Yesterday I preached on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead as recorded in John 11. During the course of the research I was struck by how many times the gospel of John speaks of life. I’m sure it’s partly because I was looking for it, but it seems to be the central message of John: Because of His oneness with the Father, Jesus is life, and grants life to those who are in Him. Anyway, here’s the sermon; I recommend reading John 11 first, as well as this passage from Arcana Coelestia.
“Lazarus, our friend, rests; but I go, that I may bring him out of sleep.” John 11:11
Have you ever been asleep and dreaming and thought to yourself, “I wonder if I’m dreaming right now”? You probably have – and you’ve probably found it difficult to answer the question. When we’re asleep and dreaming, it is hard to tell whether you’re awake. But right now, when we’re awake, most of us probably have no problem distinguishing between waking life and sleeping life. Why is it so much harder to tell whether we’re awake when we are dreaming than when we actually are awake?
It’s a hard to describe in words, but we all know the experience. Everything is more solid and detailed and clear when we’re actually awake. And we can know we’re awake partly because we can compare how we feel now to the way that we feel when we’re dreaming, and we realize that everything is slower and fuzzier and sleepier when we’re dreaming. And yet, for all that, when we are actually in a dream, we can’t tell whether we’re awake or dreaming. And that’s partly because when we’re asleep, we can’t compare that state to an awake state, the same way that we can imagine sleepiness from being awake. From awakeness, we understand both waking and sleeping; while asleep, we don’t have a clear sense of either.
Why are we talking about waking life vs. sleeping life? Because these things we’ve been talking about – our ability to tell whether we are awake – holds true in our spiritual lives as much in our spiritual lives as our natural lives. Before we become spiritually awake, we have a hard time knowing whether we are spiritually sleeping – but once we experience spiritual wakefulness, we see clearly that in our lives before we had been merely sleepwalking. Spiritual sleep – in its negative sense – is the sleep that the Lord told his disciples Lazarus was sleeping. That is, it is really not even only sleep. Before we are spiritually awakened, we are spiritually dead.
That can be hard to believe. The passage we read from Arcana Coelestia this morning describes spirits in hell who believe themselves to be alive. Not only do they think they are living – when they are actually spiritually dead – they think they are more alive than other people. We can understand that mindset by looking at some fairly extreme examples of similar things in this world. Imagine the stereotype of a 1970’s rock star – living the life of excess, of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”. During those crazy years, they might say things like, “It’s got its ups and its downs, but at least I’m really living!” The person in the middle of that lifestyle thinks that their lives are much more alive than the boring lives of an everyday person. But what is remarkable, of course, is how often we hear from rock stars later in life who have settled down and established families, who say that those years of excess were a blur, and not nearly as fulfilling as the “boring” lives they’d looked down on before. Really living, contrary to the rock star myth, is not about excessive drugs and promsicuity; and most people do recognize that such a life, for whatever appeal it might have temporarily, is shallow and unfulfilling.
But although we can see this when it is put in such obvious terms, we might still be blind to whether or not we are truly living. Because what our culture says is “living life to the fullest” still leaves out some of the most important things of what it means to be spiritually alive. What does our culture tell us it means to “live life to the fullest”? Our first thought might be that culture tells us to earn a lot of money, that material possessions will make us happy. But while that might be the message of some advertisements, most of our culture – that is, the novels we read, the TV shows and movies we watch, the common wisdom of people on the street – tells us that a fulfilling life involves things like spending lots of time with our families. It involves following our dreams. It involves travelling the world, and appreciating different kinds of art. It involves being in nature, and spending as much time as possible doing the activities we really enjoy – fishing, golfing, whatever. If someone tells us that we really need to get out there and start living, it’s those kinds of things that they’re most likely talking about.
Now those things are all very good things. And yet – it is possible to do all those things and still be spiritually dead. It is possible to follow your dreams and spend countless hours with loved ones and still be dead. Those things, as good as they are, are in themselves natural things. When they are done by a spiritual person, it’s true, they become spiritual and living; but when done by a natural person they remain natural, and the natural without the spiritual is dead (see, for example, Arcana Coelestia 5680).
And the truth is that as happy as those things make us, a person could do them and be completely unaware that there exists an even deeper, fuller, more alive kind of happiness, far beyond what even these things provide. But before experiencing it, we can hardly believe that it exists. The book Conjugial Love even goes so far as to state, “Not even one person in the whole Christian world knows what heavenly joy and eternal happiness are” (Conjugial Love 2). And the Lord Himself felt intense pity for the people of Jerusalem because they did not know what would bring them peace and life; as we read in the gospel of Luke, “And when Jesus was near, seeing the city, He wept over it, saying, ‘O that you had known, even you, and, indeed, in this your day, the things which belong to your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.’” (Luke 19:41, 42)
We read of Jesus weeping also in the story of Lazarus. And in this case, too, the Lord wept over the ignorance and confusion of the people there. He was not weeping that Lazarus had died. Instead, He wept because of the profound lack of understanding in the people at Lazarus’ grave of what it meant that He, Jesus, was the resurrection and the life.
And here, in this story, we have the short answer to the question of what we need to be spiritually alive. To have life means to have Jesus within us, because He is the resurrection and the life. The gospel of John in particular records statement after statement showing both that the Lord is life, and what it means that He is life. That gospel begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men” (John 1:1, 4). This gospel records the Lord saying these words to the Judeans: “I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). And as such, because He was life, the Lord spoke of His ability to raise the dead: “Amen, amen, I say to you, that the hour comes, and now is, that the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they who hear shall live” (John 5:25).
Now there are lots of aspects to faith in the Lord. It does not mean just an intellectual acknowledgment – it means a life of faithfulness to His commandments, which is one and the same as a life of love toward the neighbor. But the very first thing we need to have life is an acknowledgment that He, Jesus Christ, is Lord. This miracle was possible in part because of Martha’s faith in this; she said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who should come into the world” (John 11:27). The book Arcana Coelestia confirms this: “Because the acknowledgment of the Lord is the first of all things of spiritual life, and the most essential thing of the church, and because without it no one can receive from heaven anything of the truth of faith and the good of love, therefore the Lord often says that he who ‘believeth in Him hath eternal life,’ that he who ‘doth not believe hath not life’” (AC 10083). The emphasis here is on believing not only in God in general terms, but that the Lord Jesus Christ is God; it is this acknowledgment that brings life.
What we believe matters. But that same passage from Arcana Coelestia goes on to say that this belief in the Lord is impossible unless we are following His commandments. That passage continues: “But He also teaches at the same time that those have faith in Him who ‘live according to His precepts,’ so that the consequent life may enter into the faith.” We cannot believe in the Lord unless we are living according to His commandments, because He is in His commandments; at the same time as He told His disciples that He was life, He told them, “the words which I speak to you are spirit, and are life” (John 6:63). The earliest apostles knew this; the apostle John wrote in a letter, “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him.” (1 John 2:3-5) Faith in the Lord is only possible if we are living by His commandments.
And so we can see another part of the answer to the question of what it means to truly have life: it means living according to the Lord’s commandments. We drew our opening sentence this morning from Psalm 119: “I will never forget Your precepts, For by them You have given me life.” There are teachings like this throughout the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms – that life is given by walking according to the commandments. And although we can follow the commandments naturally without acknowledging the Lord, we can only love to do them if we ask for the Lord to give us a new heart that loves His commandments. Listen to this passage from the book Apocalypse Revealed, explaining why both sides of the equation are so necessary: “Man is born into [the love of dominating from self-love, and the love of ruling from the pride of one’s own intelligence]… and those loves cannot be removed except by God the Savior, and by a life according to His precepts; and they cannot be removed by God the Savior, unless He is approached; nor can a life according to His precepts be given, unless man is led by Him” (AR 502). Without the Lord, we may be able to follow the letter of the commandments – but we cannot have our hearts completely changed.
So what can we take away from this practically? As we’ve seen, the two primary things that the Lord mentions as giving life are to acknowledge Him and to follow His commandments. One particular part of this that the Writings for the New Church stress is the need to do these things in particular, not just in general; to look in particular at the commandments we tend to break, and choose to live differently. To do anything else is to continue to sleepwalk through our lives, as the book Divine Providence explains:
Someone who confesses himself guilty of sins of all kind and does not search out any one sin in himself may say, “I am a sinner; I was born in sin; there is nothing sound in me from head to foot; I am nothing but evil. Good God, be gracious to me, pardon me, cleanse me, save me, make me to walk in purity and in the way of righteousness”; and so on. Yet he does not examine himself, and consequently is ignorant of any evil; and no one can shun that of which he is ignorant, much less fight against it. After his confession he also believes himself clean and washed, when nevertheless he is unclean and unwashed from the head to the sole of the foot; for the confession of all sins is the lulling to sleep of all, and at length blindness. (Divine Providence 278)
Being brutally honest with ourselves and the Lord does not sound like a great amount of fun, but anyone who has experienced it knows something of the life and alertness that comes from looking at the truth clearly, rather than trying to avert our eyes. Honestly looking at ourselves and repenting is like having a bucket of cold water splashed in our face when we have been sleepy – it is not pleasant, but it makes us feel alive.
This idea of what it truly means to be alive is different from what culture says. And it can be hard to really believe that there is so much difference in that kind of life – because just like someone who is asleep and dreaming, we can’t experience wakefulness and compare it. We might say, “I really do not see at all how thinking of Jesus as God or not will make any difference to my spiritual life.” The only way to know is to do – to pray to the Lord, and to actively seek out a life according to His commandments. Many of us have probably experienced something of this waking up. But the truth is, the Lord could always give us more life – life is not something we have or don’t have, but something that we can have “more abundantly” (John 10:10). And it is only after we have been brought into more life that we are able to look back and see how comparatively dead we were before – how the Lord has brought us into new light, into new life.
This light and this life are the gift that the Lord God Jesus Christ gives to those who acknowledge Him in faith and in life. And once we have that life in us in this world, then even physical death does not kill us because we are in the Lord and He is in us, and to be in the Lord is to be in His life. Therefore the Lord says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live. And everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”