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Readings: Isaiah 42:5-9, John 20:1-18, True Christianity #109 (see below)
Happy Easter everyone, I sure do miss being with you all! As I was thinking about this sermon this past week, I realized that there were to two particular things that I wanted to emphasize: the symbolism of the empty tomb and how that connects to grace.
We touched on the correspondence of a tomb or a grave two weeks ago when considering the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel, and we learned that in the internal sense of the Word, in the Swedenborgian symbolic worldview, a grave or a tomb or a sepulcher, any burial place really, actually symbolizes the opposite: life, renewal, regeneration. From Secrets of Heaven:
The reason it means life…is that angels, who possess the internal sense of the Word, have no other concept of a grave, because they have no other concept of death. Consequently instead of a grave they perceive nothing else than the continuation of life, and so resurrection… Now because 'burial' means resurrection, it also means regeneration, since regeneration is the primary resurrection of a person, for when regenerated they die as regards their former self and rise again as regards the new.(1)
I just want to sit with this for moment so that it can really sink in. I know that one of the reasons that I really love being with people who are new to Swedenborg is that I get to see the tradition and the teachings with new eyes. I’ve grown up in the faith, and it has always been the air that I breathe, so sometimes the really simple teachings lose their power. Sort of like this Easter teaching. Anyone in the Christian world is already familiar with it; the fundamental recognition that someone that we thought was dead becomes alive. And for Swedenborgians…yes yes, the tomb actually symbolizes life and regeneration, got it. Cool.
But…wait a minute. What this is actually saying to us is enormous. For, as Swedenborgians we believe that this cosmic meaning is more than just an interesting metaphor. We believe that this symbolism of words and concepts and things is what actually binds heaven and earth together, binds spirit and flesh together. So it is not just that Jesus’ tomb meant life for him, or even that Jesus tomb means life for us, it is that the whole notion of death/tomb/burial/ending/loss/suffering, that whole notion, in whatever way it comes it us in our lives, in whatever way we recognize it or experience it, this notion is connected spiritually to its opposite: life/renewal/regeneration/growth.
And I think it is important to recognize that this is not a connection that *we* have to make, through either goodness or progressive enlightenment. This is a connection that exists. God made it so. God gifted this to us. God made a loving universe in which the potential for goodness and growth exists in everything. I can’t think of a single other gift that is more important. Everything which we experience as unpleasant, no matter how small or large, no matter the kind of suffering, God has arranged the universe so that these things are fundamentally spiritually connected to that which is growing and renewing and living, all the time, every time, no exceptions. We really do not need to be afraid, ever. Oh we will be, and that’s totally okay. But, because of God there is nothing in the universe, no condition of fear or loss or overwhelm, that exists just purely as itself. There is no black hole of suffering that does not, potentially, come out the other side without some sliver of new life, new truth, new compassion, new understanding.
This means that God has our back in the most fundamental way. God can’t live our life for us, but God can arranged it so goodness and love and growth always have the last word, somehow, someway, somewhere.
And we see this borne out in the Easter story. As Jesus, God is reaching out and demonstrating this fundamental principle in a personal and embodied way, showing us that, yes, there will be loss, there will be death, and it will happen in the most unfair, evil, and shameful ways. That it will seem like empire, dominion, selfishness and cowardice (in ourselves and in others) will take the day. But Jesus rises from the tomb. There will be life, there will always be life because God has not left us alone with our suffering.
A simple but gorgeous truth. It seems like I know it and don’t know it all at once. It seems too simple. And it is exactly what I would want and expect a God of love to do.
But even this most lovely truth…well, human beings will weaponize it to hurt ourselves. Sometimes because our Lord conquered death so completely, rose so completely, even as to his body, as we read in our Swedenborg reading…because it was so complete a resurrection, we might feel that anything other than a complete resurrection in ourselves is a failure. If we don’t make the most delicious lemonade out of our lemons. If we don’t learn some amazing life lesson from our loss. If we don’t emerge from our suffering triumphant, changed, better. If we don’t emerge from this quarantine, more centered, more skilled, more enlightened.
The truth is though, the process is not often quite so neat. Our resurrections can sometimes feel barely grasped, scrabbly and wispy, and not enough, not nearly enough. Our resurrections can sometimes feel late to the party, or like they took the very very scenic route. They can be partial, they can be incremental, they can be incredibly hard won. Jesus was never supposed to be model but an inspiration. Our Lord wasn’t saying what should be so, but was revealing a potential that exists, revealing a gift and a grace that exists. In Swedenborgian speak, God works all the way to the ultimates, redeeming the whole of what can be redeemed and leaving nothing behind, so that the potential for redemption for us and the world and everything in it is always completely possible.
And because of this potential for redemption, there is often a lot of talk about belief around Easter. The traditional Christian notion has been that belief in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross makes God’s grace accessible to us. And certainly, being open to the import of Jesus life, death and resurrection *can* be transformational to our ways of thinking and being. But, the Swedenborgian tradition rejects the transactional nature of the belief for grace equation. We rather subscribe to a kind of naturalized grace, a grace as described earlier that is built into the structure of the universe, that flows out unimpeded from God’s being. And so often times, we don’t even speak of grace at all, firstly because it doesn’t always mean the same thing to us as it does to other traditions, and second, because it is so foundational, it is built into the notion of a loving God, it is a given.
And yet, perhaps now is a perfect time to speak of it. Perhaps now we need to be reminded of grace in this time of crisis and strangeness. In this time of anxiety and uncertainty, when we are all just doing our best, but we are exhausted, afraid, disillusioned, and just barely keeping it together. This is exactly when we need to remember God’s naturalized grace, in this time when we are having trouble believing in it.
Because this is the actual gift. We don’t even have to fully believe in God’s naturalized grace, we don’t even need to believe that God can actually bring something good out of suffering. Our belief isn’t what makes it true. God’s love makes it true. Certainly, our beliefs have some relationship to what we see and what we are open to. Certainly, our partnership and engagement has some relationship to what comes into being for us. But it is also true that God’s power is not limited by our consciousness. Even in our darkest, lowest, doubting times, resurrection happens anyway. It happens with or without us, because God made the universe that way.
I’ve always enjoyed the quote: Grace is the face love wears when it meets imperfection(2). I don’t see this grace as a condescension or as pity, as “oh honey, maybe you’ll get it right next time” but rather it is a face full of hope and confidence because of the way God has designed the world, and us. Grace is an announcement of a pre-ordained newness, like the power and potential that exists in every seed, a quiet and serene and explosive power, waiting inside each breath, each moment, and circling back evermore as an offering to us, God’s beloved.
See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. 8 “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
True Christianity 109
The Lord's process of glorification was a transformation of the human nature that he took on in the world. The transformed human nature of the Lord is the divine physical form. A proof of this is that the Lord rose from the tomb with the whole body he had had in the world. Nothing was left in the tomb. Therefore he took with him from the tomb every aspect of his earthly human form. This is why after the resurrection he said to disciples who thought they were seeing a spirit, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Feel me and see; for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have" (Luke 24:37, 39).