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John, vi. 63.—“It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”
THERE are few words used more vaguely than religion: and there are good reasons why the word should not be restricted to any narrow use; for there are few things of broader meaning, or which cover wider spaces of human life and history. Religion is not only personal, but social and national. It not only touches man in his divinest moments, but it touches human nature in all the higher phases of its activity—takes expression in great doctrines and great institutions, and re-creates itself continually in many beautiful forms of art and worship. It is the most pervading element of all civilisation; and even those who disbelieve or contemn it in its ancient 189idea, bring it in again in some new and altered sense. So long as human life and society retain any sacredness or worth, we may be sure that they will never dispense with religion.
Yet it is well for us also to get behind the more general meaning of the word, and to ask ourselves what is the distinctive character and essence of religion?—what it is to be religious, and how we can become religious? How may the Divine be brought home to us, and made a living power within us, so that we shall not cheat ourselves or others with the shadow, but enjoy the substance, and be quickened unto eternal life?
The words of our Lord, more frequently than any other words, let us into this secret—open, as it were, for us the very door of heaven, and bring us close to the Divine. They take us away from all the accidents of religion to its essence, and from all its shadows to its substance and reality, so that we can never have any doubt as to wherein it consists, and what is the true source of its life and power. The words before us are full of meaning in this respect; and this meaning will be more apparent when we consider them in their connection, and in the light which they gather from the circumstances in which they were spoken.190
Our Lord had just performed one of His greatest miracles. The effect of his miracle-working upon the Galilean multitude was sudden and decisive. They saw in Him the long-promised Messiah. They said, “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.”121121 John, vi. 14. Plainly this was not the result of any spiritual vision in them, or of any aspiration after the diviner gifts of Christ; but their imagination had been kindled by the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Their sense of power was excited, and of what they could do, with Jesus at their head. And so they desired to “take Him by force and make Him a King.” But our Lord was grieved by their dull-heartedness and carnality. He had wished to awaken their higher longings, and to lead from the “meat which perisheth” to the “meat which endureth unto everlasting life.”122122 Ibid. vi. 27. Their minds clung to the loaves and fishes, of which they did eat “and were filled.” They had no higher thoughts, and did not care for any. And so our Lord left them, saddened; and on the following day He was found at Capernaum, having crossed over the Lake of Galilee during the night. Thither the people came seeking Him, but still with no 191higher aims than before—inspired not by the spiritual power of His teaching, nor even by the Divine aspect of the miracle which they had seen, but only because they had been fed in a wonderful manner. Our Lord, moved by their dulness, enters into a long explanation of His mission; of His relation to the Father and to them; of His character as the true bread, “which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.”123123 John, vi. 33. He tried to make them realise the great fact of Divine revelation in Himself, as having come not to do His own will, but the will of Him that sent Him; and to quicken within them that gift of faith which sees for itself the beauty of the Divine, so that, seeing the Son and believing on Him, they might have everlasting life.124124 Ibid. vi. 38, 40. But they understood Him not—they murmured when He said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that He saith, I came down from heaven?”125125 Ibid. vi. 41, 42.
Obviously our Lord’s higher teaching was of little avail in such a case as this; and the more He spoke to these Jews of the Bread of life, and symbolised the Divine food of the soul by His 192own flesh and blood—His own incarnate and living presence amongst them the more hopelessly did they wander from His meaning, and catch at the mere vesture instead of the living substance of His thought. Many even of His disciples—of that inner circle which had gathered around Him with some appreciation of His spiritual mission and character—were astonished at His doctrine, and said, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?”126126 John, vi. 60. And “when Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples murmured at it, He said unto them, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where He was before?”127127 Ibid. vi. 61, 62. Do my words now offend you? Do they present a difficulty to your faith? The time is coming when your faith will be more tried by my removal from you, and my resumption of that celestial state from which I have come to abide with you for a season. You must rise above the mere visible and carnal to the Spiritual everywhere—and in the life of Divine communion with me, through my words, enter into that higher sphere in which truth is discerned and life is quickened. “It is the Spirit that quickeneth” or maketh alive; “the flesh profiteth 193nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”
I. The great principle here expressed is, that the sphere of the spirit is the only sphere of religion in the highest sense. All outside this sphere is unprofitable for divine quickening. That we may become religious, or enter into communion with the Divine, we must be made alive. Life within us must be quickened by a higher Life above us. The spring or essence of all life is in the Spirit, and spirits must touch before life can be awakened. No mere contact of form—no mere community of opinion—no effort of self-culture—no devotion to ritual—nothing whatever that is outside, material, or intellectual merely,—can make a soul alive, and reveal to us God, or even the depths of our own nature. The Divine Spirit alone can do this. The spirit in us alone responds to a Spirit above us—to a new Power of affection and will that goes right to the heart, quickens it, and makes it living—or, as it is said, revives it. There is a real process of revival therefore at the root of all religion. And it is the common instinct of this which gives such power to what is called Revivalism. Men feel that quickening must come to them—that it is 194not enough that they do this or that—that they cease to do evil and learn to do well—that they raise their eyes towards a distant heaven which they long to enter. They must be turned from death to life; they must be seized by a force which is not their own. A strong wind must breathe upon the dry bones of their own best endeavours, and make them live. The Spirit of God must come and lay hold of their heart, and infuse His own living presence everywhere, till the quickening has gone beneath all the surfaces of character and all the motions of will, and started within them a new power of good, which has its fruit unto eternal life.
No one who accepts our Lord’s teaching, or the teaching of the New Testament, can doubt the reality of this Spiritual influence or that it is the source of all genuine religious life. The Gospel is thus always a Gospel of revival. It is the power of God to awaken us out of sleep, and to quicken us to newness of life. The Divine Spirit is alone able so to change and move the human spirit as to make it alive with the pulses of a new and nobler being.
But all-essential as this transcendant and Divine side of religion is, we need not therefore exaggerate it. It can never do good, but evil, 195to isolate religion from the other forces of life within which it works. The Divine Spirit is the only source of religious life; but the Spirit works in many ways. It never ceases from working. It is higher than nature; no mere processes of nature can ever produce it; but it works through every element of nature and of education. It is distinct, and always to be emphasised in its distinction; but it refuses to be noted and measured by itself. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” Religion is a mighty power in human life. It is a power from on high; and the dark chaotic depths of human selfishness and sin are only moved to their centre and reduced to order by this rushing mighty wind. But it is nevertheless a force in close harmony with all that is noble or reasonable in human life. It is no insanity of intellect, or of fear, or of passion, such as many make it. It is, on the contrary, the “spirit of power,” but also “of love, and of a sound mind.”128128 2 Timothy, i. 7. A man’s religion is not something to be separated from himself, or added as an artificial product to his 196nature. The Divine capacity is always in him, waiting to be quickened, educated, and strengthened into a richer blessing; and religion is the spiritual flower of his whole nature, the sanctification of all his activities both of mind and body. Springing from a Divine impulse, it is yet never a mere impulse or seizure from without, but a power within, diffusing itself through his whole being.
It is all the more necessary to bring out this comprehensive aspect of religion in its development that we are now dealing with its Divine source. Let us not exaggerate on the one side, nor diminish on the other. Religion is never to be conceived as mere superstition or Puritanism, isolating itself in what are believed to be purely Divine acts, apart from the realities of common life and duty.—But neither is it in any case a mere natural or humanitarian development. The “flesh” cannot profit it. Always it springs from God,—from no lower source. No combination of mere natural or educative influences is able to produce it. In order to be religious, it is never enough to try to be good—to keep our hearts and our lives right if we can. This is a great deal, and none who are trying honestly so to do can be far from the kingdom 197of God. Still, it is God Himself who alone can bring us within His kingdom, and give us a share in it. His Spirit must quicken and make us alive. Let us think of religion as broadly as we may, and interpret it as rationally as we can, yet it is always something more than reason or education or good conduct. It is a Divine life within us; and nothing short of this Divine life can make man really good, or raise him to a true spiritual ideal.
This will appear more clearly if we glance for a little at two other sides of our higher life sometimes confounded with religion.
II. There has been much said of culture in our day as a power of good in human life. It is such a power, beyond doubt. It is much for a man to hold before himself some ideal of life after which he strives, whether this ideal be more intellectual or more aesthetic—more of .the nature of a scientific vision to whose severe order of fact he conforms himself—or more of the nature of an artistic harmony to whose finer tones he strives to subdue his spirit. Whether we aim to model our lives by the lessons of science or of literature, we may model them to much good effect. No life through which there 198shines the light of reason or of art is likely to be an entirely ignoble life. A man who has any thought at all, and still more a man who has high thoughts, may do much to improve his character, to educate, refine, and elevate his aspirations and tastes, and to give his life that touch of nobility which redeems it from the common mass. Those instincts of truthfulness and fairness, of sweetness and courtesy and toleration, which lie so deep in the best characters, are sometimes, it must be confessed, more directly evolved and more strenuously trained in the schools of science and humanity than in the schools of religion. The hardier virtues which make men confide in one another, and the sweeter graces which make life charming and beautiful, are seen to flourish in some who make no pretence to piety. The strength of human friendliness—the directness, simplicity, faithfulness, so often the stay of human souls in dire hours of peril—are to be found in those who, if their lives really rest in the Divine, have no conscious or desired resting there.
We must frankly allow all the good that may thus come from self-culture. Probity, righteousness, verity, courtesy, charity, wherever they are found, are good. Let us never entangle ourselves 199in the sophistries of an older theology, and throw any veil of doubt over moral qualities wherever they appear. Virtues can never be splendid vices. So far as they are real, they are always good, and not evil. They are really of God, although there may seem no traces of their roots in Him.
But first observe how very limited any such good must be. It is only the few anywhere who are in a position to contemplate the idea of moulding to themselves a noble or beautiful character. It is still fewer who, having possibly risen to such an idea, are able in any degree to carry it out. Life does not wait for our higher moments. Many are deep in it, with all its difficulties and temptations, before the ideal has arisen in the heart. And even when it rises, and the light which is more than that of common day flashes across our horizon, how suddenly does it often sink down again, and leave us where we were, in darkness and moral struggle! How often, moreover, is the ideal and the real in our own lives and the lives of others a mournful contrast—the performance mocking the promise, and by the humiliating spectacle of inconsistency so discouraging us, that we rise with an always weaker effort to the task of self-culture! For one 200man in whom the moral will is strong, and capable of a strenuous and aspiring self-education, there are hundreds in whom it is weak and vacillating. And how often is it sadly the case that the artist-nature to whom dreams of heaven are familiar—within whom the ideal lives with an ever-freshening morning-life—is specially incapable of translating dream into fact, or incarnating poetry in life?
Ah! it is easy to speak of culture, and it is never untimely to preach the higher life: but if the preacher cannot look away from the feeble wills before him, so often trembling between good and evil, to a higher Will, and from men who dream of heaven, but too often grovel in the earth, to a Divine Spirit that quickeneth, and out of weakness perfects strength, his hopes for humanity must be clouded indeed. There may be much in the progress of religion and of the Church to excite distrust and even despair; but how much slower still is the progress of culture, and how constantly are we reminded that the most smooth and smiling surfaces of modern society, and what have seemed the most high and honourable characters, cover depths of unsuspected baseness! In all men, more or less, there is an evil spirit, 201ready to ripen into an evil power, of which no theory of culture takes account, and which no gloss of culture can ever eradicate. Circumstances may never call it forth, convention may decently veil it, social and intellectual influences may restrain or disguise in fair colours the demons of lust and selfishness; but all experience shows that they remain unsubdued under the most favourable appearances, and that they are ready to burst forth amongst the most polished, no less than the least polished, members of society. There is one Power which alone can kill the power of evil that is in every man, and that is the Power of good. The Divine Spirit can alone touch and change our spirits, and make those dead in sin alive unto righteousness. Culture may work marvels in a few favoured natures; but it is powerless alike to kill the deepest evil there is in the world, and to evoke the highest good. It is unable either to destroy the badness of common natures, or to reach to the spiritual depths of the finest natures. It leaves even a Goethe—its highest type in many respects—but a refined sensualist.
But supposing that culture could do more than it can to raise and purify man’s nature, it is still, on any Divine view of the world, 202a most inadequate discipline. If there is a Divine Power behind the world, and man be the offspring of that Power, he cannot have his full and perfect life save in harmony with it. In other and well-understood words, if there be a God, it must be the “chief end of man to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.” Apart from the Divine, man’s life cannot grow into any healthy, active, or permanently happy form. If we are the children of a Father in Heaven, our hearts can only rest in Him who made us and formed us for Himself. In short—for it comes plainly to this—if there be religion at all, culture can never be a substitute for it. Our highest life can never be evoked save in full harmony with the highest Life of the world. And is there not evidence of this even amidst all the present imperfections of the Christian life? Is it not after all the “image of God” in humanity which is the noblest and most beautiful expression of humanity? There may be virtues of power and traits of nobleness which flourish apart from this image, or which seem to do so. The Church may not always excel the world. It may sometimes seem to fall below it. For the divine treasure is everywhere in earthly vessels strangely marred and broken. 203But withal, are not the finest types of human purity and goodness—of moral and spiritual excellence—found within the Church? “Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance”129129 Galatians, v. 22, 23.—are not these the special fruits of the Spirit? Is it not the thought of God, and of Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, that alone calls forth in a man all that is good in him? Is it not the Cross of Christ that alone melts him to devout humility or touches him to holiest tenderness? When the soul, long wandering in darkness, has turned into the light of the Divine love—when, amidst the confusions of the world and the conflicts of sin, it has sought and found rest with God and peace with Christ,—is it not from such a centre of Divine strength that there grows the most perfect beauty and strength of human character—such sweetness and light as are found nowhere else in this world? Otherwise there may be much excellent and even splendid growths of character; but only out of this fulness of Divine sympathy, and this oneness with God in Christ,—an atoning strength lying at the heart of our lives, and ever renewing it with fresh grace,—comes the full maturity of the “perfect man.”204
III. But there are others who, having no faith in culture, would have us look to ritual. They admit readily the inutility of all that man can do for himself. They have no sympathy with the self-aspiring efforts which many are making to find a religion for themselves, or something which will serve instead of religion. But what man cannot do for himself, the Church, they say, will do. Come within the fold of the true Church, and all will be right. The Church, with its holy sacraments and offices, is the source of all spiritual life. Of course, there is a sense in which this is true. The Church is the body of Christ, the temple of the Divine Spirit; and wherever the true Church is, there spiritual life must be. If only we come within the reach of the Divine influence, we must share in that influence. If we come into the House, we shall share the Father’s blessing and the children’s portion. And, on the other hand, we have no right to look for spiritual blessing if we refuse the ministration and offices through which the Spirit works. A man can hardly fail to lose much good by standing outside the Church.
But then, not to speak of infinite difficulties about the Church, which no candid mind can refuse to acknowledge, we must never confound 205the Church with the life of which it is the embodiment. It is impossible to begin religion with ritual, or, at least, to centre it there. We cannot quicken or cleanse a soul by ceremony. This would be to reverse the Divine order, and to make the outward more than the inward, the form more than the substance. It is “the Spirit that quickeneth,” and no mere semblance or even sacramental sign of the Spirit. “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”130130 John, iv. 24. Primarily, we must seek God and find Him. Our souls must thirst for God—for the living God—to see His power and His glory. Even if we could be assured as to the Church, and the true order of Divine worship, we may have the symbol without the substance, the letter without the spirit. It is impossible for any to deny this without denying obvious facts of experience, and even detracting from the supremacy of the Divine altogether. For if the Divine is only to be found in this or that outward form—if it is inseparable therefrom, and is present or absent according as the form or rite is present or absent—then, plainly, the very idea of religion is altered. It is not a spiritual quickening, or it may not 206be so. Devout seeming or ceremony may be enough. And this is the latent danger of what is known as Ritualism, that it draws men’s thoughts away from the inward power of religion to its outward expression. It makes the vesture to be taken for the substance. But the most elaborate ritual, no less than the simplest form, dissociated from the Divine, are of no value. They can work no good. They can change no heart. They can turn no will from evil to God.
But it is not necessary for us to disparage ritual, or pass any judgment on what is commonly known as Ritualism. There may be as much materialism, and of a coarser kind, in objection to Ritualism as in devotion to it. And wherever there is an enthusiastic spiritual life, there will always be a renewed interest in religious, forms, and often an exaggerated feeling regarding them. It is always well to have a respect for religious forms, and to desire that these forms should be as comely and beautiful as may be in harmony with the best feeling and taste of those who use them. Do not suppose that spiritual religion is necessarily shown in a bald Puritanism, any more than that it is necessarily present 207in the most elaborate ritual. This is a mistake, we fear, many commit. They think their religion is spiritual because it has few or no forms; and the ceremonial which is dear to others is an abomination to them. This by no means follows. It is quite possible to be ritualistic and yet spiritual, and it is equally possible to be opposed to Ritualism and not to have a spark of the Divine Spirit within us. All that we say, and that our text implies, is, that ritual itself is never life—that form cannot produce spirit, however it may modify and cherish it. Spirit is alone born of Spirit, as Life alone springs from Life.
But this life is always ours if we will only have it. The Divine Spirit is never straitened in its work. It is with us now as always, waiting to be gracious, encompassing our life, addressing our intelligence, soliciting our affection. It is nigh to us, even in our heart—save in so far as we do not banish it by sin. Only receive it—welcome it. It will come in and abide with you, and you will arise from the death of your sins and walk forth in newness of life.
Now unto Him who is able to save us—not 208by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His power, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour—unto Him be all glory and power ever more. Amen.209
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