The World of Realities

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 7, 2001
Communion Sunday

 
 

 

Readings

Psalm 93 The Lord on high is mighty!

The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty;
     the Lord is robed in majesty
     and is armed with strength.
The world is firmly established;
     it cannot be moved.
Your throne was established long ago;
     you are from all eternity.

The seas have lifted up, O Lord,
     the seas have lifted up their voice;
     the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
Mightier than the thunder of the great waters,
     mightier than the breakers of the sea--
     the Lord on high is mighty.

Your statutes stand firm;
     holiness adorns your house
     for endless days, O Lord.


John 6:53-59 Real food and real drink

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.


Arcana Coelestia #4623 Real life

Whatever comes from the Divine--that is, from the Lord--is real, since it comes from the essential reality within things, and from what is living in itself. But whatever comes from our ego is not real, since it does not come from the essential reality within things nor from what is living in itself. If we love goodness and truth, we have the Lord's life within us; so we have the life that is real. For the Lord is present within goodness and truth through our love for them.


Sermon

"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink." (John 6:54, 55)

As some of you know, I love reading classic New Church (Swedenborgian) literature. I especially love books published in the early 1800s, when the writings of Swedenborg were still fresh and new on this earth, and there were still people alive who could have known Emanuel Swedenborg. I just started reading a beautiful 1825 book of lectures by a great New Church writer, the Rev. Samuel Noble, titled The Plenary Inspiration of the Scriptures Asserted, and the Principles of their Composition Investigated, with a View to the Refutation of All Objections to their Divinity. They really knew how to title books back then!

Before starting in on this book, I finished reading the Memoir of another of my favorite early New Church ministers, the Rev. John Clowes. Clowes was a fascinating figure because though he fully accepted the teachings found in Swedenborg's writings, he never left the Anglican Church. In fact, he continued to preach Swedenborgian ideas from his Anglican pulpit in Manchester, England, for nearly sixty years, until he died at the age of 88. He believed that the teachings found in Swedenborg's writings could and should be spread abroad to the entire Christian world, rather than keeping them enclosed within a specific Swedenborgian organization. And the strength of the New Church in the Manchester area ever since is a continuing legacy of his long and tireless ministry of outreach.

In 1834, three years after his death, the memoir of Clowes's life that he had written at the request of his friends was published in Manchester, together with many of his letters. Reading this volume is like traveling back in time to the early days of the New Church in England, when Swedenborg's ideas were just catching on, and the new light of truth that I spoke of in last week's sermon was just dawning upon the world. There is a sense of excitement in new discovery shining out from the pages, all in that reserved English writing style.

There are many delightful observations and thought provoking passages in this book. But as sometimes happens, in my last session with it--in which I finished the book--one phrase jumped out at me, and sent my mind into a whole chain of reflections. On page 245, without much context, Clowes makes a passing reference to "the world of realities."

"The world of realities." What is the world of realities? For most people on this earth--and probably for most of us most of the time--this is the world of realities. A chair that we can sit on. Food that we can eat. Clothes that we can wear. Cars that we can drive. Houses that we can live in. These are all real. We can see them. We can hear them. We can touch them. We can taste them. And if we bang too hard on something real, it hurts!

For those who truly believe that this material world and its possessions and pleasures are the ultimate reality, this life can be a rather limited and frustrating affair. Consider someone who thinks that having lots of money is the most important thing. Money is a hard taskmaster. For everyone who has a lot of it, there are a hundred, or a thousand, or a million who do not, yet long for it. And even those who have it, if they put their heart in it, are seldom truly satisfied and happy with what they have. They always see something even more fancy and expensive, which they want and cannot quite afford. In the end, there is little real joy in the pursuit of material wealth.

Or, to get more personal, consider those who live only for physical pleasures. Many people on this earth--especially men, I'm afraid--spend much of their time longing for their next sexual encounter, or going over in their minds their previous ones. And though they may be inclined to brag about their great sexual prowess, the fact is that few people who put sexual pleasure first have truly satisfying experiences. Like any addiction, it is never quite as good as they'd hoped. They are always searching for that perfect encounter, which never quite seems to happen. And any relationships they form tend not to last, because they are built on a desire for pleasure rather than on love for their partner.

Of course, there are many other physical pleasures that people spend their lives running after. Food. Clothes. The perfect body. The ultimate driving machine. The list could go on and on. And of course, others do not particularly go for money or physical pleasures as their primary goal, but spend their lives seeking power and prestige, fame and influence. As attractive as they seem, these, too, are fleeting.

People can put these things first in their lives only if they believe that this world is the world of realities. If this world, with its money, possessions, pleasures, and power is the most real thing there is, then it only stands to reason that we should spend our lives in getting as much of that reality as we can. As the old beer commercial used to proclaim, "You only go around once in life. Grab all the gusto you can." (By drinking lots of beer.)

When we think this world is the most real thing, our enemies are poverty, powerlessness, pain, and--the ultimate and inevitable enemy--death. And in the end, even if we manage to avoid the others, we will all surrender to death, losing everything we had lived for. This is the depressing end for those who see this material world as the world of realities. Such people would have trouble seeing anything good at all in our reading from John:

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.

I can hear their reactions ringing in my ears: "Gross! Barbaric! Disgusting!" As I've observed in a previous sermon on this passage, we are told in the subsequent verses that many people were, indeed, offended by this statement, and stopped following Jesus when they heard it.

Those who did, saw this material world as the world of realities. They naturally interpreted Jesus' words literally, as if they were talking about physical things. And those who read these words today and are offended by them also see this material world as the word of realities. For some, this is a chosen philosophical position: they have rejected the possibility of a higher, spiritual world and a divine being, and believe that the material world is all there is. And for these people, there can be little meaning or message in Jesus' words.

For others though, it is not a matter of rejecting God and spirit. Many people simply haven't encountered God and spirit in a way that makes these real and alive for them. Some have no particular desire to do so, and probably wouldn't bother reading Jesus' words. But others are open to deeper realities, even seeking deeper realities, and simply need those realities to be illustrated both for their minds and in their lives.

Presumably I am "preaching to the choir," and anyone following this sermon is either actively engaged in a spiritual life and a relationship with God, or is seeking God and spirit. For us, reading this passage in John is like a spiritual thermometer. It can tell us whether our spiritual atmosphere is cold because we are more engaged in material realities, or whether our spiritual atmosphere is warm because the true world of realities--the world of God and spirit--has come alive for us. If our minds form disturbing images of cannibalistic rituals, we're stuck in the reality of the physical world. But if these words of Jesus bring our minds to warm and joyful thoughts of higher, spiritual realities, then we have broken through the barrier into the true world of realities.

Swedenborg could have been commenting on this passage when he wrote the passage in Arcana Coelestia that we read earlier:

Whatever comes from the Divine--that is, from the Lord--is real, since it comes from the essential reality within things, and from what is living in itself. But whatever comes from our ego is not real, since it does not come from the essential reality within things nor from what is living in itself. If we love goodness and truth, we have the Lord's life within us; so we have the life that is real. For the Lord is present within goodness and truth through our love for them.

"If we love goodness and truth, we have the Lord's life within us, so we have the life that is real." Jesus was saying the very same thing when he continued, in our passage from John:

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.

Jesus was not speaking materially, but spiritually when he spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In that higher world of realities, the flesh of Jesus is not mere physical muscles or organs, but the divine, spiritual flesh of God's love and goodness. And the blood of Jesus is not anything that could run in physical veins and arteries, but the life-giving, nourishing wisdom and truth that flows into our minds from God through a multitude of spiritual "arteries" or channels.

A few of the major spiritual "arteries" through which we receive this wisdom and truth are the Bible, the Church, our family members and friends, spiritual books, the world of nature, and for us, of course, the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. From these sources, and in many other ways, we gain the continually renewed flow of knowledge and inspiration that we need to nourish and replenish our minds with a new and continually deeper understanding of the wonders of the material world around us, the complexities of the interpersonal world of our relationships with one another, and the mysteries of the inner world of our hearts, minds, and souls. The "blood of Jesus" that we drink in our communion service is merely a physical symbol of the deeper, life-giving, spiritual blood of God's truth coming to us in so many ways, both outward and inward. Similarly, the "flesh of Jesus" that we eat in our communion service is merely a symbol of the true food of love and goodness.

Yet even if we want these to be realities for us, there are times when truth and love seem a bit abstract to us, while flesh and blood, our bodies and our possessions, seem much more real. To bring out the reality of truth and love over flesh and blood, I'd like to share a little incident with you, which I expect will resonate with experiences you have had as well.

It happened several months ago when I was putting Heidi (my eleven year old daughter) to bed. Of course, I have a routine for the kids' bedtime, which varies according to whether Patty is putting them to bed or I am. But I always give them each a kiss and hug, and tell them that I love them. Whatever happened during the day, at the end of the day, before they go to sleep, I like them to know that they are loved.

However, routines get to be habitual--that's why they're called routine. And that bedtime kiss and hug and "I love you" can sometimes get perfunctory, and perhaps be received as something done out habit rather than as an expression of real feelings.

One night, as I put Heidi to bed, I was touched with especially strong feelings of love for her. So I gave her a few extra kisses, and stroked her hair, and told her I that loved her. She looked at me and said simply, from the soul, "You really do love me." At that moment, knowing that she was loved meant far more to her than whether she would have the right clothes to wear the next day or whether she would look just right or whether she would win the approval of her friends. She was loved, and she could sleep in peace.

That is the greatest reality there is. We are loved. We are loved by God. This is an eternal truth that comes straight from the world of realities. And as we share the sacrament of communion together, we will partake of that world of realities if we know in our minds, and feel in our hearts, that as we partake in the bread and wine of communion, our minds are drinking in the Lord's truth, and our hearts are being filled with the Lord's love. Amen.

 

 
 

 



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Music: Heart to Heart
1999 Bruce DeBoer

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