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IF THEY HEAR NOT MOSES AND THE PROPHETS, NEITHER WILL THEY BE PERSUADED THOUGH ONE ROSE FROM THE DEAD.
THE teaching of Christ is always recalling us from the letter to the spirit, from the outward to the inward, from the narrower to the wider view of the Divine nature. He reveals to us what everybody in their secret soul acknowledges to be the truth; He reminds us of what we are always forgetting; He appeals to principles which are old as well as new; He seeks to restore us to ourselves and to God What can be more simple, or of more universal application, than the words, “Believe,” “Repent,” “Do as ye would that men should do unto you,” “Love your enemies,” “Be pure in thought as well as in act,” which is the high argument of the Sermon on the Mount? “Not that which goeth into a man defileth a man.” “God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” “The hour is coming when neither in Jerusalem nor yet in this 379mountain.” “Forbid him not.” “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold.” “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.” “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself—this is the law and the prophets.” “Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.” “Except a man receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.” “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” “Go and learn what that means, I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” “That they all may be one, as Thou Father art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us.”
This is the religion of Christ; not the religion consistently taught by any section of the Christian Church, nor practised by any considerable number of Christians. But it is the religion in which Christ lived and died—the religion of a person whom we believe to be Divine. No one will say that the words just quoted contain only a vague Deism, or that any other words of Christ or of His disciples more truly represent the character of His teaching. They make no claim to literary excellence; some of them are taken from the Jewish prophets; a few probably may be detected in contemporary Rabbinical writings. Yet they have a power of touching the heart which is possessed by no other words. They seem to begin 380where ordinary religion ends, where the teaching of Churches is apt to fail, where the witness of general councils has been found wanting. They are the voice of God Himself asserting the moral and spiritual against the ceremonial and outward. Some of them are too much for us, and we fear that they may be rashly used against existing institutions. But though they rise above the level of religious communities, which are necessarily made up of mixed elements, they may still have an abiding place in the hearts of individuals, and through them infuse a portion of the spirit of Christ into the Church and the world.
As men are always tending to put the letter of religion in the place of the spirit, so they are always tending to put the outward evidences of religion in the place of the inward In the last century it was generally maintained by English theologians that the Christian religion rested on the evidence of miracles. This is the argument which Paley has summed up in two famous propositions. But is this the teaching of Christ Himself? Does He not rather lead us back from the extraordinary to the ordinary, from the supernatural to the common? “Except ye see signs and wonders ye will not believe.” This is a proof not of their faith, but of their want of faith. The lessons which He draws from nature are of another sort. “Behold the lilies of the field: they toil not, neither do they spin”; and “He maketh His sun to rise upon the evil and upon the good, and giveth rain upon the 381just and upon the unjust.” Or again, “Are not two sparrows sold for one farthing, and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father.” Here is the still small voice of ordinary life more potent than the thunder and the earthquake. And so in the parable from which the text is taken, when the case is put, “Nay, father Abraham; but if one went to them from the dead they would repent”—that is to say, if a miracle had been wrought for their salvation—our Lord, speaking in the person of Abraham, replies, in words which admit of many applications, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither would they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.”
So simple is the religion of Christ: it might be summed up in the saying, “He went about doing good,” and bidding us be like Him. He does not place Himself at a distance from us; He rather seeks to create in us the feeling that, equally with Himself, we are the sons of God. He speaks to us of His faith and our faith, of His God and our God. If we would confine the Christian faith to the spirit and words of Christ, there would be an almost universal agreement about it. We should have no need of apologies and defences; for the words of Christ would be their own witness, and the witness of the human heart would confirm them. The difficulties which present themselves to our minds seem never to have occurred to the writers of the Gospel; they are not perplexed about the truth of the accounts, or the 382reconciliation of science and religion. The only explanation which either the Evangelists or Christ Himself give of the unwillingness to receive His message is “the hardness of men’s hearts.”
The essentials of Christianity remain the same, “Yesterday, to-day, and for ever.” Yet, from another point of view, the Christian religion appears to have been always changing, not merely in forms of worship and government, but in spirit and doctrine. The Nicene Church is not the same as the Church of the Apostles; nor the Catholic as the Nicene, nor the Protestant as the Catholic. So that if we could imagine a single individual living from the Christian era until now, he would have been, not of one religion, but of several, and several times over would have anathematised and excommunicated himself. Already within three centuries after the death of Christ there were pages of Christian history written in crime and in blood. So quickly had the Christian world de parted from the simple faith of Christ. And the contrast between the teaching of Christ and the development of it is not less startling when regarded from within than from without. What connection is there between the religion of Him who said, “Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not,” and of those who maintained that unbaptised infants, without doubt, perish everlastingly? or between Him who said of one who was not His follower, “Forbid him not,” and those who would confine salvation to 383the Church, and the Church to the regularly ordained descendants of the Apostles? Or what is there in common between the robber Synod of Ephesus, or the tumultuous assembly of Nicea, and Him who is described, in the words of the Prophet, “a bruised reed shall he not break, nor quench the smoking flax”? And yet, perhaps, there was more in common than we might at first sight imagine. For the good in human beings is strangely mingled with evil. And the bigot and the zealot may have in them a touch of human kindness, or even of Divine love, which has sometimes lent a power to evil.
Between the fourth and the sixteenth century the Christian Church underwent greater and greater changes. New ideas arose, new powers were claimed, new battles were fought between the Church and the world, in which the right was not all on one side, but the Church, too, might be found struggling in the name of Christ against Himself. There were wonderful lives of saints and kings, who, by their faith and power, changed the face of countries, and may be truly reckoned among the benefactors of mankind. Yet even in the lives of these men we seem to trace something not in harmony with the spirit of Christ. Their zeal and courage could hardly be exceeded, but they lack the reasonableness, the charity, the moderation of our blessed Lord. Then came the great moral earthquake of the Reformation, which threatened utterly to destroy the ancient faith. In one generation 384the European world found itself Protestant; the fathers had been of one religion, the children were of another, and even in a single lifetime the early education of the same person had been Roman Catholic, his later years Protestant. The suddenness of the change is strikingly brought home to us by Hooker’s gentle plea, that God might have had mercy on some of our fathers, inasmuch as they sinned through ignorance; or by the amusing story of Archbishop Leighton, who, when he was attacked by his adversaries because he was himself an Episcopalian, his father a Presbyterian, and his grandfather a Roman Catholic, replied, “Yes, sir, and he was the honestest man of the three.” In the middle of the sixteenth century the spirit of the Reformation would probably have taken hold of every country in Europe if the popular voice had not been suppressed by the strong arm of Governments and Princes.
And yet we know that before the close of that century which gave birth to the Reformation, the tide had already turned and was sweeping in the opposite direction. The slumbering past of mediævalism in alliance with a sort of spurious classicalism again awoke, and nearly half the ground gained by the Re formers was recovered by the Roman Catholic Church. Education passed into the hands of their opponents; churches in a new style of architecture covered the land; in all the cities of Europe to this day are found the traces of that remarkable order, 385which for a time saved the Papacy. Their strict discipline, their untiring zeal, their seeming union of the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove, were, for a time, too much for the world. But the world was in the end too much for them. They governed countries; they kept barbarous races in a sort of tutelage; they accumulated wealth; they monopolised education; they whispered in the ear of princes; they used the conscience as a lever by which they subjugated men and women to themselves. To truth, to morality, to enlightenment they added nothing. No man of genius, no scholar or philosopher of the first class, was ever allowed to develop his powers within their borders. They appear to have been the authors of the greatest calamity which has befallen the nations of Europe, the Thirty Years’ War. They were all but conquerors, and then the natural feelings of mankind rose up against them and drove them out. And whatever hopes or fears may be entertained in this or in other countries of a similar revival of priestly authority, we must remember that much greater fears and hopes were justly entertained about that earlier counter-Reformation which covered the continent of Europe with schools and churches; in which more than in any other historical struggle the greatest virtues and the noblest and finest natures were called into the service of the greatest evil. Who can judge them fairly? The saintly lives of many of them, their regardlessness of self, their willingness to 386cast themselves away and be trodden under foot, “perinde ac cadaver” in their Master’s service, have gone up for a memorial before God. The evil that they did lives after them to be a warning and a terror to other generations.
And we ourselves, who have been watching the progress of events during the last thirty or forty years, have had experience of changes of opinion which would have been thought incredible a century ago. Many of us can remember the evangelical homes in which we were brought up, and still retain a feeling of gratitude and reverence towards good and simple persons, who first taught us the elements of religious truth. And we can remember, too, how these first impressions of religion came into collision with the beginnings of the movement which has since over spread the English Church; how we were told that we ought to believe much more or much less; and how, in obedience to this illogical logic, some of us went forward and some backwards; and some may be said to have passed a lifetime in going to and fro. Those who have lived long in Oxford can remember a day more than thirty years ago, when a small band of distinguished men, after much inward conflict, throwing aside the traditions in which they had been brought up, knocked at the door of a small despised chapel in the suburbs of this city, and humbly asked for admission into the bosom of the universal Church They were separated from us by a strange fate, and we 387lamented the loss of their virtues and their talents; there were persons among them who should always be remembered by us with kindness and respect, for they gave up all their worldly prospects in exchange for what they believed to be the truth. Of the state of feeling in which that movement originated, there is no trace remaining among us now. It had effects which the authors of it never appreciated; for they did not calculate on the reaction which would follow. They did not see that in drawing the clergy around them they were alienating the laity; so that the unsettlement of received opinions in one direction would lead to a far greater unsettlement in another. The chief lesson which we gather from that tale of bye-gone days is the danger of allowing ourselves to be carried away by such movements, which at the time are never seen in their true proportions: “Call no man master on earth,” if it tends to impair your own independence of mind, or to attach you to a person rather than to the truth.
And still the conflict continues, though fought in a broader manner and with different weapons. And many persons are busy in decomposing the world; or rather, perhaps, the world may be said to be decomposing itself (as in foreign countries, so also in this) into two extremes, the one preaching to us the authority of the priesthood, the necessity of the sacraments, the duty of uninquiring faith; the other speaking of evolution, development, the reign of law, the sequence 388of material causes. And often the extremes seem to have a greater sympathy with one another than they either of them have with the mean; they say one of another that they alone are consistent, and that if you are not with them, you had better be at the furthest point from them. And sometimes, in ways of which they are not aware, they meet. For what is a merely outward religion but another form of materialism? The eye may be satisfied with seeing and the ear with hearing, while no light of Christian life or love penetrates into the heart.
Having in view this succession of beliefs in the history of the Christian Church, and this distraction and division which affects our own contemporaries, among whom all opinions, the oldest as well as the newest, seem to co-exist, we are led very seriously to ask, “What is the permanent element in religion?” Is there any rock upon which we can stand while these shadows of the clouds fly around us—any foundation upon which we can rest in life and death, any truth about which good men are agreed? Especially as we advance in years and begin to see the end, the disputes and controversies of Churches grow increasingly wearisome to us. We think to ourselves, “O that it had been possible from the days of our youth until now for us to have had a few simple principles of truth and right, and that we had kept them apart from controversy and criticism, and simply fought a good fight against evil and falsehood to our life’s end.” 389Then we might have had a regular and perfect growth to Christian manhood.
This is the subject which I proposed to introduce by the brief sketch which I have given of ecclesiastical history. What is that which contrasts with all this movement, and turmoil, and change of opinion? Of course, we see that it is likely to be more akin to practice than to speculation. It may be something which is very near to us, which we all know or seem to know, and of which every man may be his own teacher. It may be a kind of truth in which good men of all religions are more nearly agreed than they are apt to suppose. It may be contained in one or two of those short sentences with which I began this sermon. And, first of all, I shall consider what it is not, and, secondly, what it is.
In the first place, it is not any political or ecclesiastical organisation. For these are relative to the age and state of society which gives birth to them, and there are few greater evils in the world than are caused by the perpetuation of the old forms of them under altered circumstances. They are the body, and not the soul; they supply the mechanical means by which we act together and co-operate with one another, but the first spring of life and motion is not contained in them. We are always disappointed in them when we compare them with any high standard of holiness, or truth, or right. We may imagine “the new Jerusalem descending from Heaven, like a bride 390adorned for her husband,” but the Churches which we know are very different, composed of men like ourselves, neither much better nor much worse. When they meet together in Synods and in general Councils, they are often actuated by private motives, and are subject, like other assemblies, to many political and personal considerations. We hardly expect of them that they should make a bold or united effort in the cause of truth or of freedom, should these ever come into competition with ecclesiastical interests. And, therefore, not there, not there is the permanent element of religion to be sought, not in any succession of Presbyters or Bishops, nor in any claim of universal authority, nor in any variously interpreted rule of faith or life. The authority of Churches seems rather to be derived from the great and good men who have adorned them. A St. Bernard, St. Anselm, St. Thomas-à-Kempis are to us the witnesses for the Mediæval Church; not the Church for them.
But neither is the permanent element of religion to be sought in the internal certainty which good men have of the truth which has been vouchsafed to them. For these internal convictions may often contradict one another; nor can we be sure that the faith of one man is stronger than that of another; the faith of a Christian more intense than that of a Mahometan or Hindoo. If another says to me, “I have an inward light or evidence,” and I reply to him, “I have an 391inward light,” who shall decide between us? “If,” a third adds, “this can only be decided by the authority of the Church,” again the question arises, To what Church shall we go? And very often the best of men have seen visions and dreamed dreams; they have made God the author of their own fancies, and, owing to some warmth of temperament or enthusiasm which possessed them, have been able to impart their belief in themselves to others. And sometimes the bent of their own moral character towards severity and asceticism, or the bent of their own intellectual character towards casuistry and over-refinement, has led other men into ways of life for which they were unfitted, or has induced them to desert the high road of truth and right. Their faith has given others faith in them, and yet what they mistook for the will of God was their own will. And, therefore, without any disrespect for the Fathers of the Church, whether ancient Fathers, such as St. Augustine, or modern Fathers, such as John Wesley, we cannot accept them as authoritative teachers. For we see that they often erred, and that in many of their conclusions they were deter mined by their own character and circumstances.
Neither can the permanent element in religion be supposed to consist in historical facts. For they soon fade into the distance; even if the record of them is preserved, in a thousand or in two thousand years they are apt to be seen in new lights; add another thousand, and we can hardly imagine how they will 392appear in that remote future. The historian in our own day insists on a higher standard of verification, and is reluctant to accept evidence which cannot be traced up to contemporary witnesses. It is not that we are really more sceptical than our forefathers, but a wider knowledge, and a greater command of materials, have modified our judgment. Any one who has read the histories of Rome and Greece by the light of Niebuhr and Mommsen, or Curtius and Grote, cannot help applying the lamp of criticism to the New Testament. He must ask himself and honestly answer the question: What is the date of the books in which the narrative of our Lord’s life is contained? How did they receive their present form; how are the discrepancies which occur in them to be explained? Now, the answer to these questions in our own day will be somewhat different from that which would have been given in the last generation. With the advance of knowledge we have to shift our ground, and most of the old defences of Christianity, and many of the objections to it, have gone out of fashion, and are no longer convincing to the mind But we are seeking for principles which are not assail able by criticism, and do not change in successive generations. We cannot believe that religion depends upon minute questions of words and dates, when there are so many things in life to be done, and so short a time in which to do them.
And if this degree of uncertainty which affects all 393early history affects the ordinary facts narrated in the Old and New Testament, it must equally affect the extraordinary. Whatever a priori arguments may be urged in their favour, we cannot help seeing that they must be judged of, like other facts, by the rules of historical evidence. We cannot say, with some writers, that they are more probable than other facts; or, with Butler, that all facts are antecedently so improbable that the difference between the improbability of the ordinary and extraordinary “cannot be estimated, and is as nothing.” Nor can we require the evidence for them to be supplemented by belief in them; for this would destroy the very nature of evidence. The certain knowledge that in the universe there is a fixed order makes a great difference in our manner of regarding them. If we saw them with our own eyes and in the full light of day, we should have a difficulty in verifying them or appreciating their import; how can we see them more clearly when they are far away in the distance? In one age of the world it is almost impossible to conceive them; in another age of the world the belief in them is the natural, almost the necessary, accompaniment of in tense religious faith. The wonders of other religions are only acknowledged by the professors of them; the Protestant does not accept Mediæval or Roman Catholic ministers; the Jesuits deny those of the Portroyalists. The pious Catholic often imagines that a great revival of religion is about to be effected 394by the increased diffusion of miraculous gifts, such he has himself witnessed in these latter days with wonder and thankfulness, but this is a hope which can hardly be entertained by us. And all Christians would agree in rejecting the miracles of those who are not Christians. Neither can any connection be traced between the inward grace and spirit of the Gospel, and the admission of facts of history, whether ordinary or extraordinary; and, therefore, I think that we had better put aside this vexed question of miracles as not belonging to our time, and also as tending to raise an irreconcilable quarrel between revelation and science. As a distinguished prelate of the English Church has wisely said, “If you cannot come to us with the miracles, come to us without the miracles.” For not there, not there, is the permanent and universal basis of religion to be found.
These, then, are the negatives, which, looking to the future as well as to the present, we cannot venture to regard as the groundwork of our belief. What, then, are the foundations which cannot be shaken? I may remind you in passing that in confining religion to essentials we are only imitating the Spirit of Him who said, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets”; and “This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it.” Not a word which I have spoken is inconsistent with the practice of those precepts with which this sermon began. If Jesus Christ were to come again upon earth, can we imagine Him 395saying to us not “Forasmuch as ye did it unto the least of these, ye did it unto Me,” but “Forasmuch as ye did not accept what was written or said of Me in after ages, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of Heaven.”
The first of these unchangeable truths is the perfection of the Divine nature. Mankind are always disputing about the precise form in which doctrines are to be stated, but they do not really differ about the nature of holiness, or right, or love, or truth; there is no party spirit about it. This is a very significant fact which we shall do well often to consider. Nor, again, can these graces or virtues ever be in excess; that is another point to be carefully noted. A man may have too much attachment to a person, or a sect, or a Church; but he cannot have too much holiness, or justice, or truth; too much of the love of God and man possessing his soul. These are the great and simple forms of faith which survive all others in which good men of all religions agree, and which connect this life as far as it can be connected with another. They are the true links which bind us to one another, which bring together in one communion different bodies of Christians, different countries and ages. They are the mirrors in which we behold the nature of God Himself; the highest and best which we can conceive, and which we, therefore, believe, and, in the Apostle’s language, seek to fashion them anew in ourselves. We may sum them up in a word, “Divine perfection,” to 396which theology and life must alike conform. He who is possessed or inspired by this thought will need no other rules of faith or of practice; by this he will test all doctrines and will regulate all his actions; he will ask himself from time to time what is the will of the Perfect, the Divine. And, seeing also the beginnings of a Divine perfection, amid much imperfection in the world around him, he will strive to co-operate with them, and begin to understand that there is no opposition between God and nature, but that through the order of nature God is working out the good of all His creatures. And when he becomes conscious that there is a real good in the world, of which God is the author, and of which he himself may be the partaker, he will not be greatly troubled with the old puzzle about the existence or origin of evil, or the meta physical conception of the Divine nature. His own life will be the answer to his doubts, and in the hour of death he will not be cast down, for he has created in himself the faith which can never fail in holiness, in justice, in truth, in love.
“The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the word of our God shall abide for ever.” The world changes, the Churches of Christ differ from one another—they are in a state of transition, but the truth, the justice, the goodness of God, and His will that all mankind should be. saved, remain for ever. The opinions of men vary, but the moral truths upon which human life rests are unchangeable. And from 397them, as from some fountain of light, the Divine image may again and again be recovered whenever the veil of the physical world becomes too thick for us to penetrate.
Secondly, among the fixed points of religion is the life of Christ Himself, in whose person the Divine justice, and wisdom, and love are embodied to us. It may be true that the record contained in the Gospels is fragmentary; and that the life of Christ itself far surpassed the memorials of it which remain to us. But there is enough in the words which have come down to us to be the rule of our lives; and they would not be the less true if we knew not whence they came, or who was the author of them. They appear to run counter to the maxims both of the Church and the world; and yet the Church and the world equally acknowledge them. To some who have rejected the profession of Christianity, they have seemed equally true and equally Divine—may we not say of these, too, that they have been “Christians in unconsciousness,” if, not knowing Christ, like Him they have lived for others, infusing into every moral and political question a higher tone by their greater regard for truth, and more disinterested love of mankind? For this is what gives permanence to the religion of Christ as taught by Himself alone—its comprehensiveness; it leaves no sort of good or truth outside of itself to be its enemy and antagonist. “He that is not against us is for us.” Or, to put the same 398thought in other words, it remains because of its simplicity. The teaching of Christ is not like the teaching of some scribe or commentator who can eke out a few simple words to a tedious length; or of some scholastic divine who elaborates the particulars of a system: it is summed up in a word or two, “Believe,” “Forgive,” “Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” It is not only common to different sects of Christians, but unites different classes of society, those who have and those who have not education in our brotherhood And if we could imagine the world ever so much improved it would be still tending towards the kingdom of Christ, still falling short of His maxims and commands. Amid all the changes to which, during centuries to come, the Christian faith may be exposed, either from the influence of opinion or from political causes, the image of Christ going about doing good, of Christ suffering for man, of Christ praying for His enemies—this, and this alone, will never pass away. And if any body asks, Where, after all these assaults of criticism and science, and the concessions made to them, is our religion to be found now? We answer, Where it always was—in the imitation of Christ.
Thirdly, among the fixed points of religion, we must admit all well-ascertained facts of history, or science. For these, too, are the revelation of God to us, and they seem to be gaining and accumulating every day. And they do not change like mere 399opinions; after an interval of years we come back to them and find them the same. No declaration of Popes or Churches can alter by a single hair’s breadth any one of them any more than it can alter in any degree the present or future lot of a single person. It cannot make that which is false to be true, or that which is improbable to be probable. And, amid the shiftings of opinions, the knowledge of facts and the faith in them, whithersoever they seem to lead, has a tendency to stablish, strengthen, settle us. There are a thousand ways in which they bear upon human life, and, therefore, indirectly upon religion. And there is also a more direct connection between them; for we may regard truths of fact as acceptable to the God of truth, and the discovery or acquirement of them as a part of our service to Him. And when we give up our own long-cherished opinions or our party views to the power of fact; or when we seek to train our intellectual faculties in accuracy, in attention, in the conscientious love of truth—in this, too, there may be something of the sacrifice which is well pleasing to Him.
This, then, is what we believe to be the sum of religion: To be like God—to be like Christ—to live in every true idea and fact. This is the threefold principle which we seek to fashion in ourselves, to be our guide amid the temptations of the world, amid the changes of opinion which go on around us, or the doubts which beset us from within. The time is 400coming when we must be Christians indeed, if we are to be at all; for conventional Christianity is beginning to pass away. If we are to have any strength in us, or to do any good, we must have real principles harmonious with one another; and we must do what we have to do with all our might as unto the Lord, and not to men. There would be little to dread in the disappearance of orthodox beliefs (as they are some times called) if it were accompanied by a deeper consciousness of the Divine nature, by a more habitual imitation of Christ, by a more disinterested love of truth, and those who find the difficulties and distractions of the day press hardly upon them will do well to turn away from them and seek to quicken in themselves the sense of the great truths of religion and morality. The minister of the Gospel who sometimes asks uneasily, “What am I to teach now?” need be under no real apprehension because a few of the common-places of theology are taken from him. The essentials of Christianity strongly and personally felt, not mere vague abstraction, but holiness and unselfishness, the living sense of truth and right, the love of God and man, have greater power to touch the heart than anything else. The good life of a clergyman is his best sermon; and the doctrine by which he will most affect others is the fresh and natural expression of it. To have a firm conviction of a few things is better than to have a feeble faith in many, and to live in a belief is the strongest witness of its truth.401
For he is not a Christian who is one outwardly; neither is that Christianity which is in the letter only.
But he is a Christian who is one inwardly, and walks, as far as human error and infirmity will allow, in the footsteps of Christ.
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