Service to Others


Pause:  Make Space for God, Week 7

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

Toronto, Nov. 14, 2010

(Mat 25:40) “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

I.      For week 7 of the “Pause” series, we are asked to reflect on the question, “How does the Lord want me to serve others?”

A.  To help us think about this, in the children’s talk we considered one of the many stories in the New Testament that talks about the importance of serving others, because by doing so we are serving – and thus showing our love for – the Lord Himself.

B.   The difficulty for us is going to be seeing this story in the correct context, the challenge of balancing the appeal of the literal sense to the less obvious – and more difficult to attain – teaching of the internal sense.

1.    When we hear the Lord say in the Word that by showing charity to various kinds of needy people, we are showing love to him, the temptation is to rush out and begin to collect food and clothing to give to the poor.

2.    The problem is, that’s the easy way out. Reflect for a minute on whether it is easier to write a cheque for $100 to some charity or to actually figure out a way to help someone’s spiritual life and then follow through with that plan. Or figure out a way to make the teachings of the New Church widely known, for the Word tells us that it is the truths of the New Church that people are hungry and thirsty for!

3.    Sometimes we’re tempted to think that it would be Christian charity to “be nice” to everyone without regard to the kind of life they live. That’s the spiritual equivalent of letting a child eat nothing but desserts because that’s what he likes. It’s the spiritual equivalent of taking down all the stop signs and traffic lights because people find it inconvenient to slow down all the time.

4.    Just as it’s important for children to grow up in a structured environment so that through loving external control they can learn how to control themselves and be useful members of society, it’s important for adults to check their behaviour against the gold standard – the Ten Commandments.

II.   In John 12:8 the Lord says, “For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”

A.  There will always be opportunities to provide care for others in the world.

B.   The purpose of revelation is to show us that there is more to this concept, that while we need to care for the poor in the obvious, natural way, there are other ways that are not apparent to people, but need to be revealed. Once revealed and followed, they lead us to a higher level of Charity. For example:

C.   AE 118 [3] In the Word, “the poor and needy” are mentioned here and there, also the “hungry and thirsty.” By “the poor and needy” are signified those who believe that of themselves they know nothing; and also those who are destitute of knowledge because they have not the Word; and by the “hungry and thirsty” are signified those who continually long for truths, and long to be perfected by means of truths.

D.  If we are supposed to be taking care of spiritual hunger and thirst, why did the Lord speak about the hungry and the thirsty in the Gospels? Here’s a passage from the Arcana that speak to that question:

E.   AC 2417:8 [Because the teachings about faith alone are more appealing and have taken the first position, the teachings about charity have been almost lost.] Yet it was the [doctrine of charity] that was fostered in the Ancient Church.

1.    “They went so far as to categorize all kinds of good that flow from charity towards the neighbour, that is, to categorize all in whom good was present. In doing so they made many distinctions to which they gave names, calling them the poor, the wretched, the oppressed, the sick, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoners or those in prison, the. sojourners, the orphans, and the widows. Some they also called the lame, the blind, the deaf, the dumb, and the maimed, and many other names besides these.

2.    “It was in accordance with this kind of teaching that the Lord spoke in the Old Testament Word, and it explains why such expressions occur so frequently there….

3.    “This is why those names have quite a different meaning in the internal sense.

F.    AC 3419:3 Who at the present day knows what charity is which is devoid of all self-regard and repudiates all self-interest?

1.    “Who knows what is meant by the neighbour – that individual persons are meant who are to be treated each one differently according to the nature and amount of good that resides with him? Thus good itself is meant, and therefore in the highest sense the Lord Himself….

2.    “And because there is no knowledge of what charity is and of what is meant by the neighbour, there is no knowledge of who are really meant in the Word by the poor, the wretched, the needy, the sick, the hungry and thirsty, the oppressed, widows, orphans, captives, the naked, strangers, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the maimed, and others such as these.

3.    “Yet the matters of doctrine which existed with the Ancients taught who each of these really was and to which category of the neighbour and so of charity each belonged.”

G.  AC 3419:4 Anyone who keeps rigidly to the sense of the letter believes that if he merely gives bread to the hungry, brings afflicted outcasts or wanderers into his house, and clothes the naked, he will on that account enter into Jehovah’s glory, or into heaven.

1.    “Yet those actions are solely external, which the wicked also can perform to merit the same.

2.    “But by the hungry, the afflicted, and the naked are meant those who are spiritually such, thus differing states of wretchedness in which one who is the neighbour may find himself and to whom charity is to be exercised.”

a.     And there are many more passages such as these that make the point abundantly clear that our call is to care for those who are hungry and thirsty for spiritual things as well as those who are needy in the natural sense.

III.We need to make a careful balance. 

A.  It would be wrong to say that it’s all about spiritual things, so we can ignore those who are in natural need. We do live in the world, and we are supposed to care for those in need.

B.   At the same time, we have to be careful to hear the other things the Lord says, and not just focus on this one command.

C.   The revelation of the internal sense of the Word is a miracle surpassing all others.

1.    Love the neighbour according to his good.

2.    Identify what he really needs – is he poor, thirsty, in prison – and provide the kind of help that is appropriate to that spiritual state.

3.    But in the end, it’s important to remember that it’s not faith that saves, but deeds of charity in which faith can be implanted.

4.    If you cannot do anything else, for whatever reason, if you can at least be kind to others in this life, true faith can be implanted in that basic charity when you get to the other world. But, the reverse is not the case.

D.  AC 4663:  [2] … “The fruits of faith are nothing else than a life led in keeping with what faith commands, and therefore it is a life in keeping with what faith commands that saves a person, not faith apart from life. For a person takes with him after death every state of his life, so that he is like what he was when in the body…. “Everyone retains in the next life the essential character he has acquired during his lifetime; and it is well known that it is not possible to get rid of one’s essential character, for if one does so, no life at all remains.

E.   “[3] This then is the reason why solely the works of charity are mentioned by the Lord, for anyone who practices the works of charity … possesses the ability to receive faith, if not during his lifetime, then in the next life. But anyone who does not practice the works of charity, or lead the life of faith, has no ability at all to receive faith, neither during his lifetime nor in the next life….

F.    So, how does the Lord want us to serve others? 

1.    Look for the good in others, for it is their good that is the true neighbour.

2.    Serve that good in whatever way is appropriate considering who the person is, and the tools and abilities that you bring to the situation. But don’t do nothing.

Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me. (text). Amen.

First Lesson:  (ISA 58:1-8) 

“Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; Tell My people their transgression, And the house of Jacob their sins. {2} Yet they seek Me daily, And delight to know My ways, As a nation that did righteousness, And did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; They take delight in approaching God. {3} ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your labourers. {4} Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. {5} Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the LORD? {6} “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? {7} Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? {8} Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Second Lesson:  AC 4956

Essentially charity towards the neighbour is an affection for goodness and truth and a recognition of oneself as being nothing but evil and falsity. Indeed the neighbour is one and the same as goodness and truth, and to have an affection for these is to have charity, while the opposite of the neighbour is evil and falsity, which a person who has charity turns away from. Anyone therefore who has charity towards the neighbour is moved by an affection for goodness and truth because they come from the Lord, and such a one turns away from evil and falsity because these come from himself. When he does this, humility is present in him as a consequence of his recognition of what he is in himself; and when such humility is present his state is one in which goodness and truth are received from the Lord. These essential ingredients of charity are the message in the internal sense of the following words used by the Lord,

I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, naked and you clothed Me around, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.

Except from the internal sense no one can know that these words hold the essential ingredients of charity within them. The ancients who possessed teachings regarding charity knew these things, but at the present day matters such as these seem so far-fetched that everyone will be astonished by the assertion that those words hold the essential ingredients of charity within them. What is more, the angels present with a person do not perceive those words in any other way, for by ‘the hungry’ they perceive those led by affection to desire good, by ‘the thirsty’ those led by affection to desire truth, by ‘a stranger’ those wishing to receive instruction, by ‘the naked’ those acknowledging that no goodness or truth at all is present within them, by ‘the sick’ those acknowledging that within themselves there is nothing but evil, and by ‘the bound’ or ‘those in prison those acknowledging that within themselves there is nothing but falsity. All these if taken as a whole mean the aspects of charity described immediately above.


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