The Danger of An External Image of Ourselves

A Sermon by Rev. Ian Arnold

“Everyone knows that the gentiles as well as Christians live a moral life, and many of them a better life than Christians. Moral life may be lived either for the sake of the Divine or for the sake of men in the world; and a moral life that is lived for the sake of the Divine is a spiritual life. In outward form the two appear alike, but in inward form they are entirely different: one saves a man, the other does not. For he who lives a moral life for the sake of the Divine is led by the Divine; while he who leads a moral life for the sake of men in the world is led by himself.

But this may be illustrated by an example. He who refrains from doing evil to his neighbour because it is contrary to religion, that is, contrary to the Divine, refrains from doing evil from a spiritual motive; but he who refrains from doing evil to another merely from fear of the law, or the loss of reputation, of honour, or gain, that is, for the sake of self and the world, refrains from doing evil from a natural motive, and is led by himself.

The life of the latter is natural, that of the former is spiritual. A man whose moral life is spiritual has heaven within himself, but he whose moral life is merely natural does not have heaven within himself; and for the reason that heaven flows in from above and opens mans interiors, and through his interiors flows into his exteriors; while the world flows in from beneath and opens his exteriors but not the interiors. For there can be no flowing in from the natural world into the spiritual, but only from the spiritual world into the natural; therefore if heaven is not received at the same time, the interiors remain closed.

From these things it can be seen who those are who receive heaven within them, and who do not.” (Heaven and Hell 319)

The danger of being caught up in AN EXTERNAL IMAGE OF OURSELVES.

From Mark’s gospel, friends, chapter 10, verse 21:

“Then Jesus, looking at him lovingly, said to him: One thing you lack. Go your way, sell whatever you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. O come, take up your cross and follow me.”

It’s one of the things that has really fascinated me when it comes to so many of the incidents and events of the Gospels: that the people who are the centre of these events and incidents are more frequently than not nameless. We don’t know their names. We don’t know the name of the man who was paralysed at the pool of Bethesda. We don’t know the name of the woman who pressed through the crowd in her attempt to touch even the hem of Jesus garment. We don’t know the name of the boy whose father brought him to Jesus; the boy who was obviously suffering from some sort of epileptic fits, and the fits, it said, were casting him into fire and causing him to foam at the mouth.

When you stop and think about it, as I said, more frequently than not we don’t know the names of these people; and there has to be a reason for this. And the reason, so far as I can make out, is that were we to be given the names of these people it would muddy the waters, it would distract us, and it would obscure what the Lord is trying to say to us today in these incidents and occurrences and events. It’s interesting that there is teaching in the Writings that says that in heaven, when it comes to the Bible, the angels do not know, they do not see, they are totally unaware of, the names of those people who are we read about in the Word. It is specifically said they don’t know who Abraham was, they don’t know who Isaac was, or who Jacob or Joseph was or who Moses was, or Saul or David or Solomon, because they read their Bible, so to speak, through different eyes. They see into the inner content and realise that there is so much more that is beyond what is on the surface; and I’m suggesting to you that were getting a taste of it here in this world, the Lord not wanting, like I say, to cause too many things to get in the way of locking into and connecting with the message that He has for us.

The truth is that these nameless people, the truth is that this nameless rich young man, is everyone. He is you and me, and that’s important for us to see that. Jesus deliberately withholds the name of these people because they are you and me.

Now if they are you and me, then it’s important for us to lock into what’s being said here, and to try to explore what’s being said about us and about our approach to things. You may know this, dont you, that when you are aware of somebody talking about you, you cant but help wanting to tune into the conversation. Here, the Lord is talking to us about ourselves, and it is even more important that we tune in, and lock into, what He’s saying here: the rich young man who came to Jesus asking Him what he lacked, where he had got it wrong, what he had yet to do; that rich young man is you and me.

But what we need to know first of all is what was his problem? His problem was quite simple. His problem was that he was over-focussed on what he saw himself to be externally. He was over-focussed on his image as compared to actually what he was within. And as you go back into, and read, this episode you realise that this is absolutely true. Jesus answered him when he said:

“Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, that is God. You know the commandments: do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honour your father and mother. (Now listen!) And he answered and said to Him, Teacher, all these things I have observed from my youth!”

“What’s my problem?” So that’s what I mean when I said yes, he had got it wrong. He did have a problem. He was over-focussed on what he saw himself to be, externally. He was too locked into his image of himself, as compared to what he actually was within.

“Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, One thing you lack. Go your way, sell what ever you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Come, take up the cross and follow Me.”

As I thought about this rich young man, I thought to myself that he has a near-companion, and I stress the phrase “near-companion” insofar as the Gospel stories are concerned. This “near companion” I refer to is focussed on in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 18. Two men went up into the temple to pray, we read there. One was a Pharisee who could see no wrong in himself. Listen to what he says of himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” Can you see the point? He, too, was locked into an external image of himself, and he liked it, he was proud of it. He paraded it before God in his praise. But he is only a near-companion, because there is something different with this rich young man. What’s different is this: that the rich young man was uncomfortable, was troubled, and was not sufficiently convinced that his image was adequate. And so he comes to Jesus running, kneels before Him and asks Him, “Good teacher, what shall I do that may inherit eternal life?” One of the other gospels says, “What do I yet lack?” a lovely insight into his feeling that something was not quite right. “I’m doing all the right things. In the eyes of everybody else I’m a sincere, if not pious and holy person, but something is not sitting right.” And so he goes to Jesus.

I want to stop a moment here friends, and I want to talk to you about life in heaven, or life in the spiritual world, as compared or contrasted to life in this world. That topic was on my mind a great deal 6 or 8 months ago and it lead me to write an article published in the Australian New Church periodical for autumn 2005. My article was simply entitled “Life in heaven as compared or contrasted to life in this world.” And what are the differences? I think it’s important that we’re aware of them because from the Writings, and from all that Swedenborg describes about life in heaven, the first impression can be that it’s very similar to life in this world. But when we look more closely, we realise that there are quite profound and challenging differences.

In this world, we can be two people. In the spiritual world, we can only be one. Here, in this world, there are two levels at which we operate and function. There, in the spiritual world and in heaven, there’s only one level at which we operate and function. Here, in this world, we have freedom to choose. There, in the spiritual world, if not straight away, we become locked into who we are, and we cant help being who we are! In this world we can stand back, so to speak, and evaluate, critique and make decisions about our lives. There in the spiritual world we live spontaneously. So in fact, as I said, these differences are quite marked; and they really do bring home to us that though superficially you can talk about mountains and valleys, sunrises and rivers, and meeting people and reunions which is all a picture of the life that awaits us in the spiritual world that is only superficial.

When you get beyond that you come up against, and must reckon with, these quite profound differences. And indeed they are highlighted, are they not, in that reading that I had as the second this morning:

“In the meantime, when an innumerable multitude of people had gathered together, so that they trampled one another, He began to say to His disciples first of all, Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, nor hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have spoken in the dark will be heard in the light, and whatever you have spoken in the ear in inner rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.”

Here, we can be two people. There, we can only be one.

I hope the following mental picture helps. There are, of course, our inner thoughts and feelings; but there is also another level, like I say, at which we operate, which are our outer thoughts and feelings. Is there a husband alive who has not had his wife show him a new dress she has bought, and in his inner thoughts and feelings, he’s horrified; but in his outer thoughts and feelings he tells her its lovely. Doesn’t that bring home to us that we are very adept at operating at two levels? And we do it supremely well! But what we also do is that we travel between the two constantly. You just think of it yourself: we’re travelling constantly between the two things; and that husband who has been confronted with an all-expensive dress is travelling, mightily quickly mind you, between these two levels. What do I say, and how do I say it? But there it is, and that’s typical of life in this world. And because we have these two levels, we actually straddle them. We straddle them and have the capacity to make decisions which we don’t have, eventually, in the spiritual world: because the gap closes and we become one.

Now what our problem is in this world is this: that we tend to want to stay in the outer things for peace of mind; I mightn’t get a good dinner if I really tell her what I really think of that dress! We tend to want to stay out here, and lock ourselves here because if we turn back into our inner thoughts and feelings, not only might we get a frying pan over the head for saying the wrong thing, but also it’s painful to have to handle and deal with our inner thoughts and feelings. So what we tend to do is close the door. Its easier: “Darling, it’s lovely, I’ll take you out to dinner at the weekend. You can show it off.” It’s much easier to work at that outer level than to work at the inner level; and that is so in all things of life.

So, turning back to the rich young man, his problem was that he was focussed outwards on his outer thoughts and feelings, on the face or image that he was presenting to the world. He didn’t have the courage yet, the stamina, the backbone, to start looking at his inner thoughts and feelings and dealing with them and wrestling with them. That’s what his problem was!

“Now as Jesus was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him and asked Him, Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? (or, as in the gospel of Matthew, what do I yet lack?) So Jesus said to him, Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: Do not commit murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honour your father and your mother.

“And he answered and said to Him, Teacher, all these things I have observed from my youth. (What a good person Ive been! I havent done these things; other scallywags may have done, but I haven’t!)

“Then Jesus looked at him and loved him. (He loved him because he knew this young person was troubled, he knew that something was going on inside of him, and He wanted to encourage him.) And He said to him, One thing you lack: go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come take up the cross, and follow Me.”

Two things Jesus said to him: “go your way and sell or dispose of what you have” means to surrender or to give up, to do away with and to regard as of no worth the image of ourselves out there that we cling to. Very pertinent. “Regard it as of no value! You are investing too much in it, you are putting too much store by it, and it’s not important. What people think of you, how you present yourself out there, that’s all very well; but it doesn’t change or touch the sort of person you are inside, and that’s what I, Jesus, am really interested in.”

The second thing Jesus said was to “take up your cross and follow Me”, which means to get serious about doing battle with our inner thoughts, desires, feelings and inclinations. Look at what is going on within. Recognise the need to become involved with your inner private life, the unseen thoughts and feelings we have, the ones we hide away from the world but which are only too well known to us.

This rich young man went away sad, but there was no need for him to do so. And as I read the story, and read it over and over again, I think to myself that maybe before he got home he realised that Jesus had said to him something which is of great significance and value. That is what I like to think. It seems to me he was, indeed, a decent person who would never have come to Jesus in the first place if he had been otherwise. And it wasnt too much which Jesus is asking of him.

Bringing home to us that this is so, and to conclude, I would like to read one of my favourite passages from the Writings or the Teachings of the New Church, where it says the whole thing about wrestling with and facing up to our inner thoughts and feelings is not grievous. It’s from Doctrine of Life, paragraph 97:

“Combat is not grievous, except for those who have unloosened all restraints upon their evil loves and have intentionally indulged them, also for those who have obstinately rejected the holy things of the Word and of the Church. To others, however, it is not grievous: let them resist evils in intention only once in a week, or twice in a month, and they will perceive a change.”

Just have the courage to lock into this inner stuff just once a week, twice a month, and if we do, we will perceive a change.

“Then Jesus, looking at him lovingly, said to him: One thing you lack. Go your way, sell whatever you have and give it to the poor (its insignificant, its unimportant, you’re putting too much store by it), and you will have treasure in heaven. O come, take up the cross and follow me.”

Amen.

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