CHRISTIAN MEDITATIONS by Dr W R Matthews. A Daily Telegraph Publication. First issued May 1974 © The Daily Telegraph. Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2018.
Walter Robert Matthews (1881—1973), educated at the Universary of London, was ordained to the ministry of the Church of England 1907. He was Dean of King's College London and Professor of the Philosophy of Religion 19218—32. Dean of Exeter 1931—34 and Dean of St Paul's 1934—67.
For a wide and devoted circle of readers the Saturday Sermons and Christmas Meditations of the late Dean Matthews, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph over 24 years, were a spiritual and intellectual sustenance on which they came to depend. It is especially with those readers in mind that this anthology has been compiled. Many or most of them, without doubt, are practising Christians for whom this book will be a welcome addition to their devotional libraries. Nevertheless, one of the Dean's special gifts was his ability to win the respect, affection and attention of those who could not bring themselves to accept the Christian faith, at least as systematised in any known body of theological doctrine. Indeed, many of other religions than Christianity have found help and inspiration in his writings.
The Dean was one of the most accomplished journalists of his long age. He was a formidable theological scholar, and his scholarship served not any sectarian controversy or display of learning but a perfect simplicity of language and thought. Absolute clarity, a rigorous avoidance of jargon—even the respectable jargon of the pulpit—and gentle persuasiveness' were the hallmarks of his style. All journalism is, in a sense, ephemeral, and those who read these pages will doubtless see in them evidence of the special preoccupations of the last two and a half decades. He was never a victim, however, of the shallow passion for topical "relevance" which disfigures so much religious writing today. He saw the trials, tribulations and achievements of his own time (and he gave due weight to all three) as illustrations of the abiding state of mankind. For him, they confirmed the central truths of the Christian faith, and only in the light of those truths could the events of contemporary history be made intelligible.
It is my earnest hope that this book will also fall into the hands of many who never sat at the Dean's feet. Quite apart from its solid philosophical value (and in this respect, of course, it is but a fragment in an impressive corpus of writing), it breathes the spirit of a particular brand of culture, at once liberal and Christian, of which today there are regrettably lew surviving representatives either in the Church or in the world. I aitli and reason, intelligent reverence for tradition and generous flexibility in its interpretation, a love of the past which never degenerated into sentimental escapism and a perception of the need for change which never deteriorated into mere trendiness—such were the qualities of this wise and holy man.
QUIETNESS is a scarce commodity in our civilisation, and many of us find that to purchase it is beyond our means. Though less expensive, quietness of mind is no less difficult to secure, so that, in addition to the din of cars, planes and other assailants of peace, we have to endure the mental disquiet of the political and social unrest of a world in rapid change.
Yet one of the aims and rewards of the life of the Spirit is that "quiet mind" for which we are taught to pray. In what is perhaps the first Christian letter ever written by St. Paul he urges his readers to "be ambitious" for another gift of the Spirit beyond the zeal and active charity which they have shown; let them strive for quietness of mind, which will enable them to look after their own business without distraction, (1 Thes. iv, 11.)
The quiet mind cannot be achieved by a policy of shutting one's eyes to facts. A man who refuses to take notice of the troubles of the world in which he lives is not only withdrawing his help when it is needed, he is trying to set up a private fools' paradise. He cannot really contract out of the responsibilities of his membership of a nation and of the human race. The quiet mind must be the outcome of victory over anxieties not of running away from them.
THE COLLECT, still in harmony with the New Testament, links quietness of mind with "pardon and peace" and "being cleansed from all our sins"; that is, it associates the calming of the mind with the solution of an inner conflict. But the conflict has not been won by the mind of the man. It has been won by God, and through faith in Him. The divided mind has handed its problem over to God and I has committed itself to Him as the loving Father who is both willing and able to pardon and cleanse. Reconciliation with God is, for the Christian believer, the core and essence of a mind at peace.
This quietness of mind is the opposite of the fools' paradise. It is not terrified into stagnation, but active and alert. And in its quietness is its strength. Anchored on the inward peace of the Spirit, such a man will not dither in the face of emergency or despair at disaster, for his trust is not in luck, or chance, or in some future turn of events—it is in the Eternal.
This restless age needs to acquire quietness of mind if il hopes to escape catastrophe, and its physical restlessness may be partly a symptom of its mental and spiritual rootlcssncss. Who knows whether those who speed so senselessly from place to place may not be looking unconsciously for somewhere where there is peace—and not finding it.
HOW to have peace within while living in a noisy world is a question which religion claims to answer—and not only religion but every teaching which aims at spiritual development. The soul grows in quiet. As our civilisation becomes progressively more noisy and distracting the need for inner peace is more apparent. In a familiar phrase, St. Paul states this need in the form of a blessing. "The peace of God which passes all understanding shall guard your hearts" (Phil. iv. 7). There is a peace which does not "pass understanding" but consists of understanding. Philosophers, who in former times tried not only to define the Good but to help men to be good, thought that to understand the world and man's place in it, even imperfectly, was a way to achieve tranquillity. Spinoza, with his "intellectual love of God," which meant the understanding that all existence is part of a completely rational order, is the outstanding example of the gospel of peace through understanding; but there are many others who follow this Stoic tradition in their way through life. And who will deny that some peace can thus be gained ? One who truly believes that all things are ordered on rational and unalterable principles will not vex himself with vain regrets or futile rebellion, but will possess at least the peace of acceptance and resignation.
THE "PEACE OF GOD," according to St. Paul, "passes all understanding." He means, I think, that the peace of the Christian is not negative but positive, and not static but active. It is, moreover, not gained by human reasoning or self—discipline, but is the gift of God, a grace which may be granted to the earnest thinker, if he is humble enough to ask for it, and may equally well be granted to the obedient but ignorant child of God who has no tincture at all of philosophical understanding.
THE DIFFERENCE between the Christian's kind of peace within and that of the devout humanist or atheist seems to arise from the different beliefs about the source of peace. St. Paul assumes that he has to do with God, is personal and who loves him, so that it is natural to think of his soul, his inner man, as a city guarded by a friend, and to join together peace and joy as gifts of grace. The peace within which is not associated with beliel'in a personal God may lack the note of joy and triumph, but we must beware of underrating it. To be steadily rational in one's judgements, to be benevolent in one's conduct and to bear misfortune without self—pity is to serve God, even if a man thinks he is only serving his fellow man and his own peace.
THE word "Utopia" is coined from two Greek words meaning "no place" and thus aptly indicates that the imagined ideal city does not as yet exist. The authors of Utopian sketches differ in respect of their hopes for the future; some have the courage to believe that their ideals are practical politics, while others present their visions of perfect societies as incapable of being translated completely into actual existence, but nevertheless as guides to endeavour and as criteria by which existing societies may be estimated.
The New Testament conception of the Kingdom of God has been treated in modern times as a kind of Christian Utopia, chiefly by preachers who are accustomed to exhort their hearers to contribute, by their devotion to social service, to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. No doubt, in the main these exhortations are practically useful and, up to a point, justifiable, but it is necessary to keep in mind two features of the New Testament teaching on the Kingdom—that it cannot be brought in or established by human endeavour, and that it cannot come in its full power and reality in the present world or aeon.
The prevailing attitude of the New Testament writings on the expectation of the Kingdom is that Christians must wait for it with eager longing and must prepare themselves for the second coming of the Lord. The faith and teaching of St. Paul go further than this and hold that the "members of Christ" who compose the Church are already living in the "world to come," an heavenly enclave in an evil world.
IN WHAT SENSE THEN, we may ask, does our Christian faith entitle us to entertain hope for the future of secular society, or of the whole human race? This question really covers two quite distinct inquiries: first, do we have reason to hope that human society will continue to exist and make progress, and, secondly, does our faith provide us with any ideals for the city and nation of the scientific age? Is there such a thing as a Christian Sociology, or a Christian political philosophy? Or is perhaps the Christian hope not only primarily hope for individuals but exclusively that ?
Could it be that individual men may be saved, but not their cities or their nations? We arr accustomed to speak of some states and communities as more Christian than others, and we do not always mean that their official policy favours the (lliurch; we mean that, as a general rule, public opinion and government policy are affected by Christian principles. A curious phenomenon of our time is that some well—known Christian writers prefer a purely secular State to one which claims religious affiliations.
FOR the believer Whitsunday (Pentecost) is one of the three major festivals. It commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit into the group of the disciples of Jesus, fulfilling, as the Gospels report, a promise of their Master. That the Church of Christ is guided and indwelt by the Spirit is held as true by almost all who "profess and call themselves Christians."
Reflection on the New Testament teaching about the Spirit leads to apparent contradictions in the accounts of His nature and activity. For example, the Spirit is preached as the giver of life, peace and wisdom on whom Christians depend in the trials of life. But the Spirit is symbolised by a "rushing, mighty wind"—power which seems to have no direction. And in St. John's Gospel Jesus takes up the symbol of wind and stresses the suggestion of unpredictability and even wilfulness which characterise the human beings who are filled with the Spirit.
In the Bible calm wisdom and reckless energy are both apparently possible gifts of the Spirit. It would seem that we are invited to recognise the possibility that the Holy Spirit may be on both sides of a spiritual conflict. Practical consequences follow from this apparent "ambivalence" of the Spirit in action. The rebel, the heretic, the reformer is often moved by the Spirit while the Spirit has not abandoned the conscientious conservatives who defend the old ways. We can believe that Martin Luther was inspired by the Spirit to nail his theses to the church door without believing that everyone who disagreed was devoid of inspiration.
TWO MORTAL sins haunt the sensitive conscience: one by which the old are tempted and the other a delusion of the young. To "quench the Spirit" comes in the form of "preserving the values of civilised existence" while too tired, or perhaps too self— satisfied, to consider new ideas. The young are tempted to confuse inspiration with youthful exuberance and natural personal ambition with zeal for the Kingdom of God.
The way of safety in spiritual life is not to shrink from adventure and to be deaf to new knowledge but the very opposite—to go forward in the way of life until the supreme gift of the Spirit dawns on our understanding—not worldly wisdom but that which St. Paul writes about as divine. The Pentecostal Collect prays that through the help of the Spirit we may "have a right judgment in all things."
IT is a misfortune that the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Gen. iii) should have so often been taken as a revelation of the nature of sin. Only one element in it is really relevant to the question What is Sin? and that is Eve's disobedience. Here at least the teaching of the New Testament is in agreement; but no further. The transgression in Eden was the breaking of a taboo, an arbitrary restriction for which no reason is given and against which, as the serpent pointed out, plausible arguments could be found. Was it indeed a divine ordinance that men should be prohibited from knowing?
The harm which results from dwelling on this story as a guide to our thought on good and evil is that we may form a negative idea of goodness. We may come to believe that to be good means to observe all the taboos; to live in constant fear of violating them, while at the same time carefully avoiding any questioning or criticism. This morality of fear is very far from the spirit which breathes in the Gospels and Epistles, and is in fact explicitly condemned in them. "Bondage" and "fear" are, for St. Paul, the two marks of a life which is un—Christian. When the New Testament speaks of sin it uses expressions which imply positive endeavours, intelligent purposes and co—operation in acts of love. Sin is described as a missing of the mark, or a falling short of some possible splendour, or it may be as a deadness of spirit which needs to be awakened.
WE MIGHT say, in our modern terms, that the Christian understanding of goodness and sinfulness turns not on taboo but on values. The sinner is one who passes through life, which presents him with purposes worth serving and opportunities of enlightenment worth pursuing, but responds to none of them, remaining wrapped in unenterprising self—centredness; or he is one who, though not insensitive to values, serves them half—heartedly.
Perhaps the most general description of "faith" might be, "the disposition of mind which seeks values to serve and, when found, serves them with unfailing loyalty," and the faith of a Christian would be that of a man who believes that all these values are summed up in God revealed in Christ. This is a morality not of negation but of affirmation, not of fear but of hope.
If such is our understanding of goodness and in, will there still be "forbidden trees" in our lives:' Well, perhaps there will be, but we shall know why they are forbidden to us, and in our inmost spirits we shall consent and obey, not with the obedience of fear but "the obedience of faith."
WE pray thee that thy grace may always prevent and follow us: the words of the Collect may lead some who can look back over many years to ask themselves whether they can affirm that the grace of God has indeed been before and after in their experience. Any such retrospect must be coloured by the point of view from which it is made. We may recall what seem to be bits of luck, happy chances which turned to our advantage, offset by other occasions when as we say fortune was against us. We may dwell with satisfaction on our success in overcoming difficulties by clever management and with regret on our failures to cope with them. But these are not inquiries into the incidence of grace. To answer our question we have to ask: Can we discern in our experience a series of opportunities to serve our fellow men, to grow in spiritual understanding and in faith and love; and further, can we say from our experience that when hard decisions had to be made we were given the needed strength and courage? With this presupposition in mind our past lives take on a different aspect. Some of those strokes of luck do not look so admirable and perhaps too some of the misfortunes appear now to have been challenges to our manhood by meeting with which we were able to rise above ourselves and acquire, as it were, a new dimension. The days of struggle, no less than the days of calm, may be days of grace.
TO PONDER exclusively on the past is dangerous and unchristian. We are wrong to torment ourselves with recollections of sins which have been forgiven or to reproach ourselves with lost opportunities. Our concern is with the present and the future and the opportunities which remain. Yet to look back with a sincere desire to understand can itself be a means of grace. We can see now where we went wrong. No doubt we went wrong in many ways: through thoughtlessness, through selfishness, through fear, through ambition, through passion through all the many sources of temptation which are common to humanity—but the root cause was that we lost hold on our faith in the meaning and purpose of our lives and in the reality and power of the grace of God.
OUR CHRISTIAN forefathers spoke more often than we do about"being in a state of grace." Perhaps they often interpreted it too narrowly, but they had a grasp of an essential truth of religion. The sufficiency of grace was the anchor of St. Paul's spiritual life; the word which came to him, "My grace is sufficient for thee," carried him through all the tempests of his pilgrimage. So it should be for us. God's grace does "prevent and follow us" and we may judge whether we are living in grace by the test suggested in this same Collect—if we are "continually given to all good works."
"I BELIEVE in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible"; these opening words of the Nicene Creed in our prayer books lay down, in no uncertain words, the presupposition of all that follows.
Every word has solemn significance and we are taught that our religion is monotheistic and cannot stand if we abandon our faith in God the Creator.
If there ever was a time when this fundamental principle was universally accepted, it is not now. Even the most loyal believer seems to have moments of doubt when he asks himself: "Can it really be true that God the Father exists?" A curious difference in this question seems to follow if we make a slight change in its wording and, instead of asking, "Does God exist ?" we say, "Is God real ?" Is God real ? is the form in which many thinkers of the Christian tradition have grappled with great problems.
In development of this line of thought some philosophers have propounded the suggestion that there are degrees of reality and that some things are more real than others. To work out this concept of degrees of reality in detail is obviously very difficult, but it has proved to be illuminating, especially when it is linked with the concept of "values." It is not impossible to conceive that, in some respects, goodness and reality are closely connected. It is at least a thought which recurs constantly in literature that justice and truth have more staying power than their opposites, injustice and lying.
HOW DOES this kind of thinking help us with our search for the knowledge of God—not only knowledge about Him but some experience of His creative power in our lives ? The answer, in a word, is that we know God the Creator as the ultimate Reality and the supreme Value. Everything in our temporal experience vanishes at last, giving place to other things. All things good and evil which exist in our world have a beginning and an end and nothing is inherently eternal, but, with this vision of the Eternal Creator, we have,asit were, a share in eternity. All that was good in mistaken up and included in the ongoing creative .i< livity of (irod.
How shall we speak of the Creator? As the "Unknowable" or "the ultimate Mystery." St. Paul uses a metaphor. We glimpse Him like looking at a face in a shadowed mirror. (1 Cor xiii 12).
THE Ascension of Christ is sometimes interpreted as His departure from this world of time into that of Eternity and consequently as involving the end of His companionship with His disciples. This seems not to have been the view of the Evangelists, for, according to St. Matthew, Christ's words at the scene which looked like a farewell implied the opposite. "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Mat. xxviii, 20).
The literal translation of the Greek is "all the days," or "every day," emphasis being on the temporal experience of the succession of moments and days. Only One who is Eternal could promise to be with all of us all the days.
To ordinary people this image of the unfailing Divine Companionship is an important, and even an essential, part of the Christian faith, and one more easily envisaged than the more mystical doctrines of spiritual union with Christ. The fellow Traveller who will go with us all the way is an image rich in emotional suggestions. The serious defect in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is that his allegory compels him to suggest that, though Christ awaits the Pilgrim at the end, He is not his daily companion.
PROBABLY LITTLE children experience the meaning and the joy of divine companionship often better than adults. I knew a little girl who quite simply thought that prayer was talking to God and used to say spontaneously and unself—consciously, "I will talk to God". She never disclosed what God said to her, but it was evidently something which gave her joy. Such children are not rare, and those who have known one of them have felt sad that, as the years pass, this sense of divine companionship seems dimmed. Probably the process of growing up and becoming fully self—conscious and responsible calls for a temporary turning inward and concentration on the Self. Can we hope that, as we advance further along life's journey, the Divine Companion will make Himself known to us again?
Ought we to be critical of the child's "talking to God"? Ought we to say, for example, "Of course it's all in your imagination," with the underlying assumption that imagination must be delusive? Should we dismiss the whole subject as a waste of time from which a slight knowledge of psychology could save us? There is equally of course, another way of looking at the facts and "explaining" the phenomena. It is possible that children have some sense of the presence of God, of the Divine Companion, which is authentic though needing development, but too many of them are never helped by parents and teachers to recognise Him.
CHRISTIAN MORALISTS have often drawn up a list of virtues and duties and have divided them into two classes— duties towards God and duties towards our neighbours. Generations of Anglican children have been brought up on the basis and, though of course criticism shows that the list of duties raises questions of meaning, we should be much worse men and women without their discipline.
A criticism of the list of duties which is seldom heard today is that another category of duties is called for by the facts of moral experience. In addition to duty towards God and duty towards neighbours should we not recognise a "duty towards self." In a sense, of course, for the Christian believer all duties are duties towards God and all failures to do our duty are sins against Him, but there are some failures which seem to be primarily neither conscious disobedience to God nor primarily defective love. When we encounter some types of moral failure do we not feel a kind of shame on behalf of the offender? We are ashamed of him because, in some indefinable manner, he has lowered our estimation of the human race. And do we not find ourselves sometimes repenting because we have, as it were, let the human side down?
IT IS true that, if we are Christians, we shall go on and refer all values and judgments of value to God—"against Thee only have I sinned"; but the primary impulse towards repentance was more complex. Perhaps imaginary "hard cases" are dangerous playthings when used to sharpen our wits, but they may help to bring a train of thought to a point. I once took part in that amusing and charming game on the BBC called "Desert Island Discs" which aims at getting some individual to choose what records he would take to a desert island. It occurred to me that if a man were actually in a situation where it was certain that he would never get back to human society, that until he died he would never have any neighbours, he would have to worry not about discs, but about whether he was going to stay human.
I MAINTAIN that in such circumstances he would have a duty to himself. Having been endowed with reason and imagination and having advanced some way in humane living, he was bound to be a loyal servant and defender of the values which wer e incarnate in him. When we encounter drug addicts or meths—soakers our reaction surely is compassion that they have not loved themselves enough; perhaps they were not warned that we can sin against ourselves.
And now they cannot forgive themselves or retrace their steps. The Christian hope that evil is never invincible is based on the faith that, in the last resort, all sins, those against our neighbours and those against ourselves as well as those against God are really against God. And He can forgive.
IN debates on the subject of punishment we often hear much more about penalties for culprits than about restitution for their victims, but in fact most people feel that the administration of justice shows its imperfection precisely there.
The contemplation of retired criminals who, after serving a few years sentence, live prosperously on their ill-gotten gains while those unfortunate individuals who have been defrauded exist in poverty, causes the most law—abiding citizens to think tolerantly of exasperated demanders of restitution who take the law into their own hands. As private and sincere Christian individuals we are required to direct our own lives according to a higher standard of justice than that of the law of the land, and to harmonise in our thinking the ideal of justice with the principle of love. A searching question for some of us when we examine ourselves is, have I been unjust to anyone? And if the answer is that we have, our first reaction should be, I must put it right; I must make restitution.
IT IS EASY TO overlook the more subtle types of injustice which are words rather than deeds, but none the less injurious. We may be unjust in our spoken judgment of other persons, perhaps because we like to appear to be important and to have important friends. And, most subtle of all temptations, we can be unjust by our silence. It may be supposed that this kind of injustice, which consists in allowing false rumours of discreditable actions to be repeated in our presence without contradiction, is most tempting in democratic societies where power depends on popular votes.
To imagine a hotly contested election in which party proposals and party leaders are the subjects of emotional controversy but is conducted with scrupulous regard to the danger of unjust accusations by all concerned is certainly difficult, but reflection will persuade any intelligent Christian, or Humanist, that unless there is a "hard core" of just persons who are determined to be just in thought and word through all the excitement, the democracy is likely to be on the path to tyranny. For the Christian the prayer of the collect for Whitsunday is always in season—that in the power of the Holy Spirit he "may have a right judgment in all things".
THE Epistle for the first Sunday after Trinity (1 Jno. iv, 7ff) is the classical statement of St. John's understanding of the
Christian life. On the surface it is a passage of the utmost simplicity, consisting of a series of short sentences and employing none but familiar words, but its implications are profound and invite unlimited reflection. The key words are "loving" and "knowing." Because love is from God, the Apostle claims, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The English word "love" is an unsatisfactory translation of St. John's Greek, because it is too wide, covering states of mind and feeling which are very far from the New Testament sense of "agape." Thus some erotic passions, which have often been confused with the love of which St. John speaks are predominantly selfish, aiming at the possession and domination of the beloved.
THE APOSTLE means by love unselfish generosity, which gives without thought of reward. The love which God gives is displayed in the Incarnation, in which the Only Begotten Son of God gives Himself for the salvation of all men. "We love because He first loved us"; we should not know how to love if He had not revealed to us how He loves. The way of love to our brethren is, so St. John asserts, the way to a knowledge of God. We must distinguish between two kinds of knowing—"knowledge about" and "knowledge of." The difference is clear enough in our personal relations, for we may know much about another person, many facts, and yet know very little of what he is in himself; only when we love him, have a concern about him, and sincerely desire his welfare do we begin really to know him as a person. St. John's thought is that, in so far as we have the kind of love which God has for us, we know Him; we know Him in loving our fellow men.
There is often talk of "Christian Agnosticism." In a sense it might be said that St. John is not opposed to the idea, in that he recognises the limits of our knowledge about God. "No one has seen God at any time"; even the revelatory visions of inspired prophets have fallen short of clear and direct apprehension of the divine nature, but the agnosticism is not absolute, for "God himself dwells in us if we love one another."
IN THESE days, when many questions about religious truth are publicly debated, we may be disturbed and find no sure answers to doubts which arise in our minds. Perhaps the problems arc beyond our intellectual scope, or indeed of any human intelligence. We may turn in such a predicament to seek knowledge of God where St. John looked for it. It is not beyond our capacities to try to love our brethren more sincerely and generously, and prove in experience that "everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God."
"By the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor 15): fascinating words which invite many reflections. First let us clear up a possible mistaken meaning. I have to confess that I have taken them to be "humanistic" in purpose, one more voice in the chorus of praise for man as he is.
On reflection, however, we perceive that Paul is vindicating his apostolic authority while repudiating any personal merit. He was what he was not because he deserved to hold the office but solely by the grace of God. He could not regard his career as a steady progress in virtue and wisdom as a noble pagan like Marcus Aurelius might have done; in his estimation he had two careers, or perhaps one career abruptly severed into two parts, the first part the career of a "natural" man without insight with unruly passions and the persecutor of the followers of Christ, and the second part when he had been converted and filled with the grace of God. In the second part of his career he was in a sense still a humanist and could say "I am a man," but, owing to the transforming power of grace he was bound to say more than "I am a man"—he was a new man, one who had been born again.
AN OBVIOUS reflection which will occur to anyone who is concerned with the training of children in morals and good citizenship is that while public—spirited Christians and non—Christian humanists can go a long way together ("for example, they will find themselves agreeing on much in the sphere of social justice") in the last stages of the journey their paths lie apart. And when we push our search for understanding a little further it is plain that the one word "grace" is the point where the conflicts starts. Do I need grace in order to be a "proper man" or can I do what is necessary myself?
Perhaps if we are doubtful about ourselves we could try an experiment, or rather a special observation. When we are faced by some unexpected trial which taxes our strength what encouragement do we instinctively give ourselves—"Be a man" or "Be a new man by grace"? It was only recently that after many years of Christian ministry I found myself saying to a troubled person "Come, be a man." How much more relevant it would have been to say, "Come, remember that you are a new man by the grace of God."
ST. PAUL was worried about prayer. Reading his letters we soon become aware that he was thrilled by the experiences of personal prayer which were breaking out in all his scattered congregations but concerned about their rationality. Ecstatic utterances, "speaking in tongues," claimed to be caused by the Holy Spirit but often they were unintelligible to hearers and one had to wait for an inspired interpreter to elucidate the original "spiritual" message.
One purpose in particular runs through all the recorded comments of the Apostle on the phenomenon of ecstatic prayer— to keep prayer in touch with human reason. In the letters to the Corinthians he reduces his attitude to epigrammatic terseness: "I will pray as I am inspired to pray, but I will also pray intelligently" (1 Cor. xiv, 15 N.E.B.). Of course it could be objected that prayer inspired by the Spirit might transcend the understanding of men. To this, I think, the Apostle would have replied that in such a situation the "speaker with tongues" should be silent.
HOW STRANGE it is that so many of the questions which challenged the Apostolic direction of the church in the First Century are very much alive today. Ecstatic utterances which come in the guise of "inspiration" are to be found in many Christian circles, not only in "fringe" congregations but in the historical Churches with traditions of worship and liturgy. And we may be thankful that this phenomenon has not been dismissed offhand as dangerous superstition while there is no fanatical rush to accept all the reports uncritically. Like St. Paul, we keep hold of the belief that God is wisdom and His revelations will not overthrow human understanding.
The "modern mind," however, may be inclined to differ from St. Paul's assumption that prayer is inspired by the Holy Spirit and a "hearty desire to pray" is a gift of grace. The scientific "objective" approach to such an object as prayer may make the comprehension of its reality impossible. We are apt to think of spiritual experiences and mystical states of consciousness as things which can be contrived and deliberately brought into existence by psychological techniques.
Some plausible resemblance to prayer may be achieved but the real object of our search was lost from the beginning when we started out forgetting God. The way to reality in this field of inquiry has been called "Waiting upon God." The principal requirement in those who wait is to keep awake.
THE nature of religion and the meaning of "true religion" are questions much debated, and in the Epistle of James (Jas. i, 22ff.) we may think we have found a biblical answer to them. "To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world," we are told, is religion "pure and undefiled." From this some have deduced that conduct is the only important element in religion and everything else in it can safely be ignored. "For creeds and laws let fools and bigots fight: He can't be wrong whose life is in the right." The Greek word, however, translated "religion" seems to be used normally for a particular aspect of religion—its outward expression, especially in public worship, and if we follow St. James's argument it is clear that religion for him consists in "hearing the word," remembering it and doing what it enjoins. Right conduct flows from attending to a divine message, understanding it and believing it.
WE CANNOT quote St. James as authorising us to sweep away all doctrine and theology together with all study of liturgy and the modes of Christian worship. This does not imply that his dictum on pure religion has no relevance to Christian thought. We may take it as a warning that our thinking must never lose sight of the practical problems of Christian living in the world. Theology can be a fascinating study of questions which open out unlimited fields for speculation, controversy and research—enough to absorb the interest and energy of a lifetime. I cannot but think that too often theologians would have done better if they had constantly borne in mind that the beliefs which they analysed were the stay and inspiration of millions of simple persons who were trying to follow Christ by loving their neighbours and preserving their integrity against the lower standards of the world around them.
NOR CAN we dismiss as negligible the inquiry by learned men intd forms of Christian worship. The history of liturgies can help to bring us into contact with the experience and devotion of former generations, and it is no unworthy task to seek the words and acts which express most adequately the worship which we owe to God as revealed in Christ, but here most of all it can be fatal to forget the world which lives and struggles outside the Church. In this aspect of religion we can apply the test, "by their fruits." A technically perfect service may be deaf and dumb, if it has no power to move us to acts of love and purity of heart, while no doubt many a deplorable service, from the aesthetic and liturgical points of view, is blessed by God because it is understood by the hearts and minds of sinners who are endeavouring to be saints.
THE season of Advent speaks of opposites and contrasts. It turns our thoughts to the "Last Things," including the Day of Judgment, but also to the First Things, the Creation and the first coming of Christ. We are summoned to face the darkness of this world and to believe in the Light of the World. And these opposites appear most clearly in the day by day experience of the Christian disciple, for we are told that only the Light of the World can overcome the world, but in the same breath, as it were, we are awakened to take urgent measures in a terrible crisis.
St. Paul's clarion call rings out in the Advent Epistle to wake out of sleep and "to cast off the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light" (Rom. xiii, n, 12). The situation baffles logical analysis, which must seek to define the relation between "grace" and "free will," but every veteran Christian soldier knows that, in his victories over evil, his human will has been upheld by grace.
The symbols of light and darkness have been prominent in many religions and philosophies. Particularly are they appropriate when evil is seen to be allied to ignorance and stupidity while redemption, or salvation, can be understood as an "enlightenment," a perception of reality. The conflict of light and darkness comes home to sensitive minds with special force when the social order is threatened by violence and opportunities to "reason together" are limited by fanaticism. At such times deeds of darkness multiply and the light of reason and understanding is befogged by passion or fear.
THE PUBLIC-SPIRITED, but somewhat prosaic, Liberal reformers of the 19th century were on the right track when they strove to let the light of publicity in upon many hidden abuses of their time, and it is still true secrecy in public affairs can be a danger and public opinion, when adequately informed, can be a safeguard. But the only sure answer to deeds of darkness is to expose them to the Light of the World.
At this moment a man may be preparing a bomb which he intends to throw in a crowded town to further, as he thinks, some just cause. Some of the throwers of bombs are believers in God the father in Heaven and in His Son, the Light of the World. One minute's thought would show up the ugliness of his intention and instead of throwing a bomb he might "throw off the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light."
ST PAUL'S correspondence with the church in Corinth became later stormy, but as the Epistle for tomorrow reminds us (1 Cor i 4ff) it began in quite a sunny spirit. The Apostle is eloquent on his causes for thankfulness when he thinks of Corinthian Christians. No doubt such language was tactful but it was also certainly sincere and we can accept his judgment that they were exceptionally fortunate being "in everything enriched" by the grace of God. He means by "enrichment" the enlargement and deepening of personalities.
It was evidently closely connected with the intellectual development of converts, for it is described as manifesting itself "in all utterance and in all knowledge." Later St. Paul had some criticisms to make on their attitude towards knowledge and utterance, but this does not annul our definite impression that the coming of Christianity to Corinth had been the occasion of intellectual and moral awakening in some quarters. Why this should have been is easy to understand. The Gospel as preached by Paul was a liberating message in many respects. The end of effete paganism appeared when the idols were overthrown and faith in One God who is holy and loving was proclaimed. When too the salvation, which so many longed for, was translated out of myth into the teaching and sacrifice of a divine Hero who had really walked the earth and suffered cruel injustice from the rulers of this evil world intelligent pagans were confronted by a challenge to their consciences and their understandings. The challenge was the moment of release from irrational hopes and fears and for some it was a way to experience of reality. They were enriched as persons.
SOMETHING LIKE THIS must have happened to many pagans who were converted by Paul and other propagandists and one wonders whether it can be seen at work in our churches today. Certainly there are many who can declare, with perfect truth, that they have been enriched by Christ in respect of communication and knowledge, but could one say that, in general, the conscious purpose of local churches is to stimulate sluggish intellects and encourage exchange of ideas? The "sacrifice of the intellect" in the past has been envisaged as entailing pious stupidity—the opposite of "enrichment." From the standpoint of St. Paul the offering of the mind to God means the full awakening of the intellect and its dedication to truth. Paul may have denounced quite fiercely what he believed were false ideas about God, but he never recommended anyone to cease thinking.
CHRISTIAN teaching about God is under fire from two opposite sides. When we say, "I believe in God" we are met by the objection, "But you cannot define the word 'God' in that statement," and when we profess our belief in the Holy Trinity and all that it implies we are reproached with professing to have an impossible knowledge about Him.
We must admit that both these criticisms have some basis. It is true that we cannot define the incomprehensible being of God, and it is also true that we claim to have some profoundly important knowledge about Him. But there is no contradiction or absurdity in this position, nor in fact is it unique.
If the comparison may be allowed, we might refer to the case of the atom. There used to be a perfect logical definition of the atom; as its name indicated, it was conceived as a particle of matter that is indivisible.
As we all know, that definition has long ago been abandoned— but why? Not because we know less about the atom, but because we know much more. The definition was shattered by enlarged knowledge and experience.
I do not know whether there is now another accepted logical definition of the atom, but I am sure that, if there is, it will have to be revised again in the light of further knowledge. At any rate, no questions of definition will halt the progress of research, and, so far as I am aware, it has never been argued that because the atom cannot be precisely defined it, therefore, does not exist.
THE FACT is that definition plays a very small part in knowledge and, in the main, knowing consists in being able to describe more and more fully entities that we are unable to define.
To come down to the life of every day, when you come to know another person by living with him you do not find yourself in a better position to "define" him—if that is your aim, you would probably be well advised not to know too much about him—what you acquire by acquaintance is the ability to give an adequate description of him.
So it is with the divine nature. No human words or concepts can define the being of God. All the languages of revelation, and of doctrine, is descriptive, giving us image and thoughts which are approximate and imperfect, but which, at the same time, convey true knowledge in the form which our minds are able to apprehend.
MUCH MISUNDERSTANDING is caused when the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is treated as a logical puzzle or a theory of philosophy. Doubtless it has philosophical interest and can suggest interesting speculations, but its primary purpose is to provide us with a summary description of what Christian experience, starting with the revelation of Christ in the New Testament, has found God to be.
It is, first of all, a guide to worship that, so far as is possible, our devotion may be inspired by the fullness of God's revelation of Himself in Christ.
IN St. John's Gospel we are told of a momentous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus which turns upon the Holy Spirit (John iii, 3ff.). None can enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus declares, unless he has been "born again from water and spirit," and He proceeds td command the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit with the wind, which comes whence we know not, and goes whither we know not.
Force is given to the comparison by the fact that the Greek word for "wind" also means "spirit." We must note, too, that the new birth through the Spirit is connected with the water of baptism, indicating that the Church is to be the special sphere of the Spirit.
TO UNDERSTAND these words it is essential to read them in the context of the conversation. They are a reply to the question, "How can these things happen ?" Reason and commonsense would persuade us that rebirth is impossible, and the answer is that the Spirit trascends your reason and commonsense.
"There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy," and one of them is the reality of inspiration. Jesus, we may say, is affirming His own experience of the Spirit, which was not given to Mim "by measure" but fully and continuously, as against the dogmatism of Nicodemus.
We may sometimes feel that the Bible makes contradictory statements about the I loly Spirit. On the one hand He is symbolised by wind and fire, which suggests to one's mind burning zeal and overwhelming enthusiasm when translated into human terms, but on the other hand He is designated as the source of wisdom, true prudence and of inward peace.
IT IS certainly true that, in our experience, these two groups of qualities frequently prove to be incompatible with each other. The enthusiast is not commonly given to calm reflection, and the man of thought and mature judgment often laments that he has lost the eager devotion of his youth.
Yes, he laments, and that gives us the clue to our problem, for the enthusiast, too, if he stopped to think, would lament his lack of wisdom and understanding. Each can recognise the excellence of the other's virtue. The apparent contradiction is due to the limitation of our human nature and does not exist in the divine Spirit. The ideal towards which we should move is a wise zeal and a zealous wisdom. If we could perfectly grasp with our minds the truth of God and the nature of the supreme Good, we should be filled with inexhaustible enthusiasm.
From the beginning of the Church to the present day the difficulties caused by the two aspects of the Spirit have been present and too often it has not been understood that they are not really contradictory. The Apostolic insight in this matter is always relevant. "Quench not the Spirit"—don't despise or discourage enthusiasm: "test the spirits"—with loving tolerance judge whether they are in harmony with the mind of Christ.
CAN we do without the peremptory prohibitions of the Ten Commandments? The advocates of the "new morality" naturally think we can, but it seems that some who would claim to be believers in Judaism or Christianity think so too. The main argument against them is that they are purely negative, and, in form at least, like irrational taboos. But neither Jews nor Christians hold that prohibitions are enough, or that moral goodness consists in observing them. What is maintained is that such a series of negative commandments is an indispensable aid to moral development and cannot safely be thrown aside even by persons of mature character. Nothing could be clearer than that both Jesus and Paul taught the positive nature of goodness and the sovereign ideal of love of God and love of the neighbour, but both emphasised the need for "the Law" as a preparation for the higher righteousness of the gospel. Love of God and neighbour is not the destruction of the Law, but its fulfilment.
IF WE remember how our own consciences began and grew, we shall agree that our first inkling of the difference between right and wrong came to us in the form of "Thou shall not." There were some things that we must not do, and some impulses that we had to restrain. If our parents were wise, they told lis some reasons for these irksome restrictions, but they could not tell us all the reasons and, to a large extent, we had to accept them on authority. Perhaps it may be said that we should have been better if we had not been restricted at all and had grown up perfectly "free." But this is absurd, for one of the chief necessities for development into a full person is to learn to control our impulses and not to indulge every desire that drifts into our minds. A man who completely failed to acquire this elementary self—control would not be exactly immoral—he would be an imbecile. "Thou shalt not" is not the last word in morals, but it is the first word.
NO DOUBT "a just man made perfect," a man filled to overflowing with love of God and man, would need no laws; as St. Augustine said "he could do what he liked." Few of us would dare to imagine that we had attained such a state of grace. Let us own that, so far as goodness is concerned, we are not yet far along the road but are trying to keep to it. We know whom and what we have believed, but we do not always remember, nor can we always work out the application of our first principles to particular cases in an emergency. Learning the multiplication tables is theoretically a waste of time, because any intelligent schoolboy could work them out for himself, but some of us at least are glad that we know twelve times nine without asking every time how we know. Rules of conduct which we believe we could justify by referring to our fundamental convictions are useful guides to wayfarers and inevitably some of them will be prohibitions—"thou shalt not." Thou shalt not slander, murder, commit adultery, steal, covet; they don't take us all the way, but they are a good beginning.
"THAT ye may approve the things that are excellent", writes St. Paul in the Epistle to the Philippians (i, 10, ff.). It is a part of his prayer for the Christians at Philippi.
He is addressing persons who had effectively embraced the gospel, so that he can say, "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you" and express his confidence that the good work which God has begun in them He will complete. He is concerned with their progress towards completeness, and one of his hopes is that they will approve things that are excellent.
As the condition for reaching this ability he prays that the love they already possess "may abound in knowledge and judgment", or discrimination.
In every sphere of human activity the capacity and the will to approve things that are excellent is the safeguard against degeneration, and the more spiritual the activity is, the greater the need for this discriminating approval.
Unless there are some who can distinguish the truly excellent in art and literature from the spurious, the insincere and the imitative, both art and literature will steadily decline into merely commercial productions whose sole purpose is to entertain and make money.
So it is too in the realm of religion and morality. They will decline into convention and routine if there are not some among us who can appreciate and admire genuine goodness and worship in the Spirit.
THIS POWER of discrimination in art and literature is not gained in a day. It is not sufficient to say, "I know what I like"; we have to train ourselves to like what is really worthy of love and admiration.
And this we can do only by living with the works of great artists or great writers until we acquire a kind of instinct which guides us to a right judgment when new works of art or literature are brought to our notice.
In the same way we can acquire the spiritual discernment which recognises real holiness only if we live with the great exemplars of heroic virtue as they are known in history and pre—eminently in the life of Christ and His apostles.
But this is not all. One of the possible dangers of "having good taste" in art is that we may close our minds to new departures. Some artist or poet perhaps expresses himself in a fresh idiom which breaks some of the accepted rules and we are shocked and disturbed by what is strange. It may be that the innovator is really a foolish rebel who has nothing to say, but it may also be that he is a pioneer who is presenting to us a new form of excellence. We may disapprove too readily.
IN THE LIFE of religion and attempts after the good life there are similar situations. Holiness has many forms and it is possible to forget this if we have narrowed our company of saints too jealously.
So many of the real heroes of the Spirit have been dismissed as tiresome fellows, or even sinners, because they exhibited a different kind of goodness from that which was accepted and admitted at the time, and they suffered from the lack of those who could "approve things that are excellent" in the Church of their day. Saints are not labelled with haloes until after they are dead.
It is worth noting that St. Paul does not say, "Disapprove tilings that are not excellent", which is easy and gives us a sense of superiority; he says, "Approve the things that are excellent", which is difficult and demands the humility that is willing to learn.
THE story of the Wise Men from the East who were led by a star to the cradle of the newborn King, beautiful as it is, raises questions about its historic accuracy and one question which is not precisely historical. The Magi were evidently astrologers; are we to understand that astrology has biblical authority? In a wider sense, however, the story has an undoubted historical basis. There was at the time of Jesus's birth an expectation of the coming of a personal Saviour or Messiah not only among the Jews but among many other races and nations. To those who first read the Gospel of St. Matthew it would not have seemed strange that wise men should have come from afar to worship him.
THE SIGNIFICANCE of the story for those for whom the Gospel was originally written was that in His infancy the Lord Jesus had been shown forth as the Saviour of all men; aliens came to do Him homage. In this respect the Epiphany links up with history, for it adumbrated the shape of things to come. It is a commonplace to all readers of the New Testament that the really crucial question which divided the nascent Church was whether all men, of whatever race or creed, were equally eligible for membership. A strong party held that the invitation to discipleship was primarily for Jews and others could be welcomed into the fellowship only if they undertook some of the obligations of the Jewish religion. Their idea was apparently that there could be first-and second-class Christians. In the Epistle for Epiphany (Eph. iii, I ff.) St. Paul sums up his own conviction, or rather his "revelation": "That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs and of the same body and partakers of his promise in Christ, by the Gospel". The Epiphany, the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, was proceeding, and would proceed, so long as the world lasted. That St. Paul's revelation prevailed meant the acceptance of the world-wide mission of the Church and the irrevocable stamping of Christianity as a universal religion.
THE IMPLICATIONS of Egiphany are too numerous to mention here: they are indeed inexhaustible. There is one, however, which is peculiarly relevant to our present situation. In old times those who failed to grasp the gospel of the Epiphany thought that all Christians must resemble themselves in customs and habits of thought. We too are tempted to adopt a similar restrictive prejudice. When we preach the gospel to non-Europeans let us not confuse it with European culture, or English social customs. The Gentiles who came into the Church brought with them new gifts which enriched the Church and deepened its understanding of Christ. So it may be again.
FROM St. Paul's Epistles we might set out to collect some interesting information on his conception of the Christian ministry. Speaking for himself, and presumably for other ministers, he claims that they are "stewards"—housekeepers responsible for the stores in a house and their distribution. Of what, then, are they stewards? The answer is "mysteries" or secrets which they have to disclose or impart to their fellow-Christians.
This "secret" is characterised as "wisdom"—a wisdom quite different from the so-called wisdom of "the world" and its philosophies and which, being beyond the comprehension of "natural" men and women, can be grasped only by those who are "spiritual". The Apostle complains that the Corinthians are, for the most part, only "babes" in Christ and capable of assimilating only "milk"; their propensity to jealousy and strife and to setting up one Apostle against another is proof that they are immature and unfit to feed on solid food. The divine secret is connected with the purpose of including "Gentiles," all races without distinction, in the fellowship of the gospel, and probably the Epistle to the Romans represents St. Paul's most complete statement of the "mysteries" of which he was steward.
THE FIRST letter to the Corinthians is full of fascinating openings for reflection. Here it is possible only just to indicate two of them. The development of the spiritual life is analogous to the development of the natural life. It begins with a kind of infancy, but it grows towards adult fulfilment. Until that stage has been reached, the wisdom which is of God cannot be apprehended, and, it would seem, in St. Paul's view should not be presented to the unspiritual believer. This may be a point of difference from much Christian practice. Is it really the best plan to attempt to teach the whole Christian faith to minds which are as yet in the earliest stages of experience, to tell, for example, the whole doctrine of atonement and forgiveness to those who have no sense of sin?
Another subject for reflection is the place of the intellect in heavenly wisdom. The revealed mystery is evidently an enlightenment, answering questions which weigh on the awakened soul. It may be that the "natural" man does not feel the weight and is not anxious to answer the questions. The beginning of "wisdom" is often perplexity about the self and the universe in which we live.
OUR English Psalter abounds in phrases which haunt our minds and meet our needs. What could be more poignant in days of affliction and bereavement than the words of a poet who wrote with a heavy heart, "O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength, before I go hence and am no more seen" ? (Ps.xxxixv. 13.) When a dear companion is taken from us the thought that pierces our hearts is that we shall see him or her no more nor hear the familiar voice. The fact of mortality glares in our face and demands to be considered. Stand in some great assembly, say a political conference, and ask yourself what is the real situation. All these animated persons, with their ambitions, their conflicts and plans, before very long will be no more seen; they will have ceased to be extant in this world. They will be forgotten. Are we not moved to cry: "What shadows we are and what shadows we pursue"? And if we do not believe in a personal God, we may have to leave it there.
BUT NOT IF we are Christians. We must indeed encounter the dreadful truth of mortality and not attempt to divert our eyes from it, but we dare not stop with it. We know that we who are alive are not shadows; our own existence is the one thing which we cannot doubt; and we believe that our existence is a derived existence which has always depended on God. We exist because God thinks of us and sees us—and loves us. "The very hairs of our head are numbered." We cannot believe that death means God has ceased to think of us, to see us and to love us. The dear companion whose loss we mourn is no more seen by us, but is perpetually seen by God. With this thought and faith, we may hope that we too may hereafter see the loved companion again. Speculation about how and where is of little profit, for our imaginations are earthbound. The essential truth is that we are not shadows and that we depend on a personal Creator who loves us.
WE ARE NOT shadows, but do we pursue shadows? We must own that many of the aims which direct our lives have one aspect in which they resemble shadows—they have an element of illusion. Some of them are due to an illusion about value. We seek a satisfaction in objects which cannot give us what we hoped for. The voluptuary assumes that happiness consists in an uninterrupted series of pleasures, but he is deceived; the aim is unattainable, and if adopted as a settled policy, leads to misery. But are ourmore rational and unselfish aims "shadows"? Up to a point perhaps they are, for even the most noble purposes for the welfare of mankind are subject to mortality and change, nor is our wisdom enough to be sure that there are no illusions in our hopes. But we may work for temporal aims in the power of an eternal life, and many dedicated men whose projects have, in the opinion of the multitude, come to naught have been part of the witness that the human spirit is "capable of divinity"—touched by the Eternal.
THE movement which calls loudly for action to ensure the survival of the human race in its earthly home has been met by several different personal reactions. One of them is the "It will last my time" response, hardly worthy of a Christian. A more spiritual reply—one whjch seems to be almost on the tip of the tongue of many believers is, "Well, I put my trust in Providence. God's will must be fulfilled."
I suppose there are no thoughtful Christian believers who would refuse to assent to the doctrine of the providential guidance and purpose in the events of history and of our individual lives, but that doctrine does not abolish our freedom of choice altogether and we misunderstand it if we make use of it to evade our responsibilities for future developments. In spite of the difficulty we may have in reconciling human free-will with divine Providence, the New Testament teaches that, while the will of God is always done, the will of individual human beings may be disobedient.
ST PAUL was writing, as he believed, in "evil times" in which Christian believers were called to redeem them, by themselves being wise, "understanding what the will of the Lord is." (Eph. v, 16, 17). Theologians have sometimes explained for our benefit that the Will of God must be viewed from at least two different aspects. The "sustaining" Will of God maintains the whole framework or system of the Universe, and, within that framework, the Creator is moving in the realm of personalities and families, of spiritual values and all that is connoted by the Kingdom of God. Not until we have assimilated this conception of the Will of God can we hope to have an answer to the question, from the Christian standpoint, "Is human life on this earth worth preserving?"
There will be some further questions to face, if some groups of of scientists are right. Who can foresee the measures which will seem to be expedient in dealing with the major menaces? Ethical problems will arise and perhaps the searching test will come when Christian believers will be asked to accept "mortal sins" as strategy for survival. Must the race survive at any cost?
ST. LUKE tells us that when Jesus was 12 years old he was found in the Temple with the Doctors of the Law "hearing them and asking them questions" (Luke ii, 41 ff). His development seems to have taken the course which we know from the records of many men of genius. At that age Mozart was composing music which is ranked as part of his "opus"; great artists have shown their quality and poets too have "lisped in numbers for the numbers came" while still children.
Luke's brief narrative tells us something about the child's attitude to the doctors. He heard what they had to say and asked questions. Any teacher knows the significance of these words. The first step is to persuade the child to listen, to give some attention. Much education never gets off the ground because the children are not interested. Every teacher knows too the importance of the child's questions and the thrill when one comes which indicates he is thinking for himself, trying to grasp and understand.
The story also indicates the nature of the gospel which came into His mind. It was not something absolutely new. He did not aim at founding a new religion. Jesus listened to the Doctors and asked them to explain. Through criticism, meditation and prayer He came, as He believed, to an understanding of the religion of the Hebrews and was able to fulfil and go beyond it.
IN THE HISTORY OF CHRIST'S CHURCH we may see reflected the mind of Jesus and His hearing and asking. There are times when hearing is the main business and there is not a pressing need to get answers to questions. But the Church may go on being satisfied with listening too long and may fall into the habit of repeating answers without really knowing what they mean. Then come epochs like the present when questions are in the very air we breathe; when they are shouted at us and we do not find an answer. That is because we, and perhaps our fathers too, were not alert and lulled ourselves with formulas and pious phrases which we had not criticised and tested.
In our personal religion we need to hear. We cannot make a religion for ourselves out of a lot of unanswered questions. Jesus did not refuse to listen to the Doctors. Nor shall we be wise if we pay no attention to what "our fathers have told us"; but we must not stifle our intelligence or disdain to notice the criticisms of thoughtful people. We may remember, in our mental struggle, that when Jesus was asking questions He said he was in 1 lis Father's service.
THE popular celebration of Christmas as a religious festival concentrates almost solely on the opening chapters of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are the only descriptions in the New Testament of the birth of Jesus. This is a pity, because the whole New Testament is pervaded by the conviction that the coming of Christ is an event of momentous significance and the various writers have different conceptions of it which call for attention.
What better exercise on Christmas Eve than to look through the Gospels and Epistles with the purpose of getting a balanced view of the Biblical teaching on the Coming of Christ?
The earliest Christian writing which has come down to us is in the Epistles of St. Paul and in one of the first, if not the first, of his letters we have a brief but striking reference to the birth of Christ. "When the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Gal. iv 4, 5).
Though St. Paul does not refer to miracle at the birth, he asserts that it was both a human birth and a saving act of God. To St. Paul, the coming of Christ as man was the first step in the process of voluntary humiliation by the Son of God who for us emptied himself of his glory and took the "form of a servant," being "obedient unto death, even the death of the cross" (Phil, ii 5ff).
The next scriptural document in order of antiquity is the Gospel of Mark, admitted by most authorities to be the oldest of the gospels. Matthew and Luke both incorporate most of Mark's material. Perhaps the most remarkable fact about Mark is that it has no reference at all to the birth and youth of Jesus.
Try to read Mark right through as if you had never seen or heard of a gospel; I think you will be surprised. It starts with defiant abruptness; "Here begins the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Then without affording biographical information, it quotes some words of Isaiah about preparing the way of the Lord, briefly introduces John the Baptist and tells of the voice from Heaven while Jesus was being baptised, "Thou art my only Son," which it is evidently the chief concern of the writer to impress on the reader.
A curt note on the temptation of Christ by Satan in the wilderness completes the breathless account of the appearance of Christ on the scene and Mark passes on to the coming of the Kingdom of God, which is his real theme. "After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God: The time has come; the Kingdom of God is upon you; repent and believe the gospel."
If we could have asked St. Mark how he would distinguish between the coming of Christ and the coming of the Kingdom, I think he would have replied that there was no difference.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are the sources of what is called the "mythology" of the birth stories, come from the believing community of the primitive Church which, as we have seen, had no doubt that the coming of Christ was a redemptive act of God. This belief did not rest upon the miracle stories because it is plain that many Christians, probably Paul among them, who staked their lives on the conviction that Christ was the Redeemer, either had not heard of, or did not believe, them.
Here, it seems, we have a guide to the way through a modern difficulty. Can a man who doubts the historicity of the narratives of Christ's birth claim that he holds the Christian faith and recite the creed with a clear conscience? Judging by what seems to have been the Apostolic attitude in the early years, it is enough if one believes that the coming of Christ into the world was an act of God and the revelation of his redeeming love.
The narratives in question, particularly that of Luke, have a peculiar beauty and possibly a peculiar truth. Legend, myth, superstition (as in the story of the Magi) cannot be excluded and yet none of these words is adequate. The birth stories are suffused with prophecy and poetry; they could be dream or vision, revealing truth which could not be otherwise conveyed. They do not measure up to the canons of historical evidence, but that does not inhibit a rational man from believing them to be veridical.
To accept them by an act of faith as a part of revealed truth is a perfectly defensible position. Not less defensible is the position of the man who accepts the story of the miraculous birth as significant symbol.
Does historical honesty compel us to give up the loved figure of the girl who was chosen to be the Mother of the Redeemer and accepted the burden, and the sword piercing her heart, with thanksgiving? Must we forget "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word"?
The Virgin Birth of Christ can never be proved by historical evidence, nor can it be disproved. The conclusion that we may reach must depend to a large extent on our presuppositions, which may be recognised by us or unrecognised. To examine them is a necessary step towards clear thinking on most subjects, but specially on religious problems.
Here it must suffice to say that the persons in the Apostolic age who put out the report on Christ's supernatural birth believed in the living God who acted in history and human affairs and only those who hold to that belief in the present age are likely to be persuaded by St. Luke.
The Gospel appointed for Christmas day is the opening passage of St. John's Gospel, which is a great theological statement on the Being of God and his relation with man.
Where the gospel of St. Luke presents the imagination with memorable pictures and images of the "new-born King," that of St. John lays down an eternal truth about the Godhead: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Greek expression means "thought" or "reason" as well as "word," and the "beginning" spoken of is not priority in time but in order of reality.
Though the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not explicitly stated in the New Testament, its foundation is laid here and elsewhere in this Gospel. The language of St. John's prologue connects his thought with both Hebrew and Greek religious teaching and some difference of opinion is possible on the question which is the predominant influence. The translation of John's Greek into English gives rise to paradoxical phrases which are due to the mystical doctrine being expounded.
Though Mark and John are far apart in some respects, they are close together in important matters relating to the Coming of Christ. Like Mark, John has no account of the Lord's birth, though he may well have known of miracle stories about it; and, again like Mark, he puts John the Baptist in the forefront of his opening.
The divine Word is life and the life is the light of men, so runs John's revelation, and the light, coming into the world, lights every man. This "coming" is an eternal coming. The Light of the world came to "his own"—to those who belonged to the sphere of light— but they rejected him. Some however, did not reject him and to them he gave power to become sons of God.
Did John believe that Jesus was born miraculously? He does not tell us, but he asserts that those to whom "the Word" gives power to become sons of God are born "not of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God." The meaning and consequences of the central affirmation of John's Gospel, "The Word was made flesh," are inexhaustible and can suggest meditations of deep intellectual interest; but the mystical is also the practical. Because the Coming of Christ is not only an event but an eternal truth, it can never be unreal or out of date; and for the same reason, it can always be put to the test of experience.
According to John we do not have to travel to Bethlehem. Bccause we are "his own," we may receive him and he may be born in us and we may be born again in him.
ARE we better than our fathers? Or, to put the question impersonally, has there been moral progress ? Answer is difficult, largely because we have only vague ideas of what we mean by the terms. It might be a good start to note that "moral progress" has two aspects, a theoretical and a practical. The ideals which are accepted as reasonable, or the principles regarded as unquestionable, in any living community are subject to change and we may judge the change in our civilisation to be for the worse or for the better. A society may fail to adapt its moral ideal to accord with new opportunities and needs or it may meet the challenge.
In this respect, we may feel that in our civilisation there has been progress. Exclusive nationalist or racialist idealism has given way to a large care for the welfare of mankind. Youth's idealism has become unselfish, even though sometimes ill-informed. The i8th-century moralist, Bishop Butler, included "indignation against successful vice" among the virtues of the truly good man. One suspects that he might have approved the motives of some students' protests while deploring their violence.
Another aspect of moral progress concerns the individual and his character. All the great moralists have, in divers manners, taught that we must labour in the perfecting of ourselves. Self-control in the service of the Beautiful and the Good: discipline of the passions to subdue them to the rule of reason: bringing all thoughts and imaginations into obedience to Christ: these guiding maxims, though not identical, have one conviction in common, they agree that moral progress must include, as a major requirement, the remaking of the self and that there can be no satisfying moral progress which leaves out the thirst for perfection and harmony of the individual self. "Ye shall be perfect", said Christ.
IS IT NOT JUST HERE that our question about moral progress falters? What sad delects lie behind the drug-addiction which threatens even children at school? Why is this present generation of adolescent boys and girls, which has such generous enthusiasm for justice and such compassion for suffering, the generation which is tempted more than any previous one by the chemicals which sap the intelligence and the will? Why do they abandon the search for perfection when it has scarcely begun? Could it be that the permissive society and its negations have seeped into the homes and schools of our land ?
ALL religious statements have an aura of mystery and there is no more certain way of misunderstanding them than assuming that they can be made clear by simple common sense. Of course the sceptics allege that, when thought out, religious doctrines are not mysterious but nonsensical. To an intelligent believer in God, however, the situation in which we find ourselves is what we might have expected, for it would be astonishing if finite and limited minds could grasp the whole truth about the purposes of the Eternal Creator, while it would be paradoxical to imagine that human intelligence is totally incapable of even the dimmest inkling of God.
This blending of knowledge and obscurity, of insight and mystery, is most obvious in the Christian teaching on the Cross and Passion of Jesus. When we contemplate the event which is recorded as happening long ago in Jerusalem it is, from one point of view, a deplorable judicial murder, the like of which occurred in every century. But the Christian assertion is that on the cross the Son of God suffered that He might be the Saviour of the world by taking away the sin and guilt of all mankind.
The attempt to explain and justify this belief, which was a part of the earliest Christian preaching and experience, has taken more than one form and it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that all the leading ideas and themes in the history of religion have some place in the chaplet of thoughts and imaginations which has been woven round the Crucified.
TWO THEMES are dominant—that of the anointed Servant of God and that of the sacrifice of propitiation and reconciliation. Both of these ideas have been powerful—and dangerous. What tyrannies and atrocities have been perpetrated by men who were deluded by the concept of a divine mission to rule and dictate, and what deep stains of blood there are in the record of sacrifice and particularly of human sacrifice! Yet these two ideas are central in the Christian doctrine of the Atonement.
Should we be dismayed by this ? Shall we repudiate the ancestry of our doctrine ? The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews would point to another way. These imperfect and crude thoughts were not just foolish errors or expressions of repressed impulses; they were shadows of the reality which was to be revealed in Christ, who was the real Anointed One and whose sacrifice was the true sacrifice of the spirit. Contemplating the Passion, let us try to interpret all the aspects and details as spiritual. It could be a profitable reflection to ask ourselves what we mean by "the precious blood of Christ."
THE Epistle for Passion Sunday (Heb ix. 11 ff) brings before us one of the significant "names" of Christ which has special relevance to His death. He is "the Mediator of a New Covenant." The word is not very frequently used in the New Testament, but the idea pervades it. Mediation is closely connected verbally with "middle" and a possible translation would be "middle man." But "mediation" has none of the unpleasant meanings which can be attached to middle.
A mediator is someone who gets in the middle for a good purpose, and in Biblical language it denotes activity either in overcoming personal differences or in bringing about some desirable change. In the Epistle to the Hebrews Christ is the "Mediator of a new covenant," a new agreement between God and man, as a consequence of which men may have "the promise of eternal inheritance," which we may take to be what is called in St. John's Gospel "eternal" life.
ALL THIS is not difficult to understand. A man may doubt whether the statements are true but can hardly say that they convey no meaning to him. The full import of this passage is not disclosed, however, unless we give due emphasis to the "blood of Christ" which is, in the Apostle's view, the essential element. "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through Eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." To us who have not lived in a civilisation in which animal sacrifice was a commonplace this language is perplexing and probably can never have the force which it had to the recipients of the Letter to the Hebrews, but we can understand the root meaning if we bear in mind that "covenants" were ratified by sacrifices and through sacrifice became binding, and that "the blood is the life." The author of this letter makes it plain that the sacrifice symbolised by the pouring out of blood was the offering of the life, Christ's offering of himself. "Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not: then said I, Lo, I am come to do Thy will, O God."
BUT WE do not need to stop our questions there. What is the meaning of the New Covenant? This wonderful letter answers that too in the words of Jeremiah, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days saith the Lord: I will put my laws on their heart and upon their mind also I will write them. And their sins and their iniquities I will remember them more."
WHEN we contemplate Christ on the cross we are looking at a very good man being foully tortured to death. If that is all we can see it is still worth while, for our complacency needs constant shocks to remind us of all the unjust suffering which has been, and is being, inflicted on innocent persons; but if that is all that we can see there is no gospel in it, no good news, but rather very bad news, tending not to hope but despair. Only when, with the eye of faith, we see the Son of God dying for us men and our salvation do we have a gospel, and only when we include the Resurrection in our contemplation do we read a message of hope.
The idea that God could suffer and pass through the experience of death was shocking when it was first proclaimed both to Jews and Greeks and even to some early Christian believers who invented a theory that the Son of God only appeared to suffer and die. It seems to be shocking still, for we remember that Bernard Shaw fulminated against what he called "Crosstianity."
Does it shock us that suffering should enter into the life of God ? There is indeed a sense in which we ought to be shocked by the statement that God suffers. If we mean that suffering and defeat are the whole of the divine experience then we are committed to a belief worse than Atheism, for who could cry for help to a God who was always defeated ? But to say that suffering enters into the divine experience does not have this meaning. We are to think of the divine life as a continual overcoming of evil with good, of sin by holiness and of suffering by joy. The suffering is real and the conflict with it is real, but they are parts of the process which ends in their overcoming so that, if we may so speak, the dominant note of the divine experience is the joy of victory.
WE MAY wonder perhaps how a crucifixion which took place once for all so long ago could have cosmic significance and be a supreme revelation of the love of God. Part of the answer surely lies here, that the passion and resurrection of Christ can be seen as a kind of sacrament of the life of God. In terms of human existence and historical events, the nature of God is manifested, and the eternal activity of God shown forth in the life, death and victory of Jesus of Nazareth.
Lately we have heard discussions of the Immanence and Transcendence of God, and some confusion has arisen about the relation of the two in Christian belief. In the cross the transcendence and the immanence of God are displayed for our learning. God was never absent from the world or without witness: always He was present with men, but not until the coming of Christ was He fully revealed. In the fullness of time He revealed Himself in a life, a human life, in which He was immanent throughout.
But these matters are perhaps too profound for us who are engrossed with the trials and tensions of practical life. For us the plain good news is that we have to do with a God who, far from being aloof from our troubles, feels our suffering and forgives our sins, offering us the hope of sharing His victory and His joy.
THERE is no merit in making oneself miserable, and any self denial we may practise in matters of food during Lent is properly designed to help us to have a "time of refreshing from the Lord," spiritual release and joy.
It is a time to feed our souls. And how shall we do that better than by meditating on the Word of God ?
Though of course we must think of ourselves and of our sins of commission and omission, we are not to dwell over much on that depressing subject; rather we are to look away from ourselves to God revealed in Christ.
How many, even among convinced Christians, have read right through the New Testament as a single exercise and act of devotion ? It could easily be done before Easter, and is worth the effort, but to get the greatest benefit we ought to have a special theme or interest to guide our thoughts.
JUST TO read the New Testament through as it stands would be of inestimable advantage, but we should be wise to change the order in our reading so as to gain an impression of the continuity of the New Testament revelation.
Naturally we shall begin with the Gospels and first of all with the Gospel of Mark, which is the primary authority for the life of Jesus, and pass on to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, noting how they repeat Mark's story and add to the record of His teaching information of transcendent importance.
Then, if we take the advice of many commentators, we should read the Acts of the Apostles, not staying to study the many interesting historical questions which the book raises, but observing the growth of the Church and the deepening of its understanding of the Christ.
From then onwards we come to books which, as it were, present to us various aspects of Christ and interpretations of His Person and work; we can note the fundamental agreement of the writers and the differences of their individual experiences and presentations.
At the end, perhaps, we should read the Gospel of John and ask ourselves whether in it we have not the most profound interpretation of the Christ whom we had first met in the simple pages of Mark.
By the time that Easter had come we should be ready to embark on the mysterious and magnificent book of Revelation with its poetical and prophetic proclamation of the conquest of evil by Him who was dead and is alive for ever more.
LATER WE shall return to commentaries and scholarly helps to reading the Bible and be glad of their assistance, but it is salutary at times to let the Bible speak directly to us and to have the impact on our souls of the New Testament as a single book.
No one can predict what the effect of such a reading will be on another man. It is conceivable that he will reject the whole as legend and illusion, but it is more likely, I think, that he will feel at least that here is mystery and also deep and searching reality.
To the believer who makes this experiment it will bring a new sense of the manifold riches of Christ the Lord, and of his own failure to live up to his high calling.
"PASSION Sunday" begins to direct our thoughts to con-1 centrate on the event of the first Good Friday when, as Christians believe, the Lord Christ offered the sacrifice of Himself for the sins of all mankind. As a ritual the killing of animals in divine service is bizarre, and we must own that probably if we could be present at a sacrifice in the Temple of Solomon we should revolt against the proceedings. To us cutting animals' throats and sprinkling their blood is almost the last thing which would occur as pleasing to God. Yet the Christian liturgies and devotional literature abound in reference to the blood of Christ, and our hymns develop the theme. "There is a fountain with blood, drawn from Immanuel's veins." To some this language and these images are repellent, but they do not stop to reflect that the repulsion they feel is largely due to the transformation of the idea of sacrifice in the later Hebrew Prophets and in the New Testament.
THE EPISTLE to the Hebrews is about Priesthood and Sacrifice as exemplified in Christ. Quoting the 40th Psalm, the author applies the words to the death of Christ (Heb. x, 5pp.) The poet declares that God has no desire for "sacrifice and offering" and goes on to indicate the kind of sacrifice in which He delights: "Then said I, lo, I come to do thy will, O God."
The offering of the person to do the will of God, the commitment of the whole personality and life to the service of God, is the acceptable sacrifice. This spiritual interpretation of sacrifice was perhaps connected with the mistaken belief that the blood is the life, which lies behind the more primitive sacrifices, but this is a matter of small importance. The supremely important fact is that this new insight was granted and the idea of sacrifice exalted from the level of error and superstition into that of spiritual and moral reality. The Epistle to the Hebrews still refers frequently to "blood," chiefly in connection with the "New Covenant," but we must always remember that the writer means not the material blood of a dying animal or a dying Man, but the dedicated life and personality.
THE AUTHOR of Hebrews then presents to us Christ as the perfect and sinless Priest and Victim, who offers Himself to the Father on behalf of the whole human race, reconciling it to God. But this is not to be understood as an action in which we have no part except to be passive recipients of its benefits: we are to follow Christ, and in union with Him to present ourselves as a living sacrifice.
The words "precious blood" can hardly now be replaced by others, but we must beware of falling back into an outworn and superstitious use of them. When we say them we should make sure that we have left magic behind and are thinking of life and personality. There is a hymn devoted to the Precious Blood which ends with the line, sung fortissimo, "Louder still and louder, praise the precious blood." Let us be careful that we do not make the precious blood an idol. We may sing the hymn without scruple if we can sing with all our hearts, "Praise the precious life."
ONE aspect of the Atonement as understood by the Church is that Christ bore the due penalty of the sins of the whole world.
This conception of vicarious punishment is to be found in the New Testament and has entered deeply into Christian devotion, but to many today it seems both unreasonable and unjust.
What civilised judge would admit the possibility of a man undergoing a punishment for someone else's crime and allowing the culprit to go free. Stated baldly and in terms of ordinary human conditions the notion is preposterous. To get the idea, however, into proper focus we have to look at it in the light of two presuppositions which many of us do not make.
We have, first, to take seriously the belief that there is a divinely-established moral order which, owing to human sin, is realised only imperfectly. It follows from this principle that the purpose of punishment is not simply to protect society from criminals and, if possible, to reform them, but to vindicate the moral order.
Now it is contrary to that order that the wicked should prosper at the expense of the innocent, and one of the purposes of any system of law should be to see that, so far as human wisdom can effect it, honest men should live in peace while the unscrupulous and selfish individuals should suffer.
IF WE think, in our human way, of God as holy and just, we are committed to the belief that He is the moral governor of the universe and the sustainer of the moral law.
This does not conflict with the belief that He is love, nor does the lawful infliction of punishment where it is deserved contradict the command to love our neighbour because the collapse of the moral order would be the direst calamity which could befall mankind— including the criminals. Thus, to imagine that God must "let everyone off," because He is love, is to forget His holiness.
The second presupposition is that what the New Testament says about the possibility of identification of Christ with sinners, He being in them and they in Him, is not mystical metaphor but the description of a spiritual reality.
With these presuppositions in our mind, let us reconsider the doctrine of the atonement as the release from guilt and punishment. Christ the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, in sheer love and compassion for sinners, wills to identify Himself with them and to take them into Himself as a part of His experience.
HE IS not only the representative of sinful humanity; by His own will He includes them in Himself with all their evil deeds and foul imaginings. St. Paul boldly says that "He was made to be sin for us." Only one who was without sin himself could bear the penalty of all the sins of the world: He knew them. He experienced them in their full horror, while having no part in them.
This divine act of love is the atonement for the sins of the whole world. All are forgiven for Christ's sake. But we have to claim our forgiveness and respond to the self-giving of the Saviour with our own self-giving to Him. In so far as the identification of myself with Christ is real and I live in Him I can pray with confidence in the words of the hymn, "Look, Father, look on His anointed face, and only look on us as found in Him." Thus we may represent to ourselves this great matter but let us not think we have "explained" it; mystery remains—the mystery of love.
AT Eastertide even the most frivolous pause for a moment to wonder whether there may not be some possibility of life after death. If we may hope, what precisely is it we may hope for? The two words "survival" and "resurrection" signify two different approaches to "immortality" which most of us try at different periods in our lives.
Our friends who pursue "scientific" enquiries concentrate on alleged evidence of "the survival of bodily death"; our New Testament says nothing about "survival" as a human possibility but a great deal about the "gift of eternal life."
A method of clearing our minds on this vital subject could be to ask ourselves what we would hope for in our most spiritual thinking. We might start by asking if we really believe that our survival of death is desirable from an unbiased point of view. Unless we are very optimistic our answer will be that our continued existence in the universe could be justified only on the assumption that we are likely to become more worthy than we are.
No doubt many Christian believers regard the question "Shall I survive death?" in this light and depend upon the grace of God for "the life of the world to come." It must be said, however, that the dominant note of the Christian hope is Resurrection. In St. Paul's preaching the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ was the pattern of the experience of salvation from death. The converted sinner, in St. Paul's understanding of the Gospel, had put on the Lord Jesus Christ and shared in His rising from the dead.
IT MUST be admitted that when Paul's ecstatic language is analysed for the purpose of making "doctrines" or "dogmas" all kinds of unanswerable questions arise. That Christ "came down from heaven" to die and rise again for every man is itself intelligible only to the imagination, but when these "images" are the vehicle of revelation and potent in turning weak sinners into sturdy saints we are wise to accept them and to look beyond survival to Resurrection.
Faith and hope exist only in individual minds, but there is some resemblance between persons and nations. Looking out over the clouded "comity of nations" what must we hope for civilisation ? Survival is not enough. We hope for resurrection.
ON Easter morning the first words of Scripture we hear in church are those which begin the Epistle: "If ye then be risen with Christ seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God" (Col. iii. i). For some reason the NEB translates this as a question, "Were you not raised to life with Christ?" I suppose to avoid the possible suggestion that there was some doubt in the matter. If so, the translators are right. St. Paul took for granted that the baptised Christian shared both in the death and resurrection of Christ. For him the Resurrection was not only a decisive event which happened in the past but a continuing fact to be observed in the lives of the converted. He proceeds to define the quality of the risen life. It is marked off from that of the unconverted by the things it seeks and desires; they are not "on the earth," but "above"—in Heaven.
We hear much about the super-natural and its difficulties for modern thinkers, but we have not had any clear definition of either the "natural" or the "super-natural." It is certain that, in one sense, St. Paul, and indeed all the New Testament writers, believed in the super-natural. They believed that the world of every day, the things that we know through our bodily senses and in the condition of space and time, were not the whole sum of being, and that "beyond," "above," "beneath" them (all these words are imperfect symbols) there is a realm of being, of spirit, which is eternal. It is also certain that they believed the present world would not last for ever, and that when it disappeared, the spiritual order would remain. The religion of the New Testament is, in this sense, "other-worldly," but not in t Ik- bad sense of caring nothing for this world. "Thy Kingdom come on earth ;is ii is in I leaven" is its prayer, and its aim. It would suggest to us that the really practical way of improving earthly existence is to bring into it the motives and principles of the spiritual world and that is the task of those who, being risen with Christ, "seek those things that are above."
ALWAYS TO seek things above does not mean to be always dreaming of the joys of Heaven; it means in all our activities to have purposes which are relevant to what we believe to be the mind of Christ and the will of God. How much of the lives of all of us are strangely inconsistent with this ideal! We fill them with the satisfaction of our appetites, with pleasant ways of passing the time, with the pursuit of ambitions which are largely selfish. How much of our attention is given to values which do not perish, to the service of truth and justice, or to the unselfish love which Christ has taught us? Many lives which to us appear to be full and rich in achievement are, in the sight of God, empty and poor, because they are not directed to the things that really matter. Easter day is the time to remind ourselves that we are risen with Christ and pledged to live the risen life.
EASTER is the Church's greatest holy day—the festival of life.
But it is not simply continued existence that we celebrate; it is the "risen life" revealed in the Christ. The words "eternal life" express the meaning of Easter more accurately than "everlasting life," for we need to keep clearly before us that just to go on without end is not our hope; we believe that the risen life which we are to partake of in Christ is new in quality, on a level of value which is divine.
On this supreme Christian festival it may cross our minds that our Easter joy is so definitely identified with Christ that we cannot imagine even the best men and women of other faiths having any experience really comparable to ours. Have we, as Christians, so to speak, a monopoly of eternal life ? Christian theology has often taught something very like that, and, of course, we must recognise that the way we are treading as followers of Christ is not the same as followers of the Buddha or the mystics of Islam. But every spiritual religion holds out before its adherents the prospect of fulfilment, not in death, but in a new and higher kind of living. The words "eternal life" can have a meaning for every awakened human soul.
IF WE know the significance of "eternal life," we shall be aware that to possess it is our highest good and worthy of all our efforts, but at the same time we learn that, ultimately, eternal life is a gift and not a reward. "The gift of God is eternal life." This important truth too can be misinterpreted so as to induce in us spiritual sloth; we say to ourselves, "we must wait for the gift, because all our striving for eternal life by itself must be in vain." But when we learn the lesson that eternal life must be a gift of God we learn, at the same time, that we are capable of receiving the gift and that capacity in us can be sharpened and kept sensitive by "waiting upon God" calmly but expectantly. For there is another thing we may learn in our waiting—that the Giver of the gift of eternal life is not separated from us by impassable barriers. He is not a prisoner in Heaven—he lives, hidden, in our deepest being.
ON Easter Day the churches celebrate the glorious Resurrection of the Lord Christ, singing in notes of triumph "Jesus Christ is risen to-day." Many people will be making holiday, careless of the fact that the holiday is the greatest of all holy days, either because they reject the belief in the Resurrection, or because it does not interest them. And we who will be there taking our part in the festival are children of this critical and uncertain age who, though we believe, have our moments of questioning.
Why, we ask, is the truth of the Resurrection not made so plain that even the most sceptical and indifferent must acknowledge it?
I have heard it said that the Resurrection is the most certain fact in history. This, however, is, in my opinion, the wrong way of presenting the gospel of the Resurrection, because it suggests that faith is not needed.
ONE OF the most certain facts in history is indeed that, very soon after the crucifixion, the disciples of Jesus were firmly convinced that He had overcome death and that their belief was the cause of the origin and spread of the Christian religion. With almost equal certainty, we may assert that the conviction of the disciples was due to experiences such as those recorded in St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians and in the Gospels.
So far we have data which are scarcely open to reasonable objection. But the next step takes us into the region of faith. Were these experiences veridical or could they be due to illusion ?
St. Paul has something to offer us here. How did he come to his faith in the Resurrection? Probably he had never seen Jesus in the flesh, but he had .1 spiritual conversion on the road to Damascus which indicates that, in spite of himself, he had already felt the attraction of the person of Christ. He did not, however, base his belief only on this personal experience.
He gives a careful list of the appearances of the Risen Lord, of which the appearance to himself is the last. He looked at the evidence. But the final stage of Paul's apprehension of the power of the Resurrection was the long period of his Apostolate when he lived day by day in (he faith of Christ crucified and risen. At the end, he could say not "I know that the Resurrection really happened," but something more profound, "I know whom I have believed."
WE ARE denied the kind of certainty in this life which, in our ignorance, we covet. There are no answers to the questions which most concern us that are so clear and conclusive that we are compelled to accept them. Always we are brought to a point where we must choose either to make the leap of faith, or to refuse.
But we are never required to exercise an unreasonable faith, or to stifle the questioning of our minds. Our faith, if it is strong, will never cease from seeking understanding, and we may discover that, as we go forward in trust, we shall grow in the knowledge of God and in certitude.
TO be plunged suddenly from happiness into misery is no uncommon experience, but it always imposes an uncommon strain on faith. Sufferers may despair and follow the advice of Job's wife to "curse God and die," or they may stand up against misfortune in more than one way. A noble and austere way is that of the stoic who, by an effort of will, strives to keep a serene mind, unmoved by hope or fear. Pride, a pride which commands our respect, keeps the stoical humanist erect in life's storms. The Christian way, however, puts no such strain on the human self as it actually exists. Its gospel for the sufferer nearing despair is not that he has only to "pull himself together" to meet every adversity, but rather that, left to himself, he can do nothing of the kind; his only hope is that he can stretch out to the Power, not himself which can carry him through.
The source of strength in the Christian understanding of life is the Redeemer who has known all the griefs of human existence and invites his disciples to cast all their cares on Him. Looking at the cross of Christ the believer sees One who was tortured to death, who was betrayed by a friend, was execrated by his fellow men and cast out, one moreover who endured the experience of being cut off from God. We do not have to explain our agonies to Christ—He shares them.
ALL THIS we can say to others when they despair—and to ourselves. And how often has the saving power of this lifeline been proved! But Paul says that we are to rejoice, not only now and then, but always, including days of tribulation. This is a large claim. We would hardly dare to hint to anyone crushed by unexpected calamity or the treachery of friends to go singing through life. Enough, we think, that they should have courage and take up the business of living again with some show of cheerfulness; but some who have passed this way with more perseverance than most have reported that they rejoice all the time because they have been able to offer their suffering to God in union with Christ to be part of His atoning
sacrifice. Of these high things only a few can speak from experience. Let us come down to earth and observe that often the person overwhelmed by tragic events has not so much lost faith in God as faith in his fellow men. We can do something to restore that—and indirectly to restore faith in God, too.
ON Easter Eve the Church waits, as it were with bated breath, for the Resurrection which transforms defeat into victory. Good Friday is the prelude to Easter Day. The death of Jesus on the Cross is an historical event not obviously different in nature from many other cruel executions.
The Resurrection is not an historical event, at least we must say it is not only an historical event; it is a supernatural event. We are not given any account or description of the Resurrection in the Gospels. What we are given is information about the way in which some of the disciples of Jesus became convinced that He had risen, and in the writings of St Paul we have first hand evidence of the experience which invigorated the company of converts, that they had "risen with Christ" and were called to be members of His body. The death of Christ was not on the same level as His rising again, because He died once for all but conquered death.
THE GOSPEL of Redemption, as presented to us in the Bible, is couched in language and images which belong to our lives in time and space. Only so could our limited minds and imaginations respond to the message. We say that Christ, the Son of God "came down from Heaven" at a certain date and offered the sacrifice to God which "takes away the sin of the whole world." But we cannot suppose that the divine mind is confined to the limits of our human nature. When we speak, as we must, of the death of Christ and His Resurrection in human terms we must be aware that we are thinking, as it were, in parables.
One meets thoughtful persons who are perplexed or repelled by some doctrines which centre upon the death of Christ. For example, the idea that Christ redeemed us by bearing the penalty of our sins in our place and so delivering us from the wrath of God, seems to us quite unjust. The attempt to express the love of God to sinful beings must be difficult and all the analogies fall short. Perhaps St Paul did not explain very clearly why the death of Jesus on the cross was necessary for our salvation but he knew why he belonged to Christ -"He loved me and gave himself up for me." (Gal. ii. 20.)
EASTER is a celebration of victory when the Church hails its Lord as conqueror. In the Epistle this note resounds in the words: "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith," which are an echo of the declaration of Jesus, on the eve of His crucifixion, "I have overcome the world." The victory has been won by the Leader of the host; but, so far as we are concerned, the conflict still goes on, and we, too, through our faith, have to overcome the world.
The "world" in the New Testament has a two-fold aspect. On the one hand, it is the creation of God and the object of His love, but on the other hand, it is alienated from Him, and His enemy. "Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds" was the opinion of Leibniz, the great optimist, but according to the Bible this is far from the truth.
In the judgment of God the "world" is under condemnation. Thus the kingdom of God stands in antithesis to the world as light contrasted with darkness, life with death, and love with selfishness and hate. It was the "world," with its blindness to genuine goodness and its cynical, self-seeking policies, that crucified Christ who in His death and resurrection triumphed over it.
TO BE a Christian in any but a purely nominal sense means that a man is committed to one side in a conflict. In every war it is important to know where your enemies are and what you mean by victory.
With regard to the first: we must beware of over-simplification, for the enemy is more subtle and ubiquitous than we may imagine. Too often the Kingdom of God has been identified with the Church and the issue regarded as a struggle between the Church and the world. But unfortunately the values of the world can seep into the fellowship of Christ's disciples and blunt the instrument which exists for the advance of God's Kingdom.
The Church, too, is under the judgment of God. Nor, when we consider ourselves, can we be confident that the world's "fifth column" has not some lodgment in our souls. How tentative is our commitment to the cause of Christ!
AND WHAT is the victory? In human warfare it consists in destroying the enemy or rendering him impotent. In the spiritual warfare the aim is the opposite of this.
Christ died not to destroy the world, but to redeem it; not to deprive it of life, but to lead it to the true life; not to reduce it to impotence, but to concentrate its energies in creative and brotherly work.
Our faith, says the Apostle, overcomes the world after the pattern of Jesus, who has already won the decisive victory. Does not this imply that we too, in our measure, have some part in the redemption which Christ brought to the world ?
We too are to be ready to suffer that light, life and love may overcome ignorance, death and hate.
ON "Passion Sunday" we are invited to turn our thoughts toward the crucifixion of Jesus in preparation for Good Friday and Easter day. What do we make of it ? The possible answers are almost innumerable, but some are obvious and actual, in the sense that they are accepted by people alive today.
First, there is the commonplace attitude which was adopted by many at the date of Christ's execution—it was just one of the large number of crucifixions carried out by the Roman forces, some of the sufferers being criminals, some rebels and some, no doubt, persons who died because they were righteous. Reflections on the misery associated with power politics may occur to us. But more inspiring is the approach to the Passion with the assumption that the Gospels are telling the truth when they represent Jesus as a great teacher of morals who has left for our instruction many memorable sayings and an example of unselfish loving kindness. From this point of view we may pass easily to a comparison of Jesus with other Teachers, with Confucius, with the Buddha and, perhaps most relevant of all, with Socrates dying not on a cross but by a cup of poison.
Almost endless are the reflections which spring up on this path. And this mode of thought is not altogether alien to the New Testament, for St. Paul takes account of the moral ideas of pagan thinkers. But the central conviction of the Apostolic Church is not that Jesus was a cruelly persecuted sage; it is that He is the Redeemer who, in the Passion, offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice which sums up and completes all imperfect sacrifices and opens the way to spiritual victory in the personal experiences of those who are joined to Him by faith.
WE ARE to think of Jesus Christ, according to (he New Testament, certainly as the inspired moralist who gave the New Law of righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount; bill we are to think also of this same Teacher as "the lamb of God whi< li lakes away the sin of the world." The Church is right, it is at least in harmony with the spirit of the New Testament, when it makes us listen on Passion Sunday to the Epistle to the Hebrews which, writing of animal sacrifices, goes on to refer to the blood of Christ: "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." (Heb. ix, 14).
IF IT could be proved to us beyond doubt that someone had risen from the dead we should feel that we had heard a shattering piece of news, but we should not necessarily assume that it was good news.
We might indeed think that our conception of human potentialities needed to be enlarged, but not that our whole outlook on life and idea of the universe must be radically changed.
The Christian belief in the Resurrection is not like this. It requires an act of faith, and it is a gospel.
Though we may justly consider the evidence for the Resurrection very strong, it does not exclude the possibility of doubt, and though the sceptical suggestions to "explain" the Christian belief (that the appearances were illusions, that Jesus was not really dead and so on) are unconvincing, we shall never be able to show that they are absolutely impossible. And, in fact, the spread of the belief in the Resurrection depended as much on the manifestation of the power of the belief in the lives of those who proclaimed it as on the factual testimony which they offered.
As St. Paul indicates, it was the power of the Resurrection in life that gave driving force to Apostolic evangelisation.
THE CHRISTIAN belief in the Resurrection is a gospel. It is not a belief that some anonymous individual has risen but that the Son of Man has overcome death and dies no more for ever.
It is the belief that the love which led Him to die for man's redemption and seemed to be finally frustrated and defeated on the cross was really triumphant and that the Man who claimed to be, in a unique sense, the Son of God truly revealed the divine nature as love and, therefrom, that, in spite of every disconcerting appearance to the contrary, the ultimate meaning of the universe is not blind chance, or destiny, or impersonal reign of law, but the love of the Father.
This indeed is good news, but how does it become a word of salvation for me ?
To answer this question we can turn to the books of the New Testament which show us the gospel of the Resurrection in action. We are risen with Christ says St. Paul, and the thought echoes through all the Christian centuries.
The Ressurection is not a work of wonder and power done apart from us at which we may marvel but in which we cannot share. By faith we may be incorporated into Christ and be partakers of His sacrifice and His victory. The experience of the Son of Man dying and rising again in new and nobler life is the pattern for our personal development.
ST. PAUL does not doubt that his converts are risen with Christ, but he goes on to urge them to "seek those things that are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God." (Col. iii, 1).
The sharing in the Resurrection of Christ does not make us perfect or deliver us from all temptation. We have still to "seek the things that are above." We are not promised automatic sanctifica-tion or untroubled progress.
We are offered something better, which does not diminish our freedom; we are assured that the resurrection pattern will be validated in us, if we have faith, and whatever the plight in which we find ourselves, perhaps due to our own sins, there is always the opportunity of the resurrection of the self. We rise "on stepping stones of our dead selves."
ON Palm Sunday we contemplate the entry of Jesus to Jerusalem seated on a donkey and welcomed enthusiastically by a crowd of His adherents. On the following Friday He was crucified, and the sudden change of public opinion with regard to the prophet from Nazareth has puzzled commentators on the Gospels. The New Testament does not encourage us to stop with Good Friday; it seems to insist that we should never mention or think of the death of Jesus without thinking of His resurrection. Notice, for example, how St. Paul, when he has mentioned the death of Christ, immediately adds, "or rather was raised from the dead" (Rom. viii, 34). The Christian will try to observe this rule and will hope that those who represent the life and death of Christ in pictures and dramas will take note of it.
Of course, the Crucifixion can be the subject of a play and is open to treatment as though it were a human tragedy and nothing more. It will still make a noble story of the kind which we know in contemporary life. The brave and devoted lifeboatmen of Hoy had the Christ-like spirit of sacrifice for others, and who would doubt that they are not far from the Kingdom of God ? But the Christian belief about the death of Christ is that it was followed by the Resurrection and was, in a unique sense, the revelation of God. In Him and in His crucifixion the Church of the New Testament has seen the culmination and fulfilment of all the sacrifices: the end of superstitions and the sacrifice which can take away the sin of the world. A story or a drama which fails to bring out the mystery and the spiritual experience which inhere in the Sacrifice of Christ misrepresents the evidence in the New Testament—and there is no other source of knowledge about Him.
EASTER WILL no doubt be treated as an ordinary holiday by the majority of our fellow citizens and their careless pleasures may jar on us when we try to contemplate the crucified Redeemer, but let us not be censorious but seek our own joy without envy or malice. The Collect for Palm Sunday includes us all. We pray "that all mankind may follow the example of Christ's great humility" and that "we may both follow the example of His patience and also be made partakers of His resurrection."
THERE is an impression among some excellent Christians that one ought not to feel too comfortable during Lent and that this has something to do with repenting for sins. Some of them seem to leave out the repenting and just make themselves irritable by a slight change for a few weeks in their personal habits. A moment's thought, however, will convince any thoughtful believer that there are real and deep reasons why he must experience spiritual discomfort when he directs the search-light of conscience on his inner life.
The examination begins by asking the question by what standard am I to judge myself? Shall I pass muster if I am slightly better than the average? How much allowance may I claim for myself because of handicaps and disadvantages which were in no sense my own fault ? The answer to these questions comes from the Lord Christ in the Sermon on the Mount when He has stated the law of Love in it most uncompromising form, dwelling particularly on the duty to love our enemies. He states the demand, "Ye therefore shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mat. v, 48). NOTHING SHORT of perfection will be accepted—and this is the end of
"comfort" or at least of complacency. Herbert Spencer and other critics of the ethical teaching of Jesus have rejected it on this ground—that it sets before us in impossible ideal with the natural consequences that, confronted by inevitable failure, men become disheartened and give up trying. It would be better to adopt a less exalted ideal which is within the reach of real human beings. This objection is really important and relevant as we may infer from the fact that there never has been in history any community existing for a century which was Christian without compromise.
Here is the source of our necessary discomfort. In our Lenten meditation we contemplate the life of loving fellowship which Jesus brings before our imagination and which He exemplifies in His mission and His death; we contemplate too the civilised society in which we live and our own potentialities as civilised Christians. We are confounded by the contrast. We may shrug our shoulders and forget it, but when you do that we know that we are contemptible. We must be uncomfortable. To be uncomfortable is a sign of grace and in the people (old as well as young) who feel it is the promise of the future.
THERE are many questions about the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem just before He was crucified which we should like to have answered. Was it planned by His followers, was the crowd which welcomed Him with hosannas the same as that which howled for His death and, if so, why did its mind change so soon? But the most vital question is: What was passing in the mind of the central figure ? Did Jesus in any degree share the hopes of His followers, or was He aware that the shouts of triumph were a bitter irony?
Unfortunately the Gospels do not help us much on this point. The Evangelists do not know, so not being romantic novelists they do not invent an appropriate train of thoughts and attribute them to Christ.
On the side of the view that Jesus was not deceived by the pop-ular manifestations we have to reckon the fact that He is reported to have predicted his own death, and that in Jerusalem at the hands of the religious authorities; and of course if we imagine that He knew beforehand all the events of His life the question is answered as soon as asked.
Probability seems to lie with the hypothesis that the knowledge of the Incarnate Son in His earthly life was subject to human limitations and we are at liberty to consider the possibility that Jesus, when 1 le entered Jerusalem, expected not death but victory.
FOR WHAT it is worth, I put forward for attention the words which, according to Luke, He spoke when some of the Pharisees asked Him to rebuke the disciples who were acclaiming Him: "I tell you, if these shall hold their peace the stones will cry out" (Lk. xix. 40). The natural interpretation of the Lord's words is surely that the Providence of God decrees the Kingship of the Son of Man and, if human agents do not suffice to carry out the divine will, it will be realised without them.
I think we might add to this the fact that Jesus in the night before His arrest prayed earnestly that "this cup might pass from Him"— the cup of death. Can we suppose that He did this while still convinced that His death was an essential element in the divine plan of salvation ?
Nothing of first importance turns upon the alternative which we choose; on either view, Jesus Christ suffered "for us men and for our salvation." On the view which we have been canvassing the sufferings were more terrible than we had perhaps imagined. Jesus in His passion was forsaken in rapid succession, by the followers who had acclaimed Him King, by His disciples who had called Him Master and Teacher, and He died crying "My God, why dids't thou forsake me?" It is also possible, and on the whole more likely, that the "cry of dereliction" is a quotation of the opening words of Psalm 22 on which the Lord Jesus was meditating in the hour of agony.
AS the season of Lent proceeds, the Church tries to concentrate L our thoughts on the Cross and Passion, that we may be prepared for Holy Week and Good Friday. It is logically convenient that we should begin by asking what precisely we shall be commemorating.
In the prevailing climate of opinion, probably a majority of answers would be that we are commemorating an heroic martyrdom. And that, so far as it goes, is an accurate description. We account as martyrs those who suffer unto death as witnesses to some truth which has value for humanity or as a consequence of refusal to betray a noble cause, and Jesus certainly was crucified because He persisted in proclaiming His own version of the Kingdom of God.
So long as we stay at this level the comparison of Jesus with Socrates is not absurd and may even be illuminating. But the kind of thing which is said about Jesus by His Apostles is really not at all like what Socrates's friends said about him. The name of Jesus, writes St. Paul, "is above every name" and "in that name every knee must bow" (Phil, ii.9.10). Its power and dignity extends beyond this age into the world to come (Eph. i.21.22). Such language does not suggest that the person described is important most of all as a teacher of philosophy and ethics. It suggests that the Person is to be worshipped as well as listened to.
THE NEW Testament suggests that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, has other names which represent aspects of his Person and His mission. He is the Son of God in a sense which is not true of any creature. He is the "Word" or "Reason" of God who has come into the world. He is, too, the Saviour of sinners both from sin and from condemnation, or He may be called the Redeemer. All these words are metaphors or symbols taken from human experiences, from the rescue of victims of violence, from the release of slaves and from the shepherd.
All these words, when used as names of Jesus Christ, presuppose another name—that of Mediator. In the experience of the men who gave us the New Testament the Person of Jesus came between the sinful and ignorant human being and the Creator-God—not as an obstacle, but as the open way to reconciliation with God. All these names have a touch of mystery and each of them has a meaning which can be food for meditation.
THE first words of Scripture that many of us hear on Easter day are those of the Epistle (Col. iii, 1 ff.) "If ye be risen with Christ," which remind us that we are celebrating not only an event in the past, the resurrection of Jesus, but the existence of a continuing risen life in which we share.
St. Paul does not doubt that his readers are risen with Christ, Ibr in theit baptism they committed themselves to Him; the Apostle is concerned that they should remember and reflect upon the new lilc that is theirs. We have in these few verses a succinct statement 11I fundamental idea in St. Paul's teaching, that in the Christian experience the death and rising again of Christ is reflected and reproduced. "Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God"; the old self which conformed to "the world" is defunct— that the new man in Christ may live.
AS ALWAYS with St. Paul, this profound, and even mystical, insight is immediately given a practical application. The question, What shall we do about it? is never far away in his Epistles. And here, in brief but pregnant words, he sums up the Christian's hope and the Christian's duty. The hope could be described as "other-worldly," with qualifications. We are to "set our affections" or "aspire to" "things above" where Christ is "at the right-hand of God," and our expectation is not to be some earthly Utopia, but the "manifestation of Christ" and a share in His "glory."
But the risen life does not have to wait for a "far-off divine event"; it can be lived, and must be lived, in this earthly life, though not in accordance with earthly motives and standards. The Christian is to be a representative and an example here and now of the life of the world to come. The Apostle describes it as "hidden with Christ in God," by which he means, I think, that its ideals and values are incomprehensible to those who are wholly absorbed in the present world.
THE CHRISTIAN'S duty follows from this. It is first negative; a renunciation of the impulses in his own nature which "belong to the earth." But the purpose is positive. By bringing our animal impulses under control and liberating us from the "ruthless greed" which is a kind of idol worship the Risen Life makes room for itself to expand within us so that its positive and creative virtues may spring up bringing with them the peace of Christ. The end is not gloom but joy—"singing with grace in our hearts unto God."
Who would deny, looking at the world as it is, that the gospel of the Risen Life meets real and urgent needs; and who, looking at himself, would not confess that he would be more human, happier and more at peace if he could remember every day the hope set before him and the power offered to him in Christ ?
THE behaviour of the crowd at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, as narrated in the Gospels, offers one puzzle which cannot be evaded: How did the crowd, which had welcomed Jesus when he entered the city with Hosannas, in a few days change its cry to "Crucify" ? Many moralisings on the fickleness of popular affection have been based on this incident, but we simply do not know the cause and we must bear in mind that the "Palm Sunday" crowd was not the same as the "Good Friday" one.
Recent study of the Gospel accounts has drawn attention to the tendency in the tradition, from Mark to Luke and John, which seems to illustrate the growing antagonism between the Church and the Jews while showing concern to play down the part of Pontius Pilate and the Roman authorities. Yet the certain facts are that the crucifixion of Jesus was the act of the occupying Power and that His alleged crime was claiming to be King of the Jews.
At the same time, however, it would be unduly sceptical to discard as erroneous all the passages in the Gospels which assert the existence of a section in Jerusalem which welcomed the overthrow of the new prophet. Probably the Jews who were hostile to Jesus, or at least some of them, objected to His criticism of the temple worship and some of the "customs of the elders." It may be that they too were offended by the claim made by His disciples that He was the divinely chosen King. They wanted a different kind of King—one who could put to flight the armies of the heathen.
THE PRIMITIVE tradition about the Crucifixion is probably to be found most clearly in Mark's Gospel. In his laconic sentences the grim desolation of the dying Saviour is revealed. He was alone. His disciples all forsook Him and fled (Mk xiv 50) He cries to God in the words of the 22nd Psalm, "Why dids't thou forsake me?" In the latest of the four Gospels we have the reversal and the fulfilment—"I, if I be lifted up will draw all men unto myself" (Jn. xii 32). The repellent Cross, symbol of agony and loneliness, will become the spiritual magnet of souls.
Before long the crowd began to be attracted, and the remainder of the New Testament tells us something about the "laos," the "laymen," the "people" within the church and the multitude outside. Church history begins and we now partake in the adventure —at a time when faith falters and the task of "holding up" the Crucified that many may be drawn into His fellowship is uncommonly hard.
ON Passion Sunday it may be good for a time to contemplate the Crucifixion in its stark superficial reality, ignoring the intci pictatinns which liiith has offered. When viewed in this way it taken its place with innumerable other instances of innocence tortured and slain, of cruelty in high places and in crowds, and of the fanaticism which can grow out of sincere religion. We have in this incident, .is it were, an epitome of many of the aspects of the world which make it hard to believe in the love of God. Where can we discern I lis presence in such a scene of suffering and triumphant infamy ?
The reply of faith to this question is a startling paradox. God is present in the victim who is defeated and killed, the object of almost unanimous execration. This paradox, if we can believe it, is in fact at least a partial answer to the problem of evil. It is an answer which will not satisfy the philosophers, for it presupposes a conception of Deity which looks like "dualism." We are led to think of God as involved in a cosmic conflict against evil in all its forms, and the idea is not far off, that the conflict is costly not only in human suffering but to God.
THAT SUFFERING can enter into the divine experience is a suggestion from which Christian thinkers have often shrunk, and not without reason, for from our human point of view it seems that suffering implies limitation, so that the Eternal and Perfect God cannot suffer. Yet the New Testament revelation of God in Christ surely means that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who is God, "suffered for us men and for our salvation," and that His conflict and His agony are truly real—not parables or symbols or imagination, but actually existing experiences which have a significance for the lives of all of us.
This is closely related to the central belief of Christians that God is love, which is far more vital for us than the belief that He is Infinite. If those attributes of God which A. N. Whitehead described as "metaphysical compliments" contradict the love of God, they must be swept away, for they are not "good news" but only interesting speculation.
But there is no need to sweep away these attributes hastily, for we have only an imperfect grasp of their meaning and implications, nor have we plumbed the depths of the statement "God is love." There is more to be learnt. What we need to guard is faith in the divine compassion against the desiccation of philosophical analysis, and for this purpose we must hold firmly the reality of the suffering of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.
SOME of the manifestations of the Risen Christ as recounted in the Gospels are to individuals and differ from those to groups in one respect which is worth noting. The individuals do not immediately recognise Him, and the experience seems to resemble penetrating a disguise. Mary Magdalene thought at first that the risen Lord was the gardener (Jno. xx.15) and the two disciples who walked to Emmaus with a stranger talked with him a long time before they became aware that he was the Christ (Lk. xxiv. i3ff). We are told that their "eyes were opened" when they ate with him and received the broken bread from his hands.
If we could unravel all the implications of this short narrative, we should learn much about the origin and spread of the belief in Christ's resurrection and the kind of experience which attested it. Evidently, in some cases the conclusive experience of the Risen Christ came as the climax of anxious thought and discussion. The disciples' hearts "burn within them" while the Stranger explains the Old Testament. So, too, the statement that He was "known to them by the breaking of bread" suggests that disciples were led to recognise the presence and power of the living Christ in the fellowship of the common meal. Why, I wonder, is there no record in the New Testament of an experience in solitude which confirmed the Resurrection? We may not assume that no such experience was granted and perhaps the appearance of the Lord to Peter was an exception, but we are told only of those manifestations in which a fellow human being is involved.
PROBABLY WE may infer from the instances given in the Gospels that, though group experiences played a part in the rise and development of the Easter faith, an equally vital contribution was made by the individuals who became convinced that Jesus Christ was not dead but had overcome death. They were convinced partly by reflection on His teaching and partly by experiences which came to them with the force of reality and which they saw no reason to question. We must remember that, according to the Gospels, Jesus definitely foretold not only His death, but His resurrection.
It is true that the critics have been suspicious of the authenticity of these utterances and have often dismissed them as "prophecies after the event," but the fashion has recently changed and critics who allow that we know something definite about the teaching of Jesus are now inclined to believe that Jesus did predict His resurrection. If He did, memories of His words must have prepared the way for the Easter faith.
Can we bring all this into dircct relation with our own day and our own thinking? We might start on this by considering possible meanings of "moments of truth."
THE Easter festival is the celebration of a victory. Christ has "overcome death and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life." The victory is presented to our faith as having two characteristics: It is snatched out of utter defeat and is achieved through the endurance of that defeat. Christ on the cross was deserted and dead, deserted even by God, and it was because He encountered the utmost that defeat could mean in suffering that He overcame.
So too were the men and women who first accepted the gospel of the Crucified among the defeated of this world. As Paul notes, there were not many "wise" or "mighty" or "noble" individuals in his flock in Corinth (i Cor. i, 26). It was the "weak," the failures in society, those who knew something of the bitterness of defeat, who pressed into the fellowship of those who shared Christ's victory.
For the Resurrection victory is not, like so many recorded in history, of only temporary effect; it is a once for all victory, but the victorious life released, as it were, in the Easter event is marching on to new conquests, so that the Christian believer can hope for the progressive manifestation of the life of Christ in the Church and society of the future. The shared and enlarging victory of which Easter speaks to us can perhaps be better understood by us, who have adopted the idea of evolution into our familiar concepts, than by our forefathers.
THE EASTER faith is, in some respects, difficult to hold. The ultimate dissolution and death of everything that is lovely and great, as of all lovely and great persons, seems to .be an incontrovertible condition of our existence. And yet, in another respect, that faith seems to be a natural assumption in the minds of men whom we hold in reverence as benefactors of the human race. I do not mean that they all explicitly believed in the doctrine of the Resurrection, but that the inspiration of their lives was a profound hope, verging on conviction, that good, justice and love are indestructible and will come out of defeat and disaster stronger than ever, if we do not faint in their service.
Martin Luther King certainly believed in the Resurrection of Christ and drew strength from that belief. It happened that in the last moving words recorded he spoke of the widest conception of resurrection, of the indestructible nature of good and its certain victory, if we without fear or discouragement, do our "reasonable service."
AT Eastertide many intelligent persons devote a little while to k reflection on the fact that their religion teaches them to pray for immortal or eternal life and declares that death is not the end.
Perhaps they go further and realise that, according to this doctrine, all human beings are, in some sense of the word, immortal spirits, and, if they like thinking things out, they may wonder why this alleged fact about human beings so rarely plays any part in serious discussions. One may read many treatises on education, for example, without finding any reference to what, if true, must be the most important fact about children, that they are immortal spirits and, as such, need training for the life which will follow on death. Is it not remarkable, one thinks, that anyone who holds such views about children could agree to offer them education which ignores their souls?
Or again, does not the belief which we have about the nature of man profoundly affect our opinions about ethics and moral training ? Apparently, in fact, it does not, according to most of the learned writers on the subjects, but to common sense it must seem incredible that moral law and the idea of the good are the same for immortal spirits as for ephemeral beings who live for one brief space and are no more. The manner, again, in which moral problems are approached must depend, to a considerable degree, on the ideas about human personality which dominate the minds of leading authorities.
SOME OF us are disturbed by current developments relating to sex. One may agree that the old-fashioned primness about it and the ignorance which was its outcome was foolish and harmful, but harm of a different kind can be done if all sacredness and reverence is dispersed by matter-of-fact impersonal instructions. Danger lies ahead if the child is left with an outlook which cannot comprehend the virtue of purity and chastity or the meaning of St. Paul's symbolism when he writes of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The scope for the application of the principle of the immortality of human souls to problems of conduct is almost unlimited. It is a pity that believers do not take more pains in thinking what difference in standards of living ought to follow from the conviction that we arc not wholly animal. It is not only Christians who have this obligation. The Platonists among the Humanists are convinced too that they are more than animals and that deep within them is immortal life.
" IS it nothing to you who pass by?" (Lam i, 12). In the liturgies for Holy Week these words resound, challenging us to say what the Cross and Passion of Christ mean to us—if anything. Very many will not answer at all, because they will not even hear the question, and many others will dismiss it as irrelevant to their lives. So it was almost from the beginning. No doubt the Crucifixion was, when it happened, known only to a relatively small circle, and, even among them, did not stand out as specially significant. And today it can be argued that the Christian emphasis on this Individual and these particular few days is wildly disproportionate. One among the innumerable victims of Roman "justice" and of religious bigotry— to men who take wide views it is unnatural to concentrate attention on one particular instance. And indeed it is an astonishing fact that in a world history which is so full of tyranny and suffering the spotlight should rest on Jesus of Nazareth and what happened to Him somewhere about the year a.d. 30. How strange too that the very dating of the year depends on the event of His death. Of course, in a general way, we can give an explanation. The death of Jesus means something which concerns us all; so men have believed, and the conviction that He is alive, having overcome death, instead of fading out, as might have been expected, is renewed from one generation to another.
THE "SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION" has not put an end to the belief, and the latest development of evolutionary philosophy by Teilhard de Chardin centres upon the Man who died on Calvary. Surely it is short-sighted to pass over these facts as irrelevant. Anyone whose mind is alive and is capable of asking questions about life must feel, at the least, some stirrings of curiosity and perhaps also some hope. To do more than "pass by" the Cross and Passion of Jesus we must think about Him and His sacrifice: we must attempt to make His sorrow real to ourselves and relevant to our condition as feeble and sinful individuals. Many who have ventured in that way have found that His sorrow is something to them, and some who have persevered have reported that to them Christ and His Passion is everything—the answer to life's riddles and life's tragedies. The Divine Comedy, one might say, is in three acts, each one an answer to the question. What do the Cross and Passion mean to you?: Nothing; something; everything.
THE four Gospels are not biographies of Jesus, though we have to rely on them for information about His teaching and His circumstances. Biographers are concerned with the life of their hero and not with his death, but the Evangelists are concerned profoundly with Jesus's death. A quite disproportionate amount of space is devoted in each Gospel to the trial, crucifixion and dying speeches of the Lord and, moreover, throughout the Gospels the prospect and shadow of His sacrifice is present. Jesus himself speaks of His death as the culmination of His mission.
We have to recognise the fact that, in the minds of the writers of the New Testament, Jesus was not only a teacher of righteousness but the "Saviour of the World" and the fulfilment of prophecy by offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sin of all mankind. When we try to meditate on the events of Holy Week we are apt to be confused by the complexity of the ideas which crowd upon us. And, perhaps more than most modern generations, we are vexed by doubts about the validity of the concept of responsibility and the feeling of guilt. Would not a visit to a competent psycho-analyst do us more good than trusting in the "Lamb of God"? We must face these questions if they present themselves in our experience, but let us be careful lest, in our quest for inner peace, we lose our sense of responsibility.
A CLOSELY related question which, I suppose, every intelligent believer has asked is the simple inquiry—Why was this sacrifice necessary ? Why was the agony and bloody sweat of the Lord Jesus Christ demanded to save us sinners? There are many answers to this question, perhaps none of which is fully satisfying and, in the end, we fall back on the certain fact that the appeal of Christ on the cross has moved many sinners to repent.
But let us remember that St John's Gospel has a word from the Lord on the subject of His death. "Verily I say unto you; Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit" (Jno xii, 24). "The economy of salvation is like the story of a grain of wheat," remarks a modern commentator, "there is no fruit apart from death and burial." The parable is completed in the Easter experience when the faithful who have tried to follow with loving adoration the Passion of Christ share in the joy of His Resurrection.
ON Passion Sunday we are concerned not primarily with the death of a hero, but with the death of a God, or to speak more prec isely with the sacrifice of the Son of God who is risen and alive for evermore. Thus the Epistle for the day (Heb. ix 1 iff) is full of the symbolism of sacrifice- and of the blood which can purge our souls from "dead works." Strange words in our modern ears which begin to make sense to us only when we make the identification which Hebrew ritual made. "The blood is the life." Christ's sacrifice is the offering of 1 lis life, of Himself, for our salvation. Part at least of this salvation is the purging of our conscience from "dead works" to serve the living God—to be caught up, as it were, in the eternal offering of Christ.
The word "conscience" in the New Testament is more positive than in our present-day usage. We tend to think of our conscience as that part of us which is always saying "no, don't you dare," or "absolutely disgraceful," but we are too one-sided. The positive aspect of conscience is the most important. By it we have intuitions of nobility, of generosity, of love and compassion. Conscience judges us because it is the seat of our apprehension of "truth in the inward parts." The New Testament regards conscience as an experience in our spirits of the will of the living God. It has been clouded and distorted by our self-centred choices and, we must add, by the pressures which we could not avoid owing to having to live in an immoral society. The "dead works" are, I suppose, the "good works" which were not good enough because we were not spiritually awakened; in the case of the first readers of this Epistle to the Hebrews observance of the law of Moses or of the rules of some philosophical sect.
PASSAGES LIKE this are a puzzle to readers who have not the essential clues to their meaning, but they are part of the core of the Christian faith, which is primarily a religion and only secondarily a philosophy, or social programme of reform, or rules for the preservation of mental health and, being a religion, is essentially directed towards the reconciliation of the individual self with God, with the true worship of God and eternal life. Some of the images and words which express the Christian religion need to be made significant to men of the 20th century, particularly those relating to the ritual of sacrifice. The author of "Hebrews" tried to do this for his fellow Christians in the first century. We need help today so that when we cry, "O Lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us" we have in our minds not only a picture but a meaning.
HOW many of us who meditate on the message of Easter have put foremost among its implications the renewing of friendships which in this life have been broken off by death! Shall I meet these dear companions again; shall I know them; can we hope to start again where we left off? How can this be? If we try to imagine a solution to these difficulties, we are bewildered and perhaps led to dismiss our notion that our friends may meet us "on the other side" as just a comforting illusion. If we are wise we shall not hastily abandon hope and faith about our friends.
The difficulty that we cannot conceive how the "communion of saints" is organised is ridiculous, if we are thinking of "eternal life." How could we expect to understand personal lives which transcend conditions of time and space? And, on reflection, we must, I think, conclude that, if we accept the essential truth of the New Testament records, Jesus Christ whose resurrection is at their centre, claimed to overcome death and to procure eternal life for His followers. Furthermore, Jesus has some words about His relation with us which apply directly to our inquiry. Speaking of His disciples, He states that He calls them "friends" and that His relation with them is such that He calls them not only "pupils and followers" but "friends and brothers." The New Testament declares that the risen Christ does not change, but is "the same yesterday, today and for ever." Christianity is the faith of the friendship of God.
LOOKING BACK on our lives, we shall be fortunate if we have nothing to be sorry for, or to be ashamed of, in our dealing with friends. Sometimes, it may be, we were ungenerous, or malicious owing to jealousy and sometimes we were too lazy or too timid to give our friends our real opinion of their conduct. Conversely, as it were, when we consider what we might have learned from some whose hearts were open to us and compare it with what we gained, we convict ourselves of careless self-confidence.
One has known unfortunate individuals who have felt so deeply what they now think is their sin against dead friends that they are heavily burdened. It is right to be distressed by remembrances of former wrongdoing to injured friends, and it is right to lament that one cannot ask for pardon from dead friends, but it is wrong to think there is no relief. The Eternal Friend, the Saviour who died for His friends, has power to forgive and to reconcile.
DURING the week before Easter Christians who take their religion seriously meditate on the Passion of Christ, and the Church sti iki s the note which should dominate their thinking in the Collect and opening sentence of the Epistle for Palm Sunday. "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus," and, "all mankind should follow the example ofhis great humility."
In these few verses (Phil ii, 5-11). St. Paul states his understanding of the person and mission of Jesus in the course of his instruction on humility. The Cross, which had already become, when Paul wrote, a sign of victory to believers, was in origin the instrument of the uttermost humiliation and abasement voluntarily accepted by the Son of God. Humility after the pattern of Christ is the theme for Holy Week.
The opposite of humility is self-assertion, self-absorption and self-aggrandisement—all qualities which are almost fundamental in our way of life. No doubt excessive expressions of them are distasteful, but, slightly modified and softened, they are driving motives in daily existence. To get on, to be recognised as having got on, to have accepted status are ambitions which are generally approved.
Properly regulated and subordinated to higher values, they are not sinful, but it must be admitted that humility, which consists essentially in renouncing self-assertion, is a flower hard to cultivate even in the most civilised societies.
AND SOMETIMES the cultivation of humility is hindered by a misunderstanding. If humility is the opposite of self-assertion, it may be objected, it must mean the annihilation of the self, and the consummation of humility would be to cease to exist. Certainly Paul did not think so. For in his memorable words about the humiliation of Christ, our pattern, the climax is the exaltation of the risen Christ so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow." The humiliation of Christ was a necessary phase of the proceess by which his full glory has been revealed. The Christian life, in St. Paul's belief, was a life in Christ conforming to the same pattern, through humility to glory.
To describe the Christian ideal as the destruction of the self is most misleading unless the phrase is carefully explained. The lower self, which is organised round the limited "natural" purposes and desires, has to be superseded by the higher self, which in Christian terms is named the image of God and is called into being by the creative power of the Spirit.
Other religions and spiritual philosophies have similar teachings on the way of humility and the higher self, though none perhaps so clear and simple as this. But is there not some encouragement in the thought that when we are most sincerely trying to be humble like Christ we are akin in our spirit to holy persons of other faiths ?
FROM one point of view all religion can be regarded as a protest against death and the question arises whether religion can be more than a protest and offer a way to triumphant life. A life which had really overcome death would rightly be called "eternal life." In our Western culture, which is either Christian or, as some would have it, "post-Christian," two different conceptions of eternal life have emerged. One, which has a most distinguished company of advocates, holds that eternal life consists in a detachment from the concerns of ordinary human existence and from entanglement in hopes, desires and fears while concentrating attention on the "One," the Infinite, or the unknowable divine Being.
A great man, who, though a pagan philosopher, influenced Christian thought considerably, coined a phrase which sums up the aspirations of some mystics—"the flight of the alone to the Alone." Plotinus, who held this opinion, was not a fanatic or a recluse; he seems to have been a trusted and competent adviser in financial affairs; but his heart was right out of this world and he longed for a divine solitude.
THE ETERNAL life of which the New Testament speaks has some points of contact with the mystic's quest and certainly is not represented as a restless and unthinking activity in good works. But eternal life, according to the New Testament, arises in a community and fellowship. In the Old Testament the life which triumphs over death is, for the most part, the life of the holy nation which is given new life by the grace of God. The Spirit of God in Ezekiel's vision of the "valley of dry bones" raised up a defeated nation (Ezek. xxxvii). In the New Testament Christ's resurrection is indeed a unique and redemptive act of God, but it is related to a community and the Risen Christ is described always in terms of His lordship over the Church.
One could pile up phrase after phrase which lights up the unity of the Risen Christ with the company of those who adhere to Him. "As in Adam all die even so in Christ shall all be made alive." Christ is the first fruits of those who slept, the first born of many brethren. The fear of death, as Francis Bacon remarked, is like that of children who fear to go in the dark—and he might have added "alone," Alone into the dark; it is well if we can say alone into the light, and better still if we can say, "not alone but into the fellowship of the children of light."
THE Easter services are full of magnificent and thrilling utterances such as the opening sentence of the Epistle: "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God" (Col. iii, i). Magnificent— but what do they mean ?
Two phrases in this short sentence call for elucidation—"risen with Christ" and "the right hand of God." Of these two the first is plainly the more urgent so far as we are concerned. How do we judge whether we are risen with Christ ?
St. Paul is not the only writer in the New Testament who speaks to us of the risen life given to followers of Christ. He calls it "eternal" life. In English we have two words which are almost synonymous and are used to translate the Greek of the New Testament—"eternal" and "everlasting." Of these one may feel that "eternal" should be preferred, because it has richer significance.
"Everlasting" can mean simply "unending." But no one in his senses would want to be assured only that he would never know a day which was his last. The unending march of days and nights might be full of torture or simply empty and tedious so that we could cry: "I have no pleasure in them." The word "eternal," partly because we associate it with the idea of the Divine, is not so definitely concerned with time; it can be used to indicate a condition, or experience, which, in some degree and in some sense, transcends time.
WE SOMETIMES feel that "time stands still," even though the clock contradicts us, and some of our striving is after "things that are above" such as truth and justice. Moreover, in personal relations, it is possible to experience a love which we can assert, without being absurd, is "stronger than death." Though we are creatures of time, we have values which are not temporal and can, in our thinking and meditation, have openings of response to grace when we are aware of the presence of God. Imperfectly, but really, the risen life, the life eternal, can be lived in the present world like a gleam of light from the sun. The Kingdom of God is within you— that is, eternal life.
There have been Christian teachers who have adopted so gloomy a view of the utter corruption of "fallen" humanity that they consider all men are wholly devoid of any intuition of God or the Eternal, but we shall be in agreement with nearly all the Christian mystics if we believe that every soul has a "spark" of divinity, or at least a point of contact, with the Eternal.