The Labor of Love

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 9, 2003


Readings

Genesis 2:18-24 The creation of Eve

The Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds of the air and all the beasts of the field. But for the man no suitable helper was found.

So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

Luke 20:27-36 Marriage in the Resurrection

Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. "Teacher," they said, "Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. The second and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. Finally, the woman died too. Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?"

Jesus replied, "The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection.

Arcana Coelestia #10367 The seventh day of rest

"The seventh day" means the stage of goodness that has been our goal. The six days that come before it mean our earlier stage of preparing for the heavenly marriage, and the seventh day means when we actually have that marriage within us. The heavenly marriage is when the truth and goodness within us join together, so that we become an embodiment of the church and enter heaven.

Arcana Coelestia #8888 The six days of labor

The conflict that comes before the heavenly marriage, and prepares us for it, is spiritual conflict, or temptation. Before we enter into the heavenly marriage--meaning before we are reborn--we are engaged in a struggle against the evil and false things within us. These have to be removed before we can receive truth and goodness from the Lord. And they are removed by means of the true ideas we get from faith. These true ideas not only teach us what is good, but also lead us to engage in that good. This is the first stage we go through when we are being reborn; it is the stage that comes before the heavenly marriage, and prepares us for it.

When we are governed by what is good and are led by the Lord through it, then we have entered into the heavenly marriage. This means we are in heaven, since the heavenly marriage is heaven.


Sermon

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)

Over a dozen times in his theological writings, Emanuel Swedenborg states that marital love is the fundamental love of all heavenly and spiritual loves. That is quite an unusual thing to say--especially when most traditional Christians believe, based on our reading from Luke, that there is no marriage in heaven. And yet, Swedenborg calls that love fundamental, and also insists that it is eternal, and not limited to this earth.

For now, though, let's stick with this "fundamental love" business. How could marital love be the fundamental of all loves? What about love for the Lord and the neighbor? Aren't those the two most important loves in heaven and on earth? Well . . . yes. However, even these two rest on marital love. To see how this is true, we need to take a higher view of marriage. We need to consider where marriage comes from.

From a purely biological perspective, marriage is simply a human cultural and legal manifestation of the urge to mate and procreate that is one of the basic drives throughout the entire animal kingdom. Like all the other higher animals, humans come in male and female. And the continuation of the species depends on the two coming together and mating, and then protecting, nurturing, and raising their young through the greatly extended time that human babies take to reach maturity. A long term commitment between a male and a female of the species is one of the best ways to make sure that happens--and marriage is the result.

However, as Christians and Swedenborgians, we do not look at anything from a purely biological perspective. In our view, everything in the material world--including the entire realm of biology--is an expression of deeper, spiritual realities. And since humans come in male and female, and the two are clearly designed to mate, produce offspring, and raise them to maturity, this also must reflect a deeper, spiritual reality. When we consider the spiritual reality that marriage reflects, we can understand why marital love, spiritually speaking, is the fundamental love of all loves--just as in biology, without the mating of male and female, all other loves would come to an end because the species would cease to exist.

To get to the root of the matter, we must go on beyond even the spiritual level of reality right to the nature of God. If, as we believe, the universe and everything in it was and is created out of the Divine Being, then marriage, too, must reflect something about the nature of God. And what it reflects is the fundamental nature of the Divine Being. Marriage, Swedenborg tells us, is a human manifestation of the core marriage in God: the marriage of God's infinite love with God's infinite wisdom. These two, perfectly united or "married" in God, are God's being and essence. And from this divine marriage come everything God does and everything God says. God's words and works are the "children" that come from the marriage of love and wisdom in God.

Now we can begin to see why Swedenborg could be so bold as to say that marital love is the fundamental love of all heavenly and spiritual loves. In human beings, marital love is the primary expression of the union of love and wisdom in God. It is the primary expression of the divine marriage that is the source of everything in the universe.

Even our ability to love God and the neighbor depend on marital love. But this is easier to grasp if, instead of trying to derive those loves from the marriage between a man and a woman, we trace them instead to the marriage that takes place within each one of us. Just as God is a marriage between infinite divine love and wisdom, so each one of us, spiritually, is a marriage between the love and wisdom within us. Or to use more popular terms, each one of us is a marriage between heart and head--which leads to all that our hands do.

Whatever in us is head only or heart only is not fully real. Either it's "all in our head" or it's just a vague emotion without any means of expressing itself. Only those parts of ourselves where our head and our heart get together--"get married," so to speak--do we have any reality. When we love something and we also understand it, then we are able and willing to express it in words and actions, and it becomes real.

An example might help. Let's say I have a great desire to share spiritual truth with you through preaching sermons, but I don't know the first thing about how to research and write a sermon. I may have all the desire in the world, but until I learn to write and deliver a sermon, you're not going to get anything from me on Sunday morning. On the other hand, I may have all the training and knowledge I need, but have not the slightest desire to share any of my spiritual understanding with you. In that case, the motivation is lacking, and you're not going to get a sermon, either. It is only when I have both the motivating love and the enabling understanding that I will prepare and deliver a sermon for you to learn from and (I hope!) enjoy on Sunday morning.

The same goes for anything else we may want to do. Only when love and understanding, heart and head, get together and are "married" within us does anything about us become real, and get expressed in our words and actions. This is just as true of loving the Lord and our neighbor as it is of writing sermons, building houses, raising children, running a business, or any of the other things we do. Only when the love and wisdom, the goodness and truth within us are married do these become real.

That marriage does not happen automatically, and it usually doesn't happen easily. The first few practice sermons I wrote in seminary have, thankfully, disappeared into the dustbin of history. There is a learning curve in everything we do, and our early efforts tend to demonstrate just how much work remains before we become proficient. In learning a musical instrument, we spend years practicing and struggling to master the music and the instrument before we can play beautiful music for all to enjoy. The same is true of every other significant thing we do, from walking to building skyscrapers.

It is even more true of becoming angels. Though we come into this world innocent and in some ways angelic, we also come into this world largely wrapped up in our own feelings, wants, and needs. For most of us, it takes a lifetime to get things turned around so that instead of thinking of ourselves and our own comforts, possessions, status, and influence first, we think of our fellow human beings first, and finally of the Lord first, in everything we think and do. We have to clear out a lot of self-centeredness and overcome our inherent focus on material pleasures and possessions in order to refocus our lives on loving the Lord above all and our neighbor as ourselves. Engaging in this process of bringing our lower desires, related to the world and ourselves, under the rule of those higher loves and motivations is the "labor of love" that we are engaged in throughout our lives on earth.

While we are going through that struggle, that labor of love, our head and heart are often at war with one another. Our old, unregenerate heart says, "that person hurt me; I'm going to strike back," while our new, reforming head says, "No, retaliation and revenge just make things worse, and they are wrong." Or our new heart says, "I want to love others as much as I love myself," and our old, unregenerate head says, "That's ridiculous. You have to take care of number one first. If you don't take care of yourself, no one else will."

From these inner battles of our head with our heart, and of our old head and heart with our new head and heart, come all our outer battles. The Apostle James pointed this out nearly two thousand years ago: "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" he asked. "Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" (James 4:1). Until our new, higher head and heart prevail in these battles, there can be no marriage of the love and wisdom within us--no marriage of heart and head leading to the spiritual "children" of kind and useful actions that come from love for our neighbor and for the Lord.

This battle within us--and the marriage of head and heart that comes when, with the Lord's help, we prevail in the battle--must take place while we are still living here on earth. Spiritually, if we do not "get married" within ourselves while we are living in the body, we will never enter the great wedding feast of heaven that Jesus refers to in his parables (Matthew 22:1-14; 25:1-13; Luke 12:35-38, Revelation 19:7, 9). It is spiritual weddings that Jesus is speaking of in our reading from Luke. Although the common description of this passage is "marriage in the resurrection," the Greek words used are about getting married--or weddings--not about the state of being married. Jesus is saying, "If you want to enter the heavenly marriage, you must get married in your soul here on earth. Once you get to the other world, it is too late to get married spiritually.

Getting married in our souls is something all of us can do, whether or not we happen to be married in the usual sense of the word. We can all fight the inner battle against our old, unregenerate selves, and bring our heart and head into the inner union of marriage. And if we wish to be in a happy and growing marriage here or in heaven, we must fight that inner battle and achieve that heavenly marriage within ourselves. The quality of our relationships with others depends upon the quality of the relationships within us. If we do not have marriage and friendship within, we will never have true marriage and friendship outwardly.

Now we are finally ready to talk a little bit about our marriage relationships. Fairy tales and romance novels generally end with a wedding, and we are told, either explicitly or implicitly, "And they lived happily ever after." For those of us who actually get married, though, the story doesn't end on the wedding day. It keeps on going--and somehow the "happily ever after" part usually doesn't quite turn out as advertised. When we are living at such close quarters with another person, very soon the social veneer we've managed to put on for outward consumption wears thin, and we come face to face with the person underneath the veneer--and I'm speaking not just of our partner, but especially of ourselves.

This is when the labor of love begins. The struggles and difficulties we have with our marital partners are, at root, really not battles between us, but battles within us. To repeat the words of James quoted earlier, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" It is when our own remaining self-centeredness rears its ugly head that we butt heads with our partners. And learning to get along with and love our partners is also a process of overcoming the faults within us--of "repenting from our sins," to use the Bible's language. We must take our natural, inward-looking love for ourselves and redirect it toward our partner. And if our marriage bears the "fruit" of children, we must redirect that love toward our children as well.

This is the deeper meaning of the story of Eve's creation out of Adam. Remember that God had already created humans male and female in Genesis 1. So the building of Adam's (or more accurately, "the human's") rib into Eve must have a different meaning. Spiritually, it refers to the difficult and painful process of ripping our self-centered love out of our chest, away from our heart, and loving instead another person who is close to us--who is our counterpart and our "soul mate."

This is true whether we happen to be male or female. Our labor of love is to fight the inner battle against putting ourselves and our own comfort and pleasure first. It is also the struggle to unite our heart with our head, our motives, feelings, and emotions with our thoughts, understanding, and wisdom. Only as we fight these inner battles and make that spiritual marriage within ourselves will we be able to experience a full, deep, and happy love in our marriages, and in our other relationships as well. When we have gotten married in our souls here on earth, we are prepared for the great wedding banquet of heaven. Amen.

 

 

Music: First Touch
2003 Bruce DeBoer
Used with Permission