THE HOPE OF THE RESURRECTION.
Hath begotten' us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
i Peter i. 3.
Christ Church, Newgate, Tuesday in Easter Week, 1886.
The religion of Jesus Christ presented one great contrast to the heathen religions with which it found itself in conflict. It pointed steadily forward, while they looked wistfully backward. The religions of Greece and Rome placed their golden age in the irrevocable past. Poets and moralists cast back a mournful gaze on this bygone age of bliss, when toil and sorrow were unknown, when the earth brought forth her choicest flowers and fruits unsolicited, and when Justice was everywhere supreme. The glory had gone and could not be recalled. The present was only the darker by the contrast. On the other hand the golden era of the Gospel lay in the far-off hereafter. The eye of the prophet pierced into the future, and saw there a great restitution, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth—a bright and blissful eternity, when all the inequalities and wrongs of the present should be redressed, when sighing and sorrow should be no more, when the tears should be wiped from every eye—the ineffable glory of a city whose sunlight was the presence of God Himself. The religions of classical heathendom were religions of regret. The Gospel is a gospel of hope.
In this respect, as in most others, the temper of the Old Testament was an anticipation of the temper of the New. This forward gaze, of which I have spoken, was eminently characteristic of the Israelite people. Through all the stupendous trials and vicissitudes of the nation—the subjugations and defeats, the thraldoms and the captivities overwhelming them from without; the anarchies and dissensions and shameful apostasies rending them within—this beacon light of hope shone ever clear in the heavens. A great future lay before them. Israel was fore-ordained to be a light to the nations, and to give its laws to mankind. Israel's triumph might be postponed, but it could not be averted. This consciousness of God's purpose was the secret of their marvellous vitality—the recuperative force which sustained a national life unparalleled in the annals of the world.
Then came the Resurrection to justify and to interpret this confidence. It was the crowning victory of hope. It shed a glory over all creation and all history—a glory which irradiated even the darkest passages of human life. Death had been hitherto the one obstinate, impregnable barrier, which baffled hope itself; and death had yielded to the victor's might. All the voices of earth and sky were found now at length to speak of resurrection, of renewal, of life—to proclaim in one grand chorus the triumph of hope for humanity. To the heathen poet and moralist they had sung a wholly different strain. He had looked out upon nature, and his heart had been saddened by the sight. The lot of man seemed only the darker by contrast of the brightness without. If the day deepened into night, the night was not final. It was the prelude to a bright and rosy dawn. If the summer waned into autumn and the autumn darkened into winter, the winter was not the end. It was the harbinger of the freshness, the delight, the glory, of the opening springtide. For man alone there was no revival, no hope. No morrow ever dawned on the night of the grave; no springtide renewed the winter of decay and death. The very plants seemed to him to repeat the same mournful ditty. The flowers of the garden, he sung sadly, will revive with the reviving year, will put forth fresh leaves and bear bright blossoms again. Man only—man the mighty, the powerful, and the wise—once buried in the hollow earth sleeps the endless, hopeless, irrevocable sleep of death. Not so the Christian Apologist. Interpreted in the light of the Easter message, these very same voices, in which the heathen poet had heard only a funeral dirge over the littleness of man's greatness, rang out in his ears a jubilant peal of triumph. The passage from night to day, the succession from winter to summer, the decay and revival of plants, were so many analogies of nature, proclaiming the hopes of humanity and witnessing to the glories of the Resurrection.
We, who have lived all our lives in the sunshine of this hope, can hardly realize the difference it has made to mankind. Who shall deny that there were among the great nations of the civilised world anxious yearnings, eager foreshadowings, doubtful surmises, more or less faint, pointing to man's immortality? But to surmise is one thing and to know is another. When we read how the most devout philosopher of antiquity'on the solemn eve of his departure discussed with his favoured pupils whether the soul was or was not immortal, when we remember that even among the Jews themselves, the two chief sects were divided on this point—the Pharisees maintaining and the Sadducees denying a resurrection—we see how much we owe to the unseen hand, which on that first Easter dawn rolled away the stone from the tomb and transformed a vague hope into an assured fact. Can we wonder that the Apostles placed the Resurrection in the forefront as the central doctrine, because the central fact of the Gospel; or that S. Peter in the words which I took as my text, speaks of the believer as 'begotten again into a living hope,' born, as it were, into a new world, endowed with a fresh and perennial spring of life—by reason of Christ's Resurrection from the Dead?
Two great ideas are involved in the fact of the Resurrection—ideas influencing human thought and action at every turn—ideas coextensive in their application with human life itself.
First: By opening out the vista of an endless future, it has wholly changed the proportions of things. The capacity of looking forward is the measure of progress in the individual and in the race. Providence is God's attribute. In proportion as a man appropriates this attribute of God, in proportion as his faculty of foresight is educated, in the same degree is he raised in the moral scale. The civilised man is distinguished from the barbarian by the development of this faculty. The barbarian lives only for the day; if he has food and shelter for the moment, he thinks of nothing more. The civilised man forecasts the needs of the future; lays up stores for the future; makes plans for the future. The Christian again is an advance upon the civilised man, as the civilised man was an advance upon the barbarian. His vista of knowledge and interest is not terminated abruptly by the barrier of the grave. The Resurrection has stimulated the faculty and educated the habit of foresight indefinitely, by opening out to it an endless field of vision, over which its sympathies range.
But secondly; the Resurrection involves another principle, not less extensive or less potent in its influence on human life. The Resurrection does not merely proclaim immortality. There would have been no need of Christ's death for that. <^It declares likewise that death leads to Hfe^) It assures us that death is the portal to eternity. Thus it glorifies death; it crowns and consecrates the grave. What is the message of the Risen Christ—the Alpha and Omega—to His Churches? Not merely 'I am He that liveth.' This was a great fact, but this was not all. Read on. 'I am He that liveth, and I was dead.' Death issuing in life—death the seed, and life the plant and blossom and fruit—this is the great lesson of the Gospel. 'I was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.'
See how far-reaching are the applications of this lesson to human life. Death had been hitherto the chief foe of humanity—the one paramount, intolerable, ultimate evil, with which man must wrestle, though only with the absolute certainty of defeat. But now death himself was conquered. He was not only conquered, but he was turned into an ally. There was a beneficence, a joy, a glory, in death itself, when death meant entrance into an endless life. Moreover the principle which applied to death, applied a fortiori to all the other evils of life. Through darkness to light, through sorrow to joy, through suffering to bliss, through evil to good—this is the law of our Heavenly Father's government, whereby He would educate His family—His sons and His daughters—into the likeness of His own perfections. Accordingly we find this same principle extending throughout the Gospel teaching. Everywhere it speaks of renewal, of redemption, of restitution— yes, of resurrection.
So to the true Christian all the ills of life have an inherent glory in them. Not only do they deserve our pity, deserve our respect, deserve our alleviation. There is a great potentiality of future good in them. No degradation of human character, no abasement of human life, no depth of human vice is so great, as to forfeit its claim to the consideration of the Christian. How can it forfeit this claim, when hope is shut out to none, restitution is denied to none? It was the common taunt of the heathen against the Christians in the early ages, that they gathered about them the lowest of the people, the outcasts of society, the scum of mankind. They proudly accepted the reproach; they avowed that their shame was their glory. Had not their Master been taunted with the companionship of publicans and sinners? Was it not their special mission, as it had been His before them, to call not righteous men, but sinners? Is it not a nobler, more Christ-like, work to rescue one degraded life from the gutter, to heal one demonpossessed soul and seat it clothed and in its right mind at the Master's feet, than to address scores of respectable Churchgoing people decently seated in their pews with their Bible in their hand?
These thoughts are not inappropriate to the occasion, if I have rightly apprehended its meaning. Of all the honours and privileges which attach to the chief magistracy of this ancient city, none can compare with the prerogative—now confirmed by long usage—of providing relief for the sufferers from fire or flood, from famine or plague or sword, from any unwonted calamity which may have befallen any section of their fellow-men. The almoners, not of this great metropolis alone, not of the people of England only, but the almoners of the world—this surely is a proud badge of distinction which the greatest of earthly princes might well envy. Do I not then rightly interpret the service of to-day, as an acknowledgment that Christ lays upon you— severally and corporately—this special charge of providing for the needy, of helping the helpless, and of raising the fallen; as a pledge that you gratefully accept this honorable office of Christ's almoners at His hands; and as a consecration of this your work through the hopes and the glories of the Easter Season? For what is God's message to you at this season? Does it not declare that life—human life— is an unspeakably sacred thing? Does it not proclaim aloud that there is no human body so racked with disease and pain, no human mind so shattered and dislocated, no human soul so stained with crime and sin, no human career so marred and spoilt, which does not contain in itself a potentiality of a blissful and glorious future, thus demanding your aid to roll away the stone from the sepulchre which holds this potentiality entombed? Does it not tell you that feebleness, incapacity, trouble, want, helplessness of whatever kind, are Christ's opportunity and therefore S. S. 16
your opportunity? It was this Easter hope (was it not ?) which more than three centuries ago prompted the discovery that Christ had lain 'too too long abroad without lodging in the streets of London, both hungry and naked and cold,' and moved the chief magistrate of the day to plead the cause of Christ's 'poor silly members' before his fellow-citizens, thus procuring the establishment of the free Hospitals whose beneficent work we this day commemorate— surely the brightest chapter in the long and illustrious annals of this ancient civic magistracy. It is this same glad Easter hope that leads his successors year after year to reconsecrate their work by a solemn service over the unsealed grave of the risen Christ, acknowledging that they are, in Bishop Ridley's words to the Lord Mayor of that day, 'Christ's high honorable officers,' and that the work of Christ must be quickened and animated by the Spirit of Christ.
The city which you represent is said to be the most ancient city north of the Alps. It was certainly a considerable place eighteen centuries ago. It is the metropolis of a kingdom which itself is only a few centuries younger. Yet neither this state nor this capital betrays any signs of senescence or decay. If indeed outward growth and prosperity is a true indication of health, neither the one nor the other ever exhibited more vital power than in the present age. Have we ever asked ourselves how it comes that, as a rule, modern nationalities and states are more long lived than ancient? Compare the long history of England or of France, for instance, with the brief, though brilliant, career of Athens or of Carthage. May we not ascribe this difference in no slight measure to the forward, hopeful gaze of Christianity, the optimism of the Gospel, which has been as a new inspiration to them, trampling obstacles under foot and fulfilling its own predictions?
But whatever account we may give of the vitality of the kingdom and nation, no other explanation is possible of the vitality of the Church. The Resurrection hope is the very breath of life to her. The Church of England has had a longer existence by some centuries than the State of England. Yet again and again her existence has been menaced by the most cruel trials and disasters. The ruthless invasions of the Danes threatening to strangle her infant life, the foreign aggressions and the gathering corruptions of the Middle Ages, the catastrophic period of the Reformation, the apparent annihilation during the Commonwealth, the deadly lethargy of the eighteenth century—all these perils by God's grace she has outlived. But at what period of her long and chequered life has she manifested healthier and more varied energies than now?
So much for this lesson of the Resurrection—this temper of hope—as a vivifying influence in the past history of the English nation and the English Church. But what part shall it play in the future? This is a serious question which we should do well to answer for ourselves, that each in our several stations and with our several opportunities we may strive to work out this answer.
The future of the English race—what an untold possibility is here, if only Englishmen will rise to the occasion, will strive to grasp the idea of their mission and to fulfil the destiny towards which the finger of God seems to be pointing! The easy and wide diffusion of the English language, the erratic genius and the practical versatility of the English temper, the exceptional fecundity and increase of the English race, have conspired with the geographical features and the geological advantages of their island home to give to the English people an expansion to which the history of the human race has not furnished hitherto any parallel, and of which the future promises to far outstrip the present. Yet with all this, there is a deep-seated sentiment of unity—a strong home feeling—which no severance of time or space has enfeebled and no neglect or indifference has chilled. Surely this marvellous union of centrifugal and centripetal forces is a great fact which must fire the ardour of the patriot and inspire the genius of the statesman. A great fact should suggest a great ideal.
But, if the opportunity is magnificent, the danger is critical also. A single false step may compromise the future. The most splendid potentiality which the world has ever seen may be marred in a moment. j The ultimate arbiters of the fate of the English race ^-are the electors of England. Has this body—newly enfranchised for the most part—sufficient grasp of the conditions and range of the problem? Has it the knowledge and experience necessary to realise and work out the idea? May not its vision of the great hereafter be obscured and eclipsed by smaller aims in the more immediate present?
But, if our hopes and fears for the destiny of the English people are so great, the future of the English Church will inspire us with not less serious thoughts. Never during the thirteen centuries, through which we can distinctly trace her eventful history, did the beacon-fire of hope burn more brightly. Her varied and ever-increasing activities at home and her rapid extension abroad may well inspire her sons with brilliant anticipations. Yet there are threatening signs in the heavens which we cannot overlook. Happily the English Church has been spared hitherto the painful conflict with rank, political atheism in high places which is raging in a neighbouring country, a conflict in which no errors of doctrine or practice should blunt our sympathy with a Church nobly struggling in the cause of religion and philanthropy against an antagonism which is altogether 'of the earth earthy,' and which soon or late must surely, if only at the call of humanity, produce a violent recoil. But, though no such black thunder-clouds veil our English sky, there is enough, and more than enough, to justify a watchful anxiety. What better safeguard at such a time than to grasp firmly the lesson of the Resurrection—to strive and realise the destiny which lies before our English Church—to advance with no wavering step towards the goal whither God's hand is beckoning us, facing boldly the obstacles which lie athwart our path; and so to roll back the stone at the sepulchre's mouth and force our way through the grave and gate of death to a joyful resurrection.
A story is told of the rebuilding of the great Cathedral under whose shadow we are gathered today which may well serve as a parable. After the fire, while the church still lay in ruins, the great architect, visiting the spot and laying out the plan of the new fabric ordered a workman to bring him a stone to mark some prominent site. A stone was brought from the accumulated rubbish. It happened to be a fragment of an old grave-stone, and on it was inscribed the simple legend, Rcsurgam, 'I shall rise again.' A happy omen it seemed at the time; and the good augury was more than fulfilled, as the new Cathedral expanded into those noble aisles and transepts, and rose and swelled into that majestic dome, towering into the heavens and bearing on its summit glittering in gold the symbol of Christ's passion; till men were fain to confess that the glories of this second temple were greater than the glories of the first. Have we not here a fit type for our aspirations in Church and in State? No difficulties and dangers, no failures shall quench or obscure our hopes. From the charred and crumbled ruins, the shattered schemes and the accumulated waste, of the past, we will draw forth a memento of the Resurrection—an augury of a future fabric reared in nobler lines and more solid masonry by the hands of the heavenly Artificer, a building fitly framed together, a holy temple in the Lord.