A New Vision 
of the New Church

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

New Year
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 9, 2000


Isaiah 65:17-25 New heavens and a new earth

I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more will the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

No more will there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They will build houses and inhabit them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They will not build and another inhabit; they will not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree will the days of my people be, and my chosen people will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they will be offspring blessed by the Lord--and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb will feed together, the lion will eat straw like the ox; but the serpent's food will be dust. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Mark 12:28-34 The two greatest commandments

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"

Jesus replied, "The most important one is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength' (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5). The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself' (Leviticus 19:18). There is no commandment greater than these."

"Well said, teacher," the man replied. "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

The Heavenly City #9 A religion based on kindness

The perspective on kindness, which is a philosophy about life, was the central concept in the ancient religions. This perspective united all the religions; though there were many of them, they all worked together, since they considered all people who spent their lives doing good things through kindness to be religious people. They called them brothers even if they disagreed about what was true (what we call "faith" today).

One of their acts of kindness was to teach each other what was true. But they were not offended if someone did not agree with their opinion. They knew that the more people are involved in doing good things, the more they accept true ideas.

Since the people in the ancient religions were like this, they had more depth as human beings than we do now. They were also wiser than we are. When we are doing good things out of love and kindness, our inner self is in heaven, in a community of angels who do the same kind of good things as we do. Our minds are led into deeper things, and we become wise. Wisdom can only come from heaven, which means it comes to us through heaven from the Lord. There is wisdom in heaven because the people there do things that are good. Wisdom is seeing truth in its own light--and the light of truth is the light that exists in heaven.


I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. (Isaiah 65:17, 18)

It is truly a joy and a delight to be back with you today, leading you in worship and speaking to you again from the pulpit in this church that we all love so much. I have missed seeing all of you and being with you for worship. At the same time, I have had a lot of time to think about this church--about where we have come from, where we are now, and what our next steps might be as a congregation. After the Easter season is over, I'll be talking with you more about some of the steps we could or should take together.

But not today. Today I want to celebrate what has happened in this church during my sabbatical. And I want to talk to you very personally about the new vision that I see growing not only in this congregation, but in the Swedenborgian Church as a whole. It is a new vision that I believe will carry us very powerfully into the new millennium. For I do believe that the Lord is about to "create a new heaven and a new earth" right here among us, and that we are moving into a new phase of our church in which "the former things will not be remembered or come to mind."

In the last sermon I preached here, on January 2, just before I went on sabbatical, I made this prediction:

My absence from the pulpit will give you, the members and friends of this church, a wonderful opportunity to share with one another what this church means to you. . . . Contrary to the fears that while I am away the church will lose the ground we have gained together over the past few years, I believe that this congregation will grow in spirit through these three months, and come out stronger in our faith and our vision of what the Bridgewater New Jerusalem Church is--and what it can become.

Now I ask you: Am I a prophet or what?!? In fact, I'd like to test my gift of prophecy. If you feel that there is a new and stronger spirit in this church through these three months of sharing with one another what this church means to you, please raise your hand now. If you really, really feel there is a stronger spirit in the church, raise both hands!

For me, the new spirit in this church is so strong that it reached me even though I was not physically present with you. Each time I read one of the testimonials about this church that you gave while I was away, it touched my heart, and gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of what each of you has found in this church. Meanwhile, I'd hear about the services from Patty, or from one or another of you by email, or when I would bump into one of you here or there. And I could feel the appreciation and excitement, the sense of new closeness and understanding, that has been building in this congregation.

All of this has been a confirmation of my "prophecy." Yet I couldn't have predicted that after only three months, there would be new faces in the congregation waiting to greet me on my return! It is almost as if the growing spirit in the church has been reaching out and drawing people to the church through some kind of inner attraction. This, my friends, is the Spirit of the Lord working in this congregation.

Speaking of drawing people to the church, let me tell you about my experience of our church this past Monday. My usual experience of this church during the week is of having this great big building all to myself. Not Monday evening! I had a wedding conference at 7:00 that evening. By the time I arrived to open the place up, the teacher for Northeastern University's Spring Reading program had already arrived, and was setting up for the classes she would teach that evening. I had a nice conversation with her, in which she told me how pleased they are with our Sunday School room--that after looking into several other spaces, ours turned out to be the perfect one for their program. Soon, parents were bringing their children in for the classes. Meanwhile, the women in our crafts group started arriving to set up in the parlor for an evening of fellowship and handcrafting. Let me tell you, as I showed that wedding couple our beautiful sanctuary, and then and sat down with them in my office to plan their wedding, this church was a happening place!

After I finished with the wedding couple, I spent some time talking to one of the parents who was waiting for his son's class to finish. Then I drifted over to the crafts group and had more conversation as paintbrushes and sewing needles went about their creative work. Amid all of this activity, I had a new sense of what this church is all about, and what it can be. As I shared in the life experiences of a young couple about to be married; children coming to learn; a father concerned about his son's schoolwork, yet proud of his son's artistic ability; mothers and grandmothers sharing their lives around a table strewn with the materials of creativity--as all of this activity swirled around and within me in this sacred space dedicated to the service of the Lord, I gained a new sense of the human reality of what it is to be a church--of what it is to be a New Church.

"I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight."

We Swedenborgians have often defined our church by the distinctiveness our beliefs compared to the beliefs of other churches. And there is a basis in our teachings for doing that. We call ourselves the "New Church," or the "New Jerusalem Church," in reference to Swedenborg's interpretation of the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, from the Book of Revelation. Jerusalem is a city. Swedenborg explains the symbolic meaning of the city Jerusalem as (in essence) the "belief structure" of the church. This makes sense. A city is something we build as a community space for living and working. The buildings give our lives form, protect us from the weather, and provide a familiar place in which to dwell.

This is similar to the way our beliefs work spiritually. We build our beliefs from the religious and cultural materials available to us: the Bible, Sunday School, church services, sermons, spiritual books, conversations with family members and friends, life experience. All of these we pull together to build a spiritual dwelling place that will protect us from the storms of life and provide a space where we can spiritually live and work in surroundings that feel comfortable. And just as we are a congregation and not a single individual, we know that we do not build our spiritual city of faith on our own, but together with others who share a similar faith and similar spiritual goals.

In the past, our focus as a church has tended to be on the beauty of the "city" of teachings and beliefs that we have been blessed with in our church. And it is a very beautiful city. In one way or another, every one of your sermons paid tribute to the beauty, strength, and helpfulness of the faith we share. The teachings of our church are, indeed, a priceless treasure that the Lord has given us as a wonderful gift.

Yet can we really imagine that beautiful, shining city, New Jerusalem, without the people thronging its streets, going about their business, living their lives, getting together for work or for pleasure, to share both their work and their play? The city as an organized collection of buildings and streets represents the teachings--the belief structure--of the church. But a city does not exist for its own sake. It exists to be lived in! And the real heart of a city is not its physical structure, but the human community that inhabits it.

This is the heart of the church as well. We do have a beautiful structure of doctrine and tradition, just as we have a beautiful building whose very architecture expresses the way our faith reaches upward to the Lord of the universe, while providing a warm and inspiring atmosphere for worship and for learning and growing spiritually. Yet it is not the teachings of the church that truly make the church, any more than it is the building that makes the church. It is the human faith community--the people--associated with our building and our beliefs that truly make us the church that we are.

And now the Lord is renewing us as a community of faith. We have shared our faith with one another, and we feel closer to each other as a result. We have welcomed new people, outside groups, and wedding couples into this sacred space, and have touched their lives in positive ways while growing in our own love and service to the community.

Dare I say it? We have been moving away from our old concept of this church as a small remnant that is doing well to keep the place alive, to a new sense of our church as a vital and growing congregation in which we are serving one another and our community in new ways. Perhaps the numbers on Sunday mornings aren't showing it yet, but our church is touching many more people these days, in many more ways than it has in its recent history. There is a new sense of forward movement in the church, and a new sense of a growing spirit of hope and faith for the future strength of this congregation.

"I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight."

The new vision of our church that is growing here in Bridgewater is the same new vision that is growing throughout our denomination. While holding to the power and beauty of our teachings, we are adding more and more of the human element to our church. In Swedenborgian terms, whereas we have always been strong in the area of truth and understanding, we are now balancing more and more that brilliant light of truth with the glowing warmth of love, compassion, kindness, and service toward one another and toward our neighbors outside our church.

We are, at last, beginning to follow the direction pointed out by our own beliefs, which assure us that it is only when truth and love are together, equally balanced, that the church becomes real. And it is actually love that forms the heart of the church, while truth is simply a way of expressing love in ways that will give joy and delight to others.

Nearly two thousand years ago, our Lord Jesus taught us that love was central. When he was asked which was the most important of all the commandments, out of that great body of literature now known to Christians as the Old Testament, he chose these two: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5), and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). And when the questioner affirmed these as the core principles of life, Jesus told him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

The entire Bible, not to mention the thirty volumes of Emanuel Swedenborg's works, is an explanation of how to live by those two simple, yet eternally profound commandments. The new vision of the New Church that is growing both in this congregation and throughout our entire denomination is one in which human love and kindness toward others takes its rightful place at the center of our church, while the teachings serve as a powerful tool that we use entirely in the service of love for God and love for our neighbor.

We have experienced that spirit of enlightened love very strongly in this church over the past three months. And I believe that in future years we will look back at this very time as a new turning point in the life of our church.

"I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight." Amen.



The painting is ©Jim Warren
Painting entitled "Nature's Little Helper"

Music: In the Garden
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer

Floating Sparkles Script
Courtesy of: