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1. The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. ["First," and "early," and "dark," and "sepulchre," what a crowd of terms! Out of this warp and woof comes life's mixed and tangled web. There is a solitary woman in this verse.]
2. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved [With what frank delicacy he indicates himself!], and saith unto them [Breathlessly; she had been running. How quickly bad news flies! they run to tell it], They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. [Where they have laid him is heaven, if we could but find out the place. The sepulchre without the Lord chills those who go near it.]
3. Peter therefore went forth [A quick and ardent logic is involved in that therefore], and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.
4. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter [How he sustains the delicateness of his own references!], and came first to the sepulchre.
5. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. [He had his first place. Every man has his unique position in the Church, if he could discover it; he may not have been first called, he may not be senior in time, prior chronologically; yet at some point he was first: let no man take his crown.]
6. Then cometh Simon Peter following him [Was it a calculated second place? Was he a coward still? Did he allow himself to be beaten? how could he? when it is said], and went into the sepulchre [The one looked and the other went in: that is the difference of men to the end of time], and seeth the linen clothes lie,
7. And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. [He was self-possessed; he had the full use of all his faculties, he noted and remembered.]
8. Then [Some emphasis should be laid on that word, as indicating a peculiar moment in time] went in also that other disciple, who came first to the sepulchre [came first, went in second], and he saw, and [here he recovers priority] believed. [Some men seem to have only to open their eyes to believe to go one step further, and to be in heaven; and other men have to be scourged into a kind of barren belief.]
9. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. [And yet they did know it: it had been spoken to them often enough; it was the one thing Christ dwelt upon in his later ministry. Again and again he told them that the Son of man should be raised from the dead: they knew it in the letter, they knew it in the ear of the body, but the music never got down into the ear of the soul. We know things variously we know, and do not know; we do not know, and yet we know: for want of right definitions of the word "know" we flounder and blunder in our highest thinking.]
10. Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. [They were soon thrust back; they accepted the intermediate for the final.]
11. But [Indicating a difference of character] Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping [That was her home; the men could find a home without Christ, but she could not: where the love is, the home is]: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre [through the telescope of tears],
12. And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. [If the men had wept they would have seen the angels. You see nothing with dry eyes: the naked eye has but a sky of gilded points; the clothed and assisted eye rolls through all the universe of suns. The New Testament should be read through tears, then Jesus would be seen everywhere; and if the Old Testament could be read with the same help, he would be found in Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms.]
13. And they say unto her [for they speak all languages], Woman [Not a harsh term, but full of gentleness as spoken by angels' lips], why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. [Her tears were rational: like all Christian sentiment, they could be vindicated by reason.]
14. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. [This is a mystery in divine providence. God concealeth himself, but he is not the less there: he conceals himself for a purpose; he thus educates men.]
15. Jesus saith unto her, Woman [How strange he can be, how like a foreigner he can look! How he can put a space between himself and his dearest ones, always for a purpose, and always that he may come the nearer], why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? [What is wanting in thy life? where is the circle broken?] She, supposing him to be the gardener [and to be inspired merely by a spirit of civility], saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence [Did she whisper this, as if she would extract a secret from him under seal of confidence?], tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. [I will play the honest thief. I am but a woman, but I can carry him: the spirit is strength: we can carry what we like.]
16. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. [We live in tones, in glances, in touches, in little things.] She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. [If there was the faintest incredulity in her tone, the incredulity was but momentary: she would have sprung upon him, but]
17. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father [I am on my way: there is a time for everything: touching would mean arresting, detention upon the earth, interruption of a great purpose]: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. [And I make the worlds one, the family complete: I set up the magnetic communication, and none can destroy it; henceforth earth is hardly distinguishable from heaven.]
18. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord [That is the only gospel worth preaching], and that he had spoken these things unto her. [That is the true proof of what is said: if we had not seen the Lord we should not talk about him, and if he has not spoken to us we should not speak to others. Tell what he has given in thine heart.]
Almighty God, may a man speak unto thee face to face, uttering the thanksgivings of many hearts, the confessions of the sins of the people, and a cry for thy pardoning mercy, without which we cannot live? Wilt thou so reveal thyself unto us as to leave no doubt of thy presence, giving us such drawing, such enlightening of mind, such enlargement and quickening of our affections, as shall constrain us to say, This is the Lord's doing, this is the Lord's house, and this is the gate of heaven? We have had familiar intercourse with our Father; we have felt his nearness; our hearts have leaped for joy at his drawing nigh. Why not repeat the visit of thy grace, now that on the morning of thy holy day, in the midst of the great city, we may feel that thou art near our hearts with infinite blessing and love? We praise thee for thy marvellous works towards us as creatures of thine hand. Thou hast preserved our life, and given us in continuance of days a new song. Thou hast spread our table in the wilderness, in the presence of our enemies, and so thou hast given us renewed cause to adore thy goodness and trust thy power. Thou hast sent a plentiful rain upon thine inheritance, and caused us to enjoy the odours of the garden of the Lord. Thou hast given us an interest in things not seen. Thou hast called us unto eternal life. Thou hast put death under our feet. Thou hast come to us in unexpected ways; not always along the highroad of thy daily providence, where we have expected to meet thee where we have prepared for thy coming, and waited confidently for thine appearing. Thou hast come to us in many of the incidents of life, when we did not expect thee. Thou hast given us blessings out of the cloud. Thou hast turned the darkness into sudden light. Thou hast given us a goodly heritage in places where we expected to mourn and die. So that, altogether, thou hast been gracious unto us with exceeding favour. Thy great daily gifts have not been withheld, and other gifts thou hast given with them, so that our cup runneth over. Our hands are full of the blessings of the Lord, and our hearts have been made as the treasure-house of his grace. We live in God. We have no life but in thy light. It is enough. We are immortal in our God; we are everlasting in the everlasting Father. We beseech thee, therefore, that we may be enabled to bring the power of an endless life to bear upon the concerns of the present time. May we deal with the affairs of earth as those whose conversation is in heaven. May we descend upon the concerns of time with the lofty dignity and the impatient urgency of those who would quickly return unto the higher places, in which their souls delight. Keep us from long-tarrying in the market-places of the world. Keep us from long-lingering in the highways and streets of commerce and pleasure and self-promotion. While we are there, may we ever be in haste. May we ever be looking forward and aspiring towards the highest service and joy of thy children. May men take knowledge of our impatience. May men wonder concerning our hurry in the world, and be led to know that our citizenship is in heaven, that here we have no continuing city, and that, by our impatient haste, we are declaring plainly that we seek a country. Oh that we may so live as to think of death only as a step over a shadow into the infinite brightness and the unending peace! We bless thee, that we have known distaste for the things of the world. We have seen their vanity, we have sounded their hollowness. We have left the altar of the world with a sickened heart, and thou hast drawn us into the sanctuary, and thrown before our wondering vision the things that are not seen and eternal, and filled us with a holy desire to go and be for ever with thee. And yet thou hast enabled us to do what we have had to do upon the earth with fidelity and earnestness and success. Such is the mystery of thy government; for when we are most heavenly, then do we triumph most entirely over the trifles of time; when we are most in the sanctuary of the skies, we are most masters of the things that lie round about us in this poor, gloomy, dying scene. Hence have we known that "godliness is profitable unto all things"; and when we have been seeking first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, thou hast added unto us all other things. We have sinned before the Lord. God be merciful unto us sinners. If we have escaped public accusation, yet do our own hearts convict us of a thousand transgressions. If our hand cannot be impeached by the social justice of the world, yet in our spirit have we hidden sin. We have gone astray from God in our hearts; our motives have often been mixed, and often impure. And if thou wert strict to mark it, if thou didst take hold of thy sword when we gave the occasion for judgment, behold we had not lived in thy sight today. But thou art merciful; thou hast sent thy Son Jesus Christ, equal with thyself in Godhead, to be our Saviour, to offer a sacrifice for sins, and because of his work we have hope in God that our sins shall be remembered no more. Lord, help us, in the delight of pardon, to triumph over the tormenting memory of our conscience, and to have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Mary: Needless Trouble
This weeping woman, standing beside the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, is a typical rather than a unique character in human history. Specially is she typical of those people who are always missing the point in Christian narrative and Christian doctrine. They are faithful, kind, intelligent, deeply and richly sympathetic, but the miss they point. They go long journeys in order to get wisdom, but they always leave the principal thing behind them; they put away the key so carefully that they never know where to find it again, and their minds, though filled with conflicting thoughts, have lost all power of grouping events and shaping them into order and meaning. Mary rushed into the details of a controversy instead of standing a little way from it and catching its outlines and its general bearings. There is very much practical atheism in this devoted woman's talk. Though she is speaking to angels, she has left God out of her sobbing and tearful speech, and consequently the words which ought to have glowed with a sublime faith are only feverish with personal disappointment, and more or less of peevish complaint. She speaks as if the whole question lay between certain other people and herself; thus, "They have taken" and "I know not." She is lost where millions of other people have been lost; that is to say, in the murky and noisy region of second causes. She was calculating time by her own ill-going clock, and not taking the hour from the unchanging and truth-telling sun; just what we are all doing and in the doing of which we bring ourselves to disappointment and tears.
Many of us ought to take our stand beside Mary. Those, for example, who are unable to see the divine hand far above all human meddling and strife. To many of us human history is but a disorderly and haphazard movement, an undisciplined and scrambling race, a neck-or-nothing race, enlivened with rude wit or degraded by ruder pleasures. Where is the religious eye that sees God above it all, and that can trace his hand in all the grotesque and riotous features of the course? Mary said that somebody had done mischief had taken away her Lord; the idea never occurring to her that her Lord might have taken himself away; and thus she missed the point. She saw the Jews, the Romans, the mad rabble, the cruel and hilarious executors, clearly enough; but the divine hand was hidden from her eyes. And what is human history without that hand? A piece of mischief, truly a gambling speculation or a murderous fight; but when that hand is seen the whole spectacle is changed it is a chaos out of which order will come, and music and peace that will last for ever. In the meantime we are victimised by our own senses; our eyes deceive us, and our ears and our hearts have lost the power of completely trusting God; and so life has become an enigma without an answer, and a fight in which the strong man wins all, and that all is less than nothing and vanity. That heart-broken, crying woman is this day the centre of a vast multitude of people, all of whom are equally blind to the supreme Presence, though but few of them express their deprivation in tears of helplessness and sorrow.
The great company thus gathered around Mary may be increased by the addition of the innumerable host who in all ages have given themselves up to unnecessary grief. Truly there was no occasion for Mary's tears. The angels said unto her, "Woman, why weepest thou?" Mary had her answer ready, but it was an answer founded upon a mistake. So we, too, have doubtless some explanation of our grief, but our explanation may be but a fool's answer, or a blind man's guess as to the things that are round about him. Are not God's angels often asking why men weep and mourn and pine in heaviness of heart? The angels see the things that are hidden from us. In the dead seed they see the coming harvest. Behind the bleak east wind they see the fair spring ready to spread her flowers at our feet when the unbidden and unwelcome visitor is gone. We see the underside of the pattern which God is weaving; they see the upper side in all the charm of its celestial colour and all the beauty of its infinite perfection. Over sin we may weep night and day, hut over God's providence no tear of grief is either pious or reasonable. No doubt it is a providence full of mystery, a road of deep declivities and sharp curves, with many a jungle and many a den where beasts may lurk in cruel patience for their prey; yet there is a foot-track through it all onward to the summer landscape aid the harvest plain. Why weepest thou? Surely not over the child who has gone to the care of the angels and the sweet rest of the pure skies? Surely not over the disappointment whose sharpness has taught thee thy best prayers and mellowed thy voice to the tenderest music? Why weepest thou? If for sin, weep on; if for God, your tears are not vain only, but unnatural and impious. When Mary knew but part of the case, she wept over it; when she knew it all, her joy became almost a pain by its very keenness. So shall it be with ourselves in the revelations which are to come. We cannot stop the tears now they will come they must come; but out of every tear shed over the unknown or misknown way of God there will come a new and surprising joy.
The company round about Mary may be increased by another large accession; those, namely, who can only recognise Christ under certain forms and in certain places. If Mary had seen the dead Christ in the grave, probably she would have felt a sad satisfaction; to look at the face cold and pain-stricken, but still sweet with ineffable tenderness, would have brought a comfort welcome to the bereaved heart. But the idea of death having been turned to life never occurred to her. She little thought that this water could be turned into wine, and that all the signs and wonders of Christ's ministry could culminate and be repeated in the magnificent miracle of his resurrection. Christ was infinitely larger in spiritual influence than Mary had imagined, and he is infinitely larger and grander than any Church has conceived him to be. I would to God I could adequately rebuke all theological and ecclesiastical narrowness. There are people who would rather have a dead Christ in their own sect and ritual than a living Saviour outside of their own approved boundaries. There are others who care more for their own idealised pictures of Christ than they would for the living man himself, were he to look upon them face to face. Now, upon this matter we may all have much to learn. For my own part, I find Christ in all Churches where the Christly spirit is. Christ is not a theory; he is a divine and infinite life, infusing himself into our spirit and history in innumerable and unnamable ways, covering and absorbing all theories, and honouring all honest thought, and reverent doubt, and pure aspiration. The people who mistake a crucifix for a cross are not unlikely to mistake a dead dogma for a living faith. Christ lives in Unitarianism and in Trinitarianism, in the expiatory atonement and in the sympathetic reconciliation, in the resonant Christian anthem and in the sweet children's song; and until this fact is recognised, and not merely recognised but illuminated and glorified, Christendom will be rather a congeries of squabbling sects than a living and indissoluble Church. But the devil of sectarianism can only be expelled by prayer and fasting. As a Protestant, I wish I loved Christ as some Papists have loved him. As a deeply convinced believer in the Godhead of Jesus Christ, I wish I could know him, and preach him as some believers in his simple humanity have done; and as one who subscribes with his whole heart the evangelical creed, I wish I could get views of truth which have opened upon men who have stood on the bare rocks and slippery places of speculative doubt, or even of intellectual antagonism. What man has seen all the truth of God? In what single pulse throbs the solemn eternity? Into what sectarian hut has God crowded all the riches of heaven? You may find Christ everywhere if you seek him with a true heart; not, perhaps, just in the way you expected, not nominally, not formally, but in all the subtlety of his spiritual power, and all the tenderness of his recovering and comforting grace. You will not suppose that we are to be blind to each other's errors, real or fancied; on the contrary, we are bound to detect and expose those errors, but we are to look for them with the eye of love, and to refute them with the tongue of charity. Controversy may be elevated into an instrument of high spiritual education, or it may be degraded into a weapon for fighting rude and godless battles.
Another addition may be made to the great crowd already gathered around Mary; those, namely, who are always talking about Christ as if he were absent: it is a historical Christ they refer to a Christ that once was, but no longer is a Christ taken away, hidden, or otherwise lost. Now, at the very moment of Mary's complaint, the Lord was looking at her and listening to her! She thought he was the gardener! How clearly this shows that though we may think we know Christ, yet we know him only in one aspect, and if we happen to see him in any other we actually know nothing about him. This selfsame thing is occurring every day, infinitely to the disadvantage of cur Christian education and to the sad disproof of our supposed growth in spiritual perception and sympathy. We only know Christ in one place, in one ritual, in one theology, in one Church. Take him out of these, and he becomes a common man, unknown, and suspected of stealing Christ, stealing himself! Lord, pity our ignorance, and save it from becoming sin, and save thy preachers from the infinite disgrace of speaking to their Lord as a suspected stranger! Probably there is not in all history so striking an illustration of not knowing Christ except in one particular form and guise. Some persons do not know Christ except from the lips of their favourite preachers. Others do not think they have kept Sunday properly unless they have attended a particular place of worship. Some people can only see Christ in church. I would see him and hear him everywhere: in all history, in all communions, in commerce, in art, in all the endeavours and enterprises of civilisation. Ye fools and blind, ye can read the face of the sky can you not discern the signs of the times?
The Confession and Remission of Sins
The time at which these words were spoken should be considered in attempting to estimate their meaning and their value. Jesus Christ had risen from the dead, and was rapidly drawing to a close his personal ministry upon earth. It was consequently time to disclose the very highest phases of the great work which he came to accomplish. The relations subsisting between the Father and himself, and between himself and the disciples, were now formally specified; the method by which the Christian economy was to be extended was particularly declared; and the divine Agent under whose direction that method was to be carried out was directly given by Jesus Christ himself. Now that their Lord was about to ascend to the Father, it was natural that the disciples should wish to be instructed and empowered as to the future. Jesus Christ's personal ministry had been brief; viewed within a limited range, it had been marked by much failure; his miracles had been traced to the devil; his doctrines had been pronounced heretical and blasphemous; his Cross had been the laughing-stock of a ribald mob. What, then, was the future to be? Was the future to be a repetition of the past, or by a transition from the bodily to the spiritual was truth to find its way to the innermost heart of man, until that derided Cross should be everywhere confessed as the only way to heaven? On the termination of his personal ministry Jesus Christ had to provide for the future. He had cast the grain of corn into the ground: how was it to germinate and fructify until the whole world should be covered with the fruitfulness of harvest? The answer to all such inquiries will be found in the last addresses which Jesus Christ delivered to his disciples. One of those addresses is before us, and we can reach its deep meaning only by the aid of that spirit which it bestows. Holy Spirit, commune with us and teach us all we ought to know!
This address, it must be borne in mind, was delivered to the disciples in their corporate capacity. The disciples, with the exception of Thomas, were assembled on the first day of the week, with closed doors for fear of the Jews, when Jesus presented himself amongst them, and spake the words which are before us. They were not spoken to one disciple, but to all; we have no reason to infer that any one of the disciples received a larger measure of the Holy Spirit than his brethren. It may be assumed, then, that the Holy Ghost was given to the disciples as a body, and to each of them according to his capacity. They were sent forth by Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ had been sent by the Father. Here is the divine commission of the Church. The Church is of God, not remotely or collaterally, but immediately and positively. The terms of the commission are most precise and emphatic "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you." The question then arises, How did the Father send Jesus Christ? He himself says, "I came down from heaven not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me." This answer comprehends all details; the Church is sent to do God's will, not its own; the Church is not upon its own errand, it is upon God's; it is God's servant, God's representative, God's light in a dark world. If it has proceeded upon the divine law, it is all this today; for it will be observed that Jesus Christ lays down the principle of transmission of authority the Father hath sent me, I send you, and you must send others. If we have any doubt as to the propriety of this enlargement of Jesus Christ's commission, it will be removed by Paul's words to Timothy "The things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also." It will be seen that the transmission is not one of doctrine, but that it proceeds upon personal qualification; the men to whom the doctrine is committed are to be "faithful" and "able," and their faithfulness and ability can be known truly only by the spirit which God has committed to his people. Keeping, however, on the main line laid down by Jesus Christ himself, it appears perfectly plain that the disciples were divinely commissioned; that they were something more than zealous propagandists; that, in short, they held their authority from God. This would be evident even if the commission ended with the words "As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you." To these words, however, is added a special gift "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." The possession of the Holy Ghost separated and contra-distinguished the disciples from all other men. It was distinctively a Christian gift; it was given to all who received the faith of Jesus Christ, not confined to an official body, out conferred upon all believers. Events recorded in the Acts of the Apostles leave no doubt upon this point. For example, on the day of Pentecost "the disciples were all with one accord in one place, and were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance." While Peter addresses Cornelius and his household, "The Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word," and Peter asked, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" No words can more clearly show that the gift of the Holy Ghost was not confined to the apostles. Afterwards, when "the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea" contended with Peter about his going to the Gentiles, he answered, "Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?" And on the same subject he afterwards said, "God which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us, and put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith." These passages are enough to show that the Holy Ghost was not confined to the apostles, nor do we anywhere find a hint that the apostles claim to have the Holy Spirit in any degree superior to all believers in Jesus Christ.
So far, there can be no doubt of two things: first, that the Church is divinely commissioned, and second, that its divine commission is attested by the personal presence and power of the Holy Ghost. We now come to a third point, "Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." This power, it would appear, is not separate from the Holy Ghost, but identical with it; apart from the Holy Ghost, it could not have any existence. It was given to the disciples as a body; and though the disciples of course received it as individuals, yet there is no hint that it was to be exercised by particular individuals in any secret or confidential manner; on the other hand, the terms are open, general, ecclesiastical, addressed to the disciples in their plurality. So far as the practice of confession of sin can be ascertained from the inspired writings, it was public, never confidential, except where the sin lay strictly between two individuals. In ancient Israel, for example, confession was made publicly. In the fourth chapter of Leviticus we find the elaborate law respecting sins of ignorance; and all that was to be done by the priest, the congregation, the ruler, or the common people, was to be done openly. In subsequent chapters we find confession and restitution referred to, but not in a single instance is there any trace of secret confidential confession. Even where special cases arose, as between a man and his wife, the priest was referred to by the party who had been aggrieved, not by the party who had done the wrong, and then not for confession, but for the administration of such tests as God himself had provided. Leaving the Old Testament and coming to the baptism of John, we find this statement "Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, confessing their sins," the baptism and the confession being spoken of as equally public. It is not necessary to the elucidation of the text to enter upon a minute discussion of the particular manner of the confession made by the Jews; the point to be noted is that nowhere is secret or confidential confession referred to, or secret absolution permitted. We do find open confession, open penitence, open sacrifice, together with a continual illustration of the principle laid down in the Book of Proverbs "He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy."
The principle of confession is implied in the very terms of the commission. Sins cannot be remitted unless they are known, and they cannot be known except they are confessed. It will be found, too, in the teaching of Christ and the apostles that confession is always made an indispensable condition of forgiveness. It is so spiritually, it is so individually, it is so ecclesiastically. One passage will show that it is so spiritually: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Observe that the forgiveness depends upon the confession, for "if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." Jesus Christ lays down the law of confession between individual and individual most explicitly. He says, "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him." There can be no forgiveness where there is no repentance; and where repentance is expressed, confession is made. Jesus Christ adds, "And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him." Still, repentance, or confession, precedes forgiveness. On another occasion, also, Jesus Christ provided for the treatment of individual offences. He said, "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." Here the offended party is to give an opportunity of confession, if he shall hear thee, shall accept thy arguments, respond to thy entreaties, confess his offence, thou hast gained him. These instances elucidate the law which is to govern individual confession and forgiveness. The text now before us relates to a case not provided for in the law relating to spiritual offences or individual trespasses. The disciples were addressed as a body. Jesus Christ distinctly recognised the power of the Church when he made it the ultimate appeal in individual cases: "Tell it unto the Church, but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican." Paul recognised the same authority; for when a case of discipline arose in the Church at Corinth, he wrote, "For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus." The Church in its corporate capacity ("when ye are gathered together") is here called to the exercise of extreme discipline. Addressing the same Church, the apostle gives, in a subsequent portion of the epistle, another view of Church discipline. "Sufficient to such a man is this punishment which was inflicted of many; so that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him and comfort him, lest perhaps such an one should be swallowed up with over much sorrow," the "sorrow" showing that the man was in a fit spiritual state (amounting to confession) to receive the forgiveness and comfort of the Church.
From the structure of the passage more immediately under consideration, it is inferred that as the commission respecting the remission and retaining of sin was given to the disciples in their public and corporate capacity, so it refers only to sins which relate to the corporate and public aspect and jurisdiction of the Church. This inference is confirmed by passages already cited which provide for individual trespasses, and purely spiritual offences against God.
This construction of the passage illustrates the deeply spiritual nature of the Christian Church. That Church is not a miscellaneous gathering of people; it is a confraternity of souls under the dominion of him who bought them with his blood, and under the personal guidance of the Holy Ghost. No man is truly identified with the Church who is not first identified in all his deepest affections and sympathies with Jesus Christ. He who is so identified with Jesus Christ has received the Holy Ghost; "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" "Ye are the temple of the living God, as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them." He is no longer a common man; he is a new creature; the spirit of wisdom and of a sound mind is put within him. It is true, indeed, that he may grieve or even quench the Holy Spirit, but "if any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy."
Not only does the passage illustrate the deeply spiritual character of the Christian Church, it invests the Church with high spiritual authority. Members of the Church are keepers of one another; they are called to a common sympathy alike in sorrow and in joy; they are bound to deliver some men to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme; they are called upon to note others and to have no company with them, that offenders may be ashamed; and they are authorised to reject the man who is "an heretic after the first and second admonition." And Jesus Christ, who in the gift of the Holy Ghost gave them this authority, says that he will ratify their decisions. The Apostle Paul claimed that cases of dispute should be settled "before the saints," and asks, "Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?" Let the Church take heed lest its heavenly vocation be exchanged for a technical and worthless formalism. If it is to realise Jesus Christ's idea of being the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and the city on a hill, it must claim all the powers and privileges which its Founder put within its reach.
Let us now look at a few inquiries and objections.
First of all, it may be asked, Where is the Church? The Church is where two or three are gathered together in Christ's name. They indeed are not the whole Church; but in a mystical sense, which unregenerated men cannot appreciate, they are the Church. Where is the sunlight? Is any man at liberty to confine himself in darkness because he cannot admit all the sunlight? The whole earth itself on the longest summer day receives but a small portion of that light; rays of the great glory strike other worlds, and carry morning and noon and summer to distant spheres; what then? The child can still play in the sunshine, and the weakest floweret claim to have been painted by the sun. So the Church is not wholly to be found in this place or in that; there may be a Church at Philadelphia, a Church at Smyrna, a Church at Thyatira, and at Jerusalem, at Antioch, at Laodicea, at Pergamos, at Rome: where two or three are gathered together in Christ's name, Christ himself is, and that union makes the Church.
It may be objected that the Church is fallible, and consequently its remissions and retentions of sin may be mistaken. True, the Church is fallible; but the Holy Ghost is infallible, and it is the Holy Ghost who directs the Church to remit or retain sins. It is impossible for a man to sin against his neighbour or against the Church without at the same time sinning against God. The true confession, either to the individual or to the Church, is that which comes after confession to God; the truly penitent offender does not come first to the human side of his offence but to the divine side, and having poured out his contrition before God he is impelled to abase himself before the offended individual or the dishonoured Church. But may not an offender make an insincere confession of sin? True; but rules cannot be made for hypocrites, the gracious provision can be made only for sincere men. The Church is bound to deal with each case upon its merits; to make the most searching inquiry; to put all doubtful men to the most exacting tests; and, having satisfied the spirit of wisdom, it must exercise the spirit of righteousness and charity. Jesus Christ says, "Whosoever believeth shall be saved." An insincere man may profess belief, will he therefore be saved? In all such cases (and they are many in spiritual life) there is necessarily an assumption of conditions. When Jesus Christ says, "Ask and ye shall receive," the implied condition is that he who asks is sincere, and that his petitions are confined within a legitimate bound; when he says, "He that believeth shall be saved," the implied condition is that the man believes with his heart; so when he says, "Whose soever sins ye remit they are remitted," the implied condition is that the offending man has made a candid and contrite confession of his guilt.
"But," it may be urged, "the apostles had the power of discerning spirits; we have not this power." We may exaggerate the gift of discerning spirits as possessed by the apostles. For example, when they wished to ordain one to be a witness with them of the resurrection, they did not discern between Joseph and Matthias; on the contrary, "They prayed and said, Thou Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen." Will the Church proceed either to remission or retention of sins without prayer? Will it be an off-handed exercise, making no demand upon the highest sensibilities, no strain upon the very heart of hearts? Will it not, on the contrary, lead the Church to a deeper spiritual abasement, bring it into the most entire sympathy with the pure and merciful spirit of Jesus Christ? and if it must needs fast and pray, even through many days, who dare say that God will not openly smite the liar with vengeance, and give the true penitent a new hope in life?
And even with regard to discerning spirits, dare we say that we have exhausted the measure of the Holy Ghost which Jesus Christ intended his Church to receive? If we surrendered ourselves entirely to God's will; it we knew nothing among men but Jesus Christ and him crucified; if by giving our days to study and our nights to prayer we did really and truly "prove" the God of heaven, who dare say that he would not open the windows of heaven and pour out his Spirit upon all flesh, that their sons and their daughters should prophesy, their old men dream dreams, and their young men see visions? If we were charged with presumption or blasphemy we could answer with Jesus Christ who sent us as he himself was sent of the Father, "The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works."
No doubt that in the application of these principles some practical difficulties will arise, but not one that cannot be overcome by ordinary sagacity and care. When is it that we pronounce the application of such principles impracticable? Is it when we have been living a most worldly life, or when we have spent much time in fellowship with God? Everything, so far as difficulty is concerned, depends upon the spiritual mood in which we consider the question. When the heart is most deeply conscious of Jesus Christ's excellence; when it gets farthest away from the debasing influences of its worldly associations, and by so much nearer to the great light which spreads eternal morning upon the sphere into which Jesus Christ has entered, then all difficulty is scattered, all doubt is cleared off. This, I am persuaded, is one of the truths which can be apprehended only when the soul is in its very highest moods. It belongs emphatically to the sphere of inspiration. Jesus Christ placed it there; he breathed, or, as Tyndale translates it, he blew, upon the disciples, he inspired them, that they might accept and adopt an inspired truth.
There is a touching incident in ancient history which throws light upon several points of this argument. The incident will be found in the first book of the Anabasis of Xenophon. Cyrus summoned a council of his fellow-soldiers and friends to confer with them as to a just sentence to be pronounced upon the arch-traitor Orontas. Cyrus told the court-martial that his father had placed Orontas under his command, yet that the traitor had made war upon him but was compelled to succumb, and then he took the hand which Cyrus generously offered him. In the presence of the court-martial, under the cross-examination of Cyrus, Orontas confessed that Cyrus had done him no injury; he further confessed that after this he went over, without any provocation, to the Mysians and depopulated the lands of Cyrus. Orontas further confessed that as soon as he found his own weakness he fled to the altar of Diana, professed repentance, induced Cyrus to think him sincere, and once more succeeded in receiving the confidence of the magnanimous soldier. "What injury, then," said Cyrus, "have I done you, that you should have been induced the third time to betray my confidence?" Orontas denied that Cyrus had done him any injury. "Then," said Cyrus, "you admit that you have done me an unprovoked injury?" "That," said Orontas, "I am under the necessity of confessing." Then the noble Cyrus, with more than soldierly grace, with a dignity indeed that would adorn a Christian, asked him, "Can you, O Orontas, on my forgiving you, be an enemy to my brother and a friend to me?" To which the wretched man, stung by the recollections of his repeated treachery, answered, "Were I to say so, O Cyrus, neither you nor any other person would believe me." Cyrus then put the case to Clearchus, his first general, who gave a verdict of condemnation; the whole camp coincided, even the traitor's relations united in the opinion, and the oft-forgiven but incurable traitor was led forth to death. Truly there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth him understanding. In this narrative we have a sin committed against the individual, and condoned, upon confession, by the individual; we have also a sin against the army, tried and condemned by the army; and we have an appeal to the deep moral sense that is in all human hearts; and we have that outraged moral sense justly demanding the life of a man who employed repentance as an ally of villainy, and made confession the password to a confidence which he plotted to betray.
It is upon this moral sense that the Holy Ghost descends in all-quickening, enlightening, and sanctifying power. The Church should present the only true example of a refined and thoroughly educated moral sense. Its spirit should be quick in judgment. By profound study of Jesus Christ it should come to hate sin, to know it afar off, yet to have all the pity of the heart turned upon the repentant sinner. It may be, and do, all this! Why does it tarry behind, when it might be the terror of all evil, and the refuge and joy of everything that is good in heaven and on earth?
The result of a careful examination into biblical teaching upon this subject is the acceptance of the following propositions:
(1) That the power of forgiving sins is divinely bestowed upon the disciples of Jesus Christ in their corporate capacity, and that such power is in harmony with the purpose of Jesus Christ's mediation and the genius of the religious epoch in which we live.
(2) That Jesus Christ taught the doctrine of individual confession to the offended individual, and called upon the offended individual to forgive the offender upon receiving such confession.
(3) That nowhere in the sacred Scriptures is forgiveness promised apart from confession and restitution, whether the sin lie between man and man, or between man and God.
(4) That nowhere in the sacred Scriptures is there any authority given to any official person, bishop, priest, minister, or deacon, to receive secretly and confidentially a confession of sins.
(5) That the confession of sins is too sacred a duty, involving consequences too many and important, to be reduced to a system and presided over by any single human being.
(6) That all overt sin has a human as well as a divine aspect, and that the Church, inspired and sanctified by the Holy Ghost, has power to deal with the human aspect, according to the nature of the confession which the sinner may make.
(7) That to shrink from receiving confession of sin, and dealing with it according to its merits, may have the appearance of great reverence and humility, without the reality, may show that the Church has part in the first baptism only, and not in the baptism of fire.
(8) That to avoid all priestly pretension and destroy the confessional, that infinitely hateful institution which has degraded and oppressed every nation in which it has found an existence, and further to show that all who have the Holy Ghost are kings and priests unto God, the sinner should openly confess his overt sins in the presence of the Church (which could be done by writing, or before such a number of witnesses as the Church itself might appoint), and receive from the Church such comfort as can never be refused to those who truly confess and heartily repent their sins.
We cannot be unaware that other interpretations than that which is now before us have been given, nor should we deny that much deference is due to those who with patient devotion have endeavoured to discover the mind of the Spirit The most generally received interpretation is, that in preaching the gospel the disciples declared the principles upon which sins were either remitted or retained, he that believeth shall be saved, he that believeth not shall be damned. This interpretation appears to me to be utterly inadequate; entirely opposed to the grammatical construction of the text; and a weak dilution of the wholesome spirit of its doctrine. Such an interpretation limits the function of the Church to a mere preaching ministry. One of the principal objections urged against the view presented in this discourse may be urged against this interpretation. There may be insincere believers as well as insincere confessors; if you tell a man who insincerely believes the gospel that his sins are remitted, are they therefore remitted? The commission merely says, "he that believeth," not he that truly believeth; yet who would found any argument upon that? It is enough to repeat that terms can be offered only to sincere men; hypocrites can evade or resist anything. The view suggested in this discourse honours the Church by honouring the Holy Ghost, and gives the sinner to feel the moral influence of men who live constantly in the fellowship of Christ. Of course the Church upon earth has its imperfections; but the imperfections are felt in the preaching of the gospel as much as in any other department of Christian service, so that if they invalidate confession they invalidate the whole ministry. Bad men preach the gospel; is the preaching of the gospel therefore opposed to the will of God? Imperfect men preach the gospel; is there therefore no Christian truth?
Believing that God's gifts increase rather than decrease, that his plan is progressive not retrogressive, I see no reason why the first disciples of the Lord should have greater spiritual privileges than those of the present age; but I do see that if the Church will magnify its office, and show a disposition to possess the best gifts, if it will seek to know more thoroughly the will of Jesus Christ, it will attain an exaltation compared with which all its former eminence shall be unworthy of remembrance.
Almighty God, thou hast surrounded us with mercy upon mercy, countless and precious. What shall we render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards us? Receive our thanksgiving, so far as words can express our gratitude, and cause us to feel the inexpressible thankfulness which never can be uttered in mortal speech, the thankfulness of our whole heart, expressed in the consecration of our whole life. We are sinners. God be merciful unto us! We come to the Saviour's Cross; we look unto the Lamb of God; we lay our hand upon the one Sacrifice. God be merciful unto us! We cannot justify our ways before God. We have no reasons to set in order before thee to vindicate our conduct wherein it has been contrary to thy most holy Word. We shut our mouth, we lay our hand upon it, we bow ourselves down into the dust. If we might say ought before thee, we would say, Unclean, unclean! But if we confess our sins, thou art faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Undertake that work. Sanctify us, body, soul, and spirit. May our whole nature be pure. May every aspiration, affection, desire, be sanctified by the Holy Ghost. May our whole strength be an offering unto the Lord's service, accepted because offered on the Cross of the Lord Jesus. Thou hast added another week unto our years; thou hast taken another week from our life upon the earth. Help us to live in Christ, then our life cannot be measured by time. May our heart be in Christ's keeping. May our whole life be hidden with Christ in God, then eternity itself can never waste our energy or impair our perfect beauty. Come to us now according to our want. To the hunger of our soul do thou apply the bread of heaven. To the burning, consuming thirst of our love and highest nature do thou apply the water of the river of life. Revive the drooping. May they look up where they cannot stand up. May they feel thy presence and submit to thy rule. Dry the tears of our sorrow. Explain thou to us, if so be we may thereby be stronger in the Lord and in the power of his might; if not, help us to believe in the future, where there is no sorrow because no sin, where there is complete ever-enduring rest. Look upon thy servants who have to face the world day by day, whose life is often a battle; whose battle is often a failing strife; whose hearts are discouraged, and whose strength is wasted. Give them thy grace, work in them thy peace, and give them hope. Look upon thy servants who seem to carry everything before them; who speak, and it is done; who command, and it stands fast; who dream themselves into success; who put forth the finger, and carry all things as they will. This is a great temptation: who can bear it? Our success endangers us, if our roots be not fixed in God, if our love and our faith be not established in Jesus Christ. Teach thy servants that all this world can give is but a splendid nothing. Show them that if the whole world were at their feet it would ultimately fall away and leave them without possession and without rest. May we set out affections on things above. May we look at things not seen. May we dominate over time and sense, and even now sit down in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Amen.
We call this man "Doubting Thomas" as if there were only one man who had ever doubted. He does not deserve this speciality of distinction. It is possible that there may be some Christians who think they advance themselves a step in their reputation with God in talking about an old disciple as "Doubting Thomas." The actual Thomas has become a kind of proverb in the English tongue. There is nothing so remarkable or special about Thomas's doubt. What did Thomas want? He wanted simply to be put upon a level with the other disciples. And imagine the other disciples getting around this unhappy man and pointing him out as "Doubting Thomas." They had forgotten all the circumstances of their own experience. That is just what men always do: they forget their own spiritual history, and then they begin to wonder at the doubts and difficulties, the troubles and the conflicts, which gather themselves up in the experience of other men. Jesus came into the midst of the disciples, and "showed unto them his hands and his side." We do not know whether they made any demand in that direction; the gospel history is elliptical, and it is often wanting in those parentheses which would explain circumstances. Here may be an ellipsis which leaves us in ignorance whether the disciples said, "Show us thy hands and thy feet, and then we will believe." As a matter of fact, Jesus Christ did show them his hands and his feet; and how do we know but that they had told Thomas, and Thomas may have said, Very well; you say it is thus and so: now, except I do just what you have done, I will not believe. I must put my finger upon the print of the nails, and thrust my own hand into the side, then I will believe; if I cannot do that I will not believe. What right, then, had these disciples to gather around this one brother, and describe him as "Doubting Thomas"? They themselves had been satisfied by the very thing that he wanted done; they therefore had no right to look upon Thomas as if he were hardhearted or criminally obstinate.
Yet Thomas made a vital mistake. What was the mistake made by this man? It is the mistake of the world. Everybody is making it The mistake which Thomas made was to lay down the one and only way in which Christ should come to him: "Except... I will not believe." That is to say, I must have it my way, not God's way; I must appoint the gate through which the Lord must come into my life, and if he attempt to come by any other way, I will not receive him. If I may stand at that gate and watch it, and keep the key of it, and see the Lord when he comes, and open the gate for him, then I will believe. That is the mistake of the world. We do not allow room for God; we watch him as if he were an enemy; we never allow Providence scope enough. We might be saved in the wildest seas if we would let the ship alone, but we cannot keep our meddling fingers still. We must help; we must eke out Omnipotence. The sea would rock you and nurse you with musical undulation, only you will plunge, you will not lie still. We who were born yesterday, and know nothing, say that the Bible ought to consist of so many books, written at such and such times and by such and such men, and all the pieces should dovetail into one another in such and such a way, or we will not believe. And what does our not believing amount to? Is our infidelity a fist that can smite God's face? Is our infidelity a circumstance worth noting in the development of the universe? A man will say, Except every comma and semicolon written in the Bible be inspired, I will give up the whole thing. What will happen if he gives up the whole thing? Nothing. But thus we magnify ourselves, thus we make a great figure of "I will not believe": there shall be one infidel in the universe unless I can have my own way. This is what men are doing today, and are always doing, and this is how they shut out God from their lives; whereas we ought to say, Lord, come in any way thou wilt, all the ways are thine; come to us through sweet blossoming vernal nature, just opening its young heart to tell us secrets of beauty and secrets of growth and strength; come to us through what is called by man natural theology forgive the offensive term, for we map thee out into little sections; or come to us through whispered love, or deep conviction, or strange stirring of the soul, or weird figures at midnight, or through a mother's lullaby, or some great song of victory, or through conspicuous events in daily story: come in thine own way, and may we be found ready when thou dost stand at the door and knock. Men cannot grow up into this great all-conquering faith at once. Pity, therefore, rather than scorn, the men who want God to come along little private roads. It is natural. There is about it a selfishness that may be chastened and sanctified; it is not the worst kind of selfishness: yet there are souls that would like to entertain God with private hospitality, and would not allow others to come and join the banqueting-board but by special invitation or permission. There are those who would keep the Atlantic in their back-garden if they could, just that they might have a sea breeze all to themselves; but the Atlantic is a little too large for that species of accommodation. There are those who would like to lock up theology, keeping it as a private interpretation and a personal possession, and measuring all other people by standards which these private custodians have elected and pronounced authoritative; but theology cannot find room enough for itself in heaven, much less in our strong-boxes of which we keep the keys. Theology fills heaven and the heaven of heavens, and asks, Where is the trust deed that ye have written out at so many pence per folio? Theology is God struggling into words, and the struggle never comes to anything but a struggle.
This would be the one error, then, that Thomas fell into, namely, establishing a private road by which the Lord is to come, and an apparent determination not to see the Lord except he come along that private path. Take care that ye limit not the Holy One of Israel! There are men who come to pastors and say, We do not belong to the Church, we belong to Nature. Should the pastor stand up and rebuke such, as if they had no relation to the kingdom of God? Verily no: say, Who made Nature? whence did Nature come? what does Nature mean? what is the signification of all its parabolism, its wizardry of flower and bird and song and star and morning and summer? What is the meaning of this eternal procession that has about it the completeness of a circle, and the dignity and weirdness of an uncontrollable and inexplicable miracle? You cannot get out of your Father's grounds. What of the young man who lives always in the garden, and will never come in to the fireside? What of the youth who will always hold confidential intercourse with the gardener but never speak to his father? The fact that there is a house might suggest a tenant; the fact that there is such a house might suggest a God. There are persons who do not delight in our ordinances and institutions, in our rites and ceremonies, and therefore they think themselves exiled from God's great home. Nothing of the kind. Do you really and truly love music? You are not far from the kingdom of God. Would you stop to talk to a flower, to wonder about it, to pat it with the finger of love, to ask it questions addressed to its innermost heart? you are not an infidel. Wherever there is any longing for fuller light, more exquisite beauty, grandeur, pro-founder harmony amid all the relations of life and duty, there should be a consciousness on the part of others that they who so struggle and wonder, and almost pray, will one day find that the thing they have been really looking for but they did not know it was the Cross. Let us have no more excommunication than can possibly be helped; let the priest choke himself so that he cannot pronounce the words of excommunication; let him strain himself to find redeeming points, and not endeavour to show his priestly cleverness by finding out reasons why men should be exiled and damned.
There are points at which men may demand, legitimately, certain kinds of evidence. For example, it would be legitimate to say, Except I see that Christ can do more than any other man can do, I will not believe. There you assign breadth, you create an occasion worthy the event which you seek to establish. Can Christ do more for men than any other man ever did? If so, is not this man the Son of God? How long will he stay with a man? When does Jesus Christ turn round, saying, I cannot go any farther with you? When does Jesus Christ say, If you commit one more sin, I will leave you? When does Jesus Christ say, This soul-leprosy is too inveterate for my touch: I can cure very much leprosy, but not of this kind; this is a disease that goes through and through the soul, and I cannot do anything with it, I cannot relieve the sufferer? When? Never! I think men are entitled to say, Except I see that Christianity produces a higher quality of character than any other religion, I will not believe it. Men have a right to insist upon character being of the very highest quality. Here is the responsibility of Christians; here is the terrible impossible task of representing Christ to other people. Yet people have a right to expect that if Christ be in us there shall be about our character a bloom, a fine quality that cannot be found under any other circumstances. There we all fail, the preacher more than any. What should be the quality of that man who professes to be a temple of the Holy Ghost, and to have Christ dwelling in him? what his temper, his chivalry, his love, his self-sacrifice, his nobleness? There "I the chief of sinners am" each may say. Yet even along that line there is some encouragement, for Christ says if we want to love him; we do love him; if we want to be like him we are like him; if we are struggling we are succeeding; if we are fighting we are winning. It pleaseth the Lord thus by his redeeming love to multiply our little struggles and deeds and purposes into great realities, and to regard beginnings as consummations; such is his love. Were we to be judged by our own character there is no pit deep enough for the best of us, but if we are to be judged by what Christ sees in us, motive within motive, purpose higher than purpose expressed in words, who can tell what his eye sees in our poor souls? By what he sees he judges.
What did Thomas want really and truly? He wanted what everybody must have: Thomas wanted personal contact. Of course he happened to take the very lowest point; the contact which Thomas desired was physical or bodily. But personal contact is larger than can be defined by any one instance. Thomas wanted what we need, I repeat, namely, personal touch. The youngest must know what "contact" means con, together; tact, touching, together. A great grasp is contact; so is a gentle touch, as of the finger-tips, a touch that dare not attempt the larger contact of hug and grasp and assured possession. This we must have in some form. If any have this in a low form, so be it; that is all they can do at present; they may believe in the letter, especially in the letter when it is a capital letter, and almost forces itself upon the dull vision. Some people can believe in the nouns or substantives, and the more striking and aggressive verbs, who cannot read all the little words in between. Let them read what they can; you may be saved by a very few letters, if you get the right hold of them. There is, however, this larger truth that there may be contact of spirit with spirit, soul with soul. Speculation is worthless, historical certainty is worthless, negative opinion is worthless; the only thing that has any value in it is the consciousness of contact with God, with the spirit-world, with the ghostly awful realities of the universe. There be those who have no Bible except the Bible they can carry in their hands; that will do them no good. By-and-by they will want a Bible that their souls will be too small and too weak to carry; meanwhile do not rebuke them, they want the revelation in ink, in visible letter, and they must have it so because it is adapted to their age and to their capacity. By-and-by they will read without reading, they will have a revelation larger than any book can ever be, they will have a consciousness from which God can never be excluded, they will live and move and have their being in God; now they must pray morning, noon, and night; now they cannot pray except they be on their bended knees, and except they close their eyes and fold their hands, and fall into a child's attitude of prayer. So be it; the time will come when they will pray all the day. Have they therefore abandoned form, and scorned rite and ceremony, and poured contempt upon their weaker brethren? Nothing of the kind; they have grown into a larger manhood, they have by the spirit of the indwelling God developed a more sensitive and responsive consciousness.
Christ himself believed in touch. He touched the blind man's eyes. Oh, it was worth being blind to feel that touch! The blind man had the advantage over us in his very blindness, Nor can we tell whether all infirmity shall not prove to be an advantage by-and-by. We can never know health as the leper knew it; he was cleansed, and his flesh became as the flesh of a little child. We accept our health as a commonplace, but to be redeemed from the very grave and made to feel all nature in every pulse, who can describe the very passion of such health? And so the blind man has been going through the earth without ever seeing it, and the first object he beholds is God. What a contrast is that! What a vision of glory! In that revealed beauty the blankness of a lifetime is forgotten. We, too, believe in touch. The poor woman said and she spoke for us all "If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole."
Sometimes we have personal contact with God without that contact assuming what may be called a theological form. Sometimes it comes to us through great emotions, through new solicitudes, through pantings and yearnings we cannot express in words. Why this concern for others? why this pity for those who are in great sorrow? why this sense of victory, this mounting above death and the grave, this shouting of conscious triumph, this almost heaven? What is the meaning of it? It may be the action of God in the soul. Why this holy peace, this deep tranquillity, this profound calm that nothing can ruffle, and which when it speaks says, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea"? The swelling of the ocean shall not cause tumult in our soul, if we live and move and have our being in God.
We cannot have personal contact with Christ without other people knowing it. Once there were some very poor crude unlettered men men that might have been taken from the fishing boat or even from the plough or from some ordinary avocation of life, and they went before very great magistrates whose fingers were unsullied with labour, and these magistrates looked at them and said, How singular these men are! how rude in outline! what disadvantages they must have undergone! and yet what is that about them that makes them singular? There is a kind of radiance on all that roughness of exterior: what is it? "And they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus." To be with Jesus is an education; to be closeted with Christ is a refining process. When Moses came down from the mountain his face was like a sun; he had been with God: and the rude fishermen, with all their roughness, clumsiness, with all their want of pomp and form, had something about them that impressed the magistracy of the day, and the great priests took knowledge of them that there was a refinement not taught in the schools, a singular beauty, a fascination suggestive of the highest spiritual culture. We ask no other distinction, we pant for no greater fame than to be taken knowledge of that we have been with Jesus.
Oh, thou who art merciful and gracious, full of compassion and long-suffering and tenderness; thou art kind to the unthankful and to the evil! We hasten to thee with our offering of praise, inasmuch as thou hast crowned our life with lovingkindness and tender mercy, and made it beautiful with continual love. We praise thee; we magnify thee; we offer thee the whole strength of our heart. We hasten to thee as men who have been mocked by the promises of the world, and who long to find satisfaction in thine infinite and unspeakable peace. We have been disappointed. The staff has been broken in our hand and pierced us. We mistook the scorpion for an egg. We have hewn unto ourselves cisterns; they are broken cisterns, which can hold no water. Foiled, smitten, wounded, humiliated, and disgraced we come into thy presence, knowing that in God, as revealed in the person and doctrine of Jesus Christ, and made known unto us by the ministry of the Holy Ghost, we can find rest which our souls could not find elsewhere. All our springs are in thee. Thou givest us what we need. They who are in thy presence, who live in thy light and thy love, hunger no more, neither thirst any more, neither are subjected to weariness or decay. We would live in God. We would have our being in the Eternal. We would know nothing among men but Jesus, and him crucified; and by the mystery of pain and the mystery of love, symbolised by Christ's Cross, we would endure the trials of the world, and discharge the whole service of life. Meet us as sinners, and pardon us. The blood of Jesus Christ, thy Son, cleanseth from all sin. May we know its cleansing, healing power. We have done the things we ought not to have done; we have withheld the testimony which it became us to deliver; we have often been timid and unfaithful; we have hesitated when we ought to have gone forward; we have compromised where we ought to have died; we have become self-seekers where we ought to have sought the crown of martyrdom; we have kept an unjust balance and an untrue weight; our measure has been false; our word has been untrue; our spirit has been worldly; our very prayers have been selfish. All this we say when we truly know ourselves, as we are revealed to ourselves by the indwelling, all-disclosing Spirit. God be merciful unto us sinners, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness! Give us the hearing ear and the understanding heart, the obedient will, the ever-industrious hand in the service of Jesus Christ. When we have done our best to serve our day and generation, and the time of reckoning has come, may we find all our worth in the worthiness of the Lamb, and be accounted fit to sit with him on his throne, because in our degree we have shared the pain and shame of his crucifixion. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on John 20". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany