A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn July 30, 1995
“Then they said to [Jesus], ‘My do the disciples of John fast often and make prayers, and likewise those of the Pharisees, but Yours eat and drink?'” (Luke 5:33)
As the Lord and His disciples travelled through the land of Israel, publicans and wealthy citizens often invited them to join them at meals. They ate the food and drank the wine that was offered. This baffled the religious leaders of the Jews. The Lord and His followers did not conform to the customary practices of holy men. They did not renounce worldly ways or fast like the Pharisees or the disciples of John. They freely ate and drank. So the Lord was denounced for being gluttonous and a winebibber (see Matt., 11:19). He seemed to enjoy the company and hospitality of the wealthy even if they were sinners. The Lord did not act the way the Pharisees thought He should. He didn’t obey their rules. Therefore, they concluded He was not a man of God.
Now, as then, there is an expectation that a good person, a truly religious person, is set apart from others by living an exemplary life. Good people, it is thought, live better lives than others. We think of them as “saints” because they renounce the ordinary pleasures we enjoy and human traits we exhibit. They practice a way of life that seems more spiritual than worldly, a life that you or I would find difficult to achieve.
Over time every religious body seems to develop criteria for the devout. Certain standards of behavior mark those considered to be true believers. With the Jews it was prayer and fasting, strict obedience to the Law. With Christians it is piety and charitable deeds. With the Eastern religions it is rigorous discipline.
True religions don’t begin this way. They begin with a spirit that infills practices. As the spirit fades, the practices harden and become ends in themselves. They are like the outside of the cup and platter which may be clean while the inside is full of filth. While the Jews were careful in tithing even on their least herbs, they were negligent about the “weightier” matters of the law: such things as judgment, showing mercy, and loving God (see Matt. 23:23, Luke 11:42).
Again, Christian piety and good deeds may lack love of God and the neighbor and simply be a show of external benevolence.
What of the New Church? Does the doctrine call for a special way of life? What must you renounce to regenerate? We’ll answer that later.
There is a kind of “folk wisdom” about religious life. People say, “If it feels good it must be bad.” If you’re having fun, it must be naughty. How can we forget the Lord’s parable about the rich fool who concluded that he could take it easy, could “eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19)? Not so, said God. It seems this wealthy landowner was not allowed to relax. How about you? Do you feel guilty when you relax and enjoy life?
First, let it be clear: enjoying life is not abandoning ourselves to worldly and bodily pleasures for their own sake. This is spiritually fatal as the following passage shows: “Those who in the life of the body have made mere pleasures their end and aim, loving merely to indulge their natural propensities, and to live in luxury and festivity, caring only for themselves and the world without any regard to things Divine, and who are devoid of faith and charity, are after death … carried down to a hell … I have seen them there carrying dung and bemoaning their lot’ (AC 943).
The teachings of the church give perspective on daily living. The first principle of the church to remember is that the Lord is a God of love and wants happiness for us. The whole power of His Providence is leading us to the greatest possible happiness of heaven (see DP 324:6). What about happiness on earth? For many reasons explained in the Heavenly Doctrine, our life here falls short of the happiness of heaven. We may, in fact, pass through many states of temptation, unhappiness and sorrow on earth all looking to our eternal welfare. However, the Lord does not intend a sorrowful or miserable life for us. The Lord wants us to be happy on earth as well as in heaven. He wants us to enjoy life! “I have come that [you] may have life,” the Lord said, “and that [you] may have it more abundantly” (John 10: 10). “These things I have spoken to you that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15: 1 1).
“What is life without delight and pleasure?’ the Writings ask (DP 195). It is a principle of doctrine that life on all levels, physical and natural as well as spiritual, is good if rightly subordinated. The pleasures of the body, such as the enjoyment of taste, serve for its nourishment. To follow up with this example, we know that the delight in eating is given us by the Lord for a good purpose: to sustain life so there may be a sound mind in a sound body. We are told, “A spiritual man does not despise nourishment nor even its pleasures …” (AC 3951:3). He “may enjoy the delicacies of food and drink if he does not place his life therein (HH 358).
So long as our enjoyment and pleasure support a higher use, they are legitimate and good. It is when we over-indulge appetites, exalting the pleasure out of proportion to its use, that we pervert it and it becomes evil.
Take another example illustrating this principle. In some religious cultures the sexual act between married partners is regarded as an accommodation to the animal-like nature of the body, tolerated merely for the sake of procreation. Not so in the New Church. The Writings give the universal law “that primes exist, subsist, and persist from ultimates.” Every prior and interior love has its resting place and its basis in the natural or ultimate degree of life. “So is it also with this love,” we are told. Its ultimate delights are a basis and foundation for conjugial love (see CL 44:8). “It follows that all the states of blessedness, happiness, delight, pleasantness, and pleasure which, by the Lord the Creator, could ever be conferred on people are gathered into this His love” (CL 68:2).
The Lord wants us to enjoy the legitimate and lovely delights of marriage. The fact that sexual pleasures are so grossly perverted and violated in our world today does not make them wrong in themselves. Misuse or abuse of uses does not do away with the uses (except with those who misuse them) (see DLW 331). We had asked the question, “What must you renounce to regenerate?” The Heavenly Doctrine is clear – not the things of the world. We do not have to renounce the joys and pleasures of life. “It is believed by many,” the Writings teach, “that to renounce the world, and to live in the spirit and not in the flesh, is to reject worldly things, … to be continually engaged in pious meditation concerning God, … salvation, and … eternal life; to lead a life in prayers, in the reading of the Word and pious books; and also to afflict one’s self, but this is not renouncing the world” the Writings teach (NJHD 126, emphasis added). The Lord wants us to live in the world and to engage in its activities.
How sadly misguided those are who put aside the normal activities of this life and their pleasures in order to attain heavenly life. Swedenborg talked with some in the other life who had purposely withdrawn in this way from worldly affairs. Ironically, the harder they had tried to renounce the world and its pleasures to become angels, the less able they were to come among the angels, because the life of angels is a life of joy. These people had acquired a joyless and self-righteous attitude and were unfit for heaven (see HH 535).
We are not required by our religion to plunge ourselves into poverty or self-induced wretchedness, or to shun all bodily delights. This is not how evil in us is mastered or subdued. In fact, such a life leads to the evil of feeling superior to, and more deserving of, heaven than others because of our sacrifice (see AC 1947). This is why it is not as difficult as some have believed to live the life that leads to heaven (see HH 528). We do not have to follow this difficult and unnatural path.
True renunciation is not giving up the things of the world and its pleasures. “To renounce the world,” the Writings say, “is to love God and to love the neighbor; and God is loved when man lives according to His commandments, and the neighbor is loved when man performs uses” (NJHD 126). That’s it: We can live a heavenly way of life full of joy and pleasure provided we obey the commandments and serve the neighbor – no other restrictions; no other sacrifices.
What a refreshing teaching about life! “… a man may acquire riches and accumulate wealth as far as opportunity is given if it is not done by craft or fraud; … he may enjoy the delicacies of food and drink if he does not place his life therein; … he may have a palatial dwelling in accord with his condition, have dealings with others in like condition, frequent places of amusement, talk about the affairs of the world, and need not go about like a devotee with a sad and sorrowful countenance and drooping head, but may be joyful and cheerful; nor need he give his goods to the poor except so far as affection leads him; in a word, he may live outwardly precisely like a man of the world; and all this will be no obstacle to his entering heaven, provided that inwardly in himself he thinks about God as he ought, and acts sincerely and justly in respect to his neighbor’ (HH 358).
From this teaching we can see that wealth and riches are not in themselves evil nor are the enjoyments of life evil. It is the love of wealth and riches for their own sake that is evil. When we set our hearts on them, seek them for their own sake, and revel in their acquisition, we have stripped from them their true value as the means for good uses. It is the same with all loves and delights of this world. If we love them for their use, they are good; if we love them for their own sake, and our indulgence, they become perverted in us.
“The person who is being regenerated is not deprived of the delight of the pleasures of the body and lower mind,” we are told, “for he fully enjoys this delight after regeneration, and more fully than before, but in inverse ratio.” The Writings explain this: “Before regeneration, the delight of pleasures was everything of his life, but after regeneration, the good of charity becomes everything of his life; and then the delight of pleasures serves as a means and as an ultimate plane in which spiritual good with its happiness and blessedness terminates” (AC 8413:2, emphasis added).
The Lord taught the true spirit of life when He spoke in His Sermon on the Mount about fasting. “When you fast,” He said, “do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.” He spoke against these acts of denial because they were done only for heavenly reward. The Lord said: “… they have their reward,” the reward of reputation and honor. “But you,” He said, “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matt. 6:16-18).
By “fasting” here the Lord did not mean the actual deprivation of food which creates a longing for food. He meant a deeper longing of our spirit for good – our desire for a good life that comes through shunning evils and suffering temptation. Our “fast” is our resolve to follow the Lord and serve the neighbor sincerely, honestly, justly and faithfully in uses of life. This is not something to be done to draw attention to ourselves. What did the Lord teach? “Anoint your head and wash your face.” Live your life in joy, not as a martyr. Do not put on the face of sorrow. There is no merit in that. We find delight and happiness in life when we shun evils and go about our business. Then the Lord gives us a sense of satisfaction and joy.
“Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?'” (Matt. 9:14f). When the Lord is present in our lives we find joy and satisfaction.
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Again there shall be heard in this place the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who will say: “Praise the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for His mercy endures forever. (Jer. 33: 10,1 1). Amen.
Lessons: Matt. 6:1-8, 16-18; 9:9-15; AC 995:2, 4
Arcana Coelestia 995:2,4
Some think that no one ought ever to live in the pleasures of the body and its senses who wishes to be happy in the other life, but that all these should be renounced on the ground that they are corporeal and worldly, withdrawing man and keeping him away from spiritual and heavenly life. But those who think so and therefore reduce themselves to voluntary misery while they live in the world are not well-informed as to what the real case is. No one is forbidden to enjoy the pleasures of the body and its senses, that is, the pleasures of possession of lands and wealth; the pleasures of honor and office in the state; the pleasures of conjugial love and of love for infants and children; the pleasures of friendship and of social life with companions; the pleasures of hearing, or of the sweetness of singing and music; the pleasures of sight, or of beauties, which are manifold, as those of becoming dress, of elegant dwellings with their furniture, beautiful gardens, and the like, which are delightful from harmony of form and color; the pleasures of smell, or of fragrant odors; the pleasures of taste, or of the flavors and benefits of food and drink; the pleasures of touch. For these are most external or bodily affections arising from interior affections …
That the pleasures above-mentioned are never denied to man, and that so far from being denied they are then first really pleasures when they come from their true origin, may also be seen from the fact that very many who have lived in power, dignity, and opulence in the world, and who had all pleasures in abundance, both of the body and of the senses, are among the blessed and happy in heaven, and with them now the interior delights and happiness are living, because they have had their origin in the goods of charity and the truths that are of faith in the Lord. And since they had regarded all their pleasures as coming from charity and faith in the Lord, they regarded them from use, which was their end. Use itself was the most delightful thing to them, and from this came the delight of their pleasures.