The Bible

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A still life painting by Vincent van Gogh of an open Bible on a table

The Bible… what do make of it? Clearly, it’s been a huge influence on world culture for two thousand years, and on culture in the Middle East for many hundreds of years before that. How should we read it, and use it, today?

It makes sense that a loving God would try to communicate true ideas to us, so that we could consider them in our rational minds, and decide what to do with them. With early people, before the development of written language, there’s plenty of evidence from their art, and from oral traditions, that they felt a communication with God. Later, as writing developed, we find written works – notably the Old Testament of the Bible – that demonstrate God’s drive to reveal truths to us.

The Bible, as it has come down to us, is a revelation of God’s mind, his plan, his truth, and his love for us. It’s a guidebook that we can use to live good lives. It’s ancient, but still fresh and relevant. Its inner meaning has been the subject of many explorations.

The Bible is divided into two testaments, Old and New. Each testament is divided into “books”, each of which has a name, e.g. Genesis, Exodus, etc. Each book is divided into chapters, and each chapter into verses. The Bible has been translated into many languages, by many translators, some from long ago, and many working still today. By and large, the divisions into books, chapters and verses are fairly standard. There’s some variation, partly because the original texts come from scrolls that differ amongst themselves, but overall it’s a surprisingly consistent, well-preserved set of work.

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Its earliest stories, starting with the creation story, and Adam and Eve, are very ancient. At the time of Moses, perhaps 1300-1500 years before Christ, those early stories were written down and preserved, but they were already part of a much older oral tradition.

The New Testament, written shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was written in Greek. The four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Book of Revelation, form the core of it, and they are supplemented by letters – epistles – written by early church leaders: Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude.

Should we call this work the Bible, or the Word?

In New Christian theology, we tend to use the term “The Word”. Why? In his many volumes of theology, Emanuel Swedenborg uses the term “The Bible” only a handful of times, and most of those instances are in reference to ancient writing styles. On the other hand, the term “The Word” appears more than 15,000 times, and it is crucially important to the doctrinal system Swedenborg illustrates.

What’s the difference?

In Swedenborg’s works, “The Word” in its deepest sense means divine truth in its fullness, the infinite expression of the Lord’s infinite love, shining on us the way light shines from the sun. In fact, since the Lord’s essence is love itself and love cannot exist without taking form, Swedenborg’s works say that The Word actually is the Lord, and that the Lord actually is the Word (think about John 1:1: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God”).

Divine truth is, to be sure, an expansive thing: It is the agent and force of creation, and is reflected in all aspects of humanity and of the natural world. If we understood enough we could gaze on fields and trees and see the nature of the Lord’s love and the spiritual world. But that is a fluid expression; we can cut down a tree and change it. The ultimate expression of the Lord’s love is permanent and safeguarded, hidden away within the stories and prophecies of the Bible where only those who love the Lord can begin to understand. Understood at the most internal, symbolic level, those stories and prophecies are completely about the Lord Himself, unveiling His love in its infinite forms, and by reading it we open ourselves to Him and let Him flow into our hearts and minds.

In a sense, then, the Bible is a container for the Word, a compilation of natural language that is divinely ordered so that it can hold and express spiritual ideas. That’s one reason churches based on Swedenborg’s works have traditionally called even the physical book itself “The Word” instead of “The Bible.” They want to be open to the love the book contains, not just the external meanings of the text.

The other reason is more controversial. Swedenborg says that only 34 of the Bible’s books are written with a complete and continuous internal sense, and thus only those 34 are truly part of the Word. The 34 are the five books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, the two books of Samuel, the two books of Kings, Psalms, the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the four Gospels and Revelation. This leaves out some treasured books of the Old Testament: Ruth, Job, Proverbs, Song of Solomon and others.

But the exact contents of the Old Testament have been debated for millennia and there are already variations in the Jewish, Catholic and Protestant Bibles. What most people find harder to accept is the idea that the works of the early Christian Church — Acts and the various epistles of Christian leaders – are not filled with the divine.

But consider the difference between how the Gospels were written and how the Epistles were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were simply trying to record the words and deeds of Jesus, telling what they new of these things in their most outward form. The Lord was able to guide that outward form so that inwardly it could be filled with spiritual correspondences. The epistles, on the other hand, were really the first human attempts to interpret Jesus’s teachings and develop them into a consistent doctrine. The fact that the writers were already trying to find deeper meanings meant that their work could not be used to contain deeper meanings. It doesn’t mean their doctrinal conclusions are wrong – they had vast insight – but they are not divine.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 1403, 1405; Doctrine of Sacred Scripture 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 26, 31, 56, 77, 97, 110, 111; Doctrine of Sacred Scripture 23 [1]; Heaven and Hell 241; The White Horse 16)

http://newchristianbiblestudy.org/

Alone we cannot do good

God is Love

All religions and indeed non-religious ways of living involve the idea that it is important to do good for others. This is best exemplified in the ‘Golden Rule’, expressed by Jesus as: So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets  [Matthew 7:12 ESV]. This Golden Rule is also to be found for example, in Buddhism – Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful  [Udana-Varga 5:18] and in Hinduism – This is the sum of duty; do not do to others what you would not have them do unto you [Mahabharata 5:1517]. And Emanuel Swedenborg commences one of his books [Doctrine of Life] with the words: All Religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good.

So, true ways of living involve doing good for others. But can we really do good?

Matthew, Mark and Luke all include an account of a rich man coming to Jesus and asking him a question as here in Mark’s gospel:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.
[Mark 10:17-18 ESV]

In these few words Jesus makes it abundantly clear that God alone is Good. But we might also ask the question “What is Jesus saying about himself”? Is it perhaps that he wants the rich man to make the connection that Jesus is Good because Jesus is “Immanuel, God with us”. In John’s gospel we find these words of Jesus: For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself  [John 5:26]. We could easily replace the word life with good to emphasise that God in Jesus alone is good.

But where does that leave us?

Emanuel Swedenborg brings clarity to this situation in his opening words of Divine Love and Wisdom paragraph 4: God alone – the Lord – is love itself, because he is life itself. Both we on earth and angels are life-receivers.

Fundamentally we are receivers of love, life and goodness from God. We have no love, life or goodness in ourselves and yet it appears that we can use what we receive as if it were ours alone. And in particular we can try to do good for others from our own resources, motives and desires.

One of the dangers, of course, is that our motives and desires will be selfish and we will try to use our resources to do good for others in a way which seeks to benefit us and make us look good. Such a self-serving approach to doing good may have the external effect and benefit intended for others but internally it is anything but good and certainly does not have God’s goodness at its heart. When we put ourselves first in any situation and concentrate on our needs above the needs of others we are in a sense standing alone. Our world view is then dominated by I, me, mine and we appear alone and totally separated from others and indeed from God. It is in this context that Alone, we cannot do good.

But what of all the good done for other people every day through simple acts of kindness, love and caring, not from some selfish motive but from a feeling that it is the right thing to do? Surely the answer is that, no matter what race, colour or religion we are, when we have someone else’s needs in view the good we do for them is from God whether we acknowledge it or not. What really makes the difference is that we have rejected the error of a life dominated by I, me, mine and moved to one in which you and yours have become more important. We have stopped being alone.

We may still imagine that we are the ones doing good but what we do now has God’s goodness at its heart.

But can we go a stage further in not acting alone?

God gives us life and the sense and awareness that we live from ourselves whereas the reality is that we live only from God. But if we maintain and strengthen the appearance that we live from ourselves by the I, me, mine approach to life then we remain apart, separated and alone from God.

This is clearly not what God wants. In John’s gospel Jesus says the following:

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
[John 15:4-5]

God leaves us free to do what we want with the life he gives us and to feel that it is our own. But he wishes that we would link or abide with him in the same way that he can link or abide with us. He wants us to be linked or connected together, to form a union with him, and not remain separated, apart and alone.

And what is the fundamental thing we need to do to make the link and start the process of union?

It is to do good for others as if the love, life and goodness we have is ours but believing, knowing and acknowledging that they are really only from God.

http://www.god-is-love.org.uk/

“The love of Christ

Image result for jesus
“The love of Christ controls and urges and impels us, because we are of the opinion and conviction that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, so that all those who live might live no longer to and for themselves, but to and for Him Who died and was raised again for their sake. Consequently, from now on we estimate and regard no one from a human point of view.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-16a)

What did Jesus say about other Religions?

Lately, there has been a lot of intolerance expressed in the name of religion.  There are many, who grow up in a particular religion, and assume a prideful intolerance of others who are different.  Others will use people’s ignorance to create a false fear of others. There are many, who assume that their religion is the one true religion, and if one does not believe the way they believe, you will be condemned to hell.  And unfortunately this turns a lot of people off to the truths contained in Divine revelations. The general public ends up avoiding religion altogether.

This is what happens when people focus on belief, and not on how one lives their life.

So what did Jesus say about other religions? Actually quite a bit, It so upset the religious leaders, it was the religious leaders who had Jesus killed.  Because if salvation is from how one lives their life, and not on head knowledge or belief, this lessens the strict exclusiveness of a religion. So lets take a look at what Jesus had to say on this matter.

RELIGION VERSUS HOW ONE LIVES ONE’S LIFE

Jesus, as it turns out, cares more about how you live your life over what you believe in terms of religion. This will come as a surprise to many, but it is true. It is more important how one lives one’s life according to the Lord’s will:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24)

Jesus also makes it clear that he does not care for people who use religion to get attention from others:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:5-6)

And Jesus is quite against religious people who do not life a life of charity and love towards others:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt. 7:21-23)

He then follows the above quote that He does not care for those who just believe, but rather those who hear what He says and actually does it (Matt. 7:24-27)

WHAT OF OTHER RELIGIONS?

Religious differences are not new, and there were different religions in the day of Jesus. Here is one episode that is only recorded in the gospel of Mark:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,  and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40)

Which means, one should tolerate other religions that have similar beliefs.  Do not be focused on “who follows what” or if others do not recognize your belief as an authority. If the religion has a positive view of Jesus, all the better. For Jesus said He is the Truth, and if there is any truth in other religions, He is there present, but hidden.

Now, in Jesus’ day there were multiple groups, but the Jews had a general dislike of another religious group known as the Samaritans. Not only did the Samaritans had different religious practices, but they only believed in the first five books of Moses.  All the other books they rejected. Sound familiar? Since they tended to hate each other, this is why Jesus selects a Samaritan in the parable of the good Samaritan:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.And the next day he took out two denarii  and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37)

Again, this shows that Jesus cares more about how you live your life, not your religious beliefs.

WHAT OF THOSE WHO NEVER KNEW JESUS CHRIST

There are many Christians who do believe that if one is not a Christian, who do not know Jesus Christ, will be condemned. But this is really short sighted, and actually goes against what the Bible teaches. God is love, and all are judged according to their works (Matt. 16:27), not according to one’s belief system. The New Testament makes clear that even those who did not know Jesus Christ had made it to heaven:

  1. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are listed as among those in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11, Luke 13:28).
  2. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are listed as currently alive in heaven (Matt. 22:32).
  3. Abraham is shown to be in heaven (Luke 16:22-30)

The reason why Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are mentioned, is that in a higher sense these patriarchs refer to the three levels of heaven. Paul mentions the third heaven in one of his personal experiences (see 2 Cor. 12:2). So these patriarchs refer to those who were righteous.

So what about those who did not necessarily live such a good life, because they were unaware? This is actually mentioned in a parable in the gospel of Luke, where a master of a household entrusts his possessions to his servants, who then abuse the responsibility they have been given, beating other servants, and living a slothful life. Note the end, where punishment is different between those who know and those who do not know:

 And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47-48)

In other words, religious knowledge and religious belief do not help if you choose to live an evil life. In fact, those who know and live an evil life will be judged more severely than those who lived an evil life and did not know.

Moreover, one other point here, after the crucifixion Jesus made a descent into the netherworld, and released souls from spiritual captivity:

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah (2 Pet. 3:18-20)

This goes a bit beyond the scope of this blog post, but this refers to an intermediate spiritual world between heaven and hell, where periodic judgments are made to separate the good from the evil. These are typically those who lived a good life but in external appearance only, or those who were good but followed some false ideas. The point is here, that even if one does not know the truth, they will have a chance to learn more in the other life. Lack of knowledge does not mean condemnation. However if one does evil intentionally, and enjoys it, that does mean condemnation.

SWEDENBORG’S VISIONS OF GENTILES IN HEAVEN

Swedenborg spent a full 27 years having waking visions of heaven and hell, and recording the spiritual sense of scripture. He confirmed that just because one was not born into Christianity and had no knowledge of Jesus Christ, it does not mean one is condemned. One is judged according to how one lived their life.  Here is the passage in particular, which may come as a surprise to many Christians, who would falsely reject it if they were not aware of scripture:

“It is a common opinion that those born out of the Church, who are called heathen or gentiles, cannot be saved, because they have not the Word and thus do not know the Lord, and without the Lord there is no salvation. But still it may be known that they also are saved, from this alone, that the mercy of the Lord is universal, that is, toward every one; that they are born men as well as those within the Church, who are respectively few; and that it is not their fault that they do not know the Lord. Every one who thinks from any enlightened reason, may see that no man is born for hell, for the Lord is love itself, and His love is to will to save all. Therefore He has provided that all may have religion, and by it acknowledgment of the Divine, and interior life; for to live according to one’s religious belief is to live interiorly, as he then looks to the Divine; and as far as he looks to This, so far he does not look to the world, but removes himself from the world, thus from the life of the world, which is exterior life.
“That gentiles are saved as well as Christians, may be known by those who know what it is that makes heaven with man; for heaven is in man, and those who have heaven in themselves come into heaven. Heaven in man is to acknowledge the Divine and to be led by the Divine. The first and primary thing of every religion is to acknowledge the Divine. A religion which does not acknowledge the Divine, is not religion; and the precepts of every religion look to worship; thus they teach how the Divine is to be worshipped, so that the worship may be acceptable to Him; and when this is fixed in one’s mind, thus as far as he wills it, or as far as he loves it, he is led by the Lord. It is known that gentiles live a moral life as well as Christians, and many of them a better life than Christians. Moral life is lived either for the sake of the Divine, or for the sake of men in the world; the moral life which is lived for the sake of the Divine is spiritual life. Moral life and spiritual life appear alike in outward form, but in inward form they are altogether different; the one saves man, the other does not save him. For he who lives a moral life for the sake of the Divine, is led by the Divine, but he who lives a moral life for the sake of men in the world, is led by himself.” (Heaven and Hell, n. 318-319)

I emphasize the latter part, because one’s actions are judged by one’s purpose or intent.  Doing good for the sake of self, for selfish gain, is not good, that is just being done for self gain.  All is judged according to how one loved others, for in loving others one is loving God, for God is love.  Love is the answer to all things. Just as “all roads lead to Rome,” so all truths lead to One God, who is love itself.

To make it clear, I am not saying that religion is completely irrelevant, but rather, truth becomes one’s guide as to how one lives one’s life. I would say the advantage that Christianity has is that it reveals God is a personal being, who became incarnate in human form, to show that He loves us. More accurately, God is Being, God is Man, we are His image. There is a closer and deeper connection, more so than thinking of God as something abstract. And when one understands He became incarnate to fight directly against the hells, so He can fight for you to overcome sin and temptation, and to live a better spiritual life.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

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New Church Day

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper


Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. (MAR 8:22)

Our text for this morning is taken from the Gospel of Mark where is described one of the Lord s many miracles of healing. In this case, a blind man was healed. The blind man in this story is a symbol for those of us who are hurting, who are in real pain because of the mistakes we may have made because of our spiritual blindness.

In the Word, blindness generally represents the inability to see the truths of the Word. It s also important to recognize that there are different kinds of blindness there are those who are blind to spiritual truth because of their circumstances, that is, those who are ignorant of the truth through no fault of their own; and there are those who are blind because their loves of self and the world twist and pervert the truth until it is unrecognizable. They make themselves blind because they close their eyes to the truth. As the common saying goes, “there is none so blind as he who will not see.”

In either case, spiritual blindness leaves us without the means to judge the course of our lives. We cannot see if we are preparing ourselves adequately for heaven. We cannot see if the anger we feel is zeal to protect what is good, or hatred towards those who threaten our possessions and position in society. When we are spiritually blind, for whatever reason, we are in the same predicament as those people who entered the spiritual world during the Dark Ages and who are called in the book of Revelation the “souls under the altar” (REV69). As we read in our lesson, these are those who “were in external worship without internal, and who therefore lived an external moral life, although they were merely natural and not spiritual.” (AE 391)

The purpose of the Lord s Second Coming, as we know from the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church, was to shine the light of truth on these people, to give them the means to see truth for themselves, to decide freely, and for themselves, what kind of spiritual life they should lead. The so-called “Last Judgment” was a judgment by truth, truth which took away spiritual blindness and set those souls free. That light was provided to those in the spiritual world by means of the revelations given to Emanuel Swedenborg, and it was the completion of the last of those works, the True Christian Religion and the consequent establishment of the New Christian Church on June 19, 1770 that we are celebrating this weekend.

So we can see that spiritual truth from the Lord through the Word is the only means of curing spiritual blindness. We can see this further illustrated by what happened next So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. (MAR823)

Remember also that our text tells us that “they begged Him to touch Him.” It is important to note that although the Lord has the power to heal any spiritual disease, He will only do so if He is first approached, for nothing in man s life can be changed apart from his own freedom. If the Lord were to approach on His own initiative, there would be no freedom, so He presents Himself, informs us of His willingness to help, and then awaits our decision and His patience is Infinite.

To be led by the hand out of the town means that in choosing to approach the Lord for help, by recognizing our need for His help, we have already begun the steps to our recovery, for we have left Bethsaida, we have left the state of disorder or ignorance that caused the blindness and have taken the first positive steps towards choosing the truth and the light, and we begin to leave the states that have caused us our spiritual crisis.

The story tells us that the Lord then spit in the blind man s eyes. This is a powerful combination of images that leads us to see what the person going through these states might feel. On the one hand, water from the mouth of the Lord corresponds to truth, and our rational mind tells us that it should be a good thing to have truth directly from the mouth of the Lord applied to the eye, the organ that represents understanding but yet there is something repellent in the thought of anyone spitting in our eyes. It s humiliating, it s a terrible insult.

On the spiritual level, what could be more humiliating than suddenly awakening to the fact that the innocent little fantasies that we have cherished for so long and enjoyed so much actually constitute adultery because they are destructive of marriage? What could be more humbling than really understanding that the little “unofficial benefits” we have enjoyed at work are actually stealing. We could go on at some length in this vein, but the point should be clear that when we first recognize that we are in a state of disorder, we don t always see just how bad it really is. We tend to minimize the damage. But truth from the Lord is bright and powerful, and makes our errors glaring and to see ourselves as He sees us is humiliating.

The text continues, giving us the blind man s response. And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.” (MAR824) It is a fact that those people who have had their sight surgically restored and see for the first time (or for the first time in many years) have a great deal of difficulty in sorting out the images they see. In their blindness, they have built up pictures of how things ought to look from the information they have received from their other senses. Things like perspective and shading completely baffle them for a time so that they must continue to use their seeing-eye dogs for some time after their sight is restored. This is the phenomena that the blind man is referring to when he says that men look like trees to him.

Again, the point of this story is not to tell us about how blind people gradually recover their sight, but to tell us about how, even when we have been touched by the Lord and the eyes of our understanding opened, we don t immediately come into pure understanding like that of the angels. The new truth has to be understood, assimilated, adapted to our own experience and character, and studied in the light of the other truths that we already know. It takes time to change a whole lifetime, in fact.

But we can have the courage and strength to carry on because we know that the Lord does not just touch us and then abandon us. Instead, He stays near, guiding our recovery, gradually showing us the way things ought to be. We read from Mark Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. (MAR825) Eventually, in time, we find spiritual peace, we come into new states of life where truths we never imagined are easily seen.

While we are in the state of blindness, of personal evils and selfishness, it hurts when we read the Word, because its light shows up our weaknesses. But it is not the purpose of the Word to cause pain, but to remove its cause. We examine ourselves in preparation for the Holy Supper, not so we can see how bad we are, but so that we can direct the Lord s healing power to where it is needed most.

In the Old Testament, the Lord established a basic covenant with the Jews He would protect them and be their God if, in return, they would simply obey certain external rules. When He came to earth in person, as described in the New Testament, that covenant was changed from an external obedience to an internal, moral response. He introduced the Holy Supper as the sign of an internal acknowledgment of our need to change our attitudes, not just our actions. And the Writings, the instrument of His second coming, serve to reestablish that covenant so that it is rational and spiritual in origin, but shows itself as moral and civil behavior.

We are free to respond to the Lord on any level we choose. If we wish or are able to do no more than to faithfully obey His commandments, because they are from Him, then we will find a wonderful, eternal home in the natural heaven. If, on the other hand, we delight in searching out the reasons behind His commandments, and seeking to obey them in spirit as well as their letter, then we will find our home in the spiritual heaven. But if our greatest delight is in serving the Lord and doing what is good, then our spiritual home will be with the celestial angels but the point is that choice is our depending on our response the Lord s invitation to enter into His covenant.

The sign of this covenant to the Ancient Church was the rainbow. In the Jewish Church, it was the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night over the ark of the covenant that was the constant reminder of the Lord s presence with them. For the Christian and New Christian churches, the sign of His covenant is in the two sacraments that are universal entrances to the church, baptism, and the Holy Supper.

We should take time to reflect on these things as we recognize the 330th anniversary of the founding of the New Heaven, and the sending forth of the twelve disciples throughout heaven to preach the gospel that the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns, and His kingdom shall be for ever and ever. (TCR 791) Pray that the Lord will touch you with His divine truth and cure your spiritual blindness. Do your part to enter into His covenant with a humble heart, and He will enlighten your mind and lead you into states of eternal peace. AMEN.

1st Lesson PSA 146

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul! {2} While I live I will praise the LORD; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. {3} Do not put your trust in princes, Nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. {4} His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his plans perish. {5} Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, Whose hope is in the LORD his God, {6} Who made heaven and earth, The sea, and all that is in them; Who keeps truth forever, {7} Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The LORD gives freedom to the prisoners. {8} The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous. {9} The LORD watches over the strangers; He relieves the fatherless and widow; But the way of the wicked He turns upside down. {10} The LORD shall reign forever; Your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD! Amen.

2nd Lesson MAR 822-26

Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. {23} So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything. {24} And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.” {25} Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. {26} Then He sent him away to his house, saying, “Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town.” Amen.

3rd Lesson AE 391 (portions)

I saw under the altar, signifies those who were preserved under heaven. This is evident from the signification of “to see,” as being to make manifest (see above, n. 351); also from the signification of “altar” as being, in the nearest sense, worship from the good of love to the Lord; in a more interior sense, heaven and the church, which are in that love; and in the inmost sense, the Lord s Divine Human in relation to the Divine good of the Divine love.

“Under the altar” signifies those who were preserved under heaven, because it is said that he “saw under the altar the souls of those slain because of the Word of God, and because of the testimony that they held,” and by these are meant those who were preserved under heaven until the Last Judgment; but as this is not yet known in the world, I will tell how it is.

…Before the Last Judgment took place there was a semblance of heaven which is meant by “the former heaven that passed away” (Rev. 211) and that this heaven consisted of those who were in external worship without internal, and who therefore lived an external moral life, although they were merely natural and not spiritual.

Those of whom this heaven consisted before the Last Judgment were seen in the spiritual world above the earth, also upon mountains, hills, and rocks, and therefore believed themselves to be in heaven; but those of whom this heaven consisted, because they were in an external moral life only and not at the same time in an internal spiritual life, were cast down; and when these had been cast down, all those who had been preserved by the Lord, and concealed here and there, for the most part in the lower earth, were elevated and transferred to these same places, that is, upon the mountains, hills, and rocks where the others had formerly been, and out of these a new heaven was formed.

These who had been preserved and then elevated were from those in the world who had lived a life of charity, and who were in the spiritual affection of truth. The elevation of these into the places of the others I have often witnessed. It is these who are meant by “the souls of those slain seen under the altar,” and because they were guarded by the Lord in the lower earth, and this earth is under heaven, so “I saw under the altar” signifies those who were preserved under heaven. Amen.


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The Power and Use of Prayer

A Sermon by Rev. James P. Cooper


Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man. (Luke 21:36)

There are literally hundreds of references to prayer in Scripture and in the Heavenly Doctrines. In the Old Testament, the Patriarchs, the Kings, and the Prophets all prayed to the Lord for inspiration, for help in time of trouble, and for the destruction of their enemies. The New Testament records many times when the Lord Himself prayed for help, when He told others to pray, and when He gave specific instructions on when and how to pray. The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church confirm these teachings and elaborate on the need to pray, teaching that after self-examination and the discovery of some evil within, the next step is to pray to the Lord for forgiveness and help in shunning that evil.

Looking at the evidence in the Word supporting the use and power of prayer, and the number of times the Lord commanded us to pray as an essential part of the process of regeneration, praying should be as natural to us as breathing is — and yet there is not a topic that causes more questions and embarrassment in the New Church as the question of how and when to pray, and for what. Our purpose for today is to see what the Word teaches on the subject so that our personal and private decisions about prayer can be made on the basis of the clear teachings of the Word.

All genuine worship of the Lord is founded on the proper use of prayer, for in speaking about the Temple in Jerusalem, the Lord said, “My house shall be called the house of prayer” (Matt. 21:22). But at the time He was actually on earth, the concept of prayer had been totally perverted, had become something purely selfish and material. He then taught us by comparison what proper prayer was, prayer suited for genuine worship to the Lord. He said, And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. … But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matt. 6:5-7 Cf. Mark 12:40).

Praying to God in secret means that you must speak your heart honestly to your Heavenly Father. We are to speak with God from God, that is, to reach within ourselves to the point where we are speaking from our own true faith, our genuine principles, the things of good and truth, charity and faith, that are God’s with us. Prayer is an attempt to bring ourselves into harmony with God’s plans for our salvation, an opportunity for us to focus on the progress of our life from His perspective, rather than from our own, at least for a time.

When we turn to the Lord in prayer, when we focus on the celestial and spiritual things of His eternal kingdom, then something very much like an influx comes into our perceptions and thoughts that opens the interiors towards God. This happens differently with each person and from time to time because it is affected by the spiritual state at the time of the prayer, and it also varies according to the subject of the prayer. If we are praying from love and faith for heavenly things, then there may be something like a revelation which will be felt in the affections, a feeling of hope, a sense of comfort, a certain internal joy and confidence that all things are in the Lord’s hands and they will turn out well from the eternal perspective. These are the Lord’s gifts to those who pray sincerely from the heart for things that are of the Lord’s eternal, spiritual kingdom. (See AC 2535)

We must also remember that we are creatures of two worlds — the natural and the spiritual. Everything we do in this world has an effect on our spiritual state, and thus on the kinds of spirits who associate with us. One of the reasons for this is that the Lord uses the angelic heavens to modify and clothe His influx so that it will be softened enough to be received by men in the world, much as the earth’s atmosphere softens the power of the sun’s rays so that we are not harmed by them. As we change our spiritual states, we change our spiritual associations, and thus receive different kinds of influx. For example, we are told that saying the Lord’s Prayer from the heart creates a spiritual association with especially good, innocent spirits. Genuine, heartfelt prayers about heavenly things do have their effect on our spiritual states, bringing perceptions of comfort and hope, and bringing the association of like-minded spirits who support and encourage, and serve to bring the Lord’s inflowing life and love into our lives.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to think about when considering prayers, is the question why some prayers seem to be answered while others are not, for the Lord teaches in Matthew, And all things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive (Matt. 21:22). And in Mark, He says, Whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them (Mark 11:24). God promises to answer our prayers, but it appears that He almost never does. What is wrong? Is it a function of the strength of our faith? Is it some kind of test? If we pray for something and we don’t get it, does that mean we don’t have sufficient strength of faith? No, it means that we are asking for the wrong things, and the Lord is answering our prayers by saying “no.”

The Lord will not answer prayers for things which He knows will serve to act against our own salvation. (See AC 8179:2,3) That means He will act in favor of prayers that are for, or agree with, the end of salvation. For example, the prayers of Zacharias for a son: The angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (Luke 1:13). There is evidence also that prayer is helpful in certain kinds of illness, for when speaking about a demon that the disciples could not cast out, the Lord said, This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting (Matt. 17:21).

The Apocalypse Revealed says, It is a general thing in all Divine worship that a man should first will, desire and pray, and that the Lord should then answer, inform, and do; otherwise the man does not receive anything Divine. … Moreover in the Word very often it is read that the Lord answers when they call and cry, also, that He gives when they ask. Nevertheless the Lord gives them to ask, and what to ask, and the Lord therefore knows this beforehand, but still the Lord wills that a man should ask first, to the end that it may be as from himself, and thus be appropriated to him (AR 376).

We need to pray to the Lord for help in healing us of our spiritual diseases, for although we often use the phrase “as-of-self” in the church, it really has no meaning without prayer. The concept of as-of-self reformation has to do with the process of bringing our lives into the Lord’s order with His help. We do it as if we were doing it ourselves, as if we actually had the power to fight and conquer evil, but we must at the same time acknowledge that it is the Lord’s power that fights for us. How else can we ask for the Lord’s help in temptation except through prayer? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41, Cf. Mark 14:38). Who can doubt that if we sincerely ask for His help to conquer evils that He will not answer our prayers? Then He said to them, ‘Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation’ (Luke 22:46). But we cannot actually reform and regenerate without the Lord’s power, and we cannot use His power without asking Him. When we do, we are speaking to Him about the things of His kingdom, with the end of our own salvation in mind. The Lord always hears and responds to such prayers. It is only through prayer that we can ask for His forgiveness for our sins. Therefore, without humble prayer to God, we cannot be regenerated.

There are many prayers that He does not answer, specifically, those that are impossible because they are contrary to the Divine order. We read from the Brief Exposition, Suppose you should pray a thousand times at home and in temples, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, would preserve you from the devil, and should not at the same time, from the freedom in which you are perpetually held by the Lord, keep yourself from evil, and so from the devil; you could not in this case be preserved even by legions of angels sent from the Lord; for the Lord cannot act contrary to His own Divine order, and His order is that man should examine himself, see his evils, resist them, and this as of himself, yet from the Lord.

We also find that He will not listen to prayers that seek gain for self, or harm to enemies. The prayers of those who seek evil to others cannot be heard, for their selfish thought and will close Heaven to them, and in heaven, prayers are listened to solely according to the end or purpose of the prayer. If the end is contrary to eternal salvation, it is not heard. (See AC 4227:4, 8179:2,3 SD 1820)

It’s clear that we must pray for the Lord’s help in times of temptation, we must pray for His strength to conquer evils for us, but that we must not pray for selfish or worldly things. But what about praying for the sake of others whom we love, and for whom we have genuine, loving concern? Do our prayers help others who are troubled?

The Lord prayed for others. Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray (Matt. 19:13), and He taught that we, too, should pray for those in spiritual difficulty: But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you (Matt. 5:43, Cf. Luke 6:28).

Perhaps the problem comes when we feel presumptuous in praying for others, for we feel we are somehow intruding into God’s territory, telling Him His business. We know that the Lord, in His Infinite Wisdom already knows about it, for He cares for the sparrow and the Lily of the Field. Of course He was already doing everything that was possible in the sight of the Divine Providence and for the sake of that person’s eternal salvation. What more could we possibly add with our insignificant prayers?

Once again, we must remind ourselves that the Lord governs and rules the whole universe by means of influx through the angelic heaven. When a person is in trouble in this world, the Lord’s help flows down to him through the Celestial Heaven, the Spiritual Heaven, the Natural Heaven, and the World of Spirits and in this way is prepared to be received by an unregenerate human in the world of nature. Who can count how many individual spirits are involved in carrying the Lord’s love to that troubled person?

Let’s think of an illustration from this world. If we pass by and see 20 men pulling on a rope to pull another person up out of a pit, would we not stop to lend a hand? Our assistance may make up only a tiny proportion of the overall effort, but it has reduced the effort required of the others, we have made some tangible contribution to helping the one in the pit. Also, our help has not changed anyone’s mind, it has not deprived anyone of their freedom. We have simply added our own small contribution to an already established and organized rescue effort.

I believe this is analogous to what happens when we pray for someone who is in spiritual need. The Lord already knows of their need. The angelic heavens are already there, helping. By our prayer, we lend a hand, we add our sphere to those already gathered so that love and wisdom can flow in through us (imperceptibly, and just a little bit) to the one in need. And we help them by our prayers as surely as we helped the person out of the pit by pulling on the rope — and we are not interfering with God’s plans in any way.

Prayer for others has the additional benefit of turning our minds away from the selfishness and worldliness of our own lives and turning us towards the needs and concerns of others, that is, to true charity. Prayer for others also puts us in the habit of thinking of the needs of others, if not before our own needs, at least as our own. Prayer puts us in tune with the spiritual world, it brings us into the flow of the Divine Providence, if we pray for spiritual and eternal things, and if we believe what the Lord Himself says: Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them. AMEN.

Lessons: Matthew 6:1-8, Luke 21:29-38, BE 52:1-2

Brief Exposition 52: This is testified by experience. How many are there at this day, who live according to the commandments of the Decalogue, and other precepts of the Lord, from religion? And how many are there at this day, who desire to look their own evils in the face, and to perform actual repentance, and thus enter upon the worship of the life? And who among those that cultivate piety, perform any other repentance than oral and oratorical, confessing themselves to be sinners, and praying, according to the doctrine of the church, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, who suffered upon the cross for their sins, took away their damnation, and atoned for them with His blood, would mercifully forgive their transgressions, that so they might be presented without spot or blemish before the throne of His judgment? Who does not see, that this worship is of the lungs only, and not of the heart, consequently that it is external worship, and not internal? for he prays for the remission of sins, when yet he does not know one sin with himself; and if be did know of any, he would cover it over with favor and indulgence, or with a faith that is to purify and absolve him, without any works of his But this is comparatively like a servant going to his master with his face and clothes defiled with soot and filth, and saying, Sir, wash me. Would not his master say to him, Thou foolish servant, what is it thou sayest? See! there is water, soap, and a towel, hast thou not hands, and ability to use them? wash thyself. Thus also the Lord God will say, The means of purification are from Me, and from Me also thou hast will and power, wherefore use these My gifts and talents, as thy own, and thou shalt be purified.

Take another example by way of illustration. Suppose you should pray a thousand times at home and in temples, that God the Father, for the sake of His Son, would preserve you from the devil, and should not at the same time, from the freedom in which you are perpetually held by the Lord, keep yourself from evil, and so from the devil; you could not in this case be preserved even by legions of angels sent from the Lord; for the Lord cannot act contrary to His own Divine order, and His order is that man should examine himself, see his evils, resist them, and this as of himself, yet from the Lord. This does not indeed at this day appear to be the Gospel, nevertheless it is the Gospel, for the Gospel is salvation.