The Ancient Church
A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper
Now the sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated. (Genesis 9:18, 19)
The Old Testament is a collection of an incredible variety of stories. There are tales celebrating the great victories of the armies of Israel, as well as detailed descriptions of the misery and suffering experienced by those trapped and besieged by Israel’s enemies. We read about great national pride that deteriorates into civil war, the wise king followed by the foolish son, great loves, and great sins. For the most part it is an accurate history of a people easily distracted by their passions, and in part it is a collection of ancient writings and legends which carry deep spiritual meanings in stories that defy usual logic.
Specifically, anyone can see that the first ten and a half chapters of the book of Genesis are of a style and content that is very different from the rest of scripture. We believe that these are stories that Moses collected during the time that he lived in Pharaoh’s house and was being educated as a prince. At that time he would have had access to the finest libraries in the ancient world, and he was led by the Divine Providence to copy these key chapters into his own works because of their importance to the Word.
The stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel are some of the best known and widely loved stories of the Word. Moses was led by the Lord’s own hand to include them in the Word because they tell, in their internal sense, the spiritual history of the human race from the moment of creation, to the time of the establishment of the Hebrew Church with Abram.
The key to understanding these stories is to remember that they are not about individual human beings, but entire churches that endured for thousands of years. Adam stands for the first, or “Most Ancient” Church which the Lord established with the very first people in the earliest dawn of human existence. Noah stands for the church that was created when the church “Adam” fell, and Noah’s sons and their generations stand for the church which followed, and filled the whole earth, which is called the “Ancient” Church. There followed the Jewish Church, named for Judah, which was the dominant church in the world at the time of the Lord’s Advent.
Our text for today tells us in the internal sense that while Noah was the “father” church, the Ancient Church in fact had many divisions and sub-divisions as it spread throughout the whole world, but they were united because although each of these churches varied as to their doctrine, they all believed, and lived according to the belief, that charity toward the neighbor was the most important thing, and so they were all unified and called each other brothers in spite of their doctrinal differences.
The Ancient Church, also called Noah, spread over many of the kingdoms of Asia, namely, the land of Canaan on both sides of the Jordan, Syria, Assyria and Chaldea, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Arabia, Tyre and Sidon. Unlike the Most Ancient Church before them, these Ancient Churches used the newly discovered skill of writing to record the stories that had been revealed to the heads of the families by the Lord. The record of these stories, written in heavenly language and therefore every word is full of profound meanings that can be discovered through the use of the science of correspondences, is called the “Ancient Word.”
The Ancient Word has been lost, except for certain fragments. As before mentioned, the first ten and a half chapters of the book of Genesis have been borrowed from it, and there are references to it in several places in the Old Testament. The books “Jasher” (Joshua 10:13, 2 Samuel 1:18), “Ennunciations,” and the “Wars of Jehovah” (Numbers 21:14) are part of the Ancient Word. We believe that through the Divine Providence of the Lord, the Ancient Word has been preserved. Swedenborg said that copies existed in Mongolia in the 18th Century.
Perhaps, someday when our church has matured and developed its doctrinal understanding and its use of the science of correspondences, someone will be lead to the libraries of the monastaries of China where thousands of ancient holy books are still preserved, and perhaps, through the Divine Providence, the Ancient Word will be found.
There were three Churches which receive specific mention in the Word–the first Ancient Church which took its name from Noah, the second Ancient Church which took its name from Eber, and which we call the “Hebrew” Church, and the third Ancient Church which took its name from Jacob and subsequently for Judah and Israel, and which we call the Israelitish and Jewish churches repspectavely.
The first Ancient Church, called Noah, was the parent, and was more untarnished and innocent. Everyone in that church regarded charity as the essential and life of that church. And because they were in charity, and because they were so close to heaven by the nature of their lives, they were instructed in the doctrines of the church from heaven. The father would receive visions where angels would instruct him in various things that they needed to know in order to live in the world and yet remain in charity. The father then taught his family the things he had learned from the Lord through the angels.
This kind of thing still exists, to some degree, among the more primitive peoples of the world, people who have not become so fully involved with the complications of the modern world that they are no longer able to turn their attention to spiritual things.
Those of us who are fully modern and scientific men have difficulty understanding this kind of communication because we have closed ourselves off from it, but the evidence is there that it exists and is in use even to this day with those people who have a genuine, living faith in the life after death and the reality of the spiritual world.
Knowing that the Lord taught doctrine to the men of the Ancient Church through angels, we are naturally curious to know what those doctrines were. The Arcana Coelestia tells us that the truths of doctrine which were with the Ancients were quite different from the doctrines that we study, but not so much in content as in the way of presentation.
In the Ancient Church people had representatives and meaningful signs of celestial and spiritual things in the Lord’s kingdom, and so of the Lord Himself; and those who understood them were called the wise. And because all doctrines were presented to them by means of representatives, they were not encumbered with words and concepts from the natural world as ours are, but instead they were wholly and completely concerned with love to God and charity towards the neighbor.
In a sense, that is true for us, too. Any doctrine which is a true doctrine from the Lord has as its inmost sense nothing other than the Lord and His kingdom. The difficulty is for us, with our minds distracted by the temptations of this world, to see the Lord within the words and ideas.
In any case, these are some of the doctrinals which the people of the Ancient Church received from the Lord through the angels: They knew that the Lord was going to come into the world; that Jehovah would be within Him; that He would make the Human within Him Divine and in so doing would save the human race.
From this they also knew what charity was, namely the affection for serving others without any thought of reward; and what was meant by the neighbor to whom they were to exercise charity, namely all persons throughout the world, though each one had to be treated individually.
These ideas and concepts of doctrine which defined the life of the members of the Ancient Church have now been lost to the great majority of the people in the world. Instead of having a church that leads them to a life of genuine charity to others, they have instead a church which teaches matters of faith and which seeks to find differences between the various denominations (See AC 3419:2-3).
We see examples of this in many places today. Jew, Moslem, and Christian should, in the eyes of the prophet Mohammed, be as brothers because all three are “people of the book,” that is, each of these three religions shares a belief in the 10 Commandments, and the belief that the Old Testament is Divine Revelation. Mohammed taught that Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were all great prophets whose teachings should be followed by all. But what do we observe in the way people follow those teachings? Open warfare, a so called “holy” war, not only between Jew and Moslem, but even between the various sects of Islam. And the Christians do no better, if we look to Northern Ireland.
But, even though the Ancient Church started out in a state of purity, and innocnece, it too was beset by the problem that not all people really want to be kind and charitable to others. Too many people want others to be charitable to them, first. And so, that church started to decline, chiefly because many people started to use the power that was available to them through the science of correspondences to divert worship to themselves so as to set themselves above others.
In ancient days it was possible for people to use the things of religion to bring power to themselves because there was real power in correspondences becase all the churches before the Christian Church were “representative” churches.
What this means is that the Lord was only present with these churches by re-presentation. He could not be actually present with them because He did not as yet have His own Human. Therefore, when it was necessary or desireable for Him to speak to the men of those churches He had to do so by means of an angel who was His representative. The angel who was the Lord’s represntative to men on earth is called the “Angel of Jehovah.”
Because the Lord could not be present Himself, but only through those things that represented Him, the life and power that flowed into creation from Him did so through those things that represented Him in the world. When the men of those churches realised the power that existed in things of the world by means of their correspondence with the things of heaven, they were quick to take advantage of the situation, and black magic was the result.
The popular image of witches making magic potions out of disgusting things like “eye of newt, hair of bat” derives from a time when such things actually would, through their correspondence with various societies of hell, cause certain horrible things to happen in the world.
When the Lord was born in the world and took to Himself a Human form, there was no longer any need for His power to enter the earth through representatives, and so all such power ceased, with the notable exceptions of Baptism and the Holy Supper. These, because they have the Lord as their center, and because they are sacraments of introduction into the church and heaven, still have real power through their correspondence with the Lord.
But to focus on the abuses and the failures of the Ancient Church would be to miss the point, which is that it was a church that was first and foremost interested in the life of charity. And because charity takes as many forms as there are recipients of charity, because to be truly charitable you have to know what the recipient really needs, the Ancient Church soon divided into many different churches. The division was not one of separation because of disagreement, which is the major cause of various denominations in the Christian Church, but one of groups of people each seeking their own particular expression of love to the Lord and to the neighbor according to the particular needs and characteristics of their own region.
We can have a taste of this when traveling to our other church societies. No matter which church you visit in Europe, Australia, or North America, you will be using the same liturgy, singing mostly the same hymns, and you will find a minister who is trying, in the best way he knows how, to provide a sphere of worship to the Lord. You will feel at home in the church. At the same time, you will also find that every society has its own customs, it own particular ways of doing things that may be quite different from what you are familiar with–but since the object, the love behind it, is the same as yours, it is not a matter for dispute, but for discussion and learning. This, in a very general way, illustrates the principle that where charity rules the church, there can be unity which is strengthened by variety of expression.
It is our hope and our goal to turn away from the doctrinal arguments which have typified the Christian era, and return to a time when the church is governed by charity, and tolerant of variety, for in the words of the Arcana Coelestia, If the same situation existed now, all would be governed by the Lord as though they were one person. Everyone would then say of another, No matter what form his doctrine and his external worship take, this is my brother; I observe that he worships the Lord and is a good man. AMEN.
Lessons: Gen. 9:18-29, Luke 17:20-37, AC 4494:4
AC 4494:4 If a member of the MAncient Church had read the Word…he would have seen its internal sense without prior instruction of any explanation. He would have seen it so perfectly that the celestial and spiritual things belonging to the internal sense would have instantly met his eyes, and scarcely anything belonging to the sense of the letter. Thus the internal sense would have been for him in brightness, but the sense of the letter in obscurity. He would be like someone listening to a person speaking, and taking in only the sense and paying no attention to the words used by the speaker.
But if a member of the Ancient Church had read the Word he would not have been able, without prior instruction or explanation, to see its internal sense (but he could see it with instruction!), and so the internal sense would have been for him in obscurity but the sense of the letter in brightness. He would be like someone listening to a person speaking and in thought hanging on to the words used by him, all the while paying no attention to the sense of them, which would therefore be lost on him.
But when a member of the Jewish Church reads the Word he does not understand anything beyond the sense of the letter. He does not know of and also denies the existence of any internal sense.
And it is similar with the member of the Christian Church at the present day.