Why is the Reformation such a big deal?


Houses were plastered with a mixture of mud, straw and manure.
Windows were a luxury – at one point in history, windows were taxed in England.
You would share your house with your animals (pigs, cows, chickens, etc, NOT pets).
Houses had no running water, … or toilets.

As a peasant, you could expect a bath twice in your life – when you were born and when you died.
Most people were servants of a lord, who was a servant of a baron, who was a servant of the king. You might be “sold” with the land that you rented.
Education was only for the rich. There was no “child care”. Children went straight to work as soon as they were able.
You paid rent to your lord, taxes to the king, and a “tithe” (one tenth of your income) to the church.
If you went to the equivalent of a hotel, you’d likely be renting space in a bed with two other people. If you were lucky, you could stay at someone’s house for the price of telling them some good stories of your travels. But most people never travelled far from their own home.

You would attend church – because you had to – and you wouldn’t understand what was being said – because it was all in Latin.
Often, only the priests would participate in communion.
You wouldn’t be able to read a Bible – because you wouldn’t have one, you wouldn’t be able to read, and it wouldn’t be written in a language you understood.
The Pope was in charge – you could be “excommunicated” if you said the wrong thing.
You could buy salvation for dead relatives, by purchasing “indulgences”.

Why is the Reformation such a big deal?

Mark 1:1-15
Isaiah 46

Five hundred years ago, in 1517, Martin Luther, a priest and theologian, nailed his “95 theses” to the church door, in PROTEST against some of the Catholic Church’s corrupt teachings and practices. He was subsequently ordered to retract his claims, which he refused, and as a result he was labelled a “PROTESTANT” by church authorities.

Now we shouldn’t underestimate the danger Luther put himself in by doing that. William Tyndale was executed in 1536 – for translating the Bible into English. This was also the time of the Spanish Inquisition, “intended primarily to identify heretics among those who converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism. The regulation of the faith of newly converted Catholics was intensified after the royal decrees issued in 1492 and 1502 ordering Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. … about 150,000 persons were charged with crimes by the Inquisition and it is believed 3,000–5,000 people were executed.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Inquisition) “During her five-year reign [1553-1558], [Queen] Mary had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake, leading Protestants to denounce her as ‘Bloody Mary’.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_I_of_England) So this was neither an easy nor a light thing that he did. Luther himself had to go into hiding, but he continued to write and publish. Now any one of us today could go and nail a poster up anywhere, and while we might get a slap over the wrists for putting it in the wrong place, we’re certainly not going to be imprisoned or executed for doing so.

The Reformation eventually affected every area of life, not only religion. We associate it with the division of the western church. But it also meant you could understand what you heard in church, so that I am not going to be speaking to you in Latin today. The Bible became available for everyone, in their own language. The Reformation was part of a greater movement of anti-authoritarianism, which led to the dismantling of the feudal system, and led eventually to political revolutions, modern democracy, women’s suffrage, and abolition of slavery, things that we take for granted today. Education became an important part of everyone’s life. Freedom of thought became the norm, which we now also take for granted, the ability to question what you’ve always been taught, instead of merely believing what you’re told and doing what you’re told. The greater prominence of science, which has led to many developments in technology and medicine, and thereby raised standards of living across the globe.

These are the natural effects of the Reformation. But what about the spiritual effects?

Well, from a New Church point of view, we say, it’s not spiritual effects, its spiritual causes. The spiritual world is world of causes, the natural world is the world of effects. We see the effects of things here, but the causes are actually elsewhere, on the spiritual plane.

Now, we tend to think that Martin Luther caused the Reformation, but that is not the case. Martin Luther was one of a number of intellectuals at the time who were all vocal, who wrote and published a great many things along similar lines. Martin Luther did it particularly effectively, and his writing seemed to strike a particular chord. However, even in a natural sense, you can’t say that Martin Luther caused the Reformation, he was merely the most prominent member of a larger movement of change. Luther was not the originator of the Reformation, but an instrument by which it came into reality.

So, it’s not too difficult to understand why the New Church looks at the Reformation within a spiritual context, not as a cause, but as an effect of a greater spiritual awakening being stirred by the Lord at that time.

Let’s look at some well-known words, from the book of Revelation: “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him.” (Revelation 1:7)

The fundamentalist or evangelical Christian reads this and sees the falsities and injustices that exist in the world as a prelude to the last judgment. They believe it will mount up to breaking point, and that the Lord with then return in glory – physically – to break the power of evil, to set the world to rights again, to be seen and acknowledged by all, and to reward the faithful.

But what does the New Church see? Swedenborg writes:

“Behold, He is coming with the clouds (of heaven). This symbolically means that the Lord will reveal Himself in the literal sense of the Word and lay open its spiritual meaning at the end of the church.” (Apocalypse Revealed, paragraph 24)

“And every eye will see Him. This symbolically means that all those will acknowledge Him who possess, from an affection for it, an understanding of Divine truth. … it is next said that they also who pierced Him will see, meaning people who are caught up in falsities.” (Apocalypse Revealed, paragraph 25)

For the New Church, “The Existence of the Church Rests on the Word, and Its Quality Depends on the Quality of Its Understanding of the Word.” (Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, paragraph 76) He goes on to say, “Whether or not the Word is the Word depends on our comprehension of it – that is, on how we understand it. If we do not understand it, we may of course call it “the Word,” but for us it is not the Word.” (Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, paragraph 77) proportion to that understanding.” (Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, paragraph 78)

“… the Lord is present with us and united to us through the Word because the Lord is the Word and is virtually talking with us in it. … The Lord is present with us when we read the Word; but he is united to us only when we understand what is true from the Word and only in proportion to that understanding.” (Doctrine of Sacred Scripture, paragraph 78)

So, the Word must be read before the Lord can be revealed within its pages. Now you can see how significant the events of the Reformation are for the New Church, because the Word was made available for all. It was no longer closed up, no longer hidden, no longer spoken in a language that you could not understand. The Word was made available for people to read for themselves and to find the Lord within it. This availability of the Word is fundamental to the process which Swedenborg calls the last judgment. So, the events of the Reformation are somewhat like John the Baptist’s ministry, prior to the ministry of Jesus Christ. It prepared the way for the revelation of the Lord.

So, what was it that Swedenborg expected at the Last Judgment?

Well, firstly, He does not expect the fundamentalists’ compulsion of certainty. He does not look forward to a time when the Lord will return physically with signs and wonders, such that all of earth’s inhabitants must acknowledge that this is the Lord. What he imagines is a world where greater freedom is established. So, he writes, “…miracles would compel a man to believe, and whatever is compulsory takes away freedom … Whatever is implanted in this state is not permanent.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 5508, section 3)

He does not expect the instantaneous destruction of evils and falsities, but an uncovering of them, and with that uncovering comes a judgment – an understanding of their true nature – and a setting in order.

“Evils cannot be removed unless they appear.” (Divine Providence, paragraph 278)

An example of this is the royal commission into institutional child abuse. Over a considerable period of time, and prominently in our media, we have heard how once-concealed horrors from within the churches, in schools and other institutions have been dredged up. Now this has clearly been a very painful process, but a very necessary one. The evils which have taken place in the past are brought out, and they are examined carefully, so that we can actually understand their nature, and because we understand them, we can make a judgment upon them. From that we can move on – we hope – to the healing of hurts, and a world in which child abuse occurs less and less.

This also means that the progress of human spiritual history must be gradual, and will probably appear to be two steps forward, one step back. We will become aware of things we don’t want to know about because they are there. It’s not as though child abuse never occurred the past, of course it did. Child abuse has clearly been a part of the church’s, and our culture’s, history – we are just more aware of it now. This uncovering is a necessary part of the process of growth.

So, Swedenborg concludes,

“… the Last Judgment is not to take place on earth, but in the spiritual world, where all are gathered who have lived since the beginning of creation. …” (Last Judgment, paragraph 45)

That Last Judgment will have its effects in the natural world, but it will be established in freedom, it will be real, its effects will be internal first and external second, it will be gradual to implement, and it will be lasting. The Reformation is the groundwork for all of this.

There are things we learn from viewing this process, remembering that it is a process we are still really in the midst of.

It’s very clear that history is not progressing as we might have expected, although perhaps we should have know better! The Lord tells us, through the prophet Isaiah,

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8,9)

The Reformers did not foresee the effects of their own actions. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, he did not intend to create the protestant church. Luther’s intention was to reform the Catholic Church. What took place was entirely different. Looking at the history of the New Church, we can also see that things have not progressed in the way we intended either. I recall stories of older colleagues who once looked forward to a time when the New Church in its rapid growth would simply absorb the old and failing Christian church, and some who imagined their first sermons from the pulpits of our greatest Christian cathedrals. But it’s clear now that these were our ideas, they were not the Lord’s! So, our plan, our map for our future, is very different from the one the Lord has in mind.

The Lord is the architect of the changes we see taking place in the world today, as He was of the Reformation. We look at the debate on Same-Sex Marriage, for example. However much we agree or disagree with the outcome, we must remember that the Lord is at the centre of whatever takes place.

“Divine providence is present in the least particulars of nature and in the least particulars of human prudence, and because of its presence in these it is universal.” (Divine Providence, paragraph 201)

We have to hang onto that one fact: the Lord is the architect of our present and our future.

Another example: living in the era of “Post-truth”, and “Alternative facts”. It makes us feel very uncomfortable, doesn’t it! We like to read a newspaper and believe that what it’s telling us is the truth. But guess what? It never did! It’s just that now we know, now we realise that fiction and fallacy are part of the “reality” that we are presented. The media haven’t changed suddenly, we’re just more aware of the reality now. Aren’t we in a better place, understanding that, than believing that what we’ve always been told is the truth of the matter? As lost as we feel, is that merely part of the process of discernment and enlightenment?

Even examining our own perceptions, we understand that the way we see the world is not always the way the world is. Our rationality can be guided by bodily, sensual thinking (appearances) or it can by guided by Divine Truths (see Heavenly Secrets, paragraphs 1935 &1936; Doctrine of Faith, paragraph 13). We understand from the teachings of our church that it is the Will that rules the understanding, and not the other way around. It we truly desire to believe something, then we’ll go and believe it, irrespective of what the evidence tells us: “Some people think that the understanding rules; but the understanding does not do so unless the will has the same leanings. The understanding accords with the will, for regarded in itself the understanding is nothing other than the outward form which the will takes.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 7342)

A few weeks ago, I read a blog post by one of my colleagues, Coleman Glenn, on wrestling with apparent contradictions. He writes about the importance of this process, for the reason that we cannot just be presented with the truth. We need the mental exercise of processing it. We do like to think that if the truth presents itself we will simply believe it, but that’s not the case. We only really begin to absorb truths by having to think about them (see Conjugial Love, paragraph 183, section 2; Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 7298, section 2). In this way truths becomes real to us.

Having said that, I think it is OK to feel concern about the state of the world. I know I look at the modern work, and its influence upon the lives of my children, and I worry about their being misled by worldly attitudes and practices. I’m not the only one:

“I was once carried up in my spirit to the heaven of angels, and to one community there. Then some of their wise men came to me asking, ‘What is the news from earth?’ I told them that … the Lord has revealed secrets far exceeding in excellence any so far revealed since the church began. … The angels were very glad to hear [this], but they were aware of a sadness in me, and they kept asking: ‘What makes you sad?’ I said that although the secrets revealed by the Lord at the present time surpass in excellence and importance all spiritual knowledge made public up to now, they are regarded on earth as of no value.” (True Christian Religion, from paragraphs 846 & 848)

So, while I hold onto a confidence that the Lord is in charge of all of this and that everything will ultimately work out for the best – despite appearances to the contrary – I do worry about our children and the effect this current age has upon their lives. But I can only really hand that over to the Lord, and trust that I’ve taught them enough to be able to face the world sensibly.

Nevertheless, it is also important for us to get out of the Lord’s way! So often we do things with good intentions, which actually just twist and distort the process. It’s interesting that Luther had the intention of reforming the Catholic Church: the Catholics then called him a “protestant”, and in so doing, and in perusing him as relentlessly as they did, it was really the Catholics who created the protestant church. If the Catholic church, and the powers that be, had got out of the way of the Lord, perhaps we could still have been one church in West even today.

Looking at our reading from Isaiah, focus your attention upon this one verse. The Lord is speaking about himself, when he says, “Calling a bird of prey from the east, The man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.” (Isaiah 46:11)

Here is the Lord using a foreign power – the powers of Babylon – to bring judgment upon the children of Israel. Now the powers of Babylon never intended to be instruments of the Lord, but they were. They had their own reasons for their actions – their own power and greed – but the Lord used what they did for His greater purposes, and we have to understand that mechanism. As worried as we may be about the progress of history, whatever the motives of the protagonists on the world stage, the Lord is in charge.

I read a really interesting passage from Heavenly Secrets a few days ago, and in closing, I wanted to share it with you:

“… worries about the future, when these are compounded by the way such people act, seriously impair and slow down the inflow of spiritual life. This is because these people assign to themselves that which is the business of Divine Providence, and those who do this put a stop to that inflow and so cut themselves off from the life of goodness and truth.” (Heavenly Secrets, paragraph 5177)

If we do anything, we must get out of the way of the Lord. By all means, we offer our hands and our feet as his tools in this world, but we cannot determine the outcome of our actions. We can only look to the Lord to use them to His purposes, allowing Him to decide the end results. That is difficult for us, we find that hard. We like to be in control of our own lives, the lives of the people around us, and our world. But we aren’t, we have to give it to the Lord.

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