God’s Ongoing (Re-)Creation of God’s People Dave Rogalsky
Scriptures: Revelation 12, Acts 2, Isaiah 40:27-31, Jeremiah 31:31-34
Theme/Goal/Aim: On this Swedenborgian New Church Sunday we will explore God’s ongoing renewal or recreation of God’s people. One such iteration was the early church. Does God have other renewals ahead?
This Sunday we are observing New Church Sunday. June 19 was the 200th anniversary of the founding of the New Church based in Emmanuel Swedenborg’s writings in North America. In Europe it was founded first in England on May 7, 1787, 15 years after Swedenborg's death, making this year the 230th anniversary of the New Church. The idea of the New Church is based in Swedenborg’s understanding that the old church of his day, mostly the Lutheran Church of Sweden in which he was raised, had become corrupt. This was through a dependence on faith alone, omitting love, and in dividing God too completely into three gods. This division resulted in the church being able to divide love from justice and truth. Good Lutherans were commanded to love their neighbours, and if commanded by their government, at the same time kill them as enemies. Swedenborg interpreted Revelation 12 to mean that God was birthing a new church into the world as the Son of God was coming again into the world. The dragon in that passage were these beliefs that omitted or reduced love from God’s teaching and commands.
I am not Swedenborgian, and had never heard of this interpretation before this month. I believe that God has constantly been renewing God’s people, beginning with Abraham and Sarah. I believe that God is continuing to renew God’s people even now. Perhaps God is even especially now renewing God’s people in this time of post-Christendom and postmodernity. Like most Mennonites, I believe that love of God, self, others and the creation which is mother to us all, are the highest callings of God’s people. I believe that God has spent 13.4 Billion years bringing us to this point and I have no idea how long God will work into the future. I do believe it is our job to humbly, patiently and lovingly build the world into a place where all can love and be loved.
So, this Sunday I want to focus on the story of “God’s Ongoing (Re-) Creation of God’s People” looking at Revelation 12, but also a whole bunch of other passages, especially Isaiah 40:27-31, Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Acts 2:37-47.
Let’s dig in.
God is the Creator of the universe and all that is in it. God is not a clock maker creator, winding up the creation and then stepping back to let it run. I believe that God continues to be intimately involved in the world, in creating. In time God’s creation bore us – human beings who can be in relationship with others. Our highly developed sense of self means we can recognize self and others, even others of other species. God has made us to be like God, able to be in relationship (Genesis 1:26, 27). Created, and evolved, we exhibit both the characteristics of animals – self-centred defense of our own genes, defense of territory, selfish demand to be fed first, willing to use and abuse others to get what we want – and of God – love, giving, relating, self-sacrifice even for others who do not carry our genes, creativity, transcendence, the ability to sense and communicate with God (See Psalm 9:5).
The God-stuff has been being developed by God over time. We have a rough record of the past four thousand years. Terah, Abraham’s father, had a sense that God was calling him to move from Ur of the Chaldeans, present day Iraq, to Palestine. When he stopped God called Abraham and Sarah to complete the journey. Their faithfulness led God to make covenant with them:
18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites." Genesis 15:18-21 (NRSV)
A covenant is a relationship more than a contract. In this covenant God promises to give to Abraham’s descendants a land on which to live. Abraham, Sarah and their descendants were to worship God as their personal, family and tribal God. With this God begins the record of God intervening in human relationships to build people into beings that were more and more like God.
Under Moses this covenant was renewed and extended:
2 God also spoke to Moses and said to him: "I am the LORD. 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name 'The LORD' I did not make myself known to them. 4 I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens. 5 I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. Exodus 6:2-5 (NRSV)
In this covenant God gave basic rules of how people would better relate to God and among themselves. We call these the Ten Commandments (See Exodus 20). These rules included things like honouring elders, honouring others’ partnerships, honouring others’ possessions, focussing on the true God instead of fearful representations of nature and imagined spiritual forces. God was taking people who were faithful to God and shaping them as ones who could spread the news of God to other human beings. God was renewing God’s people.
God did this again in David’s time, and more powerfully yet in the time of the Exile. The Jews had lived in Palestine for some 900 years when calamity struck them – they were overcome by first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians who took most of them into lands far from home. Until then people had thought that God was kind of limited to the land of Palestine - that they needed to be there to worship and follow God, that if they were defeated then God had been defeated by their enemy’s gods. But in the exile God came to them through prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the school of Isaiah prophets. These prophets told them that they were still God’s people - that they needed to trust God, worship God alone – not be led to worship the fearful representations of nature and imagined spiritual forces of the people who held them captive. They learned that God was God alone, that there were no other gods, and that God loved them, even though they had failed God. God gathered them back together in the land of Palestine, and in other places like Babylon and Egypt. God did not reject them but loved them, forgave them, and renewed them. Instead of being destroyed they became a people who shared the good news of God’s love with the world.
In time God decided that it was time for God to come among human beings in the flesh. Instead of appearing one day on a royal throne, God was born as a baby to a lowly Jewish family. Growing through the teaching of the Jewish people, Jesus gained wisdom and taught God’s love for everyone. Like the Isaiah prophets before him he believed that the good news which the Jews had, that God loved them and wanted to be in relationship with them, needed to be shared beyond the Jewish people. He, and his followers, believed that they were at work renewing the people of God, not establishing a new religion.
So his followers went out into the whole world proclaiming:
10 For to this end we toil and struggle, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 1 Timothy 4:10 (NRSV)
Very quickly though the doorway to salvation was narrowed again and the teaching became that in order to be in a love relationship with God one needed to jump through all kinds of hoops. Soon the church broke away from Judaism and shortly after that, having gained imperial power with Emperor Constantine, left behind their peaceful ways and demanded that all become Christians or die. Various renewal movements through the years limited this power-hungry institution, movements led by people like Patrick, Francis, Benedict (not the pope), Teresa of Avila, Hildegard von Bingen and others. They wanted more love and less power, more care of all people, even those of other religions, rather than the power plays of institutions and empires. Around 1000 the church stopped the hierarchical father to son inheritances of churches, bishoprics and even the papacy by demanding that priests be celibate. This was a renewal at that time.
In the early 1500’s many had come to see the institutional church in the West, the Roman Catholic Church of the day, as corrupt and in need of renewal. People like Katherine and Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Menno Simons, and groups like the Beguines, lay women who prayed and worked in communal houses, and men in the Brethren of the Common Life, pleaded with the hierarchy to change. When their calls fell on deaf ears these people led renewal movements, many of which were quickly co-opted by secular powers to their own goals. Luther was at first a supporter of the peasants against the princes, but when the princes protected him from the Roman church he switched sides. While he preached “faith alone,” this was in response to a religion which allowed you to buy your way into heaven without really believing. The Roman Catholic Church went through a major renewal in response to what became the Protestant Reformation, getting rid of many of the things that had grown up that were not faithful to God’s call of love.
The church has continued to see renewal movements led by people like Ignatius of Loyola, Martin Luther King, William Wilberforce who worked to emancipate slaves in the British Empire, Theresa of Calcutta, Emanuel Swedenborg, Pope John 23rd in the Second Vatican Council in 1962 and many others. Over and over again God has raised up people to work to renew God’s people. They have worked and little by little change has happened and continues to happen.
In our time we are faced with the end of the “Christian West” or Christendom. Many of us grew up in a time when others of other religions were very few in number, and mostly in other lands. But now the Christian Church has lost its place of power and influence in Europe and the Americas. We have become people along the margins, just like the early Jews, the exiles in Babylon, Jesus and his followers, the many reformers of the church through the centuries. We are being called to be the renewers of the church now, the renewers of a new people of God that speaks the good news which Jesus brought:
14 Now after John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." Mark 1:14-15 (NRSV)
Another way of saying this is “God has chosen now to draw near to people. All we need to do is to turn towards God who is always near and accept God’s friendship.” This is not the way of power or of building institutions. This is the way of caring for people’s spiritual need to be in relationship with God. This is not one prescribed way but many different ways that work for many different people. Our goal and hope is to help people find a way that works for them to be in relationship with God.
Today we celebrate that Emmanuel Swedenborg was true to the vision he had that the church needed to be renewed. He found the church full of the misunderstanding that one only needed to have faith in God for an eternal salvation. Instead God told him that God’s people needed to be like God and reach out with love to all people including other Christians, other religions, and those with no religion. Inclusivity, love, being useful in working for justice and peace – these were signs of God being active in and through people.
God has been and is active, renewing a people of God, for God, and to bring the good news of God’s love to all people. As a pastor in this people, a shepherding leader, my hope and goal is that all people have a functional spirituality that helps them to connect with God to find the treasures of love and acceptance there. You have hired me to try to help you find a way into the future. I believe that Emmanuel Swedenborg’s basic beliefs in science, a contemplative spirituality of listening to God, God’s inclusive love for all people, and a life of service to God by serving humanity, can be a message to share here in Downtown Kitchener. I believe many are hungry for this message, and for practical tools to apply it in their lives. May God be our guide as we renew God’s people.