A sermon by the Rev. J. Clark Echols, Jr.
“Pilate therefore says to Him, Art Thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, that I might bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice. Pilate said to Him, What is truth? And saying this, he again went out to the Jews and says to them, I find no quilt in Him.” John 18:37, 38
Right at the moment Jesus Christ could have set us all on the straight and narrow path to heaven, He was silent. All He had to do was take advantage of a perfect opportunity. All He had to do was answer one simple question. Pilate asked Him, “What is truth?” If Jesus had given us that answer, surely the world would be wonderfully different today. It very well might be that all people would be on the right path. Everyone would know and see the purpose and goal of life. We would all agree about faith and charity; the priority of spirit over body; the promise of our life after death, and so on. Is that not what our God wanted when He created the world as a perfect paradise?
Certainly that’s what God created. And He has it. Only it is heaven, not the earth. And not hell. So the question arises, if God is infinite, perfect, omnipotent and absolute truth, why doesn’t He tell us the truth? Why doesn’t He make our earth a paradise? Why doesn’t He make us good, fit for His eternal kingdom? The Heavenly Doctrine for the New Church reveal the only consistent, merciful and understandable answers available.
God doesn’t make us, or the earth, perfect because He cannot break His own laws. In Himself He is infinite and omnipotent. But what He created is not. In creating, He impressed His order on the universe, even as He created a finite substance. We are told He clothed Himself, He imposed limits on the life that flowed out from Him. Each degree of limitation is a finite receptacle, and each level is successively grosser and so less responsive to His life. In this way, His Divine order continues to be imposed on substances; and each degree of life is still connected to Him, and each continues to represent His order.
The laws by which He created and continues to maintain this specific order allows humans to choose to love Him and be conjoined with Him and so be saved and live in paradise to eternity. Or not. The level at which His life is received in our minds is hidden. We can actually deny that He exists! We begin our lives far enough away from God, as it were, that the absolute truth of His existence and love for us is invisible. It is very dark in this state of life. And we will be lost if we remain in a life that does not acknowledge the Lord’s love and truth.
But the Lord cannot do anything that subverts His order. This follows from the fact that He is the order from which He created (True Christian Religion n. 58). He cannot reveal the truth to us in some special way that perverts His order, even if He could thereby save us. He cannot force us to take a certain path in life, even if that is a path away from the hell to which we tend.
The source of this inability is, of course, not in the Lord. The Lord is Love itself. He is One. He is absolute truth and good. However, we cannot grasp this infinite Esse. We can only describe it. We can give Him titles, but our finite minds cannot hold infinity. The Writings tell us that to try to do so can cause insanity. The desire to try leads us as it were to fall into the depths of the sea and perish (Heavenly Secrets n 8644). So while God is Divine Truth and Divine Good, our finite minds can only know what He accommodates to our understanding. And that process of accommodation is what allows for an imperfect world, our personal unhappiness and the existence of hell.
So we can say that the Divine Truth is absolute. And we really mean that He is free from imperfection, pure, authoritative, an independent standard, fundamental, self-sufficient and omnipotent. And yet we still do not actually know the Divine Truth. This is why Jesus didn’t answer Pilate’s question. This is the internal sense of why Jehovah told Moses that no human could ever see His face.
What Moses did see, like what Peter, James and John saw when Jesus was transfigured, was the visible manifestation of our Lord, and the perception of the Lord, we can have from the Word. So, we are told, all of nature is a theater representative of our Lord, and all of the Word, when understood as to its internal sense, gives us a perception of the nature of our God. What the Lord has done is create us equipped and able to acknowledge the absolute truth that is our God. Nature gives us a visible representation of the Lord, and the truths of the Word open our minds to understand. We will never “ascend into heaven,” as Jesus put it, but we will see the back parts of God, we have the light that Jesus Christ brought to the earth, now revealed for even our rational minds in the Writings for the New Church.
We are instructed to acknowledge that God is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. He is the Divine Love and Wisdom, or the Divine Human, the Lord God Jesus Christ. Thus we are to acknowledge that He is absolute truth, even while He is not free to violate the order that He created. The acknowledgment of the Divinity of God is, we’re told, the first of religion. And for Christians, the first of religion is acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ. This acknowledgement, when actual in one’s life, allows communication, and so faith, and so love (see Heavenly Secrets n.10112). The communication is set up when truths we can understand are learned and lived and thus shape our thinking, speaking and acting. Even though our will continues to desire selfish and worldly ends, our understanding can acquire truths from the Word. These truths become vessels that attract life-giving love that is also accommodated from the Lord through heaven, and into our minds. This influx of good, by means of truth, brings the light that Jesus promised. It is the glory of God that we can see.
This communication of the Divine love and Divine truth into our natural mind gives us true, saving faith. For these truths, which we have gathered from the world and the Word, become natural representations of deeper spiritual truths. Because they receive and express a spiritual love, they become spiritual-natural. Or, in other words, they become, in us and for us, absolute truths.
This process is not generally acknowledged in our culture. We are in a post-modern world, which means that true freedom and genuine humanity are thought to be established when each individual creates his own truths. This is only half true. The Writings describe clearly how the human mind operates. Whatever we love we take to be good. And whatever we believe we take to be true. This happens automatically. It is the way the Lord created our minds to work. We will not be free and fully human until we actually go through the process of taking on truths for ourselves and then living them. However, if we are to develop spiritually, what we take on and live must correspond to the Lord’s absolute truth. There must be a Divinely ordained connection. Otherwise what we believe will limit our spiritual freedom and our regeneration. We will remain merely natural.
In order to acknowledge the Lord’s truth, we have to go with Moses up Mt. Sinai. We must also ask the Lord for a guide, for His presence and His grace. In the internal sense this describes what happens when we make the Lord’s truth more important than any other idea in our minds, that is, when we love it more. For instance, the truth about theft becomes the most important idea for us when we hold our tongue instead of gossiping and stealing someone’s reputation. The truth about marriage becomes the most important idea to us when we stop lustful thoughts or jokes about adultery. The truth about overlooking evil becomes the most important idea when we put aside criticism and feel delight in another’s efforts. And so forth. These merely natural actions actually correspond to deeper truths. They are connected. We may not act this way consistently. We may not want to act this way. We may not even see the point. But the Word tells us that there is an absolute truth. And while we are not able to hold it in our minds, for it is Divine, we can acknowledge it in our thought, speech and action.
On this mountain top, our humble prayer is for guidance. We must be examining what we are thinking, desiring and doing and compare it to what the Word says about the regenerating person. The Word alone is this spiritual guide. No where else on the earth does this guidance exist. Now, of course, we need to understand the Word, so we ask for sermons and classes and books and discussions that teach us and deepen our understanding. But we must always be humbly praying that what is being conveyed actually corresponds to those deeper truths, even to the Divine truth itself which is beyond our ken.
And in those times when we are on that mountain, seeking guidance, we also ask for His forgiveness and continuing grace. Even as Moses was concerned that the Israelites would be separated from Jehovah, and so lost, we too must be ever concerned that we have separated ourselves from our Savior. He is constantly present in our souls. He is always facing us, reaching out to us with His love, regardless of where we are. We accept His embrace, and allow Him to take us into His arms, every time we acknowledge the absolute Divine truth by learning and living it.
Jesus gave us comforting assurance that He will aid us. He told us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) Jesus didn’t say to Nicodemus “Save yourself!” He said “I have come to save you.” He said, “I am the truth!” And He said, “I did not come to condemn.” He said, “I am the light of the world. But if you love the darkness you are in, the deeds you do will be evil, and you will condemn yourself.” “For everyone practicing evil hates the light, and does not come to the light.”
The spiritual meaning of all this is that there certainly is an absolute truth. Jesus Christ brings that light down to our natural minds where we can see it, understand it and do it. Now, it is common today to react to absolute truth as if it condemned. And indeed, it is human nature to use the truth this way. We have all made the mistake thinking and feeling we are better than others, or more purely good, or right, because we have the truth. It is hard in the current relativistic culture to take a stand for truth and not be labeled intolerant. It is the challenge of our life today to acknowledge the absolute truth, use the truth we know in our life, and be known as someone who loves and cares and only wants to help.
The fact is that the Divine truth does not condemn. It is the rejection of that truth that leaves a person in the grip of their inherited and actual evil loves, in the darkness, seeking to avoid the condemnation that comes with exposure to the light of Divine truth. This sad situation, common to every human born on the planet, is miraculously transformed by an acknowledgement in thought and life of the absolute truth that is the Lord God Jesus Christ, Redeemer and Savior.
Moses made this acknowledgement; and he was blessed. He got to see the “back parts” of Jehovah. And, as we read in the New Testament, Jesus told Nicodemus that He had brought the truth, the light, to the world. It was, He said, up to men to open their eyes and receive it. And as we read in the Writings for the New Church “God is in an unceasing endeavor to regenerate man, and thus save him.” And He does this when “man prepares himself as a receptacle and thus levels the way and opens the door for God.” (True Christian Religion n.73)
The Lord cares infinitely, and that providence can descend into our hearts and minds and lives. That providence “acts continually and to eternity in accordance with the laws of its order; nor can it act against them or change them one iota, because order, with all its laws, is Himself.” (True Christian Religion n.73)
The Lord is doing all that is necessary, and has given us all that is necessary, for us to be saved. Let us all rely upon this absolute truth.
Preached at the Church of the New Jerusalem, Glendale, OH
August 31, 2003
Lessons: Exodus 33:12-33 John 3:10-21
[Speaking to a group of spirits wondering about God, Swedenborg says] “The omnipotent God created the world from the order within Him, that is, into the order in which He is, and in accordance with which He rules. And He impressed upon the universe, and each and all things of it, its own order; upon man his order, upon the beast its order, upon bird and fish and worm, and every tree and even every blade of grass, upon each its own order. But to illustrate by examples, I will mention briefly the following. The laws of order assigned to man are, that he should acquire for himself truths from the Word, and reflect upon them naturally and, as far as he can, rationally, and thus acquire for himself a natural faith. The laws of order on the part of God then are, that He will draw near and fill these truths with His Divine light, and thus fill the man's natural faith (which is merely factual knowledge and strongly held opinion) with a Divine essence. In this and in no other way can faith become saving. It is the same with charity. But some particulars shall be briefly mentioned. God, in accordance with His laws, is able to remit sins to any man only so far as the man, in accordance with his laws, refrains from them. God is able to regenerate a man spiritually only so far as the man, in accordance with his laws, regenerates himself naturally. God is in an unceasing endeavor to regenerate man, and thus save him. But this He is unable to accomplish except as man prepares himself as a receptacle and thus levels the way and opens the door for God. A bridegroom cannot enter the chamber of a young woman till she becomes his bride; for she shuts the door and keeps the key to herself within; but when she has become a bride she gives the key to the bridegroom. God could not by His omnipotence have redeemed men unless He had become Man. Neither could He have made His Human Divine unless that Human had first been like the human of a babe, and then like that of a boy; and unless afterwards the Human had formed itself into a receptacle and habitation, into which its Father might enter. This was done by His fulfilling all things in the Word, that is, all the laws of order therein. And so far as He accomplished this He united Himself to the Father, and the Father united Himself to Him. These are a few things, presented for the sake of illustration, to enable you to see that the Divine omnipotence is in order, and that its government, which is called Providence, is in accordance with order, and that it acts continually and to eternity in accordance with the laws of its order; nor can it act against them or change them one iota, because order, with all its laws, is Himself.”