Spiritual Cleanliness


A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Washington – Jan. 7, ’01

Wash me … from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow (Psalm 51:2,7).

Baptism and the Holy supper are called the two “universal gates” of the New Church. We read in the True Christian Religion 721, “The two sacraments, baptism and the Holy Supper, are as it were two gates leading to everlasting life. Every Christian is by baptism, the first gate, admitted and introduced to the church’s teachings drawn from the Word about the other life. All of these are the means by which a person is prepared and can be guided to heaven. The second gate is the Holy Supper. By it everyone, who has allowed himself to be prepared and guided by the Lord, is admitted and introduced into heaven. There are no other universal gates.”

In the New Church, unlike other churches, Baptism and the Holy Supper are the only sacraments because they are the only rituals that are specifically described and commanded by the Lord Himself. The rites of the church, marriages, memorial services, dedications of homes, schools, or churches, confirmations, and ordinations are indirectly referred to, but not described. The church is free to develop, change, and add rituals according to changing needs and according to our developing understanding of doctrine. For example, the 1995 Liturgy is the first to contain a recommended order of service for home dedications.

The other thing that sets the two sacraments apart from the rites of the church is the fact that they both incorporate a physical representative of spiritual things. In the Holy Supper, it is the bread and the wine. In Baptism, both for adults and infants, natural, physical water is used in such a way that there is, to some degree, a natural, physical washing.

That physical washing is important to the effectiveness of the sacrament because is does not just represent, but actually corresponds to spiritual cleanliness. There are many passages in the Old and New Testaments that can be used to develop the doctrine of cleanliness, and they are consistent in the message that they carry in the internal sense. We can say that, in general, wherever washing is referred to in the letter of the Word, the subject of the internal sense is the purification from evils and falsities. By extension we can see that places and people that are unclean represent various evils and falsities from hell.

The Lord gave many laws regarding washing to the children of Israel through Moses. Those people were specifically commanded to wash themselves and their clothes several times each year in preparation for important feasts. That probably seems unimportant from our point of view, but we need to remember that these were semi-nomadic, desert people, and water was extremely rare and valuable to them for life itself. No other people living in similar circumstances in those days used so much water for washing. It must have been very important for the Lord to command them to be so extravagant with it. But statutes were given through Moses which required the children of Israel to wash regularly and thoroughly, and such things were commanded by the Lord because of what they represented.

The five books of Moses are filled with such representative commands. There can be no other reason for all of those laws to be included in the Word of God unless they do somehow tell us about spiritual things. The Word is particularly rich in representatives from the Most Ancient, Ancient, and Jewish churches because they were all “representative” churches.

A “representative” church is different from a “true” church in how the Lord appeared to them. During the Most Ancient Church, the Ancient Church, and the Jewish Church, when the Lord wished to make an appearance to anyone on earth, He had to do so through the form of an angel, because He did not yet have His own human form. An angel of the highest heaven would allow his conscious life to be put to sleep while the Lord flowed into his spiritual body. At the same time, the natural degree of the mind of the man or prophet in the world would also be put to sleep, and his spiritual eyes opened. Then, man and God could meet in the spiritual world and speak face to face. However, since the Lord had to use the body of an angel to present Himself to the man, all the churches before His advent are known as “representative” churches.

However, the Jewish Church is also known as a “representative of a church” because it was so external, because the people of that church were so closed to spiritual things, that it wasn’t even really a church because there was nothing internal or spiritual in its worship. We might ask how it could have been the Lord’s church on earth, how it could have served as the foundation of heaven if it contained nothing of internal, spiritual truth.

The Lord knew that He was going to have to come to earth as soon as the men of the Most Ancient church fell, represented by Adam and Eve eating of the forbidden fruit in the garden. He also knew that He had to come at the right time, when the evil that had been set loose in the world had reached its peak. If He came too early then some of the evils would have not been fully developed and revealed, and so would not have been put into order by His judgment. Therefore He had to provide that there be some church on earth while He was waiting for the right time in the spiritual history of the world to make His coming.

In order to provide a proper basis for the worship of the heavens, the Lord provided that simple, good spirits in the world of spirits were associated with the Jewish Church. These spirits were on their way to becoming angels, but were not very far along in the procedure yet, so they were unable to perceive the true spiritual states of the Jews. When they sensed the Jews going through their elaborate rituals, they believed that anyone who could follow such difficult rules so carefully must love the Lord very much, and the simple spirits were moved to genuine worship. Because they were good spirits, their genuine worship, even though inspired by a misunderstanding, could serve as a basis for the worship of the whole of heaven. Because the Jewish Church was not really a true church, but only served to represent one to the simple spirits, it is called in the doctrines of the New Church, a “representative of a church.”

Throughout the Old Testament, the ritual washings that were performed at various times and places all represented the purification from evils and falsities. There are other kinds of cleansings spoken of throughout scripture, and they too represent the importance of natural and spiritual cleanliness, and the different ways of removing the various kinds of spiritual dirt.

There were lepers, those who suffered from the terrible, wasting skin disease and who were condemned to go through the rest of their life warning others that they were “unclean.” Leprosy represents profanation, the state where someone who has once loved and lived by the truth turns his back on it and returns to a former state of evil. The filthiness that is thus introduced into his spiritual mind and body is represented by the horrible mutilation of the natural body caused by the disease of leprosy.

Another frequent illustration of the importance of spiritual cleanliness is that of someone who is possessed by an unclean spirit. The heavenly doctrines tell us that an unclean spirit represents the uncleanness of life with a person, and also the unclean spirits who are with him; for unclean spirits live in the filthiness of man’s life and thoughts (see AC 4744:2). We are also told that when we are being tempted, the unclean spirits from hell are near by. They are drawn to our evil states, and they then flow in and excite the affections for evil and the falsities that support them in our minds (see AC 5246:2).

We are often tempted during the course of a normal day, but this does not mean that we are necessarily under constant attack. Many evil thoughts are inspired by the hells, but things that merely flow through our thoughts and are then dissipated are not appropriated to us, they do not render us unclean. The ones that we have to worry about are those which are received with affection and delight when they enter our mind, and come forth into action, for then they are appropriated and do make us unclean (see AC 8910:2).

A final example of the relationship between natural and spiritual cleanliness is that of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This incident took place during the same evening that the Lord instituted the Last Supper. He took a towel and a basin of water and began to wash the disciple’s feet – to their great embarrassment. But, like everything else He did while in the world, He did it to teach them spiritual principles. The Lord was again teaching about how we are to purify ourselves by removing evils and falsities, for, as said above, washing stands for purification from evils and falsities. The water in the basin represents truth of faith in the natural degree of the mind. The feet represent the natural degree of the mind itself. Therefore, when all these elements are taken together, we can see that washing the feet represents to purify the natural degree of the mind by removing what is evil and false, or dirty. The Lord did this to the disciples before His crucifixion and resurrection in order to signify that unless the natural degree is purified and cleansed while man lives in the world, unless we examine ourselves, repent, and reform our lives, the natural degree can never be purified later in the spiritual world, and so the evils will remain. (See AC 10243:2 Cf. AC 7601:6, DP 151:2, AE 951:3)

A second and equally important lesson is illustrated by this story, and that has to do with the part that we play in our own regeneration as-if-from-ourselves. Throughout the Old Testament, and much of the New, the Lord has commanded that we wash ourselves, make ourselves clean, and we duly make that effort as we go through life looking out for our evils and shunning them as best we can. But from time to time we must be reminded that although we have to make the choice, and we have to make the effort to remove evils from ourselves, we do not have the power to do it ourselves. Although we are to make every effort to wash ourselves, the truth of the matter is that He alone does the spiritual washing, He alone is capable of removing the evils in our will and replacing them with good.

Cleanliness is important in our natural environment as well as in our spiritual environment. There is not justification in the doctrines to state that there is a direct and absolute link between evils of life and dirt in the home, but there are some very strong relationships that can be noted.

Our rational mind tells us that a person who is wearing old, worn-out, dirty clothes might be a criminal, but he also might just as well be a very nice, educated person who has suffered terrible tragedies in his life. On the other hand, our rationality also tells us that just because a person is dressed in new, well-cut, fashionable clothes that he is necessarily honest and God-fearing. Yet in practice, that is how we act. Our natural sense tells us that people who take care of their appearance are probably more trustworthy than people who do not. Yet some very cruel people wear nice clothes, and some very nice people have no money and no job. Obviously, our natural appearance has a powerful effect on how we effect others, and the course of our own lives.

We can think rationally and say that the real essence of worship is to approach the Lord in humility, but if something is broken or dirty in the church, or if the minister is wearing old, worn-out shoes, the mind is distracted from the spiritual things by the disorders in the natural, and, although such little, natural things should not matter, they do. Therefore, while admitting that it does not guarantee anything about the quality of worship, we should do everything we can to create an environment for church that is clean and in good repair in every detail so that it does not distract from the spiritual content of the service.

This principle applies in all aspects of life: a neat, orderly spiritual mind does not necessarily express itself in a neat and tidy home or office, nor does a neat environment necessarily cause its residents to have a spiritual outlook – natural things are never the causes of spiritual things. This is why the Lord was so critical of the scribes and the Pharisees: they lived a life that was externally clean, in strict obedience to the Mosaic law, and on account of that they were very proud of themselves and were convinced that they were better than others. But the Lord compared this kind of life with washing only the visible part of dishes and cups, while leaving the insides dirty, or like tombs that are beautiful and whitewashed on the outside, but inside are filled with nothing but rotting bones.

The Lord asks us to wash ourselves. An infant baptism, as we witnessed at the beginning of the service, is a sign that the parents promise to provide a spiritually clean environment for the child until such time as they are ready to take the job upon themselves. The washing of baptism is a powerful symbol of the work that the Lord has asked us to do during our life in the world: to seek out the things in and around our lives that are not in the order of heaven, and then, in a systematic and thorough way, work on removing them. And finally, let us acknowledge that although we must initiate the process, that we must discover evils within ourselves and choose to remove them, it is the Lord alone who washes us from our sins and brings us into spiritual order. As the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. … Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow … For the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 1:16, 18, 20). AMEN.

1st Lesson: Psalm 51

Have mercy upon me, O God, According to Your lovingkindness; According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, Blot out my transgressions. {2} Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. {3} For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. {4} Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight; That You may be found just when You speak, And blameless when You judge. {5} Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. {6} Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts, And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. {7} Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. {8} Make me hear joy and gladness, That the bones You have broken may rejoice. {9} Hide Your face from my sins, And blot out all my iniquities. {10} Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. {11} Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. {12} Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit. {13} Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You. {14} Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, The God of my salvation, And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. {15} O Lord, open my lips, And my mouth shall show forth Your praise. {16} For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. {17} The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart; These, O God, You will not despise. {18} Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion; Build the walls of Jerusalem. {19} Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, With burnt offering and whole burnt offering; Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar. Amen.

2nd Lesson: TCR 672-673 (port.)

672. What man of sound reason cannot see that the washing of the face, hands, and feet, or of all the limbs, and even the whole body in a bath, does nothing more than wash away the dirt, that men may appear clean in the human form before men? And who cannot understand that no washing enters into man’s spirit and renders that equally clean? For any thief, plunderer or robber may wash himself until he shines; but is the disposition to steal, plunder, and rob thereby washed away? Does not the internal flow into the external and work out the effects of its will and understanding, but not the external into the internal? For this latter is contrary to nature, because it is contrary to order; but the former is according to nature, because it is according to order.

673. From all this it follows that neither washings nor baptisms, unless man’s internal is purified from evils and falsities, has any more efficacy than the washing of cups and platters by the Jews, or (as follows in that same passage) than the whitening of sepulchres, which appear beautiful without, but within are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Matt. 23:25-28); and this is further evident from the fact that the hells are full of satans who were once men, baptized as well as unbaptized. Amen.

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