Feb. 1, 1959
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” – Matthew 18:20
In the letter these words convey the promise of the Lord’s continual presence with His church, however small it may be. If the church is true to His teachings as found in His Word, then the Lord is present in it, filling it with His life, blessing it, and making it fruitful.
On January twenty-ninth two hundred and seventy-one years ago a man was born who was to be the chosen instrument of the Second Coming of the Lord. He was born at a time when faith and charity had all but perished from the earth, and it was given him to declare that, according to the prophecy in the book of Revelation, a new church would be established in the earth. Eleven years after Swedenborg’s death the first New-Church society was formed in London.
Since the beginning of the New Church the words of our text have been a comfort to the faithful, giving them the strength to continue in the face of apparently overwhelming odds.
It has always been so. Recall the story of Moses. For many years Israel had been held in increasingly severe bondage, until Pharaoh issued his desperate edict in the effort to stop the nation’s growth and finally to extinguish it. He was unsuccessful, for the preservation of the child Moses is indicative not only of Israel’s will to live but also of the Divine will that it should be so. The Lord’s promise to Abraham was: “In thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” And the Psalmist writes: “He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
The New Church is in the world to release the human race from the greatest bondage in its history, the greatest because it is a spiritual bondage rather than a natural one. There are many forces operating against the growth of the church, seeking to destroy its life. Doubts are insinuated as to whether the teachings of the church are true; there are attempts to make it conform to the standards of the world, the present-day exaltation of self-intelligence, the setting up of the testimony of the senses as authoritative, and the insistence that self-advancement and the gratification of our material desires and needs are the essentials and the supreme goal of life. These are examples of the forces seeking to destroy the New Church in us and in the world.
For this reason those who have accepted the truths of the Second Coming have been few and they have been scattered widely over the earth. And these same forces exist in ourselves. There is a tendency to dissipate our energies in external activities. We wage a constant struggle against our indifference to our spiritual needs. The tendency to exalt self-intelligence exists in everyone. Doubts arise as to the importance of the teachings of the church. The love of self urges us to judge everything according to its ability to serve our own purposes, making spiritual things seem unreal and often undesirable. To some extent this is the case with everyone. Our present material needs are so pressing that little time is found for acquiring those spiritual knowledges of good and truth which nourish the soul and which it is the function of the church to provide and foster. It sometimes seems that the church is struggling on in vain. Some even wonder if the New Church will survive.
But we should net give way to such thoughts. Our text is an encouragement given by the Lord Himself. He tells us also: “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name,” and we pray that His “will be done as in heaven so upon the earth.” If we believe Him and have confidence in His justice and power, though our efforts are feeble, we know that through them the Lord will accomplish much, for “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
These words were spoken to bring assurance to us, especially in times when it seems that no progress is being made. For the usefulness of the church is not determined by the abundance of its physical possessions or external activities. It is not measured by the number of its members, nor by the number and size of its places of worship, nor by the power that it exhibits in civil affairs. The true excellence of the church is spiritual, and this cannot be measured by any material standards.
The true excellence of the New Church depends upon the unique nature of the revelation on which it is founded, on its keeping bright in the minds of men the light of truth from the Lord, and on its developing and keeping alive the fire of love to the Lord and to the neighbor, that it may be the dwelling-place of the Lord with men. And these uses can be performed however small the church may be.
And so we read in the writings that it does not matter whether a greater or smaller part of the world has even accepted the Christian religion “provided there are peoples that have the Word; for even those have light therefrom who are outside of the church and do not have the Word… and what is wonderful, where the Word is read reverently and the Lord is worshiped from the Word the Lord with heaven is present. This is because the Lord is the Word, and the Word is Divine truth which makes heaven.”
And we know, too, that the work of establishing the church is the Lord’s and not man’s. It is the Lord alone who enlightens the minds of men to see the truths of the Word; it is the Lord alone who leads us to the good of life; it is the Lord alone who inspires the heart with heavenly loves and affections; it is the Lord alone who forms in men a dwelling place for Himself. None of these things can man do.
Knowledge of this shows us how unnecessary it is for us to be over-anxious when things do not seem to be going as we would have them. And equally it shows us how foolish it is for us to become proud of our accomplishments when things go well.
Yet the text should not be used to confirm us in the fallacy that the responsibility for building up the church is wholly the Lord’s and not at all our own. We have our part and our responsibility. We must permit the Lord to establish His church in us. We are responsible for accepting the truth and applying it to life. We are to read the Word and seek to understand it, making use of the means given us by the Lord for this purpose. And what we learn and know is not for ourselves alone. We are to be messengers of the Lord, instruments for making known to others the teachings of the Word. We have to act as of ourselves both in acquiring the truths of the church and in carrying them to others.
It is significant that our text is followed by the parable of the talents which teaches the necessity of the application of the truth to life. This same necessity is taught throughout the Word. It is taught in the stories of Moses and Joshua; it is taught in the story of the widow who was commanded to make for Elijah a little cake first. However little good and truth we have, it is enough to start with, and if used will increase beyond measure.
When Pharaoh’s daughter saw the infant Moses, she said: “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” The Jewish people were chosen by the Lord to represent the spiritual in the world as distinguished from the natural. It is the spiritual alone that can survive. Every effort to exterminate the Jewish race failed, because through it, under the Divine providence, the Word was to be given to mankind for all ages. Their history in its internal meaning is the story of the Divine life and purpose, of the spiritual history of the human race, and of our own individual reformation and regeneration.
No schemes or efforts of men alone can deliver from bondage. Whatever reforms in any sphere contribute to men’s real welfare and salvation must be tested by Divine standards. For this purpose the Lord instituted His church, and through it He accomplishes His purposes. We cannot do good of ourselves. But “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” and “If ye ask anything in my name, I will do it.”