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WHY CHRIST MUST DEPART
“It is expedient for you that I go away.”—JOHN xvi. 7.
A SERMON BEFORE COMMUNION
IT was on a communion night like this that the words were spoken. They fell upon the disciples like a thunderbolt startling a summer sky. Three and thirty years He had lived among them. They had lately learned to love Him. Day after day they had shared together the sunshine and the storm, and their hearts clung to Him with a strange tenderness. And just when everything was at its height, when their friendship was now pledged indissolubly in the first most solemn sacrament, the unexpected words come, “I must say goodbye; it is expedient for you that I go away.” It was a crushing blow to the little band. They had staked their all upon that love. They had given up home, business, friends, and promised to follow Him. And now He says, “I must go!”
Let us see what He means by it. The words may help us to understand more fully our own relations with Him now that He is gone.
I. The first thing to strike one is the way Jesus took to break the news. It was characteristic. His sayings and doings always came about in the most natural way. Even His profoundest statements of doctrine were invariably apropos of some often trivial circumstance happening in the day’s round. So now He did not suddenly deliver Himself of the doctrine of the Ascension. It leaked out as it were in the ordinary course of things.
The supper was over; but the friends had much to say to one another that night, and they lingered long around the table. They did not know it was the last supper, never dreamed of it, but there had been an unusual sweetness in their intercourse and they talked on and on. The hour grew late, but John still leaned on his Master’s breast, and the others, grouped round in the twilight, drank in the solemn gladness of the communion evening. Suddenly a shadow falls over this scene. A sinister figure rises stealthily, takes the bag, and makes for the door unobserved. Jesus calls him: hands him the sop. The spell is broken. A terrible revulsion of feeling comes over Him—as if a stab in the dark had struck into His heart. He cannot go on now. It is useless to try. He cannot keep up the perhaps forced spirits.
“Little children,” He says very solemnly, His voice choking, “yet a little while I am with you.” And “Whither I go ye cannot come.”
The hour is late. They think He is getting tired, He means to retire to rest. But Peter asks straight out, “Lord, whither goest Thou?” Into the garden? Back to Galilee? It never occurred to one of them that He meant the Unknown Land.
“Whither I go,” He replies a second time, “Ye cannot follow Me now, but ye shall follow Me afterward.” Afterward! The blow slowly falls. In a dim, bewildering way it begins to dawn upon them. It is separation.
We can judge of the effect from the next sentence. “Let not your heart be troubled,” He says. He sees their panic and consternation, and doctrine has to stand aside till experimental religion has ministered. And then, it is only at intervals that He gets back to it; every sentence almost is interrupted. Questionings and misgivings are started, explanations are insisted on, but the terrible truth will not hide. He always comes back to that—He will not temper its meaning, He still insists that it is absolute, literal; and finally He states it in its most bare and naked form, “It is expedient for you that I go away.”
II. Notice His reasons for going away. Why did Jesus go away? We all remember a time when we could not answer that question. We wished He had stayed, and had been here now. The children’s hymn expresses a real human feeling, and our hearts burn still as we read it:—
“I think, when I read that sweet story of old,
How Jesus was here among men,
How He called little children as lambs to His fold,
I should like to have been with them then.
I wish that His hands had been placed on my head,
That His arms had been thrown around me,
And that I might have seen His kind look as He said,
‘Let the little ones come unto Me.’”
Jesus must have had reasons for disappointing a human feeling so deep, so universal, and so sacred. We may be sure, too, that these reasons intimately concern us. He did not go away because He was tired. It was quite true that He was despised and rejected of men; it was quite true that the pitiless world hated and spurned and trod on Him. But that did not drive Him away. It was quite true that He longed for His Father’s house and pined and yearned for His love. But that did not draw Him away. No. He never thought of Himself. It is expedient for you, He says, not for Me, that I go.
1. The first reason is one of His own stating. “I go away to prepare a place for you.” And the very naming of this is a proof of Christ’s considerateness. The burning question with every man who thought about his life in those days was Whither is this life leading? The present, alas! was dim and inscrutable enough, but the future was a fearful and unsolved mystery. So Christ put that right before He went away. He gave this unknown future form and colour. He told us—and it is only because we are so accustomed to it that we do not wonder more at the magnificence of the conception—that when our place in this world should know us no more there would be another place ready for us. We do not know much about that place, but the best thing we do know, that He prepares it. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man what the Lord went away to prepare for them that love Him. It is better to think of this, to let our thoughts rest on this, that He prepares it, than to fancy details of our own.
But that does not exhaust the matter. Consider the alternative. If Christ had not gone away, what then? We should not either. The circumstances of our future life depended upon Christ’s going away to prepare them; but the fact of our going away at all depended on His going away. We could not follow Him hereafter, as He said we should, unless He led first. He had to be the Resurrection and the Life.
And this was part of the preparing a place for us—the preparing a way for us. He prepared a place for us by the way He took to prepare a place. It was a very wonderful way.
In a lonely valley in Switzerland a small band of patriots once marched against an invading force ten times their strength. They found themselves one day at the head of a narrow pass, confronted by a solid wall of spears. They made assault after assault, but that bristling line remained unbroken. Time after time they were driven back decimated with hopeless slaughter. The forlorn hope rallied for the last time. As they charged, their leader suddenly advanced before them with outstretched arms, and every spear for three or four yards of the line was buried in his body. He fell dead. But he prepared a place for his followers. Through the open breach, over his dead body, they rushed to victory and won the freedom of their country.
So the Lord Jesus went before His people, the Captain of our salvation, sheathing the weapons of death and judgment in Himself, and preparing a place for us with His dead body. Well for us not only that He went away, but that He went by way of the Cross.
2. Another reason why He went away was to be very near. It seems a paradox, but He went away really in order to be near. Suppose, again, He had not gone away; suppose He were here now. Suppose He were still in the Holy Land, at Jerusalem. Every ship that started for the East would be crowded with Christian pilgrims. Every train flying through Europe would be thronged with people going to see Jesus. Every mail-bag would be full of letters from those in difficulty and trial, and gifts of homage to manifest men’s gratitude and love. You yourself, let us say, are in one of those ships. The port, when you arrive after the long voyage, is blocked with vessels of every flag. With much difficulty you land, and join one of the long trains starting for Jerusalem. Far as the eye can reach, the caravans move over the desert in an endless stream. You do not mind the scorching sun, the choking dust, the elbowing crowds, the burning sands. You are in the Holy Land, and you will see Jesus! Yonder, at last, in the far distance, are the glittering spires of the Holy Hill, above all the burnished temple dome beneath which He sits. But what is that dark seething mass stretching for leagues and leagues between you and the Holy City? They have come from the north and from the south, and from the east and from the west, as you have, to look upon their Lord. They wish
“That His hands might be placed on their head;
That His arms might be thrown around them.”
But it cannot be. You have come to see Jesus, but you will not see Him. They have been there weeks, months, years, and have not seen Him. They are a yard or two nearer, and that is all. The thing is impossible. It is an anti-climax, an absurdity. It would be a social outrage; it would be a physical impossibility.
Now Christ foresaw all this when He said it was expedient that He should go away. Observe, He did not say it was necessary—it was expedient. The objection to the opposite plan was simply that it would not have worked. So He says to you, “It is very kind and earnest of you to come so far, but you mistake. Go away back from the walls of the Holy City, over the sea, and you will find Me in your own home. You will find Me where the shepherds found Me, doing their ordinary work; where the woman of Samaria found Me, drawing the water for the forenoon meal; where the disciples found Me mending nets in their working clothes; where Mary found Me, among the commonplace household duties of a country village.” What would religion be, indeed, if the soul-sick had to take their turn like the out-patients waiting at the poor-hour outside the infirmary? How would it be with the old who were too frail to travel to Him, or the poor who could not afford it? How would it be with the blind, who could not see Him, or the deaf, who could not hear Him? It would be physically impossible for millions to obey the Lord’s command, “Come unto Me, and I will give you rest.”
For their sakes it was expedient that He should go away. It was a great blessing for the world that He went. Access to Him is universally complete from every corner of every home in every part of the world. For the poor can have Him always with them. The soul-sick cannot be out of reach of the Physician. The blind can see His beauty now that He has gone away. The deaf hear His voice when all others are silent, and the dumb can pray when they cannot speak.
Yes the visible Incarnation must of necessity be brief. Only a small circle could enjoy His actual presence, but a kingdom like Christianity needed a risen Lord. It was expedient for the whole body of its subjects that He went away. He would be nearer man by being apparently further. The limitations of sense subjected Him while He stayed. He was subject to geography, locality, space, and time. But by going away He was in a spaceless land, in a timeless eternity, able to be with all men always even unto the end of the world.
3. Another reason why He went away—although this is also a paradox—was that we might see Him better. When a friend is with us we do not really see him so well as when he is away. We only see points, details. It is like looking at a great mountain: you see it best a little way off. Clamber up the flanks of Mont Blanc, you see very little—a few rocks, a pine or two, a blinding waste of snow; but come down into the Valley of Chamounix and there the monarch dawns upon you in all his majesty.
Christ is the most gigantic figure of history. To take in His full proportions one must be both near and away. The same is true of all greatness. Of all great poets, philosophers, politicians, men of science, it is said that their generation never knew them. They dawn upon us as time rolls past. Then their life comes out in its true perspective, and the symmetry of their work is revealed. We never know our friends, likewise, till we lose them We often never know the beauty of a life which is lived very near our own till the hand of death has taken it away. It was expedient for us, therefore, that He should go—that we might see the colossal greatness of His stature, appreciate the loftiness and massiveness of His whole character, and feel the perfect beauty and oneness of His life and work.
4. Still another reason. He went away that we might walk by faith. After all, if He had stayed, with all its inconveniences, we should have been walking by sight. And this is the very thing religion is continually trying to undo. The strongest temptation to every man is to guide himself by what he can see, and feel, and handle. This is the core of Ritualism, the foundation of Roman Catholicism, the essence of idolatry. Men want to see God, therefore they make images of Him. We do not laugh at Ritualism; it is intensely human. It is not so much a sin of presumption; it is a sin of mistake. It is a trying to undo the going away of Christ. It is a trying to make believe that He is still here. And the fatal fallacy of it is that it defeats its own end. He who seeks God in tangible form misses the very thing he is seeking, for God is a Spirit. The desire burns within him to see God; the desire is given him to make him spiritual, by giving him a spiritual exercise to do; and he cheats himself by exercising the flesh instead of the spirit. Hunger and thirst after God are an endowment to raise us out of the seen and temporal. But instead of letting the spiritual appetite elevate us into the spirit, we are apt to degrade the very instrument of our spiritualisation and make it minister to the flesh.
It was expedient in order that the disciples should be spiritualized that Jesus should become a Spirit. Life in the body to all men is short. The mortal dies and puts on immortality. So Christ’s great aim is to strengthen the after-life. Therefore He gave exercises in faith to be the education for immortality. Therefore Jesus went away to strengthen the spirit for eternity.
It is not because there is any deep mysterious value in faith itself that it plays so great a part in religion. It is not because God arbitrarily chooses that we should walk by faith rather than by sight. It is because it is essential to our future; it is because this is the faculty which of all others is absolutely necessary to life in the spirit
For our true life will be lived in the spirit. In the hereafter there will be nothing carnal. Christ is therefore solicitous to educate our faith, for sight will be useless. There will be no eye, no pupil, no retina, no optic nerve in the hereafter, so faith is the spiritual substitute for them which Christ would develop in us by going away.
5. But the great reason has yet to be mentioned. He went away that the Comforter might come.
We have seen how His going away was a provision for the future life. The absent Lord prepares a place there; the absent Object of faith educates the souls of the faithful to possess and enjoy it. But He provides for the life that now is. And His going away has to do with the present as much as with the life to come. One day when Jesus was in Peroea, a message came to Him that a very dear friend was sick. He lived in a distant village with his two sisters. They were greatly concerned about their brother’s illness, and had sent in haste for Jesus. Now Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus their brother; but He was so situated at the time that He could not go. Perhaps He was too busy, perhaps He had other similar cases on hand; at all events He could not go. When He went ultimately, it was too late. Hour after hour the sisters waited for Him. They could not believe He would not come; but the slow hours dragged themselves along by the dying man’s couch, and he was dead and laid in the grave before Jesus arrived. You can imagine one of His thoughts, at least, as He stands and weeps by that grave with the inconsolable sisters,—“It is expedient that I go away. I should have been present at his death-bed scene if I had been away. I will depart and send the Comforter. There will be no summons of sorrow which He will not be able to answer. He will abide with men for ever. Everywhere He will come and go. He will be like the noiseless invisible wind, blowing all over the world wheresoever He listeth.”
The doctrine of the Holy Ghost is very simple. Men stumble over it because they imagine it to be something very mysterious and unintelligible. But the whole matter lies here. Our text is the key to it. The Holy Spirit is just what Christ would have been had He been here. He ministers comfort just as Christ would have done—only without the inconveniences of circumstance, without the restriction of space, without the limitations of time. More: we need a personal Christ, but we cannot get Him, at least we cannot each get Him. So the only alternative is a spiritual Christ,—a Holy Spirit, and then we can all get Him. He reproves the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. Christ had to go away to make room for a Person of the Trinity who could deal with the world. He Himself could only reprove the individual of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. But work on a larger scale is done now that He is gone. This is what He refers to when He said, “Greater works than these shall ye do.”
And yet Christ did not go away that the Spirit might take His place. Christ is with us Himself. He is with us and yet He is not with us, that is, He is with us by His Spirit. The Spirit does not reveal the Spirit. He speaks not of Himself, He reveals Christ. He is the nexus, the connection between the absent Christ and the world—a spiritual presence which can penetrate where the present Christ could not go. It was expedient for the present Christ to go away that the universal Christ might come to all.
Finally, if all this was expedient for us, this strange relation of Jesus to His people ought to have a startling influence upon our life. Expediency is a practical thing. It was a terrible risk going away. Has the expedient which Christ adopted been worth while to you and me? These three great practical effects at least are obvious.
(1) Christ ought to be as near to us as if He were still here. Nothing so simplifies the whole religious life as this thought. A present, personal Christ solves every difficulty, and meets every requirement of Christian experience. There is a historical Christ, a national Christ, a theological Christ—we each want Christ. So we have Him. For purposes of expediency, for a little while, He has become invisible. It is our part to have Him
“More present to Faith’s vision keen;
Than any other vision seen;
More near, more intimately nigh
Than any other earthly tie.”
(2) Then consider what an incentive to honest faithfulness this is. The kingdom of Heaven is like a man travelling into a far country. And before he went he called his servants and gave to every man his work.
Are we doing it faithfully? Are we doing it at all? The visible eye of the Master is off us. No one inspects our work. Wood, hay, stubble, no man knows. It is the test of the absent Christ. He is training us to a kind of faithfulness whose high quality is unattained by any other earthly means. It was after the Lord was gone that the disciples worked. They grew fast after this—in vigour, in usefulness, in reliance, in strength of character. Hitherto they had rested in His love. Did you ever think what a risk it was for Him to go away? It was a terrible risk—to leave us here all by ourselves. And yet this was one of His ways of elevating us. There is nothing exalts a man like confidence put in him. So He went away and let us try ourselves.
We cannot always sit at the communion table. We partake of the feast not so much as a luxury, though it is that, but to give us strength to work. We think our Sabbath services, our prayers, our Bible reading are our religion. It is not so. We do these things to help us to be religious in other things. These are the mere meals, and a workman gets no wages for his meals. It is for the work he does. The value of this communion is not estimated yet. It will take the coming week to put the value upon it. In itself it counts little; we shall see what it is, by what we shall be.
Every communicant is left by Christ with a solemn responsibility. Christ’s confidence in us is unspeakably touching. Christ was sure of us: He felt the world was safe in our hands. He was away, but we would be Christ’s to it; the Light of the World was gone, but He would light a thousand lights, and leave each of us as one to illuminate one corner of its gloom.
(3) Lastly, He has only gone for a little while. “Behold, I come quickly.” The probation will soon be past. “Be good children till I come back,” He has said, like a mother leaving her little ones, “and I will come again, and receive you unto Myself, that where I am, ye may be also.” So we wait till He come again—we wait till it is expedient for Him to come back.
“So I am watching quietly
Whenever the sun shines brightly,
I rise and say;
‘Surely it is the shining of His face!’
And when a shadow falls across the window
Of my room
Where I am working my appointed task,
I lift my head to watch the door, and ask
If He is come.”
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