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SPIRITUAL RELIGION NOT DEPENDENT ON SYSTEM1313Preached at Balliol..

THE HOUR COMETH, WHEN YE SHALL NEITHER IN THIS MOUNTAIN, NOR YET AT JERUSALEM, WORSHIP THE FATHER.

JOHN iv. 21.

THESE words have a revolutionary sound, and are startling in quiet times and to ordinary minds. Yet they do not stand alone in the Gospel, nor are they applicable only to the age in which Christ lived. There is a great deal more of the same language both in the Old and New Testament. When Christ says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world, else would My servants fight for it; but now is My kingdom not from hence,’ He means substantially the same thing. He does not mean to say that His disciples were not to fight now, and that the time would come when they ought to fight (at the Crusades, for example); but that the Kingdom of God is spiritual, and founded on a belief that God is a Spirit. And when He speaks of His disciples as united with God and separated from 175the world (‘I in them, and thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one’), He is certainly not thinking of them as established in a church or united by a priest hood and common form of worship. He is taking another and a higher point of view: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them,’ and ‘Forbid him not; for there is no man that shall cast out devils in My Name that can lightly speak evil of Me.’ And when men, as their manner is, are putting the outward in the place of the inward, the carnal body in the place of the spiritual body, like one grieved at their stupidity and hardness of heart, He says to them, ‘It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.’ These are some of the revolutionary sayings of Christ. There are many others, such as those about the rich and the poor; about the Sabbath Day; about the temple; about the immediate coming of the Spirit. And if we pass from the New Testament to the Old we shall hear a similar voice speaking to us in the prophets. We have only to turn to the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah, there to read other words, unlike in form but like in meaning: ‘Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto Me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. . . . Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgement, relieve the 176oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.’ Here indeed is a war against existing institutions, some of which were believed to have been sanctioned by God Himself. Here is a repetition of that lesson which, however old, is always needed in all ages and in all countries, the danger of putting the outward in the place of the inward, the local and temporal in the place of the spiritual and moral.

In this sermon I shall draw your attention to the tremendous import of the words of Christ, ‘The hour cometh, when neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father,’ and of other like words which occur elsewhere in Scripture. What is the meaning of them? Are they to be taken literally, and do they refer only or chiefly to the destruction of Jerusalem? Do they not rather express the prophetic feeling in all ages, which is not satisfied with the world or with the things of the world, whether secular or religious, and would fain rise above them and dwell with God only? And this seems to be the general character of the Gospel according to St. John. Such a spirit may be a source of disorder among men, and may also be the higher element of our lives. For we may abide in our appointed sphere and use the means which God has provided for us, and yet we may feel also how different life ought to be, how different religious and political institutions; how differently they must be regarded by God and man. There is some degree of difficulty 177in reconciling these thoughts if they impress the mind strongly with the fulfilment of our daily duties. ‘How unreal,’ as people say, ‘is all this!’ And sometimes the thought works in our minds that this order of things ‘cannot last; it is too hollow, too much under mined.’ And yet the old order does not change, or changes very little, and, when the desired reform has been made, we are disappointed and find that the result has been less than we expected. The want, whether in politics or religion, lies deeper and cannot easily be satisfied. And long after we are in our graves, yea, perhaps to the end of time, another generation will feel as we do, as the prophets of old did, that our solemn things are unsatisfactory and unreal.

And first I shall venture to remark that the words of the text are not to be taken too literally. For some one may remind us that the smoke of the Samaritan Passover still ascends on Mount Gerizim, delighting the eyes of the English traveller with the living memorial of a former world, and that in Jerusalem, though often interrupted, the worship of the God of Abraham still continues; and, though the hope of the return of the Jews is never likely to be realized, some of the truest representatives of the religion and the race linger in the sacred city. But we need not perplex ourselves with this sort of literalism. For Christ is speaking generally, and is not careful to consider whether the words which He uttered in the 178spirit of prophecy may not be contradicted at a future time by some isolated fact. In St. John’s Gospel there occurs another passage breathing a similar spirit, not about the future but about the past, which has often troubled commentators and sometimes led them to a mistranslation of the original. Christ says, ‘All that ever came before Me are thieves and robbers;’ yet surely neither He nor the recorder of His words (for I do not think we can clearly distinguish them) meant to imply that Isaiah and Jeremiah and the great prophets of old were thieves and robbers; nor can we maintain with some interpreters of the passage that ‘before’ means ‘instead of,’ and that ‘All who ever came before Me’ means ‘All who ever came instead of Me.’ Christ is not thinking of this application of His words and the past history of the Jews, but of false teachers and false prophets generally, and more especially of those who were living about His own time. The comparison of the passage which I have just quoted with the text throws some degree of light on both of them. And we may assume as a principle of all interpretation, and therefore of Scripture, that we must not introduce logic or require too literal an adherence to fact where the whole style and character of a writing shows that they have not been thought of. And the prophecies both of the Old and the New Testaments are to be taken in the spirit rather than in the letter; not as predictions of facts which may or may not have been verified at 179a particular time, but as visions of nations appearing in the presence of God; as the revelation of the words and works of men in the light of a higher word; as a history of the world which is the judgement of the world.

The woman of Samaria to whom the words of the text are addressed, when she discovers that Christ is a prophet, is eager to make the most of her opportunity. She wants to have a resolution of the question, In what place ought men to worship? Was Jerusalem the accepted spot, or Mount Gerizim? Which passover was the most pleasing to God? How was the great dispute between Jews and Samaritans to be decided? Our Lord answers in words which there is some difficulty in explaining: ‘Ye worship ye know not what; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.’ He seems to mean that the Jews were more right than the Samaritans, perhaps because they had the prophets as well as the law, or because they had a real relation to those prophecies and to that history against which the Samaritans were a sort of rebels; at any rate, because they were as a fact better instructed in religion. But He at once leaves this point of view for a higher one, ‘Neither in Jerusalem nor in this mountain . . . for God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.’ To the question of the woman of Samaria He neither would nor could give an answer. For God was no respecter of places any 180more than of persons. Men were not to say, ‘Lo here! or, Lo there! for the Kingdom of God is within you.’ And in a similar spirit, as you will remember, when they ask Him on another occasion, ‘Where, Lord?’ He only answers, ‘Wheresoever the carcase is, there shall the eagles be gathered together.’

Let us try to imagine more precisely the feelings with which the words of the text were uttered by Christ. He saw the Jewish world everywhere sunk, not in idolatry, for that phase of religion had passed away, but in formalism, in ritualism, in ceremonial and puritanical observances, which were powerless to touch the heart of man or to purify his life. The Jewish law was not merely the uniting principle which bound men together in the worship of one God (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord’), but a dividing principle which separated them from the Samaritans and from the rest of mankind. The thought of the nature of God, of His justice, His truth, His goodness, had almost passed away, over loaded by a multitude of details, supplanted as the belief in God always is by men’s belief in themselves, their Church, or their race. They go on saying, not in these exact words but in some other form of words which takes their place in another age, ‘We have Abraham to our Father,’ never considering that ‘out of these stones God is able to raise up children unto Abraham,’ and that ‘many shall come from the East and from the West,’ of no church or denomination, 181some heathen philosopher, perhaps, or opponent of their own most cherished opinions, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the children of the kingdom may possibly be cast out. This word, ‘We have Abraham to our father,’ has excluded the sense or feeling of the Universal Father. And the temple made with hands, the consecrated church, the traditional spot to which pilgrimages were wont to be made, has obscured and narrowed the thought of Him who dwells not in houses made with hands, and is not contained in the furthest heaven, yet is pleased to take up His abode with us. That which was once a shadow of good things to come is not even a shadow of them now, but a veil, a mist, an impenetrable cloud, coming between us and God.

And sometimes the history of the past weighs upon mankind with an undue power. What was done three hundred or a thousand or sixteen hundred years ago has an effect upon us now, and often cannot be undone. A form of government or society or belief, to which we were not consenting parties, has been settled for us, and we feel that the individual mind is powerless to alter them. Our freedom seems to be impaired by them; in vain we desire something better and truer and more adapted to our wants. Then thoughts begin to arise in our minds that such a world as that in which we live will one day come to an end, that truth must prevail at last; and that the 182fire which has hitherto slumbered in the earth will burst forth and burn up the chaff. Such volcanoes have really burst forth in the German Reformation or in the French Revolution. But for the most part they burn only in the hearts of men who say to themselves, ‘O Lord, how long?’ or ‘The hour is coming,’ at times seeming to think that the dawn is at hand. They turn away from the signs of decay and corruption which to their eye appears around them, and try to work out their individual life hidden with God and Christ. Many prophets have died unknown; they have desired to see things that they have not seen; they have closed their eyes on a world which was receding from them; they have found that the vision of the Kingdom of God was to be realized, perhaps on earth in the course of ages, but chiefly in themselves, and in another state of being.

Thus the words of Christ find a sort of reflection or analogy in our own day, and in the thoughts and lives of a few persons who have a feeling for the world around them. They should be considered further in connexion with the general character of the Gospel according to St. John; for the character of that narrative is not historical, but spiritual, not descriptive of the outward forms of the Church, but of the inner life of the soul. It hardly ever touches upon the relation of believers to the external world or to society, but only upon their relations to God and Christ. They are withdrawn from the world that 183they may be one with the Father and with the Son; they eat the bread of life; they drink the water of life; they receive another spirit which is to guide them into all truth. They are not, as in the parable, like the wheat growing together with the tares; nor do they become a great tree under the shadow of which the birds of the air take shelter: they are the branches indeed of which Christ is the Vine, but no outward glory or power is attributed to them. Nor are they bound together by a common external symbol; for, as you will remember, the institution of the Sacrament is not recorded in the Gospel of St. John. Many reasons have been given for the omission; the author of the fourth Gospel has been sometimes supposed to have avoided subjects which were mentioned in the three first. But there is no proof that he was acquainted with them; the more probable reason is, if any is needed, that he is putting forward another aspect of the life of Christ, and that the outward fades away before his mind in comparison with the inward. Christ is not described in the Gospel of St. John as instituting the Sacrament of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but as teaching men that He is the Bread of Life. And, if we look closely at the external events recorded, we shall see that they are told for the sake of some lesson or discourse which is appended to them, rather than for the sake of the events themselves. The miracles are very few; one class of them, that of healing the demoniacs, is omitted. For 184example, the miracle of the five thousand is narrated in the three first Gospels chiefly as a wonder, but in the fourth Gospel with a manifest reference to the lesson which follows concerning ‘the bread of life.’

Returning, then, to the words of the text, and reading them in the light of other passages in the Gospel, I think that we are right in regarding chiefly, or indeed exclusively, their spiritual import. Whether our Lord, or the recorder of His words, did intend to allude to the times of trouble and desolation which were shortly, that is about forty years afterwards, coming upon Jerusalem, we cannot precisely deter mine. But what He chiefly meant to express was an eternal truth and not a particular fact. As when He says ‘the hour is coming, and now is, when all they that are in the graves shall hear His voice,’ He is speaking of a future which is already present, and anticipated in all ages by the consciences of men passing judgement on themselves and their own times. For when we compare our external institutions with the language of prophecy respecting the Church, or our own lives with the requirements of a divine law, we feel that they cannot stand, and we desire sometimes with a longing past expression to become other than we are. For we know, as Christ says, that religion is spiritual, and consists in communion with the justice and truth and goodness of God. But we are living the life of all men, worshipping in a cold and formal manner; repeating words to which 185we hardly attend; instead of making our whole lives a worship of Him, and seeking to enter into His mind and to do His work.

Nor need we hesitate to apply the words of the text to some of the forms of religion which we see around us. ‘The hour is coming when neither as Protestants nor as Catholics, neither as Churchmen nor Dissenters, shall men worship the Father.’ For a feeling of dissatisfaction will sometimes steal over us at the disputes of our Churches, at the unreality of our preaching, at the unchristian appearance of a Christian country. When we see religious opinion moving strongly in one direction during the last generation, and in entirely different currents among our own contemporaries, and our forms of worship are so much changed that our fathers or grandfathers, if they could return to life again, would view them with extreme dislike, we feel we cannot trust the opinions of men; they come and go, and are phases only, shadows of the past, which revive from time to time and are followed by reaction. We do not wish to live and die in them, for they may fail us when they are most wanted. Neither do we desire to be like chameleons, changing colour from year to year; or to catch the epidemic of religion which happens to be in the air; or to have one half of our lives or of our minds saying Aye and the other No to the same truths (‘Aye and No are no good divinity’). But we desire to have the peaceful and harmonious growth of 186religion in the soul, which becomes a part of our being, and is not shaken by the accidents of public opinion or the discoveries of science, or the satire of society and the world; which is the same in all ages, and is inseparably bound up with goodness and truth everywhere. For when we find that the world is changing around us, and some things that were once most certain to us are becoming doubtful, then is the time to go back to the simple principles of religion, and not allow them to be interfered with or dethroned by the externals which are always taking their place. ‘To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God’; ‘When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness’; ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself’; ‘Without holiness no man shall see the Lord’: these are the primary principles of religion which can never alter or be superseded; and they are so simple that they can hardly fail to be understood. But, when I proceed to think of churches, of forms of worship, of systems of theology, these vary with the philosophy of different ages, or the characters of individuals; they are not ends but means in religion, and they have given occasion to endless disputes. Yet not because I see that many things which I once deemed to be revealed truths are relative and transient, and that many things which I once deemed characteristic of Christianity are common to other religions, will I give up the faith in God and 187immortality, or the desire to be a follower of Christ. Hence the importance of not putting the lesser before the greater, the changing before the unchanging, the duty of worshipping at Jerusalem once a year before the great truth that God is a Spirit. I worship God in this consecrated building where there are sounds of music and stained windows, and the architecture of a former age is pleasingly imitated; but if I were on a desert island could I not worship Him still, and perhaps more truly, for there He would be my only hope? And if of the temple of Jerusalem not one stone were left upon another, or if the Churches of Christ in this and other countries were overthrown, should I therefore renounce my belief in Him? Yes, perhaps so, if my belief had been in houses made with hands; but not if I had considered that churches too partook of human infirmity even more than political institutions, and that the truth or word of God, and not the vessel which contained the truth, is the foundation upon which human life must be reared.

When, applying the words of Christ to our own times, we say, ‘The hour is coming, and now is, when there shall be neither Catholics nor Protestants, Churchmen nor Dissenters,’ we do not suppose that these well-known names will cease among us, or that the things signified by them will altogether disappear. But they may become unimportant in comparison with the great truth ‘God is a Spirit.’ For 188the more the spiritual character of religion is under stood the more external differences will disappear. Can we think of a good man as other than a good man because he belongs to another sect, because he does not believe in the same doctrines which we believe in? Hardly, if we know him; but ignorance is the parent of dislike and estrangement. When we read history we see that these differences have originated in feelings which we no longer share, and which are maintained chiefly by external barriers. And, when we turn from the ecclesiastical history of our own country and of Europe to the larger book of the religions of the world, we perceive that the disputes which have occasioned them are infinitely small in comparison with the greater interests of religion, and we wonder how the human mind can have been absorbed by them. Or again, when we look out on ‘the heavens, the work of Thy hands, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained,’ are not these religious disputes calmed and silenced in the thought, ‘What is man that Thou art mindful of him?’ And when we think of God as a Spirit, must not this great truth absorb the lesser antagonisms or parties which divide us? Just as in politics we have seen towns or districts of the same country which seemed to bear an external enmity to one another, the heritage of former ages, yet contrary to all expectations have been fused or moulded into a single nation and become instinct with a common life. There is Italy, for example, 189and Germany. And are the divisions of churches to be more lasting than the divisions of nations?

These may seem to be unsettling thoughts, and I ventured to speak of the text as one of the revolutionary sayings of Christ. For we must provide for the religion of the next generation as well as of this, for our whole lives and not merely for the phase of opinion which prevails at the present moment. It is certainly an unsettling thing to try to live in another world as well as this, to want to fly when we are compelled to walk upon the earth. Yet most of the good which has been accomplished among men is due to aspirations of this sort. We may be in the world and not of it, and we may be in the Church and far from agreeing in the temper and spirit of many Church men. Difficulties may surround our path to some extent. But, if there is no difficulty in ourselves, these may generally be overcome by common prudence. The aspirations after a higher state of life than that in which we live may in a measure fulfil themselves. We may create that which we seek after. And although there will always remain something more to be done, and our thoughts will easily outrun our utmost exertions, yet we may find in such thoughts of the changes which may come over the world and the Church not an unquiet or disturbing element of our lives but a sense of repose; they may enable us to see whither we are going, and we may have a satisfaction in contributing to the work which God intended us to do.

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And, if at this time, or at any time, great changes may be expected in the opinions of men about the Church, about the Bible, or about political institutions, as some persons tell us, whether truly or not, there is clearly a reason why we should seek other principles which cannot be shaken. A great work it is for a man to build up his own life with all the helps of companionship and common worship under the guidance and authority of the past. But there may also be a more difficult work reserved to some of us, that we should build up our lives looking not to the past but to the future, thinking of the world which will be twenty or thirty years hence, which some of us will not be here to see, when many opinions which are now new will have become old, and some institutions which are now powerful will have passed away. He who lives not hanging on the past but aspiring towards the future may accomplish a great work in his day. For such a life he might find an example in the Jewish prophets, if not in ecclesiastics of a later age. His leaf would not wither when he grew old, for he would be coming near to his goal. And, though he is not likely to have seen all that he desired accomplished, yet at his death he would have the consciousness that he had made the most of his life. He had done his work and was ready to depart.

But, as when we indulge in these distant visions of the future, whether in religion or politics, we are always liable to be led away by some Will-o’-the-wisp, 191propounding to ourselves some distant ends, and never thinking of the means, I will add in conclusion a very few remarks touching the manner in which these great ambitions or aspirations may be made effectual or practical. The way to the future lies along the present: and we can only act upon another generation by thoroughly understanding our own; what we can do for others depending upon what we are or make ourselves. We cannot assume a force of character which we have not; we cannot have the results of education or preparation if we have not educated or prepared ourselves. Dreams of Christian or social improvement are easy, but if we do not try to realize them they will be positive hindrances in the way of our own improvement. And therefore with all such aspirations I would inseparably link the maxim ‘Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.’

And, if any one says ‘I do not understand these great aims or grandiloquent thoughts about the next generation and the like, I wish only to do my duty as the clergyman of a country parish, to be honest as a tradesman, or to bring up a family in the fear of God,’ still I would ask him or her sometimes to consider this world twenty-five or thirty years hence. What would he have wished to have been doing now if his life is extended into the next generation? The calm résumé of a man’s present life in the light of twenty-five years hence would have a sobering and strengthening 192influence on him. He would make a plan for many years instead of living from year to year. He would be able to deal with life in a larger and more liberal spirit. He would think more of its permanent and less of its transient element. He could not be very much the slave of party or prejudices, for he would acknowledge that the same parties and prejudices would hardly exist twenty-five years hence. There are some possibilities for which he would allow, and one of these would be the uncertainty of his own life. And he would not walk the less by faith because he carefully considered what one year might add to another, how difficulties which could not be overcome in a short time might be surmounted in a long time. There is no higher faith in this world than to live for posterity, and to think sometimes of the good which we may do to a generation whom we shall never know and who can do nothing for us. The believer in Christ should cherish in himself and impart to others the hope and promise of the future, not only in the life which is to come, but also in that which now is.

And, lastly, there is of course a sense in which the words of the text are applicable to all of us: ‘The hour is coming when neither in this church nor in any other shall we worship God’; for our short span of life will be over, and we and our actions and our worldly or religious interests will have passed out of the memory of man into the presence of God. Let 193us try to think of men and things as they will then be regarded by us, when the outward and visible will have faded away, and theological controversies have no longer any meaning to us. Let us try to think of our own lives as they will appear before Him when the fashions and opinions of this world are nothing to us, and we measure ourselves, not by the opinions of men, but by the just judgement of God.

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