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Love is Life

Sermons

Happiness on the Natural Plane

November 06, 2011

Bible Reading

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. (Genesis 25:19-26)

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:1-12)

Sermon

This Sunday I would like to follow up on my talk about bearing fruit. Last Sunday I talked about how love flows forth into good works. This Sunday I will emphasize why good works matter. I will discuss first why good works matter, then how good works flow into us from God, then the benefits that come from doing good works.

Jesus says in the Gospel of John that he is the vine and we are the branches. He says further, “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The fruit that Jesus is talking about are all the good things that we do from a heart of love. Last Sunday we saw that willing good is internal and doing good is external. Swedenborg tells us,

Charity and good works are distinct from each other like intention and action, and like the mind’s affection and the body’s operation; consequently, also, like the internal person and the external . . . therefore charity, because it is of the internal person, is to intend well; and the works, because they are of the external person, are to do well from intending well (True Christian Religion 374).

The external person that Swedenborg speaks of is also called the natural level of our personality. So we can also say that doing good is an activity of the natural level of our personality.

Let me take a moment to discuss the levels of our personality. There are three levels to our personality: the internal, the rational, and the natural. The internal is our spirit, and it lives in the spiritual world. Most of us are not conscious of this level. The rational level is the highest reaches of our mind. It can see what we are doing and make decisions about whether our emotions and actions are in keeping with God’s precepts. In our rational mind are all the teachings that we have learned about God’s kingdom. In it also are all the good feelings of love that God gives us. The natural level is the part of us that communicates with the world. In that level are all our worldly desires, attentions to the needs of the self, and the actions that we do in the world.

All of these levels need to receive life and love from God. The process by which we grow toward God is called regeneration. This is a lifelong process. Over the course of a lifetime, we let more and more of God’s love into us and we learn more and more truths about God and what His will for us is. We are first regenerated in our higher levels. Our internal and rational levels are regenerated before our natural level is. That is because our rational level needs to know what God wants for us before it can direct our natural level to do these things.

But regeneration needs to continue into all the levels of our personality. This means that our natural level needs to be regenerated too. The part of us that lives in the world needs to become oriented to heaven. All of our knowledge about God’s ways and all of our feelings of love for our neighbor and love for God need to show themselves in our behavior. It is important for all of our higher feelings and thoughts to become rooted in our actions. Unless the higher levels of our personality shine forth in our natural level, we are like a house without a foundation. Swedenborg is very clear about this. He says,

The natural, which is external, must be regenerated; for unless it is regenerated, the internal has neither foundation nor receptacle; and if it has no foundation nor receptacle, it altogether perishes (Arcana Coelestia 6299).

Swedenborg uses an analogy to explain this doctrine. Spiritual thoughts and feelings without spiritual actions are like a head detached from the body.

Good will and faith are only mental and perishable unless they are determined to works and coexist in them, when possible. Has not man a head and a body connected by the neck? Is there not in the head a mind which intends and thinks, and in the body power which performs and executes? If therefore man were only to intend well or were to think from good will, and were not to do well and perform deeds from it, would he not be as a head only, and thus a mind only, which cannot exist without a body? Who does not see from this that good will and faith are not good will and faith while they are only in the head and its mind and not in the body? (True Christian Religion 375)

So this is why good works matter: without a life of good works, our spiritual loves and thoughts have no foundation and will dissipate.

Swedenborg suggests that bringing our good will and faith into our natural level may be difficult. Our rational mind is an image of heaven, while our natural level is an image of the world. In our natural level are all the knowledge and emotions that are oriented toward success in the world. Thus in our natural level are desires for self-gratification, desires for worldly success, desires for income, and the knowledge to bring these things about. These things are not necessarily opposed to heavenly desires. We need to take care of ourselves or we will be a burden on society. But if our natural level is not rendered open to heaven, then we will become interested only in these worldly things. Then it will be difficult for God and heaven to flow into our lives. These worldly desires must be rendered compliant with heavenly and God-centered beliefs and loves. So Swedenborg teaches,

In order for a person to become spiritual, his natural must become as nothing . . . for the natural has drunk from infancy nothing else than the things of selfish and worldly lusts, thus contrary to charity . . . These evils cause that good cannot flow in from the Lord, . . . But it should be known that it is the old natural that must become as nothing; . . . and when it has become as nothing, a person is then gifted with a new natural, which is called the spiritual natural—spiritual from this, that the spiritual is what acts through it, and manifests itself through it . . . and when this comes to pass, a person receives good from the Lord; and when he receives good, he is gifted with truths; and when he is gifted with truths, he is perfected in intelligence and wisdom; and when he is perfected in intelligence and wisdom, he is blessed with happiness to eternity (Arcana Coelestia 5651).

Our natural level becomes compliant with our higher level by removing the things that block God’s inflowing love. We need to let go of worldly attachments that concern only selfish ambition or worldly wealth. Then, when we have let go of these impurities that block God’s love and wisdom, we can feel heavenly joy even in our natural life.

The impurities of the natural man are all those things which are of selfishness and love of the world; and when these impurities have been washed away, then goods and truths flow in, since the impurities are all that hinder the influx of good and truth from the Lord; for good is continually flowing in from the Lord (Arcana Coelestia 3147).

Swedenborg tells us that washing away the impurities in the natural level can be a struggle at times. He notes that “before these two are conjoined, the person cannot be an entire person, nor be in the tranquility of peace, as the one contends with the other” (Arcana Coelestia 2183). One level contends against the other when we try to hold onto the things we love too much from this world.

But when we have reduced our natural level to compliance with the rational level, all our spiritual loves will flow from God down into our natural degree. Our behavior then will conform to what we know to be God’s will. Then our natural degree will become transparent and heavenly good will flow from our rational degree through our natural degree into our behavior. We will be living good lives. And then we will become truly happy and at peace.

I remember when I was learning jazz trumpet. I had a solid foundation in classical trumpet and I went to a jazz musician in Detroit to learn about jazz. My teacher of classical trumpet was very strict. If I started to play and my pitch was slightly off or my articulation wasn’t solid enough he would shout, “No! Stop! Start over!” This gave me a fear of making mistakes that I took to Jimmie’s when I went to learn jazz.

Jimmie taught me a song and invited me to try to improvise in it. Things didn’t work out so well. I sounded stiff and regimented. I didn’t have that free-flowing jazz sound. I was nervous about playing in front of him and my girlfriend, who had come with me. I felt inhibited. I still had that fear of making mistakes that my classical teacher had instilled in me. I was trying to apply those classical methods of perfect pitch and rhythm to the jazz I was trying to play.

Well, Jimmie talked with me for a while. He gave me some pointers about my breathing. He set me at ease and made me feel comfortable in his house and in this new musical format. Then he said, “Let’s try it again.”

It worked. I was improvising freely and coming up with some really inventive melodies. My heart flowed freely through my horn into a flow of sound. We stopped after a while and Jimmie said, “Yeah, you were blowing jazz. You can play jazz after the blocks get removed.” Jimmie hadn’t taught me anything new; he just relaxed me and got the blocks out of the way. He got rid of the inhibitions that were blocking my emotions and my creativity. He set me at ease and took away my fear of making a mistake. I blew jazz when the blocks were removed.

I use that as an example of regeneration on the natural level. We need to take action and remove the blocks that would interfere with God’s inflowing joy and love. In theological language, this would be called “removing the evils that stand in the way of goods.”

When we do this spiritual work, then God can flow into our lives and give us all the blessings of heaven. So Swedenborg writes, “There is nothing, therefore, that can make a person blessed and happy, but that his natural should be conformed to his rational and both joined together” (Arcana Coelestia 2183). The heavenly life is not drudgery. It is enjoyable and fun. It feels good to be good. All the anxieties from worldly care are dissolved. All the frustrations that come from selfishness fall away. The heavenly life is meant to be enjoyed. This enjoyment of life occurs when our natural level conforms to the heavenly loves and truths of our higher levels. Swedenborg tells us that

Truths of the good of doctrine are the doctrines of love to the Lord and of good will toward the neighbor, which are said to be conjoined with good in the natural man, when to know them for the sake of doing them is a pleasure and an enjoyment (Arcana Coelestia 3709).

The fruits of spiritual growth are blessed happiness, pleasure, and enjoyment in the life we are living. When our natural degree is regenerated, we enjoy life much more fully than before. Heaven’s joy and blessings make up the life we enjoy in our day-to-day living. These, finally, are the benefits of doing good works—a happy life.

Meditations and Prayers

You brought us out of non-existence into being, and when we had fallen you raised us up again, and left nothing undone until you had brought us up to heaven and had granted us your Kingdom that is to come. For all these things we give thanks to you, and to your only-begotten Son and your Holy Spirit; for all benefits that we have received, known and unknown, manifest and hidden.
- Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

Holy Spirit of God,
Let us not seek you in the distant land, for you are here among us.
Let us welcome you in the heart which is your dwelling place
and let us rejoice in the glory of your presence,
the only fountain of goodness and love.
- Amy Carmichael

But the Lord calls the Spirit the “voice of a gentle breeze.” For God is breath, and the breath of the wind is shared by all; nothing shuts it in, nothing holds it prisoner.
- Maximus the Confessor

Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has given us more than we ever thought to ask, more than we dare to receive, and more than we can ever understand.
- St. Catherine of Siena (c. 1347-1380)

Rev. Dr. David J. Fekete