For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Matthew 16:26)
As we approach June 19th, the anniversary of the founding of the New Church, we begin to realize that we are in the odd position of celebrating the completion of an event that the majority of Christians are still waiting for. In this, the second in a series of four sermons, we will try to clarify the teachings of the New Church regarding the Second Coming and the Last Judgment.
In the first sermon, it was shown how the Word speaks about two different kinds of "Last Judgment," a personal judgment that takes place when each individual human being dies. Each one then enters the spiritual world and goes through the process of shedding those things that do not agree with their ruling love until everything about their character is harmonious, at which time they find their home either in heaven or in hell.
The other kind of "Last Judgment" is the historical kind, and which refers not to the end of the world, but to the end of one church and the beginning of another. For example the stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel in Genesis are the stories of the Last Judgments on the Most Ancient and Ancient Churches. The coming of Jesus Christ into the world was itself a final judgment on the Jewish church.
In last week's sermon we also saw how the Old Testament predicted the coming of Jesus Christ. It was necessary that He come in person into the world because the Israelitish Church refused to see the spiritual sense contained within the literal sense of the Word, and because they refused to see anything spiritual in their worship of Jehovah, but regarded it as only a contract for His protection in return for their obedience.
Eventually they began to see and use the laws of Moses as a tool to gain power over men. For example, the law about observing the Sabbath was turned into a formula for how many steps could be taken without paying a fine to the temple. That is why Jesus said that they had made the laws of Moses of "no effect."
The ultimate symbol of their rejection of the Word and its holiness was they way they treated Jesus by turning against Him and crucifying Him.
Just as the of the Old Testament prepared the way for His coming in person, the New Testament prepares the way for His return in the spirit of truth, His return to reveal the things that could not be revealed to the disciples because they were not yet ready for them.
While the Lord was on earth, He could foresee that there would be problems in the Christian Church, divisions over the nature of His divinity, and the love of dominion. He knew that in order for the Christian Church to be truly established, He would have to come again to finish the revelation He began while on the earth.
The doctrines of the New Church tell us that there are two essential doctrines that are present in all true churches, churches that provide for the conjunction of God with man.
They are: the knowledge and acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is the One God of Heaven and earth, and that the life of religion is to do good according to the truth from the Word.
Any group that acknowledges Jesus Christ as God, and which reads the Word for guidance in their daily life, is the Lord's true Church. It has nothing to do with the name of the organization, nor with its historical roots, for names mean nothing--it is the life that each individual leads that means everything.
There are hundreds of passages in the Old and New Testaments that teach about the nature of the judgment to come. Many of them specifically say that each will be rewarded according to their works, their acts of charity in this world. Not a single one says that anyone will be rewarded for their faith alone.
When Jesus was specifically asked by the rich young man what he should do to earn eternal life, Jesus said that he had to do four things:
Faith only enters into it in the fourth point. The young man, and by analogy each of us, was to obey the other commandments not because they were to our benefit, not for selfish reasons, but because the Lord asks it of us.
We might ask ourselves what it meant to the disciples to be "Christian." From the evidence of the gospels, and the letters which they wrote to one another as they struggled to find forms appropriate to these new teachings, it is apparent that they believed that to be a Christian was to follow the teachings and example of Christ. The early Christian Church, when it was in its integrity, did exactly that. There may have been great diversity in how they applied their faith to life, but they all agreed in the two essentials of the church: that Jesus Christ was God, and that in order to serve God, they were to obey His commandments.
If the Christian Church had held to those two principles, and its members had lived in charity with each other, then there might not have been a judgment on that church; it might have happened that the Lord would have sent the truths that He could not reveal to the disciples, the revelation of the spiritual sense of the Word, to the Christian Church, giving it a gift of new life on a higher spiritual level, but it was not to be.
One of the most persistent doctrinal issues in the short history of the New Church has been the issue of whether the spiritual truths revealed through Emanuel Swedenborg were to be the foundation of a new church, or whether they were to enlighten and revitalize the old.
The early readers of Swedenborg argued that since there is nothing in the whole of the Writings that speaks directly of the earthly form of the New Church, and the fact that Swedenborg himself was a member of the Lutheran Church until his death, that there was no reason for there to be a distinct and separate New Church organization. Rather, they argued, it was intended that ministers in many different denominations would use the new revelation in their instruction from many diverse pulpits. In this way the doctrines of the New Church would "permeate" the Christian world.
Others argued that since the doctrines taught spiritual principles that implied an earthly organization, it was only for us to apply them to our own states and needs. Further, they said, it was clear that since the Christian Church had divided God into three, and insisted that faith without works was saving, that the heart of the Christian Church was corrupt, and an entirely new organization was required.
Two hundred years later, the General Church of the New Jerusalem stands as the strongest branch of the New Church, in part because of its position of supporting a distinct church structure. But there yet remain a small number of ministers of other, non-New Church denominations who preach sermons written through study of the Writings.
A church does not fall suddenly, but over a period of time.
For example, the beginning of the Judgment on the Jewish Church was marked by the capture and dispersion of the 10 tribes of Israel. The end of the judgment was marked by they way Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews driven out of the Holy land during the first century, to live among the "gentiles" in Europe and Asia until the twentieth century.
In a similar way the judgment on the Christian Church took a long time. It began when it failed the test of its first great doctrinal crisis.
From the very beginnings of the Christian Church, since they had seen the miracles and watched Jesus ascend into heaven, it had been an article of faith that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, that He was Jehovah in the flesh, walking on earth among men. He Himself had said, "He who has seen me, has seen the Father" (John 14:9-5) But, some three hundred years later, there arose some leaders in the Christian Church who doubted, who taught that Jesus was not God, but rather a prophet, a man who carried God's word like Moses, or Elijah. The Church leaders met in Nicea to discuss this key doctrinal issue.
After several years of argument, neither side was able to wholly convince and quiet the other, and so they decided that for the sake of peace in the Church that they would compromise. They voted to divide God into three parts. That way those who denied the divinity of Jesus could still say that He was not the Father, while those who supported His divinity could say that He was one of the three persons in God. And because it made no sense, they invented the concept of the Divine Mystery.
Speaking very generally, we can view all of history as a series of attempts by God to draw near and show Himself to mankind, and mankind's subsequent attempts to cloud the issue, to put a great deal of doctrinal and theoretical distance between themselves and God.
What could have been more clear than to have God Himself walking on earth and teaching the people about Himself and heaven? Yet three hundred years later men had pushed Him away with a doctrine that no one could understand, and made a virtue of its mystery.
Once the doctrine of the trinity of persons had poisoned the heart of the Christian Church, the rest of the fall became inevitable.
The doctrine of the Church was contradictory to the evidence of scripture, so the scripture was withheld from the people on the pretext that it was too holy and too important to be trusted to their uneducated minds. And mankind entered what are now known as the "Dark Ages" because there was no intellectual light in the Western World.
The Church had turned to seeking its own natural and material ends, and it found it much easier to control an ignorant membership. They forgot the words of the Lord, "For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26)
The Lord asked this hypothetical question of His followers to warn them against them temptations that befall the leaders of every church because He knew that religion, in the hand of a charismatic leader, could be a more powerful force than any army. And the leader of such a force, if he were morally weak, could easily be overcome with his desire to use it to gain worldly wealth and power for himself.
The greatest conflicts in history have been caused by this very failure on the part of the leaders of the various religious groups. Certainly some of the men who led armies to the Holy Land during the Crusades did so out of a sense of duty to preserve Christian relics from desecration by heathens, but at the same time many were drawn to the Holy Land to capture the wealth of Asia, and many were younger sons of European landholders whose holdings could no longer be divided to heirs and remain productive. And what better way to do it than by a war sanctioned by God!
Eventually there came an age of enlightenment. Men began to think and to study for themselves. They came to question the doctrines of the church, to challenge dogma with reason. History shows a gradual opening up of men's minds beginning in the fifteenth century. First the Church in England broke away from the government of the Pope in Rome. Then others began to think and to question. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley made their contribution.
As refreshing as all this was, it was still men's ideas substituting for Christ's own teachings. In their own way, each of the doctrines developed during the Reformation is reasonable. The real problem is that they are the works of men, and they contradict the clear teachings of Christ in the New Testament. When brought together, they create a body of thought that leads to confusion in doctrinal things.
The Church became the means to natural wealth and power. By controlling the heart, the body and the purse went along as well. We see this yet today among some of the so-called Christian churches.
It was this confusion, based on ignorance and false doctrines, that allowed the hells to infest and invade the spiritual world, requiring the last judgment. Since falsity was the cause, revealed truth was the only solution. The situation in the natural world was simply a reflection of the state of the spiritual world.
Now that we have looked at the scriptural references and the natural history of the church that led up to the Last Judgment, next week, the next sermon in this series will deal with the conditions in the spiritual world that caused the confusion and disorder in the natural world that have been our subject today, and we will also see how the completion of the Last Judgment in 1770 has had an observable effect on world events.
Lessons: Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 16:21-28, TCR 762, 764:1