Who Are We,
And Where Are We Going?

by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, June 1, 2003

Readings

Micah 6:6-8 What does the Lord require of you?

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Matthew 28:16-20 The Great Commission

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

True Christian Religion #3 The faith of the new church

The particular details of faith for human beings are:

  1. God is one, in whom is the Divine Trinity, and he is the Lord God the Savior Jesus Christ.

  2. Faith leading to salvation is believing in him.

  3. Evil actions must not be done because they are the work of the devil and come from the devil.

  4. Good actions must be done because they are the work of God and come from God.

  5. We must perform these actions as if they were our own, but we must believe they come from the Lord working in us and through us.

Sermon

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19, 20)

Ten years ago, in 1993, the theme of our annual Swedenborgian Church Convention was "Who Are We, and Where Are We Going?" I have often joked since then that this has been our church's theme all along. And yet, these are serious questions for our church. As a denomination, we are a church blessed with physical and spiritual wealth--but also with so many different visions of who we are and where we are going that we have been unable to come together around a specific vision and plan for our church. On the Association and local level, we have also tended not to have a clear vision and plan, or not to come together around any particular vision and plan.

I believe this lack of a common, coherent vision and plan for our church is one of the major reasons we have remained a small, niche church. There are many other reasons, of course--including the continuing materialism of our society and our world. We can't change the world (at least, not directly). But we can change ourselves.

This afternoon, many of us are heading to the annual meetings of the Massachusetts Association and its financial arm, the Massachusetts New Church Union. As we prepare for those meetings, it may be useful to revisit the question of who we are, and where we are going. We have had a troubled year in our Association, and still face some major issues that must be resolved. But I believe that if we can come together around a common vision and plan, our church has the potential to become a far stronger and more effective presence in this state, and in each of the communities where we have congregations.

First, a look at who we are. The historical facts of our church are known and well-documented. It all started when, as we believe, the Lord called a man named Emanuel Swedenborg to explore the spiritual world and, under the Lord's personal direction, publish for the world not only new light on the spiritual world, but also a whole new, revitalized theology for the Christian Church, together with a new and deeper interpretation of the Word of God. Over the centuries since the Lord first came to the earth, the Christian Church had become corrupted, both in its doctrine and in its life. Swedenborg's task was to provide the teachings that would be the basis of a renewed Christianity.

Swedenborg often talked about a new church that was now beginning on this earth. However, he never made any move to found a church organization. The new church as he presented it was a spiritual entity composed of all who believed and lived according to the fundamental principles of genuine Christianity. He never specified what the external form of that church would be, and his followers have debated the question ever since.

Still, we humans seem to need to form and belong to organizations. And an organization was founded within fifteen years of Swedenborg's death, by a small group of dedicated readers of his teachings. This organization became the General Conference of the New Jerusalem in Great Britain, which is the oldest denominational body of Swedenborgians in the world. Yet even before this body was founded, an Anglican minister, the Rev. John Clowes, had established a New Church society in his Anglican church near Manchester, England. Clowes, who thus became the first Swedenborgian minister in the world, remained an Anglican organizationally until the day of his death, and believed that forming a separate organization of the New Church was a big mistake.

We are the inheritors of the organization that Clowes so strongly believed was an error. The General Convention of the New Jerusalem, covering the United States and Canada, was organized in the early 1800s based on books and missionaries that arrived from England, largely sponsored by the British Conference. Other Swedenborgian denominational bodies have spun off from the British Conference elsewhere around the world. And our own organization has spawned a more conservative dissenting body in the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which formally separated from us in 1890, and continues as a separate church headquartered just north of Philadelphia.

The roots of our disparate visions go all the way back to the beginning of our church. And yet, there are common themes that bring us together.

Those common themes are the reason there is a new church in the first place. Organizationally, we are not all that different from the various Protestant and Catholic churches from which the bulk of our membership has been drawn in the West. We have even loosely been called a Protestant church. In terms of church polity and culture, that identification is largely accurate. We look, feel, and act like a Protestant denomination.

It is our theology, our beliefs, that set us apart from our Protestant roots, as well as from the Catholic Church against which the Reformers were protesting. Though we share a common Christian heritage and faith, we differ from our friends in the Protestant and Catholic Churches on so many fundamental points of doctrine that we can hardly be called a variation of either one of them. In terms of our faith, we stand distinct from any of the previous churches. In our theology we are, in fact, a new church.

What is this theology that we hold so dear, and that defines our distinct existence as a church? The opening paragraphs of True Christian Religion, Swedenborg's extensive overview of the theology of the new Christian church, provide a brief summary--or should I say, several brief summaries--of the faith of this new church. Our reading from True Christian Religion is the summary most focused on human belief and life. Another summary is contained in the statement of faith that we offered earlier in our service. This statement is a condensation of a somewhat longer statement found on the back of each issue of Our Daily Bread, the monthly devotional magazine of our church. It reads (in the shortened form):

We believe that there is one God, known by many names. We worship Jesus Christ as our Lord and our God. The Christian Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are aspects of God just as soul, body, and activities are aspects of each one of us.

We believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Within the literal story, there is a deeper account of our spiritual journeys. Thus the Bible is alive and fresh today, speaking to us about our own spiritual growth, and showing us the way to live better lives.

We believe that people are spirits clothed with material bodies. At death, our material body is put aside, and we continue living in the other world in our spiritual body, according to the kind of life we have chosen while here on earth.

We believe that religion touches all areas of our lives. Our responsibility is to put what we believe into practice in our daily lives. All who do this, of whatever faith, are saved, since they are living in the spirit of Christ's name.

These are the defining points of who we are as a church. Let's take a brief look at the three most basic ones of them in turn.

The core of any church's faith is its belief about God. Traditional Christian belief, both Catholic and Protestant, holds that God is a Trinity of Persons, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each being a distinct Person of God, yet somehow also being one God. Our church rejects the Trinity of Persons, believing instead in a Trinity in the one Person of the Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. Just as we humans--created as we are in the image and likeness of God--have a soul, a body, and words and actions that make us the total person we are, so the Lord God has a divine soul, a human presence, and the words and actions that define and express the Divine Being.

These three aspects of God are identified in the New Testament as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." The fact that God has several names doesn't mean that God is made up of several persons any more than the fact that most of us have three given names, not to mention various nicknames, means there are several persons in each one of us.

Another way of expressing the Trinity in God is to say that God is made of pure love, which is formed and directed by pure wisdom, and these together result in all the words and actions that come from God. So we reject the traditional wrathful, punishing God, and believe instead in a God of pure love, wisdom, and creative, saving action.

Our beliefs about the Word of God diverge similarly from the currently reigning traditional beliefs of the Catholic and Protestant Churches. While those churches tend to focus on the literal words of Scripture and their literal meaning, we see the literal sense of Scripture as a gateway to a boundless, infinitely profound deeper meaning--or rather, to several layers of deeper meaning. At its deepest level, the Bible speaks wholly about the nature and activity of the Lord our God. This is the heavenly, or "celestial" meaning. And just below its surface the Bible speaks of the spiritual journey and development of all of humankind together. This is the "internal historical" meaning.

But the meaning that concerns us most directly is what Swedenborg calls the "spiritual" meaning. This is the level of meaning that tells the story of our own individual rebirth and spiritual growth. This is the level of meaning that we focus on in our sermons, Bible studies, and--whether we realize it or not--in our own reading and living of the Bible.

The third and most practical of our church's fundamental teachings has to do with living a spiritual life--a life that leads to heaven. Unlike the traditional creeds of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, we believe--and always have believed--that good people of all faiths are saved, and will find their place in heaven after their lives in this world are over. Yes, we are Christians ourselves, and we look to the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. Yet we also believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is also the one God of the universe. This means that from our perspective, people of every faith, when they worship God and live by God's commandments as they understand them, are in fact worshiping the same Lord and God that we do, even if they perceive that God differently.

For us, though, the most important issue is not how others believe and live, but how we ourselves believe and live. Our church explicitly rejects the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, widely believed in the Protestant Church. This doctrine is erroneously attributed to the Apostle Paul (who never said that faith alone saves), and is explicitly rejected by the Apostle James, who said that we are saved by what we do, and not by faith alone (James 2:24). So for us, faith is not a theoretical thing to be believed in our heads, but a practical thing to be followed in our lives.

In the Great Commission, which we read from the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord tells us not only to make disciples of all nations, but also to obey everything he has commanded us. This should be a sufficient basis for us to answer the question of where we are going as a church. We are to make disciples of all nations, and to teach them to obey everything that the Lord has commanded us.

Now personally, I will be happy if we as a church can focus on making disciples in our own community, our own state, and our own nation. Everything we do will expand outward in wider circles than we can imagine. Yet we need to first direct our efforts to doing the work of the Lord's realm right here in our own neighborhood. Our church does not exist for our own benefit, but for the benefit of all the people whom the Lord has placed us in this world to serve.

Our church has a wonderful, broad, warm, and life-giving faith. We have each been blessed by that faith. Now the Lord is giving us a Great Commission to offer the blessings of this beautiful faith to all people who are seeking a deeper spiritual faith and life. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Music: April Rain
Bruce De Boer

Used with Permission