Isaiah 30:19-26. Your Teacher will not hide himself anymore
The father of the child cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)
Last week we began an occasional series of sermons on the spiritual aspects of becoming a church that welcomes people and serves their spiritual needs. At the Church Committee meeting today we will be discussing growth and outreach, so I would like to make it two sermons in a row. Our Church Committee meeting is for discussing the practical aspects of growth and outreach; here in our worship service, we are considering the spiritual side of church growth.
As I mentioned last week, church growth is not only a matter of implementing various programs and techniques known to be successful for bringing new people into the church. Far more important than these programs and techniques is our spiritual growth as individual people and as a faith community. Only when we are growing within ourselves and among ourselves--in our relationships with each other--can we have genuine growth as a church.
Even if we are successful in bringing in new people through various techniques and programs, this does not serve the Lord or our community if we are not growing spiritually and helping the new members of our church to grow spiritually as well. The Lord does not need a church full of people just for the sake of having lots of people filling the pews and making the hymn singing good and loud! No, the Lord wants a church whose growth in numbers and strength is an expression of growth in the faith, love, and service of the people who are filling the pews.
Another way of saying this is that the Lord does not particularly need our prayers, praises, and hymn-singing. But the Lord loves to receive these from us if they are an expression of heartfelt love for the Lord and commitment to love and serve other people. We can boil everything we do as a church down to a single goal: to bring people closer to God so that all who are touched by this church may overcome what is wrong and hurtful within them, and learn to love and serve others more and more fully and deeply.
This goal is expressed in more traditional Swedenborgian language in our denomination's statement of purpose. I would like to quote part of that statement:
The General Convention exists to help people be open to the Lord's presence and leading...
With the purpose of creation being a heaven from the human race, we see the central purpose of the church as the promotion of the process of regeneration. External forms such as buildings, liturgies, and organizational structures are valid only insofar as they are useful to this end. It is especially vital for an "organized religion" that its life of piety be constantly grounded in a life of charity. (Journal of the Swedenborgian Church, 1996, p. 174)
In other words, the reason we have a church, with buildings, worship services, and Church Committees is to help open people to the Lord's leading.
It is also to help people regenerate. "Regeneration" is a fancy word for being reborn and growing to spiritual maturity. This involves living each day from the faith and love that we get from the Lord and the Bible. If we keep our minds focused on this as we work together for growth in our church, then any growth we achieve will be real and genuine growth, because it will be growth in numbers and in the spirit of the Lord.
Last week, in our first sermon in this series, we focused on the need to help people in healing their spiritual sicknesses--healing the inner wounds that result either from our mistaken choices or from the blows that life sometimes deals us whether we did anything to deserve them or not. In today's reading from Mark, there was a man whose son needed healing. The man appealed to the Lord for help. In responding to that cry for help, the Lord attended not only to the healing that the man's son needed, but also to the inner healing--the healing of faith--that the man himself needed. The man cried out, "I believe; help my unbelief." This morning I would like to consider some of the ways we as a church can help those who believe, but want help in their unbelief.
Perhaps this calls to mind serving the needs of people outside our church--people who do not have the wonderful teachings that we enjoy. However, each one of us here today is also a person who believes, but needs help in our unbelief. Each one of us has a need for healing and strengthening in our faith. Each one of us has our times of doubt; our times when we do not understand how God could allow certain things to happen; our times when we are bewildered by nagging spiritual questions that we simply cannot resolve for ourselves. The teachings of our church can not only help the unbelief of the world; they can help our own belief. We will help the unbelief of the world only if we are actively learning and growing in our own faith.
As we consider how we may help those who come to our church seeking a spiritual home, then, let us consider the cornerstones of our faith--the central points upon which our church is built. These are the essence and the core of what we as a church have to offer to the spiritual wayfarer who seeks shelter among us.
Swedenborg can be very wordy and long-winded; but when it comes to the basics of our faith, he is wonderfully brief and to the point. He says, "There are three central points in the church: accepting that the Lord is divine, accepting the holiness of the Bible, and living a life that is called kindness (or 'charity')." (Divine Providence #259.3)
If you have ever thought the teachings of the New Church were complicated, all you have to do is consider these three simple points, and you will have the whole thing wrapped up in one package. Accepting that the Lord, Jesus Christ, is divine--that the Lord is the creator and sustainer of the universe; believing that the Bible is God's Word for us; living a life of kindness and service to other people. This is what the entire Bible and all thirty volumes of Swedenborg's works are all about! Believing in Jesus, learning from the Bible, and living a good and useful life. Now you know what to say to your friends when they ask what your church's beliefs are!
These three simple points also give us a focus in all our efforts to reach out to people and serve their spiritual needs. We live in a world that has a welter of differing beliefs and attitudes. Within the Christian church itself, there are many different opinions about just who the Lord is, just how the Bible is holy, and just what it means to live as a Christian, or to be "saved." Some of these beliefs even contradict each other.
Any church that considers itself Christian would say that the Lord Jesus is in some way divine, but there is a great deal of confusion about exactly how that is true. When it comes to the Bible, some say it is holy because every word in it is literally true, while others think parts of it--especially in the New Testament--represent the genuine truth from God, while other parts--especially in the Old Testament--are no longer relevant. As for the religious life, some say believing in Jesus is all we need to be saved, and that the way we live has little bearing on our salvation. Others recognize that the way we live also determines whether we are "saved" or not, but they have trouble reconciling this with statements in the New Testament that only those who believe in Jesus can be saved.
What our church offers that is unique among Christian churches is a way to cut through all the confusion that has grown thicker and thicker in Christianity throughout the many centuries since the Lord's ministry on earth. We offer a form of Christian belief that is deeply satisfying to our minds and hearts, and at the same time has a direct and practical bearing on the way we live each day. When people come to us for help in their unbelief--or when we need help in our own unbelief--we have a deep well of spiritual teachings that can satisfy the thirsty soul.
Let us take a very brief look at these teachings with which we may help both ourselves and the people of our community.
Our church's teachings about the Lord Jesus Christ are satisfying to both the simplest and the profoundest seekers of the Lord. We believe that when God could no longer reach us through prophets and priests, God came to us directly in the person of Jesus Christ. The Lord was born as a baby and grew up just as we do, facing all the struggles and experiencing all the joys of human life on earth. Through that life, the Lord taught us what genuine spiritual life is. The Lord showed us that it is through loving each other and keeping the commandments of the Bible that we are saved and become children of God.
Our church has an especially rich treasure chest of teachings about the Bible--God's Word. Or I should say, our teachings turn the Bible itself into a treasure chest of spiritual teachings. For centuries that chest has been locked, and only the outside of the chest--the literal meaning of the Bible--has been available to us. But through Swedenborg's writings--through Swedenborg's explanation of correspondences--the Lord has given us a key to the deeper, spiritual meanings within the Bible. We no longer have to fret about whether ancient Jewish history can really be part of the Word of God. We know that the history and everything else in the Bible tells the spiritual history of our own inner growth as Christians. In the battles of the Old Testament we can find help to face our own inner battles as we struggle against our old self while building our new self.
We also know from our church's teachings that our struggle to overcome our old self and build a new self does not happen only inside of us. It happens in all of our daily life. Each time we face a decision of whether to respond to another with patience or impatience, with anger or an attempt and understanding; each time we make a choice to do for another person what we would have them do for us, we are working out our spiritual growth through the way we live. Faith alone not only fails to save us--it is not even faith. If we say we believe something but do not act on it, then we really do not believe it at all. But when we express our faith in an active life of serving others and taking their feelings into account, then our faith is real because it is a faith we live by--a faith we trust.
How may we help those who come to us? We can start by constantly making our own faith a stronger part of our lives. When we learn what our church teaches and put those teachings into practice, we are already on the road to helping people who come our way. For then we have a desire for their spiritual healing and growth in our hearts. Then we can offer them the riches of our church with full conviction, because we ourselves have experienced the church's deeply healing power.