The Lord Jesus Christ Reigns


The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusett, September 22, 1996


Isaiah 9:2-7 A child has been born to us
Matthew 16:13-20 Who is Jesus?
Arcana Coelestia #9303


For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

No, it's not Christmas yet! Now that we've had our two special services for the start of this church year and the start of Sunday School, I could think of no better way to begin our regular services than by talking about the beginning of everything: the Lord God Jesus Christ. In our next two services I would like to continue this thread by talking about the other two "essential teachings" of our church: about the Word of God and the life that leads to heaven. Today we will focus on the very core of our church's teachings: our belief about the Lord.

We call ourselves Christians, and rightly so, since we worship Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior. Along with other Christians, we celebrate Christmas and Easter as the great festivals in our church calendar. We look to the Bible of both the Old and New Testaments as our most sacred book--as the Word of the Lord. And we believe in living the Christian life of "charity," or kindness.

Yet with all these similarities to other Christian denominations, we also have our own distinctness. This distinctness starts with the way we believe in and worship the Lord. To make this distinctness crystal clear, I would like to compare our beliefs with the general beliefs of the larger Christian church on this question: Who is Jesus?

This is exactly the question under discussion in our New Testament reading. When Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is, they give various speculations: "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." (Matt. 16:14). Then Jesus asks the critical question: "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answers, "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God."

It is clear from this conversation that there has been confusion and controversy over who Jesus is right from the beginning. The average person of his day seemed to think of him as a great prophet--but definitely as human and not divine. If Peter is representative of the disciples as a whole, the disciples saw him as something more than merely human. They saw him as the Messiah (or Christ), the son of the living God.

Yet in other places, Jesus is given even more divinity than that. The Gospel of John recounts this exchange between Jesus and his disciple Philip:

Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."

Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father?' Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?" (John 14:8-10)

This moves beyond Jesus being the son of God to Jesus being God himself. Indeed, many of the Old Testament prophecies of the Lord's coming say the same thing, as in the words of our text. Notice as I read it that the child that has been born is called "Mighty God" and "Everlasting Father."

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6)

What else can this mean but that God himself came to earth as Jesus?

Still, the stage was set early on for a wide divergence of opinion as to Jesus' real identity. Opinions ranged from his being a mere man through being the son of God to being God himself. The early followers of Jesus probably did not feel compelled to resolve this issue in any rigorous way. They were too busy spreading the good news of the Lord's kingdom. Besides, they expected Jesus to return soon, so there would be a higher authority available if there were the need of any further answers.

However, as time went on Jesus did not reappear in the way they expected. Then, two things began to happen. First, as those who knew Jesus personally were martyred or grew old and died, the collective memory of Jesus as he really was began to fade, and those who could answer questions about him with any authority of first-hand experience became no longer available.

Another more serious thing happened. The early love and community feelings of the first Christians began to fade also. With this fading of love came factionalism and struggles over the growing institutionalization of Christianity. With the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman empire, entrenching it as a worldly rather than a spiritual kingdom.

During this same time, the Christian church took a theological step that Swedenborg saw as even more fateful: they developed the idea of a trinity of distinct persons in God, seeing God the Father as one person, God the Son as a second person, and God the Holy Spirit as a third person. In essence, the Christian church began teaching people to believe in three gods while calling them one.

Once this happened, the Christian concept of God began a long downhill slide, until in the mid-1700's, Swedenborg could declare that the teachings of the Christian church had been completely falsified and destroyed. (cf. Apocalypse Revealed #676, Apocalypse Explained #817a) In Roman Catholicism, it was the continuation of the early Roman error of making Christianity into a political rather than a spiritual force that destroyed Christianity. The Catholic church spent many centuries amassing wealth and power instead of leading the people spiritually. Now that this earthly power has been largely broken, the Catholic church is free to return to something more like a Christianity that Christ would recognize.

In Protestantism, Christianity was destroyed more by intellectual pride resulting in doctrinal error than by greed and grasping for power. The clergy developed a very damaging view of how God works in relation to humans. They called it the "vicarious atonement." This was the falsified theology that Swedenborg spoke out against most strongly. It is in contrast to vicarious atonement theology that Swedenborg's view of the Lord shines most brightly. Let us take a look at that theology, and then at our Swedenborgian view of the Lord.

Hundreds, even thousands of books and sermons have been written about what we would consider the old, falsified Christian teachings about the Lord. In the Protestant world, most of these books and sermons go back, either explicitly or implicitly, to the idea of the vicarious atonement. From a Swedenborgian perspective, it is hard to explain this theology without making it into a caricature. Let's see what kind of a Swedenborgian cartoonist I am!

Literally, "atonement" means reconciliation through making amends for an injury to someone, and "vicarious" means done for us by someone else. So "vicarious atonement" means someone else (Jesus) making amends for the things we did wrong. Here's how it (supposedly!) works:

In vicarious atonement theology, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, disobeying a direct command from God, they brought upon themselves the death penalty. Ever since then, we have all been born with "original sin," meaning we are born guilty of breaking God's law. God's "perfect" justice requires that the penalty for our sin is the same as that for Adam and Eve's sin: death. The problem is, we are all finite, and we can never satisfy the demands of God's infinite justice. So on our own, we would all have to die to satisfy the justice of God the Father.

This is where God the Son comes in. A finite, fallible human cannot satisfy God's justice, but an infallible son of God can! So (as goes this theology) when Jesus died on the cross, that divine death satisfied God's need for justice. Divine justice requires a divine sacrifice to satisfy it. Now, since Jesus has paid the price for our sins (death!), all we have to do is "claim" that vicarious atonement by stating our belief that Jesus is our Lord and savior. Once we do this, God's justice is satisfied in our individual case, and the Holy Spirit can come to us and give us the gift of salvation.

That was not such a caricature after all. For many Christians, it seems perfectly reasonable--and even forms the core of their belief. Yet consider what we would think of a human being--such as a king of a few centuries ago--who acted in this way. This king decides that because his first subjects broke the law, all of his subjects deserve the death penalty--even those who were not born yet when the initial offense took place. So he sentences all his subjects to death. But his eldest son cannot stand to let this happen. So the son offers to die himself instead of all the king's subjects. The king accepts his offer. His son is publicly executed, and from then on, any subject who declares his belief that the king's son died for him or her will be spared the death penalty. Those who do not declare such a belief will be executed.

What would we think of such a king? We would think of him as a deranged tyrant, not as a king. Yet this is exactly what vicarious atonement theology attributes to God.

These days, it is mostly the conservative or fundamentalist wing of Christianity that still clings explicitly to this type of theology. The more liberal denominations seem to want to move away from the harshness of the vicarious atonement, but they have not come up with any coherent idea to put in its place--so they flounder theologically.

This is where Swedenborg's idea of the Lord comes in. Swedenborg skips over all the centuries of human error piled on top of the simple beliefs of the early Christians and gives us a new and untainted view of Christ based on love, understanding, and kindness rather than on satisfying a vindictive form of divine justice.

The jewel of our belief is that God always and everywhere loves us, and never condemns us no matter what we do. Rather, we condemn ourselves by living in destructive ways. The Lord is always reaching out to us to try to lift the condemnation that we put on ourselves. When he came to us as Jesus, it was the greatest expression ever of the Lord's reaching out to us, not from anger, but from love.

There was never any need to save us from the justice of God the Father, because God's justice is all about doing away with the hurtful and evil parts of ourselves and our society, not about condemning us as people. God loves us. So God came to us as a human being--as Jesus--in order to show us the way toward happiness. Not toward temporary, earthly happiness, but toward eternal, spiritual happiness.

Our church rejects the vicarious atonement because of the negative and vindictive picture it paints of God, and because it splits up the eternal unity of God into three separate persons that have different agendas. Instead, we believe that there is one God: the Lord God Jesus Christ. This is a God that is completely one, and that oneness comes from infinite love and infinite wisdom. God loved us so much that in order to show us the way, he was willing to come personally and live with us, never swerving from the path of divine love and wisdom even when that meant suffering and dying at our hands.

In Jesus we see the human face of God. We see the way God cares for us enough to do everything in his power to save us from our own insistence on wrongful and hurtful ways of life. Jesus calls to us; he chastises us; he prophesies to us; he sits down and shares meals with us; he dies to show us the depth of his love. As he said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13)

There is far more to this than can be fit into one brief sermon. Before finishing today, we need to ask the question, "What difference does this make for our lives?"

It makes a huge difference. God is the center of the universe. What we believe about God will affect our beliefs about everything else--including the way we treat each other. If we see God as an angry and condemnatory being, it is all too easy for us to condemn those who do not share our own beliefs. But if we see God as a being who loves and cares for everyone--Christian and non-Christian alike--we have no excuse not to follow that example in our own lives.

Jesus came to show us all how to live. Not that we need to emulate the literal events of his life--martyrdom is not required! Rather, we need to live by the same spirit of love and mutual kindness that he both taught and embodied in his life on earth. This is the difference that our church's view of the Lord makes in our lives.

As we each go through our days, then, we can know that the world--no, the entire universe is, at its core, a good place because its ruler is infinitely good. We do not have to fear divine retribution for our wrongs. Rather, we can rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns--and that his kingdom is a kingdom of love and kindness. Amen.

Read this sermon's sequel: 
The Bible that was Lost and is Found