The Lord Our God is One
November 16, 2003
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one, just as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
Reading from Swedenborg
There is one God, who is the creator and keeper of the universe. So he is the God of both heaven and earth.
Two things make our life heaven: good actions done out of love and true ideas that come from faith. We get this life from God; not a single bit of it comes from ourselves. So the most important thing in religion is to accept God, believe in God, and love him.
If we are born Christian, we should accept the Lord--both his divinity and his humanity--and believe in him and love him, since all spiritual well-being comes from the Lord. (The Heavenly City #280-82)
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one, just as we are one. (John 17:22)
This is the third from a series of sermons that aim to put the essence of our theology into very simple statements. The series started with the statement, "There is no wrath of God," and proceeded to "The Lord is good to all." Now we come to "The Lord our God is one."
It would be easy to spend a whole series of sermons on the history of the doctrine of the Trinity--which is essentially a history of the effort of the Christian church to deal with some very confusing material in the Gospels. It is to their credit, I believe, that the Gospels do not give a clear and unequivocal answer to questions concerning the humanity and the divinity of Jesus, but instead record an intense debate. Jesus most commonly referred to himself with a phrase literally translated as "the son of man," meaning "human-born" and stressing his humanity. By the close of his life among us, though, he could claim that all power in heaven and on earth had been given to him (Matthew 28:18). The text may refer to him as the son of God, but in the discourse at the Last Supper he stressed his oneness with the Father.
If we imagine ourselves as living in those times, or imagine Jesus in the flesh among us, we can appreciate this confusion. Here is someone who on the one hand is obviously human, eating and drinking, walking our dusty roads or our crowded sidewalks, tiring at the end of the day, yet speaking with bewildering wisdom and working miracles. He seems to see into our hearts and to treat us as though we were priceless on the one hand and terribly slow on the other. We cannot help being drawn to him; we know that we have never met his like; but when we ask him questions about himself he either tells us a story or turns the question back to us, or says something we cannot understand.
When he was crucified, the disciples must have been totally convinced of his humanity. Wonderful as he had been, he had been mortal. Then, though, came his resurrection--and all the evidence of his life had to be reevaluated. Scholars sometimes question the notion of Jesus' divinity because it is not clearly asserted before the crucifixion; but surely the evidence for Jesus' nature is incomplete until it includes the witness of the resurrection. If anything would make one stop and rethink things, that would do it.
It is the contention of our theology that the Christian church's efforts to resolve the question failed, and failed in a way that was particularly harmful. A picture of the trinity emerged in which the Father and the Son were such separate individuals that they were essentially at odds with each other--the Father resolved to consign the human race to hell, and the Son resolved to thwart this intention by offering himself as a sacrifice in our stead. This runs counter to all the passages that present Jesus as doing the Father's will, and that present the Father as the one who is actually doing the works. It is hard to see how any sense of the unity of God can be preserved without denying the divinity of Jesus.
Under the surface of all the controversy about the trinity were issues of political and ecclesiastical power. The church became the sole agent of ongoing atonement--the legal defense, so to speak, against the righteous judgment of God. Of all the various images of our relationship to divinity, this particular one had been chosen and literalized, and everything else was seen in its light.
Before we dismiss this image of conflict within divinity, though, there is a passage from our own theology to attend to. It is from Secrets of Heaven #2258.2, and reads as follows:
We need to realize that there are two things that go to make up the order of the whole heaven and therefore the order of the universe, namely, goodness and truth. Goodness is the very essence of the order, and all its elements are instances of mercy. Truth is the secondary aspect of the order, and all its elements are truths. Divine goodness sentences everyone to heaven, while divine truth condemns everyone to hell.
Listen, though, to a statement from The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine #13:
It is in keeping with divine order for goodness and truth to be united and not separated, so that they are one entity and not two. They emanate united from Deity, and they are united in heaven.
That is, the so-called "divine truth" that would condemn everyone to hell exists in theory only. Separated from divine love, it is no longer true, just as we can take facts that are technically true and falsify them by using them maliciously. The only way to understand the statement that "divine truth condemns everyone to hell" is that it is an "appearance of truth" very much like descriptions of the wrath of God. It assumes our own notion of truth as something that can be separated from love.
The basic principle is very clearly stated in Divine Love and Wisdom #37:
As divine providence works for our reformation, regeneration, and salvation, it shares equally in divine love and divine wisdom. We cannot be reformed, regenerated, and saved by any excess of divine love over divine wisdom or by any excess of divine wisdom over divine love. Divine love wants to save everyone, but it can do so only by means of divine wisdom. All the laws that govern salvation are laws of divine wisdom, and love cannot transcend those laws because divine love and divine wisdom are one, and act in unison.
In fact, it is not easy for us to believe what we are being told about the unity of goodness and truth. It runs counter to some of our very basic assumptions. We are being told that love is not blind. We are being told that we cannot understand people whom we do not love. We are being told that if we do understand people, we will love them. We are being told that there is no difference between mercy and justice.
After the World Trade Center tragedy, the question was asked, "Why do they hate us?" It is a question that has to be asked with all seriousness, and the answer will not be found if we are looking for an answer that will justify "us" and condemn "them." The answer will be found only as we manage to care about them for their own sakes and not simply for ours. They see from their hearts, just as we do.
One of the clearest examples of the essential unity of mercy and justice can be found in what we call "tough love." In Alcoholics Anonymous, tough love means not covering up for the alcoholic, often not actively trying to prevent the drinking, but letting the consequences of the behavior carry their own message.
This does not feel like love; but in a way, love is not simply about how we feel. It is alarmingly easy for self-concern to become mixed in with our care for someone close to us. We don't want to feel guilty. We don't want to see ourselves as insensitive. We want to feel good about ourselves, and this can blind us to what is actually good for others.
It is hard for us to believe that God is one because our own experience of oneness is so slight. We are all too familiar with love seeming to pull in one direction and wisdom in another. We are all too familiar with apparently having to choose between justice and mercy. We have to do something; we cannot satisfy both requirements; so we wind up erring on one side or the other.
The Gospel message is clear and startling. "I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one, just as we are one." The doctrine of the oneness of God is not just an abstract theory. It is a principle that can inform and transform our lives. It is not just something to believe; it is something to do. In fact, we cannot really believe unless we do it. It is at the heart of our religion, and all religion is about how we live.
All of us, I suspect, feel that we have a long way to go before mercy and justice are one for us. But to the extent that we have actually tried to step outside our self-concern and understand someone else, we have made a start. If we have asked, "Am I doing this for you, or for myself?" we have made a start. If we have stopped to look honestly at the results of some of our well-intentioned efforts, we have made a start.
It may be a long road, but it is made up of little steps--steps that are well within our capability. As the hymn says, under the Lord's providence, the trivial round and the common task offer us the room we need to deny ourselves, and take the road that leads us daily nearer God. In fact, it is because we are not one that we have the possibility of changing the direction of our lives. We can stand back from our impulses and evaluate them. We can stand back from our opinions and explore them. We can stand outside our dividedness, acknowledge it, and affirm the best rather than the worst. We can discover that "The Lord our God is one."
One closing thought: We cannot become one within ourselves without becoming one with others. We are accepted into heaven when we accept heaven into ourselves--and vice versa. Amen.
O Lord our God, you are the one God of heaven and earth. Show us how we can be one, just as you are one. Show us how our sense of compassion and mercy can be one with our sense of justice and fairness. When we face those who have wronged us, teach us to act, not from anger nor from pain, but from a love that will not rest until things are both right and good. Thank you, Lord. Amen.
Rev. Dr. George F. Dole