By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 6, 2001




Isaiah 61:1-4 The spirit of the Lord is upon me

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor. They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.


Mark 16:15-20 Proclaim the good news to all creation!

Jesus said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."

After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.


Arcana Coelestia #9925.2 Proclaiming the good news

Proclaiming the good news [gospel] means everything in the Bible that has to do with the Lord, and everything in worship that represents him. For proclaiming the good news involves declaring the truth about the Lord, his coming, and the things that come from him--which have to do with salvation and eternal life.


Jesus said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation." (Mark 16:15)

The world has never been the same since Jesus gave this parting commandment to the eleven disciples who remained after his resurrection. Slowly at first, then with gathering strength and speed, Christianity spread, caught fire, and eventually came to be the primary religion of the Western world. And it all started from eleven people who were commissioned by the Lord to go out and proclaim the good news to all creation!

The Lord's life on this earth was the turning point of human history. Before that time, we had been going progressively downhill morally and spiritually, until most of human existence involved merely striving for material possessions and grasping for power over others through violence and oppression. Since that time, although there have certainly been plenty of ups and downs, the general level of humanity has been rising. Without the life, death, resurrection, and continuing work of the Lord, this would not have been possible. We would have continued our downward spiral toward self-destruction. But the Lord gave new life, new home, and new truth to a world sorely in need of it--and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today we are living in times that are not quite equal in terms of the vast spiritual changes brought about by the Lord's first coming on this earth; however, these times certainly run a close second. From our perspective, that is because we are now living at the time of the Lord's second coming. This, we believe, is not a literal, flesh and blood coming like the first one, but rather a coming "in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23, 24).

At the time of the Lord's first coming, his disciples--and a number of other followers, both women and men--heeded his parting commandment, and went out to proclaim the good news to all the people of the then-known world. This became known as "evangelization," from a Greek word that means "to bring good news." Our word "gospel" means the same thing: "good news." So there is nothing mysterious or fanatical about "evangelization" and "preaching the Gospel." They simply mean proclaiming to people in words and actions the good news about the Lord, his teachings, and his saving power.

If we are now living in the time of the Lord's second coming, it would make sense that there would once again be good news to proclaim to the people. Earlier generations of New Church people had a name for the new perspective on Christianity offered in the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. They called it "The New Evangel." And they saw it as their task to spread these wonderful new truths to as wide an audience as possible.

They did this in various ways. One of the popular ways was to tour various cities and towns giving public lectures on New Church teachings. These were often quite well attended, both by potential converts and by the local religious establishment, which was bent on crushing the "Swedenborgian heresy" before it could take root in their fair city.

The result was often a fascinating exchange of ideas, the old Christianity squaring off against the new. I am particularly fond of the classic lectures given by the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bayley in Brighton, England in 1858-59. In fact, I am so enamored of these lectures that I have scanned them all, and so far have gotten the first three online at my web site (www.leewoof.org). Aside from the high quality of the lectures themselves, what makes these lectures really shine is that a shorthand stenographer was present, and not only are the lectures themselves captured for posterity, but also the question and answer period afterwards. This gives us a snapshot of the sort of public debates that went on in the first century of our church regarding New Church doctrine.

Of course, the other way that New Church people evangelized was to write, write, write, write! I suspect Swedenborgians have more literature per capita that just about any other religious movement. And the New Church people of earlier times could be quite broad in their outreach. Many of them adopted the stratagem of not mentioning Swedenborg in their books and articles so that thinking people of any church background could feel comfortable reading them. I believe this did a great deal to leaven the loaf of popular religious thought in our culture.

My current favorite classic Swedenborgian author--who took this tack--is T.S. Arthur (1809-1885). Including his highly popular Temperance novels, Arthur, who was a member of the New Church in Philadelphia, published some seventy-five novels, collections of short stories, and non-fiction books, not to mention a successful literary gazette, all intended to educate and elevate the population. Many thousands of copies of his books were published, so that there are still many copies of his books floating around--even though Arthur never wrote anything whose title has survived to this century in the popular mind.

What is the point of all this? Our New Church ancestors found ways to spread the good word, both overtly and covertly. I believe that their efforts are partially responsible for the intellectual and spiritual climate of our culture today. In contrast to the early hostility to Swedenborgian beliefs from much of the religious public, today many of our beliefs on angels, heaven and hell, the availability of salvation to people of all religions, the deeper meanings in the Bible, the primacy of spiritual love in marriage, and a life of useful service as a spiritual practice have become widely, if not universally, accepted in our culture.

Swedenborg predicted that outwardly, not much would change; but inwardly the minds of human beings, freed from their old restraints, would enter a whole new spiritual era. Now, nearly two and a half centuries later, we can clearly see the results of those changes not only in the new science and technology of our day, but in the new spiritual attitudes that are gaining more and more strength with each passing year. However, the changes in this world over those two and a half centuries didn't happen automatically. Thousands, even millions of people worked very hard to move humanity forward on various fronts. Our Swedenborgian ancestors were some of those workers, especially on the spiritual front.

Now it is our turn. Through those thousands and millions of people, the Lord has been accomplishing a great work of preparation for the "New Evangel." People are seeking new spiritual knowledge as they never have been before. And though our particular version of spirituality may not be the right one for everyone at this point in human history, I am convinced that our Swedenborgian perspective, and large numbers of spiritual seekers are moving toward each other very much like the classic movie scenes in which two lovers are seen running from either side of a beautiful green meadow, longing to reach one another, and finding their fulfillment in a passionate embrace when they meet.

Yes, now it is our turn. The fields for evangelization--for proclaiming the good news--are ripe for harvest. And we have more powerful tools than ever before to use in reaching out to those who are seeking the knowledge, understanding, and insight that we are blessed with in this church. Of course, there will always be resistance from those parts of the Christian world that are still stuck in the old paradigm. But the times of religious persecution and general intolerance are long behind us, and there is no longer any need to fear that our views will be rejected out of hand by those who are searching for truth.

However, aside from the resistance that has often met our outreach efforts in the past, there has always been another problem for would-be New Church evangelists. Unlike Evangelical Christians, who believe that all people who do not literally accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior will spend eternity in hell, we believe that people of all religions can be saved if they believe in God and live a good life according to their particular beliefs. So where is the urgency to go out and make converts?

It is true that there is not the same kind of urgency. We do not believe people will spend an eternity in hell if they do not accept the teachings of the New Church. However, there is another kind of urgency: the spiritual urgency of people crying out for understanding, answers, and spiritual support in the midst of a still confusing and often disheartening world. People may not go to hell for not believing the way we do, but they are certainly traveling through many personal hells of pain, grief, loss, depression, confusion, and spiritual disorientation that they could be "saved" from if they had the deep spiritual insights offered in the teachings of our church.

And so although we do not practice faith healing and snake handling, as the apostles of the New Evangel we can accomplish these miracles for people spiritually. Let's briefly look at the deeper meanings in the charge that Jesus gave to his disciples on that day of his Ascension, with some help from Apocalypse Explained #706:

Jesus said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

This is a passage that must be understood spiritually, or it comes out harsh and condemnatory, and not in the spirit of love that Jesus preached. The deeper meaning is that whoever is willing to listen to the spiritual message that God is extending to humanity through many channels, and is willing to live according to that message, will be saved. But those who reject the spiritual message that is offered to them condemn themselves to spiritual death.

What about the signs that Jesus said would accompany those who believe?

  • People will "drive out demons" when they restore spiritual soundness to themselves and others by overcoming faulty and self-destructive attitudes through the new spiritual truth of the New Christianity available in the deeper meaning of the Bible.

  • People will "speak in new tongues" when they gain brand new insights on old problems, which they never would have conceived of before.

  • People will "pick up snakes with their hands" when the spiritual power from within keeps them safe from the "venom" of physical and material cravings.

  • People will "drink deadly poison without getting hurt" when the false and destructive attitudes that come from hell, and that are still popular in some parts of our culture, lose their power because people now see their true nature from a higher light.

  • And finally, people "place their hands on sick people, and they get well" when they heal both themselves and others of the spiritual diseases of destructive attitudes and lifestyles through the presence of the Lord and the angels in their lives, and through the Lord's power to overcome all evil and sin.

This is a sketchy list. To fill it out, I invite you to consider some of your own poisonous ideas and sick ways of thinking and acting have been neutralized and healed through the beautiful Christian teachings of our church. How has your life been healed by the blessings of the Lord and the Bible, as they are more deeply understood and appreciated thanks to the new revelation given to us by the Lord through the mind and pen of Emanuel Swedenborg?

Now consider how others, who struggle with the same issues that we do, may also be helped through their most difficult times by the healing balm of the teachings of the New Church. This, I believe, is sufficient motivation to get us out there, offering to others in any way we reasonably can the same spiritual blessings that the Lord has showered on us.

At our Massachusetts Association meeting this afternoon, the Planning Committee will present an ambitious plan to do much more of this kind of outreach. If we decide to carry out that plan, it will redirect the main energy of our Association toward evangelization, in the best sense of the word. The time is right. By working together and directing our energy toward proclaiming the good news, I believe our small group can accomplish things just as great as those early Christian disciples did, fired by the sure knowledge that the Lord will work with us, confirming his word by the spiritual signs that accompany us. Amen.

 


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Music: Forever and a Day
Bruce DeBoer