You know that those who are assigned to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over
them, and their great ones are authoritarians. But it shall not be so among you. Rather,
whoever wants to be great among you shall be your minister, and whoever wants to be
chiefest shall be the servant of all.
In the story of the birth of the nation of Israel, the events at Sinai are critical. It
was here, we are told, that a kind of extended family, an aggregation of related tribes,
was given a structure. Moses leadership was confirmed, for example. The early chapters of
Numbers prescribe a pattern of encampment, with each tribe having its particular place
relative to the tabernacle. When the ark moved, this translated into a well-defined order
of march. It was the pattern of the encampment, presumably, that conveyed to Balaam the
conviction that these were a chosen and a blessed people. He looked down from a mountain,
and we can imagine that what he saw was a little like a mandala. It was the pattern of a
holy precinct, and by virtue of that fact was proof against curses.
The pattern of the encampment, as described, was very simple. In a way, though, it lasts
to the close of Scripture, and finds an echo in the vision of the Holy City. Three tribes
were encamped on each side of the tabernacle. There are three gates on each side of the
New Jerusalem, and the gates bear the names of the twelve tribes. In the language of
Biblical symbolism, we seem to be dealing with an underlying structure that somehow
persists underneath all the complications of a very involved story. It is an image of the
stability, the security that results when everything is in its proper place.
The "proper place" of any constituent depends on the particular nature of that constituent
and the way that nature relates to the rest of the structure. That is, if things or people
are to be joined effectively, there must be a recognition of the distinctiveness of each.
The apostle Paul saw this and recommended to the Corinthians an image that has held up
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not the
hand, I am not part of the body," is it not still part of the body? Or of the ear should
say, "Because I am not the eye, I am not part of the body," Is it not still part of the
body? If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were
hearing, where would the smelling be? But now God has set every one of the members in the
body, as he saw fit (I Corinthians 14-18).
In our own theology, this image takes a central place. The human form is seen as the most
adequate representation or image of the Divine. For this reason, ultimately, it is also
seen as an image of the form of the ideal human community. There is an extended series of
interchapter sections in Arcana Coelestia dealing with the human form of heaven itself.
It maintains that heaven can be seen as a single individual and that particular
communities or groups of communities serve the functions of clearly defined organs of that
individual. Swedenborg can speak of the "province" of the heart or the eye or the ear.
I was making a hospital call some years ago when it struck me that the hospital itself was
a kind of aggregate body. It took in supplies and discharged wastes. It had its corridors
through which nourishment and medication were carried to individual "cells." It had its
nerve center, and its internal communication system. It had senses oriented to the outside
world. In fact, its whole purpose was to provide for ailing individuals the bodily
functions which their own bodies were finding difficult or impossible.
It is small wonder, then, that Swedenborgians have speculated on the possibility of using
the human body as a model for church organization. The images are suggestive. This person,
particularly engaged in the surrounding community, is the eyes of the church. This couple
is the backbone, always there, always reliable. These folk are the muscle, these are the
heart, these are the hands. Swedenborg's descriptions actually urge us to press deeper and
recognize the value of organs like the liver, that "critique" and purify. The implication
is that there is an appropriate place even for fault-finding.
As far as I know, though, no such scheme has ever been put into practice with any
consistency. We may suspect that part of the reason is that people do not like to be
pigeonholed, and we may also suspect that they are right in this reluctance.
A reason may be found in the image of the human form of heaven itself. In that form, the
digestive system corresponds to the World of Spirits, that world where we sort ourselves
out immediately after death. Very few people have totally overcome their tendencies toward
evil by the time of death, and very few have totally succumbed to them. Most of us, then
as now, operate from mixed motives. The essential choice between heaven and hell may have
been made, but there are still a lot of inconsistencies. There is still a lot of
It is a truism to say that sorting things out is a messy process. Swedenborg puts it very
bluntly in Arcana Coelestia 842:
Before anything is brought into proper order, it is quite usual for it to be brought into
confusion, into a kind of chaos. In this way,things that do not fit together well are
separated from each other, and once they have been separated, the Lord arranges them in
their proper order.
Without storms, he says, the air would never clear.
We are involved in that sorting out, that messy process, here and now. We have not found
our places. We do not know our gifts and the gifts of others well enough to know where we
belong. We try various arrangements, and if we do so with humility, we learn from
successes and from failures.
Clearly, too, our best functions vary as we move from context to context. If the task is
to understand something written in German and I am the only person in the room who knows
any German at all, then clearly I am the one to do the reading. If I am in a room full of
native Germans, perhaps I should tend the coffee pot. In a healthy organization, different
people will come to the fore as different tasks are undertaken, and whenever there is such
an adjustment, everyone's role changes a little.
There is a wonderful little statement in ¶ 12 of The Last Judgment that highlights another
source of indeterminacy. Speaking of the size and eternal growth of heaven, Swedenborg
Heaven becomes more perfect as more people enter it. This is because the way it is put
together, the structuring which governs all its societal patterns and communications, is
the most perfect of all. In the most perfect form, "more members" means a more complete
focusing and agreement, and therefore a more intimate and wholehearted union. The
agreement and union are strengthened by numbers because each new addition comes in as the
ideal link between members already present. Each new addition strengthens the fabric and
joins others more closely.
Heaven's form is like the form of the human mind, whose perfection increases indefinitely
with learning. The more good and true elements it gains, the greater is its intelligence
and wisdom. The resemblance between heaven's form and the form of a human mind occupied
with heavenly wisdom and intelligence is no coincidence. It exists because the human mind
is a microcosm, a miniature image, of heaven. . . .
In a small society, that is, members will be obliged to do things they are not especially
good at. As the society grows, the talent pool is greater. To some extent, however slight,
each new member enables others to focus more appropriately on their own strengths. The
reverse of this was obvious at SSR when Bob Kirven retired and Ted and I had to pick up
courses he was very good at, courses not central to our own training. The good side is
happening now with the arrival of Wilma Wake. By doing what she is especially skilled at,
she enables the rest of us to be better centered, to put more energy into courses for
which our backgrounds have provided a better basis. Still, Wilma is not Bob, so there has
been a rearrangement. We have not gone back to the way things were.
If we are in a state of constant flux, if there is this kind of sorting and confusion
going on most of the time, is the image of the human form any use at all? It is, I
believe. As Paul very rightly stressed, it urges us to look for and treasure different
gifts. It urges us to be observant, to be sensitive to the processes within our community.
Who are the people who are willing to ask the hard questions? Who are the people who tend
to be quiet during the talking stages but thoroughly engaged in the action stages? If the
process is getting hung up at some point, is it because some particular element is
missing? Sometimes, for example, everyone agrees that a particular project would be ideal.
It seems that the basic resources are available, but for whatever reason, no one feels
able to shepherd the project through the necessary stages of planning and execution.
There is a team, but no captain, a chorus, but no director. Another time, there may be an
abundance of chiefs but no Indians.
Perhaps one of the subtler assets of the image of the human form is that it is complex and
alive. If you look at a human body, you do not see any pigeonholes. You do not see any
boundary lines, any seams. It is an organic whole, constantly adjusting to changing
circumstances. The eye can read a book or marvel at a sunset or be aware of the changing
spatial relationships between one's car and the rest of the traffic on the highway. The
hand can turn pages or shade the eyes or control the steering wheel.
Then too, whatever happens, the whole body is involved and affected. The feet do not go
off on their own. This is perhaps the hardest lesson to learn--that ultimately there is no
such thing as a totally private matter. Jesus reminded us that it is from the heart that
evil thoughts proceed, and that a bad tree will produce bad fruit. In a more confrontive
vein, he informed us that there is nothing hidden that will not eventually be disclosed.
The closer the ties that bind the church together--and it is our goal that these ties be
those of true mutual affection and understanding--the more our actions and our attitudes
have a ripple effect through the whole church body.
Finally, our text identifies clearly a spirit without which any form of organization will
be destructive. ". . . whoever wants to be great among you shall be your minister, and
whoever wants to be chiefest shall be the servant of all." No one who wants power for the
sake of having power is fit to have it. The absolute essential, whether the task be great
or small, is the desire to serve. If we have any doubt about this, we have not really come
to terms with the one we call Lord, to whom is given all power in heaven and on earth,and
who came not to be served but to serve, even to the giving of his life.