THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE NEW CHURCH
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn September 18, 1994
“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain … ” (John 15:16).
The Lord spoke these words to His disciples. It was the night of His betrayal. As He sat with the eleven disciples, Judas Iscariot having gone out, He prepared them for the end. He also taught them what they must do to establish His church. He had chosen them for this vital work.
Our doctrine speaks of the Lord’s church in two types: the “universal” church and the “specific” church. In the broadest sense the Lord’s church is one, and is spread throughout the world. This church is not a chosen or elect group. It is a universal church composed of all the well-intentioned and sincere people of the world of whatever faith or creed, even gentile peoples ignorant of Christianity. “The church in the whole world is before the Lord as one man” (AE 351:2). All in this universal church may know the joy of conjunction with the Lord in heaven. “The mercy of the Lord is infinite, and does not suffer itself to be limited to those few who are within the church, but extends itself to all in the whole world” (AC 1032).
That this universal church may have its life, however, there must also be a specific church. The specific church, sometimes called in doctrine the “church specific,” constitutes the inmost part of the universal church, being compared to the heart and lungs within the body which are so vital to its life. The specific church may also be thought of as a hook at the top of a chain of links by which the universal church is connected to heaven and the Lord. Were it not for this specific church, the chain of all good people who are now upheld by it would fall away. The specific church may consist of comparatively few, we are told, yet still perform this vital function for the rest.
But where is the specific church upon which the life of so many depends? What distinguishes it and gives it its essential quality?
We are told that the specific church is that church which has the Word of God and a true understanding of God by means of it. The Word of God, rightly understood, is the link of conjunction between heaven and earth. This is the teaching: “There cannot be any conjunction with heaven unless somewhere on the earth there is a church where the Word is, and by it the Lord is known … without the Word somewhere in the world there would not be conjunction with anyone” (De Verbo 40). This conjunction takes place not with a book on the shelf but in the minds of people who have read and understood, and who have obeyed.
In the course of history, the torch of Divine light has been passed from one church to another, each having its time and place in keeping the flame alive in people’s minds and hearts. For a time, the Word of the Old Testament was the special treasure of the Hebrew or Israelitish people, and later of the Jews in Canaan. It was Jesus who told the woman of Samaria that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), for until the advent of Christ, the Jewish Church was the specific church on earth on which the religious life of the world depended. Yet He predicted a new church. True light from the Word of the Old Testament was being extinguished by the false traditions of men. Jesus Himself had come into the world to renew and restore the true understanding of the Scriptures and so again give light to all in the earth. As the prophet had declared: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light … ” (Isaiah 9:2).
So it was that the Lord appointed His disciples to carry the Gospel to the world. “You are the light of the world …,” He said. The Christian Church became the torchbearer to the world. For centuries Christians who read the Scriptures and thereby knew the Lord God were the link to heaven for all people of good will on earth.
However, just as the torch passed from the Jewish to the Christian Church, so now the torch has passed from the Christian to the New Church. The genuine understanding of the Word in Christendom has perished, destroyed by doctrinal fallacies conceived by men and confirmed in church councils. Therefore, in our era it has pleased the Lord to reveal Himself again in His Word so that the light of truth, almost extinguished in the world, may be restored.
The New Church has been established by a revelation of the spiritual sense of the Word and of the Heavenly Doctrine. In this revelation the Lord no longer speaks in parables but teaches plainly of the Father. By this revelation it is permitted to enter into the mysteries of faith with the understanding. By virtue of this Divine gift as great a gift from God as the commandments from Mount Sinai engraved on tables of stone, as great a gift as the incarnation of Jesus Christ, whose teachings in the Gospels have inspired so many the New Church has been chosen and appointed the next specific church, the vital heart and lungs of the universal church.
A new and genuine understanding of the Word of God has been entrusted to this church. God is made known and can be loved. Even while this church is yet among comparatively few on earth, still, by virtue of the doctrine it has been given, it is the hope of the whole world.
It may seem a bold and conceited claim that the New Church is the only church now in possession of the key to a genuine understanding of the Word of God that it is therefore the link between heaven and the church upon which the spiritual life of the entire world depends. This, however, is not a matter for conceit but for humility. It is not a claim of authority but an assignment of responsibility. It is the Lord’s doing. As He said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you … ” (John 15:16).
The New Church has been chosen as the specific church to carry the torch of spiritual light for the whole world just as the Jewish and Christian Churches were chosen in past eras. Therefore it has unique and special responsibilities. As members of this church, you have been called as disciples of the Lord with a sacred trust.
Often I hear people in the New Church express a longing to serve their neighbors outside of the church. What a praiseworthy desire! Usually this longing is expressed in a context of social good works. There are so many worthy causes to support in the world today. And we are so few. Perhaps what people often fail to realize is that the function and responsibility of the specific church especially is to serve the neighbor outside, to serve the cause of spiritual life for the whole world.
You want to serve the broader neighbor? You have certainly been called or born into the right church. What you can do as a New Church person can have a more profound effect on the welfare of your neighbors in the world than anything else. You can be the instrument of bringing light and life from the Lord to people in a way that no one else in the world can do. We are not talking here of the individual contact you may have with people outside of the church who may be directly influenced by the ideas you convey to them or by the example of your way of life. The effect of the specific church is broader and far-reaching. What you do as a New Church person to bring your life into conjunction with the heavens has an effect on people you do not know and may never meet. For the touchstone of conjunction in your mind and heart is an avenue for influx from the heavens to countless others. You, with your efforts, are creating a link between heaven and earth. And if we in the New Church do not serve this function, there is no one else who can: not among the millions of Jews or Christians or Muslims, or among the countless people of Oriental or Indian religions.
Here are a few suggestions about our unique and distinctive responsibilities as a church:
We are a sacred repository and a holy of holies guarding, preserving, treasuring the Word which we have received as the sole medium of conjunction between heaven and earth.
The exposition of the spiritual sense of the Word and the study of doctrine drawn therefrom should be our continuing love, because this provides the foundation on which the heavens rest and by which there is spiritual communication to the minds and hearts of all well-intentioned people.
There are many intellectual forces at work today, undermining reverence for the Word of God, indeed, for any supernatural authority. When the skeptical sphere of the world destroys all possibility of a simple faith in the holiness of the Word, who will be left to read it with the kind of reverence which alone makes it effective as a means of conjunction between heaven and earth? Only people in a church with the rational and spiritual truths to stave off skepticism and negativism, and to restore to its exalted place of honor the written Word of God.
The Writings reveal that when the Word is being read by a person who “loves the Word and lives in charity, or by a person who from simplicity of heart believes what is written, … it is presented by the Lord before the angels in such beauty and in such pleasantness … that every particular is perceived as if it had life … Although in the letter it appears crude, there are stored up in it spiritual and celestial things which lie open before good spirits, and before angels, when the Word is being read by man” (AC 1767).
So essential to the heavens is this foundation of thought which comes from people reading the Word on earth that the Word is called “the support of heaven” (AE 816).
As the Lord, now revealed in His Divinely Human form, is to be acknowledged in the New Church, so we should make every effort to hold our minds on the thought of His close presence and in the acknowledgment of His supreme power and mercy.
We must beware of intellectualism. Just as light is impermanent, easily becoming extinguished and darkened, so the mere possession of the Word and mere knowledge of its doctrine is impermanent. Truths can be fixed and engraved on the heart only by a life according to doctrine. So the Writings warn us that a church is not called a church “from the fact that the Word is there and that there are doctrinal things therefrom, nor from the fact that the Lord is known there, and that the sacraments are there; but it is the church from the fact that people live according to the Word … so that the doctrine is the rule of life” (AC 6637).
The specific church cannot fulfill its function as a heart and lungs to the body of the universal church without exercising its responsibility to know truths and to practice living them. Think of these two organs in the body. They are in constant motion. This is the example for our spiritual activity in the church. We need to be inspired, “breathed into,” time and again, with spiritual ideas and principles. This requires instruction. Whether we go to the Word directly or involve ourselves in worship or discussion, thought, reflection and formulating ideas drawn from the Word is an essential part of our religious life and of our service to the neighbor. While it is true that the angels delight in their understanding of the spiritual sense of the Word while it is read in its natural sense by children (see AC 1776), there is an even greater clarity and communication when people on earth read with a true understanding. We are told that interpreting the spiritual sense of the Word from truths of doctrine “opens heaven,” the man then thinking together with angels, and he “thus conjoins them to himself in his intellectual mind” (De Verbo 20). ” … [C]onjunction is effected … ” we are told, “when man perceives the Word in a similar way as the angels perceive it” (AE 950:2). ” … [T]o the man of this church, internal things have been revealed, and therefore communication with heaven is effected by means of internal things and not by means of external things as before” (AC 8972:2).
If the lungs are in constant motion, representing the necessary activity of the intellectual mind to think, the heart beats even more often, regularly feeding the body with new life. The church specific, described by heart and lungs in the body, has a need for both intellectual life and the life of charity. The “heart” in the church specific is that life of charity which gives us conjunction with celestial angels, angels of love (AE 351). Often, we neglect this heart aspect of our role as church specific. The Lord sees the whole church before Him as one man, we are told. “In this man, the church where the Word is and where the Lord is known thereby is like the heart and the lungs; with those who are in celestial love the church is like the heart, and with those who are in spiritual love like the lungs; consequently, as all the members, viscera, and organs of the body live from the heart and from the lungs, and from their influx and consequent presence, so all in the whole earth who constitute the church universal live from the church where the Word is; for the Lord flows in therefrom with love and with light, and vivifies and enlightens all who are in any spiritual affection for truth, wherever they are” (AE 351). Both the heart and the lungs are needed for the body to live. Both light and love are needed for the spirit.
Are we responding adequately to the Lord’s call and appointment to the uses of the specific church? Let us pray that we may fulfill the responsibilities of the Lord’s appointment and that He will grant us light to see those essential uses which, above all others, must be our first love and primary duty.
The Lord’s voice is calling, asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Are we ready to answer in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8)? Amen.
Lessons: Isaiah 6:1-8; Matt. 5:13-16; AC 10452:2-4
Arcana Coelestia 10452:2-4
They who do not know the nature of the Word cannot possibly believe that by means of it there is a conjunction of the Lord with the human race, and of heaven with the world; and still less they who despise the Word, or make no account of it. But let them know that the heavens subsist by means of Divine truth, and that without it there would be no heavens, and that the human race subsists by means of heaven; for unless heaven flowed in with man, man would not be able to think at all, thus not to will anything rationally. In order therefore that heaven may subsist, and the human race by conjunction with it, the Word has been provided by the Lord wherein is Divine truth for angels and for men, the Word in its spiritual and celestial sense being of such a nature as to contain within it angelic wisdom itself in so surpassing a degree that it is scarcely possible for a man to form any conception of its excellence, although in the letter it appears very simple and unpolished.
From this it is evident that heaven is in its wisdom from the Word when it is being read by man, and then at the same time the man is in conjunction with heaven. To this end has such a Word been given to man. From this it follows that if this medium of conjunction were not in the world, conjunction with heaven would perish, and with this conjunction all good of the will and all truth of the understanding in man, and with these that very humanity which consociates man with man; consequently evil and falsity would be in full possession, whereby one society would perish after another. For it would be as when a man walks in thick darkness and stumbles wherever he goes; and it would be as when the head is in a delirium, in consequence of which the body is carried madly and insanely even to its destruction; and it would be as when the heart fails, causing the organs and members to cease to perform their uses, until the whole body dies.
Such would be the state of man unless heaven were conjoined with him, and heaven would not be conjoined with him unless there were the Word, or unless Divine truth were communicated immediately through angels, as in ancient times … From all this it can be seen what is the use of the Word; but few will believe that the Word is of such a nature and of so great a use.