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COMMUNION WITH CHRIST.
ST. JOHN xiii. 23.
“There was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.”
WHAT name is more blessed than this title by which St. John conceals himself? Who was ever more favoured than he? It was a sweet memory in his old and solitary age, to remember that night of awe, in which he lay upon the bosom of his Lord. What was all that he had ever suffered, long years of toil and weariness, with contradiction and persecution, bondage, and a martyrdom of will, to the consciousness of his Master’s love? And yet it was doubtless for some deeper reason that the evangelist wrote these words. It was not to publish abroad his own peculiar favours, nor to prefer himself to others in his Master’s presence. He had long since unlearned to seek “the right hand” or “the left” in His kingdom. It was 274 perhaps to give warrant to the certainty of his written testimony; but it was surely to reveal also the deep and divine mysteries of love which lie hid in the incarnation of the Eternal Word.
This was indeed a great and wonderful sight. God taking man into His bosom—a man leaning upon the bosom of God. As the words of our Lord were miracles, and His miracles words of grace, revealing ministries of His spiritual power, so we may find in this, as in all His acts, a significant and symbolical character. Let us see what may be implied in it.
1. First, we here see, as by a parable, the love of the Son of God in the mystery of His own incarnation. He, being God, took our nature upon Him; “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the manhood into God.” In His person, one and indivisible, the two natures are united. Our infirmity leans upon His might, our manhood upon His Godhead. In Him it is sinless and divine. And now in the bosom of the Father, “above all principalities and powers, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come,” the man Christ Jesus is exalted. There is a man in the bosom of God. Our nature is in glory. As we say at the altar, in the end of our Christian sacrifice, “For Thou only art holy, Thou only art the Lord, 275Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father.”
2. But, again, we may see here His love in the salvation of His elect. When He took our manhood into God, it was that He might take us also unto Himself. The glorious Body of the Word made flesh is the centre of His mystical body, and to it He joins us one by one. We who were by nature dead in trespasses and sin, outcasts, and without God in the world, He gathers together from all ages and all lands unto Himself. The Word made flesh, though in visible presence revealed always in heaven alone, is always present upon earth, and He has been perpetually, and by manifold ways, gathering His elect into His bosom. They who, from righteous Abel until the hour of His passion, had departed in His love, waited in the world beyond the grave until He should break up the unseen gates of hell, and go before them into the paradise of God. Those who have since that day believed on Him, through the words of apostles, the writings of evangelists, the witness of His Church, the inspirations of His grace, the sacraments of His love, He has gathered in from the world into His visible fold, and within the visible circuit of His presence, ever nearer and nearer to Himself.
What mean His own words? “Come unto Me, 276 all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest:” and again, “Him that cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out:” what are these but invitations to come and to share the rest and the portion of St. John?
What, for instance, is the state of those blessed servants, who, from their regeneration, have been kept from falling into sins which separate the soul from His presence? Of such St. John is an especial type, in his love, pureness, and perseverance. They have a calm, undoubting, unfearing confidence in the love and care of Christ; a quiet content and still strength, which others seldom attain. Such people have few cravings, no eagerness, a satisfied desire, and a restful spirit. The world thinks them languid and slow of heart; but their stillness is the surface of a depth, and their slowness the calm of an intense perception of their Master’s love. They have no need of stirs and excitements, of strong words and vehement impulses; there is within them a vivid consciousness of love kindled from the bosom of their Lord, and returning to Him again.
And so too, though in another manner, with penitents. It is not without meaning that, after He rose from the dead, He shewed Himself first, not to the disciple who leaned upon His bosom, but to the sinner who had washed His feet with 277tears. And she who first would but anoint His feet, was afterwards made bolder by His compassion, even to anoint His head. It is a divine seal upon the Gospel, that the special parables of love are the penitent son and the lost sheep. It is for them He seems to lay up all His tenderness for the weak and the wounded, the famished and desolate , The father falls upon the neck of the returning wanderer: the shepherd carries the lost sheep upon his shoulder. What are all these to teach us, but the divine tenderness of our Lord to penitents? After years of wayward and wilful disobedience, of headstrong and guilty provocation, of sullen and stubborn rebellion, when at the last they turn, He will embrace them in perfect love. They, too, know the calm and rest of His intimate presence. Their past life seems to have hurried by them like the riot of a tempest, or to be dispelled as the anguish of a frightful dream. They know what they have been, its horror and its peril, its iron bondage and its stifling misery. It is still so near, real, and vivid, that it affrights them to gaze upon it; but they have a consciousness that they are safe. An almighty power hangs between them and the past; there is a fence about them which nothing can break through j they are in a presence within which no evil can force its way. 278 There they have found peace at last, a consciousness of inexhaustible compassion, a taste of everlasting love.
But there are others who may be truly said to share the portion of St. John; I mean, the afflicted, whose afflictions are sanctified. The solitary and the sorrowing find there an unearthly rest: they carry their griefs and lay them on the bosom of the Man of Sorrows. He bears both the mourner and his burden, and in the depths of His presence shews him the interpretation of his affliction. In the Heart of His divine sorrow all stands revealed. We laid on Him the necessity of sorrow, and He changed our penalty into our purification. He became the chief among the sons of affliction, that He might found an order of mourners, to be His own especial followers and friends. It is by sorrow that they are enrolled in the company of His truest servants, and in the nearest approaches to Himself. And the signs of this approach are, patience, rest, and consent in all our crosses, by a will conformed to His.
To take one more example. What is communion with Him in the Sacrament of His body and blood, but a leaning on His bosom in especial nearness? All His mystical body, in heaven and in earth, all devout and holy souls who have been united to Him in habitual fellowship of spiritual 279and sacramental communion, they, too, are numbered with the disciple whom Jesus loved. None know but they what passes between them and their Lord in hours of prayer, in silent adoration, in secret oratories, in lonely chambers, in the sanctuary and before the altar. Some have seemed to speak with Him as if He were unveiled—as if He stood visibly before them, and they were lightened by His presence: their whole soul has seemed to be united with Him, as light is one with its centre; and their whole being to forsake this world, and cleave to Him alone. It is good for us to know these things, that we may be awakened to a sense of their reality, and ashamed to live on unconscious of them: but they are too great and excellent for most of us j far above, out of our reach: not by His will, but through our earthliness. Yet we must not leave them unheeded, lest they should be disbelieved, and therefore never sought; but we must speak of them with fear, lest we be presumptuous or unreal, knowing what we are.
The nearest approach, then, to the grace vouchsafed at the Last Supper to the disciple whom Jesus loved, is to be sought in the holy Sacrament which He then ordained. Was it to give us also a visible type of the gift which He then bestowed upon us, that He shewed this signal token of His 280 love? Did it not seem to say, “This sacrifice of Myself shall be with you for ever: this Sacrament of My love shall never fail until I come again; and whensoever ye shall do this for My love’s sake, I will receive all lowly, loving souls to rest in Me?”
All these may be said to lean on Him who is their only strength, hope, and solace. In the midst of all sorrows, trials, and temptations, they are at peace; in all the unrest of this tumultuous and weary world, they rest on Him. They who have walked steadfast with Him from childhood, and live on unconscious of this rough outer life which beats upon the penitent; penitents who, after long wanderings past, find the peace and bliss of an eternal absolution; mourners who feel no more the burden of the cross, while He bears up both it and them; and all who with ardent desire yearn for the coming of His kingdom, and are stayed with “white raiment” and a sense of His ever-present love. The one great gift that all alike enjoy, is a sense of repose, a placid calm of heart, a stay upon which they lean with all the weight of their whole spiritual life. “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.”
Let us, then, seek this, so far as we may dare to approach Him. But how may we hope to share it?281
1. By knowing our own un worthiness even to sit down with Him at His table. It is no good sign to talk, as some do, with a bold familiarity of fellowship with Him, or to be forward to cast ourselves where the beloved disciple lay. Let us not “seek high things” for ourselves, the right hand and the left hand in His presence; we know not what we ask, and, not knowing, we ask amiss. To be unconscious of our unworthiness is to be blind or proud; and pride loses all. The lowest place is too high for us; to sit at His feet, or to gather up the crumbs under His table, is too great a boon: we must begin by taking the lowest room, that He may say unto us, “Go up higher;” lest our boldness meet a check, and He bid us give place to humbler and worthier guests. They are often nearest who think themselves farthest off; who say, not “I am ready to go with Thee to prison or to death,” but “I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof:” or with a guarded appeal, “Thou knowest that I love Thee.” It is not for us to choose our place, except at the foot of the cross. That place is ours, for He has given it to us. Thither let us carry our sins, day by day, and there we shall see them as they are. There we shall learn the true sinfulness of sin, and the true character of our own life and heart. There are no illusions in the light of the cross; all the 282 colours and shadows, the false play and changeful hues, the gloss and the glitter which we put upon ourselves in the sight of the world, and even in the light of our own conscience, are there overwhelmed by the direct and all-revealing splendour of His presence. He will not take to His intimate communion those who seem to themselves the fairest, but those who humbly seek to know the worst of their own hearts. Too deeply conscious of our sinfulness we cannot be. People often misinterpret this humbling consciousness. They are tempted to think that, because they feel themselves to be more sinful than before, therefore they are so. But it is mostly the direct reverse. They are, at the worst, what they always were; but they now feel what they never felt before. The change is not in their state, but in their sense of it. And that change of consciousness is a proof that if they are not what they were, it is not for the worse, but for the better. What once they so little sorrowed for or hated, that they did not even perceive it to be evil, they now in hatred and sorrow perceive with the keenest sense. And who is with them teaching them this knowledge? Sin hides itself. God alone reveals it. It is the nearness of His presence which wakes to life this alarming consciousness. “Whatsoever maketh manifest is light.” The more unworthy we feel ourselves 283to seek fellowship with Him, the nearer He is to us. This very fear is the pledge of His presence: let us not shrink from it, but seek it; let it not affright us, but draw us nearer to our help.
2. Above all, we shall attain such place as He sees fit to give us, by trusting His miraculous love. Who was it that lay in His bosom? Not the disciple who loved Jesus, but “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” It was not the love of the servant which obtained that place, but the love of the Master gave it. So must it ever be. His love is “first and last.” It is boundless and incomprehensible; surpassing nature, as His divine manhood is above ours; exceeding all measure, as His Godhead is above His manhood. It is an object of faith, as the mystery of the Incarnation. To doubt of His love to us, all sinners as we are, is to slight Him. It is to say, “Thou art an austere man.” It is as if a child should cower and shrink in his father’s sight; as if he should shun him and stand aloof, mistrusting the free, generous, self-forgetting affections of parental love. And these doubts of our Divine Master’s love only darken and chill our own hearts; they overcloud the clear perceptions of His perfect character, and turn our own affections into coldness. His pity is no matter for bare intellect or reasoning, but for faith. As Peter went down to Him upon the water, simply 284 trusting in His power, so must we draw near to Him in our sins, simply trusting in His love. Let us go to Him as sinners, leaving the rest to Him. If we may, to stand behind Him weeping is enough. Let us leave all deeper, higher things for those whom He shall choose. In a little time, it may be, through His tender, forgiving love, we shall have a share in their blissful rest. In a few short years, after a few more sorrows, a few more seasons of buffeting and weariness, after a few more fasts and prayers, a few more weak strivings, a few more longing communions, we shall sleep in Him, with all those who lean—not now on Abraham’s bosom, in the rest of God—but on Him, the Word made flesh, in whom patriarchs, prophets, and all saints find refreshment. They lean upon Him in paradise, waiting for the day when our frail humanity shall be raised excellent in strength, and we shall be united to Him in peace and rest, sinless and deathless, in the glory of His Father.285
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