WITNESSING TO FACT.
We cannot but speak tJie things which we have seen and Jieard.
Acts iv. 10.
S. Peter's, Monkweannouth, Advent Sunday, 1879, 'n °^ 'ne fund for constituting the district Church of S. Cuthbert.
Let Us ask ourselves for a moment, what would have been the result, if these two brave men had been overawed by the threats of the Jewish rulers. We will imagine them to have argued with themselves thus: that it was wise to bow their heads before the storm; that they would do well to wait for a more favourable opportunity; that their opponents were the lawfully appointed rulers of their country; that therefore they owed them allegiance and respect; that, though they might silence their voices, they could not silence their convictions; that, this being so, they would retire within themselves, they would cherish their own beliefs, they would save their own souls, no longer troubling themselves to convince others against their will.
It is vain to speculate what other instruments God might have raised up, if these—His appointed instruments—had failed Him. But, judging this incident as men commonly judge in such matters, it could hardly be an exaggeration to say that on the courage, the firmness, the outspoken conviction of these two obscure, unlettered fishermen in this remote corner of the Roman Empire depended the whole future of the world—the thoughts which should mould the heart, and the principles which should guide the life, of the human race, to the end of time. There were no Gospels, there was no organised Church, then. There would have been neither the one nor the other, in all human probability, if this Peter and this John had thought fit to hearken to men more than to God. Does this sound startling? Aye, we muffle our convictions; we play fast and loose with the truth; we do not realise the potency of the instrument which God has placed in our hands. True we are not Apostles; this is not the inauguration of the Church of Christ. But who knows whether at any casual moment plainness of speech, where we have dissembled, might not have fired a train, which would have shivered some ancient fortress of ignorance and sin into fragments? Who knows whether the outspoken truth, which we strangled before utterance, might not have lodged in some keenly susceptible heart, might not at a critical moment have given a new direction to a life potent for good or for evil, and thus have changed some reckless profligate into a preacher of righteousness, a hero of humanity?
And it did require no little boldness in these two men to play the part they did. View the matter from whichever side you might, the situation was not encouraging. Their great teacher had been put to an ignominious death. He had forewarned them that the disciple could not expect a happier lot than the Master. They had already seen quite enough to convince them that the warning was not idle. And what was the use of facing this terrible danger? What hope was there that they should change the religion of their countrymen, of the Roman Empire, of the whole world? Here were they—two Galilean fishermen with their rough garb and their uncouth dialect, without money, without education, without power or position or friend, mere 'people of the earth,' as they were styled in the contemptuous phrase of the rabbis—confronted with all the learning of the scribes, and all the power of the hierarchy and all the personal influence and prestige of the dominant Pharisees. Only suppose for a moment that they should escape from this first fiery ordeal. What was there beyond? Why, they would find themselves face to face with that gigantic power, most mysterious and yet most terribly real, that later Babylon of the Caesars, whose throne was planted on the city of the seven hills, but whose grip was fastened on the throat of all mankind. It was indeed a prospect before which the loftiest spirit might quail.
But there is a courage which tramples on probabilities. There is a stedfastness of will which defies human calculation. Do we ask what was the secret of this bravery? The Apostles' language itself furnishes the answer. It was not any heroism of their own, not any innate physical courage such as they might have shared with the lion or the dog. Peter could be the most timid of all men, on occasions. But it was the proverbial stubbornness of facts—facts which they could not deny, facts which they dared not suppress. They had seen with their eyes; they had heard with their ears. Henceforth an iron hand was laid upon them. They must cry aloud on the house-tops, come what might. It was not a question of prudence; it was not a calculation of chances. A dominant, irresistible necessity overruled all such considerations and compelled them to utterance. 'We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.'
We are reminded often, and reminded rightly, that the facts of science must be victorious. It is a truism. We may attempt to stifle them ourselves; we may wrest a denial of them from others. What then? Not a thousand recantations can impede their triumphant progress. Those men who compelled the famous astronomer to retract his theory of the earth's motion no doubt thought they had achieved a great result. They had silenced the very author of the heresy. But the theory was more than a theory; it was a fact. Galileo might declare as loudly as they wished that the earth was fixed firm as a rock; but he must mutter between his teeth, 'And yet it moves.' This 'yet' was the protest of fact against repression. Fact is indestructible. When we know that a thing is, it becomes at once our master, our tyrant.
And, if this is the case with facts in science, it is much more so with facts in religion. They come to us in a different way it is true; but, if we once acknowledge them, if we once believe them, they are far more potent than the others. A scientific fact may not directly suggest a practical duty. A man may not think it worth his while to face martyrdom for a law in chemistry or electricity. If the world will not have his discovery, he will be content to wait till the world is of a better mind. But a moral fact, a theological fact, touches the heart, touches the conscience, touches the life. If a man knows that there is a righteous and all-seeing God while others are ignorant of it, if a man knows that there is a life and a judgment beyond the grave and others deny it, he is bound to declare it, and take the worst that may come.
This was the case with the two Apostles. They had come face to face with facts—the most stupendous facts which the world has even seen. The facts were none other than the life, the person, the death, the resurrection of Christ. These facts rose up before them, whichever way they turned. If they put out a hand, it was arrested by them. If they advanced a foot, it stumbled against them. The facts would not be put down. The facts dragged them spellbound into the most terrible disasters, despite indolence, despite timidity, despite prudence, despite all the natural shrinking of man.
This is what the two Apostles themselves declare severally. Question them both one by one. Ask S. Peter. He demands a hearing in his Epistles as 'a witness of the sufferings of Christ.' He declares again that he has 'not followed cunningly devised fables when he made known to them the power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, but was an eyewitness of His majesty.' Ask S. John again. He is still more explicit. 'That which we have heard', he writes, 'which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of Life—for the Life was manifested and we have seen it, and shew unto you that Eternal Life which was with the Father and was manifested unto us. That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you.' What a reiteration of words here—a needless reiteration, we are tempted to think. Yes, superfluous and cumbersome indeed for mere purposes of rhetoric, but not superfluous, not cumbersome, not even adequate to express the intense and vivid reality of the facts with which this now aged Apostle had in his youth more than half a century before come in contact. Not only 'seen' and 'heard,'but'our hands have handled,' of the Word of Life. We shrink from the boldness of the expression. Is not this profanity, to handle the Most Holy, as if He were a common thing; and not profanity only, but absurdity also, to grasp the Incomprehensible, to finger the Eternal? And yet nothing short of this suffices to express his meaning. He had in some sense done that which a brother Apostle in a moment of scepticism had desired to do literally, he had thrust his hand into the side of the Word of Life, the Word made flesh; and he could not but believe. These were the momentous facts which he must proclaim; the facts, or rather the one fact,
the Person of the Incarnate Word, a fact not to be disregarded with impunity, a fact stubborn and irresistible, hard as the nether millstone, a fact such that 'whosoever should fall on it should be broken, but on whomsoever it should fall, it would grind him to powder.'
Pagan legend was full of incidents in which the gods were fabled to have descended from Olympus and appeared on this lower earth. What were all these legends, but passionate cries of the human heart, vague yearnings after a divine humanity? What were all these but dreams, foreshadowings, presages, of the one great and true manifestation of Deity, of which this Advent Season reminds us, when the Son of God took our flesh and dwelt among us?
For this was no momentary apparition, like a meteoric light, darting suddenly across the heaven of human life, and as suddenly melting into darkness. It is a permanent indwelling of the divine with the human, nay, of God with man. It was an absolute indefectible union between heaven and earth. The celestial tabernacle, of which the Mosaic was only a type, had descended among men. The true Shechinah, the divine glory, of which the light overshadowing the mercy-seat was only a dim suggestion, had taken up its abode on earth. 'And we beheld'—beheld with these mortal eyes—' His glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father'—full, aye, 'full of grace and truth.' No, it was no' cunningly devised fable,' no myth or parable, however beautiful, however instructive, however moral, however elevating: but a fact which they had seen and heard.
The great instrument in the spread of the Gospel is personal JesMntonj/. The special facts indeed, to which the Apostles bore witness, occurred once for all. The miracles, the preaching, the passion, the resurrection, of Christ, are past. But the duty of witnessing did not cease with the death of these personal disciples. There are other facts—spiritual miracles, moral resurrections, wrought by the power of the ever-living Christ, which are matters just as much of personal testimony, as the transfiguration on the Mount or the death on Calvary or the Ascension from Olivet. And just so far as you or I have been permitted to see and hear—yea, to handle— these facts, it is our duty at all hazards to speak what we have seen and heard. They supply the data of religious conviction, just as much as the experiments of the laboratory or the dissecting-room furnish the data in chemistry or physiology. You have conversed with the Saviour by the well of life; and must you not then, while your heart is full, go forth among the people of your city and invite them; • Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?' There will be no artificial constraint, no repulsive mannerism, in your appeal; but out of the very overflow of the heart the mouth will speak.
How has the revelation of God come to you t Have you received it through kindly acts of mercy done to the poor, the outcast, the sorrow-stricken, the stranger? Have you devoted yourself to the relief of the needy, to the teaching of the ignorant, to the reformation of the sinful; and through your heightened sympathy has the vision of God flashed on your eyes, and the touch of God pierced home to your heart ?' Lord, when saw we Thee an hungred, and we fed Thee? or thirsty, and we gave Thee drink? When saw we Thee a stranger, and we took Thee in? When and where saw we Thee J' Aye, it is a glorious surprise. Through the grateful tears of that mourner whom you have comforted, the visage of the Man of Sorrows is seen. In the rescued life of that sinful one whom you have reformed, the voice of Him Who died to redeem from sin is heard. You thought only to relieve the weary and footsore travellers; and lo, you have entertained angels unawares. The scene in the patriarch's tent at Mamre is renewed once more. The homely offices have melted into the glory of a celestial presence and an eternal promise. 'The men,' we read, 'turned their faces from thence'—the men vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared; but Abraham stood before the Lord.
Or again: the type of the revelation vouchsafed to you is no longer Abraham at Mamre, but Jacob at Peniel. Some terrible crisis of your life has overtaken you. There is darkness overhead; there is solitude around: you are alone—alone, it may be, in the midst of thousands, alone with your trouble, alone with your temptation. Then you gather up all your strength for the great effort. Through the long night you wrestle with the strong man—wrestle for life, determined to wring a blessing from the conflict. The blessing is won; the darkness retires before the returning dawn. But, though the day-beam of joy has thus broken on your trouble, the agony of that night has stamped on your soul a seriousness, an awe, a resolve, a thanksgiving, which shall never depart. 'I have seen God face to face; and my life is preserved.'
Or again: God reveals Himself not now in the activities of a beneficent work, not now in the agonies of a moral conflict, but in a piercing consciousness of sin, and like Isaiah, you find yourself, you know not how, in the inmost sanctuary. The veil is torn aside. There you stand face to face with the Divine Presence —you the guilty, loathsome thing. The glory, the power, the beauty, the holiness, blazes full upon you s. S. 9
from the mercy-seat. The hymn of the six-winged seraphim rings in your ears. The portals quiver before your eyes, and the ground throbs and heaves beneath your feet. And in the depth of your selfabasement, in the agony of your contrition, you cry out,'Woe is me, I am undone; for mine eyes have seen the Lord of Hosts.'
Or once more: it is not now in the heightened consciousness of sin, but in the patient endurance of wrong, as with Stephen, that the revelation of God flashes upon your soul. The calumny, the ingratitude, the injustice, the outraged feelings, the spurned affections have been meekly borne; and in the hour of your deepest distress, when your soul is mangled and crushed by cruelty, you breathe a prayer for your wrong-doer, 'Lord, lay not this to his charge.' Then the heaven is riven overhead, and the glory streams forth; and framed in the celestial light is seen the form of the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.
Rare and precious moments these, when you have thus felt the touch of God thrill through you—vivid realities of your being, far more real (you well know) than the shifting scenes of your every-day life. You have stood face to face with the Eternal. You have had the witness in yourself. Can you do otherwise than speak the things which you have seen and heard?