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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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