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Sermons

A God of All Religions

January 19, 2003

Bible Reading

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord's house will be established as highest of the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:2-4)

Reading from Swedenborg

The idea that only people who are born in the Christian religion are saved is a foolish heresy. Those who are born outside Christianity are people just as much as those living within it. They have the same heavenly origin, and are equally living and immortal souls. They also have a religious faith from which they recognize that there is a God, and that they should live good lives. And all who believe in God and live good lives become spiritual in their own way, and are saved.

Some people object that non-Christians have not been baptized. But baptism saves people only when they are spiritually washed, meaning spiritually reborn, since baptism is a symbol and a reminder of that. Some people also object that non-Christians do not know the Lord, and without the Lord no one can be saved. But salvation does not come to us because we know the Lord; it comes to us because we follow the Lord's commandments. Besides, everyone who believes in God knows the Lord, since the Lord is the God of heaven and earth. (Divine Providence #330)

Sermon

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9)

When Patty and I were in Tucson, Arizona for a week last February, our group took a drive up Mt. Lemmon, a 9,000 foot peak just outside the city. We didn't have enough time to make it all the way to the top, so we stopped at an overlook lower down the mountain. There, we were treated to a panoramic view of Tucson, which was laid out before us in its broad, bowl-shaped valley nestled among the mountains. It was a beautiful sight, especially since the air was a little misty that day, which softened the stark lines of the city.

Our guide was the local Swedenborgian pastor, the Rev. Frank Rose. Never one to pass up an opportunity to preach, he promptly stepped up onto a large boulder and informed us that he was going to give us his one minute sermon:

Do you see that city? Right now in that city there are old people dying and there are babies being born. There are people in the peak of health working out at the gym and people lying sick in hospital beds. There are people losing their jobs and people starting new jobs. There are couples getting divorces and couples making love. There are rich people living in big houses and homeless people living under bridges. There are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. There are blacks, whites, Asians, Indians, Mexicans, and so on. Some people are speaking English, some are speaking Spanish, some are speaking other languages. There is all that joy and sorrow, all those contrasts. And yet, from our perspective up on the mountain, we see only a single, beautiful city. That is how God sees the entire world.

We spend most of our time, day in and day out, down in the valley, in the thick of things, seeing the contrasts and controversies, the struggles and triumphs, the acts of meanness and the acts of kindness. Today, I would like to be your guide on a trip up the mountain. We will not get God's view of the world from there, since we will still be standing on the earth; but on that mountain we can get just a little bit closer to God, and get a little bit closer to God's view of the world.

The mountain I am talking about is the mountain of spiritual vision. It is the mountain of the spiritual depths, or rather, heights, that are common to all the great religions of the world.

Those of us who were able to get to some of the workshops in the World Religions series that our church recently hosted had an opportunity to climb several spiritual mountains with leaders from the faiths covered in the workshops: Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Native American, Jewish, and Hindu. After several of the workshops, I heard some of our church members saying about the workshops' leaders, "These people are Swedenborgians!" Then again, those were Swedenborgians making that remark. . . .

One time when I was over at the Catholic church, a man told me the old story about how a Protestant (as he told it) went to heaven, and was told by an angel never to climb over that big, high wall over there. Of course, the fellow couldn't resist. When he came back over the wall, his angel friend was waiting for him. "They didn't see you, did they?" the angel asked.

"No, I don't think so."

"Oh good!" the angel replied. "Those are the Catholics. They think they're the only ones up here." The man telling me the story then pointed to himself and said, "I'm a Catholic, you know!"

Two hundred thirty five years ago, when Emanuel Swedenborg wrote the words that we read from Divine Providence, there was precious little of that broad-mindedness among Christians. Both the official doctrine and the common belief was that only Christians could be saved--and often, only Christians from one's own particular sect.

I find it deliciously ironic that Swedenborg was so brash as to apply the term "foolish heresy" to an idea that was perhaps the core teaching of the Christian Church of his day--and which millions of conservative Christians continue to believe today. He termed "heresy" the idea that only those who have literally accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior can be saved from the fires of hell. And he goes on to tell us just why this is heresy.

To fully appreciate the great step forward that Swedenborg was taking, it might be helpful to look briefly at the idea behind the belief that still persists among many Christians that only Christians can be saved. In a nutshell, traditional Christianity taught (based on a few Bible passages taken out of context and then misinterpreted) that God the Father, in his "perfect justice," had pronounced a death sentence on all humankind because of the sin of Adam and Eve. This sin had been passed down to all their descendants--meaning everyone on earth. God the Son, however, volunteered to take the penalty for that sin, and in payment of that penalty he, Jesus, died on the cross. Since then, all who believe that Jesus died instead of them will have their sins forgiven by God the Father, and so they will be saved.

Millions of conservative Christians continue to believe this today. That is why they are so intent on converting people to their religion. They think that unless people are "saved" by believing in Jesus, they will burn forever in hell.

Swedenborg had a very different view of God. Swedenborg's God would never condemn anyone to hell. In fact, according to Swedenborg, God is never even angry with people--no matter how badly they have sinned. Swedenborg's God is a God of pure love, who loves all people, no matter how virtuous or how sinful they are. To use the words from Matthew's Gospel, "Your heavenly Father causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45).

Such a God would never consign to hellfire the vast majority of the world's population simply because they had not converted to Christianity. Never! According to Swedenborg, the great religions of the world were all given by God in order to reach out to the people of various cultures in ways that are appropriate to their particular character. The prophets of all religions were sent by God on a mission to bring spiritual enlightenment to people who were sorely in need of it. And so, although both Swedenborg and the church founded in his name remained firmly Christian in their own belief and practice, it was a broad-based Christianity--one that accepted all religions as valid paths to God.

How could Swedenborg reconcile his own strongly Christian belief with such a broad, interfaith vision of God's working in our world? Don't we read in John 3:16, the verse that finds its way into almost every fundamentalist tract, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believe in him will not perish, but have eternal life?" And don't we read two verses later a verse that confounds liberal Christians and non-Christians alike: "Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe stand condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of God's only Son?" Swedenborg's reply to this comes in our reading from Divine Providence:

Some people object that non-Christians do not know the Lord [Jesus], and without the Lord no one can be saved. But salvation does not come to us because we know the Lord; it comes to us because we follow the Lord's commandments. Besides, everyone who believes in God knows the Lord, since the Lord is the God of heaven and earth, as he himself teaches in Matthew 28:18.

In other words, it is a small-minded view of Jesus (whom Swedenborg saw as one with God the Father), to think that only a literal belief in the Jesus of history can save us. Swedenborg's far broader view is that anyone who believes in God and lives by the spirit of Jesus as represented in their own religion is, in fact, believing in Jesus. And, Swedenborg continued, God has ensured that the basic teachings needed to live a good life are present in all the religions of the world. So the spirit of Jesus is present in all religions.

The challenge Swedenborg placed squarely before the Christians of his day was this: Is your God big, or is your God small? Is your God a universal God, or is your God a small and petty God, who favors one particular religion and culture over another?

Now, over two hundred years later, we humans are finally maturing enough that we can begin to see the same broad, universal vision of God that Swedenborg saw well ahead of his time. Now, at last, forward-looking people of all faiths are beginning to see that the God they believe in is the same God that people of all the other religions believe in. Now, finally, we are beginning to climb the spiritual mountain--the mountain of higher vision and greater enlightenment--so that we can see the world a little bit more as God sees it.

Today, we can build a vision of a world that is one in God's sight. A world in which all the differences of race, culture, and religion are simply human varieties that reflect the infinite variations of God's divine being. From the perspective of the spiritual mountain, we can see the great beauty of the incredible diversity in God's creation.

And we can go much farther than "tolerating" or "accepting" the racial, cultural, and spiritual diversity that we see in our world. We can celebrate that diversity, because through each part of that diversity, God is speaking to us in a special way. Amen.

Prayer

O God of all religions, in whose eyes the entire world is one body of humanity, we thank you for your growing presence among all the people of the world, healing the rifts among us and helping us to build new bridges of interfaith and interculture understanding. Lead us up the mountain of vision, so that we may see and know that all who share this earth are one in your sight, and we may open our hearts to all our brothers and sisters everywhere. Amen.

Rev. Lee Woofenden