A Sermon by J. Clark Echols, Jr.
Jesus said to the people who believed in him, "You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." "But we are descendants of Abraham," they said. "We have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean, 'You will be set free'? Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin.35 A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free. (John 8:31-36).
"All freedom is part of love; for what a person loves he does freely. Thus also all freedom is part of the will; for what a person loves he also wills. And since his love and will make a person's life, so also does freedom. From this it appears what freedom is: it is what belongs to the love and the will, and thus to the person's life. Doing evil from freedom looks like freedom, when yet it is bondage, because it is the freedom that arises from the love of self and the world, and these loves are from hell....But doing good from free- dom constitutes freedom itself, because it proceeds from love to the Lord and love towards the neighbor, and these loves are from heaven....Now because all good is from the Lord, and all evil from hell, it follows that freedom con- sists in being led by the Lord, and bondage in being led by hell....From all this it is clear what freedom of choice is: it is doing good from choice, that is, from the will. Those who are led by the Lord are in that freedom, and those are led by the Lord who love good and truth for the sake of good and truth"
(From Heavenly Doctrines, §141ff, a chapter on Freedom, by Emanuel Swedenborg).
"Freedom!" has been the cry of many people throughout history. "Free choice!" say many of those in our society today. "Liberation!" is the cry of those who feel downtrodden or oppressed.
It is very clear to us all that something is lacking when people are crying out for such a basic thing that is actually a part of the essence of what it is to be human. But why is there a clamor about it all? Why is there so much turmoil between people contesting what shall constitute freedom, or what are we going to label freedom of action or thought or speech or religion? Why are there actually wars over the issue of who is going to define what freedom is?
There must be an underlying cause for all of this. I would suggest to you that God's Word tells us that it is a lack of wisdom, and a lack of love that leads us to fight over what freedom is and how we shall be allowed to express it.
Well, what is real freedom then? It certainly is not license to do anything you want. The Word proposes that true freedom is the ability, using the correct knowledge, impelled by the right motivation, to do what is good. It is essential to what makes us human to have this ability to choose. In fact the ability is given without our knowing anything about it, we're born with the ability to be free.
First, it appears as free choice. The youngest child immediately enters into that choosing whether to continue to fuss and cry or do what the parent wants, and it then just continues to develop until as adults we see intricate, convoluted and complex issues involved in choosing one thing over the other and we pray all the time that we would develop spiritually so that we would know what the right choice is to make.
So, we're given an essential freedom that is part of our life. But we are not given the knowledge whereby to use that ability right off. And we often don't have the right motivation or the right will in order to exercise this God given freedom to our benefit. And that is our subject here.
How do we gain the knowledge and the motivation to rightly use this gift from the Lord for our benefit? This is symbolized in the institution of the feast of the Passover. This perhaps isn't immediately seen. We first have to assume that the Lord's Word is going to describe something for our life - something that is useful for us. And we can see it in the spirit of the Word, the spirit that Jesus talked about. And so you have to assume first that whatever story it is in the Word, the Passover feast in this case, it is describing something that is going on in and around you.
We return to the Writings of the New Church for a sensible and consistent explanation of how any story in the letter of the Word is going to be applicable to our spiritual lives and so our natural lives. In this literal story we have to set the picture.
The children of Israel had been slaves for four hundred years they were not a free people. And they knew it. They were forced to work not on something for themselves on their own land using their own labor, producing their own things, but had to do all these things for someone else. Indeed there were times when their work was made harsh or when they were punished for not reaching a certain standard. It was hard labor and they got little or nothing for it.
You may wonder why they didn't ever rebel against that slavery. We can surmise, if we looked within ourselves, that perhaps it was comfortable to be there: they were given food. There were times of oppression; there were times of obnoxious laws, even murderous ones; but it didn't stir the people into any organized rebellion. It took a miracle. It took Moses, being appointed as spokesman for a God, Jehovah, that they all had forgotten about. The series of miracles he performed convinced the Pharaoh to let the people go, and convinced the children of Israel that God was on their side and was going to do something for their benefit. It took many miracles, but finally the people woke up to the slavery and its horrors. It was the children of Israel who, through these miracles, came eventually to believe in Jehovah, to know something about Him, what He could do, what His promises were for them, and finally to become motivated enough to listen and do what He said through Moses.
The spirit of this story is describing a process that goes on in your spirit. It is talking about the liberation from the influence of evil. This influence is now revealed to us. It is profound; it is subtle and it affects every single one of us. Each one of us has probably said that some evil force outside of our control is causing all the problems in the world. But we have to recognize, just like the children of Israel had to, that I am the one in bondage and in slavery to this influence from hell; that I am to a degree blinded by this influence, so that I don't know what the truth is. Hell actually alters my will, my love, to be selfish, materialistic, or shortsighted.
To the degree that you notice that influence you will be able to fight against it. There has to be a Moses in your life: the truth, especially the truth from the Lord's Word, has to make an impression upon you. You have to go through your life watching your experiences, watching how you react to them, and learning something from them. Then compare that picture you have of yourself with the picture the Word gives us of the person who is regenerated, who is becoming happier, who is becoming successful in their goals.
Being thus impressed by the Word begins inside of you. The tenth day of the month, the beginning of the Passover feast, is a symbol for that storehouse of what is good and what is true that the Lord has established within you. There is a preparation that you have to go through in order to receive it. That preparation is something that you are intimately involved in. It is further described as a state of innocence - the lamb that was to be the Passover meal.
The state of innocence, which is an openness to the Lord and a willingness to listen to Him and an understanding of His truth, is the very core of this process of liberation. Only upon your recognition of your need of His Divine help, is the process of your liberation going to begin. And the Lord has set it up so that you can work according to the innocence, the goodness, the lamb, that you have within yourself. And you each have your own variety. It comes to each one of you individually just as each house had their own lamb. And that lamb was an unblemished male representing how this innocence within you from the Lord is made manifest by truth - the things that you know in your intellect. And that truth is holy. Waiting until the fourteenth day to begin this feast with the lamb means it encompasses all those things that are special, important, vital to you.
The Lord is saying here that if you want to be free from the influence of evil you must begin by taking in the Lord's truth, and allowing it to build a conscience in you, an understanding of truth and a willingness to follow. You must see it as being important or you're not going to do it, like the children of Israel - it took them ten plagues against the Egyptians before they finally realized what was going on, how important this was that they should be free. This is still true today. It takes you some time to recognize the incredible beauty and marvel of the gift the Lord offers to you.
Then, later on in the story when the Israelites went to the Egyptians and demanded all their gold, silver and jewels, the Egyptians gave it all to them! All because they had gone through the initial preparation of the Passover feast. Your preparation of being willing to follow the Lord, listening to His truth and considering it important will make you free. The truth will affect your conscious thinking; it'll affect your conscious willing - what you desire both spiritually and naturally; and it will effect your very actions. The lamb - that innocence from the Lord - was brought into the house just as you take truth into your spirit. And then the feast starts: that innocence descends, providing you protection, providing you the ability to apply the truth and the love that the Lord is giving you, symbolized by the blood on the door posts and the lintels of the door.
The Lord is saying here that if you take the truth from His Word and willingly obey it, then you will feel His love descending to the very natural things of your life. You will be able to take the truth and apply it with love, that is, with clear-sighted understanding of what the spiritual principles are. No more will you have to worry about what choice to make! You'll see it clearly.
Your liberty then will be fully felt because it will be fully used. You will know how your liberation is a process that has begun because there is a deep wisdom and love affecting the way you live. You begin to eat that lamb as they did in the Passover feast and its not something that you feel being imposed upon you. Your will is being affected. You are choosing to love what is good, and what a great feeling of freedom and liberty that gives you!
But this does not happen in an instant. There is a process whereby you enter into this state. So in the Passover they had to cook the lamb in a very special way. They had to eat standing up at the table, girded, that means ready to go, with their sandals on their feet and their staff in their hand. And also they had to eat it with bitter herbs. All that describes the process whereby this liberation comes to be felt in your life.
The fire is the fire of love that liberates you. Only love has power. Truth does not have any power apart from the love that dwells within it. So while truth is the only means you have of using this love, you cannot try to separate the truth from the love; you cannot separate your ideas from your motivation, for ideas without a willingness to act them out are both useless and powerless ideas.
So truth by itself is only judgmental. It is not caring or forgiving. When you stand up next to the standard of truth you will look bad. But when you recognize that it is love straight from the Lord that saves you, that it is love that should motivate your use of the truth, then you will never be paralyzed by guilt because we see no remedy. You will recognize that you are always impure, but that the Lord still loves you and will save you. That is the fire that cooked the lamb. They were not to eat it raw - that would correspond to your taking credit for any love or truth that you had.
As you use love for this liberating process you always have to be ready to arm yourself with the truth that clothes that love to resist and to flee from evil. And so you feel that great exaltation in your freedom - the eating of the Passover lamb. You're ready to listen to the Lord. You're praying to Him for enlightenment. You're girded. You have your staff; you're ready to go. And you recognize that the strength and the truth that you have, and the love that you feel, are not from us but from the Lord.
There can be a very bitter struggle within as you try to resist or flee evil. A bitterness even in the midst of the joy of realizing the freedom of acting on your own of your own free choice to choose not to do or love or think evil. But it is night, it is a nighttime meal and there were bitter herbs mixed in with the unleavened bread. Spiritually, even though you are in a state of night, even though there is doubt - you don't know what would be the right thing to do - the Lord says that to the degree that you prepare to receive His love and His wisdom, to that degree you will live through the night, and you will come in the morning to see the immediate results of your work which is a separation from that evil influence that was putting you in bondage.
That is the internal sense of the Passover feast; a feast of liberation. At its conclusion you have the knowledge, you have the wisdom to use your God given freedom. You can see in the story of the children of Israel what you must recognize and what you must do in order to be liberated from the influences of hell. With that wisdom, putting it to use, then the Lord can come and change your motivation.
And so later on in the story when the plague was actually accomplished, the Lord passed over Egypt and all the firstborn died. You can easily imagine – because you have felt it – the fear you would have of giving up something that you feel is necessary to your life but which you recognize intellectually is putting you in bondage. But the Lord "passes over" you. You are protected, you are secure, and in the morning that inclination to do what is evil, to think it or to will it, is dead, and you are still alive. You recognize that what you lost wasn't an integral part of your life; that it wasn't a true freedom or free choice but an infernal one to love yourself, to be materialistic or greedy. They were all false freedoms. Now your motivation is changed. It is not that something radical has happened to you and your character; it is not that you have died; you don't even miss it anymore. You feel liberated from it.
True liberty then is at hand, just as Jehovah was present as He passed over the land. He is present even as selfishness and materialism and denial try to insert themselves into your highest ideals, and thwart your search for the truth. That enslavement goes away because what dies in you are all those ideas that have no true love behind them; those ideas that justify anger or hatred or selfishness and have none of the Lord's love in them. They finally wither and die. As He "passes over," you finally see what the truth is, and what the good is. Those enslaving influences and passions no longer rule you.
That is the feeling of liberation. You're now free to use all the ideas that you get from your experiences both in reading and meditating upon the Word and in your interactions with other people, because you will be able to judge whether your idea is backed by a love for the Lord and the neighbor. It is that ability, based on that knowledge, with that motivation, that is true freedom. Not the kind that simply cries out: "I have a right to this;” not the kind that says: "I should be able to do what ever I want". True freedom is the ability to act in accordance with a sure knowledge, based on a good motivation to do what is good. It is not given automatically; it is not discovered with ease. There is a struggle to achieve this state of freedom. It always happens inside of you. There are no external changes you can make in your life that will cause you to have this spiritual, heavenly freedom. And it takes your diligence. It's not just that there is a constant flight necessary in your life, although there is. There is also a continual protection. There has to be an ongoing work to discover what is true and to put down the influences of hell.
So what you should do is open yourself to the Lord, allow Him to implant innocence within you and build up a conscience based on that truth. Rely upon that truth. Be ready to receive it and use it and take it into yourself, into your will. Then act from love while using that truth. This will separate you from that blinding evil. You will know true freedom. You will prize that freedom of choice that you now can exercise with enlightenment. You will know its responsible use and how it builds your character and your mansion in heaven. You will enjoy then the feeling of your own goodness and wisdom because you know it is from the Lord. As Jesus said "If you do my commandments you will be my disciples. You shall know the truth. And the truth shall make you free."