My name is Solomon Keal. I am a minister for the General Church of the New Jerusalem, which is a Swedenborgian Christian denomination. These are some of my thoughts about the Lord, the symbolic meanings in the Bible, life after death, faith, charity, usefulness, loving the Lord and one's neighbor, the 2nd Coming, Swedenborg's Writings, and other theological stuff.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
The Centurion’s Faith in Jesus: The Healing Power of Love
Matthew 4:13-17, 23-25
(If you would like to look up the references that appear throughout this sermon, copy and paste them into Small Canon Search.)
I’ve often found it seemingly paradoxical that our church teaches that: ‘faith that saves is to believe in Jesus Christ’ (see TCR 3), while at the same time it teaches that: ‘people of all religions can be saved’ (see DP 330). If a Muslim or Buddhist who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ can be saved, then why does our church teach that: ‘faith that saves is to believe in Jesus Christ’? How does this work? A comprehensive understanding of the Heavenly Doctrines as revealed by Emanuel Swedenborg explains how this works. But rather than seeking to answer this question purely by doctrinal study, let’s first look at a story in the Gospels. A great story that illustrates this concept can be found in the story we just read of the centurion’s faith in Jesus, in Matthew chapter 8.
After the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, Jesus came down from the mountain and healed all kinds of people. In Capernaum, a Roman centurion came up to Jesus and asked Him to heal his servant. The Lord said He would come and do so. The centurion then said, ‘You don’t need to come; just say the word and he will be healed.’ And Jesus responded by saying in amazement to His disciples:
“Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:10-12)
The servant was then healed at that very moment because of the faith of the centurion.
It’s not hard to grasp the basic moral of this story: The Lord is telling us that mere membership in the church does not imply true faith, and that mere non-membership in the church does not imply a lack of true faith. The simple moral of the story is tolerance. This centurion was a Gentile Roman and not a Jew, and yet the Lord was implying that he had a greater faith than some of the Jews who were considered ‘sons of the kingdom.‘ Translated into modern times, the Lord is telling us that we should remember that a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Catholic, Protestant and Swedenborgian are all just as capable of being saved and ‘reclining at table in the kingdom of heaven.’ This is one of the well-loved teachings of our church. Not many churches teach such universal religious tolerance. If we were to ask ourselves ‘What Would Jesus Do?‘ in this story, we could answer, ‘He would want everyone to be healed and saved,’ and so should we.
But that’s the easy moral of this story. Let’s ask ourselves a less obvious question: ‘What Would the Centurion Do?’ All the characters in the Bible represent us. So I can ask myself: Am I being like the ‘sons of the kingdom’ and ‘gnashing my teeth’ at people? Or am I being like the Gentile centurion with his amazing faith in the Lord. And what was it that made this centurion’s faith so amazing, so true, and so effective? What was it that was lacking in the faith of some of the Jews that put them at risk for being ‘thrown into the outer darkness’? In the end, this story gets us asking the question, ‘What is faith that saves after all? And do I have it?‘ We should not assume that simply because you are sitting there, and I am standing here, that we automatically have faith that saves.
In order to get at the answer to this question, let’s pick apart the details of this story. We know from the story as it is told in Luke, that this centurion was a good man. The Jews told Jesus that, “he is worthy to have You do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” (Luke 7:4,5) We might imagine this being like a German officer in occupied France, helping the French people repair a bombed church. This was a person who went out of his way to help his immediate neighbor. This was a person who had every opportunity to abuse his power over his neighbor, and instead he helped them. This was a person who truly practiced love to the neighbor; which really just means: love towards everyone.
But why did this Roman centurion have so much faith in Jesus? He wasn’t a Jew, so he probably wouldn’t have believed in any prophesies of the Messiah. If he was a religious man at all, he very likely worshiped Jupiter or Mars, or even the emperor in Rome. What was his faith in Jesus based on? Well, we know that both Jesus and this centurion lived in Capernaum (Matt. 4:13), so very likely this centurion had heard of, and probably even seen many of the healings and miracles of Jesus. After all, Jesus was literally famous for the power He had to heal disease and cast out demons (Matt. 4:24). So the centurion’s faith was quite simply based on the fact that he knew Jesus could heal his boy. True Christianity number 2 says, “To believe in Him is to have confidence that He saves.” The centurion had confidence that Jesus could save his servant. The name ‘Jesus’ actually means Savior, as we know from the Heavenly Doctrines (see AC 3004 and TCR 298) and from the literal sense of the Word where it says: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21). Jesus saves us from hell, which in the Word is represented by sickness, demon-possession and death.
As was said before, we also know from the Luke version of the story, that the centurion was a good man. The number from True Christianity goes on to say that “...and because only those who live good lives can have such confidence, this too is meant by believing in Him.” The centurion had true faith because he had confidence that Jesus could save his servant, and because he was a good man. So for us, the test of whether our faith is true or not could be: Do I have confidence that the Lord can and wants to save me spiritually? And, am I loving towards people? When I’m doing those things, I have true faith. When I’m not, I don’t have true faith.
Now lets look at some other details of this story. The centurion had a paralyzed servant at home. If we are the centurion, then what is our ‘paralyzed servant at home’? Apocalypse Revealed number 3 says that in the Word ‘servants’ represent truths, because true ideas serve goodness, as a servant serves his master. Also, a person’s ‘home’ represents his mind or his life. So as the centurion, we might recognize that we often want to do what is good, but we don’t always now how. We lack the truths that serve our desire to be good. Our servant is lying paralyzed at home.
Another detail is that the centurion lived in Capernaum. In a good sense, ‘Capernaum’ represents “the establishment of the church with the Gentiles that are in the good of life and that receive truths.” (AE 447:5) Earlier in Matthew, Capernaum is associated with this quote from Isaiah: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” (Matt 4:16) Jesus fulfilled this prophesy by living in Capernaum; by bringing light into the darkness. So it’s important for us to recognize that without the Lord living in our ‘town’, we too will live in darkness and falsity. When we find that our ‘servant at home’ is sick, we need to remember that the Lord lives right here in our ‘home town’, and we just need to turn to Him for help. That is part of faith that saves.
The Lord then tells His disciples that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” What is meant by the people from the ‘east and west’? This makes me think about how even today we refer to people of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ philosophies. Often times these people don’t see eye to eye on things. But the Heavenly Doctrines tell us that, whatever the doctrine or philosophy, if a person is living a good life, they can get into heaven. In Secrets of Heaven it say that “‘many from the east and the west’ denote those who are in the knowledges and the life of good, and those who are in obscurity and ignorance; thus those who are within the church and those who are without it.” (AC 3708:13) Apocalypse Explained says that people from the east and west also represent “all who are in the good of love to the Lord and in the good of charity towards the neighbor” (AE 422:6). And that number goes on to say that “all who are in good are also in truths,” because as it says in the Doctrine of Life, “good loves truth.” (Life 65). What this means is that people who want to do good and love their neighbor tend to seek out philosophies that support that. Apparently, whether that is a Buddhist philosophy or a Christian philosophy is less important than whether or not they are loving God and loving the people around them.
“Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” The Writings tell us that ‘Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ represent “the celestial things of love” (AC 2187:4), and also the Lord Himself (see AE 252:3, AE 768:13, AC 10442). So ‘to recline at table with them’ represents to be conjoined with the Lord, to make His love a part of us, and to have heaven within us (see AC 3832, 9527, 10442, AE 252:3), because as the Lord taught us in Luke, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) So just like when we take the Holy Supper, ‘reclining at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’ represents bringing the Lord’s love and wisdom into us so that heaven lives in us, and we live in heaven. The Lord is the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and we should be eating that bread. This isn’t just describing the process of getting to a place called ‘heaven’ after we die, this is describing the process of bringing heaven into our current natural lives. And the way we do that is by having faith like the centurion. The ‘faith that saves’ is a life of love towards others.
Sometimes it can also be useful to understand what we should be doing by looking at what we shouldn’t be doing. Sort of a ‘10 Commandments’ mentality. This is where we get into the last part of the Lord’s words to his disciples, “...while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In Apocalypse Explained is says that: "‘kingdom’ in the Word signifies heaven and the church in respect to truths.” (AE 48:2) So the ‘sons of the kingdom’ are people who have the truths and therefore should have heaven in them, but in this case they don’t. These ‘sons of the kingdom’ get thrown into the ‘outer darkness.‘ In the Word ‘darkness’ symbolizes “falsity arising either from ignorance of truth, or from some false tenet of religion, or from a life of evil.” (AR 413:3) So how does somebody get from having the truth, to being in falsity? The key is in the last thing Jesus says: “In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In Secrets of Heaven, we are told that ‘gnashing of teeth’ represents the “collision of falsities with the truths of faith.” (AC 9052:3) The Writings also say that people represented by the phrase ‘gnashing of teeth’ are people who engage in: contempt for others, hostility, derision, mockery, enmity, and jeering because a person who is like this “fights for his [or her] own falsity from love of self, [love] of learning, and [love] of fame.” (AE 556:18. See also HH 575) And that people who spiritually ‘gnash their teeth’ “appear to themselves to have power over everything.... and argue about everything.” (AR 435) When we have the truth, and at the same time no love for the people around us, then those truths get twisted into falsities. When we engage in doctrinal arguments and battles with other people in which we get nasty and mean, then we are like the ‘sons of the kingdom’ being thrown into outer darkness.
The centurion was not a ‘son of the kingdom.’ He didn’t know anything doctrinal about the Lord. But what he did know was that Jesus was a good Man who could save people from sickness and death. The centurion called Jesus ‘Lord,’ not because he had necessarily read the Scriptures and recognized the Messiah, but because he recognized that Jesus was the Master of healing and salvation. It is possible that he actually believed that Jesus was God (Jupiter) Himself (see AE 815:3). But more importantly, he recognized that Jesus represented the healing power of love, and that is what he had faith in. That is why people of all religions can be saved, because everyone can recognize and know the healing power of love. And since that is who the Lord is, then everyone can know the Lord. Swedenborg’s book Divine Providence states that “no one is saved because of knowing about the Lord. We are saved because we live by His commandments. Further, the Lord is known to everyone who believes in God because the Lord is the God of heaven and earth.” (DP 330:6)
So as you go into your week, ask yourself if you are ‘gnashing your teeth’ at people, or if you are ‘reclining at table‘ with the Lord’s love. Because what really matters in the church is that we live our lives with an acknowledgment of the Lord’s power to heal, and a love for the people around us, like the centurion did. This was the faith that Jesus marveled over. Because in the end, love is the faith that saves. And the salvation of the Lord’s healing love comes to us when we have a faith and life of love. “And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment.”