heaven-bound life is not as hard as people think.
Some people think
it is hard to lead a heaven-bound life (which is called a spiritual life)
because they have heard that we must renounce the world, give up the desires of
the body and the flesh, and live like spiritual beings. The only way they can
grasp this is that it means we must reject what is worldly (especially wealth
and status), walk around in constant pious meditation on God, salvation, and
eternal life, and pass our lives praying and reading the Bible and devotional
literature. They think that this is renouncing the world and living from the
spirit instead of from the flesh.
But a great deal
of experience and discussion with angels has shown me that this is not the case
at all. In fact, people who renounce the world and "live from the
spirit" in this way build up a sad life for themselves--one that is not
receptive of heavenly joy; for we each continue in our own way of life.
On the contrary,
if we are to accept heavenly life, we absolutely must live in the world,
involved in its business dealings and tasks. Then, through a moral and civil
life, we receive a spiritual life. This is the only way a spiritual life can be
formed in us, and our spirit be prepared for heaven.
For living an
inward life and not an outward life at the same time is like living in a house
with no foundation, which gradually either sinks down, or develops cracks and
holes, or sags until it collapses.
What does the
Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly
with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Today, as we end
our regular church year, I am concluding a series of three sermons on the basic
teachings of our church. On the first two Sundays in May, we looked at our
beliefs about the Lord and the Bible. Today we will talk about what it means to
live a spiritual life and be "saved," to use a popular Christian term.
I imagine that
some people who pass by our church and read today's sermon topic, "Living
the Good Life," on the wayside pulpit, may get a chuckle as the imagine a
sermon touting the joys of a Caribbean cruise, or the pleasures of a new
Jacuzzi, or even the wonders of a particular brand of beer. In fact, I was
chuckling a bit as I put the topic up!
Yet this raises a
real question--in fact, to the very question we are addressing this morning:
What is "the good life"? From a materialistic perspective, having the
money to take a cruise or buy a new Jacuzzi or even share a beer with some
buddies would be real contenders in a contest to determine what it means to live
the good life.
The winner of
such a contest would be as individual as the people doing the judging. Some
might think that having a big house, a nice car, and a high-powered job would do
the trick. Others may think more of physical pleasures--getting a good
"catch" in a mate, and maybe doing a little fooling around on the side
here and there when some other good-looking person catches their eye. Others may
think in terms of recreation: having plenty of time to go boating or skiing or
hunting. Still others may figure they'll have it made when they have reached a
position of power, influence, and respect in their chosen occupation.
In a sense, there
is nothing wrong with any of these--except the adultery part, of course, and any
other immoral, unethical, and unlawful ways of pursuing our goals and pleasures.
Swedenborg insists that outwardly, the life of a spiritual person is often
virtually indistinguishable from the life of a selfish and materialistic person.
Both of them live, love, work, and play more or less according to the rules and
expectations of our society. Yes, a selfish and materialistic person may be more
likely to break the rules and get into trouble. But the very threat of getting
into trouble is enough to keep most people in line even if they see nothing
inherently wrong with the things that society has made rules against--such as
lying, stealing, killing, and committing adultery.
The fact is, most
of the time, most of the people live outwardly decent lives whether or not they
have any devotion to God or to a spiritual life. And very few people--whether
they are religious or not--live extraordinary lives of spiritual heroism. Most
people live lives which, from the outside, look fairly ordinary. They grow up,
get jobs, have families, have fun, worry about money, grow older, and eventually
their lives on earth come to an end.
This has led some
Biblical literalists to conclude that we have fallen far from the teachings of
Christ. They might point to our reading from the Gospel of Mark as an example of
Christ's teaching that most of us simply do not and likely would not follow.
When the young man approached Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit
eternal life, Jesus first tells him, in effect, to follow the Ten Commandments.
That was not enough to satisfy the young man, who pressed Jesus further. This
was when Jesus told him that he must sell everything he had and give it to the
poor, and then come and follow him. And the young man went away sad, because he
was very wealthy.
I imagine that
most of us would react in about the same way if the Lord were to come to us and
tell us we must sell everything we have and give it to the poor. How many of us
would actually do what the Lord told us, after all of our lifelong struggles to
secure for ourselves and our families the basic necessities of life--food,
clothing, housing--and enough of those extra material pleasures to give us some
relaxation and enjoyment in life? How many of us would simply give all of that
away and begin a life of voluntary poverty?
This passage and
some others like it have been quoted to support an ideal of voluntary poverty
and monastic self-denial as the highest form of Christian life. Yet I suspect
this teaching of Jesus was individualized to the particular people he was
talking to rather than being a general principle that everyone must sell all
they have, renounce the world, and live a life of religious devotion. We know
that some of his followers were wealthy, and remained so even after they became
his followers. For example, Joseph of Arimathea, who took the body of Jesus
after the crucifixion and laid it in the tomb, is described as "a rich man . . .
who was also a disciple of Jesus" (Matthew 27:57). Apparently Jesus had not
told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor!
helps us out of this apparent dilemma when he says, in the verses following our
reading from Mark, "How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter
the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:24--emphasis mine). This, together with the
knowledge that not all of Jesus' followers were told to sell all they had, puts
a little different perspective on the commandment to the rich young man to sell
all he had and give it to the poor.
After the young
man assured Jesus that he had kept the Ten Commandments from his youth, it says
that Jesus looked at the young man and loved him. Jesus loved this young man
because of his commitment and devotion to doing what was right. And yet Jesus
realized something the young man himself seems to have felt: there was still
something lacking in his spiritual life. Even after following the letter of the
law, he did not feel "saved." He still wanted to know how he could
inherit eternal life. Something was holding him back. As Jesus looked into this
man's eyes and his heart, he saw the blockage. What was holding this young man
back was his trust in his wealth, which was stronger than his trust in the Lord.
Instead of following the Lord, he went away sad. For the time being at least,
the wealth won.
If Jesus were to
look into our eyes and our heart right now, what would he see as the blockage
that is preventing us from living a fully devoted spiritual life? Would it be
too great a focus on material possessions as it was for this young man? Would it
be our inability--or unwillingness--to forgive some person or group of people
for the damage we believe they have done to us? Would it be an overdeveloped
sense of guilt for the ways in which we fall short of our ideals in our daily
lives? Would it be some particular destructive habit that we have long since
resigned ourselves to? Would it be a sense of our own inadequacy to live a truly
Jesus is looking
into our eyes and our heart right now, and Jesus does know what is holding us
back from living a full and joyous spiritual life. And though we do not have the
same penetrating, divine insight into our own inner character that the Lord
does, each one of us has heard enough of the Lord's message, and knows enough
about ourselves, to have some idea of where we need to go from here. Each one of
us knows at least some of the rough areas in our attitudes, our feelings, our
actions to know what part of ourselves we must "sell off" in order to
follow Jesus more fully.
This is exactly
what our church teaches that we must do in order to be "saved" and
find our way to heaven. It is not necessary to give up all our material
possessions and every earthly pleasure. It is not necessary for us to
"renounce the world" and go to a convent or a monastery to spend our
life in prayer and religious contemplation. Rather, it is necessary that in
every situation we face, we do our best to avoid and put out of our mind the
things that we are commanded not to do in the Bible, and instead live in the way
the Lord teaches us to live. As Swedenborg expresses it later in the same
chapter in Heaven and Hell: