God and that He is one. Every human being shares this heritage and gift from God. What he does with it afterwards is a matter of his own free choice, but every one of us begins with this doctrinal basis “built in.” Everything we learn after that is learned in the light of this first truth, particularly the things that we learn from the letter of the Word. Can’t we see this from the way little children speak of the Lord with confidence and joy? They are pre-disposed to receive the Word with gladness.

As we grow older, we learn many things, most of which are not from the Word. We learn about cruelty, hatred, and greed, and as we see others exhibit these evils we become cynical, skeptical and suspicious. The “inner voice” cannot be stilled, but it becomes much harder to hear amidst the noise of a mind fully involved in the things of the world. But it is there, quietly, gently feeding its message of hope and peace into the turmoil of the active mind. So we come to church to attend to the needs of the inner voice as well as to learn strategies for coping with life, but we cannot properly care for the needs of the inner voice until we are aware of it and come to know its needs, to be sure to make our visit to church worshipful. We can improve the quality of our worship by first recognizing its importance as the feeding of the affectional side of our minds, and so preparing ourselves for genuine worship.

Two specific ways to prepare ourselves for worship are firstly to leave personal cares at home when we come to church, and secondly to examine the thoughts we have while in church from time to time to avoid allowing our minds to wander into thoughts about the house, or things yet to do at work, or whatever. It is very important that the mind be focused on the Lord and the things of His kingdom if genuine worship is to take place. Further, there must be an opening of the way if instruction about the Lord is to enter; the walls of resistance have to be lowered. This cannot be done automatically, but we must consciously choose to open ourselves to worship and instruction, for the hells do not want this to happen and will inflow with all manner of distracting thoughts if they perceive that we are beginning to genuinely worship and learn about the Lord.

Our rational minds tell us that we should worship the Lord because we have read the Word, and we have found that when we live according to the Ten Commandments our life is more satisfying than when we do not; therefore we can believe that the Word is from the Lord and is true: it is true because we perceive that to live according to it is good. The Word tells us in many places that we should worship the Lord, so we have duly set up churches and other places of worship where we go to fulfill this instruction addressed to our rational mind, and this is as it should be. However, we need to remember that the affectional side of our life needs nourishment too; it needs to humble itself before the God of Love, to join with friends and family to sing praise to Him who gives life to all, to rest in the warmth of His love, to be simply and profoundly grateful to Him who created us, and who sustains us with His love every moment of our lives. Amen.

Lessons: Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38; John 15:1-17; TCR 8 (portions)

True Christian Religion 8

There is a universal influx from God into the souls of men of the truth that there is a God and that He is one. That there is an influx from God into man is evident from the universal confession that all good that is in itself good, and that exists in man and is done by him, is from God; in like manner every thing of charity and every thing of faith; for we read: “A man can take nothing except it be given him from heaven” (John 3:27); and Jesus said: “Without Me ye are unable to do anything” (John 15:5), that is, anything that pertains to charity and faith. This influx is into the souls of men because the soul is the inmost and highest part of man, and the influx from God enters into that and descends therefrom into the things that are below, and vivifies them in accordance with reception. The truths that are to constitute belief flow in, it is true, through the hearing, and are thus implanted in the mind, that is, below the soul. But by means of such truths man is simply made ready to receive the influx from God through the soul; and such as this preparation is, such is the reception, and such the transformation of natural faith into spiritual faith.

There is such an influx from God into the souls of men of the truth that God is one because everything Divine, regarded most generally as well as most particularly, is God. And as the entire Divine coheres as one, it cannot fail to inspire in man the idea of one God; and this idea is strengthened daily as man is elevated by God into the light of heaven. For the angels in their light cannot force themselves to utter the word “Gods.” Even their speech closes at the end of every sentence in a oneness of cadence, and there is no other cause of this than the influx into their souls of the truth that God is one.


A Sermon by Rev James P. Cooper
Preached in Mitchellville, Maryland
February 5, 1995

“Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you” (Deut. 16:17).

One of the most precious images of the Christmas story is that of the wise men presenting their gifts to the Christ Child. They gave Him gifts as a symbol of their recognition of Him as their King, and their submission to His rule. We note that giving gifts to the king is an ancient custom, and the Heavenly Doctrines teach that this was done to represent the acknowledgment that the Lord, the King of Kings, is the giver of all gifts.

It is also true that this representative was perverted and led to human sacrifice as people lost sight of what the act represented, and began to think naturally and so believed that sacrificing what they valued most, their own children, would please God and bring them even greater wealth. We also know that the Lord instituted animal sacrifice with the Jews not because He enjoyed the sacrifices, but because this was a lesser evil than sacrificing their own children.

We know that He taught through Samuel that it was not the sacrifices that He loved, but our obedience. Unfortunately, the Jews did not want to obey; they wanted to be able to remain in the simple requirements of the covenant, to perform certain rituals and enjoy the Lord’s protection in return. We also know that they were unable to do even that, and repeatedly fell into idolatry and other sins. These things happened to them because they loved the things of the world so much that they didn’t even believe that spiritual things existed.

Aside from the various offerings made at special occasions such as the birth of a child, the Jewish Church required an offering of a tithe, or a minimum of ten percent of each person’s produce. The practical reason was the need to support the priesthood, which could in turn organize and perform the various rituals of the church, which were quite varied and complicated, and required a large number of people with specialized skills to serve the needs of the congregation of Israel. The spiritual reasons were that through their rituals the angels of heaven were inspired to genuine, internal worship of the Lord, and that men would be compelled to learn simple charity.

We are asked to contribute to the church for exactly the same reasons: It is of spiritual value for each of us to sacri- fice what we value to the Lord, and it is absolutely essential that the uses of the church be supported.

It has become the practice in most Christian churches to support the building of churches and a specifically trained, professional clergy through contributions. By the end of the Reformation in Europe, Sweden, like many European countries, had a state religion. A state religion received the financial support of the state, that is, churches were built and the clergy were paid by funds collected as taxes and administered by the government. This was certainly the case in Swedenborg’s day, as indicated in our lesson from the True Christian Religion where it says, “Taxes . . . are collected for the preservation and protection of their country and the church” (TCR 430).

This also helps to explain why more is not directly said about contributions to the church in the Heavenly Doctrines: in those days it was the common practice to support the church from public funds.

We have no intention of even thinking about the implications of having a state religion and state-administered funds today. The whole concept of spiritual freedom set forth in the Heavenly Doctrines warns us against such a system.

Doctrinally, spiritually, it is far better for us to be left in freedom to join and support a church according to our own conscience and needs. But with such freedom comes responsibility. The day of the state religion is over, and with it the financial support of the church by the state. The freedom of choice is ours, and we earn that freedom by taking the financial support of our church upon our own shoulders.

It is quite clear from the sense of the letter of the Word that we are to contribute to the physical and material welfare of the physical embodiment of the church. We read in Exodus 25:2 “Speak to the Children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” And 35:22 “They came, both men and women, as many as had a willing heart, and brought earrings and nose rings, rings and necklaces, all jewelry of gold, that is, every man who offered an offering of gold to the Lord.”

The people came willingly, giving of their own treasure so that the tabernacle could be built. And we are told that they gave generously so that there was more than enough to complete the job. The Children of Israel, so often complaining and difficult, were capable of acknowledging their debt to Jehovah for bringing them out of the slavery of Egypt and leading them across the wilderness into the promised land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. As for us, while we may not have been slaves making bricks in Egypt, we certainly have been enslaved by our evils; we have had to pass through a wilderness of temptation, and, with the Lord’s constant guidance and help, can look forward to eventually entering the spiritual land of Canaan. We too have a great deal for which to be grateful to the Lord. We should, therefore, heed the words of our text, that every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you.

While on the one hand it is clear that it is extremely important for each of us to give as we are able, it is also extremely important that we not be compelled to give, for true freedom comes only through self-compulsion (see AC 1947). You may be able to compel people to attend a church service, but you cannot compel them to listen with attention. You can compel external worship, but you can never compel internal worship. That is why all the sacrifices that were commanded in the Mosaic Law were called “gifts” and “offerings,” for the offerings of that church represented internal worship (see AC 1947).

The problem is that our intellectual acknowledgment of the need to contribute to the church for our own good and for the good of the church is neatly balanced by our loves of acquiring and holding onto the riches of the natural world to the point of refusing to acknowledge the gifts we daily receive from God by any kind of gift in return. Even the disciples themselves, being first of all Jews, had great difficulty understanding the importance of symbolically giving up the things of this world for the sake of spiritual life. We read from Matthew: 26:7,8 A woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “To what purpose is this waste?”

We need to see clearly and rationally that, in the long run, it is in our own best interest to give up the things of the world for the sake of spiritual things. We read from Luke 12:33-34: “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Our reaction to the necessity of giving money to support the public good is actually a measure of our own spiritual states, a way to see who the neighbor is that we love, for as we read in our third lesson: “The spiritual pay [taxes] from good will, because they are collected for the preservation of their country, and for its protection and the protection of the church . . . . Those, therefore, to whom their country and the church are the neighbor pay their taxes willingly and cheerfully, and regard it as iniquitous to deceive or defraud” (TCR 430).

It becomes a question of whom we regard as the neighbor. A person who is wholly involved in natural things regards only his own household and his own family as the neighbor. A spiritual man sees that the church is the neighbor in a greater sense because it is made up of many people and therefore able to perform greater uses. The natural man contributes “unwillingly and with resistance” (TCR 430).

In the Word, when it speaks of gifts being offered to the Lord, it signifies the things that we offer to the Lord from our hearts, the things that we do from our own will because we love to do them. In themselves, gifts to the Lord through the church are like all the things we do: if they are regarded apart from the intention behind them, they are nothing but gestures devoid of life. On the other hand, if a person’s actions and the intention behind them are considered at the same time, the actions are a way of making the will manifest, and the actions testify as to the character (see AC 9293).

The case is the same with gifts to the church in that it is the will or intention behind these gifts that the Lord looks at, for ” . . . everyone will receive judgment in the other life according to his deeds, namely, that it will be according to those things which are of the heart, and from this of the life. Gifts offered to the Lord were testifications of such things as are offered by the heart, which are those of faith and charity” (AC 9293).

And in confirmation of this, the Writings offer the following passage from Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:6,7 “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

The New Church is both internal and external. The internals of the church are the doctrines and the intentions behind our various actions, but such internals rest on the externals of the church as a foundation. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but you must, eventually, give them life by committing them to action or they don’t really exist. It’s like a marriage without hugs and kisses. The internal truths of the church derive their life and constancy from the sense of the letter of the Word. Our love for the Lord needs to express itself through worship. The Lord’s church, spiritual and heavenly in origin, needs to have a physical manifestation in order to exist, and that can happen only when men in the world work together to build it and support it.

“Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” Amen.

Lessons: Malachi 3:1-10, Luke 6:27-38, TCR 429, 430

True Christian Religion


429. The benefactions of charity and the duties of charity are distinct, like the things done from choice and the things done from compulsion. But by the duties of charity official duties in a kingdom or state are not meant as the duties of a minister to minister, of a judge to judge, and so on but the duties of everyone whatever his employment may be. Thus these duties are from a different origin, and flow forth from a different will, and are therefore done from charity by those who have charity, and on the other hand from no charity by those who have no charity.

430. The public duties of charity are especially the payment of tribute and taxes, which ought not to be confounded with official duties. Those who are spiritual pay these with one disposition of heart, and those who are merely natural with another. The spiritual pay them from good will, because they are collected for the preservation of their country, and for its protection and the protection of the church, also for the administration of government by officials and governors, to whom salaries and stipends must be paid from the public treasury. Those, therefore, to whom their country and also the church are the neighbor pay their taxes willingly and cheerfully, and regard it as iniquitous to deceive or defraud. But those to whom their country and the church are not the neighbor pay them unwillingly and with resistance, and at every opportunity defraud and withhold; for to such their own household and their own flesh are the neighbor.