The Church of Love and the Church of Law

Caravaggio: Christ drives the money changers from the temple.
Caravaggio: Christ drives the money changers from the temple. (Creative Commons License.)

In the Bible, Jesus offers his disciples the following consolation: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

We often find the scriptures boiling the spiritual path down to surprisingly simple principles – “The world will persecute and despise you – but be of good cheer!”

It’s a startling juxtaposition – on the one hand, persecution, and on the other, the heartfelt encouragement that we, like Jesus, can conquer the world – and therefore, let’s be of good cheer!

Our minds love complexity – we want truth to be as complicated as we are. And when we hear the teachings expressed so simply, there’s an inclination to think, before our intuition has a chance to kick in and clarify what we’re hearing – “Oh, no – it can’t be that simple – it has to be a lot more complicated than he’s saying!”

But just imagine what Jesus is telling us about the reality in which he lives, and that he wants us share with him. He’s talking about the real world in which the saints live, in “the land beyond my dreams” as Yogananda described it in his wonderful chant, “where no clouds come, and golden dreams dwell,” and where Jesus is inviting us to come and live with him. The masters want us to join them in that world, where we can, like them, be of good cheer in every circumstance, without exception.

Krishna mirrors Jesus’ words exactly, when he tells his beloved disciple Arjuna:

Nay! but once more
Take My last word, My utmost meaning have!
Precious thou art to Me; right well-beloved!
Listen! I tell thee for thy comfort this.
Give Me thy heart! adore Me! serve Me! cling
In faith and love and reverence to Me!
So shalt thou come to Me! I promise true,
For thou art sweet to Me!
And let go those-
Rites and writ duties! Fly to Me alone!
Make Me thy single refuge! I will free
Thy soul from all its sins! Be of good cheer!

And if we look behind the words of this stirring passage, we find that they are describing the process of our own spiritual transformation.

The Bible tells us, “The law came from Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17) Down through the centuries, people have subjected Jesus’ words to endless misinterpretations. They’ve commonly thought that St. John was setting up a competition between Moses and Jesus – as if to say, “Well, we had Moses, and he was pretty good. But now we have Jesus, and he’s a whole lot better!”

The human mind loves these petty comparisons. It pleases the ego to claim that our teacher is the best. And it’s why people have tried to elevate Jesus above all of the saints and prophets who’ve merged their consciousness with same one Spirit.

It’s a stunningly superficial interpretation of Jesus’ words – “Oh, this one was pretty good, but this one is even better!” And it isn’t the least bit helpful, because it’s tempting us to hold some very false beliefs about Jesus’ message.

To grasp this point, it can help to understand how God sends his prophets the live in this world, in response to the needs of his children at a particular time.

God sent Moses as the first great messenger to the Jews, at a time when they were in exile, suffering oppression and humiliation in Egypt. As an enslaved people, they were longing desperately for an inner vision that they could hold onto, in the face of the terrible paganism all around them.

God heard their prayer and responded. And the Festival of Light describes how the masters repeatedly descend to bring us the true teachings:

“A prayer of love went up from earth, and God responded. A ray of His light flashed out from the heart of infinity, burst downward through night skies of consciousness, and was born on earth for the salvation of mankind in human form.” And then we hear, “Not once only, but many times has that light descended, drawn to earth by the call of aspiring love.”

At the time when the Jews were suffering in exile, they sent up a call of aspiring love that expressed their longing to know God as their own. And God answered their prayers by coming to them in the form of Moses.

Paramhansa Yogananda said that Moses was a true avatar, a direct descent of God in human form, and that the particular need of the Jews was for a teaching that would be very clear and definite, and that would tell them how they could live in a way that would please God.

The Jews were an enslaved people longed to be able to deepen their relationship with God. God sent them Moses with a teaching that was suited to their temperament. And it was through that teaching that they were able to become powerful and strong, and deeply focused in their choosing of the Divine.

But, as will always happen, the initial inspiration began to wane over time, and Jesus came to tell the Jewish people how they could return to the true path.

They had gone about as far as they could with the idea of God as a stern judge, and the teachings as a set of fixed and rigid rules. Jesus came to offer them a teaching that would help them have an experience of God’s love. And so we read in the Bible: “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

In his interpretation of this passage, Swami Kriyananda writes: “Grace means the power to rise spiritually.”

When Jesus came to restore the Jewish people to the true faith, it was in response to a great need. The teachings had become bound by an elaborate set of rules and laws, and by the image of God as a fearsome judge. And Jesus came to tell them, “God is your father. And when you ask for a loaf of bread, will your father give you a stone, because you’ve failed to conform to some petty rule?” Jesus wanted to help them understand that God loved them as His own.

I’m not singling out the Jewish people to talk against them, because there is no cosmic entity called the Jews. The truth is that we choose to born in the place and time where we will be able to learn our needed lessons. We’ve very likely been Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Muslims in the past, depending on our need to learn particular lessons. And these great cultures reflect the lessons that people may need to learn. For example, if we need to develop more will power, maybe we’ll be born in Germany; and if we need to open our hearts, we may choose to be born in Italy.

In the beginning of our spiritual search, we may need to learn how to behave, so that we can emerge from bondage to our desires, and gain a degree of freedom from our inner confusion about what’s right and wrong.

So we start out by following the rules, so that we can gain some clarity about the right spiritual behavior. And we follow the commandments until we begin to understand, with a sure inner knowing, that happiness comes by living in harmony with the Divine law, instead of blindly following our own desires.

In the beginning, there’s an element of fear in our relationship with God. Very often, we come onto the path through suffering, or because we’re nervous about what might happen to us if we continue to ignore the divine law, whether it’s hellfire or some other threat. And our fear motivates us to try to be good, and to obey the law. Because sometimes you have to be a little afraid, or you won’t have the energy and willingness to change.

But, as we refine our external behavior, we begin to discover a side of the teachings that is sweeter and deeper than the rules. And this is the beginning of our true relationship with God, as we experience His living presence within.

This is the point when, like the Jewish people, we attract to ourselves an avatar who comes to help us.

Jesus came to the Jewish people because they needed to hear a new message: “Look, it’s not about your external behavior. It’s not about rituals, and about getting the forms just right. It’s not about leading a life that will make you look virtuous in the eyes of others. It’s entirely about your inner knowing. It’s about divine grace, and cosmic truth, and that’s what you need to focus on. You have to focus on the essence of reality, which cannot be found outside yourself, because the relationship with God is inside, and the kingdom of God is within you.”

Jesus challenged the priests and the establishment to look beyond the forms they had become so deeply attached to, and to grasp the essence of spirituality. And the Jews as a people were unable to meet the challenge, even though he told them, “I came for you, and it was your call that drew me.”

When Jesus was gone, his disciples did their best to present the teachings to the Jews, but they didn’t want them. So the disciples went out and offered the teachings to the pagans. And because the pagans had no entrenched religion, they were more open to receive them.

When you read the letters of the Apostles, you realize that there was a tremendous controversy at the time, over whether they should share the teachings with the pagans. It was a big concern even for Jesus’ closest disciples: “If Judaism has defined the true religion for such a long time, how can we share the teachings of this great rabbi with people who aren’t even Jews?”

It’s just one more example of how the mind wants to confuse things and make them more complicated than they are.

How will we respond, when a new teacher comes and challenges us to go deeper in our spiritual understanding, and when he asks us to do things that we aren’t familiar with, and when the comfortable norms of the people around us are urging us not to accept this teaching, because it isn’t the way it’s always been done, and we’ll be safe if we keep following the old ways?

The new teacher gives us an inner experience that we cannot deny, and this is the power that God sent into the world through Jesus, and that made his appearance on earth such an extraordinary event.

It’s expressed by the story of how Jesus met the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well. When he came to the well for water, she said to him, “I can’t give you water, because I’m of a low caste. And Jesus said, “Even if I drank the water from this well, I would thirst again. And if you drink of the water of this well, you will thirst again. But if you drink of the water that I have to give you, you will never thirst again.”

Guercino: Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well. (Creative Commons License.)
Guercino: Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well. (Creative Commons License.)

She said, “But this is very good water!” And it’s hilarious in its way, because it shows how our minds are so dense and rational – “Well, it’s very good water – our people have drunk it for ages!” It shows how the mind will latch onto the most superficial and obvious answer. But he must have touched her with an experience that moved her, because the discussion quickly shifts from the quality of the water, and we find her asking him deep spiritual questions. “Some people say we should worship here, some there, and what do you say is true?”

When Jesus answers her, it’s clear that he’s giving her something deeper than his words. He asks her about her husband, and she says, “I have no husband.” Jesus looks at her and says, “You have been truthful. In fact, you’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re with now is not your husband.”

Paramhansa Yogananda explains the story in a touching way. He says that Jesus sent his disciples on some other errand, so that he could meet the woman alone, and that she was a disciple from past lives who had fallen. She had walked with him for many incarnations, and then she had left the path and went off and led an immoral life. But a call of love went up from her heart, and she was longing to be true to what she had known, and this was why he was drawn to meet her.

Master says that Jesus talked with her to see where her consciousness was. His questions bore a subtle vibration of higher meaning, to test her ability to rise and meet him at that level.

Master said that Jesus was testing her, to see if she was ready to come back and be seriously on the path again. And when he asked her the question about her husband, he knew the answer, but he wanted to see if she would have the courage to answer him truthfully. If she had tried to protect her delusions, Jesus might have walked away, and waited for a time when she was ready. But she was able to feel who he was, and she was so inspired that she ran to tell everyone: “There’s a man who knew everything about me, without my telling him.” And she brought many others to him.

There was nothing in her previous life to support what she experienced with him, so her response had to come entirely from her own heart. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi, and she wasn’t even Jewish. He was a poor man who associated with low-caste people, and who wasn’t recognized by the high priests. But he gave her an experience of divine grace, and she had the courage to understand, and follow. And it’s telling us the story of how we let ourselves become anchored in another reality, time and again, and how the master comes to redeem us.

Master and Swamiji tell us that the external forms of spirituality are important, especially in an age like ours, where the culture is so dissonant with the spiritual life and so profoundly materialistic that we need to gather together, and establish an organization that will give a focus to our teachings, and support us in our efforts.

Yogananda started a spiritual organization, and of course it’s a common thing to do, here in the West, because Christianity and Western spirituality have always been defined by the institution. But in India, it’s not at all common. The little bit of organization they have is practically invisible, compared to Christianity. There are six shankaracharya swamis who are more or less the popes of Hinduism. They are the spiritual leaders of millions, yet you’ll find the shankaracharya sitting under a tree, dressed in a simple robe and greeting people in a natural way. People will come and sit and talk with him, because in the Eastern view the whole structure and form of the spiritual life is inward.

But Yogananda’s mission brought him to the West, and so he needed to start an organization. Because, as he said, “In America, the energy is so diffused that we have to pull it into a tangible focus that people can see. We have to have a place, and we have to have a name, and a system. We aren’t living in India, where we can wander around and find saints from whom we can take inspiration. So we need an outward form that will help people understand what we’re doing.”

He also said, “In the West there’s so little respect for spiritual authority that people would take this teaching and define it in their own way, and it would soon dissipate into nothing.”

He pointed out that an institution would give the teachings a visible authority and a clear definition for Westerners to see.

Here in the West, we’re wedded to a democratic point of view, and it’s a blessing in its own way, but it can lead us to think, “Nobody can tell me what to do – I know a lot, and if I don’t know something, I can figure it out for myself.” So there needs to be a suggestion that this is the path, and this is how it needs to be followed, because you don’t always know what you need to do, and My ways are not your ways.

As a young monk, Swami Kriyananda, at right, greets visitors at the SRF Hollywood Church..
As a young monk, Swami Kriyananda, at right, greets visitors at the SRF Hollywood Church. At left are Rajarsi Janakananda, Dr. Lewis, and Mrs. Lewis.

At the same time, the organization can become a terrible trap. We need an institution to clarify the path for us, and to support us. But then, as Yogananda put it, we must each individually make love to God, and we cannot imagine that we’ll be ushered into a state of grace just because we’ve signed a membership pledge and we’re conforming to the rules.

Yogananda challenges us to abandon blind belief and seek God as an actual experience. He tells us that nothing else matters but our ability to attune our lives with God’s grace, and to have the courage to commit ourselves completely to the experiment.

It isn’t easy to open our hearts to receive a God whose love for us is faultless and unwavering. To accept that the Divine is always with us, and that there is no other reality, is a staggering challenge. We can say that we want God more than anything else, but to truly invite God into our lives means that we will have to understand the world very differently. From being thoroughly identified with the modern world of orderliness and self-reliance, and confident that our external systems will keep running smoothly, to turn our attention inward and understand that we are alone with the Infinite – this is the greatest challenge anyone ever faced. But the Bhagavad Gita offers us this extraordinarily beautiful consolation: “Listen, I tell thee for thy comfort this … Give me thy heart … Make me thy single refuge. I will free thy soul from all its sins. Be of good cheer!”

“Forget rituals. Forget everything else. You are my devotee, and that is all that matters.” Think only of that. Forget everything else in the passion of your love for God. Everything else exists only to support us in our devotion. Our practices, our organization, our friendships, and our groups are for this alone. Because what this life finally comes down to is our inner relationship with God.

We must never make the mistake of thinking that anything else matters more – more than meditation, more than prayer, more than devotion and service to the Lord. But, above all, devotion, and attunement with the Divine.

Yogananda said, “Attunement is everything.” And if we will live in his ray, in the vibration of Spirit, it will show us the right path in everything.

We need to reach a state where we feel that everything is coming from God. A friend of mine made an important statement: “It appears that we have all these decisions to make, but we really have only one decision – either we will remember God or we will forget Him.”

We must remember God and keep the inner mantra going. In meditating, chanting, serving, and even in the most ordinary moments of our lives, our highest duty is to silently remember, “I am a child of the Infinite. Divine Mother and I are walking through this life together. And whether we walk through high mountains, fragrant meadows, freezing streams, or burning deserts, Divine Mother and I are walking hand in hand.”

The external forms are there only to guide us toward that realization. They matter to the extent that they can show us the way and support us, but they were created only to help us discover that state of grace. And grace is received by opening our hearts, and by discovering that the Divine Mother has always been with us, and that She will forever be ours.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto on February 20, 2000.)

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