A Newer Church
January 26, 2014
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands.
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. The angel who talked to me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width; and he measured the city with his rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal. He also measured its wall, one hundred forty-four cubits by human measurement, which the angel was using. The wall is built of jasper, while the city is pure gold, clear as glass. The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl, and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Reading from Swedenborg
“And I, John, saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven” means a new church to be established by the Lord at the close of the former one, a church that will be allied with the new heaven in divine truths in regard to its theology and in regard to its life.
The reason John names himself here by saying, “I, John,” is that he as an apostle means the good that love for the Lord does and therefore the good that we live. That is why he was more beloved than the other apostles and lay on the Lord’s breast at the Supper (see John 13:23; 21:20). This holds true also for the church that is being described here.
(Revelation Unveiled 879)
And he carried me away in the spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God; and its light was like a most precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal. Revelation 21:10-11
Almost two and a quarter centuries ago—in April 1789, to be exact—a group of devoted readers of Swedenborg gathered in London “to consider the most effectual means of promoting the establishment of the New Church, distinct from the Old.” The invitation to this gathering listed forty-six theological propositions to be discussed as the basis of this action; and it was addressed to “all the readers of the theological works of EMANUEL SWEDENBORG, who are desirous of rejecting, and separating themselves from, the Old Church, or the present Established Churches, . . . and of fully embracing the Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church . . .”1
According to Secrets of Heaven 8152, “When life makes the church, and not doctrine separated from life, the church is one; but when doctrine makes the church, there are many.” With the hindsight of a couple of centuries, it is not hard to see that the intent to separate effectively blotted out any dream of the church being or becoming one; and the phrase “desirous of rejecting” stands out with painful clarity. What we have in common, apparently, is what we don’t believe.
In fact, there were equally devoted readers who protested against this “separatist” action, a principal one being none other than John Clowes, whose devotion led him to translate the entire Arcana Coelestia into English. Ever since that time, a thorough study of the impact of Swedenborgian theology needs to follow two streams—that of “card-carrying Swedenborgians,” members of our institutional churches, and that of such “non-card-carrying” readers as Blake, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Goethe, Jung, and Emerson, among many others.
We must wonder what that organizational meeting might have brought forth if it had been focused on uniting kindred spirits rather than on setting them apart. In the same spirit, and again with a couple of centuries of hindsight, we must also wonder at the fact that this effort to found “the New Church” paid virtually no attention to the only description of the new church that there is in the “heavenly doctrines” themselves—the presentation of the deeper meaning of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, in The Book of Revelation Unveiled.
There is a reason for this. Understandably, the initial steps toward establishing an institutional body focused on matters of order and organization, and the description of the new church in Revelation Unveiled is no help whatever in this regard. The image comes to mind of trying to design an automobile and being given a very insightful description of the basic principles of good driving. This is obviously relevant to the design of the automobile, but it does leave a lot to the engineers.
To pursue that image a little further, the earliest automobiles were basically carriages, with engines taking the place of horses; and the order and organization of the New Jerusalem church looked very much like the order and organization of the “Old Church,” with churches that looked like churches, services on Sundays, clergy and laity, committees for this and that—we were certainly open to the charge that we were putting new wine into old bottles.
This worked fairly well for about a century, but at least in the industrialized countries, things then started to slow down. In the nineteen thirties, this church here in Bath nearly went out of existence; but it turned out that there was some life left in the new wine after all, and it revived.
We find ourselves in a transition phase here and now. Tennyson said it well: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.” He added, “And God fulfils himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”2 “Good customs,” customs that fit their times, can outlive their usefulness; and when they do, it is clearly time to focus on their usefulness.
This is a somewhat roundabout way of calling us to take a fresh look at the ideal of “a new church” as presented in Revelation Unveiled, and to do this initially in the spirit of basic research rather than of product development, so to speak. The obvious first step in this process is to take a fresh look at the introduction to the vision of the holy city, hence this morning’s text: “And he carried me away in the spirit to a great, high mountain and shows me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God; and its light was like a most precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.”
John’s being taken to a great, high mountain, Revelation Unveiled says, means that he was taken to the highest heaven (§896). This is the heaven permeated by a love of oneness; and the closest we can come to this is to recall times when we were overcome with the inexpressible dearness of some individual, some individuals, our country, our church, our world. I hear astronaut Edgar Mitchell saying, “On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.”
What John saw, then, was unearthly, and the Christian church has long recognized that his vision cannot be taken as a prophecy of something that will happen in this material world. One classic evangelical commentary puts it very simply: “The idea of a city literally descending from heaven, and being set upon the earth with such proportions—three hundred and seventy miles high, made of gold, and with single pearls for gates, and single gems for the foundations—is absurd.”3 When we turn then to Revelation Unveiled, we find the following:
The “great city, the holy Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” means the Lord’s new church. . . . The reason it was seen in the form of a city is that a city means a theological system; and a church is a church because of its theology and because of a life in accord with its theology. It was also seen as a city so that its whole nature could be described, and it is described by reference to its wall, gates, foundations, and different dimensions.
To translate this into somewhat simpler terms, the image of a city is an image of a way of living together. There are a great many different ways of living together—different cultures, different forms of government, associations for different purposes—there seems to be no “one size that fits all.” Think for a moment of the eight members of the crew of a racing shell. They need to act as subjects of an absolute tyrant, the coxswain, if they are to have any chance of success. This is all very well when the task is as simple as propelling a boat, but when it comes to a group like a family, that kind of organization is a recipe for disaster.
No, a city needs to include all the functions of living together, and for it to function harmoniously, there needs to be a willing agreement as to fundamental values, as to principles. In the view from the mountain top of the highest heaven, the supreme value is described as a “love of the Lord,” a phrase which does not really define itself.
For clarity in this regard, we may turn to Heaven and Hell (§399):
“We may gather the magnitude of heaven’s pleasure simply from the fact that for everyone there it is delightful to share their pleasure and bliss with someone else; and since everyone in the heavens is like this, we can see how immense heaven’s pleasure is. . . .
“This kind of sharing flows from the two loves of heaven . . . love for the Lord and love for our neighbor. These loves by nature want to share their pleasures. The reason love for the Lord is like this is that the Lord’s own love is a love of sharing everything it has with everyone—it intends the happiness of everyone. Much the same love exists in individuals who love him, because the Lord is in them.”
In the new church, then, I am treasured in a way that awakens the best within me. It feels wonderful, and I cannot help but want to share that feeling. It overflows. It overflows, and it is contagious. We are all capable of it, because it is the quality of the life that is constantly flowing into us from the Lord. It has quite an obstacle course to run before its effects reach the level of our everyday consciousness, but we get glimmers of it from time to time. We are familiar enough with it to have a sense of how real and how beautiful it can be, how near it is and yet often how far.
We do not seem to be able to summon it at will, but we can perhaps invite it, or at least recognize and reject some of the obstacles that impede it—our desires to have others recognize how important we are, to hear only what we want to hear, to enlarge ourselves by demeaning others.
We can also look for signs of it in others by giving them the fullest and most empathetic attention we can muster. We can recognize that we cannot answer the question “What would Jesus do?” until we have answered the question “What would Jesus see?” What would happen if we made a habit of imagining that loving presence standing next to us as we engage in conversation? After all, as our third reading reminds us, the apostle John, who saw the holy city descending, stands for “the good that love for the Lord does and therefore the good that we live.”
All this may stand as a very sketchy introduction to “a fresh look at the ideal of a ‘new church’ as presented in Revelation Unveiled.” Sketchy as it is, though, we could do worse than let that phrase, “the good that love for the Lord does and therefore the good that we live” find a place in our minds to take root and bear fruit. Amen.
Lord, you are the vine; I am a branch. Help me to bear fruit worthy of your beauty, that I may nourish the world through the love you give constantly to me. Amen.
1. Bellin, Harvey F. and Ruhl, Darrell, eds. Blake and Swedenborg: Opposition is True Friendship (New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1985), p. 122.
2. From The Passing of Arthur, line 408.
3. Albert Barnes et al., Barnes’ Notes on the Old and New Testaments (26 vols.). 4 publishers, 1847–1885.
Rev. Dr. George Dole