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Sermons

What Does it Mean to Believe?

April 28, 2002

Bible Reading

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John 3:16–21)

Reading from Swedenborg

It is very common for people who have adopted an opinion on some point of faith to judge others, saying that they cannot be saved unless they believe the same way—a judgment that the Lord forbade (Matthew 7:1, 2). Besides, a great deal of experience has shown me that people of all religions are saved as long as they have accepted at least some remnants of goodness and some semblance of truth through living a life of kindness....

A life of kindness means thinking good things about others, wanting what is good for them, and feeling joy within ourselves that others also are saved. We do not have a life of kindness if we want no one to be saved who does not believe the way we do— especially if we are angry that this is not the way it works. This becomes clear solely from the fact that more non-Christians are saved than Christians.... For in the other life, they accept the Lord more than Christians do. (Arcana Coelestia #2284)

Sermon

If you asked the majority of Evangelical Christians the age-old question, “If you were stranded on an island and you could only bring one book, what would it be?” hands down, I guarantee, most of them would pick the Bible. But if you told them they could bring only one verse from the Bible, I bet most of them would pick John 3:16. Growing up in an Evangelical church, it was the first verse I ever memorized. No other verse holds such sway over the minds of Evangelicals. In fact, that verse, which we see proudly displayed on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and poster board at football games, sums up the whole game plan of salvation for most Christians, Evangelical or not.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” That’s it. Believe in Jesus. That’s all you have to do, just believe in him. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.” “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already.” Why? “Because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

I don’t know about you, but I find this game plan kind of hard to swallow. I grew up with an understanding of these verses that pained me deeply. According to what I was taught, all the people in my life who didn’t believe in Jesus the way we believed in Jesus were going to perish—all of my Jewish classmates, my unbelieving friends, probably most of the Catholics I knew—because for some reason I didn’t quite fathom they did believe, but not in quite the right way. And I’m sure if I had known about Swedenborgians at that point in my life, they would have been regarded as the unbelieving types as well. Because in truth, it wasn’t so much a matter of believing in Jesus. Even Satan believes that Jesus exists. It was believing in Jesus the way we believed in Jesus.

If you were to grow up in the Bible Belt, these verses probably would not have as much of a negative personal impact on you, because most of the people in your town would be among the believing. But in the little town of Suffern, New York, my world was populated with many more unbelievers than believers—and those unbelievers were in trouble. Verse 17 gave me some hope: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.” That’s the verse I would have taken to my desert island. The only problem was the one that followed—the one where the people who do not believe are condemned already. As far as I could tell, ninety percent of my community was “condemned already.” It was hard to reconcile the condemned in verse 18 with the loving God who didn’t want to condemn anyone in verses 16 and 17. And frankly, ten or twenty years later it still is. It just doesn’t make sense.

Yes, now I am Swedenborgian. I thankfully believe that good people of all religions are saved. I believe “it is a divine truth that there is no salvation apart from the Lord; but this needs to be understood as meaning that there is no salvation that does not come from the Lord” (Heaven and Hell #321). That’s Swedenborg. I like it. But how do I explain it to other Christians? We do need to be able to converse with other Christians about verses as central as the ones in John 3. But if I were to give them Swedenborg’s take on salvation, I suspect they simply wouldn’t buy it.

If I were to converse with an Evangelical now, I’d be nervous about making my argument sound plausible. Of course Swedenborg’s words make sense. But who is Swedenborg, anyway? Why didn’t the Gospel writer just say, “There is no salvation that does not come from the Lord”? I would be afraid that Swedenborg would sound like just another historical critic pointing out a semantic slip on the part of the Gospel writers, or a revisionist historian with no respect for the authority of scripture.

You and I know that Swedenborg was a mystic—a man who was blessed with a direct experience of God. But I’m not going to make that my first line of argument in justifying this broadened perspective on salvation to anyone outside our denomination. Swedenborg’s take on all this works for me; but his authority for me lies in the fact that what he said makes sense, and not so much in his claim that he actually saw and heard these things in heaven.

I personally believe that he did see and hear these things. But I believe he saw and heard them because they are true, rather than believing they are true because this is what he saw and heard. Do you see the distinction? And if we are to dialogue with other Christians—which I think is important—our best bet is to talk about what makes sense, rather than to say we know what the Bible really means because we read it in a book by Swedenborg.

Swedenborg insists that good people will be saved regardless of their religious beliefs because given time in the spiritual world, the angels will get to them. Good people will experience first-hand that their loving natures are in keeping with the God of all love and wisdom—who just happens to be Jesus. The angels will help them understand that Christianity is not necessarily the religion that people said it was on earth.

That is a very good thing, because history bears witness to the fact that the Christianity we have lived out as Catholics, Protestants, and even Swedenborgians pales considerably next to the example Christ lived out while he walked among us. It’s a bit scary, but Swedenborg says that the non-Christians in the next life are more receptive to the truths of faith than the Christians are.

How can we prove this, or at least make it sound convincing? We need to find a good example, a challenging example for both us and them. And I was blessed to come across one while reading a book called Soul Survivor by an Evangelical author, no less, named Phillip Yancy.

This book—a series of essays about incredible men and women who helped Yancy reclaim his faith—contains a chapter about a man who has paradoxically proved himself to be both the purest example of a Christian life we have witnessed since the death of Jesus, and a man who refused to believe in the divinity of Jesus at all: Mahatma Gandhi. If you want to ground Swedenborg’s words about good people of all religions being saved; if you want to give this idea some external authority, you would do better to point to the life of Gandhi than quote Heaven and Hell #321. So I would like to recount some of what made Gandhi so incredibly special— such a perfect example of what we mean when we say that good people of all religions are saved. My quotes are from Yancy’s book.

Gandhi is an amazing example for us, not just because of how he lived, but because, in spite of his affection for and dependence on the New Testament, Gandhi denied outright any belief in the divinity of Christ. We know this from his autobiography, in which Gandhi speaks kindly about all of his Christian friends and their attempts to convert him. He likes them very much, but he cannot accept what they are trying to offer. He writes about a Christian convention he attended with one of these friends and admits:

I was delighted at their faith.... I saw that many were praying for me. I liked some of their hymns; they were very sweet. The convention lasted for three days. I could understand and appreciate the devoutness of those who attended it. But I saw no reason for changing my belief—my religion. It was impossible for me to believe that I could go to heaven or attain salvation only by becoming a Christian. When I frankly said so to some of my good Christian friends they were shocked. But there was no help for it.

My difficulties lay deeper. It was more than I could believe that Jesus was the only incarnate son of God, and that only he who believed in him would have everlasting life. If God could have sons, all of us were his sons. If Jesus were like God, or God himself, then all men were like God, and could be God himself. My reason was not ready to believe literally that Jesus by his death and by his blood redeemed the sins of the world.... I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher, but not as the most perfect man ever born. His death on the Cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it my heart could not accept.... I cannot concede to Christ a solitary throne.

There is no more perfect example of a good person who was most definitely of another religion. In fact, this man who denies outright the power of Jesus’ name is the same man—the only man I know of—who has so thoroughly embodied the life that I would characterize as truly Christian.

Let me give you a few examples. Remember Christ’s words to the young rich man about selling all of his possessions? (Luke 18:22). Gandhi’s only possessions were a pair of eyeglasses, a watch, sandals, a book of songs, a bowl, and a broken spoon he had repaired with a piece of bamboo and string.

Or recall Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. Once, while walking with a Christian pastor through the streets of South Africa, Gandhi found himself accosted by a group of young thugs. The pastor prepared to turn and run, but Gandhi stopped him and said, “Doesn’t the New Testament say that if the enemy strikes you on the right cheek, you should offer him the left?” (Matthew 5:39). His friend replied that this verse was best taken metaphorically—especially, one would agree, at the present moment. But Gandhi replied, “I’m not so sure. I suspect he meant you must show courage: be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. When you do that, it calls on something in human nature— something that makes his hatred decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen it work.”

And then there was the time when a young mother brought her son to Gandhi and asked him to tell the child to stop eating sugar because it was bad for him. He told them to return in one week. They returned a week later. Gandhi embraced the child, told him to stop eating sugar, and then said good bye. The mother stopped and said, “Bapu, why did you have to wait a week? Could you not have told him last week?” “No,” he replied. “Last week I myself was eating sugar.”

Gandhi fought tirelessly for the ideas of freedom and respect. And his only weapons were no weapons at all, but concepts like love, humility, and reconciliation. Gandhi’s power lay in his love, his courage, and his integrity. I cannot think of a person who could better demonstrate what Swedenborg says in Heaven and Hell. Listen: “they [non-Christians] are taught by angels that Christian doctrine more than any other in the whole world demands love and kindness,... but that Christians do not live up to their doctrines as much as non-Christian people do. When they grasp this, they accept truths of faith and worship the Lord, but only after quite a while” (Heaven and Hell #325).

Gandhi may not have had any particularly good examples of Christianity in his lifetime; but he is a good example for us to use if we wish to dialogue with other Christians. He is also an example for us as Swedenborgians. I believe that Swedenborg’s most important message to the whole Christian Church, including us, is not the concept of correspondences, or the knowledge of the true human nature of angels, or even the vision of the New Jerusalem— although all of these tie into it. I believe his most important message is a simple wake-up call to all of us who have heard the truth and consider ourselves believers already.

I think what he is saying goes something like this: You! Because you are a Christian, you believe you are saved. But do you really understand what it means to believe? Belief is not simply a matter of confession, or allegiance, or attendance, or even rank within the church hierarchy. You could be the Pope, or a bishop, or a minister and not believe, because true belief—and now I will quote Swedenborg—is “to love truth for the sake of truth, and not for the sake of selfish gain” (Arcana Coelestia #9424.2). And further, “We cannot become angels, that is, come into heaven, unless we bring something of an angelic character from living in the world. Present in this character is a knowledge of the way from walking in it, and a walking in the way through a knowledge of it” (Divine Providence #60).

Why? Because true belief is not about metaphorical understandings. True belief is about action grounded in love. The true believer turns the other cheek, offers his shirt after his coat has been stolen, understands that when she serves the poor she is not reaching down to those less fortunate, but reaching up to the face of God. True believers love others as God loves them—even to the point of death. And true believers practice what they preach.

Many times Gandhi waded into murderous, angry mobs, and diffused their violence by offering himself as a willing sacrifice. In Calcutta, he offered himself up to one such angry mob—a crowd bristling with anger and the lust for revenge. Hindus and Muslims stood ready to tear each other’s throats out in a quest for revenge and justice. But Gandhi called for an end to violence.

Gandhi was barely five feet tall, and he weighed only about 114 pounds. At the age of seventy-five, this tiny little man walked into the midst of a mob in Calcutta and said, “You wish to do me ill, and so I am coming to you. I have come here to serve Hindus and Muslims alike. I am going to place myself under your protection. You are welcome to turn against me if you wish.” This man who had done no one any harm said: don’t hurt one another. If you must hurt anyone, hurt me. He promised that he would fast to the death if one person raised a hand against another.

He made this promise in a city where six thousand people had just been beaten and trampled to death. For sixteen days the war between Hindus and Muslims ceased. Peace reigned, and Gandhi preached daily to the people, sometimes quoting from the Koran, sometimes from the Hindu scriptures, but most often from the Gospels, telling them about Jesus’ message of compassion and non-violence—Gandhi’s inspiration for who he was and how he lived. When violence erupted again seventeen days later, he lay down on his mat and began a fast to the death.

At first, no one cared. But as the radio broadcast his weakening condition, people began to take notice. When he finally lay too weak even to talk, the gangs responsible for the initial murders came forward to beg for the forgiveness of the Mahatma, the Great Soul. They turned over their weapons—and this time, the miracle of Calcutta held.

Gandhi’s willingness to sacrifice his own life in order to save the lives and the souls of others was an act of supreme love—a love that I would characterize as true belief. “Greater love has no one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Gandhi was willing to die for his people, but he was also willing to die for the Muslims who were killing his people, for the British who were oppressing his people, for the people in his own society who hated him and thought him a traitor. Gandhi acted on behalf of the whole human race, that the whole human race might be shaken and saved from their meaningless attempts at vengeance and domination. Gandhi lived his life on behalf of everyone. But his life was taken by one of his own: a Hindu fanatic who saw his example of love and forgiveness as nothing more than a betrayal—a threat to their faith and their national security.

Two thousand years earlier another man, equally unimpressive in stature, was given over to an angry mob, and they crucified him for much the same reason. They crucified him for saying that we must love one another even more than we love ourselves. There is no message more threatening to the ethic of self-love that we carry within us. Gandhi once said, “Stoning prophets and erecting churches to their memory afterwards has been the way of the world through the ages. Today we worship Christ, but Christ in the flesh we crucified.”

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The love Gandhi demonstrated was the same kind of love God demonstrated when he gave a piece of himself to us in the form of Christ; and it was the same love Christ demonstrated when he loved us to the point of dying on the cross. Gandhi may not have believed that Jesus was the son of God, or God incarnate, but he believed in the same love that is the very stuff of which our God is made—and I believe that love will save him.

He believed that life’s meaning is not found in the selfish pursuit of words that can guarantee eternal salvation, but in the attempt to lay words aside that we might help save one another. There was nothing metaphorical in the way Gandhi lived and died. His blood was as real, and spilled as unjustly, as that of Jesus. By the standards of some he may have died an unbeliever; but no one can deny that he died in good faith. If people question you when you say that good people of all religions are saved, you would do well to point to Gandhi before quoting Swedenborg— not because Swedenborg has little to say, but because sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Prayer

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for the inspired words you have given us: words of spirit and life. Your words have penetrated our minds and shaped our souls. Yet as long as they remain mere words, they have no power or reality. We rededicate ourselves today not only to hear, but do your will. Be with us, we pray, as we seek to move beyond the mere speaking of the truth to the doing of it. Make us instruments of your purposes here on earth, as you work to save all people of good will, from every nation and every faith. Amen.

Rev. Sarah Buteux