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HOW CAN THIS MAN GIVE US HIS FLESH TO EAT?
IT IS THE SPIRIT THAT QUICKEN ETH; THE FLESH PROFITETH NOTHING: THE WORDS THAT I SPEAK UNTO YOU, THEY ARE SPIRIT, AND THEY ARE LIFE.
THE sayings of our Lord seem to have been often misunderstood by those who heard Him. When He spoke to them of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, they either scoffingly said, or really imagined, that He was going to give them His flesh to eat; at least, such is the impression conveyed in the narrative of St. John. When He told the woman of Samaria of the water of life, her thought reverted only to the water of the well of Jacob, which she and others were drawing for daily use: when He cautioned His disciples against the leaven of the Pharisees, they supposed that He was referring to the leaven of bread; when He urged upon Nicodemus the necessity of being born again, the ‘Master of Israel’ was puzzled 302and could only answer, ‘Can any man enter again his mother’s womb and be born?’ These instances are taken from the Gospel of St. John, who intends to show by them how near the commonplace interpretation of the sayings of Christ was to the minds of men, how difficult the spiritual one; and not only in the Gospel of St. John, but in the other Gospels, there are sayings of Christ, such as ‘Let the dead bury their dead’; or the intimation of the resurrection given by God to Moses at the burning bush; or such precepts as ‘Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness’; or the awful warning, ‘Whoso sinneth against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven’; the meaning of which must have slumbered in the ears of those who heard them.
The words originally narrated and figuratively applied in the Gospel of St. John, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,’ are afterwards repeated again in the other three Gospels at the trial before the chief priests, and are taken by the witnesses in the literal meaning. Many other sayings were evidently misunderstood by those who heard them; and for this reason among others, many, or rather I should say, perhaps the greater part of them, have perished.
And not only during the life of Christ have His sayings been misunderstood, or wilfully misinterpreted, but in a still greater degree in later ages of the Church. One age after another has added to them, until they 303have been buried under a heap of misrepresentations, and the meaning which is assigned to them has been in some cases the very reverse of that which they originally bore; and then some one has arisen who has dug them up again, and they have still been found capable of giving life to men. The great sayings of the world seem to be always in a process of being lost and being recovered.
Two or three words are a little instrument with which to stir an age, and yet the world has been stirred by them—such words, for example, as ‘Believe on Me,’ or ‘We are justified by faith without the works of the law.’ And then they have soon become a form again, and have no longer found the answering note in the heart of man; because, instead of interpreting them naturally, mankind have brought to the interpretation of them their own impressions or the tendencies of their age or Church or their party in the Church, or the authority of some Father or favourite teacher; or they have overlaid the New Testament with the Old, or gone back from the spirit to the letter. If any tenet has previously taken possession of their minds, they have found in some oriental figure, some chance coincidence, some remote analogy, the assurance of that which they had always determined to believe. I propose to consider in this sermon a subject about which there has been almost more misrepresentation of these simple words of Scripture than about any other, the Communion of the Lord’s 304Supper. Without entering into the controversy which has prevailed respecting this great rite of the Christian Church, I shall inquire whether a simpler notion of the Communion may not be more in accordance with the Spirit of Christ, and more really satisfying to the wants of human nature; secondly, I shall speak of the thoughts which naturally arise in our minds on those solemn occasions when we meet together at the table of the Lord, and recall the memory of Him whilst He was on earth.
In every Christian congregation there are a few to whom the participation in the Communion is the life or centre of their religious being; while the greater number (and there may be among them many who are equally the followers of Christ), either from awe or shyness, or the fear of unreality, or from their sense of the great change which has been made in the nature of the act, appear to be unable or unwilling to fulfil the last request of Christ, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me.’
The words ‘This is My Body,’ ‘This is My Blood,’ have occasioned controversies and speculation such as no metaphysician can ever explain. Who can tell us the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation unless he can first analyse the meaning of the words ‘substance’? Who can give the faintest conception of a real presence, or a real spiritual presence of a divine nature in a material object?
Behold! He is present everywhere, and especially 305in the heart and reason of man. Are not such distinctions like lines drawn upon an imaginary surface, or a picture painted in space? and they lead us on by a sort of dialectical process immediately to raise other questions which are not less difficult. In what manner, and by what means, is the change in the elements affected, and at what time is their nature altered? at their consecration, or after we have partaken only? And do all partake of them, or the worthy recipients only? And has the minister, who is a man like ourselves, the power of granting or with holding the greatest of spiritual benefits, of making, and offering, (I hardly dare use the words) the Body and Blood of Christ? Then follows the transfer of all the powers of the life to come to a human being, and you have a lever long enough to move the world.
Owing to a corruption, beginning you can hardly say when, in an excess of religious feeling, the moral character of religion is lost; and the Sacrament, instead of being the simple bond which unites Christians to their brethren and to Christ, becomes the bond of a great ecclesiastical power.
Some persons may be inclined to feel angry or aggrieved at the plainness of these statements; and certainly we should do injustice to the maintainers of these views (of whom there seem to be many among the clergy of our own Church) if we did not admit that there was another side to them.
In tracing the decline of good into evil we should 306be wrong in not observing that the good inseparably clings to the evil, and yet is somehow not infected by it. Certainly it is with strange and mixed feelings that we read such books as the Life of St. Bernard, or St. Theresa, or the meditations on the Sacrament in the fourth book of the Imitation of Christ. For, although we know that to ourselves individually, and still more to the world at large, goodness is a very dear bargain when purchased at the expense of truth, yet we see something in the lives and thoughts of these men and women which we would gladly transfer to our own lives, and for which, in this degenerate age, we vainly seem to look; and to them the very spirit and essence of religion was felt to be concentrated in the Eucharist. From the act of partaking of the bread and wine the rest of their spiritual life appeared to flow; they were full of rapture and fear, of sorrow and joy, at the same instant; they saw and heard things of which they could hardly speak to others, seeming to lose the sense of mortality in the immediate presence of Christ. This was the food of men leading a superhuman life, taking no thought of this world or of themselves, but caring only for the good of other men, and for the service of Christ. There is a great deal for us to sympathize with and to reverence in this; and, although we feel that no good, or rather great evil, would arise from the attempt to revive the feelings of the fourth, or the eleventh, or the thirteenth century in the nineteenth, yet we shall 307do well also to separate these ideals of Christian life, these higher types of character and feeling, from the accidents which accompanied them, or the fantastic thoughts in which they clothed themselves. Men are apt to think that they cannot have too much of a good thing, too much piety, too much religious feeling, too much attendance at the public worship of God. They forget the truth which the old philosophy taught, that the life of man should be a harmony; not absorbed in any one thought, even of God, or in any one duty or affection, but growing up as a whole to the fulness of the perfect man. That is a maimed soul which loves goodness and has no love of truth, or which loves truth and has no love of goodness. The cultivation of one part of religion to the exclusion of another seems often to exact a terrible retribution both in individual characters and in churches. There is a nemesis of believing all things, or indeed of any degree of intellectual dishonesty, which sometimes ends in despair of all truth; there is an ecstasy of religious devotion which has not unfrequently degenerated into licentiousness. And in the same city, and in the same church in which the streaming eyes of saints have been uplifted to the image of Christ hanging over .the altar, there have been ‘acts of faith’ of another kind, which are not obscurely connected with these ardours of divine love, in which the voice of pity and of every other human feeling is silenced.308
(2) And now I will leave the history of the past and the controversies of the present, and try to consider this Communion of the Lord’s Supper in a simpler manner. If a father on his deathbed had told his sons to meet together on a certain day of the year at a feast, and to remember him, and to think that he was present with them, how strange would their conduct appear if, after a year or two, they fell to disputing about the nature of this feast, or the meaning of their father in desiring that they should remember him and that they should think of him as present with them! Should we not tell them that they ought to interpret his words naturally, the simple words literally, the figure of speech after the manner of figures of speech? Or if a dying person had left us a ring to be a memorial of him, should we ever think of discussing how the ring recalled him to our memory? No more need we discuss at length how the Communion of the Lord’s Supper reminds us of Christ.
And first of all we may note in passing (though a truism) that the Communion is not an end, but a means. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ And the end of this institution of Christ was not that we should go to the Communion as to some mystic rite, but that in this act we should find the natural expression of our love and remembrance of Him.
There seems to be no better explanation of the 309Sacraments than this, that they are the expressions of a religious feeling. The Sacrament of Baptism is not designed to draw an invidious line between baptized and unbaptized infants, but to express the Christian consciousness about all infants that they are the children of God, and that, in the language of our Lord, ‘Their Angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven.’ The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in like manner, is not separable from the rest of the believer’s life. He is always desirous to follow Christ and to be one with Him, and to be as He was in this world. Of that hope and aspiration, so much above the ordinary life of man, of that prayer and vow, the Communion is the highest, the intensified expression. And, as men find a relief in the utterance of their feelings, so does he find a relief in the conscious acknowledgement that his highest desire in this world is to be perfect, to be like Christ. And, as men after a long and weary toil will meet together at a feast to refresh their spirits and to bind closer the bonds of friendship, so does he go to the table of the Lord that he may draw closer the bonds which unite him to Christ, that like Christ he may forgive his enemies, like Christ he may live only for the good of others, like Christ he may be pure and disinterested in word and thought, and have communion with goodness and truth everywhere.310
To such a feast we are invited—I will not say to a feast of ideas, but to a feast of Christian thoughts and feelings, in which, if I may use such an expression, we indulge the higher elements of our nature, and seem to have a foretaste of heaven. And in this way the Sacraments adjust themselves to the rest of the Christian life. They are spiritual, and the thing signified by them is not necessarily connected with any external act. They are the parts of a whole from which they cannot safely be separated. They are the points or limits in which the Christian life is gathered up. But they are not the instruments by which any change is wrought in us. That can only be accomplished in rational beings by the Spirit of God working together with our spirits. To think other wise would be to disregard that which seems to lie deepest of all in the teaching of Christ and of St. Paul, deeper far than the institution of any ordinance, or the belief in any fact—the spiritual nature of religion.
And now I will speak of the feelings with which we approach the Communion; and these I suppose will vary considerably with the character and circumstances of each individual. In all devotion there is a common element, but there is also a private part, in which the mind of each one wanders over the mazes of time, and the secret history of his own life, and the thousand things concerning him which are known to himself only and to God. And, as we recognize our universal 311relation to God and to Christ, we are conscious also that thoughts arise up within us which we can never impart to any other.
And, first of all, we seem to feel at the Communion that we are passing into the presence of God, and laying before Him our lives and actions. That which always is a fact we solemnly and distinctly acknowledge. We say to Him and to ourselves, ‘There is not a word in our tongue or a thought in our hearts, but Thou, O Lord, knowest it altogether’; or again, ‘Oh cleanse Thou me from secret faults, let them not have the dominion over me.’ And, knowing that He sees all things, we try to speak to Him as truly and simply as we can, not excusing nor yet accusing ourselves more than we ought, nor using the unreal words of momentary feeling, but beseeching Him to guide us in the main purpose of our lives, that our work may also be His work, and that we may fulfil His will upon earth,—‘Not my will, but Thine, be done.’ And, although God is at an infinite distance from us, and we are lost in the contemplation of Him, yet we know also that, like ourselves, He is a rational Being, a Divine Reason, in whom all our highest thoughts and feelings find a response. And the sense of communion with Him is not to lay us prostrate before Him, grovelling in the dust as before some eastern potentate who is only half governed by the dictates of truth and justice; but to raise us up and ennoble us, and awaken in us a sense of the higher 312dignity, of the true dignity, of human nature, which is to be engaged in His service.
A man is not less but more of a man because he rests upon God. And a man is not less but more of a man because he knows himself and can make a true estimate of himself. Even the man of the world will acknowledge this; and true Christian manhood seems to require that we should look ourselves steadily in the face, remembering our sins, not extenuating our faults, nor yet over excited or depressed by them, but making this consciousness of what we truly are the foundation of a higher life in us. This is the sort of consciousness which we desire to carry into the presence of God, beseeching Him to strengthen the good and to purge away the bad in us, that before our life in this world ends we may be fitted for another.
And this, again, is a thought which naturally recurs to us at the Communion, or whenever we think of God, that He alone is able to support us in the hour of death. Over all the accidents of life, and the fears of our hearts, and the difficulties of our own characters, and the remembrances of shame and pain, and the uncertainties of human things shaking like leaves in the wind, there is One who remains immovable, who is our Friend and Father; and in that thought we have peace and strength.
Secondly, there is present with us at the Communion the image of the life of Christ as He appeared 313to man while upon earth. The Scripture speaks of our being dead with Christ, or of our having a life hidden with Christ, or of our being one with Him, or partaking of His Body and Blood, seeming to de scribe in all these and similar phrases some near and intimate relation. But we fear to appropriate these expressions to ourselves, because we are afraid of being unreal and of using words which have no meaning to us, either because our lives are so inadequate to what is described by them, or because the modes of thought used in Scripture, as in other ancient writings, may have ceased to be familiar to us. They may require to be translated before they can be applied to practical use. And I think that we can imagine some one coming to Christ and asking Him about this difficulty, as the disciples seem to have been in the habit of doing,—‘Lord, how wilt Thou take up Thine abode in us, and in what manner shall we be conscious of Thy presence?’ and Christ answering, as He did to a similar question, ‘Whoever will take up his cross and follow Me, I am one with him’; and ‘Forasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto Me’; and ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ For the spirit of Christianity is not that we should maintain this or that opinion, or use this or that form of words, but that, maintaining any opinion and using any form of words, we should be like Him. And Christ Himself seems everywhere to put the inward in the place of the 314outward, the wider in the place of the narrower, the principle that embraces all mankind in the place of that which is national and exclusive; and in this one word to sum up the salvation of man—that we should be like Him. And to be like Him is to live for others and not for ourselves, to be dead to the world and the opinion of the world, and to love the truth. Thus, after so many ages and in such an altered world, the image of Christ may still be present with us.
Lastly, we carry to the Communion many private thoughts and many personal and solemn recollections. There are sins of which we have been guilty which we are not bound to confess to others, but which we are bound to place distinctly before ourselves and God, lest our moral sense should become impaired by them, and our nature lowered and degraded. One of the uses of solemn occasions is that they lead us to place the requirements of God side by side with our own actions; they startle us out of sleep; they make us compare our own life with that of Christ, our lot with that of our poorer brethren, and they teach us to feel that for all our blessings and advantages we have to render an account to God. And, besides the remembrance of our sins, there are many other thoughts which we may fitly bring with us into the presence of God. There is the recollection of our past lives, with their strange tissue of good and evil, in which we recognize the working of His power. 315There are the persons whom we love, and the thought of whom is the highest earthly motive which many of us have for deterring us from evil. There are duties which we owe to others of which we may especially think, passing each of them distinctly in affectionate remembrance before the mind. And there is the plan of life which we desire to consecrate to His service, the new profession on which we are about to enter, the work which we hope to complete if we are spared, not from any motive of vainglory, but that we may do something for the sake of truth, and add, if but a little, to the stock of human knowledge. There is the business that we have to carry on for the sake of others rather than of ourselves, the house that we have to set in order before we die.
And once more, there are the dead, of whom we know so little, and whom we would not have out of our minds because they are removed from our sight. We do not wish to indulge any fancies about them, or imagine that they can be affected by our prayers for them. But still it is natural to us sometimes to think of them; we would not have those loved ones altogether forgotten after many years have rolled away, or be like strangers among us if they could come back to earth. There is the fair child who was taken from us ten, twenty, thirty years ago, the brother who has left a blank which can never be replaced, the youth who gave such promise of distinction cut off before his prime, the mother whose love seemed never 316to have an end. They do not need our poor regards, but it does us good to spend a few minutes in thinking of them. They seem to be so numerous as we get on in life, and to be separated by so wide an interval from us. What has become of them? Where are they? What are they doing? We only know that they are in the hands of God, and that we shall one day be with them.317
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