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THE LOVE OF THE DEPARTING CHRIST
The latter half of St. John’s Gospel, which begins with these words, is the Holy of Holies of the New Testament. Nowhere else do the blended lights of our Lord’s superhuman dignity and human tenderness shine with such lambent brightness. Nowhere else is His speech at once so simple and so deep. Nowhere else have we the heart of God so unveiled to us. On no other page, even of the Bible, have so many eyes, glistening with tears, looked and had the tears dried. The immortal words which Christ spoke in that upper chamber are His highest self-revelation in speech, even as the Cross to which they led up is His most perfect self-revelation in act.
To this most sacred part of the New Testament my text is the introduction. It unveils to us gleams of Christ’s heart, and does what the Evangelists very seldom venture to do, viz. gives us some sort of analysis of the influences which then determined the flow and the shape of our Lord’s love.
Many good commentators prefer to read the last words of my text, ‘He loved them unto the uttermost’ rather than ‘unto the end’-so taking them to express the depth and degree rather than the permanence and perpetuity of our Lord’s love. And that seems to me to be by far the worthier and the nobler meaning, as well as the one which is borne out by the usual signification of the expression in other Greek authors. It is much to know that the emotions of these last moments did not interrupt Christ’s love. It is even more to know that in some sense they perfected it, giving even a greater vitality to its tenderness, and a more precious sweetness to its manifestations. So understood, the words explain for us why it was that in the sanctity of the upper chamber there ensued the marvellous act of the foot-washing, the marvellous discourses which follow, and the climax of all, that High-priestly prayer. They give utterance to a love which Christ’s consciousness at that solemn hour tended to shapen and to deepen.
So, under the Evangelist’s guidance, we may venture to gaze at least a little way into these depths, and with all reverence to try and see something at all events of the fringe and surface of the love ‘which passeth knowledge.’ ‘Jesus, knowing that His hour was come, that He should depart out of the world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world, loved them then unto the uttermost.’
My object will be best accomplished by simply following the guidance of the words before us, and asking you to look first at that love as a love which was not interrupted, but perfected by the prospect of separation.
I. It would take us much too far away, however interesting the contemplation might be, to dwell with any particularity upon our Lord’s consciousness as it is here set forth in that ‘He knew that His hour was come, that He should depart out of the world unto the Father.’
But I can scarcely avoid noticing, though only in a few sentences, the salient points of that Christ-consciousness as it is set forth here.
‘He knew that His hour was come.’ All His life was passed under the consciousness of a divine necessity laid upon Him, to which He lovingly and cheerfully yielded Himself. On His lips there are no words more significant, and few more frequent, than that divine ‘I must!’ ‘It behoves the Son of Man’ to do this, that, and the other-yielding to the necessity imposed by the Father’s will, and sealed by His own loving resolve to be the Saviour of the world. And in like manner, all through His life He declares Himself conscious of the hours which mark the several crises and stages of His mission. They come to Him and He discerns them. No external power can coerce Him to any act till the hour come. No external power can hinder Him from the act when it comes. When the hour strikes He hears the phantom sound of the bell; and, hearing, He obeys. And thus, at the last and supreme moment, to Him it dawned unquestionable and irrevocable. How did He meet it? Whilst on the one hand there was the shrinking of which we have such pathetic testimony in the broken prayer that He Himself amended-’Father! save Me from this hour . . . . Yet for this cause came I unto this hour,’-there is a strange, triumphant joy, blending with the shrinking, that the decisive hour is at last come.
Mark, too, the form which the consciousness took-not that now the hour had come for suffering or death or bearing the sins of the world-all which aspects of it were nevertheless present to Him, as we know; but that now He was soon to leave all the world beneath Him and to return to the Father.
The terror, the agony, the shame, the mysterious burden of a world’s sins were now to be laid upon Him-all these elements are submerged, as it were, and become less conspicuous than the one thought of leaving behind all the limitations, and the humiliations, and the compelled association with evil which, like a burning brand laid upon a tender skin, was an hourly and momentary agony to Him, and soaring above them all, unto His own calm home, His habitation from eternity with the Father, as He had been before the world was. How strange this blending of shrinking and of eagerness, of sorrow and of joy, of human trembling consciousness of impending death, and of triumphant consciousness of the approach of the hour when the Son of Man, even in His bitterest agony and deepest humiliation, should, paradoxically, be glorified, and should ‘leave the world to go unto the Father’!
We cannot enter with any particularity or depth into this marvellous and unique consciousness, but it is set forth here-and that is the point to which especially I desire to turn your attention-as the basis and the reason for a special tenderness softening His voice, and taking possession of His heart, as He thought of the impending separation.
And is that not beautiful? And does it not help us to realise how truly ‘bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh,’ and bearing a heart thrilling with all innocent human emotions that divine Saviour was? We, too, have known what it is to feel, because of approaching separation from dear ones, the need for a tenderer tenderness. At such moments the masks of use and wont drop away, and we are eager to find some word, to put our whole souls into some look, our whole strength into one clinging embrace that may express all our love, and may be a joy to two hearts for ever after to remember. The Master knew that longing, and felt the pain of separation; and He, too, yielded to the human impulse which makes the thought of parting the key to unlock the hidden chambers of the most jealously guarded heart, and let the shyest of its emotions come out for once into the daylight. So, ‘knowing that His hour was come, He loved them unto the uttermost.’
But there is not only in this a wonderful expression of the true humanity of the Christ, but along with that a suggestion of something more sacred and deeper still. For surely amidst all the parting scenes that the world’s literature has enshrined, amidst all the examples of self-oblivion at the last moment, when a martyr has been the comforter of his weeping friends, there are none that without degradation to this can be set by the side of this supreme and unique instance of self-oblivion. Did not Christ, for the sake of that handful of poor people, first and directly, and for the rest of us afterwards, of course, secondarily and indirectly, so suppress all the natural emotions of these last moments as that their absolute absence is unique and singular, and points onwards to something more, viz. that this Man who was susceptible of all human affections, and loved us with a love which is not merely high above our grasp, absolute, perfect, changeless and divine, but with a love like our own human affection, had also more than a man’s heart to give us, and gave us more, when, that He might comfort and sustain, He crushed down Himself and went to the Cross with words of tenderness and consolation and encouragement for others upon His lips? Knowing all that was lying before Him, He was neither absorbed nor confounded, but carried a heart at leisure to love even then ‘unto the uttermost.’
And if the prospect only sharpened and perfected, nor interrupted for one instant the flow of His love, the reality has no power to do aught else. In the glory, when He reached it, He poured out the same loving heart; and to-day He looks down upon us with the same Face that bent over the table in the upper room, and the same tenderness flows to us. When John saw his Master next, after His Ascension, amidst the glories of the vision in his rocky Patmos, though His face was as the sun shineth in his strength, it was the old face. Though His hand bore the stars in a cluster, it was the hand that had been pierced with the nails. Though the breast was girded with the golden girdle of sovereignty and of priesthood, it was the breast on which John’s happy head had lain; and though the ‘Voice was as the sound of many waters,’ it soothed itself to a murmur, gentle as that with which the tideless sea about him rippled upon the silvery sand when He said, ‘Fear not . . . I am the First and the Last.’ Knowing that He goes to the Father, He loves to the uttermost, and being with the Father, He still so loves.
II. And now I must, with somewhat less of detail, dwell upon the other points which this text brings out for us. It suggests to us next that we have in the love of Jesus Christ a love which is faithful to the obligations of its own past.
Having loved, He loves. Because He had been a certain thing, therefore He is and He shall be that same. That is an argument that implies divinity. About nothing human can we say that because it has been therefore it shall be. Alas! about much that is human we have to say the converse, that because it has been, therefore it will cease to be. And though, blessed be God! they are few and they are poor who have had no experience in their lives of human hearts whose love in the past has been such that it manifestly is for ever, yet we cannot with the same absolute confidence say about one another, even about the dearest, ‘Having loved, he loves.’ But we can say so about Christ. There is no exhaustion in that great stream that pours out from His heart; no diminution in its flow.
They tell us that the central light of our system, that great sun itself, pouring out its rays exhausts its warmth, and were it not continually replenished, must gradually, and even though continually replenished, will ultimately cease to blaze, and be a dead, cold mass of ashes. But this central Light, this heart of Christ, which is the Sun of the World, will endure like the sun, and after the sun is cold, His love will last for ever. He pours it out and has none the less to give. There is no bankruptcy in His expenditure, no exhaustion in His effort, no diminution in His stores. ‘Thy mercy endureth for ever’; ‘Thou hast loved, therefore Thou wilt love’ is an inference for time and for eternity, on which we may build and rest secure.
III. Then, still further, we have here this love suggested as being a love which has special tenderness towards its own. ‘Having loved His own, He loved them to the uttermost.’
These poor men who, with all their errors, did cleave to Him; who, in some dim way, understood somewhat of His greatness and His sweetness-and do you and I do more?-who, with all their sins, yet were true to Him in the main; who had surrendered very much to follow Him, and had identified themselves with Him, were they to have no special place in His heart because in that heart the whole world lay? Is there any reason why we should be afraid of saying that the universal love of Jesus Christ, which gathers into His bosom all mankind, does fall with special tenderness and sweetness upon those who have made Him theirs and have surrendered themselves to be His? Surely it must be that He has special nearness to those who love Him; surely it is reasonable that He should have special delight in those who try to resemble Him; surely it is only what one might expect of Him that He should in a special manner honour the drafts, so to speak, of those who have confidence in Him, and are building their whole lives upon Him. Surely, because the sun shines down upon dunghills and all impurities, that is no reason why it should not lie with special brightness on the polished mirror that reflects its lustre. Surely, because Jesus Christ loves-Blessed be His name!-the publicans and the harlots and the outcasts and the sinners, that is no reason why He should not bend with special tenderness over those who, loving Him, try to serve Him, and have set their whole hopes upon Him. The rainbow strides across the sky, but there is a rainbow in every little dewdrop that hangs glistening on the blades of grass. There is nothing limited, nothing sectional, nothing narrow in the proclamation of a special tenderness of Christ towards His own, when you accompany with that truth this other, that all men are besought by Him to come into that circle of ‘His own,’ and that only they themselves shut any out therefrom. Blessed be His name! the whole world dwells in His love, but there is an inner chamber in which He discovers all His heart to those who find in that heart their Heaven and their all. ‘He came to His own,’ in the wider sense of the word, and ‘His own received Him not’; but also, ‘having loved His own He loved them unto the end.’ There are textures and lives which can only absorb some of the rays of light in the spectrum; some that are only capable of taking, so to speak, the violet rays of judgment and of wrath, and some who open their hearts for the ruddy brightness at the other end of the line. Do you see to it, brethren, that you are of that inner circle who receive the whole Christ into their hearts, and to whom He can unfold the fullness of His love.
IV. And, lastly, my text suggests that love of Christ as being made specially tender by the necessities and the dangers of His friends. ‘He loved His own which were in the world,’ and so loving them, ‘loved them to the uttermost.’
We have, running through these precious discourses which follow my text, many allusions to the separation which was to ensue, and to His leaving His followers in circumstances of peculiar peril, defenceless and solitary. ‘I come unto Thee, and am no more in the world,’ says He in the final High-priestly prayer, ‘but these are in the world. Holy Father, keep them through Thine own name.’ The same contrast between the certain security of the Shepherd and the troubled perils of the scattered flock seems to be in the words of my text, and suggests a sweet and blessed reason for the special tenderness with which He looked upon them. As a dying father on his deathbed may yearn over orphans that he is leaving defenceless, so Christ is here represented as conscious of an accession even to the tender longings of His heart, when He thought of the loneliness and the dangers to which His followers were to be exposed.
Ah! It seems a harsh contrast between the Emperor, sitting throned there between the purple curtains, and the poor athletes wrestling in the arena below. It seems strange to think that a loving Master has gone up into the mountain, and has left His disciples to toil in rowing on the stormy sea of life; but the contrast is only apparent. For you and I, if we love and trust Him, are with Him ‘in the heavenly places’ even whilst we toil here, and He is with us, working with us, even whilst He ‘sitteth at the right hand of God.’
We may be sure of this, brethren, that that love ever increases its manifestations according to our deepening necessities. The darker the night the more lustrous the stars. The deeper, the narrower, the savager, the Alpine gorge, usually the fuller and the swifter the stream that runs through it. And the more that enemies and fears gather round about us, the sweeter will be the accents of our Comforter’s voice, and the fuller will be the gifts of tenderness and grace with which He draws near to us. Our sorrows, dangers, necessities, are doors through which His love can come nigh.
So, dear friends, we have had experience of sweet and transient human love; we have had experience of changeful and ineffectual love; turn away from them all to this immortal, deep heart of Christ’s, welling over with a love which no change can affect, which no separation can diminish, which no sin can provoke, which becomes greater and tenderer as our necessities increase, and ask Him to fill your hearts with that, that you may ‘know the length and breadth and depth and height of that love which passeth knowledge,’ and so ‘be filled with all the fullness of God.’
Joh_13:3 - Joh_13:5 .
It has been suggested that the dispute as to ‘which was the greatest,’ which broke the sanctities of the upper chamber, was connected with the unwillingness of each of the Apostles to perform the menial office of washing the feet of his companions. They had come in from Bethany, and needed the service. But apparently it was omitted, and although we can scarcely suppose that the transcendent act which is recorded in my text was performed at the beginning of the meal, yet I think we shall not be wrong if we see in it a reference to the neglected service.
The Evangelist who tells us of the dispute, and does not tell us of the foot-washing, preserves a sentence which finds its true meaning only in this incident, ‘I am among you as He that serveth.’ And although John is the only recorder of this pathetic incident, there are allusions in other parts of Scripture which seem to hint at it. As, for instance, when Paul speaks of ‘taking upon Him the form of a servant’; and still more strikingly when Peter employs the remarkable word, which he does employ in his exhortation, ‘Be ye clothed with humility.’ For the word rendered there ‘clothed’ occurs only in that one place in Scripture, and means literally the putting on of a slave’s costume. One can scarcely help, then, seeing in these three passages to which I have referred echoes of this incident which John alone preserves to us. And so we get at once a hint of the harmony and of the incompleteness of the Gospel records.
I. Consider the motives of this act.
Now that is ground upon which the Evangelists very seldom enter. They tell us what Christ did, but very rarely do they give us any glimpses into why He did it. But this section of the Gospel is remarkable for its full and careful analysis of what Christ’s impelling motives were in the final acts of His life. How did John find out why Christ did this deed? Perhaps he who had ‘leaned upon His bosom at supper,’ and was evidently very closely associated with Him, may, in some unrecorded hour of intimate communion during the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, have heard from the Master the exposition of His motives. But more probably, I think, the long years of growing likeness to his Lord, and of meditation upon the depth of meaning in the smallest events that his faithful memory recalled, taught him to understand Christ’s purpose and motives. ‘The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him,’ and the liker we get to our Master and the more we are filled with His Spirit, the more easy will it be for us to divine the purpose and the motives of His actions, whether as they are recorded in the Scripture or as they come to us in the experience of daily life.
But, passing that point, I desire for a moment to fix your attention on the twofold key to our Lord’s action which is given in this context. There is, first of all, in the first verse of the chapter, a general exposition of what was uppermost in His mind and heart during the whole of the period in the upper room. The act in our text, and the wonderful words which follow in the subsequent chapters, crowned by that great intercessory prayer, seem to me to be all explained for us by this first unveiling of His motives. ‘When Jesus knew that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end.’
And then the words of my text, which apply more specifically to the single incident with which they are brought into connection, tell us in addition why this one manifestation of Christ’s love was given. ‘Knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He was come from God, and went to God.’ There, then, are two explanations of motive, the one covering a wider area than the other, but both converging on the incident before us.
The first of these is just this-the consciousness of impending separation moved Christ to a more than ordinarily tender manifestation of His love. For the rendering which you will find in the margin of the Revised Version, ‘He loved them to the uttermost,’ seems to me to be truer to the Evangelist’s meaning than the other, ‘He loved them unto the end.’ For it was more to John’s purpose to tell us that the shadow of the Cross only brought to the surface in more blessed and wonderful representation the deep love of His heart, than simply to tell us that that shadow did not stop its flow. It is much to know that all through His sorrow He continued to love; it is far more to know that the sorrow sharpened its poignancy, and deepened its depth, and made more tender its tenderness.
How near to the man Christ that thought brings us! Do we not all know the impulse to make parting moments tender moments? The masks of use and wont drop off; the reticence which we, perhaps wisely, ordinarily cultivate in regard to our deepest feelings melts away. We yearn to condense all our unspoken love into some one word, act, look, or embrace, which it may afterwards be life to two hearts to remember. And Jesus Christ felt this. Because He was going away He could not but pour out Himself yet more completely than in the ordinary tenor of His life. The earthquake lays bare hidden veins of gold, and the heart opens itself out when separation impends. We shall never understand the works of Jesus Christ if we do as we are all apt to do, think of them as having only a didactic and doctrinal purpose. We must remember that there is in Him the true play of a human heart, and that it was to relieve His own love, as well as to teach these men their duty, that he rose from the supper, and prepared Himself to wash the disciples’ feet.
Then, on the other hand, the other motive which is brought by the Evangelists more immediately into connection with this incident is, ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He was come from God, and went to God.’
The consciousness of the highest dignity impels to the lowliest submission. ‘All things given into His hands,’ means universal and absolute dominion. ‘That He was come from God,’ means pre-existence, voluntary incarnation, an eternal divine nature, and unbroken communion with the Father. ‘That He went to God,’ means a voluntary departure from this low world, and a return to ‘His own calm home, His habitation from eternity.’
And, gathered all together, the phrases imply His absolute consciousness of His divine nature. It was that that sent Him with the towel round His loins to wash the foul feet of the pedestrians who had come by the dusty and hot way from Bethany, and through all the abominations of an Eastern city, into the upper chamber.
This was He who from the beginning ‘was with God, and was God.’ This was He who was the Lord of Death, Victor over the grave. This was He who by His own power ascended up on high, and reigns on the throne of the universe to-day. This was He whose breast the same Evangelist had seen before he wrote his Gospel, ‘girded with the golden girdle’ of priesthood and of sovereignty; and holding, in the hands that had laid the towel on the disciples’ feet, the seven stars.
Oh, brethren! if we believed our creeds, how our hearts would melt with wonder and awe that He who was so high stooped so low! ‘Knowing that He came from God, and went to God,’ and that even when He was kneeling there before these men, ‘the Father had given all things into His hands,’ what did He do? Triumph? Show His majesty? Flash His power? Demand service? ‘Girded Himself with a towel and washed His disciples’ feet’!
The consciousness of loftiness does not alone avail to explain the transcendent lowliness. You need the former motive to be joined with it, because it is only love which bends loftiness to service, and turns the consciousness of superiority into yearning to divest oneself of the superiorities that separate, and to emphasise the emotions which unite.
II. The detailed completeness of the act.
The remarkable particularity of the account of the stages of the humiliation suggests the eye-witness. John carried them all in his mind ineffaceably, and long, long years after that memorable hour we hear him recalling each detail of the scene. We can see the little group startled by the disturbance of the order of the meal as He rose from the table, and the hushed wonder and the open-lipped expectation with which they watched to see what the next step would be. He rises from the table and divests Himself of the upper garments which impeded movement. ‘What will He do next?’ He takes the basin, standing there to be ready for washing the apostles’ feet, but unused, and not even filled with water. He fills it Himself, asking none to help Him. He girds the towel round Him; and then, perhaps, begins with the betrayer; at any rate, not with Peter.
Cannot you see them, as they look? Do not you feel the solemnity of the detailed particular account of each step?
And may we not also say that all is a parable, or illustration, on a lower level, of the very same principles which were at work in the mightier fact of the greater condescension of His ‘becoming flesh and dwelling among us’? He ‘rose from the table,’ as He rose from His place in ‘the bosom of the Father.’ He disturbed the meal as He broke the festivities of the heavens. He divested Himself of His garments, as ‘He thought not equality with God a thing to be worn eagerly’; and ‘He girded Himself with the towel,’ as He put on the weakness of flesh. Himself He filled the basin, by His own work providing the means of cleansing; and Himself applied the cleansing to the feet of those who were with Him. It is all a working out of the same double motive which drew Him downwards to our earth. The reason why He stooped, with His hands to wash the disciples’ feet, is the same as the reason why He had hands to wash with-viz., that knowing Himself to be high over all, and loving all, He chose to become one with us, that we might become like unto Him. So the details of the act are a parable of His incarnation and death.
III. And then, still further, note the purpose of the deed.
Now although I have said that we never rightly understand our Lord’s actions if we are always looking for dogmatic or doctrinal purposes, and thinking of them rather as being lectures, and sometimes rebukes in act, than as being the outgush of His emotions and His human-divine nature, yet we have also to take into account their moral and spiritual lessons. His acts are words and His words are acts. And although the main and primary purpose of this incident, in so far as it had any other purpose than to relieve Christ’s own love by manifesting itself, and to comfort the disciples’ hearts by the tender manifestation, was to teach them their duty, as we shall presently see, yet the special aspect of cleansing, which comes out so emphatically and prominently in the episode of Peter’s refusal, is to be carried all along through the interpretation of the incident. This was the reason why Jesus Christ came from heaven and assumed flesh, and this was the reason why Jesus Christ, assuming flesh, bowed Himself to this menial office-to make men clean.
I venture to say that we never understand Jesus Christ and His work until we recognise this as its prominent purpose, to cleanse us from sin. An inadequate conception of what we need, shallow, superficial views of the gravity and universality and obstinacy of the fact of sin, are an impenetrable veil between us and all real understanding of Jesus Christ. There is no adequate motive for such an astounding fact as the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God, except the purpose of redeeming the world. If you do not believe that you-you individually, and all of us your brethren-need to be cleansed, you will find it hard to believe in the divinity and atonement of Jesus Christ. If you have been down into the depths of your own heart, and found out what tremendous, diabolic power your own evil nature and sin have upon you, then you will not be content with anything less than the incarnate God who stoops from heaven to bear the burden of your sin, and to take it all away. If you want to understand why He laid aside His garments and took the servile form of our manhood, the appeal of man’s sin to His love and the answer of His Divine condescension are the only explanation.
Again, let me remind you that there is no cleansing without Christ. Can you do it for yourselves, do you think? There is an old proverb, ‘One hand washes the other.’ That is true about stains on the flesh. It is not true about stains on our spirits. Nobody can do it for us but Jesus Christ alone. He kneels before us, having the right and the power to wash us because He has died for us. Kings of England used to touch for ‘the king’s evil,’ and lay their pure fingers upon feculent masses of corruption. Our King’s touch is sovereign for the corruption and incipient putrefaction of our sin; and there is no power in heaven or earth that will make a man clean except the power of Jesus Christ. It is either Jesus Christ or filthiness.
If I might pass from my text for one moment, I would remind you of the episode which immediately follows, and suggest that if Jesus Christ is not cleansing us He is nothing to us. ‘If I wash thee not, thou hast no part in Me.’ I know, of course, that it is possible to have partial, rudimentary, and sometimes reverent conceptions of that Lord without recognising in Him the great ‘Fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness.’ But I am sure of this, that there is no real, living possession of Jesus Christ such as men’s souls need, and such as will outlast the disintegrating influences of death, unless it be such a possession of Him as appropriates for its own, primarily, His cleansing power. First of all He must cleanse, and then all other aspects of His glory, and gifts of His grace, will pour into our hearts.
No understanding of Christ, then, without the recognition that cleansing is the purpose and the vindication of His incarnation and sacrifice; no cleansing without Christ; no Christ worth calling by the name without cleansing.
IV. And so, lastly, note the pattern in this act.
You will remember that it is followed by solemn words spoken after He had taken His garments and resumed His place at the table, in which there blended, in the most wonderful fashion, the consciousness of authority, both as Teacher of truth and as Guide of life, and the sweetest and most loving lowliness. In them Jesus prescribed the wonderful act of His condescending love and cleansing power as the law of the Christian life. There are too many of us who profess to be quite willing to trust to Jesus Christ as the Cleanser of our souls who are not nearly so willing to accept His Example as the pattern for our lives; and I would have you note, as an extremely remarkable point, that all the New Testament references to our Lord as being our Example are given in immediate connection with His passion. The very part of His life which we generally regard as being most absolutely unique and inimitable is the fact in His life which Apostles and Evangelists select as the one to set before us for our example.
Do you ask if any man can copy the sufferings of Jesus Christ? In regard to their virtue and efficacy, No. In regard to their motive-in one aspect, No; in another aspect, Yes. In regard to the spirit that impelled Him we may copy Him. The smallest trickle of water down a city gutter will carve out of the mud at its side little banks and cliffs, and exhibit all the phenomena of erosion on the largest scale, as the Mississippi does over half a continent, and the tiniest little wave in a basin will fall into the same curves as the billows of mid-ocean. You and I, in our little lives, may even aspire to ‘do as I have done to you.’
The true use of superiority is service. Noblesse oblige! Bank, wealth, capacity, talents, all things are given to us that we may use them to the last particle for our fellows. Only when the world and society have awakened to that great truth which the towel-girded, kneeling Christ has taught us, will society be organised on the principles that God meant.
But, further, the highest form of service is to cleanse. Cleansing is always dirty work for the cleaners, as every housemaid knows. You cannot make people clean by scolding them, by lecturing them, by patronising them. You have to go down into the filth if you mean to lift them out of it; and leave your smelling-bottles behind; and think nothing repulsive if your stooping to it may save a brother.
The only way by which we can imitate that example is by, first of all, participating in it for ourselves. We must, first of all, have the Cross as our trust, before it can become our pattern and our law. We must first say, ‘Lord! not my feet only, but also my hands and my head,’ and then, in the measure in which we ourselves have received the cleansing benediction, we shall be impelled and able to lay our gentle hands on foulness and leprosy; and to say to all the impure, ‘Jesus Christ, who hath cleansed me, makes thee clean.’
‘IS IT I?’
Mat_26:22 , Mat_26:25 . - Joh_13:25 .
The genius of many great painters has portrayed the Lord’s Supper, but the reality of it was very different from their imaginings. We have to picture to ourselves some low table, probably a mere tray spread upon the ground, round which our Lord and the twelve reclined, in such a fashion as that the head of each guest came against the bosom of him that reclined above him; the place of honour being at the Lord’s left hand, or higher up the table than Himself, and the second place being at His right, or below Himself.
So there would be no eager gesticulations of disciples starting to their feet when our Lord uttered the sad announcement, ‘One of you shall betray Me!’ but only horror-struck amazement settled down upon the group. These verses, which we have put together, show us three stages in the conversation which followed the sad announcement. The three evangelists give us two of these; John alone omits these two, and only gives us the third.
First, we have their question, born of a glimpse into the possibilities of evil in their hearts, ‘Lord, is it I?’ The form of that question in the original suggests that they expected a negative answer, and might be reproduced in English: ‘Surely it is not I?’ None of them could think that he was the traitor, yet none of them could be sure that he was not. Their Master knew better than they did; and so, from a humble knowledge of what lay in them, coiled and slumbering, but there, they would not meet His words with a contradiction, but with a question. His answer spares the betrayer, and lets the dread work in their consciences for a little longer, for their good. For many hands dipped in the dish together, to moisten their morsels; and to say, ‘He that dippeth with Me in the dish, the same shall betray Me,’ was to say nothing more than ‘One of you at the table.’
Then comes the second stage. Judas, reassured that he has escaped detection for the moment, and perhaps doubting whether the Master had anything more than a vague suspicion of treachery, or knew who was the traitor, shapes his lying lips with loathsome audacity into the same question, but yet not quite the same, The others had said, ‘Is it I, Lord?’ he falters when he comes to that name, and dare not say ‘Lord!’ That sticks in his throat. ‘Rabbi!’ is as far as he can get. ‘Is it I, Rabbi?’ Christ’s answer to him, ‘Thou hast said,’ is another instance of patient longsuffering. It was evidently a whisper that did not reach the ears of any of the others, for he leaves the room without suspicion. Our Lord still tries to save him from himself by showing Judas that his purpose is known, and by still concealing his name.
Then comes the third stage, which we owe to John’s Gospel. Here again he is true to his task of supplementing the narrative of the three synoptic Gospels. Remembering what I have said about the attitude of the disciples at the table, we can understand that Peter, if he occupied the principal place at the Lord’s left, was less favourably situated for speaking to Christ than John, who reclined in the second seat at His right, and so he beckoned over the Master’s head to John. The Revised Version gives the force of the original more vividly than the Authorised does: ‘He, leaning back, as he was, on Jesus’ breast, saith unto Him, Lord! who is it?’ John, with a natural movement, bends back his head on his Master’s breast, so as to ask and be answered, in a whisper. His question is not, ‘Is it I?’ He that leaned on Christ’s bosom, and was compassed about by Christ’s love, did not need to ask that. The question now is, ‘Who is it?’ Not a question of presumption, nor of curiosity, but of affection; and therefore answered: ‘He it is to whom I shall give the sop, when I have dipped it.’
The morsel dipped in the dish and passed by the host’s hand to a guest, was a token of favour, of unity and confidence. It was one more attempt to save Judas, one more token of all-forgiving patience. No wonder that that last sign of friendship embittered his hatred and sharpened his purpose to an unalterable decision, or, as John says: ‘After the sop, Satan entered into him.’ For then, as ever, the heart which is not melted by Christ’s offered love is hardened by it.
Now, if we take these three stages of this conversation we may learn some valuable lessons from them. I take the first form of the question as an example of that wholesome self-distrust which a glimpse into the slumbering possibilities of evil in our hearts ought to give us all. I take the second on the lips of Judas, as an example of the very opposite of that self-distrust, the fixed determination to do a wrong thing, however clearly we know it to be wrong. And I take the last form of the question, as asked by John, as an illustration of the peaceful confidence which comes from the consciousness of Christ’s love, and of communion with Him. Now a word or two about each of these.
I. First, we have an example of that wholesome self-distrust, which a glimpse into the possibilities of evil that lie slumbering in all our hearts ought to teach every one of us.
Every man is a mystery to himself. In every soul there lie, coiled and dormant, like hibernating snakes, evils that a very slight rise in the temperature will wake up into poisonous activity. And let no man say, in foolish self-confidence, that any form of sin which his brother has ever committed is impossible for him. Temperament shields us from much, no doubt. There are sins that ‘we are inclined to,’ and there are sins that ‘we have no mind to.’ But the identity of human nature is deeper than the diversity of temperament, and there are two or three considerations that should abate a man’s confidence that anything which one man has done it is impossible that he should do. Let me enumerate them very briefly. Remember, to begin with, that all sins are at bottom but varying forms of one root. The essence of every evil is selfishness, and when you have that, it is exactly as with cooks who have the ‘stock’ by the fireside. They can make any kind of soup out of it, with the right flavouring. We have got the mother tincture of all wickedness in each of our hearts; and therefore do not let us be so sure that it cannot be manipulated and flavoured into any form of sin. All sin is one at bottom, and this is the definition of it-living to myself instead of living to God. So it may easily pass from one form of evil into another, just as light and heat, motion and electricity, are all-they tell us-various forms and phases of one force. Just as doctors will tell you that there are types of disease which slip from one form of sickness into another, so if we have got the infection about us it is a matter very much of accidental circumstances what shape it takes. And no man with a human heart is safe in pointing to any sin, and saying, ‘That form of transgression I reckon alien to myself.’
And then let me remind you, too, that the same consideration is reinforced by this other fact, that all sin is, if I may so say, gregarious; is apt not only to slip from one form into another, but that any evil is apt to draw another after it. The tangled mass of sin is like one of those great fields of seaweed that you some times come across upon the ocean, all hanging together by a thousand slimy growths; which, if lifted from the wave at any point, drags up yards of it inextricably grown together. No man commits only one kind of transgression. All sins hunt in couples. According to the grim picture of the Old Testament, about another matter, ‘None of them shall want his mate. The wild beasts of the desert shall meet with the wild beasts of the islands.’ One sin opens the door for another, ‘and seven other spirits worse than himself’ come and make holiday in the man’s heart.
Again, any evil is possible to us, seeing that all sin is but yielding to tendencies common to us all. The greatest transgressions have resulted from yielding to such tendencies. Cain killed his brother from jealousy; David besmirched his name and his reign by animal passion; Judas betrayed Christ because he was fond of money. Many a man has murdered another one simply because he had a hot temper. And you have got a temper, and you have got the love of money, and you have got animal passions, and you have got that which may stir you up into jealousy. Your neighbour’s house has caught fire and been blown up. Your house, too, is built of wood, and thatched with straw, and you have as much dynamite in your cellars as he had in his. Do not be too sure that you are safe from the danger of explosion.
And, again, remember that this same wholesome self-distrust is needful for us all, because all transgression is yielding to temptations that assail all men. Here are one hundred men in a plague-stricken city; they have all got to draw their water from the same well. If five or six of them died of cholera it would be very foolish of the other ninety-five to say, ‘There is no chance of our being touched.’ We all live in the same atmosphere; and the temptations that have overcome the men that have headed the count of crimes appeal to you. So the lesson is, ‘Be not high-minded, but fear.’
And remember, still further, that the same solemn consideration is enforced upon us by the thought that men will gradually drop down to the level which, before they began the descent, seemed to be impossible to them. ‘Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?’ said Hazael when the crime of murdering his master first floated before him. Yes, but he did it. By degrees he came down to the level to which he thought that he would never sink. First the imagination is inflamed, then the wish begins to draw the soul to the sin, then conscience pulls it back, then the fatal decision is made, and the deed is done. Sometimes all the stages are hurried quickly through, and a man spins downhill as cheerily and fast as a diligence down the Alps. Sometimes, as the coast of a country may sink an inch in a century until long miles of the flat seabeach are under water, and towers and cities are buried beneath the barren waves, so our lives may be gradually lowered, with a motion imperceptible but most real, bringing us down within high-water mark, and at last the tide may wash over what was solid land.
So, dear friends, there is nothing more foolish than for any man to stand, self-confident that any form of evil that has conquered his brother has no temptation for him. It may not have for you, under present circumstances; it may not have for you to-day; but, oh! we have all of us one human heart, and ‘he that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.’ ‘Blessed is the man that feareth always.’ Humble self-distrust, consciousness of sleeping sin in my heart that may very quickly be stirred into stinging and striking; rigid self-control over all these possibilities of evil, are duties dictated by the plainest common-sense.
Do not say, ‘I know when to stop.’ Do not say, ‘I can go so far; it will not do me any harm.’ Many a man has said that, and many a man has been ruined by it. Do not say, ‘It is natural to me to have these inclinations and tastes, and there can be no harm in yielding to them.’ It is perfectly natural for a man to stoop down over the edge of a precipice to gather the flowers that are growing in some cranny in the cliff; and it is as natural for him to topple over, and be smashed to a mummy at the bottom. God gave you your dispositions and your whole nature ‘under lock and key,’-keep them so. And when you hear of, or see, great criminals and great crimes, say to yourself, as the good old Puritan divine said, looking at a man going to the scaffold, ‘But for the grace of God there go I!’ And in the contemplation of sins and apostasies, let us each look humbly at our own weakness, and pray Him to keep us from our brother’s evils which may easily become ours.
II. Secondly, we have here an example of precisely the opposite sort, namely, of that fixed determination to do evil which is unshaken by the clearest knowledge that it is evil.
Judas heard his crime described in its own ugly reality. He heard his fate proclaimed by lips of absolute love and truth; and notwithstanding both, he comes unmoved and unshaken with his question. The dogged determination in his heart, that dares to see his evil stripped naked and is ‘not ashamed,’ is even more dreadful than the hypocrisy and sleek simulation of friendship in his face.
Now most men turn away with horror from even the sins that they are willing to do, when they are put plainly and bluntly before them. As an old mediaeval preacher once said, ‘There is nothing that is weaker than the devil stripped naked.’ By which he meant exactly this-that we have to dress wrong in some fantastic costume or other, so as to hide its native ugliness, in order to tempt men to do it. So we have two sets of names for wrong things, one of which we apply to our brethren’s sins, and the other to the same sins in ourselves. What I do is ‘prudence,’ what you do of the same sort is ‘covetousness’; what I do is ‘sowing my wild oats,’ what you do is ‘immorality’ and ‘dissipation’; what I do is ‘generous living,’ what you do is ‘drunkenness’ and ‘gluttony’; what I do is ‘righteous indignation,’ what you do is ‘passionate anger.’ And so you may go the whole round of evil. Very bad are the men who can look at their deed, described in Its own inherent deformity, and yet say, ‘Yes; that is it, and I am going to do it.’ ‘One of you shall betray Me.’ ‘Yes; I will betray you!’ It must have taken something to look into the Master’s face, and keep the fixed purpose steady.
Now I ask you to think, dear friends, of this, that that obstinate condition of dogged determination to do a wrong thing, knowing it to be a wrong thing, is a condition to which all evil steadily tends. We may not come to it in this world-I do not know that men ever do so wholly; but we are all getting towards it in regard to the special wrong deeds and desires which we cherish and commit. And when a man has once reached the point of saying to evil, ‘Be thou my good,’ then he is a ‘devil’ in the true meaning of the word; and wherever he is, he is in hell! And the one unpardonable sin is the sin of clear recognition that a given thing is contrary to God’s will, and unfaltering determination, notwithstanding, to do it. That is the only sin that cannot be pardoned, ‘either in this world or in the world to come.’
And so, my brother, seeing that such a condition is possible, and that all the paths of evil, however tentative and timorous they may be at first, and however much the sin may be wrapped up with excuses and forms and masks, tend to that condition, let us take that old prayer upon our lips, which befits both those who distrust themselves because of slumbering sins, and those who dread being conquered by manifest iniquity:-’Who can understand his errors? Cleanse Thou me from secret faults. Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me.’
III. Now, lastly, we have in the last question an example of the peaceful confidence that comes from communion with Jesus Christ.
John leaned on the Master’s bosom. ‘He was the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ And so compassed with that great love, and feeling absolute security within the enclosure of that strong hand, his question is not, ‘Is it I?’ but ‘Who is it?’ From which I think we may fairly draw the conclusion that to feel that Christ loves me, and that I am compassed about by Him, is the true security against my falling into any sin.
It was not John’s love to Christ, but Christ’s to John that made his safety. He did not say: ‘I love Thee so much that I cannot betray Thee.’ For all our feelings and emotions are but variable, and to build confidence upon them is to build a heavy building upon quicksand; the very weight of it drives out the foundations. But he thought to himself-or he felt rather than he thought-that all about him lay the sweet, warm, rich atmosphere of his Master’s love; and to a man who was encompassed by that, treachery was impossible.
Sin has no temptation so long as we actually enjoy the greater sweetness of Christ’s felt love. Would thirty pieces of silver have been a bribe to John? Would anything that could have terrified others have frightened him from his Master’s side whilst he felt His love? Will a handful of imitation jewellery, made out of coloured glass and paste, be any temptation to a man who bears a rich diamond on his finger? And will any of earth’s sweetness be a temptation to a man who lives in the continual consciousness of the great rich love of Christ wrapping him round about? Brethren, not ourselves, not our faith, not our emotion, not our religious experience; nothing that is in us, is any security that we may not be tempted, and yield to the temptation, and deny or betray our Lord. There is only one thing that is a security, and that is that we be folded to the heart, and held by the hand, of that loving Lord. Then-then we may be confident that we shall not fall; for ‘the Lord is able to make us stand.’
Such confidence is but the other side of our self-distrust; is the constant accompaniment of it, must have that self-distrust for its condition and prerequisite, and leads to a yet deeper and more blessed form of that self-distrust. Faith in Him and ‘no confidence in the flesh’ are but the two sides of the same coin, the obverse and the reverse. The seed, planted in the ground, sends a little rootlet down, and a little spikelet up, by the same vital act. And so in our hearts, as it were, the downward rootlet is self-despair, and the upward shoot is faith in Christ. The two emotions go together-the more we distrust ourselves the more we shall rest upon Him, and the more we rest upon Him, and feel that all our strength comes, not from our foot, but from the Rock on which it stands, the more we shall distrust our own ability and our own faithfulness.
Therefore, dear brethren, looking upon all the evil that is around us, and conscious in some measure of the weakness of our own hearts, let us do as a man would do who stands upon the narrow ledge of a cliff, and look sheer down into the depth below, and feels his head begin to reel and turn giddy; let us lay hold of the Guide’s hand, and if we cleave by Him, He will hold up our goings that our footsteps slip not. Nothing else will. No length of obedient service is any guarantee against treachery and rebellion. As John Bunyan saw, there was a backdoor to hell from the gate of the Celestial City. Men have lived for years consistent professing Christians, and have fallen at last. Many a ship has come across half the world, and gone to pieces on the harbour bar. Many an army, victorious in a hundred fights, has been annihilated at last. No depths of religious experience, no heights of religious blessedness, no attainments of past virtue and self-sacrifice, are any guarantees for to-morrow. Trust in nothing and in nobody, least of all in yourselves and your own past. Trust only in Jesus Christ.
‘Now unto Him that is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy; to the only wise God our Saviour be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever.’ Amen.
THE DISMISSAL OF JUDAS
When our Lord gave the morsel, dipped in the dish, to Judas, only John knew the significance of the act. But if we supplement the narrative here with that given by Matthew, we shall find that, accompanying the gift of the sop, was a brief dialogue in which the betrayer, with unabashed front, hypocritically said, ‘Lord! Is it I?’ and heard the solemn, sad answer, ‘Thou sayest!’ Two things, then, appealed to him at the moment: one, the conviction that he was discovered; the other, the wonderful assurance that he was still loved, for the gift of the morsel was a token of friendliness. He shut his heart against them both; and as he shut his heart against Christ he opened it to the devil. So ‘after the sop Satan entered into him.’ At that moment a soul committed suicide; and none of those that sat by, with the exception of Christ and the ‘disciple whom He loved,’ so much as dreamed of the tragedy going on before their eyes.
I know not that there are anywhere words more weighty and wonderful than those of our text. And I desire to try if I can at all make you feel as I feel, their solemn signification and force. ‘That thou doest, do quickly.’
I. I hear in them, first, the voice of despairing love abandoning the conflict.
If I have rightly construed the meaning of the incident, this is the plain meaning of it. And you will observe that the Revised Version, more accurately and closely rendering the words of our text, begins with a ‘Therefore.’ ‘Therefore said Jesus unto him,’ because the die was cast; because the will of Judas had conclusively welcomed Satan, and conclusively rejected Christ; therefore, knowing that remonstrance was vain, knowing that the deed was, in effect, done, Jesus Christ, that Incarnate Charity which ‘believeth all things, and hopeth all things,’ abandoned the man to himself, and said, ‘There, then, if thou wilt thou must. I have done all I can; my last arrow is shot, and it has missed the target. That then doest, do quickly.’
There is a world of solemn meaning in that one little word ‘doest.’ It teaches us the old lesson, which sense is so apt to forget, that the true actor in man’s deeds is ‘the hidden man of the heart,’ and that when it has acted, it matters comparatively little whether the mere tool and instrument of the hands or of the other organs have carried out the behest. The thing is done before it is done when the man has resolved, with a fixed will, to do it. The betrayal was as good as in process, though no step beyond the introductory ones, which could easily have been cancelled, had yet been accomplished. Because there was a fixed purpose which could not be altered by anything now, therefore Jesus Christ regards the act as completed. It is what we think in our hearts that we are; and our fixed determinations, our inclinations of will, are far more truly our doings than the mere consequences of these, embodied in actuality. It is but a poor estimate of a man that judges him by the test of what he has done. What he has wanted to do is the true man; what he has attempted to do. ‘It was well that it was in thine heart!’ saith God to the king who thought of building the Temple which he was never allowed to rear. ‘It is ill that is in thine heart,’ says He by whom actions are weighed, to the sinner in purpose, though his clean hands lie idly in his lap. These hidden movements of desire and will that never come to the surface are our true selves. Look after them, and the deeds will take care of themselves. Serpent’s eggs have serpents in them. And he that has determined upon a sin has done the sin, whether his hands have been put to it or no.
But, then, turn for a moment to the other thought that is suggested here-that solemn picture of a soul left to do as it will, because divine love has no other restraints which it can impose, and is bankrupt of motives that it can adduce to prevent it from its madness. Now I do not believe, for my part, that any man in this world is so all-round ‘sold unto sin’ as that the seeking love of God gives him up as irreclaimable. I do not believe that there are any people concerning whom it is true that it is impossible for the grace of God to find some chink and cranny in their souls through which it can enter and change them. There are no hopeless cases as long as men are here. But, then, though there may not be so, in regard to the whole sweep of the man’s nature, yet every one of us, over and over again, has known what it is to come exactly into that position in regard to some single evil or other, concerning which we have so set our teeth and planted our feet at such an angle of resistance as that God gives up dealing with us and leaves us, as He did with Balaam when He opposed his covetous inclinations to all the remonstrances of Heaven. God said at last to him ‘Go!’ because it was the best way to teach him what a fool he had been in wanting to go. Thus, when we determine to set ourselves against the pleadings and the beseechings of divine love, the truest kindness is to fling the reins upon our necks, and let us gallop ourselves into a sweat and weariness, and then we shall be more amenable to the touch of the rein thereafter.
Are there any people whom God is teaching obedience to His light touch, by letting them run their course after some one specific sin? Perhaps there are. At all events, let us remember that that position of being allowed to do as we like is one to which we all tend, in the measure in which we indulge our inclinations, and shut our hearts against God’s pleadings. There is such a thing as a conscience seared as with a hot iron. They used to say that there were witches’ marks on the body, places where, if you stuck a pin in, there was no feeling. Men cover themselves all over with marks of that sort, which are not sensitive even to the prick of a divine remonstrance, rebuke, or retribution. They ‘wipe their mouths and say I have done no harm.’ You can tie up the clapper of the bell that swings on the black rock, on which, if you drift, you go to pieces. You can silence the Voice by the simple process of neglecting it. Judas set his teeth against two things, the solemn conviction that Jesus Christ knew his sin, and the saving assurance that Jesus Christ loved him still. And whosoever resists either of these two is getting perilously near to the point where, not in petulance but in pity, God will say, ‘Very well, I have called and ye have refused. Now go, and do what you want to do, and see how you like it when it is done. What thou doest, do quickly.’ Do you remember the other word, ‘If ‘twere done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly’? But since consequences last when deeds are past, perhaps you had better halt before you determine to do them.
II. Now, secondly, I hear in these words the voice of strangely blended majesty and humiliation.
‘What thou doest, do!’ Judas thought he had got possession of Christ’s person, and was His master in a very real sense. When lo! all at once the victim assumes the position of the Lord and commands, showing the traitor that instead of thwarting and counterworking, he was but carrying out the designs of his fancied victim; and that he was an instrument in Christ’s hands for the execution of His will. And these two thoughts, how, in effect, all antagonism, all malicious hatred, all violent opposition of every sort but work in with Christ’s purpose, and carry out His intention; and how, at the moments of deepest apparent degradation, He towers, in manifest Majesty and Masterhood, seem to me to be plainly taught in the word before us.
He uses his foes for the furtherance of His purpose. That has been the history of the world ever since. ‘The floods, O Lord, have lifted up their voice.’ And what have they done? Smashing against the breakwater, they but consolidate its mighty blocks, and prove that ‘the Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters.’ It has been so in the past, it is so to-day; it will be so till the end. Every Judas is unconsciously the servant of Him whom he seeks to betray; and finds out to his bewilderment that what he meant for a death-blow is fulfilling the very purpose and will of the Lord against whom he has turned.
Again, the combination here, in such remarkable juxtaposition, of the two things, a willing submission to the utmost extremity of shame, which the treasonous heart can froth out in its malice and, at the same time, a rising up in conscious majesty and lordship, are suggested to us by the words before us. That combination of utter lowliness and transcendent loftiness runs through the whole life and history of our Lord. Did you ever think how strong an argument that strange combination, brought out so inartificially throughout the whole of the Gospels, is for their historical veracity? Suppose the problem had been given to poets to create and to set in a series of appropriate scenes a character with these two opposites stamped equally upon it, neither of them impinging upon the domain of the other-viz., utter humility and humiliation in circumstance, and majestic sovereignty and elevation above all circumstances-do you think that any of them could have solved the problem, though- Aeschylus and Shakespeare had been amongst them, as these four men that wrote these four little tracts that we call Gospels have done? How comes it that this most difficult of literary problems has been so triumphantly solved by these men? I think there is only one answer, ‘Because they were reporters, and imagined nothing, but observed everything, and repeated what had happened.’ He reconciled these opposites who was the Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief, and yet the Eternal Son of the Father; and the Gospels have solved the problem only because they are simple records of its solution by Him.
Wherever in His history there is some trait of lowliness there is by the side of it a flash of majesty. Wherever in His history there is some gleaming out from the veil of flesh of the hidden glory of divinity, there is immediately some drawing of the veil across the glory. And the two things do not contradict nor confuse, but we stand before that double picture of a Christ betrayed and of a Christ commanding His betrayer, and using his treason, and we say, ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’
III. Again, I hear the voice of instinctive human weakness.
‘That thou doest, do quickly.’ It may be doubtful, and some of you perhaps may not be disposed to follow me in my remark, but to my ear that sounds just like the utterance of that instinctive dislike of suspense and of the long hanging over us of the sword by a hair, which we all know so well. Better to suffer than to wait for suffering. The loudest thunder-crash is not so awe-inspiring as the dread silence of nature when the sky is black before the peal rolls through the clouds. Many a martyr has prayed for a swift ending of his troubles. Many a sorrowing heart, that has been sitting cowering under the anticipation of coming evils, has wished that the string could be pulled, as it were, and they could all come down in one cold flood, and be done with, rather than trickle drop by drop. They tell us that the bravest soldiers dislike the five minutes when they stand in rank before the first shot is fired. And with all reverence I venture to think that He who knew all our weaknesses in so far as weakness was not sin, is here letting us see how He, too, desired that the evil which was coming might come quickly, and that the painful tension of expectation might be as brief as possible. That may be doubtful; I do not dwell upon it, but I suggest it for your consideration.
IV. And then I pass on to the last of the tones that I hear in these utterances-the voice of the willing Sacrifice for the sins of the world.
‘That thou doest, do quickly.’ There is nothing more obvious throughout the whole of the latter portion of the Gospel narrative than the way in which, increasingly towards its close, Jesus seemed to hasten to the Cross. You remember His own sayings: ‘I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished. I am come to cast fire on the earth; would it were already kindled!’ You remember with what a strange air-I was going to use an inappropriate word, and say, of alacrity; but, at all events, of fixed resolve-He journeyed from Galilee, in that last solemn march to Jerusalem, and how the disciples followed, astonished at the unwonted look of decision and absorption that was printed upon His countenance. If we consider His doings in that last week in Jerusalem, how he courted publicity, how He avoided no encounter with His official enemies, how He sharpened His tones, not exactly so as to provoke, but certainly so as by no means to conciliate, we shall see, I think, in it all, His consciousness that the hour had come, and His absolute readiness and willingness to be offered for the world’s sin. He stretches out His hands, as it were, to draw the Cross nearer to Himself, not with any share in the weakness of a fanatical aspiration after martyrdom, but under a far deeper and more wonderful impulse.
Why was Christ so willing, so eager, if I may use the word, that His death should be accomplished? Two reasons, which at the bottom are one, answer the question. He thus hastened to His Cross because He would obey the Father’s will, and because He loved the whole world-you and me and all our fellows. We were each in His heart. It was because He wanted to save thee that He said to Judas, ‘Do it quickly, that the world’s salvation and that man’s salvation may be accomplished.’ These were the cords that bound Him to the altar. Let us never forget that Judas with his treachery, and rulers with their hostility, and Pilate with his authority, and the soldiers with their nails, and centurions with their lances, and the grim figure of Death itself with its shaft, would have been all equally powerless against Christ if it had not been his loving will to die on the Cross for each of us.
Therefore, brethren, as we hear this voice, let us discern in it the tones which warn us of the danger of yielding to inclination and stifling His rebukes, till He abandons us for the moment in despair; let us hear in it the pathetic voice of a Brother, who knows all our weaknesses and has felt our emotions; let us hear the voice of Sovereign Authority which uses its enemies for its purposes, and is never loftier than when it is most lowly, whose Cross is His throne of glory, whose exaltation is His deepest humiliation, and let us hear a love which, discerning each of us through all the ages and the crowds, went willingly to the Cross because He willed that He should be our Saviour.
And seeing that time is short, and the future precarious, and delay may darken into loss and rejection, let us take these words as spoken to us in another sense, and hear in them the warning that ‘to-day, if we will hear His voice, we harden not our hearts,’ and when He says to us, in regard to repentance and faith, and Christian consecration and service, ‘That thou doest, do quickly,’ let us answer, ‘I made haste and delayed not, but made haste to keep Thy commandments.’
THE GLORY OF THE CROSS
Joh_13:31 - Joh_13:32 .
There is something very weird and awful in the brief note of time with which the Evangelist sends Judas on his dark errand. ‘He . . . went immediately out, and it was night.’ Into the darkness that dark soul went. That hour was ‘the power of darkness,’ the very keystone of the black arch of man’s sin, and some shadow of it fell upon the soul of Christ Himself.
In immediate connection with the departure of the traitor comes this singular burst of triumph in our text. The Evangelist emphasises the connection by that: ‘Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said.’ There is a wonderful touch of truth and naturalness in that connection. The traitor was gone. His presence had been a restraint; and now that that ‘spot in their feast of charity’ had disappeared, the Master felt at ease; and like some stream, out of the bed of which a black rock has been taken, His words flow more freely. How intensely real and human the narrative becomes when we see that Christ, too, felt the oppression of an uncongenial presence, and was relieved and glad at its removal! The departure of the traitor evoked these words of triumph in another way, too. At his going away, we may say, the match was lit that was to be applied to the train. He had gone out on his dark errand, and that brought the Cross within measurable distance of our Lord. Out of a new sense of its nearness He speaks here. So the note of time not only explains to us why our Lord spoke, but puts us on the right track for understanding His words, and makes any other interpretation of them than one impossible. What Judas went to do was the beginning of Christ’s glorifying. We have here, then, a triple glorification-the Son of Man glorified in His Cross; God glorified in the Son of Man; and the Son of Man glorified in God. Let us look at these three thoughts for a few moments now.
I. First, we have here the Son of Man glorified in His Cross.
The words are a paradox. Strange, that at such a moment, when there rose up before Christ all the vision of the shame and the suffering, the pain and the death, and the mysterious sense of abandonment, which was worse than them all, He should seem to stretch out His hands to bring the Cross nearer to Himself, and that His soul should fill with triumph!
There is a double aspect under which our Lord regarded His sufferings. On the one hand we mark in Him an unmistakable shrinking from the Cross, the innocent shrinking of His manhood expressed in such words as ‘I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished’; and in such incidents as the agony in Gethsemane. And yet, side by side with that, not overcome by it, but not overcoming it, there is the opposite feeling, the reaching out almost with eagerness to bring the Cross nearer to Himself. These two lie close by each other in His heart. Like the pellucid waters of the Rhine and the turbid stream of the Moselle, that flow side by side over a long space, neither of them blending discernibly with the other, so the shrinking and the desire were contemporaneous in Christ’s mind. Here we have the triumphant anticipation rising to the surface, and conquering for a time the shrinking.
Why did Christ think of His Cross as a glorifying? The New Testament generally represents it as the very lowest point of His degradation; John’s Gospel always represents it as the very highest point of His glory. And the two things are both true; just as the zenith of our sky is the nadir of the sky for those on the other side of the world. The same fact which in one aspect sounds the very lowest depth of Christ’s humiliation, in another aspect is the very highest culminating point of His glory.
How did the Cross glorify Christ? In two ways. It was the revelation of His heart; it was the throne of His sovereign power.
It was the revelation of His heart. All his life long He had been trying to tell the world how much He loved it. His love had been, as it were, filtered by drops through His words, through His deeds, through His whole demeanour and bearing; but in His death it comes in a flood, and pours itself upon the world. All His life long he had been revealing His heart, through the narrow rifts of His deeds, like some slender lancet windows; but in His death all the barriers are thrown down, and the brightness blazes out upon men. All through His life He had been trying to communicate His love to the world, and the fragrance came from the box of ointment exceeding precious, but when the box was broken the house was filled with the odour.
For Him to be known was to be glorified. So pure and perfect was He, that revelation of His character and glorification of Himself were one and the same thing. Because His Cross reveals to the world for all time, and for eternity, too, a love which shrinks from no sacrifice, a love which is capable of the most entire abandonment, a love which is diffused over the whole surface of humanity and through all the ages, a love which comes laden with the richest and the highest gifts, even the turning of selfish and sinful hearts into its own pure and perfect likeness, therefore does He say, in contemplation of that Cross which was to reveal Him for what He was to the world, and to bring His love to every one of us, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified.’
We can fancy a mother, for instance, in the anticipation of shame, and ignominy, and suffering, and sorrow, and death which she encounters for the sake of some prodigal child, forgetting all the ignominy, and the shame, and the suffering, and the sorrow, and the death, because all these are absorbed in the one thought: ‘If I bear them, my poor, wandering, rebellious child will know at last how much I loved him.’ So Christ yearns to impart the knowledge of Himself to us, because by that knowledge we may be won to His love and service; and hence when He looks forward to the agony, and contumely, and sorrow of the close, every other thought is swallowed up in this one: ‘They will be the means by which the whole world will find out how deep my heart of love to it was.’ Therefore does He triumph and say, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified.’
Still further, He regards His Cross as the means of His glorifying, because it is His throne of saving power. The paradoxical words of our text rest upon His profound conviction that in His death He was about to put forth a mightier and diviner power than ever He had manifested in His life. They are the same in effect and in tone as the great words: ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto Me.’ Now I want you to ask yourselves one question: In what sense is Christ’s Cross Christ’s glorifying, unless His Cross bears an altogether different relation to His life from what the death of a great teacher or benefactor ordinarily bears to his? It is impossible that Christ could have spoken such words as these of my text if He had simply thought of His death as a Plato or a John Howard might have thought of his, as being the close of his activity for the welfare of his fellows. Unless Christ’s death has in it some substantive value, unless it is something more than the mere termination of His work for the world, I see not how the words before us can be interpreted. If His death is His glorifying, it must be because in that death something is done which was not completed by the life, however fair; by the words, however wise and tender; by the works of power, however restorative and healing. Here is something more than these present. What more? This more, that His Cross is the ‘propitiation for the sins of the whole world.’ He is glorified therein, not as a Socrates might be glorified by his calm and noble death; not because nothing in His life became Him better than the leaving of it; not because the page that tells the story of His passion is turned to by us as the tenderest and most sacred in the world’s records; but because in that death He wrestled with and overcame our foes, and because, like the Jewish hero of old, dying, He pulled down the house which our tyrants had built, and overwhelmed them in its ruins. ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified.’
And so, brethren, there blend, in that last act of our Lord’s-for His death was His act-in strange fashion, the two contradictory ideas of glory and shame; like some sky, all full of dark thunderclouds, and yet between them the brightest blue and the blazing sunshine. In the Cross, Death crowns Him the Prince of Life, and His Cross is His throne. All His life long He was the Light of the World, but the very noontide hour of His glory was that hour when the shadow of eclipse lay over all the land, and He hung on the Cross dying in the dark. At His ‘eventide it was light.’ ‘He endured the Cross, despising the shame’; and lo! the shame flashed up into the very brightness of glory, and the ignominy and the suffering became the jewels of His crown. ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified.’
II. Now let us turn for a moment to the second of the threefold glorifications that are set forth here: God glorified in the Son of Man.
The mystery deepens as we advance. That God should be glorified in a man is not strange, but that He should be so glorified in the eminent and special fashion which Jesus contemplates here, is strange; and stranger still when we think that the act in which He was to be glorified was the death of an innocent Man. If God, in any special and eminent manner, is glorified in the Cross of Jesus Christ, that implies, as it seems to me, two things at all events-many more which I have not time to touch upon, but two things very plainly. One is that ‘God was in Christ,’ in some singular and eminent manner. If all His life was a continual manifestation of the divine character, if Christ’s words were the divine wisdom, if Christ’s compassion was the divine pity, if Christ’s lowliness was the divine gentleness, if His whole human life and nature were the brightest and clearest manifestation to the world of what God is, we can understand that the Cross was the highest point of the revelation of the divine nature to the world, and so was the glorifying of God in Him. But if we take any lower view of the relation between God and Christ, I know not how we can acquit these words of our Master of the charge of being a world too wide for the facts of the case.
The words involve, as it seems to me, not only that idea of a close, unique union and indwelling of God in Christ, but they involve also this other: that these sufferings bore no relation to the deserts of the person who endured them. If Christ, with His pure and perfect character-the innocency and nobleness of which all that read the Gospels admit-if Christ suffered so; if the highest virtue that was ever seen in this world brought no better wages than shame and spitting and the Cross; if Christ’s life and Christ’s death are simply a typical example of the world’s treatment of its greatest benefactors; then, if they have any bearing at all on the character of God, they cast a shadow rather than a light upon the divine government, and become not the least formidable of the difficulties and knots that will have to be untied hereafter before it shall be clear that God did everything well. But if we can say, ‘He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’; if we can say, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’; if we can say, that His death was the death of Him whom God had appointed to live and die for us, and ‘to bear our sins in His own body on the tree,’ then, though deep mysteries come with the thought, still we can see that, in a very unique manner, God is glorified and exalted in His death.
For if the dying Christ be the Son of God dying for us, then the Cross glorifies God, because it teaches us that the glory of the divine character is the divine love. Of wisdom, or of power, or of any of the more ‘majestic’ attributes of the divine nature, that weak Man, hanging dying on the Cross, was a strange embodiment; but if the very heart of the divine brightness be the pure white fire of love; if there be nothing diviner in God than His giving of Himself to His creatures; if the highest glory of the divine nature be to pity and to bestow, then the Cross upon which Christ died towers above all other revelations as the most awful, the most sacred, the most tender, the most complete, the most heart-touching, the most soul-subduing manifestation of the divine nature; and stars and worlds, and angels and mighty creatures, and things in the heights and things in the depths, to each of which have been entrusted some broken syllables of the divine character to make known to the world, dwindle and fade before the brightness, the lambent, gentle brightness that beams out from the Cross of Christ, which proclaims-God is love, is pity, is pardon.
And is it not so-is it not so? Is not the thought that has flowed from Christ’s Cross through Christendom of what our Father in Heaven is, the highest and the most blessed that the world has ever had? Has it not scattered doubts that lay like mountains of ice upon man’s heart? Has it not swept the heavens clear of clouds that wrapped it in darkness? Has it not delivered men from the dreams of gods angry, gods capricious, gods vengeful, gods indifferent, gods simply mighty and vast and awful and unspeakable? Has it not taught us that love is God, and God is love; and so brought to the whole world the true Gospel, the Gospel of the grace of God? In that Cross the Father is glorified.
III. Now, lastly, we have here the Son of Man glorified in the Father.
The mysteries and the paradoxes seem to deepen as we advance. ‘If God be glorified in Him, God shall also glorify Him in Himself, and shall straightway glorify Him.’ Do these words sound to you as if they expressed no more than the confidence of a good man, who, when he was dying, believed that he would be accepted of a loving Father, and would be at rest from his sufferings? To me they seem to say infinitely more than that. ‘He shall also glorify Him in Himself.’ Mark that ‘in Himself.’ That is the obvious antithesis to what has been spoken about in the previous clause, a glorifying which consisted in a manifestation to the external universe, whereas this is a glorifying within the depths of the divine nature. And the best commentary upon it is our Lord’s own words: ‘Father! glorify Thou Me with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.’ We get a glimpse, as it were, into the very centre of the brightness of God; and there, walking in that beneficent furnace, we see ‘One like unto the Son of Man.’ Christ anticipates that, in some profound and unspeakable sense, He shall, as it were, be caught up into the divinity, and shall dwell, as indeed He did dwell from the beginning, ‘in the bosom of the Father.’ ‘He shall glorify Him in Himself.’
But then mark, still further, that this reception into the bosom of the Father is given to the Son of Man. That is to say, the Man Christ Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Brother of us all, ‘bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh,’ the very Person that walked upon earth and dwelt amongst us is taken up into the heart of God, and in His manhood enters into that same glory, which, from the beginning, the Eternal Word had with God.
And still further, not only have we here set forth, in most wondrous language, the reception and incorporation, if we may use such words, into the very centre of divinity, as granted to the Son of Man, but we have that glorifying set forth as commencing immediately upon the completion of God’s glorifying by Christ upon the Cross. ‘He shall straightway glorify Him.’ At the instant then, that He said, ‘It is finished,’ and all that the Cross could do to glorify God was done, at that instant there began, with not a pin-point of interval between them, God’s glorifying of the Son in Himself. It began in that Paradise into which we know that upon that day He entered. It was manifested to the world when He ‘raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory.’ It reached a still higher point when ‘they brought Him near unto the Ancient of Days,’ and ascending up on high, a dominion and a throne and a glory were given to Him which last now, whilst the Son of Man sits in the heavens on the throne of His glory, wielding the attributes of divinity, and administering the laws of the universe and the mysteries of providence. It shall rise to its highest manifestation before an assembled world, when He ‘shall come in His glory, and before Him shall be gathered all nations.’
This, then, was the vision that lay before the Christ in that upper room, the vision of Himself glorified in His extreme shame, because His Cross manifested His love and His saving power; of God glorified in Him above all other of His acts of manifestation when He died on the Cross, and revealed the very heart of God; and of Himself glorified in the Father when, exalted high above all creatures, He sitteth upon the Father’s throne and rules the Father’s realm.
And yet from that high, and, to us, inaccessible and all but inconceivable summit of His elevation, He looks down ready to bless each poor creature here, toiling and moiling amidst sufferings, and meannesses, and commonplaces, and monotony, if we will only put our trust in Him, and love Him, and see the brightness of the Father’s face in Him. He cares for us all; and if we will but take Him as our Saviour, His all-prevalent prayer, presented within the veil for us, will certainly be fulfilled at last: ‘Father, I will that they also whom Thou hast given Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory.’
ONE SAYING WITH TWO MEANINGS
CANNOT AND CAN
The preceding context shows how large and black the Cross loomed before Jesus now, and how radiant the glory beyond shone out to Him. But it was only for a moment that either of these two absorbed His thoughts; and with wonderful self-forgetfulness and self-command, He turned away at once from the consideration of how the near future was to affect Him, to the thought of how it was to affect the handful of helpless disciples who had to be left alone. Impending separation breaks up the fountains of the heart, and we all know the instinct that desires to crowd all the often hidden love into some one last token. So here our Lord addresses His disciples by a name that is never used except this once, ‘little children,’ a fond diminutive that not only reveals an unusual depth of tender emotion, but also breathes a pitying sense of their defencelessness when they are to be left alone. So might a dying mother look at her little ones.
But the words that follow, at first sight, are dark with the sense of a final and complete separation. ‘Ye shall seek Me’-and not only so, but He seems to put back His humble friends into the same place as had been occupied by His bitter foes-’as I said to the Jews, whither I go ye cannot come; so now I say to you.’ There was something that prevented both classes alike from keeping Him company; and He had to walk His path both into the darkness and into the glory, alone.
The words apply in their fullness only to the parenthesis of time whilst He lay in the grave, and the disciples despairingly thought that all was ended. It was a brief period: it was a revolutionary moment; and though it was soon to end, they needed to be guarded against it. But though the words do not apply to the permanent relation between the glorified Christ and us, His disciples, yet partly by similarity, and still more by contrast, they do suggest great Christian blessedness and imperative Christian duties. These gather themselves mainly round two contrasts, a transitory ‘cannot’ soon to be changed into a permanent ‘can’; and a momentary seeking, soon to be converted into a blessed seeking which finds. I now deal only with the former.
We have here a transitory ‘cannot’ soon to be changed into a permanent ‘can.’
‘Whither I go ye cannot come.’ Does not one hear a tone of personal sorrow in that saying? Jesus had always hungered for understanding and sympathetic companions, and one of His lifelong sorrows had been His utter loneliness; but He had never, in all the time that He had been with them, so put out His hand, feeling for some warm clasp of a human hand to help Him in His struggle, as He did during the hours terminating with Gethsemane. And perhaps we may venture to say that we hear in this utterance an expression of Christ’s sorrow for Himself that He had to tread the dark way, and to pass into the brightness beyond, all alone. He yearned for the impossible human companionship, as well as sorrowed for the imperfections which made it impossible.
Why was it that they could not ‘follow Him now’? The answer to that question is found in the consideration of whither it was that He went. When that bright Shekinah-cloud at the Ascension received Him into its radiant folds, it showed why they could not follow Him, because it revealed that He went unto the Father, when He left the world. So we are brought face to face with the old, solemn thought that character makes capacity for heaven. ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in His holy place?’ asked the Psalmist; and a prophet put the question in a still sharper form, and by the very form of the question suggested a negative answer-’Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire; who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’ Who can pass into that Presence, and stand near God, without being, like the maiden in the old legend, shrivelled into ashes by the contact of the celestial fire? ‘Holiness’ is that ‘without which no man shall see the Lord.’ And we, all of us, in the depths of our own hearts, if we rightly understand the voices that ever echo there, must feel that the condition which is, obviously and without any need for arguing it, required for abiding with God, and so going into the glory where Christ is, is a condition which none of us can fulfil. In that respect the imperfect and immature friends, the little children, the babes who loved and yet knew not Him whom they loved, and the scowling enemies, were at one. For they had all of them the one human heart, and in that heart the deep-lying alienation and contrariety to God. Therefore Christ trod the winepress alone, and alone ‘ascended up where He was before.’
But let us remember that this ‘cannot’ was only a transitory cannot. For we must underscore very deeply that word in my text ‘so now I say to you,’ and a moment afterwards, when one of the Apostles puts the question: ‘Why cannot I follow Thee now?’ the answer is: ‘Thou canst not follow Me now; but thou shalt follow Me afterwards.’ The text, too, is succeeded immediately by the wonderful parting consolations and counsels spoken to the disciples, through all of which there gleams the promise that they will be with Him where He is, and behold His glory. Set side by side with these sad words of our Lord in the text, by which He unloosed their clasping hands from Him, and turned His face to His solitary path, the triumphant language in which habitually the rest of the New Testament speaks of the Christian man’s relation to Christ. Think of that great passage: ‘Ye are come unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, . . . and to God the Judge of all, . . . and to Jesus the Mediator of the new Covenant.’ What has become of the impossibility? Vanished. Where is the ‘cannot’? Turned into a blessed ‘can.’ And so Apostles have no scruple in saying, ‘Our citizenship is in Heaven,’ nor in saying, ‘We sit together with Him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.’ The path that was blocked is open. The impossibility that towered up like a great black wall has melted away; and the path into the Holiest of all is made patent by the blood of Christ. For in that death there lies the power that sweeps away all the impediments of man’s sin, and in that life of the risen, glorified, indwelling Christ there lies the power which cleanses the inmost heart from ‘all filthiness of flesh and spirit,’ and makes it possible for our mortal feet to walk on the immortal path, and for us, with all our unworthiness, with all our shrinking, to stand in His presence and not be ashamed or consumed. ‘Ye cannot come’ was true for a few days. ‘Ye can come’ is true for ever; and for all Christian men.
But let us not forget that the one attitude of heart and mind, by which a poor, sinful man, who dare not draw near to God, receives into himself the merit and power of the death, and the indwelling power of the life, of Jesus Christ, is personal faith in Jesus Christ. To trust Him is to come to Him, and it is represented in Scripture as conferring an instantaneous fitness for access to God. People pray sometimes that they may be made ‘meet for the inheritance of the saints in light,’ and the prayer is, in a sense, wise and true. But they too often forget that the Apostle says, in the original connection of the words which they so quote: ‘He hath translated us from the tyranny of the darkness, and hath made us meet for the inheritance of the saints in light.’ That is to say, whenever a poor soul, compassed and laden with its infirmity and sin, turns itself to that Lord whose Cross conquers sin, and whose blood infused into our veins-the Spirit of whose life granted to us-gives us to partake of His own righteousness, that moment that soul can tread the path that brings into the presence of God, and ‘has access with confidence by the faith of Him.’ So, brethren, seeing that thus the incapacity may all be swept away, and that instead of a ‘cannot,’ which relegates us to darkness, we may receive a ‘can’ which leads us into the light, let us see to it that this communion, which is possible for all Christian men, is real in our cases, and that we use the access which is given to us, and dwell for ever in, and with, the Lord.
I have said that the act of faith, by associating a man with Jesus Christ in the power of His death and of His life, makes any who exercise it capable of passing into the presence of God. But I would remind you, too, that to make us more fit for more full and habitual communion is the very purpose for which all the discipline of our earthly life, its sorrows and its joys, its tasks and its repose, is exercised upon us-’He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness.’ Surely if we habitually took that point of view in reference to our work, in reference to our joys, in reference to our trials, everything would be different. We are being prepared with sedulous love, with patient reiteration of ‘line upon line, precept upon precept,’ with singularly varied methods but a uniform purpose, by all that meets us in life, to be more capable of treading the eternal path into the eternal light. Is that how we daily think of our own circumstances? Do we bring that great thought to bear upon all that we, sometimes faithlessly, call mysterious or murmuringly think of-if we dare not speak our thought-as being cruel and hard? What does it matter if some precious things be lifted off our shoulders, and out of our hearts, if their being taken away makes it more possible for us to tread with a lighter step the path of peace? What matters it though many things that we would fain keep are withdrawn from us, if by the withdrawal we are sent a little further forward on the road that leads to God? As George Herbert says, sorrows and joys are like battledores that drive a shuttlecock, and they may all ‘toss us to His breast.’ In faith, however infantile it may be, there is an undeveloped capacity, a germ of fitness, for dwelling with God. But that capacity is meant to be increased, and the little children are meant to be helped to grow up into full-grown men, ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,’ by all that comes here to them on earth. Do you not think we should understand life better, do you not think it would all be flashed up into new radiance, do you not think we should more seldom stand bewildered at what we choose to call the inscrutable dispensations of Providence, if this were the point of view from which we looked at them all-that they were fitting us for perpetual abiding with our Father God?
Nor let us forget that there was a transient ‘cannot’ of another sort. For ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.’ So, as life is changed when we think of it as helping us toward Him, death is changed when we think of it as being, if I may so say, the usher in attendance on the Presence-chamber, who draws back the thin curtain that separates us from the throne, and takes us by the hands and leads us into the Presence. Surely if we habitually thought thus of that otherwise grim chamberlain, we should be willing to put our hands into His, as a little child will, when straying, into the hands of a stranger who says, ‘Come with me and I will take you home to your father.’ ‘As I said unto the Jews . . . so now I say to you, whither I go, ye cannot come.’
Let us press on you and on myself the one thought that comes out of all that I have been saying, the blessed possibility, which, because it is a possibility, is an obligation, to use far more than most of us do, the right of access to the King who is our Father. There are nobles and corporate bodies, who regard it as one of their chief distinctions that they have always the right of entree to the court of the sovereign. Every Christian man has that. And in old days, when a baron did not show himself at court, suspicion naturally arose, and he was in danger of being thought disaffected, if not traitorous. Ah! if you and I were judged according to that law, what would become of us? We can go when we like. How seldom we do go! We can live in the heavens whilst our work lies down here. We prefer the low earth to the lofty sky. ‘We are come’-ideally, and in the depths of our nature, our affinities are there-’unto God, the Judge of all, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new Covenant.’ Are we come? Are we day by day, in all the pettiness of our ordinary lives, when compassed by hard duties, weighed upon by sore distress-still keeping our hearts in heaven, and our feet familiar with the path that leads us to God? ‘Set your affection on things above, where Jesus is, sitting at the right hand of God.’ For there is no ‘cannot’ for His servants in regard to their access to any place where He is.
In the former sermon on this verse I pointed out that it, in its fullness, applies only to the brief period between the crucifixion and the resurrection, but that, partly by contrast and partly by analogy, it suggests permanent relations between Christ and His disciples. These relations were mainly-as I pointed out then-two: there was that one expressed by the subsequent words of the verse, ‘Whither I go, ye cannot come’-a brief ‘cannot,’ soon to be changed into a permanent ‘can’; and there was a second, a brief, sad, and vain seeking, soon to be changed into a seeking which finds. It is to the latter that I wish to turn now.
‘Ye shall seek Me’ fell, like the clods on a coffin-lid, with a hollow sound on the hearts of the Apostles. It comes to us as a permission and a command and a promise. I do not dwell on that sad seeking, which was so brief but so bitter. We all know what it is to put out an empty hand into the darkness and the void, and to grope for a touch which we know, whilst we grope, that we shall not find. And these poor, helpless disciples, by their forlorn sense of separation, by their yearning that brought no satisfaction, by their very listless despair, were saying, during these hours of agony into which an eternity of pain was condensed, ‘Oh! that He were beside us again!’
That sad seeking ended when He came to them, and ‘then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.’ But another kind of seeking began, when ‘the cloud received Him out of their sight’; as joyful as the other was laden with sorrow, as sure to find the object of its quest as the other was certain to be disappointed. What He said in the darkness to them, He says in the light to us: What ‘I say unto you I say unto all,’ Seek! So now we have to deal with that joyful search which is sure of finding its object, and is only a little, if at all, less blessed than the finding itself.
I. Every Christian is, by his very name, a seeker after Christ.
There are two kinds of seeking, one like that of a bird whose young have been stolen away, which flutters here and there, because it knows not where that is which it seeks; another, like the flight of the same bird, when the migrating instinct rises in its little breast, and straight as an arrow it goes, not because it knows not its goal, but because it knows it, yonder where the sun is warm and the sky is blue, and winter is left behind in the cold north. ‘Ye shall seek Me’ is the word of promise, which changes the vain search that is ignorant of where the object of its quest is, into a blessed going out of the heart towards that which it knows to be the home of its homelessness. Thus the text brings out the very central blessedness and peculiarity of the Christian life, that it has no uncertainty in its aims, and that, instead of seeking for things which may or may not be found, or if found may or may not prove to be what we dreamt them to be. It seeks for a Person whom it knows where to find, and of whom it knows that all its desires will be met in Him. We have, then, on the one side the multifarious, divergent searchings of man; and on the other side the one quest in which all these others are gathered up, and translated into blessedness-the seeking after Jesus Christ.
Men know that they need, if I may so put it, four things: truth for the understanding, love round which the heart may coil, authority for the will which may direct and restrain, and energy for the practical life. But, apart from the quest after Christ, men for the most part seek these necessary goods in divers objects, and fragmentarily look for the completion of their desires. But fragments will never satisfy a man’s soul, and they who have to go to one place for truth, and to another for love, and to another for authority, and to another for energy, are wofully likely never to find what they search for. They are seeking in the manifold what can be found only in the One. It is as if some vessel, full of precious stones, were thrown down before men, and whilst they are racing after the diamonds, they lose the emeralds and the sapphires. But the wise concentrate their seekings on the ‘one Pearl of great price,’ in whom is truth for the brain, love for the heart, authority for the will, power for the life, and all summed in that which is more blessed than all, the Person of the Brother who died for us, the Christ who lives to fill our hearts for ever. One sun dims all the stars; and the ‘one entire and perfect Chrysolite’ beggars and reduces to fragments ‘all the precious things that thou canst desire.’
To seek Him is the very hall-mark of a Christian, and that seeking comes to be an earnest desire and effort after more conscious communion with Him, and a more entire possession of His imparted life which is righteousness and peace and joy and power. According to the Rabbis, the manna tasted to each man what each man most desired. The manifoldness of the one Christ is far more manifold than the manifoldness of the multiplicity of fragmentary and partial aims which foolish men perceive.
The ways of seeking are very plain. First of all, we seek if, and in proportion as, we make the effort to occupy our thoughts and minds, not with theological dogmas, but with the living Christ Himself. Ah! brethren, it is hard to do, and I daresay a great many of you are thinking that it is far harder for you, in the distractions and rush and conflict of business and daily life, than it is for people like me, whom you imagine as sitting in a study, with nothing to distract us. I do not know about that; I fancy it is about equally hard for us all; but it is possible. I have been in Alpine villages where, at the end of every squalid alley, there towered up a great, pure, silent, white peak. That is what our lives may be; however noisome, crowded, petty the little lane in which we live, the Alp is at the end of it there, if we only choose to lift our eyes and look. It is possible that not only ‘into the sessions of sweet silent thought,’ but into the rush and bustle of the workshop or the exchange, there may come, like ‘some sweet, beguiling melody, so sweet we know not we are listening to it,’ the thought that changes pettiness into greatness, that makes all things go smoothly and easily, that is a test and a charm to discover and to destroy temptation, the thought of a present Christ, the Lover of my soul, and the Helper of my life.
Again, we seek Him when, by aspiration and desire, we bring Him-as He is always brought thereby-into our hearts and into our lives. The measure of our desire is the measure of our possession. Wishing is the opening of our hearts, but, alas, often we wish and desire, and the heart opens and nothing enters. Wishes are like the tentacles of some marine organism waving about in a waste ocean, feeling for the food that they do not find. But if we open our hearts for Him, that is simultaneous with the coming of Him to us. ‘Ye have not, because ye ask not.’ Do not forget, dear friends, that desire, if it is genuine, will take a very concrete form and will be prayer. And it is prayer-by which I do not mean the utterance of words without desire, any more than I mean desire without the direct casting of it into the form of supplication-it is prayer that brings Christ into any, and it is prayer that will bring Him into every, life.
Nor let us forget that there is another way of seeking besides these two, of looking up to Him through, and in the midst of, all the shows and trifles of this low life, and the reaching out of our desires towards Him, as the roots of a tree beneath the soil go straight for the river. That other way is imitation and obedience. It is vain to think of Him, and it is unreal to pretend to desire Him, if we are not seeking Him by treading in the path that He has trod, and which leads to Him. Imitation and obedience-these are the steps by which we go straight through all the trivialities of life into the presence of the Lord Himself. The smallest deflection from the path that leads to Him will carry us away into doleful wastes. The least invisible cloud that steals across the sky will blot out half a hemisphere of stars; and we seek not Christ unless, thinking of Him, and desiring Him, we also walk in the path in which He has walked, and so come where He is. He Himself has said that if His servant follows Him, where He is there shall also His servant be. These things make up the seeking which ought to mark us all.
I note that-
II. The Christian seeker always finds.
I pointed out in my last sermon the strange identity of our Lord’s words to His humble friends, with those which on another occasion He used to His bitter enemies. He reminds the disciples of that identity in the verse from which my text comes: ‘As I said to the Jews . . . so now I say to you.’ But there was one thing that He said to the Jews that He did not say to them. To the former He said, ‘Ye shall seek Me, and shall not find Me’; and He did not say that-even for the sad hours it was not quite true-He did not say that to His followers, and He does not say it to us.
If we seek we shall find. There is no disappointment in the Christian life. Anything is possible rather than that a man should desire Christ and not have Him. That has never been the experience of any seeking soul. And so I urge upon you what has already been suggested, that inasmuch as, by reason of His infinite longing to give truth and love and guidance and energy and His whole Self, to all of us, the amount of our possession of the power and life of Jesus Christ depends on ourselves. If you take to the fountain a tiny cup, you will only bring away a tiny cupful. If you take a great vessel you will bring it away full. As long as the woman in the old story held out her vessels to the miraculous flow of the oil, the flow continued. When she had no more vessels to take, the flow stopped. If a man holds a flagon beneath a spigot with an unsteady hand, half of the precious liquor will be spilt on the ground. Those who fulfil the conditions, of which I have already been speaking, may make quite sure that according to their faith will it be unto them. And if you, dear friend, have not in your experience the conscious presence of a Christ who is all that you need, there is no one in heaven or earth or hell to blame for it but only your own self. ‘I have never said to any of the seed of Jacob, Seek ye My face in vain’; and when the Lord said, ‘Ye shall seek Me,’ He was implicitly binding Himself to meet the seeking soul, and give Himself to the desiring heart.
Remember, too, that this seeking, which is always crowned with finding, is the only search in which failure is impossible. There is only one course of life that has no disappointments. We all know how frequently we are foiled in our quests; we all know how often a prize won is a bitterer disappointment than a prize unattained. Like a jelly-fish in the water, as long as it is there its tenuous substance is lovely, expanded, tinged with delicate violets and blues, and its long filaments float in lines of beauty. Lay it on the beach, and it is a shapeless lump, and it poisons and stings. You fish your prize out of the great ocean, and when you have it, does it disappoint, or does it fulfil, the raised expectations of the quest? There is One who does not disappoint. There is one gold mine that comes up to the prospectus. There is one spring that never runs dry. The more deep our Christian experience is, the more we shall take the rapturous exclamation of the Arabian queen to ourselves: ‘The half was not told us!’
And so, lastly, I suggest that-
III. The finding impels to fresh seeking.
The object of the Christian man’s quest is Jesus Christ. He is Incarnate Infinitude; and that cannot be exhausted. The seeker after Jesus Christ is the Christian soul. That soul is the incarnate possibility of indefinite expansion and approximation and assimilation; and that cannot be exhausted. And so, with a Christ who is infinite, and a seeker whose capacities may be indefinitely expanded, there can be no satiety, there can be no limit, there can be no end to the process. This wine-skin will not burst when the new wine is put into it. Rather like some elastic vessel, as you pour it will fill out and expand. Possession enlarges, and the more of Christ’s fullness is poured into a human heart, the more is that heart widened out to receive a greater blessing.
Dear brethren, there is one course of life, and I believe but one, on which we may all enter with the sure confidence that in the nature of things, in the nature of Christ, and in the nature of ourselves, there is no end to growth and progress. Think of the freshness and blessedness and energy that puts into a life. To have an unattained and unattainable object, a goal to which we can never come, but to which we may ever be approximating, seems to me to be the secret of perpetual joy and of perpetual youthfulness. To say, ‘forgetting the things that are behind, I reach forward unto the things that are before,’ is a charm and an amulet that repels monotony and weariness, and goes with a man to the very end, and when all other aims and objects have died down into grey ashes, that flame, like the fabled lamp in Virgil’s tomb, burns clear in the grave, and lights us to the eternity beyond.
For certainly, if there be neither satiety nor limit to Christian progress here, there can be no better and stronger evidence that Christian progress here is but the first ‘lap’ of the race, the first stadium of the course, and that beyond that narrow, dark line which lies across the path, it runs on, rising higher, and will run on for ever.
‘On earth the broken arc; in heaven the perfect round.’
Seek for what you are sure to find; seek for what will never disappoint you; seek for what will abide with you for ever. The very first word of Christ’s recorded in Scripture is a question which He puts to us all: ‘What seek ye?’ Well for us, if like the two to whom it was originally addressed, we answer, ‘We are not seeking a What; we are seeking a Whom.-Master, where dwellest Thou?’ And if we have that answer in our hearts, we shall receive the invitation which they received, ‘Come and see,’-come and seek. ‘Ye shall seek Me’ is a gracious invitation, an imperative command, and a faithful promise that if we seek we shall find. ‘Whoso findeth Him findeth life; whoso misseth Him’-whatever else he has sought and found-’wrongeth his own soul.’
‘AS I HAVE LOVED’
Joh_13:34 - Joh_13:35 .
Wishes from dying lips are sacred. They sink deep into memories and mould faithful lives. The sense of impending separation had added an unwonted tenderness to our Lord’s address, and He had designated His disciples by the fond name of ‘little children.’ The same sense here gives authority to His words, and moulds them into the shape of a command. The disciples had held together because He was in their midst. Will the arch stand when the keystone is struck out? Will not the spokes fall asunder when the nave of the wheel is taken away? He would guard them from the disintegrating tendencies that were sure to set in when He was gone; and He would point them to a solace for His absence, and to a kind of substitute for His presence. For to love the brethren whom they see would be, in some sense, a continuing to love the Christ whom they had ceased to see. And so, immediately after He said: ‘Whither I go ye cannot come,’ He goes on to say: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’
He called this a ‘new commandment,’ though to love one’s neighbour as one’s self was a familiar commonplace amongst the Jews, and had a recognised position in Rabbinical teaching. But His commandment proposed a new object of love, it set forth a new measure of love, so greatly different from all that had preceded it as to become almost a new kind of love, and it suggested and supplied a new motive power for love. This commandment ‘could give life’ and fulfil itself. Therefore it comes to us as a ‘new commandment’-even to us-and, unlike the words which preceded it, which we were considering in former sermons, it is wholly and freshly applicable to-day as in the ages that are passed. I ask you, first, to consider-
I. The new scope of the new commandment.
‘Love one another.’ The newness of the precept is realised, if we think for a moment of the new phenomenon which obedience to it produced. When the words were spoken, the then-known civilised Western world was cleft by great, deep gulfs of separation, like the crevasses in a glacier, by the side of which our racial animosities and class differences are merely superficial cracks on the surface. Language, religion, national animosities, differences of condition, and saddest of all, difference of sex, split the world up into alien fragments. A ‘stranger’ and an ‘enemy’ were expressed in one language, by the same word. The learned and the unlearned, the slave and his master, the barbarian and the Greek, the man and the woman, stood on opposite sides of the gulfs, flinging hostility across. A Jewish peasant wandered up and down for three years in His own little country, which was the very focus of narrowness and separation and hostility, as the Roman historian felt when he called the Jews the ‘haters of the human race’; He gathered a few disciples, and He was crucified by a contemptuous Roman governor, who thought that the life of one fanatical Jew was a small price to pay for popularity with his troublesome subjects, and in a generation after, the clefts were being bridged and all over the Empire a strange new sense of unity was being breathed, and ‘Barbarian, Scythian, bond and free,’ male and female, Jew and Greek, learned and ignorant, clasped hands and sat down at one table, and felt themselves ‘all one in Christ Jesus.’ They were ready to break all other bonds, and to yield to the uniting forces that streamed out from His Cross. There never had been anything like it. No wonder that the world began to babble about sorcery, and conspiracies, and complicity in unnameable vices. It was only that the disciples were obeying the ‘new commandment,’ and a new thing had come into the world-a community held together by love and not by geographical accidents or linguistic affinities, or the iron fetters of the conqueror. You sow the seed in furrows separated by ridges, and the ground is seamed, but when the seed springs the ridges are hidden, no division appears, and as far as the eye can reach, the cornfield stretches, rippling in unbroken waves of gold. The new commandment made a new thing, and the world wondered.
Now then, brethren, do not let us forget that, although to obey this commandment is in some respects a great deal harder to-day than it was then, the diverse circumstances in which Christian individuals and Christian communities are this day placed may modify the form of our obedience, but do not in the smallest degree weaken the obligation, for the individual Christian and for societies of Christians, to follow this commandment. The multiplication of numbers, the cessation of the armed hostility of the world, the great varieties in intellectual position in regard to the truths of Christianity, divergencies of culture, and many other things, are separating forces, But our Christianity is worth very little, if it cannot master these separating tendencies, even as in the early days of freshness, the Christianity that sprang in these new converts’ minds mastered the far more powerful separating tendencies with which they had to contend.
Every Christian man is under the obligation to recognise his kindred with every other Christian man-his kindred in the deep foundations of his spiritual being, which are far deeper, and ought to be far more operative in drawing together, than the superficial differences of culture or opinion or the like, which may part us. The bond that holds Christian men together is their common relation to the one Lord, and that ought to influence their attitude to one another. You say I am talking commonplaces. Yes; and the condition of Christianity this day is the sad and tragical sign that the commonplaces need to be talked about, till they are rubbed into the conscience of the Church as they never have been before.
Do not let us suppose that Christian love is mere sentiment. I shall have to speak a word or two about that presently, but I would fain lift the whole subject, if I can, out of the region of mere unctuous words and gush of half-feigned emotion, which mean nothing, and would make you feel that it is a very practical commandment, gripping us hard, when our Lord says to us, ‘Love one another.’
I have spoken about the accidental conditions which make obedience to this commandment difficult. The real reason which makes the obedience to it difficult is the slackness of our own hold on the Centre. In the measure in which we are filled with Jesus Christ, in that measure will that expression of His spirit and His life become natural to us. Every Christian has affinities with every other Christian, in the depths of his being, so as that he is a great deal more like his brother, who is possessor of ‘like precious faith,’ however unlike the two may be in outlook, in idiosyncrasy, and culture and in creed, than he is to another man with whom he may have a far closer sympathy in all these matters than he has with the brother in question, but from whom he is parted by this, that the one trusts and loves and obeys Jesus Christ, and the other does not. So, for individuals and for churches, the commandment takes this shape-Go down to the depths and you will find that you are closer to the Christian man or community which seems furthest from you, than you are to the non-Christian who seems nearest to you. Therefore, let your love follow your kinship, and your heart recognise the oneness that knits you together. That is a revolutionary commandment; what would become of our present organisations of Christianity if it were obeyed? That is a revolutionary commandment; what would become of our individual relations to the whole family who, in every place, and in many tongues, and with many creeds, call on Jesus as on their Lord, their Lord and ours, if it were obeyed? I leave you to answer the question. Only I say the commandment has for its first scope all who, in every place, love the Lord Jesus Christ.
But there is more than that involved in it. The very same principle which makes this love to one another imperative upon all disciples, makes it equally imperative upon every follower of Jesus Christ to embrace in a real affection all whom Jesus so loved as to die for them. If I am to love a Christian man because he and I love Christ, I am to love everybody, because Christ loves me and everybody, and because He died on the Cross for me and for all men. And so one of the other Apostles, or, at least, the letter which goes by his name, laid hold on the true connection when, instead of concentrating Christian affection on the Church, and letting the world go to the devil as an alien thing, he said: ‘Add to your faith,’ this, that, and the other, and ‘brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, charity.’ The particular does not exclude the general, it leads to the general. The fire kindled upon the hearth gives warmth to all the chamber. The circles are concentric, and the widest sweep is struck from the same middle point as the narrow. So the new commandment does not cut humanity into two halves, but gathers all diversity into one, and spreads the great reconciling of Christian love over all the antagonisms and oppositions of earth. Let me ask you to notice-
II. The example of the new commandment, ‘As I have loved you.’
That solemn ‘as’ lifts itself up before us, shines far ahead of us, ought to draw us to itself in hope, and not to repel us from itself in despair. ‘As I have loved’-what a tremendous thing for a man to stand up before his fellows, and say, ‘Take Me as the perfect example of perfect love; and let My example-un-dimmed by the mists of gathering centuries, and un-weakened by the change of condition, and circumstance, fresh as ever after ages have passed, and closely-fitting as ever all varieties of human character and condition-stand before you; the ideal that I have realised, and you will be blessed in the proportion in which you seek, though you fail, to realise it!’ There is, I venture to believe, only one aspect of Jesus Christ in which such a setting forth of Himself as the perfect Incarnation of perfect love is warrantable; and that is found in the old belief that His very birth was the result of His love, and that His death was the climax of that love. And if so, we have to turn to Bethlehem, and the whole life, and the Cross at its end, as being the Christ-given example and model for our love to our brethren.
What do we see there? I have said that there is too much of mere sickly sentimentality about the ordinary treatment of this great commandment, and that I desired to lift it out of that region into a far nobler, more strenuous, and difficult one. This is what we see in that life and in that death:-First of all-the activity of love-’Let us not love in words, but in deed and in truth’; then we see the self-forgetfulness of love-’Even Christ pleased not Himself’; then we see the self-sacrifice of love-’Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ And in these three points, on which I would fain enlarge if I might, active love, self-oblivious love, self-sacrificing love, you have the pattern set for us all. Christian love is no mere sickly maiden, full of sentimental emotions and honeyed words. She is a strenuous virgin, girt for service, a heroine ready for dangers, and prepared to be a martyr if it be needful. Love’s language is sacrifice. ‘I give thee myself,’ is its motto. And that is the pattern that is set before us all-’as I have loved you.’
I have tried to show you how the commandment was new in many particulars, and it is for ever new in this particular, that it is for ever before us, unattained, and drawing faithful hearts to itself, and ever opening out into new heroisms and, therefore, blessedness, of self-sacrifice, and ever leading us to confess the differences, deep, tragic, sinful, between us and Him who-we sometimes think too presumptuously-we venture to say is our Lord and Master.
Did you ever see in some great picture gallery a copyist sitting in front of a Raffaelle, and comparing his poor feeble daub, all out of drawing, and with little of the divine beauty that the master had breathed over his canvas, even if it preserved the mere mechanical outline? That is what you and I should do with our lives: take them and put them down side by side with the original. We shall have to do it some day. Had we better not do it now, and try to bring the copy a little nearer to the masterpiece; and let that ‘as I have loved you’ shine before us and draw us on to unattainable heights?
And now, lastly, we have here-
III. The motive power for obedience to the commandment.
That is as new as all the rest. That ‘as’ expresses the manner of the love, but it also expresses the motive and the power. It might be translated into the equivalent ‘in the fashion in which,’ or it might be translated into the equivalent ‘since-’ ‘I have loved you.’ The original might bear the rendering, ‘that ye also may love one another.’ That is to say, what keeps men from obeying this commandment is the instinctive self-regard which is natural to us all. There are muscles in the body which are so constructed that they close tightly; and the heart is something like one of these sphincter muscles-it shuts by nature, especially if there has been anything put inside it over which it can shut and keep it all to itself. But there is one thing that dethrones Self, and enthrones the angel Love in a heart, and that is, that into that heart there shall come surging the sense of the great love ‘wherewith I have loved you.’ That melts the iceberg; nothing else will.
That love of Christ to us, received into our hearts, and there producing an answering love to Him, will make us, in the measure in which we live in it and let it rule us, love everything and every person that He loves. That love of Jesus Christ, stealing into our hearts and there sweetening the ever-springing ‘issues of life,’ will make them flow out in glad obedience to any commandment of His. That love of Jesus Christ, received into our hearts, and responded to by our answering love, will work, as love always does, a magical transformation. A great monastic teacher wrote his precious book about The Imitation of Christ. ‘Imitation’ is a great word, ‘Transformation’ is a greater. ‘We all,’ receiving on the mirror of our loving hearts the love of Jesus Christ, ‘are changed into the same likeness.’ Thus, then, the love, which is our pattern, is also our motive and our power for obedience, and the more we bring ourselves under its influences, the more we shall love all those who are beloved by, and lovers of, Jesus.
That is the one foundation for a world knit together in the bonds of amity and concord. There have been attempts at brotherhood, and the guillotine has ended what was begun in the name of ‘fraternity.’ Men build towers, but there is no cement between the bricks, unless the love of Christ holds them together, and therefore Babel after Babel comes down about the ears of its builders. But notwithstanding all that is dark to-day, and though the war-clouds are lowering, and the hearts of men are inflamed with fierce passions, Christ’s commandment is Christ’s promise; and though the vision tarry, it will surely come. So even to-day Christian men ought to stand for Christ’s peace, and for Christ’s love. The old commandment which we have had from the beginning, is the new commandment that fits to-day as it fits all the ages. It is a dream, say some. Yes, a dream; but a morning dream which comes true. Let us do the little we can to make it true, and to bring about the day when the flock of men will gather round the one Shepherd, who loved them to the death, and who has bid them and helped them to ‘love one another as’-and since-’He has loved them.’
Joh_13:37 - Joh_13:38 .
Peter’s main characteristics are all in operation here; his eagerness to be in the front, his habit of blurting out his thoughts and feelings, his passionate love for his Master, and withal his inability to understand Him, and his self-confident arrogance. He has broken in upon Christ’s solemn words, entirely deaf to their deep meaning, but blindly and blunderingly laying hold of one thought only, that Jesus is departing, and that he is to be left alone. So he asks the question, ‘Lord! thither goest Thou?’-not so much caring about that, as meaning by his question-’tell me where, and then I will come too’; pledging himself to follow faithfully, as a dog behind his master, wherever He went.
Our Lord answered the underlying meaning of the words, repeating with a personal application what He had just before said as a general principle-’Whither I go thou canst not follow Me now, but thou shall follow Me afterwards.’ Then followed this noteworthy dialogue.
The whole significance of the incident is preserved for us in the beautiful legend which tells us how, near the city of Rome, on the Appian Way, as Peter was flying for his life, he met the Lord, and again said to Him: ‘Lord, whither goest Thou?’ The words of the question, as given in the Vulgate, are the name of the site of the supposed interview, and of the little church which stands on it. The Master answered: ‘I go to Rome, to be crucified again.’ The answer smote the heart of the Apostle, and turned the cowardly fugitive into a hero; and he followed his Lord, and went gladly to his death. For it was that death which had to be accomplished before Peter was able to follow his Lord.
Now, as to the words before us, I think we shall best gather their significance, and lay it upon our own hearts, if we simply follow the windings of the dialogue. There are three points: the audacious question, the rash vow, and the sad forecast.
I. The audacious question.
As Peter’s first question, ‘Lord, whither goest Thou?’ meant not so much what it said, as ‘I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest; tell me, that I may’; so the second question, in like manner, is really not so much a question, ‘Why cannot I follow Thee now?’ as the nearest possible approach to a flat contradiction of our Lord. Peter puts his words into the shape of an interrogation; what he means is, ‘Yes, I can follow Thee; and in proof thereof, I will lay down my life for Thy sake.’ The man’s persistence, the man’s love leading him to lack of reverence, came out in this as I have ventured to call it audacious question. Its underlying meaning was a refusal to believe the Master’s word. But yet there was in it a nobility of resolution-broken afterwards, but never mind about that-to endure anything rather than to be separate from the Lord. Yet, though it was noble in its motive, but lacking in reverence in its form, there was a deeper error than that in it. Peter did not know what ‘following’ meant, and he had to be taught that first. One of the main reasons why he could not follow was because he did not understand what was involved. It was something more than marching behind his Master, even to a Cross. There was a deeper discipline and a more strenuous effort needed than would have availed for such a kind of following.
Let us look a little onwards into his life. Recall that scene on the morning of the day by the banks of the lake, when he waded through the shallow water, and cast himself, dripping, at his Master’s feet, and, having by his threefold confession obliterated his threefold denial, was taken back to his Lord’s love, and received the permission for which he had hungered, and which he had been told, in the upper room, could not ‘now’ be given: ‘Jesus said to him, Follow thou Me.’ What a flood of remembrances must then have rushed over the penitent Peter! how he must have thought to himself, ‘So soon, so soon is the “canst not” changed into a canst! So soon has the “afterwards” come to be the present!’
And long years after that, when he was an old man, and experience had taught him what following meant, he shared his privilege with all the dispersed strangers to whom he wrote, and said to them, with a definite reference to this incident, and to the other after the Resurrection, ‘leaving us an example, that we not only, as I used to think, in my exuberant days of ignorance should follow in His steps.’
So, brethren, this blundering, loving, audacious question suggests to us that to follow Jesus Christ is the supreme direction for all conduct. Men of all creeds, men of no creed, admit that. The
‘Loveliness of perfect deeds,
More strong than all poetic thought,’
which is set forth in that life constitutes the living law to which all conduct is to be conformed, and will be noble in proportion as it is conformed.
There is the great blessing, and solemn obligation, and lofty prerogative of Christian morality, that for obedience to a precept it substitutes following a Person, and instead of saying to men ‘Be good’ it says to them ‘Be Christlike.’ It brings the conception of duty out of the region of abstractions into the region of living realities. For the cold statuesque ideal of perfection it substitutes a living Man, with a heart to love, and a hand to help us. Thereby the whole aspect of striving after the right is changed; for the work is made easier, and companionship comes in to aid morality, when Jesus Christ says to us, ‘Be like Me; and then you will be good and blessed.’ Effort will be all but as blessed as attainment, and the sense of pressing hard after Him will be only less restful than the consciousness of having attained. To follow Him is bliss, to reach Him is heaven.
But in order that this following should be possible, there must be something done that had not been done when Peter asked, ‘Why cannot I follow Thee now?’ One reason why he could not was, as I said, because he did not know yet what ‘following’ meant, and because he was yet unfit for this assimilation of his character and of his conduct to the likeness of his Lord. And another reason was because the Cross still lay before the Lord, and until that death of infinite love and utter self-sacrifice for others had been accomplished, the pattern was not yet complete, nor the highest ideal of human life realised in life. Therefore the ‘following’ was impossible. Christ must die before He has completed the example that we are to follow, and Christ must die before the impulse shall be given to us, which shall make us able to tread, however falteringly and far behind, in His footsteps.
The essence of His life and of His death lies in the two things, entire suppression of personal will in obedience to the will of the Father, and entire self-sacrifice for the sake of humanity. And however there is-and God forbid that I should ever forget in my preaching that there is-a uniqueness in that sacrifice, in that life, and in that death, which beggars all imitation, and needs and tolerates no repetition whilst the world lasts, still along with this, there is that which is imitable in the life and imitable in the death of the Master. To follow Jesus is to live denying self for God, and to live sacrificing self for men. Nothing less than these are included in the solemn words, ‘leaving us’-even in the act and article of death when He ‘suffered for us’-’an example that we should follow His steps.’
The word rendered ‘example’ refers to the headline which the writing-master gives his pupils to copy, line by line. We all know how clumsy the pothooks and hangers are, how blurred the page with many a blot. And yet there, at the top of it, stands the Master’s fair writing, and though even the last line on the page will be blotted and blurred, when we turn it over and begin on the new leaf, the copy will be like the original, ‘and we shall he like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.’ ‘Thou shalt follow Me afterwards’ is a commandment; blessed be God, it is also a promise. For let us not forget that the ‘following’ ends in an attaining; even as the Lord Himself has said in another connection, when He spake: ‘If any man serve Me, let him follow Me, and where I am, there shall also My servant be.’ Of course, if we follow, we shall come to the same place one day. And so the great promise will be fulfilled; ‘they shall follow the Lamb,’ in that higher life, ‘whithersoever He goeth’; and not as here imperfectly, and far behind, but close beside Him, and keeping step for step, being with Him first, and following Him afterwards.
But let us remember that with regard to that future following and its completeness, the same present incapacity applies, as clogs and mars the ‘following,’ which is conforming our lives to His. For, as He Himself has said to us, ‘I go to prepare a place for you,’ and until He had passed through death and into His glory, there was no standing-ground for human feet on the golden pavements, and heaven was inaccessible to man until Christ had died. Thus, as all life is changed when it is looked upon as being a following of Jesus, so death becomes altogether other when it is so regarded. The first martyr outside the city wall, bruised and battered by the cruel stones, remembered his Master’s death, and shaped his own to be like it. As Jesus, when He died, had said: ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit,’ Stephen, dying, said: ‘Lord Jesus, receive My spirit.’ As the Master had given His last breath to the prayer, ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,’ so Stephen shaped his last utterance to a conformity with his Lord’s, in which the difference is as significant as the likeness, and said, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’ And then, as the record beautifully says, amidst all that wild hubbub and cruel assault, ‘he fell on sleep,’ as a child on its mother’s breast. Death is changed when it becomes the following of Christ.
II. We have here a rash vow.
‘I will lay down my life for Thy sake.’ What a strange inversion of parts is here! ‘Lay down thy life for My sake’-with Calvary less than four-and-twenty hours off, when Christ laid down His life for Peter’s sake. Peter was guilty of an anachronism in the words, for the time did not come for the disciple to die for his Lord till after the Lord had died for His disciple. But he was right in feeling, though he felt it only in regard to an external and physical act, that to follow Jesus, it was necessary to be ready to die for Him. And that is the great truth which underlies and half redeems the rashness of this vow, and needs to be laid upon our hearts, if we are ever to be the true followers of the Master. Death for Christ is necessary if we are to follow Him. There is nothing that a man can do deeply and truly, in a manner worthy of a Christian, which has not underlying it, either the death of self-will and all the godless nature, or if need be the actual physical death, which is a much smaller matter. You cannot follow Christ except you die daily. No man has ever yet trodden in His footsteps except on condition of, moment by moment, slaying self, suppressing self, abjuring self, breaking the connection of self with the material world, and yielding up himself as a living sacrifice, in a living death, to the Lord of life and death. Do not think that ‘following Christ’ is a mere sentimental expression for so much morality as we can conveniently get into our daily life. But remember that here, with all his rashness, with all his ignorance, with all his superficiality, the Apostle has laid hold upon the great permanent, but alas! much-forgotten principle, that to die is essential to following Jesus.
This daily dying, which is a far harder thing to do than to go to a cross once, and have done with it-was impossible for Peter then, though he did not know it. His vow was a rash one, because the laying down of Christ’s life, for Peter’s sake and for ours, had not yet been accomplished. There is the motive-power by which, and by which alone, drawn in gratitude, and melted down from all our selfishness, we, too, in our measure and our turn, are able to yield ourselves, in daily crucifixion of our evil, and daily abnegation of self-trust, and self-pleasing, and self-will, to the Lord that has died for us. He must lay down His life for our sakes, and we must know He has done it, and rest upon Him as our great Sacrifice and our atoning Priest, or else we shall never be so loosed from the tyranny of self as to be ready to live by dying, and to die that we may live for His sake. ‘I go to Rome to be crucified again’ were the words in which the old legend braced the fugitive and made a hero of him, and sent him back to be crucified like his Lord and to offer up his physical life, as he had long since offered up his self-will and his arrogance to the Lord that had died for him.
O Lord our Father! help us, we beseech Thee, that we may be of the sheep that hear the Shepherd’s voice and follow Him. Strengthen our faith in that dear Lord who has laid down His life for us, that we may daily, by self-denial and self-sacrifice, lay down our lives for Him, and follow Him here in all the footsteps of His love.
A RASH VOW
In the last sermon I partly considered the dialogue of which this is the concluding portion, and found that it consisted of an audacious question: ‘Why cannot I follow Thee now?’ which really meant a contradiction of our Lord; of a rash vow; ‘I will lay down my life for Thy sake’-and of a sad forecast: ‘The cock shall not crow till thou hast denied Me thrice.’ I paused in the middle of considering the second of these three stages, the rash vow. I then pointed out that, however ignorant the Apostle was of what ‘following Christ’ meant, he had hit the mark, and stumbled unknowingly upon the very essence of the Christian life, and an eternal truth, when he recognised that, somehow or other, to ‘follow Christ’ meant to die for Him. That is so, and is so always, for there is no following Christ which is not a ‘dying daily,’ by self-immolation and detachment from the world, and from the life of sense and self. But this rash vow has to be looked at from a somewhat different point of view, and we have to consider not only the strangely blended right and wrong, error and deep truth, that lie in its substance, but the strangely blended right and wrong in the state of feeling and thought, on the part of the Apostle, which it represents. And taking up the dropped thread, I first deal with that, and then with the sad forecast which follows.
So then, looking at these words as being like all our words, even the best of them, strangely mingled of right and wrong, good and evil, I find in them-
I. A noble, sincere, but transient emotion and impulse.
‘I will lay down my life for Thy sake.’ Peter meant it, every word of it; and he would have done it too, if only a gibbet or cross could have been set up then and there in the upper room. But unfortunately the moments of elevation and high-wrought enthusiasm, and the calls to martyrdom, do not always coincide. In the upper room, with its sacred atmosphere, it was easy to feel, and would have been easy to do, nobly. But it was not so easy, lying drowsily in Gethsemane, in the cold spring night, waiting for the Master’s coming out from beneath the trembling shadows of the olive trees, or huddled up by the fire at the lower end of the hall in the grey morning, when vitality is at its lowest.
So the sincere, noble utterance was but the expression of impulse and emotion which lifted Peter for a moment, and did him good, but which likewise, running through him, left him dry, and all the weaker because of the gush of feeling which had foamed itself away in empty words. For let us never forget that however high, noble, or divinely inspired emotion may be, in its nature it is transient and is sure to be followed by reaction. Like the winter torrents in some parched land, the more they foam, the more speedily does the bed of them dry up again, and the more they carry down the very soil in which growth and fertility would be possible. A rush of feeling is apt to leave behind hard, insensitive rock. There is a close connection between a predominantly emotional Christianity and a very imperfect life. Feeling is apt to be a substitute for action. Is it not a very remarkable thing that the word ‘benevolence,’ which means ‘kindly feeling,’ has come to take on the meaning rightly belonging to ‘beneficence,’ which means ‘kindly doing’? The emotional man blinds and hoodwinks himself, by thinking that his quick sensibility and lofty enthusiasm and warmth of emotion are action or as good as action. ‘Be thou warmed and filled,’ he says to his brother, and, in a lazy expansion of heart, forgets that he has never lifted a finger to help.
God forbid that I should seem to deprecate emotional religion or religious emotion! that is the last thing that needs to be done in this generation. If the Churches want one thing more than another, it is that their Christianity should become far more emotional than it is, and their impulses stronger, swifter, more spontaneous, more overmastering, and that they should be urged by these, and not merely by the reluctant recognition that such and such a piece of sacrifice or effort is a debt that they are obliged to clear off. Their service will be glad service, only when it is impulsive service and emotional service. Dear brethren, a Christian man whose life is not influenced by the deepest and most fervid emotion of love to the great Love that died for him, is a monster. ‘The Lord’s fire is in Jerusalem, and His furnace in Zion’-is that a description of the fervour of this Church, or of any Church in Christendom? A furnace? An ice-house! Think of some deserted cottage, with the roof fallen in, and in the cold chimney-place a rusty grate with some dead embers in it, and the snow lying upon the top of it-that is a truer description of a great many of our churches than ‘the Lord’s furnace.’
But the lesson to be taken from this incident before us is not the danger of emotion; it is rather the necessity of emotion, but with two provisoes, that it shall be emotion based upon a clear recognition of the great truth that He has laid down His life for me; and that it shall be emotion harnessed to work, and not wasted in words. The mightier the plunge of the fall, the more electrical energy you can get out of it, and set that to work to drive the wheels of life. Do not be afraid of emotion; you will make little of your Christianity unless you have it. But be sure that it is under the guidance of a clear perception of the truth that evokes it, and that it is all used to turn the wheels of life. ‘Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.’ Better is it that emotion should be reticent and active than that it should be voluble and idle. It is a good servant, but a bad master. A man that trusts to impulse and emotion to further his Christian course, is like a ship in that belt of variable winds that lies near the Equator, where there will be a fine ten-knot breeze for an hour or two, and then a sickly, stagnating calm. Push further south, and get into the steady ‘trades,’ where the wind blows with equable and persistent force all the year round in the same direction. Convert impulses and emotions into steadfast principle, warmed by emotion and borne on by impulse.
II. Again, this rash vow is an illustration of a confidence, also strangely blended of good and evil.
‘I will lay down my life for Thy sake.’ As I have said, Peter meant it. His words are paralleled by other words, in which two of the Lord’s disciples answered His solemn question: ‘Are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of?’ with the unhesitating answer, ‘We are able.’ A great teacher has regarded that saying as one of ‘the ventures of faith.’ Perhaps it was. Perhaps there was as much self-confidence as faith in it. Certainly there was more self-confidence than faith in Peter’s answer, and his self-confidence collapsed when the trial came.
The world and the Church hold entirely antagonistic notions about the value of self-reliance. The world says that it is a condition of power. The Church says that it is the root of weakness. Self-confidence shuts a man out from the help of God, and so shuts him out from the source of power. For if you will think for a moment, you will see that the faith which the New Testament, in conformity with all wise knowledge of one’s self, preaches as the one secret of power, has for its obverse-its other side-diffidence and self-distrust. No man trusts God as God ought to be trusted, who does not distrust himself as himself ought to be distrusted. To level a mountain is the only way to carry the water across where it stood. You can, by mechanism and locks, take a canal up to the top of a hill, but you cannot take a river up to the top, and the river of God’s help flows through the valley and seeks the lowest levels. Faith and self-despair are the upper and the under sides of the same thing, like some cunningly-woven cloth, the one side bearing a different pattern from the other, and yet made of the same yarn, and the same threads passing from the upper to the under sides. So faith and self-distrust are but two names for one composite whole.
I was once shown an old Jewish coin which had on the one side the words ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ and on the other side the words ‘a crown of gold.’ The coin meant to contrast what Israel had been with what Israel then was. The crown had come first; the sackcloth and ashes last. But we may use it for illustrating this point, on which I am now dwelling. Wherever, and only where, there are the sackcloth and ashes of self-despair there will be the crown of gold of an answering faith. When thus, as Wesley has it, in his great hymn: ‘Confident in self-despair,’ we cling to God, then we can say: ‘When I am weak then am I strong,’ ‘Behold! we have no might, but our eyes are upon Thee.’ If Peter had only said, ‘By Thy help I will lay down my life for Thy sake,’ his confidence would have been reasonable and blessed self-confidence, because it would have been confidence in a self inspired by divine power.
And so, brethren, whilst utter diffidence is right for us, and is the condition of all our reception of energy according to our need, the most absolute confidence-a confidence which, to the eye of the man that measures only visible things, will seem sheer insanity-is sobriety for a Christian. The world is perfectly right when it says: ‘If you believe you can do a thing, you have gone a long way towards doing it.’ The expectation of success has often the knack of fulfilling itself. But the world does not know our secret, and our secret is that our humble faith brings into the field the reserves with the Captain of our salvation at their head. Therefore a self-distrusting Christian can say, and say without exaggeration or presumption, ‘I can do all things in Christ, strengthening me from within.’
The Church’s ideals are possibilities, when you bring God into the account, and they look like insanity when you do not. Take, for instance, missions. What an absurdity to talk about a handful of Christian people-for we are only a handful as compared with the whole world-carrying their Gospel into every corner of the earth, and finding everywhere a response to it. Yes; it is absurd; but, wise Mr. Calculator, counter of heads, you have forgotten God in your estimate of whether it is reasonable or unreasonable. Again, take the Christian ideal of absolute perfection of character. ‘What nonsense to talk as if any man could ever come to that.’ Yes!-as if any man could come to that, I grant you. But if God is with him, the nonsense is to suppose that he will not come to it. Here is a row of cyphers as long as your arm. They mean nothing. Put a 1 at the left-hand end of the row; and what does it mean then? So the faith that brings Christ into the life, and into the Church, makes ‘nobodies’ into mighty men-’laughs at impossibilities, and cries, It shall be done!’
Still further, here, in this rash vow, we have an underestimate of difficulties. There was another incident in the life of the Apostle, a strange replica of this one, into which he pushed himself, just as he did into the high priest’s hall, partly out of curiosity and a wish to be prominent; partly out of love to his Master. Without a moment’s consideration of the peril into which he was thrusting himself, he sat in the boat, and said, ‘Bid me come to Thee on the water.’ He forgot that He was heavy, and that water was not solid, and that the wind was high and the lake rough, and when he put his foot over the side and felt the cold waves creeping up his knees, his courage ebbed out with his faith, and he began to sink. Then he cried, ‘Lord! help me!’ If he had thought for a moment of the reality of the case, he would have sat still in the boat. If he had thought of what would be in his way in following Jesus to death, he would have hesitated to vow. But it is so much easier to resolve heroisms in a quiet corner than to do them when the strain comes, and it is so much easier to do some one great thing that has in it enthusiasm and nobility, and conspicuousness of sacrifice, especially if it can be got over in a moment, like having one’s head cut off with an axe, than it is to ‘die daily.’ Ah! brethren, it is the little difficulties that make the difficulty. You read in the newspapers in the autumn, every now and then, of trains, in that wonderful country across the water, being stopped by caterpillars. The Christian train is stopped by an army of caterpillars, far oftener than it is by some solid and towering barrier. Our Christian lives are a great deal likelier to come to failure, because we do not take into account the multiplied small antagonisms than because we are not ready to face the greater ones. What would you think of a bridge builder, who built a bridge across some mountain torrent and made no allowance for freshets and floods when the ice melted? His bridge and his piers would be gone the first winter. You remember who it was that said that he went into the Franco-German War ‘with a light heart,’ and in seven weeks came Sedan and the dethronement of an Emperor, and the surrender of an army. ‘Blessed is he that feareth always.’ There is no more fatal error than an underestimate of our difficulties.
III. Let me say a word about the sad forecast here.
‘Thou shalt deny me thrice.’
We cannot say that poor Peter’s fall was at all an anomalous or uncommon thing. He did exactly what a great many of us are doing. He could-and I have no doubt he would-have gone to the death for Jesus Christ; but he could not stand being laughed at for Him. He would have been ready to meet the executioner’s sharp sword, but the servant-girl’s sharp tongue was more than he could bear. And so he denied Jesus, not because he was afraid of his skin-for I do not suppose that the servants had any notion of doing anything more than amusing themselves with a few clumsy gibes at his expense-but because he could not bear to be made sport of.
Now, dear brethren, I suppose we are all of us more or less movers in circles in which it sometimes is not considered ‘good form’ to show that we are Christian people. You young men in your warehouses, you students at the University, where it is a sign of being ‘fossils’ and ‘behind the times’ and ‘not up to date’ to say ‘I am a Christian,’ and all of us in our several places have sometimes to gather our courage together, and not be afraid to declare whose we are. No doubt life is a better witness than words, but no doubt also life is not so good a witness as it might be, unless it sometimes has the commentary of words as well. Thus, to confess Christ means two things; to say sometimes-in the face of a smile of scorn, which is often harder to bear than something much more dangerous-’I am His,’ and to live Christ, and to say by conduct ‘I am His,’ ‘Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father, and whosoever shall deny Me, him will I also deny.’ Do not button your coats over your uniform. Do not take the cockade out of your hats when you go amongst ‘the other side.’ Live Jesus, and, when advisable, preach Jesus.
But Peter’s fall, which is typical of what we are all tempted to do, has in it a gracious message; for it proclaims the possibility of recovery from any depth of descent, and of coming back again from any distance of wandering. Did you ever notice how Peter’s fall was burnt in upon his memory, so as that when he began to preach after Pentecost, the shape that his indictment of his hearers takes is, ‘Ye denied the Holy One and the Just,’ and how, long after-if the second Epistle which goes by his name is his-in summing up the crimes of the heretics whom he is branding, he speaks of their ‘denying the Lord that bought them.’ He never forgot his denial, and it remained with him as the expression for all that was wrong in a man’s relation to Jesus Christ. And I suppose not only was it burnt in upon his memory, but it burnt out all his self-confidence.
It is beautiful to see how, in his letter, he speaks over and over again of ‘fear’ as being a wise temper of mind for a Christian. As George Herbert has it, ‘A sad, wise valour is the true complexion.’ Thus the man that had been so confident in himself learned to say ‘Be ready to give to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.’
And do you not think that his fall drew him closer to Jesus Christ than ever he had been before, as he learned more of His pardoning love and mercy? Was he not nearer the Lord on that morning when the two together, alone, talked after the Resurrection? Was he not nearer Him when he struggled to his feet from the boat on the lake, on that morning when he was received back into his office as Christ’s Apostle? Did he ever forget how he had sinned? Did he ever forget how Christ had pardoned? Did he ever forget how Christ loved and would keep him? Ah, no! The rope that is broken is strongest where it is spliced, not because it was broken, but because a cunning hand has strengthened it. We may be the stronger for our sins, not because sin strengthens, for it weakens, but because God restores. It is possible that we may build a fairer structure on the ruins of our old selves. It is possible that we may turn every field of defeat into a field of victory. It is possible that we may
‘Fall to rise; be beaten, to fight better.’
If only we cling to the Lord our Strength, the promise shall be ours-whatever our failures, denials, backslidings, inconsistencies- ‘though he fall he shall not be utterly cast down, for the Lord upholdeth him with His hand.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on John 13". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28