By Rev. David A Moffat
“And the seven lampstands which you have seen are the seven Churches” (Revelation 1:20) signifies the new Church on earth, which is the new Jerusalem coming down from the Lord out of the new Heaven. (Apocalypse Revealed 66)
In our Bible study group, we have begun reading through the book of Revelation. Reading through the first chapter as we did recently led me to an important insight which I particularly wanted to share, and it is contained within Swedenborg’s exposition quoted above.
It is a curious thing that the lampstands represent the “new Church” – the new understanding of the Lord and a revitalised relationship with him which is to replace the old, dead one. It is curious because the next two chapters go on to describe the “seven Churches” of the literal sense, and the report is far from glowing. How can these be the new Church?
The answer is that they are not, not yet anyway. They reflect the various perspectives, the “states of reception”, the relationship humanity has with our God. This is shown by their unique relationship to one aspect of the description of the Lord given in the first chapter. Each one treasures and explores one unique aspect of the Divine in their practice of Christianity. However, in the second and third chapters of Revelation they exist in a very degenerate and backwards state. It is fortunate that each has its own promise of renewal, “He who overcomes…”
Although these are NOT the new Church, they are the raw materials the Lord has to work with in creating that new relationship with Him. They all have their place, in an innovative, living expression of what it is to be a Church. So, it was a sense of the Lord’s leading which was so freshly impressed upon me – the miracle of a complete transformation, not only in the spiritual life of mankind, but in my own life.
Again, at Bible study, we reflected upon the difficult task of reaching a truly spiritual understanding of the book of Revelation. That is, of discovering the pattern of our regeneration (as led by the Lord) in these chapters. We are so used to hearing an interpretation which tells us about the time when our Lord revealed himself anew to humanity, that we forget all about its application to an individual’s life journey. This is a real pity, because it is that understanding of relevance which makes Swedenborg’s writing so unique. I have several books on my shelves in which authors of various traditions point the finger at other religious institutions, claiming to be “the true way”, and it is so easy for us to get caught up in all of that. We do so like to prove that we’re right, and Revelation lends itself so beautifully to the intellectual pursuit of self righteousness.
No, the real message of the book for me is that from the ashes of my misplaced religious expressions, the Lord can raise something beautiful, pure and good, which is truly connected to Him and vibrant with the pulse of His Love and Wisdom. The question is, how does he acheive that transformation? Well, he leads us. Gently.
A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth. (Isaiah 42:3, also Matthew 12:20)
This was said of the Lord; and “the smoking flax,” that He will not extinguish signifies the small amount of truth from good with any one. (Apocalypse Explained, paragraph 951.6; also paragraph 627.7)
… the Lord never forces anyone, for nothing to which anyone is forced appears as his own; and what does not appear to be his own cannot be his love’s, and so be appropriated to him as his own. Therefore man is led by the Lord continualy in freedom, and is also reformed and regenerated in freedom. (Divine Providence, paragraph 43.2)
Now Revelation doesn’t look gentle by any stretch of the imagination. But remember that it is not the Lord who brings these calamities about. It certainly appears as though He is to blame, but the reality of the situation is that my own faults and weaknesses subject me to the experiences related in this book. All the while, the Lord is moderating and softening the catastrohpic consequences of my disease and providing the life and energy which will enable me to hang on until I reach the glories of chapters 21 & 22. The process is only traumatic because I cling so tenaciously to the attitudes which cause me such distress.
Now, understanding my own need of gentle leading, I also understand that same need in others. Why do we believe that placing a book on the table of a neighbour or friend, or “giving them a good talking to” is going to help them accept the church’s teachings? There are certainly those who will recognise the truth and rejoice, so we shouldn’t give up. But we do have to see that the process by which we come to a true, living relationship with the Lord is just that – a process. It would be very harmful to be surprised or summarily dismissive just because someone doesn’t accept the veracity of what our church teaches. We cooperate with, or hinder, our Lord’s leading by our grasp on that. Paul exemplifies this understanding when he writes: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22)
As we look through the gospels we see this same attitude in our Lord’s daily teaching and interactions. In Luke 15 we read three related parables, prefaced by the religious indignation of those who frowned upon Jesus’ associations. Yet He rebuked their self righteousness, and summarised His work:
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, â€˜Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:4-7)
In Matthew’s account of the same parable we find these words added, “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” (Matthew 18:11) I remember being very young, and thinking childishly how I would like to be that sinner who causes so much joy. But then what if I were to help bring such a person back into the fold? Surely that would also be a cuase of great celebration! I recently received a book entitled Reinventing Evangelism, by Donald Posterski. It’s first chapter isa entitled “Leaving our safety zones.” When Jesus spoke of “going after the one which is lost” (Luke 15:4) spoke of His work in the world. Nothing less is required of us if we are to exert a positive effect upon the spiritual lives of our fellows.
Outreach, like education, is not an exercise in immunisation (Paulo Freire once noted our systems of teaching can sometimes assume that once you’ve “had” a subject you won’t “get” it again). You cannot give someone a single shot of the truth which will vacinate them against spiritual disease. Of course church membership can’t do that either. So again, I note another Swedenborgian insight into the soul – there is no such thing as preaching to the converted. The process is an ongoing one, which continues beyond even the boundary of death. Every one of us is still on that journey to becoming a church in its smallest form. Every one of us ought to understand that my road may not be the best one for others to follow.