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SERMON ARCHIVE

 

 

Who Is the Bride of Christ?

Old Testament Reading#: Song of Solomon 4:9-16

New Testament Reading#: Revelation 19:6-10

Text: Thomas saying 75: "Jesus said: Many are standing at the door, but the solitary are the ones who will enter the bridal chamber."

This sermon is a response to a question put to me last week by someone interested in the theological topic of guardian angels. I say that right up front this way in case the original question becomes lost sight of in the rather strange sounding answer I am going to give.

The very notion of guardian angels at first sounds as apocryphal and quaint as some of the  Christmas card myths. You know: for instance, the idea that there were three wise men, and that they were kings, and that they represented three different races, and that their names were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar? All apocryphal popular tradition. We usually file away the notion of guardian angels in our minds along with Valentine card cherubs.

But in fact the two mentions of personal guardian angels in the New Testament are twin tips of a rather imposing theological iceberg. Let's see if we can gain some idea of the dimensions of it below the water line. In it I think we will find a theological gem as well as a moral challenge.

Here are the two texts. The first is Matthew 18:10, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven." (This seems to be Matthew's reworking of a simpler saying preserved in Luke 15:10, "There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.")

The second is the story of Peter's miraculous prison escape in Acts 12. In one of the great comic moments of the New Testament, the church is gathered praying for Peter's deliverance when, released, he shows up at their very doorstep! The maid is so flabbergasted to see him alive that she forgets to open the door but instead rushes back to report breathlessly, It is Peter! "They said to her, 'You are mad!' But she insisted that it was so. They said, 'It is his angel.'"

Besides being a skewering satire on our faithlessness in prayer, this story implies the crucial thing about the ancient doctrine of guardian angels. Notice that the Jerusalem Christians identify the supposed angel as Peter's because it #looks# like him!

The idea is that your guardian angel is a #higher level of your own self#. It is somehow a higher and more glorious version of you! This goes all the way back, as several key Christian doctrines do, by the way, to the ancient Zoroastrian faith of Persia. There it was believed that God, Ahura Mazda, had first created the souls of all human beings and then asked if they would be willing to take on flesh in order to join God in his coming struggle against evil in world history. With this was combined the idea of there being spirits who watched over warriors on the battle field and collected them unto God when they fell in combat, sort of like Valkyries in Germanic myth. The result was that you had a fravashi, a protective spirit that was somehow a higher aspect of yourself!

Essentially the same notion was current in the Greco-Roman Mystery Religions contemporary with the birth of Christianity. Once you were initiated into one of these faiths it was believed that you had attained immortality by means of inner renewal, as Paul says, "the renewing of your mind," or as John says, by being "born again, born from above." You now had an inner nature of spirit or #glory# and were no longer a mere human.

At the same time another set of images was used. This new self that had been created in you was also a heavenly body or robe that awaited you safe in heaven, to clothe you with immortality once you died. Paul says all this in 2 Corinthians 5.

But beyond this, the new self was somehow a heavenly twin -- and even a spark of the savior god himself!

We know from the traditions of the Syrian church and from Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Philip that all these ideas were current in early Christianity. Many Christian circles even practiced a sacramental initiation called the Bridal Chamber. We don't know precisely what they did, but the idea seems to have been that the initiate entered into a mystical union with his higher self that had been born from above in baptism. He experienced the beatific vision of his spiritual twin: the Risen Christ! He has invited you to his banqueting table, and his banner over you is love!

Of this all that has survived into mainstream Christianity are the fragments of belief in guardian angels and of the heavenly banquet spoken of in the Revelation, two out-of-context fragments that puzzle us more than edify us.

But in early Christianity this whole scenario was a mighty spiritual challenge. The challenge is hurled like a gauntlet in the saying from the Gospel of Thomas I read: "Many are standing at the door, but the solitary are the ones who will enter the bridal chamber."

I think we find the same tradition echoed in John 3:29, "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice."

Implicit in both passages is a parable. As he often did, Jesus appeals to commonsense observation of human life: there are many men at a wedding feast, but how many of them enter the privacy of the bridal chamber? #Only one#! And which might that be? Obviously, the bridegroom! The one chosen above all others by the bride as her soul-mate.

Even so, if you will press on into the hushed privacy of the soul alone with God, you must ready yourself, as Ephesians says, so that you may be presented without spot or wrinkle. Only then can you enter into the secret place of the Most High.

But how to do it? One may say there is no easy way, but there is a simple way. That is, it is by no means easy to accomplish, but the matter is simple enough. For Hercules to clean the Augean Stables was a simple matter, but not an easy one.

Our text from Thomas provides the answer when it specifies just who it is who gains entrance into the bridal chamber with the soul's mate. It is the #solitary# one, the single one. Single in the very sense described many hundreds of years later by Kierkegaard in the title of his book, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Or if you prefer psychologists to theologians, the answer is to be converted in the sense described by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He said that essentially what happens in the conversion process is that a personality hitherto fragmented into several competing interests becomes focused, so that all interests are aligned together in the service of one ruling interest, the religious one.

Right now I am engaged in dieting. If you have ever done the same you know that the pivotal thing to do, or you will never succeed, is to get to desire one thing: losing that weight. That is, you have to consciously decide, and to keep on deciding, and to remind yourself that you decided that you want one thing, losing weight. That you want it more than you want that dessert or that between-meal snack. You must cease fighting against yourself to lose weight. You must become single-minded. You must decide that you desire one thing.

It is the same thing if you would desire God. You must desire him above all else. If you are a minister, you must not simply regard God as your job. If you are an unordained person, you must not simply regard God as a hobby. You must will one thing, and that is God.

I regret to say that I cannot dispense some neat prescription for doing this, since unlike the probable author of the Gospel of Thomas I am not a monk, and unlike Kierkegaard, I am not affluent beyond the need to occupy myself with work. Neither are you.  We are going to have to arrive at some way to practice the presence of God while at our inescapable and good mundane tasks. Perhaps it would suffice to keep before your mind, as the Bhagavad Gita counsels, that all you are doing may be  done as a glad sacrifice for the Lord.

But however you do it, it is something you are going to have to do. It will not happen automatically. You are going to have to stay on top of yourself, as if your self were a gold-bricking employee eager to slack off.

And that is perhaps where the imagery of the guardian angel becomes relevant. You are your own guardian angel! The higher you must watch over and guide the lower you that has little patience for what it deems the distractions and irrelevancies of the spiritual life.

H. Richard Niebuhr was right about us. We are still worshippers of many gods, despite our protestations of monotheism. We sneer at the ancient Greeks with their crowded pantheon of soap- operatic deities. We laugh at primitive savages with their shelf of grotesque fetishes. But you and I live our lives dividing our devotion among many different value centers, and their claims compete.

We try to worship several different gods, hoping each will remain oblivious to our devotion to the others. Like the high school Lothario who juggles three and four girlfriends, all of whom remain unaware of the others!

We try to do what Jesus said could not be done, to serve two masters who give orders for us to do two different things on the same day. We simply cannot obey both! It will have to be one or the other! But instead of realizing this, we try to solve the problem by growing more adept at obeying each master quickly, so as to have enough time in a day to get all the commands of both masters done. And then we have twice as much to do tomorrow because the two masters' orders work at cross purposes with each other! Often each undoes the work of the other! And you are the poor workhorse scurrying back and forth doing and undoing it!

This happens when one value center tells you to turn the other cheek, but the other teaches you that nice guys finish last. One says never give a sucker an even break; the other says not to make the weaker brother stumble. One says you do the minimum required, the other says to go the second mile. One makes the Market and its tooth-&-claw ethic supreme, the other the Sermon on the  Mount. Which will you follow? Which of these or of a thousand other masters?

It is a kind of polytheism, the worse kind, as Kierkegaard told you. There  is more God-honoring faith in the savage who bows in true worship before his crude fetish than in the urbane church-goer who worships Mammon and Ares and Eros and the whole company before Christ.

You must come to the point, you who would seek God, of daring to affirm with the Psalmist, "I give thanks to thee, O Lord my God, with my whole heart!" A wild boast! How can you hope to get into the position to be able to make such a claim? Simply (but not easily!) doing what the Psalmist did. In the preceding verse, what did he say? "Teach me thy way, O Lord, that I may walk in thy truth; #unite my heart# to fear thy name."

The human heart is said by Jeremiah to be desperately wicked, at least wayward, unfathomable and above all things deceitful. It comes as no surprise, then, that the aching heart, at length despairing at its own failure to rally its forces for God (or for any other purpose, for that matter!) finally appeals to God to bring order out of chaos as once he did at the dawn of time.

If you want a concrete suggestion, an actual place to start, may I recommend that daily you simply pray the words of the Psalmist found in Psalm 86:11, "Teach me thy way, O Lord, that I may walk in thy truth; unite my heart to fear thy name."

Thus united, you may be made ready to meet your Lord in the bridal chamber, the secret place of the Most High, which is none other than the united heart itself.

Amen

 

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