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Pilate: What is Truth?

Pilate:  What is Truth?

"Pilate saith unto Him, what is truth?

St. John is especially distinguished among the four evangelists for his subtle delineation of character. We do not commonly remember—it costs us an effort to remember—how very largely we are indebted to the fourth gospel for our conceptions of the chief personages who bear a part in evangelical history, where those conceptions are most clear and distinct. If we analyze the sources of our information, we find again and again that while something is told us about particular persons in the other evangelists, yet it is St. John who gives those touches to the picture which make it stand out with its own individuality as a real, living, speaking man. The other evangelist will record a name, or, perhaps, an incident; St. John will add one or two sayings; and the whole person is instinct with life. The character flashes out in half-a-dozen words. “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” So it is with Philip, with Thomas, with Mary and Martha, and with several others who might be named. This vividness of portraiture is our strongest assurance, if assurance were needed, that the narrative was indeed written by him whose name it bears—by the beloved disciple and eye-witness himself. For, observe, there is no effort at delineation of character; there is no delineation of character at all, properly so called. The evangelist does not describe the persons whom he introduces; they describe themselves. The incidental act, the incidental movement or gesture, the incidental saying, tells the tale. That which he had heard, that which he had looked upon and his eyes had seen, that which his hands had handled of the Word of Life—that and that only he declared.

Pilate furnishes a remarkable illustration of this feature in St. John’s gospel. Pilate is the chief agent in the crowning scene of evangelical history. He is necessarily a prominent figure in all the four narratives of this crisis. In the first three gospels we learn much about him. We find him there, as we find him in St. John, at cross purposes with the Jews. He is represented there, not less than by St. John, as giving an unwilling consent to the judicial murder of Jesus. His Roman sense of justice is too strong to allow him to yield without an effort. His personal courage is too weak to persevere in the struggle when the consequences threaten to become inconvenient. He is timid, politic, and time-serving, as represented by all alike. He has just enough conscience to wish to shake off the responsibility, but far too little conscience to shrink from committing the sin. But in St. John’s narrative we pierce far below the surface. Here he is revealed to us as the sarcastic, cynical worldling, who doubts everything, distrusts everything, and despises everything. He has an intense scorn for the Jews, and yet he has a craven dread of them. He has a certain professional regard for justice, and yet he has no real belief in truth or honor. Throughout he manifests a malicious irony in his conduct at this crisis. There is a lofty scorn in his answer when he repudiates any sympathy with the accusers. “Am I a Jew?” There is a sarcastic pity in the question which he addresses to the Prisoner before him, “Art Thou the King of the Jews? Art Thou, then, a king—Thou poor, weak, helpless fanatic, whom with a single word I could doom to death?” He is half-bewildered with the incongruity of the claim; and yet there is a certain propriety that a wild enthusiast should assert his sovereignty over a nation of bigots; so he sarcastically adopts the title. “Will you that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” Even when, at length, he is obliged to yield to the popular clamor, he will at least have his revenge by a studied contempt. “Behold your King! Shall I crucify your King?” And to the very last moment he indulges his cynical scorn. The title on the cross was, indeed, unconsciously, a proclamation of a Divine truth; but in its immediate purpose and intent it was the mere gratification of Pilate’s sarcastic humor. “Jesus of Nazareth.” Could any good thing come out of Nazareth? “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” He has sacrificed his honor to them, but he will not sacrifice his contempt. “What I have written, I have written.”

But it is more especially in the sentence which I have chosen for my text that the whole character of the man is revealed. The Prisoner before him had accepted the title of a King. He based His claim to this title on the fact that He had come to bear witness of the truth. He declared that those who were themselves of the truth would acknowledge His claim. They were His rightful subjects; they were the enfranchised citizens of His kingdom.

Strange language this, in the ears of a cynical, worldly sceptic, to whom the most attractive hope of humanity was a judicious admixture of force and fraud. “Pilate saith unto Him, What is truth? And when he had said this he went out.” The altercation could be carried no farther. Was not human life itself one great query without an answer? What was truth? “Truth”? This helpless Prisoner claimed to be a King, and He appealed, forsooth, to His truthfulness as the credential of His sovereign rights! Was ever any claim more contradictory of all human experience, more palpably absurd, than this? “Truth”? When had truth anything to do with founding a kingdom? The mighty engine of imperial power, the armed scepter which ruled the world, whence came it? Certainly it owed nothing to truth. Had not Augustus established his sovereignty by an unscrupulous use of force, and maintained it by an astute use of artifice? And his successor, the present occupant of the imperial throne, was he not an arch dissembler, the darkest of all dark enigmas? The name of Tiberius was a byword for impenetrable disguise. Truth might do well enough for fools and enthusiasts; but for rulers, for diplomatists, for men of the world, it was the wildest of all wild dreams. “Truth”? What was truth? He had lived too long in the world to trust to any such hollow delusion. He had listened to the ceaseless din of philosophical disputations till he was weary of them. The Stoics, the Epicureans, the Platonists, all had their several specifics which they vended as truth. All were equally sure, and yet no two agreed.

He had witnessed, certainly not without contempt, and yet not altogether without dismay, the rising flood of foreign superstition—Greek, Syrian, Egyptian, Chaldean—which threatened to deluge the city and empire, and destroy all the ancient landmarks. Could he believe all or any of these? In this never-ending conflict of philosophical dogmas and religious creeds, what could he do but resign himself to skepticism, to indifference, to a cold and cynical scorn of all enthusiastic convictions and all definite beliefs? “What is truth?”

And yet as he turned away, neither expecting nor desiring an answer to a question which he had asked merely to end an inconvenient controversy, some uneasy misgivings, we may well suppose, flashed across the mind of this proud, sarcastic worldling, that he was now brought face to face with truth as he had never been brought before. There was a reality about every word and action of this Jewish Prisoner which arrested and overawed him. The calmness with which He urged His claims, the fearlessness with which He defied death, the impressive words, the still more impressive silence, the manifest innocence and rectitude of the Man, if he saw nothing more—these could not be without their effect even on a Pilate, steeped as he was in the moral recklessness and the religious despair of his age. At all events, he would serve the Man if he conveniently could.

But there had been also a nobler element in Pilate’s education than moral skepticism and religious unbelief. He was a Roman governor, and as a Roman governor he was an administrator of Roman law. It was their appreciation of law, their respect for law, their study of law, far more than anything else, which gave its greatness to the character of the Roman people. Even in the most degraded ages of their history, and with the worst individual types of men, this is the one bright spot which relieves the gloom. It is the nobler prerogative of law to set a standard clear, definite, and precise. I have no concern here with other obligations to the law which as Christians we are bound to acknowledge, though, speaking before the chief representatives of English law and justice, I cannot fail to be reminded of them this afternoon. But this exhibition of a moral standard is a gain which it is hardly possible to over-estimate. The standard will not always be the highest. From the nature of the case it cannot be so. Law deals with some departments of morality very imperfectly; with others it does not attempt to deal at all. But still, whenever it is felt, and so far as it penetrates, it creates an ideal, and begets a habit which will not be powerless even with the most indifferent and reckless of men. So it was with Pilate. Theological skepticism had eaten out his religious principles to the very core. Unscrupulous worldliness and self-seeking had shattered his moral constitution; but though his principles were gone, and his character was ruined, still he was haunted by some lingering sense of professional honor; still the magnificent ideal of Roman justice and Roman law rose up before him, and would not lightly be thrust aside. He pleads repeatedly for justice against the relentless accusers. Three times he declares the Prisoner’s innocence in the same explicit words—“I find no fault in Him.” Once and again he strives to shift the responsibility from his own shoulders to theirs. “Take ye Him and judge Him according to your law. Take ye Him and crucify Him.” But his efforts are all in vain. They will have none of this. The deed shall be done, and he shall do it.

It was not the first, and it would not be the last time that Pilate found himself in conflict with the Jews. For ten years he was governor of this turbulent, intractable people. This was an unusually long period of office under an Emperor like Tiberius, who was constantly changing his provincial governors from mere suspicion and distrust. It must have cost Pilate no little trouble to steer his course so long and so successfully, without foundering either on the suspicions of his jealous master here or on the bigotry of his stubborn subjects there. And yet he was constantly wounding the religious susceptibilities of the Jews. At one time he shocked them by bringing the military ensigns with the effigies of Cæsar within the walls of Jerusalem; at another he persisted in setting up some gilt shields, inscribed with a profane heathen dedication, in the palace of Herod within the holy precincts. In both cases he drove the Jews to the extreme verge of exasperation. In both cases he exhibits the same sarcastic and defiant scorn which is apparent here. In both cases their obstinate zeal or bigotry triumphs, as it triumphs here, and he is forced, in the end, to retrace his steps and to undo his deed.

So, then, this was only one brief episode in a protracted struggle between Pilate and the Jewish people. Doubtless, it seemed at the time quite insignificant compared with those other and fiercer conflicts in which he was engaged. It is passed over in silence by contemporary Jewish writers. It concerned the life of a single person only; it was settled in a single night; and yet it involved nothing less than the eternal destiny of all mankind.

        Ah, there is a terrible irony in God’s retributive justice, which so blinds a man to the true proportions of things. A single moment may do a wrong which centuries cannot repair. It is a dangerous thing to defy the truth. The majesty of truth is inviolable, and he who insults it in a moment of recklessness can never forecast the consequences. Time and space and notoriety are no measure of importance here. The most important criminal trial on record in the history of mankind was hurried through in two or three short hours, under cover of night and in the grey of early dawn.

This is the great lesson of Pilate’s crime. He was surprised by the truth; he found himself unexpectedly confronted by the truth; and he could not recognize it. His whole life long he had tampered with truth; he had despised truth; he had despaired of truth. Truth was the last thing which he had set before him as the main aim of life. He had thought much of policy, of artifice, of fraud, of force; but for truth in any of its manifold forms he had cared just nothing at all. And his sin had worked out its own retribution. Not truth only, but the very Truth itself, Truth incarnate, stood before him in a human form, and he was blind to it; he scorned it; he played with it; he thrust it aside; he condemned, and he gibbeted it. “Suffered under Pontius Pilate,” is the legend of eternal infamy with which history has branded his name.

So it is always. The Lord appears suddenly in His temple—in the shrine of the human heart and conscience; suddenly—at a time and in a form which we least expect. The truth visits us very frequently under the disguise of some common event, or some insignificant person. It surprises us, perhaps, in the accidental saying of some little child, or in the insidiousness of some mean temptation, or in the emergency of some trivial choice. It stands before us at once as our suppliant and our king. We fail to see its majesty veiled in its humble garb. We treat it as our prisoner when, in fact, it is our judge, and may become our gaoler. We flatter ourselves that we have power to condemn or to release it. We have no fault to find with it, but still we reject it; we crucify it; and before three days are gone it rises from its grave to bear eternal testimony against us. We could not see the truth, because we ourselves were not of the truth. Here in this judicial blindness is the warning of Pilate’s example. Like is drawn to like: like only understands like. The truth is only for the children of truth.

We must not, however, unduly narrow the sense of truth and of truthfulness. When our Lord called Himself the truth—when He declared that the truth should make us free, He meant very much more than is commonly understood by the word. Veracity is, indeed, truth; but it is only a small part of the truth. A man may be scrupulously veracious, strictly a man of honor; he may always say what he believes; he may always perform what he promises; and yet he may not be, in the highest sense, true. He may be the slave of a thousand unrealities. A genuine child of truth is very much more than a speaker of the truth. He is a doer of the truth, and a thinker of the truth, and a liver of the truth. He is frank, open, and real in all things. Reality is the very soul of his being. He cares for nothing which is hollow, shadowy, and superficial. Popularity, wealth, success, worldly ambition, and display are essentially unreal, because they are external, because they are transient. Therefore, he estimates them at their true value. The devotion of scientific men in pursuit of scientific truth wins our highest admiration. It is not without a thrill of national pride that we have just bidden God-speed to the gallant company which has started for the Arctic seas. To face untold hardships and possible death in such a cause is a worthy and noble aim, for these are realities. But obviously there are truths of far higher moment to the temporal and eternal well-being of man than the laws of electricity, or the causes of the Aurora, or the fauna of the Polar seas. Whence came I? Whither go I? What is sin? What is conscience? Is there a God in heaven? Is there a providence, a moral government, a judgment? Is there a redemption, a sanctification, a life eternal? These are the momentous, the pressing questions which a man can only shelve at his peril. Christ is the answer to all these questions. Therefore, He is the verity of verities. Therefore, He claims for Himself the title of the truth as His absolute and indefeasible right.

An incapacity to see the truth, when thus presented to us in its highest form, may arise from different causes. It may spring from bigoted partisanship, and religious pride, and obstinate formalism, as in the case of the Jews; or it may spring from cold cynicism, and worldliness, and dishonesty, as in the case of Pilate. These two conspire to crucify the truth. As we sow, so also shall we reap. Pilate’s life had been stained in untruthfulness. His government had been an alternation of violence and artifice. His aim had not been to rule uprightly, to rule generously, but to rule at any cost. He must calm the suspicions of his jealous master, and he must quell the turbulence of an unruly people. Whatever means would conduce to these ends were to him legitimate means. Uprightness, honor, frankness, generosity, truth—what were these to him? He had no belief in them, and why should he practice them? He projected his own motives into his estimate of mankind at large. He read the characters of others in the distorted mirror of his own consciousness. Human life, as he viewed it, was false from beginning to end. It was, after all, the reflection of his own falsehood which he saw. He was ever looking out for the unrealities of existence. He had no eye for its realities. Men’s convictions were their foibles: men’s beliefs were his playthings. Untruthfulness, cynicism, distrust, scorn, had withered his soul. They only will find the truth who believe that the truth may be found. Pilate had no such belief. He had gone through life asking, half in bitterness, half in jest, “What is truth?” He had asked it now again, and the question was fatal. Pilate’s temper of mind is a very real danger in an age like ours. Let us beware of thus jesting with truth, lest some time, like him, we crucify the truth unawares.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). The Contemporary Pulpit Library: Sermons. New York: Thomas Whittaker. (Public Domain)

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Woman and the Gospel

Woman and the Gospel

"And He took the damsel by the hand."—Mark 5:41.

In selecting this text I have no intention of saying many words on the actual scene itself. The raising of Jairus’s daughter attracts our attention by its vivid narrative, and by its intense human pathos, while the two foreign words, summing up the interest of the story, linger strangely in our ears, impressing it effectually on our memories. Nor, again, do I purpose speaking of its direct theological import, whether as an answer to human faith, or as a manifestation of the Divine power. In this latter aspect this is one of three signal miracles, the anticipations of Christ’s own resurrection. It claims, and it has received, the most earnest study, both in itself and in relation to other incidents of the same class.

These more obvious aspects of the text are beside my present purpose. I wish to-day to treat it from a wholly different point of view. Christ’s miracles have always the highest spiritual significance. They are not miracles only, but parables also. The Messiah’s kingdom would have achieved comparatively little for mankind if it had brought deliverance to the captive in a literal sense only. A far heavier and more galling bondage would still remain—the bondage of sin. Physical blindness is only a type of moral blindness; Christ’s healing power in the one case is the pledge of His healing power in the other. The palsy of the body symbolizes the palsy of the soul. If the paralytic is bidden to take up his bed and walk, this is before all things an assurance to us that Christ is able and willing to heal the paralysis of the soul. From this point of view the words of the text are full of meaning to all who are met together to-day. "He took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Damsel, I say unto thee, Arise. And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; and they were astonished with a great astonishment."

Need I remind you that this is the earliest miracle of raising the dead recounted in the Gospels? Two others follow. The widow of Nain and the sisters of Bethany receive back their dead. But the one was a growing youth, the other was a man of mature age. The young woman was Christ’s first miracle of resurrection. On her was wrought first this stupendous miracle. For her was won this earliest triumph over death and hell. Is not this a significant fact in itself, but especially significant for you, for it proclaims the fundamental principle of the Gospel charter? It announces that the weak and the helpless in years, in sex, in social status, are especially Christ’s care. It declares emphatically that in Him is neither male nor female. It is a call to you, you women-workers, to do a sister’s part to these your sisters. Christ’s action in this miracle is a foreshadowing of His action in the Church. The Master found woman deposed from her proper social position. The man had suffered not less than the woman by this her humiliation. Jew and Gentile had conspired together in an unconscious conspiracy to bring about this disastrous result. The Hebrew Rabbi and the Greek philosopher alike had gone astray. It is the recorded saying of a famous Jewish doctor that the words of the law were better burned than committed to woman. It is an opinion ascribed to the most famous Athenian statesman, that woman had then achieved her highest glory when her name was heard amongst men least, either for virtue or for reproach. A moral resurrection was needed for womanhood. It might seem to the looker-on like a social death, from which there was no awakening, but it was only the suspension of her proper faculties and opportunities, a long sleep from which a revival must come sooner or later. It was for Him, and Him alone, who was the Vanquisher of death, who has the keys of Hades—for Him alone to open the door of her sepulchral prison and resuscitate her dormant life and restore her to her ordinary place in society. When all hope was gone, He took her by the hand and bid her arise; and at the sound of His voice and the touch of His hand she arose and walked, and the world was astonished with a great astonishment. We ourselves are so familiar with the results, the position of woman is so fully recognized by us, it is bearing so abundant fruit every day and everywhere, that we overlook the magnitude of the change itself. Only, then, when we turn to the harem and the zenana do we learn to estimate what the Gospel has achieved, and has still to achieve, in the emancipation of woman, and her restitution to her lawful place in the social order. To ourselves the large place which woman occupies in the Gospel and in the early apostolic history seems only natural. To contemporaries it must have appeared in the light of a social revolution. The very opening of the Gospel is charged with Divine messages communicated to us through woman—Mary, Elizabeth, Anna; women attend our Lord everywhere during His earthly ministry. The sisters, Martha and Mary, are set before us as embodying the two contrasted types of character, the practical and the contemplative. To a woman, and to a woman alone, is given the promise of an undying hope beyond the glory of the mightiest earthly princes. Of her it is said: "Wheresoever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, there shall this which this woman has done be told as a memorial of her." To a woman were spoken those gracious words of pardon most tender and compassionate, the consolation and the stay and the hope of the penitent to all time: "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loveth much." Women are the chief attendants at the crucifixion, and the chief ministrants at the tomb. Woman is the first witness of the resurrection; and as it was in Christ’s personal ministry, so it is in all the Apostolic Church. In the first gathering of the little band after the Ascension, women are found assembled with the apostles. This is a foreshadowing of the part which they are destined to play in the subsequent narrative of the history of the Church. Cast your eyes down the salutations in the Epistle to the Romans. There is Phœbe, a deaconess of the Church of Cenchrea, commended as having been the succourer of many, among others of the Apostle himself. There is Priscilla, who with her husband had laid down her neck for his life, to whom he himself not only gave thanks, but all the Churches of the Gentiles. There is Mary, who bestowed much labor upon him and others; Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labored much in the Lord. There is Persis, to whom the same testimony is borne. There is the mother of Rufus, who had also been like a mother to himself. There is Julia, and there is the sister of Nereus. A long catalogue to appear in the salutations of a single epistle!

Turn again from the Church of which St. Paul knew least when he wrote, to the Church of which he knew most. Witness his relation to his beloved Philippian Church. He addresses himself first to the women who resort to the places of prayer among the individual women with whom he came in contact. At Philippi we read of Lydia, his earliest hostess in this city, of the damsel from whom he cast out a spirit of divination, and then of Euodias and Syntyche, women who labored with him in the Gospel; and indeed we know more of the women at Philippi than we know of the men.

But it was not only this desultory, unrecognized service, however frequent, however great, that women rendered to the spread of the Gospel in its earliest days. The Apostolic Church had its organized ministrations of women, its order of deaconesses, its order of widows. Women had their definite place in the ecclesiastical system of those early times, and in our own age and country again the awakened activity of the Church is once more demanding the recognition of the female ministry. The Church feels herself maimed of one of her hands. No longer she fails to employ, to organize, to consecrate to the service of Christ, the love, the sympathy, the tact, the self-devotion of women. Hence the revival of the female diaconate in its multiplication of sisterhoods. But these, though the most definite, are not the most extensive developments of this revival. Everywhere institutions are springing up, manifold in form and purpose, for the organization of women’s work. There has been, and there is still, a shameful waste of this latent power, boundless in its capacities if only fostered and developed. The famous heroines of womanhood will necessarily be few. It is rarely women’s part to save a city or guide a church. Only at long intervals on the stage of the history of the world appear such women as Joan of Arc; but here and there God raises up an exceptional heroine to do exceptional work, which a woman alone can do, or do so effectually, for her age and country. But generally it is in the quieter, less obtrusive, more homely, and more womanly way, that she is called to test her power, certainly not less real or less beneficent, though it may be less striking, than the power of man. She is a mother in her own household, her own kindred, her own parish, her own neighborhood; the guide, the helper of man. Yes; a priestess and a prophetess to the young, the sick, the frail and erring, the poor and needy—needy whether of spiritual or bodily healing. It is the province of the Church, when acting by the Spirit and in the name of Christ, to develop the power of women, to take by the hand and raise from its torpor that which seemed a death, but which is only a sleep; and now, as then, revived life and beneficent work will amaze the looker-on—"they were astonished with a great astonishment."

Among the most recent developments of the work of the Church of Christ your Girls’ Friendly Society has taken a foremost place. I would say in all sincerity, that when I read your last report with profound joy and thankfulness, I was impressed, no less by the completeness of your ideal, than by the variety and expansion of your work. I do not say this to commend; this is not the time or the place for commendation. "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thy name give the praise." You will not be content, will you? you will not be content, if you are true to your ideals, with holding out the hand of loving sympathy in your own home and neighborhood to a humble sister needing a sister’s care and guidance? Your love will follow her about that she may never be lost sight of. It is a trite complaint that in this day the old relations between master and servant have vanished, or almost vanished away. The bond is no longer one of reciprocal loyalty, but of common convenience. Hence it is liable to severance at any moment in the feverish, ever-restless, fluctuating conditions of modern life. It was impossible that these relations should remain unchanged while all else was changing. The domestic servant or the shop girl has no longer a fixed home; she is a wanderer on the earth. It is just here that the catholicity of your plan should step in and counteract the evil. It is your part to realize this catholicity. When a girl once enrolls herself in your numbers, she is yours; everywhere, whithersoever she may go, the friendly eye will rest upon her; the friendly hand will be stretched out to her wheresoever she may be. She will find everywhere a home, because she will find everywhere friends. You cannot set this ideal before yourselves too definitely, or strive to realize it too earnestly.

Do you ask how your work may be truly effective? I answer you in the words of the text, "He took the damsel by the hand." There must be an intensity of human sympathy, and there must be an indwelling of the Divine power. The lesson of the miracle which I have taken for my starting-point involves both these ideals. The current of womanly sympathy must flow out deep and strong and clear. Is not this the typical meaning of Christ’s action in the text? The touch of His warm hand restores the circulation and revives the life in those pale, motionless, death-like limbs. We want sympathy here, sympathy first and sympathy last—sympathy reflecting, however faintly, Christ’s own boundless compassion and love. The cold, mechanical formalism of the relieving officer will not suffice; the haughty assertion of superiority, the condescending patronage of the fine lady will be worse than nothing. You must be a sister to your sisters, treading in the footsteps of your Brother, Jesus Christ. Is not this also the meaning of those words which He utters to the girl lying helpless before Him? He speaks to her not in the Greek, the conventional language of outward life, but in the Syriac, the true language of the family and the home. It pierces her, notwithstanding her death-like slumber. He speaks to her, as He speaks to us all, with the voice of a direct personal love. This is always the language of Christ’s words, the language of Christ’s Gospel,—"How hear we every man in our own tongue wherein we were born?"

And over and above all this, animating, inspiring, sanctifying your human sympathies, there must be the consciousness of the Divine presence, the sense of the Divine energy, in your work. You will apply yourself to it with a strength not your own; the power of the living Christ will thrill through you. Is not this the interpretation of the symbolic action, "He took the damsel by the hand"?—He Himself, and not another. "Not I, but Christ in me," will be the inspiring motive of your work, as it was in St. Paul’s. His hand must guide your hand; nay, His hand must replace your hand, if the touch shall raise the damsel, and restore her to a better and a happier life.

And restore her it will; this intense human sympathy inspired by this consciousness of the Divine indwelling. It never has failed yet, and it never can fail to work miracles of resurrection and healing, in her helplessness, in her temptations, in all her struggles and perplexities, her bodily wants, and her spiritual trials. It will be to her comfort and strength and hope; it will throb her with the pulse of an awakened life.

But I have spoken hitherto as if these helpless girls whom you befriend were the sole counterparts of Jairus’s daughter. I have regarded them as only the patients whom Christ’s awakening hands raise from their death-like slumbers. Is this an adequate representation of the case, think you? Are there not others even more needy than they of this beneficent movement? Are we not taught on the highest authority that it is more blessed to give than to receive? But, if so, have we not a truer antitype of this damsel whom Christ raised in these befriended girls? Yes, Christ has taken them by the hand, and has revived them, has awakened them from the heavy, death-like slumber of a selfish, self-contained being. Christ has shown them the beauty and the power of sympathy, and it has been to them the throbbing of a new life. Surely it is not only the daughters of ancestral lineage and of Norman blood, not only a Clara Vere de Vere, who are sickening with a disease, and who need Christ’s healing hand; is there not in the home of the professional man many a daughter and many a sister on whose hand time hangs heavily, whose life is wasting away, fretting with feverish excitement, or sunk in self-indulgence and apathy, weary of self, and weary of others? How shall they wake up from their barren monotony and death-like existence? Sympathy, active sympathy for others; this, and this alone, can restore them. Mothers, train your daughters early to think for others, to care for others, to minister to others. Be assured this will be the most valuable part of their education. This heaven-born charity is the sovereign antidote to all the ills of womanhood. Is it some secret sorrow gnawing at the heart, some outraged feeling, or some harrowing bereavement, or some actual disappointment? Merge and absorb it in active solicitude for others. Is it some fierce temptation which shamed you, and each fresh struggle seems to leave you weaker than before? There will be no room for this if you devote yourself to the needs of others. All sin is selfishness in some form or other. Forget sloth; this is the best safeguard against temptation.

I appeal confidently to all those who have made the trial to say whether this medicine has healed them where all other medicines have failed? And, why, why? It is Christ’s own love constraining them; it is Christ’s own touch thrilling through their veins; hence they mark the resurrection—"He took the damsel by the hand; and straightway she arose and walked.’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). The Contemporary Pulpit Library: Sermons. New York: Thomas Whittaker. (Public Domain)

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True Ambition

True Ambition

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.  Philippians 4:13.

Dr. Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Lord Bishop of Durham
Great S. Mary’s Church, 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 1883.

Πάντα ἰσχύω ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με, ‘I have strength for all things in Him that empowereth, enableth me.’

Ambition, the love of power, the thirst after influence—its use and its abuse, its true and its false aims—this is no unfit subject for consideration from a University pulpit.

Ambition in some form or other is an innate craving of man. All men desire power; they cannot help desiring it. The desire is as natural to them as the desire of health. Power and influence occupy the same place socially, that strength and vigour of limb do physically. Other desires, though veiled under various disguises, resolve themselves ultimately into a love of power. Knowledge is power. The cultivated intellect has a command of the resources of the universe. The selfish exaggeration of this feeling is a testimony to the underlying fact. The self-satisfied soul congratulates herself that she is

Lord over nature, Lord of the visible earth,
Lord of the senses five.
She communes with herself—
All these are mine,
And let the world have peace or wars
’Tis one to me.

Again, money is power. A man desires wealth, not for the sake of the stamped metal or the printed paper in themselves. These represent to him a command of resources. The miser indeed by base indulgence forgets the end in the means. In his own domain he resembles the spurious mathematician, to whom the letters and symbols are all in all, who sees in them so many counters and nothing more, who is blinded to the eternal relations of space and number which they represent. But traced back to its origin, the miser’s love of money is a love of power.

Ambition, emulation, rivalry, plays a highly important part in the education of the world. We cannot shut our eyes to its splendid achievements. In politics, in social life, in mechanical inventions, in literature and art, its stimulus has produced invaluable results. If ambition has been the last infirmity, it has also been the initial inspiration, of many a noble mind. If by ambition angels fell, by ambition men have risen. It has heightened their ideal, and drawn them upwards from lower to higher. If it is chargeable with the worst evils which have devastated mankind, it must be credited also with the most splendid advances in human progress and civilisation.

Ambition has its proper home in a University. Ambition is the life of this place. What would Cambridge be without its honourable emulations, its generous rivalries? Body and mind alike feel the stimulus of its presence. Remove this stimulus, and the immediate consequence will be torpor and degeneration and decay. The athletic ambitions and the scholastic ambitions of the place, each in their own province, are indispensable to its health and vigour.

To one who, revisiting the scenes amidst which the best years of his life were spent, asks himself what topic may be fitly handled in this pulpit, the subject of ambition will naturally suggest itself. The University has lived through a period of exceptional restlessness and change during the last three decades—change far more considerable than during the preceding three centuries. Yet the spirit and life of the place are unchanging. It is the ceaseless, orderly-march of a mighty army moving forward. Cross it where you will along the line, the gesture, the tread, the uniform, is the same; the faces only are different. It is the broad, silent, ever-flowing river, changeless, yet always changing. Wave succeeds wave; you gaze on it at intervals; not one drop of water remains the same; and yet the river is not another. The main currents of University life are the same now as thirty years ago. Its moral and social condition is mainly, we may say, the resultant of two divergent forces, its friendships and its emulations. It is the latter alone that I purpose considering this afternoon.

I speak to you, therefore, as to ambitious men. Those only are beyond hope who have no spirit of emulation, no craving after excellence—those only, in short, who are devoid of ambition. I invite you, therefore, to be ambitious. Only I ask you to purify your ambition, to consecrate it, to direct it through worthy channels and to worthy aims. I desire to shew you the more excellent way.

If indeed ambition has achieved splendid results, it can only have done so by virtue of splendid qualities. It must contain in itself true and abiding elements, which we cannot afford to neglect. Thus it involves a love of approbation. This cannot be culpable in itself. As social beings, we have sympathies and affections which lie at the very roots of our nature; and the desire of approval is inseparably intertwined with these. Who would blame the child for seeking to win its mother’s good opinion? But the principle cannot be limited to this one example. It is coextensive with the whole range of our social relations. The end sought is commendable. Only it may be discredited and condemned by the means taken to attain it; as, for instance, if we disguise our true sentiment, or withhold a just rebuke, or connive at wrong-doing, or sacrifice a noble purpose, for the sake of standing well with others. It is then, and then only, that the praise of men conflicts with the praise of God. Again, ambition implies a spirit of emulation. Neither is this wrong in itself. If it were, this University would stand condemned root and branch. Emulation is not envy; emulation is not jealousy; emulation does not seek to injure or rob another. An apostle avows it to be his aim to ‘provoke to emulation.’ This provocation—this stimulus of comparison and contrast—is an invaluable influence. We measure ourselves with others; we see our defects mirrored in their excellencies; our ideal is heightened by the comparison. Thus there gathers and ferments in us a discontent with ourselves—not indeed, if we are wise, with our capacities, not with our opportunities, not with the inevitable environments of our position, but with the conduct of that personality which is free to discipline, to mould, to direct, to develop our endowments. This dissatisfaction with self is the mainspring of all high enterprise and all moral advancement.

But the chief element in ambition is the pursuit of power. The consciousness of power gives a satisfaction quite independently of the exercise of power. Whatever form the power may take—whether intellectual eminence, or social influence, or physical strength, it is a thing which man desires, which he cannot help desiring, in and for itself. It is a seed of God’s own planting—a germ of splendid achievements, if rightly trained and cultivated. It is only culpable in its excesses and aberrations. By our very constitution we feel a happiness in making the best of ourselves, as the phrase runs—in developing and improving our faculties, irrespective of any ulterior results. But a faculty improved is a power gained.

Brothers, I desire before all things to kindle in you a lofty ambition to-day. Therefore I have striven to justify ambition to you as God’s very precious gift. I wish—God helping me—to inspire you with that inward dissatisfaction, that discontent with self, that ceaseless, sleepless craving after higher things, which gives you no rest day or night, because it pursues an ever-receding goal. I would stimulate in you that high spirit of emulation which, fermenting and seething in your hearts, impels you to unknown enterprises. I ask you to pray for power, to pursue power, to grasp at power, with all the force and determination which you can command.

How can I do otherwise? Are not you the men, and is not this the season, for the handling of such a topic?

Are not you the men? Who among you has not felt, at one time or another, the spark of a divine fire kindling within you? Who has not yearned with an intense, if momentary, yearning to do something worthy, to be something worthy? Youth is the hey-day of hope, of enthusiasm, of lofty aspiration. You have felt that there was within you a latent power, a heaven-born capacity, which ought to work miracles, if it were not clogged by self-indulgence, or cowed by timidity, or choked by sloth and indolence.

Are not you the men? As I have said to such audiences before, so I say to you now. You do not know, you cannot know, with what reverence—a reverence approaching to awe—older men regard the glorious potentiality of youth, in all the freshness of its vigorous life, with all the promise of the coming years. Our habits are formed; our career is defined; our possibilities are limited. The wide sweep of moral victory, still open to you, is closed to us for ever. But what triumphs may you not achieve, if you are true to yourselves? What instruments may you not be in God’s hands, if only you will yield yourselves to Him, not with a timid, passive, half-hearted acquiescence, but with the active concentration of all your powers of body and soul and spirit?

And again I ask, Is not this the time? The first volume of your life’s history is closed. A clean page lies open, and with what writing shall it be filled? This is the great crisis of your life. These earliest few weeks of your University career, with which perhaps you are trifling, which you are idling thoughtlessly away, are only too likely to determine for you what you shall be in time and in eternity. It is the great crisis, but it is also the signal opportunity. Thank God, this is so; for the two do not always coincide. As the great break in your lives, it is the great season for revision, for repentance, for amendment, for the strong resolve and the definite plan. The old base associations must be abandoned; the old loose habits must be cured; the old indolence shaken off; and the old sin cast out and trampled under foot. Never again will such a magnificent opportunity be given you of rectifying the past; for never again can you reckon on the leisure, the privacy, the aids and environments, needed by one who is taking stock of his moral and spiritual life.

Who would not shrink from the responsibility of addressing you at such a crisis? And yet I speak boldly to you. Do I not know that, though the hand of the swordsman is feeble, yet the weapon itself is powerful—keener than any two-edged sword? Am I not assured that, though the preacher’s words may be feeble, faltering, desultory, without force and without point, yet God may barb the ill-fledged, ill-aimed shaft, and drive it home to the heart? It is possible that even now the live coal from the altar may be brought by the winged seraph’s hand, and laid on the sinful lips. I have undertaken to glorify the power of God, and to hold it up to you as your truest goal. How can I hope for a hearing, if I begin by distrusting it where I myself am concerned?

It is here, then, that I bid you seek and find the true aim of your ambition—in realising, appropriating, absorbing into yourselves, identifying yourselves with this power of God. It alone is inexhaustible in its resources, and infinite in its potency. There is no fear here lest the conqueror of a world should sigh and fret, because nothing remains beyond to conquer. If the craving is infinite, the satisfaction is infinite also. Star beyond star, world beyond world, will start out into view, as your vision grows clearer, spangling the moral heavens with their glories. πάντα ἰσχύω, ‘I can do all things.’ πάντα ὑμῶν, ‘All things are yours.’ Yes, but this promise of limitless strength has its condition attached, ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με, ‘In Him that empowereth me;’ yes, but this pledge of universal dominion is qualified by the sequel, ὑμεῖς δὲ Χριστοῦ, ‘Ye are Christ’s.’

How can we better realise this power of God than by taking S. Paul’s statement as our starting-point? The Cross of Christ is ‘the power of God.’ The Cross is the central revelation of God. The Cross has not unfrequently been preached as a narrow technicality, which shocks the conscience and freezes the heart. It thus becomes a mere forensic subtlety. But the Cross of Christ, taught in all its length and breadth and height and depth—the Cross of Christ, taught as S. Paul taught it—the Cross of Christ, starting from the Incarnation on the one side, and leading up to the Resurrection and Ascension on the other, contains all the elements of moral regeneration and of spiritual life.

(1) It is first of all a lesson of righteousness. It is the great rebuke of sin, the great assurance of judgment, the great call to repentance. Think—no, you cannot think; it defies all thinking—yet strive to think, what is implied in the human birth, the human life, the human suffering, the human death, of the Eternal Word. Ask yourselves what condescension, what sacrifice, what humiliation, is involved in this. Summon to your aid all analogies of self-renunciation, which history records or imagination suggests. They will all fail you. No reiteration of the finite can compass the infinite. You are lost in wonder at the contemplation. And while your brain is reeling with the effort, try and imagine the awe, the majesty, the glory of a righteousness, which could only thus be vindicated. Then, after looking upward to God, look inward into your own heart, and see how heinous, how loathsome, how guilty your guilt must be, which has cost such a sacrifice as this. God’s righteousness, your sin—these are brought face to face in the Cross of Christ.

(2) But, secondly, while it is a denunciation of sin, it is likewise an assurance of pardon. If the infinity of the sacrifice has taught you the majesty of God’s righteousness, it teaches you no less the glory of His mercy. What may you not look for, what may you not hope for, from a Father, Who has vouchsafed to you this transcendent manifestation of His loving-kindness? ‘He that spared not His own Son … how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’ Is any one here burdened with the consciousness of a shameful past? Does the memory of some ugly school-boy sin dog your path, haunting and paralysing you with its importunity? You feel sometimes as if your whole life were poisoned by that one cruel retrospect. Brother, be bold, and dare to look up. I would not have you think your sin one whit less heinous. But if God’s righteousness is infinite, so also is His mercy. The Cross is reared before your eyes in this moral wilderness, where you are dying, where all are dying around you. Dare to look up. The bite of the serpent’s fang is healed; the venom coursing through your veins is quelled; and health returns to the poisoned soul. Yes, and by God’s grace it may happen that through your very fall you will rise to a higher life; that the thanksgiving for the sin forgiven will consecrate you with a fuller consecration; and that the acute moral agony, through which you have passed, will endow you with a more helpful, more sympathetic, more loving spirit, than if you had never fallen.

(3) But again; the Cross of Christ is not only a condemnation of sin, not only a pledge of forgiveness; it is likewise an obligation of self-sacrifice. ‘God forbid,’ says S. Paul, ‘that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ But what next? Not ‘whereby I am saved in spite of myself,’ not ‘whereby I am spared all personal exertion,’ but ‘whereby the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.’ This conformity to Christ’s death, this crucifixion of self with Christ, always forms part of the doctrine of the Cross in S. Paul’s teaching. The dying with Christ, the being buried with Christ, is the absolute accompaniment of the atoning death of Christ. We cannot be at one with Christ, unless we conform to Christ. The work done for us necessitates the work done by us. The potentiality of our salvation—of yours and mine—wrought through the Cross of Christ can only then become an actuality, when Christ’s death is thus appropriated, realised, translated into action by us—by you and by me. But it remains still the work of God’s grace. Human merit is absolutely excluded still, as absolutely as by the baldest and most unqualified doctrine of substitution.

(4) Fourthly and lastly; the Cross of Christ is a lesson of the regenerate and sanctified life. Dying and living, burial and resurrection, these in the Christian vocabulary are correlative ideas. The Crucifixion implies the Resurrection and the Ascension. The raising up on the cross demands the raising up from the grave, the raising up into heaven. The lifting up of the brazen serpent in the wilderness is the symbol alike of the one and the other. And as with Christ, so also with those who are Christ’s. ‘If we died with Christ, we shall also live with Him.’ Those only can be made conformable to Christ’s resurrection, who have been made conformable to His death. The power of His resurrection is the counterpart to the power of His cross.

Herein then—in the Cross of Christ—resides this power of God, which is offered to you as the true aim of your ambition, inexhaustible, omnipotent, infinite. Will you close with the offer? Then reverence yourselves; believe in yourselves; consecrate yourselves.

Reverence yourselves. Begin with reverencing this your body. Reverence it as God’s handiwork fearfully and wonderfully made. Contemplate it; yes, contemplate it with awe, if only for its marvellously subtle mechanism. But reverence it still more as the consecrated temple of God’s Spirit. Do not neglect it; do not misuse it; before all things do not defile and desecrate it. Young men, the problem of social purity is thrown down for your generation to solve. Will you accept this challenge? The conscience of England is awakening to the terrible curse. To redress the crying social wrong, to raise womanhood from degradation and shame, to hold up to reverence the ideal of a pure, chivalrous, manly manhood—this is the crusade in which you are invited to enlist. Will you, as consecrated soldiers of the Cross, claim your part in the glory of this campaign? If so, the work must begin now, must begin in yourselves. There can be no success against the foe, where there is disaffection and mutiny in the citadel.

Believe in yourselves; yet, not in yourselves as yourselves. Believe not in your strength, but in your weakness. Believe in God Who dwells in you. Give full rein to your ambition. Trust this power of God. It will not stunt nor mar, will not crush, will not annihilate your natural gifts—your social endowments, your political instincts, your intellectual capacities. It will only elevate, harmonize, inspire, purify them. Trust this power. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, which you may not do, if you will only trust it. πάντα ἰσχύω, ‘I have strength for everything,’ everything in heaven and earth. You have youth, health, vigour, enthusiasm, hopefulness, everything on your side now. Seize the great opportunity which can never return.

Consecrate yourselves. Empty yourselves of yourselves, that you may be filled with God. Yield yourselves to Him, not with a passive acquiescence, a sentimental quietism, but with the earnest, energetic direction of all your faculties to this one end. A period must still intervene for most of you before the active independent work of life begins, a period of discipline and waiting. Only by patience will you win your souls. But the self-dedication must be made at once, and it must be complete. Half-heartedness spoils the sacrifice. Postponement is perilous. The opportunity despised turns its back on you for ever. Consecrate, consecrate yourselves, body and soul and spirit, to God now, this night.

I have been asked to plead before you a cause of the highest moment to the welfare of this town. I shall dismiss it very briefly. I will not do you the dishonour of supposing that long and earnest pleading is needed from me. You have brought together large populations in the outlying suburbs to minister to your wants, to your convenience, to your pleasure—alas, in some instances to suffer shame and wrong from your recklessness. The provision for their spiritual wants is therefore a first charge on your temporal wealth. This fund, for which I plead to-day, is in many cases the only instrument, in all the chief instrument, in providing for these wants. But its finance is always precarious, unless on these occasions we raise about a hundred pounds. For a hundred pounds therefore I ask. Let those who have not brought ample gifts, send them afterwards, that there be no shortcoming.

But there is another matter also, which I desire to lay before you. Eleven years ago an effort was made to build a church at New Chesterton, a rapidly growing suburb, inhabited largely by college servants. The preacher from this pulpit then appealed to the undergraduates. He asked if there were not among the younger of his hearers twenty-five men who would offer themselves as collectors among their companions. Not twenty-five, but thirty-two, offered themselves in answer to this appeal. A very considerable sum was collected by these means from undergraduates. With the contributions gathered in this and other ways the Church of S. Luke was erected, an incomplete structure to be finished hereafter. The parish work has gone on vigorously ever since. The clergy give their services for very inadequate remuneration, or no remuneration at all. There is daily service, morning and evening. The church is full on Sunday mornings, crowded to overflowing on Sunday evenings. The communicants have increased manifold; the offertories are large for a poor parish. The spiritual ministrations are thus cramped for want of room, and the completion of the structure is a pressing need. Has not the time arrived for another such appeal to the undergraduates? Are there not five-and-twenty, are there not fifty young men now, who would undertake a like charge? I cannot suppose that undergraduate zeal has waned in these eleven years. Everything that I see and hear leads me to take a far more hopeful view. In Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake come forward and offer yourselves for this work.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.  Genesis 28:16.

Dr. Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Lord Bishop of Durham
Great S. Mary’s Church, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 1881.

An unobtrusive, unimpressive scene, almost indistinguishable even to the curious eye of the archæologist ‘in the maze of undistinguished hills which encompass it’—with nothing to attract the eye, and nothing to fire the imagination; large slabs of bare rock traversed by a well-worn thoroughfare; ‘no religio loci, no awful shades, no lofty hills’—so is the site of Bethel described by the modern traveller. Yet this was none other than the House of God; this was the very gate of heaven.

An unimpressive scene in itself, but appearing still more commonplace, when contrasted with the famous shrines of heathendom—the rock fortress of Athene, or the pleasant groves of Daphne, or the cloven peak of Parnassus, or the sea-girt sanctuary of Delos. No beauty, no grandeur, nothing of loveliness and nothing of awe, nothing exceptional of any kind, which can explain or justify its selection. Was there not ground for the wanderer’s surprise on that memorable night? Why should this one spot be chosen to plant the foot of the ladder which connected heaven and earth? Why in this bleak wilderness? Why amidst these bare rocks? Why here of all places in the world? Yes, why here?

The paradox of Bethel is the paradox of the Gospel, is the paradox of God’s spiritual dispensations at all times. The Incarnation itself was the supreme manifestation of this paradox. The building up of the Church was the proper sequel to the Incarnation.

Look at the accompaniments of the Incarnation. Could any environment of circumstances well have been imagined more incongruous, more alien to this unique event in human history, this supreme revelation of God’s wisdom, and power, and beneficence? An obscure corner of the Roman world; an insignificant and down-trodden race, scorned and hated by the rest of mankind; an ox-stall for a nursery, and a carpenter’s shop for a school—what is wanting to complete the paradox? Yes, there is still one feature to be added to the picture—the crowning incongruity of all—the felon’s death on the gibbet. Said not the prophet rightly, when he foretold that there should be nothing lovely in His life and circumstances, as men count loveliness; ‘no form nor comeliness;’ ‘no beauty that we should desire Him’?

And the same paradox, which ruled the foundation of the Church, extended also to its building up. The great statesmen, the powerful captains, in the kingdom of God were fishermen and tentmakers. Never was this characteristic incongruity of the Gospel more signally manifested than in the preaching of S. Paul at Athens. Have we ever realised the force of that single word, with which the historian describes the impression left on the Apostle’s mind by this far-famed city? Gazing on the most sublime and beautiful creations of Greek art, the master-pieces of Pheidias and Praxiteles, he has no eye for their beauty or their sublimity. He pierces through the veil of the material and transitory; and behind this semblance of grace and glory the true nature of things reveals itself. To him this chief centre of human culture and intelligence, this

Eye of Greece, mother of arts
And eloquence

appears only as κατείδωλος, overrun with idols, beset with phantoms which mislead, and vanities which corrupt. Art and culture are God’s own gifts, legitimate embellishments of life, even of worship, which is the highest form of life. But if culture aims at displacing religion, if art seeks to dethrone God, why then in the highest interests of humanity be it our prayer that the sword of the barbarian and the axe of the iconoclast may descend once more, and sweep them ruthlessly away. There was, at least, this redeeming feature in ancient art, that it gave expression to whatsoever sense of the Divine lay buried in the heathen mind. But art and culture, which studiously ignore God—what can be said for these? In this one word κατείδωλος lies the germ of that fierce and protracted struggle of Christianity with Paganism, which ended indeed in a splendid victory, though not without inflicting many a wound on humanity of which the scars and seams still remain. Notwithstanding the merciless scoffs of a Celsus and the biting sarcasms of a Julian, the Apostle’s words were verified in their literal truth. Strength was made perfect in weakness. God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, aye, and the uncomely things of the world to confound the beautiful. The things which are not brought to nought the things which are.

So then in its accompaniments, not less than in its main idea, this incident at Bethel is a type of the Gospel of Christ. This exile, the representative of the Israel after the flesh, prefigures a greater outcast and wanderer, the representative of the Israel after the Spirit, the representative of the whole family of man. This ladder reared up from earth to heaven, whereby angels ascend and descend—what is it but the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, wherein God is made man, and man is taken up into God? This it is, which establishes the title of Christianity as the absolute and final religion of the world—this indissoluble union of the human with the Divine—this one only adequate response to the deepest religious cravings of mankind. Hence the Church has ever clung with a tenacity of grasp which shallow hearts could ill understand, to this central idea, the indefeasible wedlock of heaven and earth in the God-Man. And to those whose sight is purged by faith, to those who are gifted with the eye of the Spirit, the vision of Bethel will be vouchsafed with a far more exceeding glory; ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’—on the Son of Man; yes, and on thyself too, O man, for thou art one with this Son of Man, one with the Father in Him.

‘Gifted with the eye of the Spirit,’ I say: for in vain the heavens are riven asunder, and the glory streams forth, and all things are flooded with light, if the capacity of vision be absent. Only the cold bare stones beneath, only the midnight gloom overhead, only the dreary, monotonous waste around, these and these alone are visible otherwise. We have been saddened, perhaps we have been disconcerted, as recently we read the melancholy epitaph which sums up the creed of a brilliant man of science not long since deceased—a hopeless, soulless, lifeless creed, to which his own very faculties and acquisitions appear to us to give the lie. We have been saddened justly; but why should we be disconcerted? God be thanked, the most absolute childlike faith has not unfrequently been found united with the highest scientific intellect. We in this place have never yet lacked bright examples of such a union, and God grant we never may. But what right have we to expect it as a matter of course? What claim do the most brilliant mathematical faculties, or the keenest scholarly instincts, give to a man to speak with authority on the things of the Spirit? Are we not told on authority before which we bow, that a special faculty is needed for this special knowledge; that ‘eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard;’ that only the Spirit of God—the Spirit which He vouchsafes to His sons—knoweth the things of God? And does not all analogy enforce the truth of this lesson? One man has a keenly sensitive musical ear, but he is colour-blind. Another has a quick eye for the faintest gradations of colour, but he cannot distinguish one note of music from another. Does the imperfect eye of the one throw any haze of uncertainty over the hues of the rainbow; or the obtuse ear of the other disparage the master works of a Handel or a Mozart or a Beethoven? Here is a mathematician who sees in a sublime creation of imaginative genius only a tissue of unproven hypotheses; and here is a poet, to whom the plainest processes of algebra and the simplest problems in geometry are mere barbarian gabble, conveying no distinct impression to the brain, and leaving no intelligible idea on the mind. Judge no man in this matter. To his own master he stands or falls. But judge yourselves. Yes, spare no rigour and relax no vigilance, when the judge is the criminal also. Believe it, this spiritual faculty is an infinitely subtle and delicate mechanism. You cannot trifle with it, cannot roughly handle it, cannot neglect it and suffer it to rust from disuse, without infinite peril to yourselves. Nothing—not the highest intellectual gains—can compensate you for its injury or its loss. The private prayer mechanically repeated, then hurried over, then intermitted, and at last dropped; the devotional reading found to be daily more irksome, because suffered to be daily more listless; the valuable moral and spiritual discipline of the early morning chapel, gradually neglected; the unobtrusive opportunities of witnessing for Christ by deeds of kindliness and words of wisdom suffered to slip by—these, and such as these, are the unfailing indications of spiritual decline; till disuse is followed by paralysis, and paralysis ends in death; and you are left without God in the world. And yet when again—you young men—when again, in the years to come, can you hope that the conditions of your life will be as favourable to this spiritual self-discipline as they are now? Where else do you expect to find in the same degree the opportunities for private meditation and retirement, the daily common prayer and the frequent communions, the inspiring and sanctifying friendships, the wholesome occupation for the mind and the healthy recreations for the body, every appliance and every aid, which if you will only employ them aright, neither disusing them nor misusing them, will combine to build up and to perfect the man of God? Choose ye, this day. To you, more especially, I appeal who have recently commenced your residence here, and to whom therefore with the changed conditions of life a heightened ideal of life also is suggested. This is the momentous alternative. Shall your life hereafter be typified by the barren rocks and the monotonous waste, hard and dreary, if nothing worse; or shall it be illumined within and around with the effulgence of God’s own presence, so that

The earth and every common sight
to you shall seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

A dream? Nay, not a dream, but an everlasting reality, eternal, as God’s own being is eternal.

There are two ways of looking on the relations between the things of this life and the things of eternity—a false and a true. The false way regards the one as the negation of the other. They are reciprocally exclusive. The avocations, the interests, the amusements of daily life—nature and history, poetry and art—these are so many hindrances to the heavenly life. Every moment given to work is a moment subtracted from prayer. Thus the inward life becomes a constant reluctation against the conditions of the outward. This is the spirit which of old peopled the desert with anchorites; the spirit which in all ages, though under divers forms, has made a religion of selfishness. This is the voice which cries, lo, here! and lo, there! though all the while the kingdom of heaven is within us, is in the very midst of us. The true conception is the reverse of all this. Its ideal is not a separation, but an identification of the two. It takes its stand on the old maxim laborare est orare. It strives that its work shall be prayer, and its prayer shall be work. Nature and history to it are not the veil of God’s presence; they are the investiture of God’s glory. And therefore to it is vouchsafed the vision of grace and comfort and strength, as to the patriarch of old. The solitary wanderer along the dreary thoroughfare of this life lays himself down. He has nothing but the bare stones beneath for a couch, and nothing but the midnight sky overhead for a tent. He closes his eyes for a moment; and the whole place is flooded with glory. Aye, the Lord was in this place, though he knew it not. He knew it not; but he knows it now—knows it in the access of strength, knows it in the promise of hope, knows it in the celestial voice and the ineffable light. All the common interests of life—the avocations, the amusements, the cares, the hopes, the friendships, the conflicts—all are invested with a dignity and an awe unsuspected before. Reverence is henceforth the ruling spirit of his life. This monotonous round of common-place toils, and common-place pleasures, is none other than the House of God. This barren stony thoroughfare of life is the very portal of heaven.

To read these hieroglyphs traced on nature, on history, on the human soul—to decipher this handwriting of God wheresoever it appears, and where does it not appear?—is the ultimate and final study of man. All history is a parable of God’s dealings; and we must learn the interpretation of the parable. All nature is a sacrament of God’s being and attributes, and we must strive to pierce through the outward sign to the inward meaning. To realise God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, to see God’s visage—let this be henceforth the aim and the discipline of our lives. So at length we shall pass from Bethel to Peniel—from the palace courts to the presence chamber itself. We shall see God face to face. It is a vision of power, of majesty, of awe unspeakable; but it is a vision also of purification, of light, of strength, of life. The blessing is won at length by that long lonely wrestling under the midnight sky. The fraud, the worldliness, the self-seeking is thrown off like a slough. All is changed. Old things have passed away. The supplanter rises from the struggle the supplanter no more, but the Israel, the Prince, who has power with God and with men. Shall not Moses’ prayer then be our prayer, ‘Lord, I beseech thee, shew me Thy Glory?’

‘Shew me Thy glory.’ Where else shall this glory reveal itself, if not in the studies of this place? These properties of numbers, these relations of space, these phenomena of light, of heat, of energy, of life, of language, of thought, what are they? Individual facts to be recorded, arranged, tabulated, marshalled under several heads, which we call laws and, having so called them, with a strange self-complacency and contentment fold our hands, as if nothing more were to be done, as if by the mere imposition of a name we had crowned them absolute sovereigns of the Universe? Or are they the manifestations—partial, indeed, and needing to be supplemented—of a power, a majesty, a wisdom, an order, a beneficence, a finality, a oneness, a One, Who is shewn to us as the Eternal Father in the revelation of the Eternal Son? Can we afford to look down from the serene heights of modern science and culture on the untutored Indian, who saw God’s face in the shifting clouds, and heard God’s voice in the whistling winds? Nay, was there not a truth in this childish ignorance, which threatens to elude the grasp of our manhood’s wisdom? Was it altogether a baseless dream in those Stoic Pantheists, who endowed each several planet with an animating spirit of its own? Was it altogether a wild fancy in those Christian fathers which assigned to each its particular angel, who should whirl it through space and hold it in its course? Was it not rather a Divine instinct feeling after a higher truth? Human life cannot rest satisfied with the science of phenomena alone. It needs to supplement science with poetry. And the true, the absolute, the final poetry is the recognition of God the Creator and Governor, of God the all-wise and all-powerful, of God the Father, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier, of God the Eternal Love. Blessed are they who have eyes and see—they to whom

The meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears;

thoughts of immortality, of wisdom, of light, of love.

‘Shew me Thy Glory.’ Where else again shall His glory be seen, If not in those friendships which are the crowning gift of University life? This intimate communion of soul with soul, this linking of heart with heart, is it merely a matter of human convenience, of human preference, or has it a Divine side also? This love, this devotion, this reliance of the weak on the strong, this reverence for a nature purer, nobler, more upright, more manly, more unselfish than your own—what is its meaning? It is a precious, unspeakably precious, gift of God, you will say—far beyond wealth, or fame, or popularity, or ease, or any earthly boon of which you can conceive? Yes, but it is more than this. May we not call it in some sense a sacrament, a sign and a parable of your relation to your Lord? You are awed—no other word will express this feeling—you are awed with the honour done to you by this friendship. You do not talk much about it—it is too sacred a thing—but you do feel it. You confess to yourself day and night your own unworthiness. And yet, though you strive to be worthy, you would not wish to feel worthy. The very sense of undeservedness invests the gift with a bountifulness and a glory which you would not forego. The fountains of your thanksgiving would cease to flow freely, if you claimed it as a right; and it is a joyful and a pleasant thing to be thankful. Apply this experience to the infinitely higher gift of Christ’s friendship, of Christ’s sacrifice. Herein lies the power of the Cross—which men called, and still call, weakness—the power which awes, inspires, energizes, which elevates the heart and sanctifies the life—here in this feeling of boundless thanksgiving arising from this sense of absolute undeservedness. For is it not true, that those will love most, to whom most is given and forgiven? So then this your friendship is found to be none other than the House of God. The Lord is in this place, and happy, thrice happy are ye, if ye know it.

Once again; look into your own soul, and what do you find there? Yes, ye yourselves are the temple of the living God. He is there—there, whether you will or not. Through your reason, through your conscience, through your remorses and regrets, through your capacity of amendment, through your aspirations and ideals, He speaks to you. You are His coinage. His image and superscription are stamped upon you. Aye, and He has also re-stamped you, re-created you, in Christ Jesus by the earnest of His Spirit. If it be true of your body that it is fearfully and wonderfully made, is it not far more true of your soul? Henceforward you will regard yourself with awe and reverence, as a sanctuary of the Eternal Goodness. You will not, you dare not, profane this sanctuary. Here is the true self-respect—nay, not self-respect, for self is abased, self is overawed, self veils the face and falls prostrate in the presence of Infinite Wisdom and Purity and Love thus revealed. Surely, surely the Lord was in this place—in this poor, self-seeking, restless, rebellious soul of mine, and I thought it a common thing, I went on my way heedless, I followed my own devices and desires, I knew it not.

In conclusion, I have been asked to plead before you to-day a cause which it should not require any words of mine to enforce. The Barnwell and Chesterton Clergy Fund appeals to you year by year for aid. Of all claims this (I say it advisedly) should be a first charge on the liberality of members of the University. These populous and growing suburbs are created by your needs. They are chiefly peopled by college servants and others for whom you are responsible. Zealous clergy are willing to work for the work’s sake in these districts commonly for stipends which no one could call remuneration—sometimes for no stipends at all. And yet it is still the same old story which I remember years ago. There is still the same difficulty in meeting current expenses; still the same fear lest the spiritual machinery should be impaired for lack of funds; still the same precarious hand-to-mouth existence, of which we heard complaint in years past. Is it quite creditable, that matters should go on thus? In a thousand ways you all, some directly, some indirectly, you all are reaping, materially, intellectually or spiritually, the fruits gathered from the liberality of past ages. Will you not make an adequate return? Steady, continuous subscriptions are needed. A liberal response to this day’s appeal is needed. The Fund is largely dependent on the proceeds of the University Sermon. Not less than a hundred pounds will suffice to meet all requirements. Will you not give it this day, either in this church, or in contributions sent afterwards to the treasurer? Think not that you hear only the poor words of the preacher in this appeal. Christ Himself pleads with you. Christ’s own words ring in your ears, ‘Ye did it, ye did it not, to Me’. Ah yes, the Lord was in this place—in this weary pleading of the preacher, in these trite commonplaces of spiritual need; and we, we knew it not. God grant that you may know it in time. God forbid that He should ever say to you, ‘I know you not.’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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Bought With a Price

Bought With A Price

Ye are bought with a price.  1 Corinthians 6:20.

Dr. Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Lord Bishop of Durham
Great S. Mary’s Church, 1st Sunday in Lent, 1879.

The words which I desire to consider with you this evening occur twice in the same Epistle. The connexion in the two passages is somewhat different; but the leading idea is the same in both. We have a Master, an Owner, Who has a paramount, absolute, inalienable property in us. We are His slaves, His chattels, His implements. All other rights over us are renounced, are absorbed, are annulled in His rights. He has acquired us by virtue of purchase.

In the first passage S. Paul is denouncing sins of the flesh. In his eyes these sins are something more than sins. They are flagrant anomalies; they are monstrous wrongs. There is a direct contradiction in terms, a flat denial of the first principles of justice, in the commission of them. God has set His stamp upon us. He impressed us with His image in our first creation. He re-stamped the same image upon us when He formed us anew in Christ. Thus we are doubly His. ‘Here is God enthroned in the sanctuary of your bodies. But you—you ignore the august Presence, you profane the Eternal Majesty; you pollute, you dishonour, you defy, with shameless sacrilege, the ineffable glory, the Lord seated on His throne, high and lifted up, His train filling the whole temple of your being, as if He were some vile and worthless thing.’ And then the Apostle suddenly changes his image: ‘You are slaves—you are live chattels—nothing more. You have renounced all rights over yourselves. You are not your own; you were bought with a price. God in Christ is your Master. He demands your life, your soul, your all.’

In the second passage the Apostle is discussing a wholly different subject. He desires to set the existing arrangements of society in their proper relation to the Gospel. From this point of view the most perplexing problems were suggested by the deeply-rooted institution of slavery. What would come of this institution, when transplanted into the Church of Christ? How would the relations of master and slave be modified by this transference? The Apostle declines to discuss the matter in detail. Before the eternal verities of the Gospel, the conventional arrangements of society pale into insignificance. Freedom and slavery are endowed with a higher meaning. The slave is no more a slave, for he is set free in Christ. The free man is no more free, for he is enslaved to Christ. Yes, enslaved to Christ, because purchased by Christ. In outward matters the old forms of bondage to man may remain for a time, till they melt away before the broadening dawn of a higher principle. But the allegiance of the heart, of the soul, of the life, henceforth is due to no man, but to Christ alone. ‘Ye were bought with a price; be not ye slaves to men.’

Not slaves to self, not slaves to men—this is the twofold lesson which we gather from the passages considered side by side. The ownership of self is done away. The lordship of our fellow-men is no more. One slavery alone remains, the most abject, most absolute, of all slaveries. We are the slaves of Christ.

The most abject slavery, and yet the most perfect freedom. This is the glorious paradox of the Gospel. We are free, because we are slaves. We are most free then, when our slavery is most complete. Our servitude is itself our franchise. Our purchase-money is our ransom also.

I ask you all—I ask you young men especially—to lay this truth to heart to-night. Of all pitiable sights in this wide world I know none sadder than the spectacle of a young man drifting into an aimless, purposeless, soulless existence—soulless and purposeless, I mean, as regards any higher consideration than the mere wants and associations and interests of the moment, the mean routine of this mundane life. He does not stop to ask himself, Whence came I? Whither go I? Whose am I? Or, if he asks the question, he lacks the patience or the firmness to wait for an answer. And so he drifts—drifts into worldliness, drifts into unbelief, drifts into positive sin. Without a helm, without a compass, without sun or star in the heavens to guide him, he is swept onward whithersoever the tide of opinion, or the current of temptation, or the wind of circumstance may carry him, till at length he finds himself far away from the haven of God, and return is well-nigh hopeless. So he tosses about on the barren ocean for a while, and then he sinks into the abyss of darkness and despair. He has had no ideal in life.

Believe it, if you would rescue your lives—you and you—from this cruel shipwreck before it is too late, you must put the question definitely to yourselves, and you must be prepared to abide by the answer: ‘What shall be the principle of my conduct? What shall be the goal of my life? What in short is my ideal, which shall animate, shall inspire, shall guide, my every act and my every word?’

Such an ideal is supplied you by the language of the text. It speaks of an absolute allegiance, a self-abandoning submission, an unswerving loyalty to One Who by an unquestioned title is your Lord and Master. It bids you find your truest freedom in your strictest servitude. It supplies you with a reason which is at once the seal of duty and the spring of affection. You were bought—bought at the heaviest price which God Himself might pay. You were purchased into servitude, but you were ransomed into liberty. You are no longer the slaves of self, because you are no longer the masters of self.

There is much foolish talk in these days about the relations of opinion to practice. It is not uncommonly assumed, even when it is not directly stated, that a man’s beliefs are not of any particular moment, provided that his conduct is right. The underlying assumption is that beliefs exercise little or no influence on conduct. But does not all history, does not all human experience, give the lie to this assumption? Ideas have ever been the most potent engines in social and moral change. They have upset the thrones of kings, and they have reversed the destinies of nations. See what miracles have been wrought in our own time by the idea of national unity. Remember again what convulsions and upheavals of society were caused in the age of our fathers, and threaten again to be brought about in the age of our sons, by the idea of the equality and brotherhood of mankind. And as with nations and peoples, so also with the individual man. An ideal of life, firmly grasped, is an untold power for good or for evil. An ideal is a sort of prophecy, which works its own fulfilment; it haunts the dreams, and it inspires the waking hours. To keep a definite goal in view and to press ever forward towards it—to know what you desire to attain, and to strain every nerve for its attainment—this it is which will give a distinctness, a force, a savour to your conduct—a savour of life unto life, if the ideal be well chosen, but a savour of death unto death, if it be some unworthy aim, such as riches or ambition or pleasure or worldly success in any of its manifold forms.

The ideal, which the text presents to you, is the most potent of all ideals. Its potency consists in this, that it appeals, not only to our truest moral instincts, our aspirations after righteousness and holiness, but also to our deepest affections, our gratitude, our devotion, our filial love; and thus it grasps the whole man. The centre of this appeal is the Cross of Christ.

The Cross of Christ. To S. Paul Christ crucified was the lesson of all lessons; it gathered and absorbed into itself all other truths; it was the power and it was the wisdom of God. But we—we have stultified its wisdom, and we have enfeebled its power, by our too officious comments. Theologians and preachers have darkened, where they desired to make light. The simplicity of the Scriptures has been overlaid by technical terms; the metaphors of the Scriptures have been overstrained by subtle definitions. Redemption, atonement, imputation, satisfaction, vicarious punishment—what storms have not raged, and what clouds have not gathered, over these terms; till the very heavens have been shrouded in gloom, and where men looked for illumination, they have found only darkness over head and only confusion under foot. But ever and again to simple faith and to loving hearts the Cross of Christ has spoken with an awe and a pathos, which has taken them captive wholly. They were bought with a price. They cannot resist the appeal. They cannot deny the inference. They are no more their own.

‘Bought with a price.’ In these few words the lesson of the Cross is summed up. Whatever else it may be, it is the supreme manifestation of God’s love. The greatness of the love is measured by the greatness of the price paid; and the greatness of the price paid defies all words and transcends all thought. When we try to realise it we are overwhelmed with the mystery, and we veil our faces in awe. We summon to our aid such human analogies as experience suggests or as history and fable record. The devotion of the friend risking his life to save another life as dear to him as his own—the bravery of the captain and the crew sinking calmly and resolutely into their watery grave, without a shudder, without a regret, disdaining to survive while one weak woman or one feeble child is left in peril—the heroism of the patriot hostage condemning himself to a certain and cruel death, rather than forfeit his honour on the one hand or consent to terms disastrous to his country’s welfare on the other—all these have the highest value as examples of human courage and self-devotion. But how little after all does any such sacrifice help us to realise the magnitude of the Great Sacrifice. The analogy fails just there, where we look for its aid. It is the infinity of the price paid for our redemption, which is its essential characteristic. It is the fact that God gave not a life like our lives, not a weak, erring, sin-stricken, sorrow-laden victim like ourselves, but gave His only-begotten Son, gave His Eternal Word, to become flesh, to work and to suffer, to live and to die, for our sakes. It is the fact that the Glory of the Invisible God condescended to visit this earth; to hunger and thirst, to be despised, to be buffeted, to be racked and mangled on the Cross. The sacrifice is unique, because the Person is unique. Herein was love—not that we loved Him—did we not spurn Him, did we not hate Him, did we not defy Him?—but that He loved us. While we were yet sinners, while we were yet rebels and blasphemers, Christ died for us; and by that death God commends His love towards us—commends it, so that henceforth no shadow of doubt or misgiving can rest upon it.

Do we marvel any longer that S. Paul determined to know nothing among his converts but Christ crucified; that to him it embodied all the lessons, and concentrated all the sanctions, of the moral and spiritual life; that this weak and foolish thing stood out before his eyes as the very power and the very wisdom of God? In this one transcendent manifestation of God’s purpose righteousness was vindicated, and love was assured, and ownership was sealed, and obedience was made absolute.

In the Cross of Christ righteousness was vindicated. At length sin appeared in all its heinousness. The greatness of the sacrifice was a mirror of the greatness of the sin. We are so constituted that we do not easily realise the magnitude of our wrongdoings, except by their consequences. I find that by my carelessness I have imperilled the life of another; and then my carelessness ceases to be a trivial fault. I am made conscious that by my selfishness I have deeply wounded the affections of another, and then my selfishness becomes hideous in my eyes. So it is here on a grander scale. Try to realise the significance of this death—its magnitude, its condescension, its goodness. And when you have realised it, go and sin, if you dare.

In the Cross of Christ love—God’s love—was assured. When we look out into the world, we see not a little which perplexes and distresses. Sorrow and suffering, error, ignorance, anarchy, decay, death; these are the characters written across the face of nature. Men will not suffer us to slur over the legend of this handwriting, if we would. They point to the profusion of waste in nature, the many thousands of seeds that decay and perish for the one that germinates and blossoms and bears fruit. They bid us look at the pitiless cruelty of nature, creature preying upon creature, life sustained by the destruction of life, the whole face of the universe crimson with carnage. They bid us reflect on the many myriads of human beings who are born into this world and live and toil and die, without a joy, without a hope, without one ray of light from a higher world. And, having paraded before our eyes these trophies of imperfection, and worse than imperfection, they ask with a scornful triumph where is the providence of God, where is the Fatherly goodness on which we rely? Nay, we cannot deny the filial instincts which He has implanted in us, if we would. This is our answer to our gainsayers. But we—we have a further assurance in ourselves which silences all misgivings. The Cross of Christ rises as a glory before us, carrying the eye upward from earth to heaven, stretching right and left across the field of view, and embracing the universe in its arms. It tells of a love transcending all love. What room is there for doubt now? God is with us, and who then can be against us? ‘He that spared not His own Son … shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’

In the Cross of Christ ownership was confirmed. By all the ties of duty and of love we are henceforth His. No one else has a right to command us. Least of all have we a right to command ourselves. The purchase-money has been paid; and we are delivered over, bound hand and foot to do His pleasure. To hear some men talk, one would suppose that the Cross was a clever expedient for securing the favour of God without requiring the obedience of man. They lay much stress on the one statement, ‘Ye were bought with a price;’ they altogether overlook the other, which is its practical corollary, ‘Ye are not your own.’ They forget that, if we were purchased into freedom, we were purchased into slavery also. And so by the violence of a spurious theology, faith and conduct, religion and morality, have been divorced; that which God joined together man has dared to put asunder; the moral sense has been outraged by the severance; and the Cross of Christ needlessly made a scandal to many. What, think you, would S. Paul have said to this interpretation of his doctrine—S. Paul, to whom faith in the Cross of Christ meant the recognition of His sole ownership, meant entire submission, obedience, slavery to Him, meant the subjection of every thought and word and deed to His will?

And so lastly; by the Cross of Christ obedience is made absolute. How can it be otherwise? Master this amazing lesson of Divine love, and you cannot resist the consequence. Your own love must be the response to His love; and with your love your unquestioning loyalty and submission. There is that in your very nature which obliges you to obey, if you will only listen. Once again, let us summon to our aid the poor and weak analogies of human love. Have you never felt, or (if you have not felt) can you not imagine, the keen pain, which the sense of past ingratitude—unconscious at the time—will inflict, when long after it is brought home to the heart? A mother, we will say, has lavished on you all the wealth of her deep affection; you have accepted her solicitude as a matter of course; you have not been a disobedient son, as the world reckons disobedience; but you were wayward and thoughtless; you requited her attention with indifference; you almost resented her care at times, as if it were an undue interference with your freedom. And then death came. And some chance letter perhaps, found among her papers, revealed to you for the first time the riches of her love which you had slighted or spurned; and you are crushed with shame. No condemnation is too strong for your meanness, and no contrition is too deep for your remorse. Your ingratitude haunts you as a spectre, which you cannot lay. Death has robbed you of the power of making amends; and you are left alone with your baseness. And yet what is there in the tenderest mother’s love comparable to the infinite love of Him Who became man for you, Who toiled and suffered and died for you?

This then is the ideal which the Gospel offers for acceptance to you young men to-day—this absolute subjection and loyalty to the Master Who bought you. Welcome it now, before the inevitable years have pressed down the yoke of habit upon your necks. Welcome it now, while you can offer to Him the enthusiasm and the glory of a fresh and lifelong service. Do not think to put Him off to a more convenient season, purposing some time or other—you know not when and you know not how—to satisfy Him with the dregs of a wasted life. Each year, each month, will add pain to the effort. Lose your souls forthwith, that you may win them. Be slaves this very day, that you may be free.

Be slaves, and accept frankly the consequences of your slavery. To you, as to the chief Apostle of old, the mandate has gone forth, ‘Follow thou Me.’ Whither He may lead you, you cannot tell, and you must not too curiously enquire. It may be that in the years to come He has in reserve for you also some signal destiny, some work of unwonted responsibility, or some career of exceptional toil and pain, some cross or other, from which you would shrink with a shudder, if you could foresee it now. You are young yet. To-day and to-morrow you may gird yourselves, and walk whithersoever you will, roaming at large through the pleasant fields of life, and culling freely the joyful associations and interests of the passing hour. But the third day the grip of a Divine necessity will fasten upon you. Another will gird you and carry you whither you would not—far away from the home that you have cherished, from the friends that you have loved, from the work that has been a pleasure to you. Your ideal of life is shattered in a moment. Your hopes and projects for the future crumble into dust at the touch of God. Nay, do not repine. Follow Him cheerfully, whithersoever He may take you. Your cross will be your consolation; your trial will be your glory. The Lord is your shepherd; therefore shall you lack nothing. He shall lead you forth by the waters of comfort. Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you will fear no evil; for He is with you; His rod and His staff shall comfort you.

To you more especially, the younger members of the University, my present and former pupils, my best and truest teachers, I would say a word in return for the many lessons which I have learnt from you. To one, for whom the old things of Academic life are now passing for ever away, the predominant thought must be the inestimable privilege which you and he alike have so bountifully enjoyed, and (it may be) so lightly esteemed. Believe it, you have opportunities here for the development of the higher life, which to many of you can never return again. In the ennobling memories and the invigorating studies of the place, in the large opportunities of privacy for meditation and prayer, in the counsel and support of generous and enthusiastic friendships, in the invaluable discipline of early morning Chapel, bracing body and soul alike for the work and the temptations of the day, in the frequent Communions recalling you in the spirit to the immediate presence of your Lord, in these and divers ways, you have a combination of advantages which no other time or condition of life will supply. Here, if anywhere, you may stamp the true ideal on your life. Here, if anywhere, you may rivet on your necks the yoke which is easy, and lift on your shoulders the burden which is light.

And to you, my older friends, my contemporaries, to whom I owe more than can ever be repaid, what shall I say? Forgive me, if I seem to be condemning you, when indeed I am only condemning myself. But now that the associations of this place are fast fading into a memory for me, I can only dwell with a sad regret on the great opportunities which it affords of influence for good—opportunities neglected at the time, only because they were not realised. How little would it have cost to overcome the indolence and shake off the reserve, to express the sympathy which was felt, to put in words the deeper thoughts which seethed in the heart but never rose to the lips! The value which younger men attach to such sympathy is altogether unsuspected at the time. The discovery comes too late—comes through the gratitude expressed for trifling inexpensive words and acts long since forgotten; and, when it comes, it overwhelms with shame.

But to young and old alike my word of farewell, if such it should be, from this pulpit is one and the same. Remember that you were bought with a price. Remember that henceforth you are not your own. Remember to be slaves now, that you may be free for evermore.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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Folly and Weakness Triumphant

Folly and Weakness Triumphant

The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  1 Corinthians 1:25.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 20th Sunday after Trinity, 1876.

The Apostle here represents the character and progress of the Gospel as a paradox. It is weakness superior to strength; it is folly triumphant over wisdom. It is an illustration—a unique and signal illustration—of God’s mysterious working, whereby He chooses the base things of the world, yes, even the things that are not, to bring to nought the things that are.

This mode of working is not confined to revelation alone. History teems with examples of this paradox. For the most part the great crises in the progress of our race have been surprises of this kind. They have come from an unexpected quarter, or at an unexpected time. Their prime agents have not been the wise or mighty or noble in the estimation of the world. The reformer, or the avenger, has started up, as it were, suddenly from the earth beneath. It was an obscure Saxon monk, who broke up the empire of Papal ascendency, and created a new era in the history of intellectual and religious thought. It was an unknown Corsican adventurer, who dictated terms to a whole continent, made and unmade peoples and dynasties, and introduced as mighty a revolution in the world of politics as the other had done in the world of thought. There is perhaps a scarcely audible muttering of some social grievance; it is unheeded and unredressed; men go on their way, suspecting nothing; when suddenly the volcano bursts out under their very feet, and in a few short hours society is buried in fire and ashes. There is a silent stealthy idea, which insinuates itself into the crevices of human thought; it is hardly perceived, or, if perceived, it seems too insignificant to deserve attention; but it creeps and spreads, filling all the interstices, till the fabric, which has defied the storms of ages, cracked and loosened in every part, falls in ruins overhead. And then it is seen that God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty.

But all illustrations of this Divine irony are faint and shadowy compared with the progress of the Gospel. Sacred history is an intensification of secular history. The triumph of the Cross is the paradox of all paradoxes.

No language is too strong for the expression of this fact in S. Paul’s mind. These opening chapters of the Epistle are a very Morias Encomion, a Praise of folly and of fools. Does this account of his language seem extravagant? See how he describes the Gospel itself. His words are so strong, that we tacitly mistranslate or misinterpret them, in order to dilute their force. He speaks of the folly, the fatuity, of the thing preached, the Gospel message in itself (τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος). We render it ‘the foolishness of preaching,’ as if he were stigmatizing the weakness of the human, fallible advocate. He says that ‘the foolishness,’ or rather ‘the foolish thing’, ‘of God is wiser than men.’ We half unconsciously regard it as an a fortiori argument; as though he were maintaining that, if God’s foolishness, God’s lowest purposes, can so far transcend man’s counsels, much more must God’s wisdom, God’s highest dispensations. But in fact he styles this very Gospel—this message of Christ crucified—a ‘foolish thing’ in itself. By what other name could he call it? It had been offered to the Greeks, the most cultivated, most intellectual, most keenly critical race of mankind, to the Greeks, who were the schoolmasters of the whole civilised world, and the Greeks had pronounced it unreservedly folly.

And not only is the message folly, but the messengers also are fools. So the Apostle describes himself afterwards. He is even proud of this strange distinction. ‘We are fools,’ he writes, ‘fools for Christ’s sake.’ And again in the second Epistle, in a strain of lofty irony, he intreats his Corinthian converts, as they had always shewn a forbearing sympathy with men of feeble minds and senseless lives—notwithstanding the lofty intellectual eminence on which they themselves were placed—so now not to deny him this condescension which they had freely extended to others; ‘As a fool receive me.’ ‘For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.’

And once more; if the messengers are fools, the recipients of the message must become fools also. It is necessary that the disciple should be in harmony with the teacher and with the lesson. He must sink all those pretensions which are his greatest pride. He must resign absolutely all claims to intellectual superiority or prudent discernment. ‘Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool—that he may be wise.’ Yes, none but a fool can appreciate this message of folly.

But this is not all. Folly itself may possess a certain brute force. The fool may be a giant in strength. What the brain lacks, the muscles and sinews may compensate. Does the Gospel possess any such advantage, as this figure implies? If it shews no wisdom, as the world counts wisdom, may it not possess some strength, as the world estimates strength? Nay, it is the weak thing of God, as well as the foolish thing—weak in itself, and weak in all its personal relations. Christ Himself, its theme, ‘was crucified through weakness.’ They, the preachers, are weak in Him. He, Paul, ‘glories in infirmities;’ ‘takes pleasure in infirmities.’ He declares himself ‘glad,’ yes, glad, that he is weak. Here again there is the same emphatic reiteration, as before. The Gospel is the very alliance of infirmity with folly. Its body is weakness; and its soul is foolishness.

Strange words these to address to a Corinthian audience. Corinth was a Roman colony on a Greek soil. As Greeks, his hearers set an excessive value on wisdom; and he recommends his message to them, because it is folly. As Romans, they worshipped power with an idolatrous worship; and he offers the Gospel for their allegiance, because it is weakness.

But stranger still than this encomium of folly, this panegyric of weakness, is the confidence with which he predicts its victory. The Apostle is quite sure that the folly of fools like himself will triumph over the wisdom of the wise. He does not shrink from declaring that the weakness of weaklings such as he is will dictate terms to the strength of the strong. ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty.’

Could anything well have appeared more unreasonable, more reckless, more futile, than this confidence? Look at the two antagonists. Can you doubt for a moment to which side the victory must incline? At no other epoch in the history of the world would the Gospel have been confronted with a foe more formidable than at the actual crisis of its appearing. It found leagued against it all the wisdom of Greece and all the strength of Rome—a wisdom wiser, and a strength stronger, than mankind has ever seen before or after.

The human race has grown older in experience since then. Vast accumulations of thought and knowledge have been amassed. The collision of races and nations has from time to time struck out sparks, which have kindled the flame of the human intellect in some fresh quarter. But still the literature of Greece—its philosophy, its poetry, its oratory—enjoys a unique preeminence. It still supplies models for the imitation of a remote posterity. It is still fresh with the vigour of a perennial youth—a deathless power in the world of intellect and imagination. And yet these are only shattered fragments saved from the wreck of time, which we possess. What must it not have been then, when it was entire? What must it not have been then, when its language was still a living tongue—the medium of communication between all civilised peoples; when it was still upheld and interpreted by the religion, customs, institutions, daily life, of a race which had ramified and spread over every part of the known world?

And, as in the world of thought, so also in the world of action. In the whole life of the human race no power has arisen like the power of the Romans. There have been, and there are, empires which cover a larger superficial area. But for concentration, for unity, for available force, it has never had an equal. The greatest modern empires are rivals: each neutralises the power of the other. The domination of Rome owned no peer and no second. The voice of Rome was the law of the world. It was the Roman’s mission, said their great poet, ‘to rule over the peoples, to spare the submissive, but to crush the proud and defiant.’

Confronted by this league of powerful allies, what was there in the story of Christ crucified that it should lead captive a reluctant world? We cannot, even with a conscious effort, realise all the repulsive associations which the Cross suggested to S. Paul’s contemporaries. Substitute for the word some modern equivalent, as the gallows or the gibbet, and you approach more nearly to the idea conveyed. We shudder at such a substitution; we shrink from it as a profanation; our very reluctance shows how great a change has come upon mankind. Not in vain have eighteen Christian centuries passed over our heads. Not in vain has S. Paul’s startling resolve—startling and repulsive when it was uttered, but obvious, self-evident, admirable now—to glory in nothing but the cross of Christ, been proclaimed from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, and repeated day after day in thousands of Christian homes. Not in vain have saints been schooled to live, and martyrs nerved to die, in the strength of those words. The Cross is now the symbol of power, of heroism, of saintly patience, of triumphant love. But only reflect in what light it would be regarded by the Romans then? We ourselves, if we dwell on the repulsive aspects of the Cross, dwell chiefly, or solely, on the torture. But to the Roman the pain was only a small part of the horror. It was the ignominy of the punishment, from which he would turn away with disgust. No Roman citizen—however deep his crime—ran any risk of crucifixion. The law exempted him from this extreme degradation. It was the punishment of slaves, of the lowest and vilest of their kind. And they—these Romans, the masters of the world, with their proud bearing, with their innate respect for law, with their strong sense of political privilege—were invited by this Paul to fall down before a gibbet, and to admire a criminal condemned by a Roman magistrate to this most ignominious of all deaths. Weakness? It was far worse than weakness. It was vile, it was shameful—an outrage on all their most cherished feelings.

And, while thus repulsive to the Romans, this message of the Cross would be still less attractive to the Greek. With his gay spirit and his keen appreciation of the bright side of life, he could have nothing to say to this horrible tale of suffering. With his strong sense of beauty, he would avert his eyes with a shudder from this unlovely scene on Calvary. With his speculative cast of mind, with his eager craving after intellectual subtleties, how could he possibly find in this plain, this forbidding, this worse than common-place Jewish tale of an obscure convict, the answer to his philosophic questioning? It was folly, folly in its most foolish mood—this story of the Cross—to the Greek.

And, if it was such in itself, it would certainly gain nothing from the character of its advocate. S. Paul’s opponents did not suffer him to indulge any feelings of self-complacency on this point. Their taunts served only to remind him that in his own person he illustrated the divine paradox. As was the Gospel, so was its preacher. Was he not weak? This was the very reproach which they hurled at him. They pointed to his insignificant stature; they glanced at his spare frame, worn out with toil and bowed down with sickness. He was a despicable object to these Corinthians, accustomed to the perfection of physical strength and grace in the athletes of their Isthmian games. They could not away with one who ‘in bodily presence’ was ‘weak.’ Was he not foolish also? Here again his enemies held up the mirror to him, and forced him to see his defects. This itinerant Jew, speaking with a foreign accent, breaking loose from all the approved forms of logic, defying all the established laws of rhetoric in his halting, tumultuous, solœcistic utterances—how could he hope to recommend his message to the fine ear and the fastidious taste of the Greek? Foolishness was not a strong enough word to express their estimate. He was ‘in speech contemptible.’

Yes, he was weak, he was foolish. He could not gainsay the charge. Looking at his own heart, he condemned himself of foolishness far greater than that with which his enemies charged him. Reviewing his own life, he saw everywhere signs of weakness, which even their contempt had failed to detect. What were an insignificant presence and a faulty rhetoric after all, compared with the foolishness of a heart struggling against self, and the weakness of a life oppressed by the fears within and baffled by the fightings without? He was weak; he was foolish. Who knew this so well as himself? But what then? Strength was made perfect in weakness; wisdom started up full armed from the head of folly. Aye, there was a divine purpose in all this. He had this treasure, this priceless treasure in cheap, vulgar, fragile vessels of earthenware, ‘that the excellency of the power might be of God, and not of himself.’

And so the cry of despair becomes the pæan of thanksgiving. The taunt of his enemies is the boast of the Apostle. He was not strong, but God’s weakness was strong through him. He was not wise, but God’s foolishness was wise in him. And this weakness, this folly, crushing all opposition, would press forward on its march from victory to victory.

A strange confidence to entertain. And yet this Paul was right after all. The centuries rolled on, and the prediction was fulfilled. The monstrous paradox, so contradictory to reason and so defiant of experience, proved true. All human calculation was baffled. The foolish things confounded the wise, and the weak things confounded the mighty. Neither the power and the polity of Rome, nor the philosophy and the arts of Greece, could check the triumphant progress of the Cross.

And do we ask how this triumph can be explained? S. Paul has answered the question by anticipation. ‘The world by wisdom knew not God.’ There is little danger that in this place you should underrate the intellectual and social triumphs of Greece and of Rome. Even as preparations for the Gospel, they hold a foremost place. What was the wisdom of Greece, but an elementary schooling for the higher spiritual lessons of Christianity? What was the power and organization of Rome, but the roadway of the Gospel of Christ and the scaffolding of the Church of God? But the arts of Greece and the polity of Rome had left a deep craving in mankind unappeased. Like the hart panting after the water-brooks, the soul of humanity was thirsting after a living God. It might not be altogether conscious of the object of its thirst; but the thirst itself was a terrible reality nevertheless. Men were feeling after God, but they had not grasped Him. He was near to every one of them, and they had not found Him. Wisdom had failed, and now it was the turn for foolishness.

Could he for a moment entertain any misgivings of its triumph? He knew what the Cross of Christ had been to himself. It had guided his zeal, it had purified his passions, it had widened his sympathies, it had opened his heart. It had filled him with new aspirations, new resolves, new hopes. That was no rhetorical figure, but a sober expression of fact, when he said that to be in Christ was to be a new creature, a new creation. In the light of this glory, all the lessons of the past had started up into new life: just as with the sunrise the landscape, which has appeared before a dark, indistinguishable mass, emerges in all the infinite beauties of form and colour. And, if it had been all this to him, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, what might it not be to these Gentiles tossed to and fro between the extremes of idolatry and scepticism? It was the touch of God, which mankind needed to heal the sores, to purge the corruption, to arrest the decay. And he knew that this touch had thrilled through his inmost being in the revelation of Christ crucified.

‘Man cannot live by bread alone.’ This is the lesson which the triumph of the Cross teaches; a palimpsest traced in letters of fire on the erased page of an ancient civilisation; a voice emphasized by the thunder-crash of a fallen world. ‘Man cannot live by bread alone’—whether the bread of social organization, of material appliances, of legislation, of polity (Rome had given enough and to spare of this); or the bread of intellectual culture, of æsthetic taste, of philosophy, of poetry, of art (Greece had dealt with these with a lavish hand). Fed to surfeiting with these, ancient society, nevertheless, had fallen from bad to worse, had become day by day more corrupt, more impotent, more helpless, till at length it lay seething in its own decay. And then the magnificent irony of God’s purpose was seen. Foolishness triumphed over wisdom, and weakness set her foot on the neck of strength. And that which has been will be again, if ever the conditions should be repeated. If ever—I will not say science, but scientific speculation, should hold out promises which from its very nature it cannot perform; if ever, dazzled by its unparalleled triumphs, it should invade provinces which belong to another rule; if ever, consciously, or unconsciously, its representatives should attempt to eliminate from the Universe everything which renders possible either the guiding providence of God or the moral responsibility of man; if ever a materialistic philosophy should gain the ascendant, which offers no strength to the life struggling in the meshes of temptation, holds out no hand to the conscience staggering under the burden of sin, speaks no words of comfort to the soul torn with suffering or aching with bereavement; then, assuredly, soon or late the heart of humanity, finding itself deluded and betrayed, will rise in the name of conscience and faith, and turn upon its betrayer. Then again, as of old, the foolish things of the world will confound the wise. But then again, also, much that is useful, much that is beautiful, much that is true, may be buried in the ruin. The less must be sacrificed to the greater. Baffled, disappointed, starved in its highest moral and spiritual needs, humanity has no heart and no leisure for nice discrimination.

For this Cross of Christ—this strange, repulsive, foolish thing—did give to a hungry world just that food which alone could allay its pangs. Only reflect for a moment before we part, what ideas, what sanctions, what safeguards, what hopes, it has made the common property of mankind.

First of all: it went right home to the human soul. It demanded no scientific training: it required no natural gifts. It addressed itself, not to the Greek as Greek, or to the Roman as Roman, but to the man as man. It took him, just as he was, stripped of all adventitious ornaments and advantages, and it spoke to his heart, spoke to his conscience, spoke from God to the godlike within him, but spoke nevertheless as a man speaketh with his friend.

And, so taking him, it set before him in the story of Christ’s doings and sufferings an ideal of human life, absolutely pure, unselfish, beneficent, righteous, perfect, such as the world had never seen—an ideal, which once beheld could not be forgotten, but must haunt the memory of men for evermore, fascinating by its beauty, purifying, ennobling, transforming into its own bright image by the wonderful magic of its abiding presence.

And then again, it gave aid, where aid was most needed. It illumined the dark places of human existence. It dignified sorrow; it canonized suffering. The Cross of Calvary threw a glory over all the most harrowing and repulsive trials of life. Toil, sickness, pain, want, bereavement, neglect, obloquy, persecution, death—these were invested with a new meaning by the foolishness of the preaching. It was an honourable distinction now to share with Him—the head of the race—the prerogative of suffering. It was a comparatively light thing now to bear a little, where He had borne so much. Pain did not cease to be pain—whatever the Stoic might say; but pain had become endurable, for pain had been glorified.

And then again; it proclaimed in language, which could not be misunderstood, the universal brotherhood of man. The triumphs won on the Cross had obliterated, as in the sight of God, all distinction of race, of caste, of class. He the Crucified, He the Triumphant, was a poor artisan of a despised village of a despised nation—henceforth the accepted King of men, the Pattern of His race—the admired, honoured, worshipped of His brethren.

But above all, this Cross of Christ was the atonement, the reconciliation, of man to God. It united heaven and earth in an indissoluble union. It threw an unwonted and glorious light on the Fatherly mercy of God. It brought a new and unforeseen promise of pardon and peace, extended freely to all. Who shall despair now? Who shall dare to put limits to our Father’s forgiveness? Who will refuse to Him the tribute of filial obedience? Who will not strive day and night to win His pardon, to win His favour, strong in the faith of this one perfect sacrifice—the supreme manifestation of Divine goodness and love?

These lessons, and others such as these, cluster round the Cross of Christ. And they can never fade or lose their freshness. What wonder then, if mankind preferred the folly of God to the wisdom of men? Here, and here only—in this old, foolish message of Christ crucified—is the promise and the potency of life, the one true and abiding life, the life that is now, and that shall be hereafter, eternal in the heavens.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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Offenses (Stumbling Blocks; Temptations)

It must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!  Matthew 18:7.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 1876.

This passage belongs at once to the most transparent and the most abstruse of our Lord’s sayings. On the one hand, it is a simple statement of fact and a plain lesson of duty. Here it is so clear, that a little child may read and understand. On the other, it involves a startling antithesis, which has been the great enigma of all moral and religious philosophy from the beginning of time. There it is so inscrutable, that the most profound intellects have vainly sought to fathom its depths. Offences are a necessity, and yet offences must not be. Scandals are permitted, and yet they are forbidden. God’s government presupposes evil; for otherwise no moral probation were possible. And yet God’s righteousness punishes evil, for otherwise God would no longer be God. There is a law of averages, which teaches that in a given state of society a certain number of crimes will be committed in a fixed time; and yet there is a law of Divine retribution, which condemns each individual offender who contributes his quota to this aggregate. God hates sin, and yet God allows sin. This is the contradiction involved in the text. The enigma is stated, but it is not explained. Christianity did not create the difficulty, and Christianity does not offer to solve it.

But I have no desire to enter into these dark problems of religious philosophy. Standing now on the threshold of a new Academical year, and meeting together as we have met to-day in this church, many of us for the first time, we can ill afford to devote this Sunday of all Sundays to fruitless speculation. To one, who has been resident in this place and watched the ceaseless ebb and flow of University life now for nearly thirty years; who has witnessed generation after generation of young men come and go in rapid sequence; who, amidst many moral victories achieved here in each successive generation, has seen not a few glorious hopes disappointed, not a few brilliant promises unfulfilled, not a few noble characters (or such as might have been noble) debased, and who therefore feels with an intensity which younger men cannot be expected to share, that this first entrance on Academic life, like all great opportunities, is in the truest sense to each man, according as he may use it, either a savour of life unto life or a savour of death unto death; to one, I say, upon whom the occasion forces such thoughts as these, the text cannot but suggest a simpler treatment. It must needs be that the evil example of older students—the idleness, the dissipation, the moral recklessness, the religious indifference—shall lead many astray; but woe alike to those who are led astray, and to those who lead them astray. It must needs be that many a father’s reasonable hope will be belied, and many a mother’s earnest prayer will be frustrated, that the dearest sanctities of many a home will be spurned; but woe unto that son nevertheless by whom they are spurned. It must needs be that many a bright intellect will be darkened by indolence or by dissipation; but woe unto him in whom it is darkened. It must needs be that many a religious faith will be lost by apathy and neglect; but woe unto him by whom it is lost. It must needs be that God’s choicest gift of youth, with its bright hopes and its magnificent possibilities, will be sullied and trampled under foot as a vile thing, when it should have been consecrated to its Giver in all the freshness of its glory; but woe unto him who tramples it under foot. It must needs be that God’s image, stamped on many a soul, will be ruthlessly effaced; but woe nevertheless, thrice woe, to him by whom it is effaced.

And so, with this fatal necessity and this unequivocal warning—thus illustrated by each successive year of Academic history—in his mind, the preacher will not aspire on this day to argue as a wise man with wise men. His ambition will be rather to speak as a little child to little children; content, and more than content, if some one word thrown out at a venture shall have served to warn, to deter, to sustain, to encourage, one single hearer, and thus have helped him forward to the attainment of those priceless blessings, moral, intellectual, spiritual, which lie within the reach of such as use the opportunities of their residence here aright.

As a little child to little children. Forgive me the comparison. I can frame no better prayer for you and for myself, than that we should approach this subject in this spirit. Is there something jarring and dissonant in this language at a season which is regarded by so many as the initiation into the freedom and the privileges of manhood? Nay; if there is a seeming contradiction in terms, there is entire harmony in thought. Believe it; the poet’s saying is true in more senses than one that ‘the child is father to the man.’ There can be no true manliness, where the childlike nature is absent. The little child is the hero of Christ’s panegyric in the context. The little child is the type of the citizen of God’s kingdom. Its simplicity, its innocence, its frankness, its truthfulness, are the badges of civic privilege in this heavenly polity.

And, as the child is the subject of the encomium in the context, so is it also the occasion of the warning in the text. It is the stumbling-block placed in the way of Christ’s little ones, that calls down the denunciation of woe. We may resent the imputation of a childish nature. We may throw off its noble characteristics; but its feebler qualities will cling to us still. All—even the strongest—have some element of weakness in their character, which renders them dependent on others. Imitation is the law of the child’s nature. The most powerful instrument in moulding its character is example. It cannot understand abstract principles; but it is keenly sensible to personal influence. Its ideal is to be like its father or its mother; its constant effort is to copy an elder brother or an elder sister. In this respect the childlike never will be outgrown either in the Church or in mankind at large. The force of example will always be more potent than the most earnest appeals of the preacher and the most convincing logic of the apologist. Personal influence is as contagious as the atmosphere which envelopes us. We drink it in at every breath. We are bathed in it day and night. Precept and exhortation are momentary and fitful; but this is at all times and in all places. We can none of us escape from it. Hence the category of Christ’s little ones is as wide as the Church is wide, as mankind is wide. We are all exposed to the force of some stronger nature than our own—stronger in intellect, or stronger in moral character and definiteness of purpose, or stronger (it may be) in mere passion of temperament—attracting us to the good, or impelling us to the evil. Thus in all ages doing has been more eloquent than preaching. The blood of the martyrs, not the ink of the apologists, was declared to be the seed of the Church.

Hence the severity of the language in the woe denounced against those who offend Christ’s little ones. It is better for all such that they should be sunk countless fathoms deep in the sea; better that they should be put out of sight for ever; better for themselves and for others that they should be annihilated, if that were possible, than that they should any longer vex the earth with their presence.

And with the accumulated experience of eighteen centuries, who will venture to say that this warning was unneeded? The annals of the Church are blackened with crimes, committed not only by Christians but committed in the sacred name of Christ Himself. The scandals of Christendom have been far more deadly to the souls of men than the fiercest onslaughts of persecution. The one may have slain its thousands, but the other has slain its tens of thousands. We Englishmen have listened of late with a shudder of abhorrence to the reports of wholesale barbarities committed by men of an alien race and an alien religion. These butcheries, and worse than butcheries, have called forth a cry of righteous indignation throughout the country. It was an intolerable thought that Christian England should be charged with complicity, however remote, in such inhuman crimes.

But is there not a danger lest this sentiment, however healthy in itself, should encourage in us Christians a self-complacency, to which the history of the past challenges our right? Are the pages even of our ecclesiastical annals so clean, that we can arrogate to ourselves a monopoly of humane sentiments and impulses? Have we forgotten the sarcasm of the Apostate Emperor, when he claims the gratitude of the ‘Galileans’ for restoring peace to many’ provinces, which under his predecessors had been devastated by their own internal feuds, whole villages having been razed to the ground in these deadly quarrels of the Christians? Have we overlooked the cynical close of a famous chapter in the ‘Decline and Fall,’ where it is reckoned that ‘the number of Protestants who were executed’ for their religion in the sixteenth century ‘in a single province and a single reign far exceeded that of the primitive martyrs in the space of three centuries and of the Roman Empire?’ There may be much exaggeration in both these indictments; but the main fact is beyond contradiction. Pudet haec opprobria nobis. Shame on us Christians, that these things could be said, and could not be refuted. Cast your eye down the columns of Christian history, and see how century after century they are reddened with the stains of blood. The Church had scarcely been enfranchised, when the civilized world was scandalized by the riots which accompanied the election of the chief bishop of Christendom. Churches were turned into fortresses and strewn with corpses; the streets of Rome streamed with the blood of the rival partizans; while the heathen looked on with impartial scorn. Advance from the fourth century to the fifth, from Rome to Alexandria; and mark the deadly tumults which have left an indelible stain on the Church, and in which the murder of Hypatia was only an isolated, though a prominent, incident. Follow the stream of history through the succeeding centuries; and see how the powerful sovereigns, the champions of Christendom, carried the Gospel of peace everywhere at the point of the sword. Of Charles the Great it is recorded, as a merit, that he offered to his heathen foes the alternative of Christianity or extinction. And this programme was rigorously carried out. Whole tribes were ruthlessly slaughtered by this ‘Mohammedan Apostle of the Gospel.’ Go forward still through the centuries, and see what scenes rise up before your eyes. I say nothing of those religious wars waged against the Saracen in the East, because with all their crimes they were redeemed in part by a noble spirit of chivalry and self-devotion. But witness that so-called Crusade against the Albigenses in the early years of the thirteenth century. What would be the cry of horror throughout Europe if in to-morrow’s telegrams we should read this announcement, ‘A general massacre was permitted; men, women and children were cut to pieces, till there remained nothing to kill except the garrison and others reserved for a more cruel fate. Four hundred were burned in one great pile, which made a wonderful blaze and caused universal rejoicing in the camp?’ And yet this is only one incident in that terrible war of extermination against the heretics, which counted its victims by tens of thousands, which made no distinction of age or sex, which shrunk from no atrocities, till the spiritual chief of Christendom himself stood aghast at the excesses of the champions whom he had hounded on, but whom he was powerless to control. And these horrors were perpetrated in the name of Him, Who refused to call down fire on that churlish Samaritan village. This diabolical energy of persecution raged under the shadow of the Cross, the very symbol of patient suffering and self-denying love. And, if it were not sickening to wade through lakes of Christian blood, I would ask you to pass with me from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth, and witness the atrocities of that terrible period—the wholesale executions in the Netherlands, whether fifty thousand or a hundred thousand, it matters not; the ceaseless flames of the Inquisition in Spain; the one terrible night of butchery in Paris, a combination of treachery and ferocity, such as the world has rarely witnessed: gigantic horrors these, before whose glare the fires of Smithfield pale into nothing, notwithstanding that they have lighted in the heart and the intelligence of England a candle which shall never be put out. Why have I dwelt so long on these painful incidents? Not, assuredly, because the Gospel is chargeable with any portion of these crimes. Those who have studied Church history with care will see for themselves, that the barbarities of half-savage nations would have been still more barbarous, and the passions of lawless men still more passionate, if its influence had been withdrawn. Not, certainly, because these facts, truly weighed, are any argument in the hands of unbelievers. I know no stronger evidence of the inherent power and vitality of Christianity, than that it should have triumphed over these scandals of Christendom. But it is well that at a time like the present these painful memories should step in, and check our self-complacency. The atrocities of Islam have copied only too faithfully the atrocities of Christendom. And they can at least plead consistency. We did these things in defiance of our creed; while they have done them in obedience to their creed.

Surely never was there a time, when Christendom was more directly called to humble herself in the dust than when this painful likeness—this hideous caricature, if you will—of her own misdeeds is flaunted before her eyes.

And to each of us individually his share of the humiliation must fall. We would fain hope that a repetition of scandals on this vast scale among Christian nations is henceforward impossible. But still the terrible catalogue of offences is lengthening day by day. Still Christ’s little ones are falling by thousands on all sides. Still the woe is gathering strength and volume for discharge. For, though the form of the scandal may change, the spirit which creates it remains; the partisanship, the falsehood, the insincerity, the bigotry, the cruelty, the pride, the self-seeking, the self-indulgence, thwarting and neutralising by its example the faith which it professes. There is the Christian apologist, who wields the weapons of disingenuousness and fraud in defence of the truth; there is the Christian preacher, whose words are words of lofty self-denial and devotion, and whose life is worldliest of the worldly; there is the Christian philanthropist, whose sympathy for the suffering and oppressed classes is unbounded, and whose bearing is morose, selfish, intolerable, in his own household; there is the Christian colonist, whose rapacity or whose lawlessness or whose tyranny makes the Sacred Name, which he bears, a byword and an abomination to the heathen among whom he dwells. These and a thousand other forms of scandal are working their deadly work; while with ever-growing importunity the cry of Christ’s little ones fallen and engulfed rises up to the Eternal Throne, ‘Lord, how long?’

And surely nowhere else should the warning in the text find a prompter hearing than in this place. It is declared to be the natural constitution of the Church of Christ, that when one member suffers, all the members shall suffer with it. A University, still more a College is, as it were, a Church within a Church. The connexion of the members is closer. The contagion of sympathy, whether for good or for evil, is more immediate. The force of personal example is more directly felt. The freedom and the closeness of intercourse combines with the age of the great majority of its members to render it keenly susceptible of such influences.

And let no man think that he can escape responsibility in this matter. There is some element of strength in all, even the very weakest. It may be superior intellectual power or higher mental culture; it may be a wider acquaintance with the world; it may be more enlarged religious views; it may be a capacity of winning affection or of commanding popularity; it may be superior age or longer residence in this place. In some way or other each man possesses in himself a force, which gives him a power over others, and invests him with a responsibility towards Christ’s little ones.

One may well shudder to think how much injury will be done to the moral well-being of a large number within the first few weeks of their residence here from forgetfulness of this charge; how many good principles may be undermined, how many noble resolves shaken, how many latent vices developed. I say nothing of the coarser forms of temptation. These wear no disguise, and therefore they condemn themselves. But reflect how much evil is inflicted from inconsiderateness, from levity, from insensibility to the effects of our commonest words and deeds. I will take one instance out of many which might be imagined. A man comes up here with certain religious views. He has been brought up, as we think, in a narrow school of theology. He pays undue regard to points which we consider nonessentials; he clings to certain religious watchwords with which we have no sympathy. Let it be granted for the moment that we are right and he is wrong. Yet his observance may be to him the sacrament of his highest moral duties; his watchword may be to him the embodiment of his truest spiritual convictions. Is it right, is it generous, is it kind, to laugh at his weakness, to pour scorn upon his scrupulousness? May not his error be better than our truth, his narrowness than our largeness of view? Is there no danger, lest while plucking up a prejudice, we may not root out a principle also? Men are apt to talk lightly of shocking prejudices, sometimes as if it were a matter of infinitely small moment, sometimes as if they were fulfilling an absolute duty, or at least acting an honest and upright part. What, if the veil were withdrawn, and they could see things as they are? What, if the cry of agony from Christ’s little ones, whom they have wronged, should penetrate at length to their ears?

The subject is a wide one, and there is no time to pursue it further. Yet I cannot forbear saying a few words in reference to friendship. Friendship is the association of the stronger with the weaker. I do not say that the strength will be all on one side. Friendship in its very nature implies mutual dependence. Each has an element of power, which the other lacks; each therefore has a responsibility to the other, as to a little one in Christ. I do not forget (how could I ever forget?) that the friendships formed or cemented during residence here are valued as beyond all price by those who have known their blessings. I can hardly suppose that there is one man in this church to whom friendship is not a very sacred name. I cannot imagine any one here so base that he would not sooner cut off his right hand, than knowingly inflict a moral injury on his heart’s best brother. But that which he would loathe to do intentionally he may do from carelessness. He feels his friend’s strictness inconvenient to him; it interferes with the freedom of their intercourse; it leaves less time for amusement; at all events it acts as a barrier between them. It is an easy matter to weary or to laugh him out of it. And it seems a light matter too. But it may be terrible enough in its consequences. For it may be the first shock given to his moral nature; the first step taken on the downward incline. Or again, a man may be given to profane or idle talking. To himself it may mean little or nothing. But this is no measure of its significance to another. What glances off the surface harmlessly with him, may wound the soul of another deeply. And the wound festers, and spreads, and mortifies, and refuses to be healed. And thus from sheer recklessness he has sown the seeds of his friend’s ruin. Can any agony be conceived more keen than the agony of a generous spirit, when the revelation is flashed in upon him, whether in this world or beyond the grave, of the cruel wrong he has done to one, whom he loved with more than a brother’s love?

Against such perils as these I know only one security, the purification, the discipline, the consecration of the man’s self. Be assured, if there is any taint of corruption within, it will spread contagion without. It is quite impossible to isolate the inward from the outward. No man can be always on his guard. ‘Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.’ Each one of us carries about with him a moral atmosphere, which takes its character from his inmost self.

And this discipline, this purification of self, is best summed up in the Apostle’s precept, ‘In vice be ye children; howbeit in understanding be ye men.’ The manly in the childlike, and the childlike in the manly—this is the true livery of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Be men in the cultivation of your minds, in the vigour of your actions, in the courage of your lives, in the promptness to do and to suffer. But be children in frankness and simplicity; do nothing which you would care to conceal. Be children in natural affection; let home remain still the chief sanctuary of your heart. Be children in reverence; reverence is the body-armour of the young man’s warfare. Be children, last of all, in faith and trustfulness; in all your trials and all your temptations, in your hopes and your fears, in your disappointments and your successes, in your weakness and your strength, seek repose in the embrace of the everlasting arms, confident of a Father’s love. This do, and you will run no risk of offending Christ’s little ones. This do, and the very God of peace will sanctify you wholly, that your spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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The Meanness and the Greatness of Man

The Meanness and the Greatness of Man

What is man, that Thou art mindful of him: and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?  Psalm 8:4.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 2nd Sunday after Easter, 1876.

Who is here the speaker? Are we reading the experiences of the stripling still watching over his father’s flocks by night in the upland pastures of Bethlehem? Or of the lonely fugitive contemplating the starry skies from the broad plains of Philistia? Or of the powerful sovereign gazing upward to the overhanging vault from the palace roofs of Zion? Whether David the shepherd lad, or David the outlaw, or David the king, it matters not. The central idea of this magnificent psalm is plainly expressed, and makes no demands on historical criticism for its elucidation. Surveying the outspread canopy of heaven, the Psalmist is overwhelmed with awe at the scene. Its vast expanse, its fathomless blue, its starry glories, its beauty, its purity, its repose, all appal him with the sense of their grandeur; and crushed with the contrast between the greatness of universal creation and the littleness of the individual man, he exclaims bewildered and amazed, ‘When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him? Mystery of mysteries, that one so mean—an atom in this limitless expanse, a mote in this faultless glory, a flutter in this infinite calm—should be singled out for Thy special favour, and endowed with authority as Thy vicegerent upon earth.’ Could any paradox be imagined greater than this—this contrast, between the insignificance of man’s self and the pre-eminence of man’s destiny?

We pass from the early dawn to the late afternoon of human history. The lapse of eight-and-twenty centuries is a large space in the life of mankind. It is a vast and profound chasm, which separates the simple inspiration of the shepherd-king from the many-sided culture of the poet, critic, philosopher, novelist, scientific investigator, the typical representative of modern thought and intellect in its latest phases. Yet to Goethe, holding solitary communion with nature in its higher forms, and contemplating earth and sky from the summit of the Brocken, the Psalmist’s thought still recurs with resistless importunity and finds its natural expression still in the Psalmist’s words, ‘Lord, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?’ No interval of time nor transference of scene, no contrast of persons or of circumstances has tarnished its freshness, or robbed it of its power.

Has robbed it of its power? Nay, must we not rather confess, in very truth, that as the world has grown older, the chasm between the greatness and the meanness of man has widened, and the paradox has increased from age to age? Was this disproportion so startling as to perplex and overawe the mind of the simple Hebrew in the remote past? What must it not be to us, who measure it by the accumulated experience of all the ages? This is the very essence of a true inspiration, that it should speak with fuller tones and a more articulate utterance to after-ages, than to the generations to which it was immediately addressed. So it is here. Every acquisition of modern science has emphasized the contrast in a manner, which the Psalmist himself could not have foreseen. Each new discovery has depressed the relative importance of man in the material universe. Each fresh investigation has obliterated some external distinction of origin or of structure or of growth, which was thought to isolate him from the rest of creation. Again and again, as science has announced some fresh revelation, the mysterious paradox has been brought home to our minds with redoubled force, ‘Lord, what, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?’

1. Astronomy first issued her impressive comment on the text, and the Christian teachers have not been slow to adopt her forcible illustrations of its truth. The starry heavens were a panorama of unspeakable beauty and awe to the shepherd-king nearly three thousand years ago. What must they not be to us now? We know now—any well-instructed child knows now—that those bright specks, which appeared to his eye as jewels studding the midnight sky, are glorious suns, the centres, it may be, round which are revolving worlds as huge and as magnificent as our own. We know now that, where he discerned only one such speck, there are thousands of these separate suns. We know now that those irregular patches of hazy light so shapeless and so unmeaning, which appear only to dim the purity of the liquid sky, are aggregates of such stars or suns, countless in multitude. We know now the smallest of the visible stars to be so remote that even with the extraordinary speed of light a ray flashed from one of these, when David was king, cannot even yet have reached our eyes. These truths are now the simplest educational lessons; and yet they never pall upon the imagination. As the long rows of figures, which describe the distances, are arrayed before us, and we vainly strive to grasp some conception of the facts which they represent, the eye swims and the mind falters. Racked with the vastness of these reasonings, we resign the hopeless task in despair; and the saying of the Psalmist presses upon us with crushing force, ‘Lord, what is man, amidst these countless worlds? What is man, nay, what is all humanity, but an atom in this limitless universe, a drop in this ocean of infinite space?’

2. And, before we have recovered from our amazement and collected our stupefied senses, Geology takes up the lesson which Astronomy has laid down, enforcing it with other and not less striking illustrations. Geology teaches us our insignificance in time, as Astronomy had taught us our insignificance in space. Geology tells us how this earth, of which we boast ourselves the lords paramount, as if by the indefeasible title of sole and undisputed possession, existed for countless ages before the creation of our race. She relates how through millions of years continents were made and unmade, mountains piled up and seas poured out, climates changed from frigid to torrid and from torrid to frigid, new creations of vegetable and animal life peopled the earth and lived out their time and died off in endless succession; till once more the mind, wearied with the effort to grasp the vastness of the idea, resigns its functions; and this new announcement again wrings from us the despairing cry, ‘What is man? What is man, even on this earth of his own, but a fleeting apparition, a thing of yesterday, one term in an endless series, one ripple on the stream of the ages, one moment in infinite time?’

3. But again: before we have had time to realise this fresh comment on the text, the teaching of the Psalmist is enforced anew from quite another quarter. As the telescope had revealed to us vast and multitudinous worlds stretching out into boundless space, so the microscope discovers to us miniature worlds equally strange and unsuspected, crowding under our very eyes, countless in number and each thronged with a dense population of its own. A single drop of water appears peopled with thousands of minute living creatures, which multiply indefinitely with the increased power of our lenses. A single nodule of rock is seen to be composed of millions of fossil organisms, each one endowed with a vitality of its own. Everywhere is life, teeming, fermenting, inexhaustible life. And so once more our imagination sinks under the burden of the thought, and once more we echo the cry of humiliation, ‘Lord, what is man? What is man, but a single throb in this endless pulsation of nature, a solitary bubble on this effervescence of infinite, omnipresent life?’

4. Nor is this all. Hitherto at least the main fortress of our pride is unassailed. We can still maintain the isolation, the uniqueness, of man in the physical creation. But even this fondly-cherished idea falls before the next assault of science. The anatomist dissects and the chemist analyses the human body. This complex mechanism, this marvellous tenement of the spirit, is resolved into its component elements. Now at least it would seem as though the secret must be revealed. Now at length we shall discover whence comes, and wherein resides, and what is, the distinctive glory of man. Now at length we shall be able to hold up to the eye, and submit to the touch, the evidence of his special pre-eminence. But here too we are doomed to disappointment. Our expected triumph becomes a signal defeat. The elements of the human body are analysed and sorted and weighed and tabulated. Man is found to be compounded of just such substances as the brute or the tree or the stone. There is absolutely nothing besides. Reason, memory, imagination, foresight, spirit, conscience, personality—they are not here. Had we any right to expect it otherwise? This is no newly-discovered truth. It is as ancient as the first promptings of inspiration. It was declared, as in a parable, in that Divine saying of old, ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ But it comes home to us with redoubled force, when the dissecting room and the laboratory have done their work; and nothing has been laid bare by the scalpel, and nothing has been detected by the retort, which can explain the mystery of man’s being—no unique atom which is the abode of the spirit, no nucleus which contains the living, thinking man, no indiscerptible unit, of which philosophers have dreamed, as the palpable germ of his immortality. ‘What is your life? It is even a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away;’ and the mocking echo of materialism gives back the Apostle’s saying, ‘even a vapour, that vanisheth away.’ ‘What is man? An aggregate of chemical elements nicely combined, a compound of evanescent gases which escape and are dissipated, and all is gone.’

5. Once more. If there is nothing in the component elements of the human frame which accounts for the pre-eminence of man, we may at all events look for an explanation in some peculiarities of structure. We shall at least find some differentiating characteristic here: we shall detect a certain uniqueness of type, which explains all. At length we shall have laid our finger on the elusive secret. Comparative anatomy and comparative physiology will come to our aid, where other sciences have failed us. This is our last hope; but here too we are frustrated. Each fresh advance of science seems to shew more plainly that we must look elsewhere than to his physical structure and growth for an explanation of the man, as the ruling, thinking, progressive, immortal being. The naturalist will tell us that the same essential type of structure prevails throughout; that different parts are more or less fully developed in different creatures, but that the ground idea in all is identical. He will tell us that the individual human being has in the several stages of his growth passed through forms analogous to the several types of the lower animals, before his structure was completed. He will tell us that all attempts at classification with a view to separating man off by a broad line from the lower creation fail signally. A slightly different convolution of the brain, a slightly different conformation of the skull, a firmer grasp of the hand, a steadier gait of the foot—trifles these—yet these, and such as these, are all that he can find to distinguish the man from the brute. And perhaps he will boldly advance a theory that the man is after all only the brute developed through a long series of ages. Of the truth or the falsehood of such a theory I say nothing here. But if it should prove most true, would it not justify and enforce by a new and unsuspected illustration the Psalmist’s awe, while contemplating the contrast between the nature and the destiny of man? ‘Man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.’ And again the voice of materialism throws back his pious ejaculation with its mocking echo, ‘like the beasts that perish.’ ‘What is man? Half-akin, nay more than half-akin, to the brute. And the son of man? A superior mammal, a developed mollusc, a creature among creatures, a finer sample of a vulgar type.’

Thus again and again we are brought back to the same point. Again and again, as we contemplate some new revelation of science, our amazement grows. At each step we are more and more bewildered with this strange paradox of humanity, this contrast between the two elements in our nature—that which we have in common with the lower creation, and that which is our special endowment as men—the dust which is taken from the earth, and the spirit which is breathed into us by God. At each step we exclaim with increased intensity of wonder, ‘What is man, that Thou art mindful of him: and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?’

For we cannot stop short at the first clause of the Psalmist’s words, and refuse to entertain the sequel. The materialist will be content to say, ‘What is man? An insignificant atom in time and space. And the son of man? An organism like other organisms.’ But the believer is constrained to add, ‘Lord, that Thou art mindful of him! Lord, that Thou visitest him!’ It is just this addition which transmutes the sneer of a cynical contempt, or the wail of a prostrate despair, into the psalm of devout and reverential awe.

And the believer may boldly claim science herself as his teacher. To hear some men talk, one would suppose that in the height of scientific discovery the mystery of man’s being had been found no mystery at all. A moment’s thought will dispel the illusion. The profound secret remains as dark and impenetrable as ever. Much has been done to explain the conditions of life; but nothing, absolutely nothing, to explain life itself. Nay, every step in advance has only increased the paradox and widened the gulf, so that the mystery is more complete than before.

It has widened the gulf; for while it has shewn that man, as a material structure, is only an infinitely small fraction of a vast universe like himself, differing almost inappreciably from other fractions, it has accumulated evidence at every step, that, as a thinking, hoping, aspiring, progressive being, he is quite unique in God’s creation. Each successive triumph of science makes the distance between the man and the brute wider. Each new acquisition is a fresh proof of capacity and a fresh ground for hope. If experience discovers the littleness of man to be more little, yet at the same time it shews his greatness to be more great. The Psalmist’s expression of wonder and awe and thanksgiving was wrung from him chiefly by the thought, that his Almighty Creator had given to man—to man, this frail, fleeting, impotent being—the dominion over the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air and the fishes of the sea, over creatures stronger in limb and more fleet of foot and keener-sighted and better-armed and longer-lived than himself. But what is all this compared with the triumphs which we have witnessed—the sovereignty of man asserted over the elemental powers of nature? We have lived to see how he can order the lightning; commanding it, and it flashes his message from continent to continent; forbidding it, and it glances harmlessly away. We have seen him weigh the sun, and measure the heavens, and analyse the stars. We have witnessed how he has made the vapour his slave, bidding it carry him to and fro and furnish his every need. And we feel that these achievements are only an earnest of greater triumphs yet in store for humanity. While the bee constructs its cells with just the same mathematical precision, and the ant piles up its winter stores with just the same prudent foresight—neither more nor less—as they did thousands of years ago; while the horse and the dog seem to contract almost human sensibilities by association with man, and then, when they are turned wild, lose them again, as if they had been only a reflection of a human master’s presence; while all the lower creation is stationary, mankind is rapidly advancing higher and higher. And still the marvel increases, ‘Lord, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?—visitest him in this faculty of experience whereby he records and treasures up the accumulated wisdom of the past, visitest him in this divination of foresight wherewith he projects himself into the triumphs and the hopes of the future, visitest him in his scientific achievements, in his social progress, in his ever-extended dominion over the material universe?’ Such thoughts as these may well occupy our minds. We cannot afford to overlook them. They are directly suggested by the Psalmist’s hymn of praise. They must ever supply a stanza—though not the loftiest—in our song of thanksgiving to the Almighty Creator.

For after all, these magnificent victories, this dominion over the beasts of the field, this subjugation of the powers of nature, are only the earnest, the prelude, the foreshadowing, of greater things yet to come. This is plainly the Psalmist’s idea. A larger, fuller, more triumphant thought is struggling for utterance, than finds direct expression in words; ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honour; Thou hast put all things under his feet.’ Hence Apostles and Evangelists saw the true fulfilment of the Psalmist’s prophetic saying in the ultimate and supreme destiny of mankind, as realised in the Person and work of the one Representative Man. Nothing short of this could satisfy the hopes, which the jubilant strain inspires. Here at length was the exaltation, the glory, the absolute sovereignty, the final apotheosis of man.

And, emphasized by this comment, the song of the Psalmist falls on the ears of Christians now, with a fuller cadence, swelled with the experience of nearly thirty centuries and prolonged into the hopes of eternity, ‘Lord, that Thou art mindful of him; Lord, that Thou visitest him!’

‘That Thou art mindful of him.’ That Thou hast condescended to hold communion with This Thy frail and sinful creature; that through long ages Thou didst school him to an ever fuller knowledge of Thee; that even in the darkest times and among the most degraded peoples Thou didst not leave Thyself without a witness, speaking through the promptings of the conscience, speaking through the courses of the seasons, speaking through the hopes and the fears of the present; that Thou didst single out one man, one family, one nation, to be the depositary of Thy special revelation; that Thou didst guard and preserve this nation through unparalleled vicissitudes, so that exiled, enslaved, crushed, trampled under foot, it revived again and again; that Thou didst from time to time commission Thy special messengers—lawgiver, psalmist, prophet, priest—to renew the flame of truth on the altar of Thy chosen race; and that thus Thy revelation burst out ever and again with a clearer, brighter light, and Thy Divine economy broadened down from precedent to precedent, till at length the religion of a nation should become the religion of the world.

‘That Thou hast visited him.’ That Thou didst effect this change by a signal manifestation of Thyself; that in the fulness of time, when Egyptians and Assyrians and Persians, when Greeks and Romans had prepared the way, Thou didst of Thine infinite mercy send Thine only Son upon earth; that He was born as a man, lived as a man, suffered and died as a man; and that thus by this one act of marvellous condescension, humanity was redeemed, was exalted, was sanctified.

‘That Thou hast visited him.’ Not only that this Thy blessed Son lived and died as a man; but that as a man He rose from the grave, and thus as a man won for men the victory over sin and death; that, as a man, He ascended into the heaven of heavens, the firstfruits of the final triumph of mankind, the earnest of that glorious consummation of all human history, when His brother-men united in Him shall wear His crown, and reign with Him as kings for ever and ever. Lord, what is man—this speck in boundless space, this moment in infinite time, this atom of atoms, this frail, fleeting, helpless creature, this insignificance, this nothing—that Thou hast ordained him to such unspeakable glory?

‘What is man?’ Nay, what is this man? What am I, that Thou visitest me? We cannot escape the moral of the Psalmist’s appeal under the shelter of a vague generality. To you and to you—to each individually—the shaft strikes home. What am I—I with these vile passions, I with this hateful selfishness, I with this hopeless, intolerable meanness, of which I am conscious every hour, that Thou art mindful of me, that Thou visitest me? A pessimist you must be in one sense, if you examine yourself candidly. A pessimist the spirit of the time will tend to make you in another direction. It is the special temptation of our age, that its most prominent scientific interests almost of necessity lead the mind to dwell too exclusively on the lower affinities of our nature—on our animal emotions, on our perishable bodies, on our resemblance to the brute creation, on our sensitiveness, even our moral sensitiveness, to the manifold changes of circumstance, as food and climate and scenery. The danger is imminent. The thoughts, which absorb you, will also mould you. If you get to regard yourself as mean, you will at length become mean. Lift up your eyes then from earth to heaven. Rise from the consideration of your littleness to the contemplation of your greatness. Here, in that noblest of all optimisms, which science suggests and consciousness demands and revelation affirms—the belief in the unique personality, the boundless capacity, the triumphant progress, the eternal destiny of man: the belief in the godlike, nay, in the God within you—is the saving of your soul.

The God within you. The Stoic of old would remind his disciples that they carried about a god enshrined in their hearts. Even as a vague surmise, a highly-wrought metaphor, the expression of an unsatisfied spiritual yearning, this teaching was very far from inoperative. What may it not be to you to whom it is an assured truth, to you who have been re-stamped in Christ with the image of God, to you who have been re-consecrated as the temples of the Spirit?

The God within you. Carry this thought back to your rooms, you young men, and contemplate it with all reverence on your knees. Whatever temptations may assault you, it has power to overcome them all. If every other diversion and every other remedy should fail, this will never fail. Though the craven fear of detection should not restrain you, and the noble egotism of self-respect should not uphold you, and the apprehension of consequences now or hereafter should not deter you, the awe, the majesty, the glory of this Presence realised must scare away the demons of sin from your heart. ‘Lord, what are we, what am I, that Thou visitest me, that Thou makest Thine abode with me, that Thou hast enshrined Thyself in me? What are we, and what art Thou, O Lord? We are of yesterday; Thou art from eternity. We are here; Thou art everywhere. Our meanness and our greatness, our failures and our triumphs, what seems our weakness and what seems our worth—these are both alike, for these are both as nothing, in the face of Thine infinite perfection. Grant, Lord, that we may feel and know this. Teach us, Lord, to forget ourselves in Thee, that so losing ourselves we may truly find ourselves. This is the first and last thought in the Psalmist’s hymn of praise; this must be the first and the last also in the Christian’s song of thanksgiving—not our meanness, not our greatness, not ourselves, not humanity, not man; but Thou and Thou only, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; Jehovah our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth!’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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The Revealer of the Heart

The Revealer of the Heart

The saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did.  John 4:39.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1874.

It is a common remark that the most momentous revolutions in history have not unfrequently sprung out of incidents altogether disproportionate to the results. This disproportion is nowhere more strongly marked than in the narrative from which the text is taken. A conversation between a Galilean carpenter and a Samaritan peasant-woman on the brink of a well—this certainly is not the occasion which we should have expected to inaugurate a revolution designed to change the religious ideas, and with them the social and political principles, of a whole civilised world. Such conversations were held many times daily over hundreds of wells in Palestine. Yet here, on this one day, at this sixth hour, near this village, Sychar, on the ledge of this particular fountain, went forth the edict, which was destined to be the one critical moment, the one absolute turning-point, in the religious history of mankind. ‘The hour cometh’—not only ‘cometh,’ but ‘now is’—‘when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.’ Here is the rescission of the old order, and the charter of the new. All the old religions had been ethnic; the new must be cosmopolitan. All the old religions centred about some local sanctuary, worshipped some local power; the new religion should be wide as the overspreading sky itself, should be omnipresent and all-pervading, like the breath of the wind—the symbol of the Spirit—which bloweth where it listeth, which comes we know not whence, and goes we know not whither. Even Judaism itself was (as has been truly said) in some sense ethnic. The object of worship was indeed the One Omnipresent and Almighty, the Eternal ‘I Am;’ but He was worshipped still as a national God, was enshrined still in a national sanctuary. Now even these limitations should cease. The rite of initiation which inducted into the privileges of the nation should be abolished. The laws which formed the constitutional charter of the nation should be abrogated. The solid and stately edifice which was the visible centre of the nation’s hopes, the local bond of the nation’s unity, should be levelled with the dust. The religion of a people, of a tribe, must expand into the religion of mankind. ‘Nor yet at Jerusalem’—this was the most startling paradox, the last intolerable scandal. ‘Neither in this mountain’—not on yonder plateau which crowns these bare overhanging heights of Gerizim, nor on any unauthorized sanctuary like this—not on the stately hill of the Capitol or beneath the cleft-peak of Parnassus or on the steep rock-fortress of the Acropolis or in the sea-girt groves of Delos, or on the brink of the salt-marshes of Ephesus, not amidst the lofty propylaea and the colossal effigies of Memphis or of Thebes—should deity under whatever form or with whatever disguise be worshipped henceforth. So far it was a welcome truth. But this superadded clause, ‘Nor yet at Jerusalem’ spoilt everything. It was an outrage on the keenest hope of the Jew. And yet this unexpected, this unwelcome, this hateful ediet was destined to be the saving of nations.

And on no occasion was the irony of God’s munificence more signally illustrated than here. The recipients of His best treasures of revelation and of grace have rarely been those whom we should have expected beforehand. It was not here to the princes of the Hebrew hierarchy like Caiaphas, or to the leaders of Hebrew thought like Gamaliel, that the announcement was made. It was not to some Alexandrian Jew, like Philo, whose familiarity with the rich stores of Gentile learning might seem to have prepared his mind for a message of such vast import; it was not to some Platonic or Pythagorean philosopher, whose sympathies with the ancient wisdom of the farther East combining with his native Hellenic culture had enlarged his theological horizon, so that he might take in this new idea of a religion of mankind—it was not to any of these that the revelation was first made; but to a simple peasant woman, belonging to an obscure tribe hated and scorned by the Jews, who were themselves the hated and scorned of all the world—to a peasant woman, whose religious ideas shared with the rest of her people were strangely vague and confused, and whose own personal life had been stained by sins of no ambiguous hue. It seemed as if by selecting a degraded Samaritan outcast as the recipient of this gracious message to mankind, the Saviour would declare at the outset, what should be hereafter the destiny of that capacious drag-net which must sweep into its meshes of every kind. For she was the very type of the world of that day—the world which Christ came to teach and to save—whose religion was a vague compromise between the monotheism of the Jew and the pantheism of the philosopher and the idolatry of the pagan, and whose moral principles not only admitted, but even consecrated, sensuality in its most degrading forms.

But there is another very striking feature also in this narrative, which must not pass unnoticed. The intense realism which pervades every line of the Evangelist’s account.

It appears first in the local scenery, which forms the setting of the history. Here by this long, dusty road, running south and north, the traveller must needs pass on his way from Jerusalem to Galilee. Here branching off westward is the narrow valley, which encloses the town of Shechem, shut in between the two parallel ridges of mountains. Here on the southern of the two heights, on this overhanging mountain of Gerizim, is the ruined temple, the sanctuary of the Samaritan race, where their ‘fathers worshipped.’ Here, just where the high road strikes the base of the mountain, is the little village of Askar, the Sychar of the Gospels; here hard by is a deep well, so deep even now that, notwithstanding the accumulated rubbish of ages, travellers have sounded to a depth of eighty or a hundred feet. Here stretching eastward is a sight common enough to our English eyes, but rare indeed among the bare and rocky hills of Palestine—a wide expanse of corn-land, ‘unbroken’ (as it is described by an eye-witness) ‘by boundary or hedge’—these fields which ‘are white already to harvest.’

This realism appears again in the national sentiment and traditions, with which the conversation is saturated. There is the notice of the assignment of land to Joseph, the reputed forefather of the Samaritan race. There is the allusion to the inveterate, internecine feud between the Jews and the Samaritans, which rendered any overtures from the one to the other an astonishing, if not a suspicious, incident. There is the reference to the main question of dispute between the two races—the question respecting the locality of the true sanctuary—the alternative between the mountain of Shechem and the mountain of Jerusalem. There is mention incidentally made of the vague, halting, undetermined theological position of the Samaritans—whose temple was dedicated to the ‘nameless’ God, and whose allegiance (at least at one time) seems to have hovered between the Jehovah of the Pentateuch and the Zeus Hellenius of Antiochus, ‘Ye know not what ye worship.’ There is the underlying assumption of the characteristic Samaritan conception of the Messiah, not (like the Jewish) as a magnificent king, a victorious captain, but as a teacher, a prophet, ‘He will tell us all things’—a conception, to which the Samaritan was almost necessarily limited, because his Scriptures were confined to the Pentateuch, and his Messianic ideas were all gathered from the one passage in Deuteronomy. There is an indication (in the surprise of the disciples) of the social prudery with which the rabbinical teaching had imbued the age, for a maxim of the stricter rabbis forbad any conversation in public with one of the other sex, ‘They marvelled that He talked with a woman.’

It appears, lastly, in the development of the dialogue and in the progress of the event. We have a succession of rapidly shifting scenes, all equally distinct, all equally lifelike. The place, the hour, the persons; the chief Traveller throwing Himself wearily down on the well side; the disciples despatched to the neighbouring village to buy food; the approach of the woman; the conversation commenced; the ever-varying phases of emotion produced by the stranger’s words; the first surprise, ‘Thou, a Jew;’ the surprise exchanged for remonstrance, ‘Sir, the well is deep;’ the prompt desire, the dawning intelligence, ‘Give me this water;’ the parrying of the home-thrust, ‘I have no husband;’ the intermingling of an eager curiosity on a great theological question with a no less eager desire to divert the conversation from an inconvenient personal turn, ‘I perceive that Thou art a prophet;’ the wish to evade the responsibility of a decision upon this question by indefinite postponement: ‘When Messias is come, He will tell us all things;’ the return of the disciples; their shocked feelings at seeing their great rabbi thus forgetting himself; the hurried departure of the woman, her pitcher left behind and her errand unfulfilled; the feminine eagerness to tell the news to her neighbours; the natural exaggeration covering the instinctive reticence, not ‘He told me that I was living a life of shame,’ but ‘He told me all that ever I did.’

And not only is this narrative vivid and truthful in itself—truthful to natural scenery, truthful to local associations and local history, truthful to human life and character; but the allusions to place and circumstance occur in such a way as altogether to exclude the supposition of inventive design. They are not paraded before the reader; they are unexplained by themselves. Without the assistance of travellers we should often be at a loss to account for them. Of this kind is the reference to Gerizim, ‘Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain.’ The context contains no indication that any mountain was near; even when mentioned, it is not mentioned by name; but the woman, suddenly looking up, sees the overhanging heights, and they suggest a ready topic, which will divert the unpleasant tenour of the conversation. Similar too is the allusion to the growing corn, ‘Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest.’ This mention is altogether unexpected, abrupt, inexplicable—inexplicable otherwise than by the actual scenery itself. The Great Teacher’s eye ranges over the vast expanse of cornland, and the vision of the eye starts the lesson from the lips. The scenery does not garnish the discourse; the discourse arises out of the scenery.

What is the inference from all this? Have we here a fictitious narrative, written, as some men would tell us, by a late Christian of Gnostic tendencies, written far away from the scenes themselves, at Alexandria or in Asia Minor, written long after the supposed occurrences, somewhere about the middle of the next century, when two successive devastations under Titus and under Hadrian had harried the land, and the Jewish nation and polity were altogether a thing of the past, when in history, as in theology, old things had passed away and all things had become new.

And what analogy can be produced for such a remarkable phenomenon of literary history as this? ‘The world,’ it is said, ‘is full of works of imagination;’ ‘the singular realism of many,’ we are told, ‘is recognised by all.’ Is this a true description of the world in the early Christian centuries? Is it not the very opposite of a true description? Can even one romance of antiquity be pointed out, which approaches this in its perfect truthfulness of delineation? Even one, which offers anything like the same variety of tests, and which responds to every test applied with anything like the same fidelity? We have specimens of classical romances extant. What are they worth? ‘Singular realism’—is not this the very last expression which would fitly describe them? But was it rather in Christian circles that such a wonderful product of literary genius might have been looked for? In Christian circles of the second century, which (we are reminded again and again) were notoriously careless, uncritical, inappreciative, eagerly devouring the most clumsy forgeries? In Christian circles, whose highest conception of a romance did not rise above the stiff pedantry of the Clementines, or the childish extravagance of the Protevangelium? And who was this anonymous writer, this wonderful genius, this consummate artist—if an artist, a far greater artist than Plato—whose name is nevertheless lost for ever in the greatness of the past?

Is this the probable alternative? Is it even a possible alternative? Or must we not confess that we have here the very record of a true incident, reported by an eye-witness—not, I venture to think, by Him, the chief speaker, nor by her, the chief listener, but directly by the beloved disciple himself, the youthful friend, lingering by his Master’s side as not unnaturally he would linger while the others were despatched to the neighbouring village to purchase food for the common wants, suppressing the fact of his own presence in his after narrative, as characteristically he would suppress it, where the words and the incident told their own tale, and no personal attestation was needed; but listening at the time, silent, thoughtful, bewildered, amazed, and after long years recalling with all that freshness, with which old men will recall the critical moments of their boyhood and youth though the vast intervening space may be blurred and indistinct to the memory—recalling, I say, those strange sayings uttered more than half a century before on the brink of the Samaritan well—the startling announcement, ‘Neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem,’ and the hardly less startling anticipation, ‘The fields are white already to the harvest’—hard sayings, dark enigmas, grievous scandals, when they were at first heard; but now at length grown

Of new significance and fresh result;

now in the light of a lifelong experience, now in this far distant Gentile city of Ephesus, amidst this ever-growing congregation of Gentile Christians, gratefully acknowledged as the manifesto of a new revelation and the charter of a new Church. A true son of Thunder, whose work in life is typified, not by the ceaseless din as of some busy machinery, but by the deafening clap and the vivid flash which, sudden and intermittent, startles the silence of a summer sky.

The context has brought us to the outskirts of Christian evidences. The text itself penetrates to their very core: ‘He told me all that ever I did:’ ‘He tore away the veil of disguise, which I had so carefully wrapped about me. He exposed my secret life; He probed my inmost conscience; He held up a mirror to me, and for the first time I saw myself.’ This unique power of piercing, wounding, exposing, convicting, convincing the conscience is, and ever must be, the most potent testimony to the revelation in Christ.

Christian evidences! How few have the time, have the opportunities, have the capacities, have the training, necessary for a right judgment on the subjects submitted to them! And yet to the many the truth of Christianity is a question not less momentous than to those few. Here then is their evidence. It presupposes no long intellectual discipline; it demands no unusual mental powers; it draws on no rich accumulation of knowledge. It addresses itself to the poor, to the simple, to the ignorant. It appealed to this unlettered Samaritan peasant, with the same directness of aim, as to a Hillel or a Gamaliel; to this shamed and sullied profligate with the same distinctness of articulation as to the most scrupulous, most respectable, most orthodox of Pharisees. ‘He spoke to my conscience; He shewed me my sin; He shewed me myself. He told me all things that ever I did.’

And this is not only the most simple and comprehensive, it is also the most forcible and the most convincing of all kinds of evidence. Let any one test the truth of this by his own past experience. Let him only recall some one rare moment in the past; when the conviction of sin, the revelation of self, was flashed in upon his soul: when suddenly the dishonesty, the hypocrisy, the malice, the avarice, the impurity, the meanness, the sin (whatever it may have been), which he had so long indulged with so much self-complacency, rose up before him with a terrible distinctness of outline, confronting him, as it were, with a second self. Long lapse of time, worldly cares, dissipating interests, indifference, recklessness, may now have confused the memory. But then he could not deceive himself. It was no phantom of a diseased imagination. It was an intensely real, intensely true, experience; it was direct, it was personal, it was absolute. He had seen the exceeding sinfulness of sin; he had been confronted with the great mystery of iniquity. And he could no more doubt the reality of the power, which had revealed it to him, than he could doubt the force of gravitation itself. ‘He told me all things that ever I did. Is not this, yes, is not this the Christ?’

We have been reading lately some speculations on the utility of religion. The honest utterance of a singularly honest mind is always a substantial gain. It goes to increase the store of trustworthy data, on which the judgments of mankind must be built. And in this case the value is enhanced, because the voice speaks to us (as it were) from beyond the grave. But was adequacy, or any approach to adequacy, in the treatment, to be anticipated here? The utility of religion depends on the power of religion. And the power of religion can only be estimated by inward experience. It must ever be a matter of personal testimony. It cannot be weighed and tabulated.

Intrinsically faulty then, because entirely speculative, must be the estimate of one, who (as he himself frankly confesses) never had a faith to lose, who even in these his posthumous utterances is still feeling after a religion, not denying it as a possibility, but relegating it to the cloudland of peradventure, and allowing it, nay even encouraging it, as a salutary play of the imagination.

Hence, in the Essay to which I have referred, I find something said, and not absolutely untruly, about the insufficiency of the fear of future punishment regarded as a moral police. I find a little said, though altogether inadequately, about the influence of a noble ideal in attracting men to virtue. But I find nothing at all on this one point—the power of religion in penetrating, revealing, shaming, purifying, exalting the inner life through the conviction of sin, and the craving after righteousness. And yet every Christian knows that this is after all the most potent, because the most subtle, influence which acts upon his moral being—penetrating into recesses where all others must fail, touching springs of action which none other can reach. He is not ungrateful for external supports. He sees well enough, how very much he owes to the force of law, or of public opinion, as the scaffolding of his moral nature. But he cannot deceive himself. He knows that whole regions of moral life lie far beyond the reach of any such forces. He knows how many an evil thought he puts away, how many an alluring temptation he resists, how many a painful struggle he undergoes, how many a distasteful task he undertakes—not at all because public opinion expects it of him (public opinion knows nothing of all this); not at all because the terror of a future judgment haunts him (the thought is far away from his mind); but because he is conscious of a Presence, pleading with him, admonishing him, alluring him, entreating him, startling him by the heinousness of his sin, reflected in the mirror of a perfect righteousness. He cannot deceive himself. He knows, as certainly as he knows anything, how very far worse he would have been if this voice had been silent, if this Presence had been withdrawn. He sees that he is only one unit among myriads. He reflects that this motive has been far more potent with thousands upon thousands of men than (to his shame) it has been with himself. And reflecting on all this, he feels that he cannot place any bounds to the utility of religion regarded as a moral force. For the mainspring of all this power is the revelation of self through the revelation of God in Christ. ‘He gave me the answer to that twofold question, the question of all questions, ‘Whence?’ and ‘Where?’ He shewed me all the mercy, for He told me all the sin. He convinced me of my greatness, for He convicted me of my meanness. He set before me the image of perfect holiness, embodied in a Man like myself. Then He shewed me my own sinful heart, my own sullied life. It was a contrast of light and darkness. I could not choose but hate the darkness and love the light. And so in my poor, feeble, halting way I am feeling for the light, I am straining after the light. He told me all that ever I did. Is not this the Christ?’

And with this conviction kindling within him, he hurries out into the world. He becomes perforce a missionary and an apologist—a missionary, though not perhaps across the seas or amidst deserts; an apologist, though not in the pulpit or with his pen—but he pleads with the resistless eloquence of a direct personal knowledge; he argues with the overpowering logic of a renewed and purified life. His secret is bursting within him, and he must impart it to others. He arrests, he appeals, he importunes. ‘Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did. Come, see and hear and judge for yourselves. Is not this the Christ?’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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The Wrath of the Lamb

The Wrath of the Lamb

And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb  Revelation 6:16

Great S. Mary’s Church, 20th Sunday after Trinity, 1873.

This title—the Lamb, the Lamb of God—as applied to our Lord, is found only in the Gospel and the Apocalypse of S. John. Like the designation of the ‘Word of God,’ or the image of the Shechinah, the tabernacle, the glory abiding among men, it is a distinguishing feature which connects these two books, and points to the identification of the disciple of love with the eagle-eyed seer of Patmos. Elsewhere indeed the image is indirectly suggested. But, as a proper name, an absolute and indefeasible title, it occurs in these two books alone.

And, as it links the Gospel with the Apocalypse, so does it also connect the earliest days of Christ’s dispensation with the latest. It is heard first on the lips of the forerunner alone, when the ministry on earth is now to begin; it is echoed last by ten thousand times ten thousand voices of the redeemed, when the ministry in heaven has drawn to a close. Its earlier utterance is the prelude to a life of toil and sorrow and shame and cruel agony: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh on Him the sins of the world.’ Its later utterance is the final pæan of victory over death and hell, the triumphant hallelujah of glorified myriads swelled by the universal chorus of heaven and earth and sea, and prolonged into the echoes of eternity; ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.’ ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.’

In the Gospel, however, the name, twice repeated on one single occasion, is never heard again. In the Apocalypse it is reiterated not far short of thirty times. Every other title of dignity seems to be swallowed up in this. No attribution of strength, and no panegyric of victory, and no outpouring of thanksgiving, and no ascription of praise seems to be complete, unless the homage is offered to the Lamb, the Lamb that was slain.

Some here will recall a famous work of early Flemish art, in which the brothers Van Eyck have attempted to represent the luxuriant imagery of this Apocalyptic vision. All the lines in the picture converge towards a common centre. All the groups are arranged with reference to this one point. Martyrs, virgins, priests, prophets, hermits, pilgrims, holy warriors, righteous judges, kneeling or standing, on foot or on horseback, at rest or in motion—all are gathered or gathering about one prominent figure. On it each eye is gazing, and towards it each footstep moves. These various groups of redeemed and glorified saints stud the outer parts of the picture. More central than these is an inner circle of winged angels, some bearing the instruments of the Passion, some swinging censers, but all with faces upturned towards this one point, all kneeling in adoration of this one figure. Highest of all and directly above it is One of stately mien and majestic visage, seated on a throne, His head crowned with a tiara, His hand raised in the attitude of benediction. It is the Eternal Father Himself, Whom with the unconscious irreverence of his age, which striving to communicate the incommunicable ended only in limiting the illimitable, the artist has represented in a human form. At His feet is a richly jewelled crown ready, it would seem, to descend and encircle the brow of the figure beneath. Immediately below, still hovering over this central figure, is a dove with outstretched wings, the symbol of the Spirit, darting forth rays of light and encircled in clouds of glory. Lowest of all, beneath the feet of the saintly groups and right under the central figure itself, was once a representation of the souls in agony. This part of the picture is now effaced; but we may well imagine that the motive was suggested by the words of the text; that the centre of attraction to the redeemed was a centre of repulsion to the lost; that with cowering limbs and averted eyes they shunned the glory of the Adorable One; that in their mien, in their every gesture and look, they seemed to say to the mountains, ‘Cover us,’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us.’

And this one figure, which thus gathers into itself the glory of the whole picture; this centre, towards which all things gravitate by an irresistible force; this common object of adoration, to which heaven and earth alike yield homage—what is it? Surely here the painter will lavish all the treasures of his art, and tax all the resources of his brain, to produce some conception, which in elevation of ideal and splendour of colouring, in dignity and pathos and beauty and strength, shall be worthy of its position. But what do we find? We look to this central figure, and our feeling is one of blank disappointment. The object of adoration here is not the calm and stately form, so awful and yet so loving, with arms outstretched to bless and shewing the wounded palms, like the glorified Saviour of Angelico; nor the Crucified One, nailed still to the Cross, but transferred from earth to heaven, and held up in the arms of the Everlasting Father for awe-stricken myriads to adore, as this same subject is treated by Dürer, another great master. There is no power, no beauty, no elevation in the conception here. The artist has fallen into a naked, painful literalism. He seems determined that the adoration of the Lamb shall be the adoration of a lamb; and a lamb he has given us. There is an incongruity, a perversity, a paradox, a bathos, in this treatment which we can hardly explain and cannot forgive.

Yet this literalism, this bathos of treatment, however faulty in itself, does emphasize a leading characteristic of the Apocalyptic vision. The artistic paradox of the painter answers to the moral paradox of the seer. S. John plainly dwells upon this title with affectionate fondness, just because it is incongruous. Nay, he seems bent on enhancing the incongruity by all the accessories which he can gather about it, welcoming every paradox of language and every inversion of metaphor which will give point to his lesson. Though a lamb, it is the shepherd of the flock, leading the sheep to springs of living water and followed by them, wheresoever it goes (7:17, 14:4). Though a slain lamb, it has power over the Book of Life (13:8). Though its blood is crimson, it has a cleansing, bleaching efficacy, washing white the robes of the redeemed (7:14). And altogether, this feeblest, most timid, most gentle, most helpless creature, is an emblem of strength, of power, of victory. Once indeed the Apocalyptic seer stumbles on an image more akin (we might have thought) to the ideas which he wishes to convey—‘Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah.’ Here was a magnificent image, recommended alike by its prophetic prestige, by its historic relations, and by its intrinsic propriety. The monarch of the forest, springing on his prey, would suggest just those conceptions of sovereignty and vengeance and might, with which he would desire to invest the Person of the glorified Lord. Yet it is dropped at once and for ever; and the image of the Lamb replaces it, never again to be relinquished. The mode of transition too is remarkable. ‘One of the elders said unto me … Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah … And I beheld, and, lo … a Lamb as it had been slain.’ This novel contradiction lies at the root of the Gospel. The life of Christ was from first to last a paradox. His weakness was power; His shame was honour; His death was victory. The life of the Church is a paradox also. Among the most distinguished warriors have been the feeble and the foolish and the despised of the world. Again and again her strength has been made perfect in weakness; again and again the things, that are not, have been chosen to confound the things, that are. Thus the lamb, not the lion, is the true symbol of our faith. This is plainly the leading idea in the Apocalypse. Whatever of greatness and whatever of power the seer would ascribe to his risen Lord finds its reason, its justification, its fulfilment in this one title. Is it victorious might? ‘These shall make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb shall overcome them.’ Is it divine illumination? ‘The glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.’ Is it adoration and worship? ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.’ Lastly; is it vengeance? ‘Hide us … from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of His wrath is come.’

Here is the climax of the paradox. It is not the wrath of the Lion, but the wrath of the Lamb, which is so terrible in the seer’s vision. In its innocence, in its meekness, in its tenderness, this gentlest of all creatures is endowed with a capacity of retribution, which is denied to the monarch of the forest with all his fierceness and all his might. The old riddle is inverted; and out of sweetness comes forth strength. How then must we read it?

The punishment of the wicked was a theme of terrible fascination with the painters of an earlier age. They taxed all the fertility of a morbid fancy to paint the physical tortures of lost souls. What did they hope to gain by this hideous play of the imagination? Did they think to frighten the vulgar into well-doing? Nay; might not the very familiarity with such horrible conceptions stimulate those passions which they sought to check; just as the public execution of a criminal is said to be a fruitful source of fresh crime? Or did they imagine that they had Scriptural authority for these pictures, even as symbolic imagery? Nay; the strange thing is, that though their representations of heaven are largely taken from the Apocalypse, their representations of hell are the creations of their own brain. It is a remarkable, and it is surely a significant fact, that while the bliss of the redeemed is painted by the Apocalyptic seer with all the varied imagery which an inspired imagination can command, though the picture is repeated again and again with ever-increasing energy of delineation, yet there is no corresponding description of the lost. Once or twice the familiar symbol of the fiery lake is introduced; but it is briefly dismissed again. The Apostle would appeal to spiritual aspirations, rather than to physical terrors. Fear may deter; but fear cannot educate. Love only is the educator of the soul. Hence for the most part a thick veil is drawn over the fate of the lost, which later ages attempted rudely, but vainly, to pluck away. Here and there indeed a glimpse is accorded, only to suggest a wholly different order of ideas. ‘Every eye shall see Him, even they which pierced Him.’ ‘Hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.’

It is not physical agony, if we read the interpretation aright; it is the beauty of holiness, it is the splendour of purity, it is the majesty of truth, it is the tenderness of love, which shall be the chief instrument of retribution. It is the blessing spurned, and the opportunity lost, which shall start up from the oblivion of the past, and confront us as God’s angel of vengeance. It is the glory and the goodness, in which we yearn to slake our burning thirst, and lo! the cup is dashed away from our lips. What was it that wrung from those foolish ones in the parable, the mournful hopeless cry, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us?’ Not certainly the howling of wild beasts, nor dread of robbers, nor deadly night-chill, nor menacing storm. As for all these, they had slept securely hitherto, and might sleep on again. It was the awakening and finding that the door was closed, and they were in the darkness without. There was the light streaming through the casement, and the shadow of the bridegroom thrown on the chamber wall—the light which they might not share, and the bridegroom whom they might not greet. Aye, there is in us all a divine appetency, which seeks the light, which yearns for the light. We may slumber on, till it is too late; but then we must awake, and the fierce craving awakes also, and will not be denied, and there is no longer wherewith to satisfy it. So our highest capacities become our fiercest tormentors. It was an impossible prayer, which the hero breathed of old, ‘Kill me, if it be only in the light.’ Light, perfect light, never can be death. Life and light are synonyms in the nomenclature of the Spirit. It is the light felt and yet withheld; it is the darkness rendered visible; the helpless consciousness of spectral forms, which we may realise and yet cannot put away, haunting the gloom, that perplexes and scares and paralyses the soul.

And have we not, even in the experiences of the present, analogies, however faint, which may teach us how the most painful sight hereafter shall be the sight of Him Whom we pierced; and the wrath to come shall indeed be the wrath of the Lamb?

Is it the memory of some base ingratitude, which lies heavy on the soul? A disdainful word has been spoken, a cruel insult has been offered in a moment of irritation to the ‘heart’s best brother,’ the friend of boyhood and youth; and they two have parted asunder, never to meet again on earth. Or was it an act of cold and defiant self-assertion, a display of heartless indifference, which was only half-meant, but which has wrung a mother’s heart? And he was too proud to ask pardon, though a single word would have healed the wound, and the sore is ever festering in him. And then death comes, and in a moment an impassable barrier is reared. What would he not give then, just to unsay that cruel word, or to undo that selfish act? What sacrifice would he not then undergo, if only for a moment the impenetrable veil could be raised, and they could meet face to face as of old, so that he might pour forth a few hurried sentences of sorrow and shame, and hear from those lips the one precious word of forgiveness? But the opportunity is gone for ever. He cannot retrieve the irretrievable. And so the bright vision of the past rises up in vengeance against him, with all its sweet memories, and all its joyful hopes. The wise counsels and the affectionate greetings and the tender solicitudes, the self-denying devotion which was lavished so freely upon him—all these haunt his path, and leave him no rest. Love itself is become his tormentor. Love itself is turned into wrath.

Or again; it is not perhaps wronged affection, it is discarded innocence, which grasps the sword of the avenger, and wields it with both hands. We have read how some fallen one will revisit under cover of darkness the home of her happy childhood, and haunt the doors which are barred to her for ever, and peer stealthily through the windows that she may see the innocent faces gathered, as of old, round the fireside; or we have been taught how in the midst of splendour, after months or years of unrealised shame, some long forgotten strain of music, striking accidentally on the car—so sweet of old, so jarring and discordant now—startles all the ghosts of the past from their graves, and no power can lay them. The conscience rebels and refuses to be drugged any more. These, it may be, are fictions of the poet and the painter; but do they not commend themselves by their absolute truthfulness? This divine paradox of retribution is manifested again and again. Again and again we are bidden to look, for the avenging Lion is there: we lift up our eyes, and ‘lo, a Lamb as it had been slain.’

Yes; purity avenges itself. A man may get to think it a poor, tame, spiritless thing—one of those childish adornments, which he may cast lightly off, when he casts off the child. So he trifles with it; and in a moment of recklessness flings it away. Then comes the terrible revulsion, the sense of its priceless value, and of his own infinite loss. Then is the self-loathing and the remorse, the expulsion and the shame. He is driven forth from the garden, and the gate is barred behind him, and the flaming sword waving to and fro will not permit his return. He has tasted the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and it has cost him the tree of life. The great ideal of innocence, which he has defied, confronts him with its glory, and his eyes cannot bear the sight. All this, or nearly all this, is involved in the noble saying of the Stoic poet, who counts it the most righteous penalty which offended heaven can inflict on the hardened sinner, that he shall behold virtue, and, beholding it, pine away over the sight of his loss. All this, and far more than this, is gathered up in the prophetic vision of the Apocalypse, which is the Christian fulfilment of the Stoic’s dream; ‘Every eye shall see Him, even they which pierced Him.’

Far more than this; for it is possible now to put the vision aside. Experience does not teach us that in this world the intensity of the remorse is always proportionate to the gravity of the sin. A little more trifling, a little fresh indulgence; and the vision will pass away. The innocence had gone before; and now the ideal has vanished out of sight. The man has peace now, if a false security can be called peace. But what, if hereafter the veil should be suddenly plucked away? What, if the scales should fall again from his eyes? What, if the avenger should start on his feet once more, and exact the debt, swollen with the arrears of a long oblivion?

Far more than this; for the heathen poet could only contemplate virtue as a bare abstraction, beautiful indeed in itself, but hardly touching the surface of the heart. Our ideal is a Person—a Person, Who sums up in Himself all things in heaven and earth, all the magnificent teachings of science and all the inspiring lessons of history; but a Person also, Who has entered into human relations with us, Whom we have been permitted to know with our human knowledge, and to love with our human love. This it is, which must invest the sight of Him hereafter with such unspeakable awe to those who have pierced Him. For here—in this one Being—is embodied all the innocence which we have profaned, and all the truth which we have foresworn, and all the glory which we have despised. Here—in this one Man—are concentrated every blessing spurned and every opportunity lost. But above all these, crowning all and glorifying all and solemnising all, is the ideal of absolute love; the love which made its home on earth and lived a human life; the love which died for us on the Cross; the love which we might have made our own, but which we despised and flung away as a broken vessel.

This—can we doubt it—is the wrath of the Lamb. Not that He is changed, but that we are changed. He is the Lamb still. His truth, His righteousness, His purity, His love are eternal. But our perversity has transformed them into avenging angels. And so is fulfilled the saying which was written, ‘With the holy thou shalt be holy … and with the froward thou shalt learn frowardness.’ One sad reproachful look wrung from an Apostle bitter tears of remorseful shame. And how shall we bear that same look intensified a thousandfold and resting upon us—we who have denied Him, we who have pierced Him, we who have crucified Him afresh?

And forgive me, if I delay you a little longer, that I may make some more direct application of the lesson. I would wish more especially to speak of those privileges, which are offered to the majority of you now, and which, if neglected now, must revive and reappear in the avenging vision of the great hereafter. And here I might dwell on the magnificent opportunities of youth, on the glory of consecrating the freshness and the enthusiasm and the impressibility of early manhood to the highest of all sciences. But I abstain, simply because I know that, speaking on such a theme, I should speak to deaf ears. Any language, which I should think of using, would seem exaggerated to you young men now. A time will come, when no words will appear too extravagant for the theme; but this time is yet distant. No young man realises the glorious potentiality of youth, till youth has passed away. Therefore I will turn to other topics, which have a better chance of a hearing. And I would ask your attention chiefly to two privileges, which you enjoy here, and which you are not likely to enjoy so fully hereafter.

1. The first is the opportunity of daily prayer—more especially of daily morning prayer—in your College Chapels. Only think what a powerful instrument of self-discipline (to say nothing else) you neglect, in neglecting this! Only think what a sovereign preservative is here against sloth and all the countless vices which throng in its train! Only reflect on the glorious gain in thus dedicating publicly and solemnly the first-fruits of each day to God—what a tone of moral strength and what a well-spring of spiritual life is here! How then do you shew your appreciation of it? Will the history be this? In your first term you begin your attendance; and for a time you attend with fair regularity. But the effort is slightly irksome to you. You do not reflect that this very fact is highest testimony to its disciplinary value. So you allow yourself a little indulgence, and again a little more; till what was the rule is now the exception, and its efficacy as a moral discipline has almost gone. And meanwhile its spiritual power too is weakened. You find that you can do very well without it; you do not seem to yourself to care very much for it. At first there was a certain sense of dissatisfaction at each fresh relaxation of the rule. But this soon wears off; and it gives you no trouble now. Have you weaned yourself from a superfluous want? Or is it not that you have stunted a divine faculty by disuse?

2. The second privilege, to which I would refer, is the opportunity of uninterrupted solitude. You have never had this opportunity in the same degree before; it is not very likely that you will continue to have it, when your residence here ceases. Your time is now almost absolutely at your own disposal. You have ample leisure to retire into yourself, to interrogate yourself, to learn of yourself. And be assured your most valuable lessons must be learnt here. I feel no temptation to depreciate the blessings of friendship. The friendships formed and cemented here are a chief glory of this place. I should do ill to undervalue the instruction derived from books. Certainly experience does not suggest the need of the warning, which Columba is said to have addressed to a pupil of old, ‘My son, many out of undue love of knowledge have made shipwreck of their souls.’ It may be the temptation of a few; it is not the peril of the many. But, believe it, you can learn from yourselves lessons, more profound, more comprehensive, more abiding than any books or any friendships can teach you. Believe it—for it is truly said—each one of you is greater than he knows. This is even more true of the least gifted undergraduate in these galleries, than of the most gifted. He is far, very far, greater than he knows. Only go down deep enough into yourself, and you will find a Teacher, Whose lessons no printed page and no wise companionship can replace—for you have found there God Himself, God speaking through your individuality, God evoking your special gift, God ordering your special task.

These blessings, and such as these, I ask you to remember to-day. I did not select the text that I might enlarge on the terrors of the unseen world. I have no faith in such a mode of teaching. But I have wished to anticipate the vision of the future, that so we may more fully realise the lesson of the present; that the glory of our divine human Ideal—His holiness, His purity, His righteousness, His mercy, His love—may attract and rivet our gaze; that so beholding and worshipping and growing into the same image, we may be ready to follow Him, whithersoever He goeth, grudging no sacrifice and sparing no toil.

‘And looking upon Jesus as He walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!

‘And the two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus.’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

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