City of God
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 10, 2000
Original Artwork Symphony of the Elements by Jeffrey Bedrick
At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people--everyone whose name is found written in the book--will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away, and there was no more sea. And I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away." . . .
And I saw no temple therein, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine on it; for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it, and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honor into it. And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day; for there shall be no night there. And there shall in no wise enter into it anything that defiles, neither that works abomination, or makes a lie, but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life.
"And the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem" (Revelation 3:12) means that the teachings of the New Church will be written in their hearts. "The New Jerusalem" means the New Church. And when it is called "a city," it means the New Church as to its teachings. So "writing upon him the name of the city of my God, the New Jerusalem," means that the teachings of the New Church will be written on their hearts.
And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)
Good morning! It is so good to be back in the pulpit at the beginning of another church year. It hardly seems possible that we could already be starting our fifth year together, but as they say, time flies when you're having fun!
I am beginning this year with a sense of excitement and optimism about our church. All summer I've been half-jokingly telling people that all that was needed to revitalize our church was for the minister to leave for three months! Then, of course, I go on to tell them about how the sharing that this congregation did with one another during my sabbatical brought everyone closer together, and gave everyone here a new sense of what this church means to the people we are sharing the pews with each week.
It was a surprise and a delight to come back to the church in March and find new faces in the pews--a trend that continued throughout the spring. And when we had over a dozen people for our summer Planning Committee meeting following our service on July 23, everyone sensed that things were moving forward for this church--that there is a new spirit growing in our congregation.
This new spirit has been growing here for a long time. This past year simply brought it up to the surface where we all saw it clearly. The extra effort we've been putting out over the past several years has begun to bear fruit. The new people and new energy has already led to new activities, including the ongoing monthly women's reading and discussion group, the biweekly crafts night, and the new weekly Wednesday evening Bible study.
It is exciting to be involved in the church at a time when this new life and new promise is sweeping through the congregation! This new life is not limited to our congregation. It is being felt throughout our denomination, the Swedenborgian Church. The theme of this year's Swedenborgian Church convention was "Building a City of God." A sense of revival, renewal, and growth--both in spirit and in numbers--was evident in the various presentations, workshops, business sessions, and services held at the convention. Now, as we begin a new church year together, I suggest that "building a city of God" is exactly what this church has been engaged in throughout its 176 years of existence.
What does it mean to build a city of God? Of course, this refers to the holy city that we read about in the Book of Revelation: the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. This is the city that our church is named after. And the words that come out of heaven as the Holy City descends are written in golden letters over our chancel: "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them."
What does it all mean?
The exciting and challenging belief of this church is that the New Jerusalem is descending out of heaven from God right now! That we are living in the time prophesied by John! And that we can be participants in building that heavenly city here on earth! The New Jerusalem, according to Swedenborg, is not a literal city that will come down from the sky. Rather, it is a new church--meaning a whole new spiritual era--which is now dawning upon this earth. We are privileged to be born and live in a time when the Lord is bringing about a complete renewal of the spiritual life of humankind. And though we are only one small church, I believe that if we are ready and willing to be active participants in this new spiritual development, we have some vital building materials to offer for its construction.
It is significant that the symbol of this new spiritual era is a city, rather than a return to the Garden of Eden. Swedenborg tells us that when the New Jerusalem is referred to as a city, it involves a special focus on the teachings, or "doctrine," of the church that is represented by the New Jerusalem. One of the greatest building materials our church has to offer is the wonderful "foundation" of our beliefs. The faith of our church is not a simple, garden-like affair, but a highly developed system of belief and life that brings together the wonders of nature, the highest human achievements, and the infinite love and wisdom of God. It is a faith that has the power to open up people's minds, hearts, and hands on all levels, without requiring us to close our eyes to any aspect of nature, humanity, or God. Everything comes together into a harmonious whole, blessing those who believe in it and live by it with a sense of understanding, inner peace, and purpose in life that few people find on this earth.
Of course, our church is not the only place people can get these spiritual gifts. God works through many different religions and many different channels. However, I believe that our church has an especially deep well of understanding to draw from. Or to return to our metaphor, we have an especially clear view of the Holy City.
Those of us who have spent most or all of our lives in this church can sometimes take that deep well and that clear vision for granted. We don't always appreciate these precious gems of our faith:
These are just some of the most basic of building materials that our church has to offer in building the city of God that is the New Jerusalem now descending onto this earth. This is the essential structure of the faith that will form the girders of this new spiritual era, of which the recent spiritual awakening in our culture is an exciting part!
Those of us who have lived with these ideas for a long time may sometimes take them for granted. However, one of the great blessings of having new people coming into our church is that through sharing in their discovery of our church, we rediscover for ourselves the wonders of our own faith. As we talk with newcomers, hear their stories, and find out what a difference our faith is making in their lives, we gain a new appreciation of what a beautiful city it is that we are dwelling in spiritually.
We can also gain a new sense of the transformation that would take place in our entire community and in our entire society if these precious truths that mean so much to us were to become more widely known, believed, and practiced. And though we are still a very small group, we can come to appreciate what vital work in building God's city this little church has as its mission and its reason for existence.
Back in 1824, when our church was first established, there was a great sense of excitement and optimism among New Church people. At that time, the teachings of the New Church were very new to this earth. There were still people alive who could have known Emanuel Swedenborg personally; only a little over fifty years had passed since his death. The entire future of the New Church was spread out in front of these early believers--and that future looked very bright. It was just a matter of time, many of them believed, before these great truths would penetrate throughout the Christian world and beyond. It looked very much like the New Jerusalem was just around the corner.
Today, two and a quarter centuries after Swedenborg's death, we have lost some of that early excitement and optimism. Our church went through the same disastrous decline that the mainline churches went through in this century. In the process, those bright visions of an ever-growing, even mushrooming future for our church were dashed to the ground.
Yet even at the lowest times for our church, there were always a faithful few who carried on its good work. Though the bright vision of our early years was brought low, it was never entirely snuffed out. The flame of faith was always kept burning, even if it was a flickering candle rather than a blazing torch. And the conviction that over the long term, our faith would grow to encompass humanity remained alive--even if our projections for when that would happen were stretched much farther into the future.
This church here in Bridgewater kept the faith for all those years, sometimes hanging on with only a few families who still held to the beliefs and traditions of the New Church. We owe our thanks to all the dedicated individuals who have labored long and hard over the years to make sure that the flame of this church would continue to burn for their children and their children's children. There were many people who spent years devoting their life energy to keeping this church going, to preserving it from the fate of many of our sister churches that closed their doors long ago.
All the good things that are now happening in our church would not be happening if those people hadn't listened to God's call and continued building and repairing this church, both physically and spiritually, timber by timber, slate by slate, service by service, class by class. The renewed church that we are now becoming is built on the foundation they laid so lovingly and so well.
Call me a hopeless optimist, but I believe this church has begun a new phase in its life--and not just our church, but the entire Swedenborgian Church. In 1824, most people in our society simply were not ready for what this church had to offer. The old beliefs, the old ways, were still far too ingrained in our culture. One hundred and seventy five years of progress in our understanding of the world we live in, and in our understanding of human nature, has brought us to a new phase of our societal life.
The new spiritual awakening that is happening all around us is an indication that the world is now much more ready for what we have to offer than it was two centuries ago. And the new spirit in our church is happening at exactly the right time. This church is now ready, I believe, to move on to much greater things than it has ever done before. This church is ready to become a major force in building the city of God in this area. I believe that future members of this church will look back on this decade as a major turning point in the life of this church. And we have the privilege and the responsibility of building the superstructure of an active, vital, growing, and outreaching congregation on the solid foundation provided by so many who have labored up to this point.
Let's build a city of God together! Amen.
Music: On a Distant Shore
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer