Sunday Service May 28, 2017 – New Church of Montgomery
Worship Leader – Pete Toot
Today’s Readings: Psalm 47, Luke 24:44-53, Acts 1:3-11, Arcana Coelestia No. 10730
Prelude: “Prayer” – Natalie Clein
Opening Hymn: “Our God is an Awesome God” – Maranatha Singers
Offertory &; Meditation: “I Love You Lord” – David Bauer
Anthem: “Coming Home” – Billy Gilman
Closing Hymn: “As We Go” – LifeWay Worship
Postlude: “Happy Day” – iSingWorship
Welcome & Message
Welcome everyone! Ascension Day is the 40th and last day of the Easter season, and it occurred last Thursday, but we will celebrate it today. It is a very old Christian festival, dating back to 68 A.D., and for the first few centuries was among the most important religious celebrations of the Christian church. This continues to some extent today, but only the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches celebrate the day itself where it is officially considered equal to any of the other major Christian festivals. Nevertheless, it does not get much attention. In other Protestant churches, observance would seem to range from moderate to none at all. For the Swedenborgian Church, Ascension Day had its beginning by inclusion in one of our first liturgies. And so though this society has not celebrated Ascension Day, (always on a Thursday), we can see from this historical perspective that we are on firm old ground in addressing it today. This historical note, and much of the material for today’s message is drawn thankfully from a series of addresses to the Bryn Athyn Society by Rev. B. David Holm back in 1964, but several other sources have been used as well.
I’ve titled today’s message “Glorification’s End”. I mean it in the sense that glorification is a long process that reaches its conclusion in ascension. At least, that’s what it means for Christ – for us it is a little different. So we’ll speak a little about what went on with Jesus, and how it is all tied in with our own salvation. The vision the disciples witnessed fulfilled the Lord's own words, spoken both while He lived on earth and right after His resurrection. But it was also a fulfillment of what had been foretold long before in the Old Testament. In the Psalms we read today: “God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with a sound of a trumpet.” And find in Isaiah: “For the Lord shall rise up … that He may do His work, His strange work; and bring to pass His act, His strange act.” And there are a great many other references both direct and indirect to the Lord's ascension. This gives us reason to regard this event as very important, yet Swedenborg speaks very little about the ascension itself. However, he does speak a lot about resurrection and glorification, and there is where the connection lies. From some early study by a Swedenborgian (untitled – 1916) I gleaned the following: “When the Lord arose from the sepulcher, the Glorification had been completed, and His Human was now in every sense Divine. It is certain that the wounds in His hands and feet and in His side, which the disciples beheld, did not then and do not now exist in His infinitely Divine and perfect body. The disciples, therefore, saw the Lord through the veil of their last natural image of Him, impressed upon their memory of Him as He hung upon the cross. He could not possibly have been recognized by them except through this veiling.” To me this says is that events we hear reported by the apostles can be either down to earth events that we could have witnessed had we been there, or what they have seen in the spirit. It is a note of caution. But regardless of what is appearance and what is ordinary, what are we learning? From our teachings We have come to understand that Ascension is the culmination of a long process called Glorification, but now we address what that process is, and how it relates to us? Setting aside the incredibly important idea that without the Risen Christ salvation would be impossible, let’s dig into how it works and see what we can do to understand our part of this. I think there are some lessons here we have not explored.
What we are looking at is something named the Divine Cycle. It starts with the Advent and descent of the Lord into the world, runs through several stages of his earthly lifetime, and culminates in the ascent of the Risen Lord into heaven. As He descends He loses sight of His Divinity, and as He is glorified He takes it back on through His actions as a finite person. We will parallel that with our own birth into the world, our development and spiritual growth in our earthly lifetimes, and our being reborn to a continuing life in heaven, should that be what we want. The story goes like this, somewhat simplified. Hang on – I’ll go slowly. The Lord on earth had an internal and an external, just as we do. His internal was God, like a soul in His person. His external was a natural human, a receptive vessel, quite helpless at first. His internal was infinite, His external finite. So externally very much like us, and that is important. In infancy and childhood he was taught as we are taught, by the world He sensed around Him and by other people in His life. As He grew up His rational abilities were used to sort out fact from fiction, to develop a belief system that resonated with His Divine inner self. He was able by means of His external human mind to organize, or order His knowledge to bring understanding to it, and then using that understanding for resisting temptations that appeared. Arranging truths on a lower level could support truths of a more spiritual level. For instance, understanding that healthy habits contributed to His immediate well-being led to understanding that good bodily health contributed to an ability to do more useful work in the world, which led to and understanding that useful work in the world was important and rewarding on an even deeper level. Unlike people, who are inherently spiritual (wisdom-oriented) or celestial (love-oriented), He was both due to his Divine internal. While we are designed to attain a place in either the spiritual heaven or the celestial heaven, He was headed beyond both of those states. So in His spiritual development as a youth and young man He gradually worked upward through his sensory, natural, spiritual, and celestial levels, doing this by resisting temptations one stage at a time. His natural inclination to good was guided by the truths He accepted, and in His case gradually his natural Human nature was replaced by His Divine human nature. Eventually, overcoming the final temptation of His crucifixion, He was able to unite the Divinity that resided in His internal with all aspects and all levels of His Humanity, was fully glorified, which is what glorification means, He had shed all His finite attributes, was totally infinite once again, and disappeared from the view of normal sight. Only those whose spiritual eyes had been opened, namely the apostles, could see Him, or could witness His Ascension, which was a vision or an image of His return home. However, and this may be hard to grasp, from then on the Lord God has had a Divine Human nature, a nature experienced in resisting temptation, for prior to that temptations were never sustainable in the presence of God. The corresponding effect of the battles the Lord fought on earth against evils resulted in the ordering of the heavens so that evil and good are segregated for all time. It is that segregation which allowed creation, at least our corner of creation, to unblock what was a closing path between God and us earthbound people, an so permitted salvation to survive. Got that? Like I said – somewhat simplified. In a shorter version, God descended into the world, grew up and dealt with temptations like a natural person, overcame them, that is, the influences of Hell, so His inner Divine self could proceed to regenerate Him, but to an extent which we finite beings cannot grasp. It is the same way His inner Divine self regenerates us as we avoid and conquer temptations. It is the same process, but without a perfect Divine inner self we just never make it all the way to glorification – salvation will do nicely.
So, lastly I get to what for me is the new message here. We have heard how simple it is to lead a spiritual life (in theory), just shun evil. We have had a lot of advice on gaining spiritual growth through not giving into temptations. What I am hoping this message can add to that is twofold:
(1) That facts can be recognized as truths, which can be ordered to bring understanding that can guide what we love, show us options, from which we can decide to push back on temptations, and so allow us to earnestly behave as if we were good, and so become good. It is that last step that we consider the attainment of regeneration, we don’t do that step and it happens in our inner being. So you see here a progression in terms of knowledge to truth, to love of truth, to love itself; where love is who we are. It is a lesson in challenging ideas and being open minded and insightful.
(2) There is also a progression in levels, which means that by overcoming and managing sensory temptations we gain a foundation for dealing with temptations in the moral and civil realms of our world, which supports a further structure for dealing with the more abstract temptations of the spiritual and celestial dimensions of our lives, though these are at first harder to recognize. In other words, inability to conquer natural temptations is a roadblock to progressing further. Yet all the levels are connected. Every sensual temptation is an attack upon the lowest most fundamental loves that we hold onto, those that we feel as appetites and yearnings and urges, but each of these loves derives from deeper more important loves, those we speak of as the quartet of self-love, love of the world, love of neighbor, and love of the Lord. If we work on what we CAN see, we are and become more able to work on what we CANNOT see, or find hard to look at.
As we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, we also celebrate the potential we realize as we follow Christ’s journey to our own salvation. And here, by follow I do not mean do what Jesus would do, as helpful as that would be, I mean follow the process of regeneration he showed us. Find truth and exercise repentance, determine to live better and exercise reformation, succeed in living better because it is right, and accept regeneration. I would like to wrap up with a quote from one of Martin Luther’s Sermons. Even though Swedenborg was critical of Luther, I found this bit encouraging. He said, “When the Psalmist says: ‘Thou hast ascended on high,’ he expresses but the same truth which Christ Himself declares before Pontius Pilate … namely: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ We ought therefore as Christians to raise our hearts and thoughts on high, and seek first of all with diligence and great anxiety this spiritual kingdom; yea, although the field of our labor is on earth, where we have our vocation, our family, our cares for the temporal existence and the government of the State, and the like, yet we ought ever to fulfill first this duty, to seek the kingdom of heaven. Do we do it? The greater portion of mankind is so absorbed, with soul and body, with in the transactions of this life, that but little attention, or none at all, is given to the fact that Christ ascended on high. The Holy Ghost therefore earnestly desires to dispel this groveling spirit, and to teach us the truth that Christ did not remain on earth, but that He ascended on high, and that consequently we, even while we dwell in the body here below, should ascend to Him in our thoughts and mind, nor permit the cares of this world to burden our hearts.”