By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 18,
Isaiah 2:2-5 The mountain of
In the last days, the mountain
of the Lord's house will be established as highest of the mountains; it will be
raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will
come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house
of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will
settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against
nation, nor will they train for war any more. Come, O house of Jacob, let us
walk in the light of the Lord.
Revelation 7:9-12 A great
multitude in white robes
I looked, and there before me
was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people,
and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were
wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they
cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the
throne, and to the Lamb."
All the angels were standing
round the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell
down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying: "Amen!
Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to
our God forever and ever. Amen!"
Divine Providence #330 People
of all religions are saved
The idea that only people who
are born in the Christian religion are saved is a foolish heresy. Those who are
born outside Christianity are people just as much as those living within it.
They have the same heavenly origin, and they are equally living and immortal
souls. They also have a religious faith from which they recognize that there is
a God, and that they should live good lives. And all who believe in God and live
good lives become spiritual in their own way, and are saved.
Some people object that
non-Christians have not been baptized. But baptism saves people only when they
are spiritually washed, meaning spiritually reborn, since baptism is a symbol
and a reminder of that.
Some people also object that
non-Christians do not know the Lord [Jesus], and that without the Lord no one
can be saved. But salvation does not come to us because we know the Lord; it
comes to us because we follow the Lord's commandments. Besides, everyone who
believes in God knows the Lord, since the Lord is the God of heaven and earth.
I looked, and there before me
was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people,
and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. (Rev. 7:9)
When Patty and I were in Tucson,
Arizona for a week in February, our group took a drive up Mt. Lemmon, a 9,000
foot peak just outside the city. We didn't have enough time to make it all the
way to the top, so we stopped at an overlook lower down the mountain. There, we
were treated to a panoramic view of Tucson, which was laid out before us in its
broad, bowl-shaped valley nestled among the mountains. It was quite a beautiful
sight, especially since the air was a little misty that day, which softened the
stark lines of the city.
Our guide was the local
Swedenborgian pastor, the Rev. Frank Rose. Never one to pass up an opportunity
to preach, he promptly stepped up on a large boulder and informed us that he was
going to give us his one minute sermon. "Do you see that city?" he
said. "Right now in that city there are old people dying and there are
babies being born. There are people in the peak of health working out at the gym
and people lying sick in hospital beds. There are people losing their jobs and
people starting a new jobs. There are couples who are getting divorces and
couples who are conceiving children. There are rich people living in big houses
and homeless people living under bridges. There are Christians, Muslims, Hindus,
and Jews. There are blacks, whites, Asians, Indians, Mexicans, and so on. Some
people are speaking English; some are speaking Spanish; some are speaking other
languages. There is all that joy and sorrow, all those contrasts. And yet, from
our perspective up here on the mountain, we see only a single, beautiful city. .
. . That is how God sees the entire world."
We spend most of our time, day
in and day out, down in that valley, in the thick of things, seeing all the
contrasts and controversies, the struggles and triumphs, the acts of meanness
and the acts of kindness. Today, I would like to be your guide on a trip up the
mountain. Even though we will not get God's view of the world from there, since
we will still be standing on the earth, still, on that mountain we can go just a
little bit closer to God, and get something a little bit closer to God's
view of the world.
The mountain that I am talking
about is the mountain of spiritual vision. It is the mountain of the spiritual
depths--or should I say, spiritual heights--that are common to all the
great religions of the world.
Those of us who were able to get
to some of the workshops in our recently concluded World Religions workshops had
a chance to climb several spiritual mountains with leaders from the various
faiths covered in the workshops: Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Native American,
Jewish, and Hindu. After several of the workshops I heard some of the
Swedenborgians there saying about the workshops' leaders, "These people are
Swedenborgians!" Then again, those were Swedenborgians making that
remark . . . .
Once when I was over at the
Catholic church, a man told me the old story about how a Protestant (as he told
it) went to heaven, and was told by an angel never to climb over that big, high
wall over there. Of course, the fellow couldn't resist. When he came back
over the wall, his angel friend was waiting for him. "They didn't see you,
did they?" the angel asked.
"No, I don't think
"Oh good!" the angel
replied. "Those are the Catholics. They think they're the only ones up
here." The man who was telling me this story then pointed to himself and
said, "I'm Catholic, you know!"
235 years ago, when Emanuel
Swedenborg wrote the words that we read from his book Divine Providence,
there was precious little of that broad-mindedness among Christians. Both the
official doctrine and the common belief was that only Christians could be
saved--and often, only Christians from one's own particular sect.
I find it to be deliciously
ironic that Swedenborg was so brash as to apply the phrase "foolish
heresy" to an idea that was perhaps the core teaching of the Christian
Church--and which millions of conservative Christians continue to believe today.
He termed "heresy" the idea that only those who have literally
accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior can be saved from the fires of hell. And
he goes on to tell us just why this is heresy.
To fully appreciate the great
step forward that Swedenborg was taking, it might be helpful to look briefly at
the idea behind the belief that still persists among many Christians that only
Christians can be saved. In a nutshell, traditional Christianity taught (based
on a few Bible passages taken out of context and then misinterpreted) that God
the Father, in his "perfect justice," had pronounced a death sentence
on all humankind because of the sin of Adam and Eve. This sin had been passed
down to all their descendants--meaning everyone on earth. God the Son, however,
volunteered to take the penalty for that sin, and in payment of that penalty he,
Jesus, died on the cross. Now, anyone who believes that Jesus died instead of
them will have their sin forgiven by God the Father, and so they will be saved.
Millions of conservative
Christians continue to believe this today. That is why they are so intent on
converting people to their religion. They think that unless people are
"saved" by believing in Jesus, they will burn forever in hell.
But Swedenborg had a very
different view of God. First of all, Swedenborg's God would never condemn anyone
to hell. In fact, according to Swedenborg, God is never even angry with
anyone--no matter how badly they have "sinned." Swedenborg's God is a
God of pure love, who loves all people no matter how virtuous or how
sinful they are. To use the words from Matthew's Gospel, "Your heavenly
Father causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the
righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).
Such a God would never consign
to hell fire the majority of the world's population simply because they had
never converted to Christianity. Never! According to Swedenborg, the great
religions of the world were all founded by God in order to reach out to
the people of various cultures in ways that were appropriate to their particular
character. The prophets of all religions were sent by God on a mission to bring
spiritual enlightenment to people who were sorely in need of it. And so,
although both Swedenborg and the church founded in his name remained firmly
Christian in their own belief and practice, it was a much broader
Christianity--one that accepted all religions as valid paths to God.
How could Swedenborg reconcile
his own strongly Christian belief with such a broad, interfaith vision of God's
working in our world? Don't we read in John 3:16, the verse that finds its way
into almost every Fundamentalist tract: "For God so loved the world that he
gave his only Son, that all who believe in him will not perish, but have eternal
life"? And don't we read two verses later the verse that confounds liberal
Christians and non-Christians alike: "Those who believe in him are not
condemned, but those who do not believe stand condemned already, because they
have not believed in the name of God's only Son"? Swedenborg's reply to
this comes in our reading from Divine Providence:
Some people object that non-Christians do not
know the Lord [Jesus], and that without the Lord no one can be saved. But
salvation does not come to us because we know the Lord; it comes to us
because we follow the Lord's commandments. Besides, everyone who
believes in God knows the Lord, since the Lord is the God of heaven and earth,
as he himself teaches in Matthew 28:18.
In other words, it is a
small-minded view of Jesus (whom Swedenborg saw as one with God the Father), to
think that only a literal belief in the Jesus of history can save people.
Swedenborg's far broader view is that anyone who believes in and lives by the spirit
of what Jesus taught is, in fact, believing in God--or in the "Son of
God," to use the Biblical phrase. And, Swedenborg continued, God has
ensured that the basic teachings needed to live a good life are present in all
the religions of the world. So the spirit of Jesus is present in all
The challenge that Swedenborg
placed squarely before the Christians of his day was simply this: Is your God
big, or is your God small? Is your God a universal God, or is your God a small
and petty God, who favors one particular culture and religion over another?
Now, over two hundred years
later, we humans--some of us, anyway--are finally maturing enough that we can
begin to see the same broad and universal vision of God that Swedenborg saw well
ahead of his time. Now, at last, forward-looking people of all faiths are
beginning to see that the God they believe in is the same God that people of all
the other religions believe in. Now, finally, we are beginning to climb the
spiritual mountain--the mountain of higher vision and greater enlightenment--so
that we can see the world a little bit more as God sees it.
Today, we can build a vision of
a world that is one in God's sight. A world in which all the differences of
race, culture, and religion are simply human varieties that reflect the infinite
variations of God's divine being. From the perspective of the spiritual
mountain, we can see the great beauty of the incredible diversity in God's
creation. And we can go much farther than merely tolerating or accepting
the racial, cultural, and spiritual diversity that we see in the world around
us. We can celebrate that diversity, because through each part of that
diversity, God is speaking to us in a special way. Amen.