River of Life
June 26, 2011
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
(Revelation 22: 1-5)
What keeps religion going? Surely this is something worth wondering about. It came into our world from beyond the hills of time. It was there, farther back than history can remember. And it brought us to this church today.
When we dig into the remains of ancient civilizations, we find its marks, unmistakably: an image, an altar, mystic symbols, sacred vessels, the ruins of a sanctuary. The many forms it has taken through the ages sometimes were crude, at other times elaborate and surprisingly perceptive. But it would seem that wherever man has been, and wherever human life is, there is evidence of a faith, a cultus, a belief, an attempt to reach out into the invisible for protection, guidance or favor, enlightenment, or sheer adoration. And here we are today, at worship, playing a part in the same unfolding drama.
What, then, is that mysterious, disturbing factor in the very nature of man that makes him look up and seek both completion and fulfillment above himself? That fills him with a sense of awe and sets him on the quest for life’s meaning? That leads him to acknowledge dependence on and accountability to a power greater than his own? That tells him that he ought to think, to will, to do, nay, even to be otherwise than his natural inclinations dictate? And that will not leave him alone till he has learned to relate himself to it?
What is that power that, in the course of time, appears to have drawn him to itself, and fashioned him, in countless instances, from the beast into manhood as we know it at its best—let us say, from the caveman to an Albert Schweitzer, the self-effacing “ten-talent man” of our generation?
Surely if this has taken place there is something personal at the core of that relatedness, on both sides. In that power there must be something human, even if it be superhuman. Man cannot respond to, nor speak with, nor love what he has no kinship with, what is not in some measure like him. We may well be supercilious about primitive religion and say that man created in his own image the god or gods he worshipped. It is so to a large extent. Yet it was so because, in the first place and although man did not know it, God had created him in his image and likeness. Could God have done otherwise?
So for man, that power has never been “It” but “Thou.” It has been as intimate as all that from the beginning. And when the crude ideas of outward human shape disappeared, personalness remained an integral part of man’s sense of God. Intimacy remained also, and man’s response was purified, empowered, and made real in the measure in which he learned not to take it for granted.
At last, with the coming of Christ, the men who were closest to him became convinced that this personal God had shown himself to us in the limitations of our nature. In him they saw human life as it should be when it is truly lived. In him they found a living answer to the meaning of life itself: that we should grow like him, attain the full stature of our manhood in his image and likeness—and this through our learning to love one another as he has first loved us, and so does love us still. Such was the beginning of the Christian religion. And with it the intimacy grew. Though returned to his Fatherhood they felt that he, the God-Man, was alive in them and they in him.
In him they saw that truth that is eternal and that through the ages had been struggling to make itself known: that he is a God of love, and that he lives in us, yearning for nothing more than that we should make ourselves hospitable to him and let him fashion us into the spiritual persons we ought to become, not only individually, but in all our human relationships. Thus Paul exclaims, “I live, and yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” That is what Christianity means. Or, listen to what one of the early fathers of the church, Saint Augustine, has to say: “That which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and there never was a time when it did not exist, from the planting of the human race until Christ came in the flesh. At that time the true religion that already existed began to be called Christianity.”
What keeps religion going, then? It is not our theologies, nor the intellectual scaffoldings by which we seek to reach the divine. It is not rituals, nor ecclesiastical hierarchies, nor institutional machinery. These are but means to an end, forms that may come and go. But it is the response of the heart that, for all men, at all times, remains the same. It is the experience of God, in commitment to him, on the part of the humble. And in this, the initiative is not theirs, as they well know, but the Lord’s. What keeps religion going is that unseen, strange power of his love and truth, pouring itself out continually, pressing on us to be received, urgent to make itself known, to find a welcome within us. Then, when it meets a response, something happens in the depths of a man’s life. An insignificant nobody, on his knees, begins to hold converse with the eternal. He becomes a new man. He begins to count as he forgets himself, overcomes his lower nature by the strength that is given him, and determines to match his life more and more with that of the Master. His life becomes meaningful in that it is related to God’s purpose throughout the ages. Through him, God becomes real in the world and much else is changed besides him, wherever he may reach. Through him, and through many like him, twice-born men, the life-giving power of God’s love continues to make itself felt and to heal the hurts and the disorders of mankind. With him God’s truth marches on.
And what is true of individuals is also true of the church. For the church is alive only in the measure in which God is alive in its members. It is their corporate response to him. Swedenborg would agree with Augustine, for instance, that the fundamental truths of the Christian religion have been in existence and have been true from the beginning of the human race. But he would add that man’s insight into them has only been gradual and at times very dim. He would agree, again, that the real life of the church has been its understanding and practice of love. But then he would point out that there have been long periods when, by and large, the love that Christ came to disclose in its fullness was sadly lacking.
Great religious eras, which he sometimes calls churches, have for instance, in the past, succeeded one another. They have begun with great promise, gathered momentum, and for a while borne fruit, only to wither and die. The same has been true of many churches and many revival movements within the Christian church. What is remarkable, however, is that despite its internal conflicts and many divisions, the Christian church itself never died. Unlike other human institutions, it has survived and outlived civilizations, kingdoms and empires, wars and persecution, and died in appearance only to be born again. The new church that Swedenborg was hailing in advance, the church of this new age, is naught else but Christianity reborn, given new light, a new will to be one in the practice of love by its Lord.
But whence this power of inner renewal? In his writings, Clement of Alexandria compares the church to a great river. “Sometimes it flows,” he says, “with impetuosity through a narrow channel. Sometimes it spreads like a flood. Sometimes it divides into several streams. Sometimes again it seems to disappear underground only to reappear at some distance farther.” But John, who sees the same image in the vision of our text, takes us into it more inwardly. He takes us to the source of that life-giving stream.
“And he showed me,” he says, “a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” From God himself, a God who cared enough to be man—which is what is meant by “the throne of God and of the Lamb”— is that continual influx of power and love and truth for human life that has never been without a witness among men, and that cannot be defeated. “Clear as crystal.” Now it is possible for men to be aware of their kinship with God; to see God in Christ both risen and glorified; to know that he lives in them, and be caught up and empowered by all that is implied in his Divine Humanity.
For if we, in our turn, care enough, there is in the God-Man, through us, the power to make this a better world, where wars will become a thing of the past and man’s inhumanity to man be replaced by true brotherhood. “The river of life, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb”: that is the central fact and force at work in the fashioning of this new age. Through this clearer understanding of him, God comes closer to men, and the more urgent becomes our challenge to make this a more humane world, in his image and likeness.
The church in whom he lives, the church that is called his body, the church reborn and made anew for the task, as a willing instrument of his purpose, needs your fuller and more complete commitment to him. The church in whom you can become a receiver and transmitter of that life-giving stream; the church in whom you are an heir to the ages, one with religion’s glorious past, one in the fellowship of heaven, one with all who worship God now, through all the world, one with the generations yet unborn, awaits your decision.
So John adds, “And the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let him that heareth, come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
Are we athirst enough for that?
We bless you that we were made to love, as the stars were made to shine.
Grant that such love may never die within us,
But being daily rekindled in our souls, may burn in our hearts and forever renew our whole being.
This we ask through Christ our Lord.
- Florence Allshorn (1887-1950)
Rev. Antony Regamey