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THE SENSE AND SERVICE OF MEMBERSHIP THE MEASURE OF TRUE SOUNDNESS IN THE BODY.
A SERMON PREACHED IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY AT BISHOP WESTCOTT’S CONSECRATION, ON THE FESTIVAL OF ST PHILIP AND ST JAMES, 1890.
For the perfecting of the saints unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ; till we all attain unto the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.
THESE words are spoken to us out of the past, a past which is in one sense becoming ever more remote. Already the nineteenth of the centuries which are reckoned from the coming of Christ our Lord is drawing perceptibly near to its end. The long interval which actually separates us from the Apostolic age grows unremittingly longer; while the sense of distance gains steadily in force with the knowledge that the human race, within and without 235Christendom, is setting forth on new and untrodden ways.
Yet this remoteness of time and of circumstance is swallowed up in a greater nearness. It is hardly too bold to say that through all these centuries no generation of Christians has had the Apostolic writings so nigh to them as our own. That instinctive turning to the primary deposit of Christian truth, which has often been noticed as an accompaniment of times of religious convulsion and perplexity, could hardly fail to be called forth to an unwonted degree by these later days. Other influences have been at work in the same direction with perhaps equal power. The study of the New Testament by professed students has been pursued for many years with increased carefulness, circumspection, and regard for evidence. What is more important still, the Apostolic epistles have been gaining immeasurably in freshness and felt reality by the growing anxiety to read them in the light of the personal and historical circumstances out of which they sprang. With good reason Christian men have looked to them for present help, true though it be that they belong to a single age, and to peculiar conjunctures of outward and inward events. For that was indeed a chosen period in the world’s history; and they whose words have been thus handed down for our instruction were chosen agents in the unique spiritual revolution which was then 236accomplished. Not a Divine enlightenment alone, but also a Divine ordering of the meeting and parting streams of human affairs, enabled epistles called forth by immediate needs to become a perpetual fountain of light; whether through teachings that in the letter were temporary, and therefore would call for varying embodiments of their spirit according to varying conditions, or through the setting forth of verities that by the very nature of their subject-matter are incapable of change.
Among the books of the New Testament the Epistle to the Ephesians in particular has been of late years drawing to itself the earnest attention of many. Enigmatic as might be its language under this or that head, they have felt that it gave promise of at least a partial answer to some anxious perplexities of this present time, and of both sanction and guidance to some of its highest aspirations. It holds in truth a peculiar position among St Paul’s epistles; and not in his epistles alone, but in the drama of his distinctive mission. No other writing of his is so little affected in shape or scope by temporary conditions of place or person. It is the harmonious outpouring of thoughts that had long been cherished, but had not as yet found right and profitable opportunity for full utterance; thoughts that doubtless had grown and ripened while they lay unspoken, and now had been kindled afresh by the conjuncture which had at length been reached in the 237Divine ordering of events; for now, after weary years of struggle and anxiety, what St Paul recognised as sure pledges for the essential unity and essential universality of the Church of Christ had been visibly bestowed from on high.
Both St Paul’s character and his work are grievously misjudged when they are interpreted exclusively by his zealous championship of Gentile liberties. This fidelity to the special trust which he had received was balanced by an anxiety to avert a breach between the Christians of Palestine, for whom the Law remained binding while the Temple was still standing, and the Gentile Christians of other lands; to promote kindly recognition on the one side and brotherly help on the other. Such a breach, he doubtless felt, would have cut Gentile Christianity away from its Divinely prepared base, and sent it adrift as a new religion founded by himself.
Already in the Epistle to the Romans we find the two great sections of mankind ranged carefully on equal terms for condemnation and for salvation. St Paul’s bitter heartache at his brethren’s unbelief is quenched in his conviction that the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance, and in his faith in the riches of wisdom whereby God would make a way for His mercy at last. And then, looking in the face the more than possibility of death in the intended visit to Jerusalem which his plans for the preservation of unity required, he uses words 238of singular impressiveness to convey to the Romans the joy with which he would afterwards come among them, should he escape with his life. We all know by what an unexpected way God brought him to Rome at last, and that with the purpose of his visit to Jerusalem long accomplished.
To this new vantage-ground St Paul had attained when he wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians. He wrote in the thankful sense that, first, the dreaded breach had been averted, and then that, through his having now been permitted to join in fellowship and work with the Christians of Rome, the Gospel to the Gentiles had in the person of its chosen representative obtained a footing in the imperial city, the centre of civilised mankind, and thus received, as it were, a pledge of a world-wide destiny.
The foundation of the teaching now poured forth by the Apostle to the beloved Ephesian Church of his own founding, and doubtless to other Churches of the same region, is laid in high mysteries of theology, the eternal purpose according to which God unrolled the course of the ages, with the coming of Jesus as Christ as their central event, and the summing up of all heavenly and earthly things in Him. That universal primacy of being ascribed to Him suggests His Headship in relation to the Church as His Body. Presently unity is ascribed to the Church from another side; not indeed a unity such as was sought after in later centuries, the unity of 239many separate Churches, but the unity created by the abolition of the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile in the new Christian society, a unity answering to the sum of mankind. Thus the Church was the visible symbol of the newly revealed largeness of God’s purposes towards the human race, as well as the primary instrument for carrying them into effect. Its very existence, it seems to be hinted in the doxology which closes this part of the Epistle, was a warrant for believing that God’s whole counsel was not even yet made known.
From this doxology St Paul passes at once to the precepts of right living which he founds on the loftiness of the Christian calling. The great passage which gathers up seven unities of Christian faith and religion is but accessory to the exhortation to “give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”; in other words, to maintain earnestly the moral and spiritual basis of true Church membership. Then follows the correlative truth involved in Church membership, the place of the individual in the community. He is not to be lost in the community, as in so many societies of the ancient world. His individuality is not to be smoothed away and treated as some capricious blemish of nature. Rather it is to determine the character of his service. “But to each one of us” — the words are studiously emphatic — “to each one of us was given the grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” Already St Paul 240has spoken of his own unique function of Apostle to the Gentiles as itself a “grace”, a special gift of God bestowed upon him for the sake of the Gentiles; and now he claims the same Divine origin for the particular function of service which each member of the body was to render to the body or its other members. Then, with free adaptation of words from the Psalter, he points to the ascended Lord as the Giver of gifts “to men”, and after a short digression applies them to certain typical classes of “gifts to men”, gifts intended for the good of men. Some of the gifts which Christ bestowed from on high were apostles, and some prophets, — the two types of exceptional and temporary functions; and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, — two corresponding types of ordinary and permanent functions. Here St Paul breaks off his list of examples. In other epistles he classes with these as functions of service to be rendered by individual members of a Church works of a less definite and official character, while he treats all alike as so many different functions of Church membership. And so what is expressly said here of the men exercising the highest functions, the functions of Christian teaching, was doubtless meant to be believed for all functions alike; that the purpose for which God “gave” them was “the perfecting of the saints unto a work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ.”
The perfecting here spoken of is chiefly the training 241of stunted powers or organs into their proper activity. It is a process of culture and development, but not with the man himself for its ideal end. Its end is “a work of ministering”, some form of service to be rendered to others. For ministering is the one universal function of all “saints”, all individual members of the Church, the common element in all functions.
But this various perfecting of the individual members for their several works of ministering had a single end beyond itself, even “the building of the body of Christ”. The body of Christ was there already, but it was ever needing to be more and more “built”, to be “compacted” in constant renewal in such wise as best to aid the flow of life from “the Head” through “every part”, and make provision for a ceaseless “growth”.
But beyond the long process St Paul contemplates the end, “till we all attain unto the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Till all have attained this unity, the unity which governs life and thought when, first, the faith of the Son of God, and then the learning of what is wrapped up in that faith, are lifting them out of distraction, the building of the body of Christ must go on, the perfecting of its several members for a work of ministering must be the aim of its wisest members.
Such is the vision of the Church in which St Paul saw the appointed instrument for the fulfilment of his 242own best hopes for mankind, and which he desired to bequeath to his most cherished converts, that it might expand their faith and uplift the purpose of their lives. Can we now say that this vision has been clearly present to the minds of even the leaders of the Church through the intervening centuries? Is it not rather in no small degree one of those truths which the new reading of the Bible by the light of new questionings is now causing to be newly discerned? Can it be doubted that from an early time a disproportion grew up among men’s various thoughts concerning the Church, so that St Paul’s fundamental teaching concerning it receded into the background, becoming little more than a single conventional item of Christian ethics? Such a change in the proportion observed in thought would be the natural, almost the inevitable, outcome of the corresponding change in the proportion observed in actual policy and practice. It is easy to understand how the most pressing difficulties and dangers of the several Churches would come to be met with the most obviously compendious and effective resources, without adequate regard to the less obtrusive and more delicate yet also more vital elements of Church life. In a word, in carrying out the necessary work of building itself up as a corporation, the Church would have needed rare and far-seeing wisdom indeed to save it from unconsciously giving insufficient heed to building itself up as a true body.243
Whatever the truth may be respecting the forces that were at work in those ancient days which still exercise so subtle and manifold a power over the minds and ways of Christians, the present state of things is not less the result of other influences belonging to far later centuries. Thus much at least is too sadly evident that, be the causes what they may, St Paul’s teaching, which we have been considering to-day, obtains but a secondary part in both the theory and the practice of our Church membership. And if so, can we desire a better ground for hope and consolation than the fact that this mighty resource still cries out to be tried, a resource which by its very nature proclaims its conformity with all that is most full of life within the Churches of Christendom, and with the purest among the aspirations of the uneasy multitude who as yet refuse the fellowship of the Gospel?
On so vast a theme it would be unbecoming here to go beyond the barest suggestion of some general lines of thought. The most obvious need of all is the need of a conscious and joyful sense of membership as taught by St Paul, its dignity and its responsibilities, to be felt by men, women, and children, in every position and of every degree. Were this sense present in many, did many feel it imparting an unimagined life to every Holy Communion, and receiving back an unimagined life in double measure, it would readily find modes of expressing itself in 244individual and social action; and in due time more fixed and systematic forms of service would come into use, while the service of each lesser unity would go to make up the service of some greater unity in a manifold order. But it is in the widest sphere that this sense of membership, and this practice of it, would perhaps be most powerful for good. Did sincere Christians habitually recognise that they were united not merely by a common faith, but by membership of one world-wide society built upon that faith, they could hardly be content with a fitful and trifling use of their collective responsibilities to other men.
The experience of the last few years has shown how little salutary force could permanently be looked for in what is called a Christian world, a realm of habit and language sustained of late for the most part by vague and aimless convention, though permeated by Christian sentiment, and partly derived in the first instance from Christian traditions. For now, helped by the right and wise tolerance which Christians have been learning to practise, many who have lost their Christian faith, or grown up in estrangement from it, are relinquishing usages in which it is expressed or presupposed. A yet graver fact is the increasing acquiescence of Christian households in similar licence for themselves. And these are but tokens and ready examples of a chaotic condition which is spreading deeply under the surface of society. Remedies might 245no doubt be found without going beyond the accustomed lines. The press, the pulpit, the lecture-room, the school, the home, may all afford opportunities for wholesome and temperate guidance. But what we have to deal with is not a teaching, such as might be encountered by another teaching. It is a confused and disorganised state, affecting to a greater or less degree the whole inward being of men, the whole range of their conduct. Here the one entirely fitting corrective must surely be looked for in the harmonious and effectual working of a common life, inspired by a common faith; even the common life and common faith of a community of men whose eyes have been opened to the reality and claims of the fellowship which embraces them.
But again, though this corrective action of the Church as a community is what is most evidently invited by present necessities, we can never forget that it is but one side of its positive mission of bringing home to all mankind the light and the life of which it has been permitted itself to partake. Here the Apostolic word transcends our narrow horizon. We can but rest on the assurance that the universal mission of the Church springs from the same counsels as the universality of the redemption.
Doubtless it may be feared by some that the office which has seemed to be marked out for the Church as a community by its Apostolic credentials is one that could not in practice be exercised without 246danger to the spiritual liberties of mankind. The yoke of petty religious communities, where such have existed, has sometimes been undeniably heavy in former days, and the yoke of more powerful religious communities might be regarded as likely to be hereafter found yet heavier. Some again might doubt whether the sphere thus assigned to the Church as a community is not altogether wider than the region of human nature with which it is naturally and properly conversant. The answer to both these grave doubts is given implicitly by the breadth of aim and interest which a Church taught by the Apostles must needs claim for itself. The story of those small communities of like-minded men, possessed by a dark theory of God’s dealings with men, and of the kind of service which He requires of them, can tell us little of what may be expected from large and composite communities of the future, enlightened by those riper conceptions of the province of religion which have been granted to these later times. Through the same better teaching we have come to learn that the rightful province of the Church can be no narrower than the entire world of humanity, because God in Christ has claimed for His kingdom all things human except the evil that corrupts them, has included all things in the range of service well pleasing to Himself, and has set His special seal of recognition on the service rendered to mankind. Nor is it otherwise with the ideal which a Church should hold up to its 247members and to those without; for the true Christian life has no special or limited type, being in very deed the true human life, seen in relation to the true Lord and Saviour of man’s whole being.
If it is true that the essential relations of life and service between the members of a Church one with another, or of each with the whole, have been obscured by the greater permanence and definiteness of what we are accustomed to call its organisation, yet a reviving sense of their true purport, leading the way to temperate effort to put it in practice, need involve no real breach with the past, no subversion of long venerated order. All true progress in the future must be conditioned by an intelligent use, not of the Apostolic writings alone, but of the varied stores of experience with which the Church of Christ has been enriched in each successive period of its long and changeful existence. On the other hand it could hardly be that a revival of varied corporate service, in which the members at large had their several parts, could fail to make itself felt in that province of service which belongs to organisation. Sooner or later none could be blind to the imperfection, the weakness, the barren divorce from sustaining sympathies, which must cling to an organisation in which the greater part of the members of the community have no personal share.
Thoughts akin to these must surely be present 248to the minds of many worshippers in this ancient house of God to-day. We are encompassed by the walls and treasured memorials which repeat to hearing ears what noble works the Lord God of our fathers has done in their days and in the old time before them. In a sanctuary thus doubly hallowed, can we believe that in the time to come He will leave this Church and “kingly commonwealth of England” unblessed with the full richness of those “gifts” of His “to men,” all pointing to that one gift of the Son of His love out of which they flow? Uplifted and yet more humbled by those memories, dare we doubt that, save through our own faithlessness or sinful shortcomings, it will in one way or another be granted to this our ancestral community to heal the sorest breaches of our nation, to learn and to teach the way of inward and of outward peace?
But if these voices from our own English past give response to the message which has been speaking to us from the height of the Apostolic age, the occasion which gathers us together as one congregation has another concordant voice of its own. We are met together from north and from south, from the old Northumbrian diocese and the central capital of the realm and many a scattered parish, to join in the act of worship by which a Chief Pastor of the Church is to be hallowed for his office to-day; for the office which, more than any other, links past and present visibly together; the office which, varying in prerogatives 249and in sphere of action from age to age, is now more perhaps than ever before the organ of active unity, the chief power by which all scattered powers that make for building up are drawn forth and directed.
In commending him now to your prayers, I find my lips sealed by a sacred friendship of forty years from speaking as I might otherwise perhaps have desired to do. But in truth there can be little need that a single voice should attempt to utter what is already in the mind of thousands. Yet a few words must be ventured on for the sake of others. One who has laboured unceasingly to bring his countrymen face to face with the New Testament Scriptures; one for whom Christian truth is the realm of light from which alone the dwellers on earth receive whatever power they have to read the riddle of the world or choose their own steps aright; one to whom the Christian society is almost as a watchword, and who hears in every social distress of the times a cry for the help which only a social interpretation of the Gospel can give; such a one assuredly will not fail to find channels by which these and other like “gifts” from the ascended Giver may flow forth for the common good.
Under these auspices he goes forth to carry forward the enterprise which has dropped from the hands of the cherished friend, united with him as in a common work and purpose so as the object of 250reverent love and trustful hope. There must be many present here to-day whose recollections of the twin day eleven years ago are full of the echoes of some of the words then spoken from this pulpit. What other last words could speak to us now with so grateful a sacredness?
The pilgrims’ psalm which was then made to guide our thoughts “brings before us,” we heard, “the grace and the glory of sacrifice, of service, of progress, where God alone, the Lord of Hosts, is the source and the strength and the end of effort. . . . . . The Lord God is a sun to illuminate and a shield to protect. In the pilgrimage of worship that which is personal becomes social. The trust of the believer passes into the trust of the Church. The expectation of one is fulfilled in the joy of all.” “There must be in the outward life,” we were finally reminded, “checks, lonelinesses, defects. We cannot always keep at the level of our loftiest thoughts. But for the soul which offers itself to God, which accepts — because it is His will — the burden of command, which claims — because it is His promise — the spirit of counsel and the spirit of prophecy, the words shall be fulfilled through the discipline of disappointment and the joy of sacrifice, from strength to strength.
“O Lord God of Hosts, blessed is the man that putteth his trust in Thee.”5959From strength to strength: a Sermon preached . . . at the consecration of J. B. Lightfoot . . . by B. F. Westcott . . . , 1879 and 1890, pp. 3, 18.
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