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Sermons

To Go Up, Go Down

October 05, 2003

Bible Reading

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . . . And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

(Mark 1:4, 7-13)

Reading from Swedenborg

We go through spiritual struggles only if we are being reborn. Spiritual struggle is psychological distress brought on by harmful spirits when we do good things and have true ideas. We experience the anguish of inner struggle when these harmful spirits stir up the bad traits in us. Since we do not realize this is the source of these struggles, we have no idea where they come from.

We all have harmful spirits and good spirits with us. The harmful spirits are associated with our bad traits, and the good spirits are associated with our good traits. When the harmful spirits approach us, they bring out our bad traits, while the good spirits bring out our good traits. Then there is a conflict and a fight, which brings on anguish inside us. This anguish is inner struggle.

So you can see that inner struggles are brought on by hell and are not from heaven. This is part of Christian belief, which says that God does not torment anyone.

(The Heavenly City #187-88)

Sermon

What is this ritual that is so important that even Jesus did it? What does a ritual do for anyone, let alone for Jesus?

Starhawk, in her book The Spiral Dance, gives us a hint: "To communicate with the High Self, the Goddess/God Within, we resort to symbols, art, poetry, music, myth, and the actions of ritual that translate abstract concepts into the language of the unconscious. . . . For this reason, religious truths have not been expressed throughout time as mathematical formulas, but in art, music, dance, drama, poetry, stories, and active rituals. As Robert Graves says, 'Religious morals, in a healthy society, are best enforced by drums, moonlight, fasting, dancing, masks, flowers, divine possession.'"

Personally, I am a big fan of ritual. So is our culture. Saying "How do you do" and "Pleased to meet you" when we are introduced are rituals meant to provide order and keep the peace. A graduation is a ritual to make the transition of a young person out of one institution of learning into another, or into the world. A wedding is a ritual that effects a change of state: we come in single and go out married. A funeral is a ritual that brings some order to the tangled mess of loss so that we can get on with our grieving.

What does baptism do? Some religious traditions claim it also effects a change of state: we start out pagan and end up Christian; we start out damned and end up saved. But Swedenborg will not let us make these claims. Rather, he says it brings us to the threshold where a change of state is possible; where we are invited to change from a material person to a spiritual person. Baptism is a ritual that works, yes. But it is not a magic bullet. It is a promise. Only living will fulfill the promise.

In The Heavenly City, Swedenborg starts the chapter on Baptism with this statement, "Baptism was set up as a symbol that we are religious, and as a reminder that we are meant to be reborn."

A symbol and reminder. It makes baptism sound like nothing special, almost empty, something we could do without. Yet he goes on to say, "The washing in baptism is spiritual washing, which is rebirth." Rebirth! That's much clearer . . . and not empty.

I was looking, the other day, for a description of the Swedenborgian Mission. That is, if a church hasn't discovered its own particular mission, and needs a guiding principle to better understand its identity and to guide its decision-making, what is it about being a Swedenborgian church that would provide that knowledge of purpose? Swedenborg tells us that the Lord's purpose in creation is to make angels for heaven. And we make angels by having humans go through "regeneration," or rebirth. So the function or mission of a Swedenborgian church could be to create an environment that invites and encourages rebirth; to companion each other in rebirth; to provide the waters for rebirth.

That sounds all very positive and progressive until we remember two things: First, most people don't really want to change very much. Minor tailoring adjustments are tolerable, even desirable; but total overhauls are not very popular. Swedenborg describes the six days of creation in Genesis as stages of the regeneration process--and he tells us that most people don't make it past day three! That's most people, not "average" people. So even those who appear to be striving for spiritual growth can bog down halfway.

It would take great courage for a church to provide the waters of rebirth, because it would require the church not only to provide an unpopular service--which means the church may be small in numbers--but it would require those who are within the church to lead the way: to demonstrate what rebirth means.

This brings me to the second reason why we may wonder if founding a church on a mission of becoming the waters of rebirth is all that terrific an idea. Spiritual growth--regeneration--occurs as a result of spiritual combats. The minute you say, "Okay, Lord, I want to go your way, I want to face the light, I want to play on your team," you're in for a struggle. In spiritual combat, better known as "temptation," your psyche and soul become the battleground between heaven and hell. Our inborn natures are not naturally attuned to embracing the Lord. This is something we teach ourselves and each other to do over our lifetimes. Our natural bent is to love ourselves. Life is a process of changing our basic orientation by reordering our loves. The Lord is fighting on the team of the reborn, the reordered. And hell--that is to say, selfishness, or our own natural inclination--is fighting to preserve the status quo. Regeneration is a process of turning ourselves end-for-end until we are eventually right side up!

Now John offered the baptism of repentance. He called for people to "Repent!" That word means "turn around." The direction we are supposed to face is toward the light of heaven. We might think that heaven would be so totally irresistible that, once we knew about it and once we were invited to turn around, we would snap around like iron to a magnet. But we don't--unless perhaps we have a religious conversion experience. The turning is slow, and it occurs through spiritual combat.

So when we go down into the waters of the Jordan as Jesus did, we are not signing up for a life of pink clouds and angelic wisdom--not yet, anyway. We go down to get the promise of regeneration--which includes the promise of spiritual combat.

In fairy tales, the protagonist never gets the prize without having to go through trials to prove himself or herself. You are the hero of your own fairy tale. But there is one thing to know. Even though you will be convinced that all the trials set before you are being tackled by you and you alone, the Lord is doing the fighting for you--and the Lord wants you to win. Swedenborg tells us that the Lord does the fighting, but that "in all temptation there is something of doubt about the Lord's presence and mercy" (Arcana Coelestia #2334). We act from ourselves because we need to feel invested in these battles. And in fact we can, despite the Lord's participation, bring defeat upon ourselves by deciding to be loyal to some unheavenly thing, such as our greed, our unhealthy patterns of relating to others, or our fear.

Baptism is not enough. The only way to success is to fight from faith because, as Swedenborg says, "All rebirth comes from the Lord through the true things in faith, and by living in harmony with them" (The Heavenly City #203). But, as he goes on, "Baptism itself gives neither faith nor spiritual well-being. It only shows that we should accept faith, and that we will be rescued if we are reborn" (The Heavenly City #207). And "Baptism without faith in the Lord is of no avail" (True Christian Religion #685.2).

This prompts the question: What is faith, and how does it work? "What is faith" may seem like a totally stupid question; but as any professor will tell you, that's the best kind! So I'd like to invite you to think for a moment about how you would answer the question, "What is faith?"

This is kind of a trick situation, because faith is not something we can reason about (see Arcana Coelestia #215). It is an inner orientation of the heart and mind. Just as your physical body is the body that your soul uses to get around, and just as truth is the body that good uses to get around, faith is the body that love uses to get around (see Arcana Coelestia #668). But faith is like a fruit: it grows. It starts small, and eventually gets plump enough to be nourishing. It shouldn't surprise us that Swedenborg says, "True and real faith is love to the Lord and toward the neighbor" (Arcana Coelestia #1964.2). I particularly like what Swedenborg has to say about faith and love to the Lord:

Those who receive and have faith are continually mindful of the Lord, even when they are thinking or speaking of other things, and also when they are carrying out their public, private, or domestic duties--although they are not aware that they are then mindful of the Lord. For the remembrance of the Lord by those who are in faith reigns universally with them, and what reigns universally is not perceived except when thought is directed to it. (Arcana Coelestia #5130)

But we are talking here about the ripest fruit.

Notwithstanding his own admonition that one cannot reason about faith, Swedenborg, of course, has lots to say about it. Here he starts with what faith isn't:

Some suppose that faith is mere thought; some that it is an acknowledgement of something to be believed; some that is it the whole doctrine of faith, which is to be believed. . . . Thus in the bare knowledge of what faith is they wander in error. . . .

Faith, however, is not mere thought, nor is it an acknowledgement of something to be believed, nor a knowledge of all things that belong to the doctrine of faith. No one can be saved by these, since they can take root no deeper than in the thought. Thought saves no one, but rather the life we gain for ourselves in the world through the insights of faith. Such life remains with us; but all thought that is not in keeping with our life dies away, even to the point of becoming none at all. In heaven it is people's lives that bring them into one another's company. (Arcana Coelestia 2228.2)

So if we want to have faith, we have to go down deeper than thought, and down deeper than knowing our doctrine, and into the living of our lives.

Okay, so faith is reflected in how we live down here on earth. We knew that, right? But how do we get faith? The same way we regenerate: little by little. We soak it into our lives by encountering truth in our religious teachings, and by encountering truth through daily living. We soak it into our lives by loving what we have been taught about truth, love, charity, and heaven. Regeneration and faith circle around each other, strengthening each other, feeding each other: a little faith, a little temptation, a little regeneration; a little more faith, a little more temptation, a little more regeneration. Faith starts in the memory, in what we have been taught. Then it moves into our understanding. Ultimately, it moves into our hearts. Without faith, there is no progress.

Now let's revisit the question: Do we really want to regenerate? Here is a truly Swedenborgian both/and answer: yes and no.

Swedenborg was writing at the end of the era of the "former Christian church," at the dawn of the New Church. He was speaking of his contemporaries when he wrote these words: "Those who are being regenerated do not all arrive at [the celestial] state. The greatest part, at this day, attain only the first state; some only the second; others the third, fourth, or fifth; few the sixth; and scarcely anyone the seventh" (Arcana Coelestia #13).

We have been in the era of the New Church for over two hundred years, and the world has undergone some fundamental changes since then. (This assumes that the people who appear on Jerry Springer and Geraldo are not representative of an average human being.) I'm sure you have noticed the booming "self-help" industry: books, retreats, gurus, workshops, methods, and support groups. Surely this means that people are willing to do their regeneration work! Surely you yourselves would tell me that spiritual growth is on your personal agenda. It is certainly on mine.

But isn't life full of pitfalls and distractions! I think it is also full of false prophets. While some of the self-help industry is valid and helpful (AA comes quickly to mind), too much of it is about our own evil tendencies dressed up as "growth." Walk down the bookstore aisle and you will see titles that invite you to "have the life you want," "get the partner you want," "get the job you deserve," "experience the love you ought to have," "be all you can be." (Oh, that's the Army!) Folks, this is not turning toward the Lord; it is entrenching in the world. It is difficult, in my experience, to tell the true voice of the Lord amid all the hue and cry of the voices that beckon us to invest in ourselves for the sake of ourselves. I want to remind you that a faithful life lived according the Lord's leading beckons us to invest in ourselves for the sake of something greater than ourselves--and that is true self improvement. Yes, you benefit--but it's not about you. And it's not easy.

So are we the waters of rebirth? Do we want to be? If every church person were collecting on the promise of baptism; if every church person were accepting the paradoxical gift of spiritual combat; if every church person were turning, turning, "till we come round right," the conditions of our lives would be so attractive that we would be irresistible to anyone who saw us.

Is personal transformation, regeneration, rebirth really unpopular? It wouldn't be if there were more valid models of what it looks like walking around in work places, in supermarkets, on the sidewalks, down school corridors, and any other place that people meet people.

Yes, it takes a lifetime of living to get to day seven, to become a celestial person. But if we come to day three, or four, or five, or six, we will be so much brighter, fuller, stronger, more centered, more whole, and more holy than most of the people we encounter in our world today. There is no point in worrying how far along the path we have gone. One way to love the neighbor is to be a living, breathing demonstration of what it means to be reborn; to be able to show others the way; to "companion" people through their temptations, and on into the light of the Divine.

We gaze up to heaven with longing, wanting to go up. We begin by going down, down into the waters; down into temptation; down into the way we live in the material world; down into the inner meaning of the Word; down into our centers. Like a dancer preparing for a beautiful, graceful leap, to go up, we bend our knees and go down.

Prayer

Dear Lord, our eyes look upward to you, and we long to be in the spiritual place where you fill our lives. Yet as we tread that journey toward you, our feet take us down, down into valleys of struggle and temptation. Be with us even in the valley of the shadow of death, and lead us toward the mountain of your presence. Amen.

Eli Dale