CHRIST'S GIFT OF PEACE.
Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.
S. John xiv. 17.
Fifth Sunday after Easter, 1871.
On the first of May, twenty years ago, was Inaugurated the earliest of those great international exhibitions which have since taken their place among the recognised institutions of the civilised world. On the first of this present month, the latest of these was opened. These twenty years have been crowded with momentous incidents, which will be ever memorable in the pages of history. May it not be profitable, then, to connect the earliest of these industrial efforts with the latest, to review briefly the intervening period, and to enquire how far they have succeeded,
and how far they have failed, in the highest expectations which they excited? Christ's promise in the text, 'Peace I leave with you,' shall strike the keynote of the enquiry.
To those who remember the first exhibition, who witnessed the pomp and the brilliancy of the opening day, who can recall the happy auguries of a new and blissful era, which had broken upon the world with the dawn of that first May morning, the contrast presented in this its latest successor is striking indeed. Crowds doubtless will flock to it; thousands will derive interest and instruction from it. But the sentiment, the enthusiasm, the thrill of delight, the inspiration of hope, is wanting. The magic is gone. It is a mere show-room, a mere display of mechanical contrivances, of industrial products, of artistic design. It is only an international exhibition, not an enchanted world-palace, whence the choicest blessings are to be showered on the nations far and wide.
How shall we account for this change of feeling? Is it that imagination has waned? Is it that the charm of novelty has worn off, and constant repetition deadened the sentiment? This may be a partial explanation, but it is not all. Deeper still lies the consciousness of a grave disappointment; and men resent it by refusing to this later individual effort the tribute of imagination and hope.
For the first, whatever other objects it had in view, was intended before all things to be a Temple of Peace. There under its all-embracing roof the products of the nations were displayed side by side; thither to its wide nave and transepts the representatives of the nations flocked together. It was a novel sight. And in that vast concourse of all kindreds and peoples and tongues men saw the dawning of the happy day, which was to usher in the reign of Peace upon earth. The poet's dream at length had been realised; the roar of the cannon was hushed, and the battle-flag furled. The nations would henceforth live together in harmony, bound to each other by common interests. War had been rendered impossible. International disputes would be settled by international arbitration. And, when after a few months of brilliant success this palace of hope vanished out of sight, it seemed to utter to the world, as its parting benediction, the very echo of our Lord's own words,' Peace I leave with you.'
Then a few months more and the old warrior, our great champion in the fiercest struggle which the history of Modern Europe had seen, passed away in the fulness of years to an honoured grave; and, as his remains were lowered into the vault of this Cathedral, it seemed as if with him, their representative man, we had also buried with all due respect the last lingering traditions and feelings of the warlike past. The new reign had indeed begun.
And what has been the result? At the first rude touch of human passion the golden chain, which Commerce had thus forged with so much pains to bind the nations in universal amity, snapped and shivered like glass. The voice of this messenger of Peace was still lingering on our ears, when the buglenote again sounded shrill and loud. And from that time to this wars and rumours of wars have never ceased among us. In all history it would be difficult to find within the same short space a succession of conflicts so continuous, so various in kind, so vast in scale, so momentous in their issues, as those which we in our generation have witnessed within the last twenty years. To us Englishmen only a small share of their aggregate misery has fallen. A Russian war, an Indian mutiny, an Abyssinian campaign—these are enough, and more than enough, to make us realise the horrors of war, and sigh for the blessings of peace. But, compared with those more disastrous struggles which have wasted other nations, our lot may be considered happy indeed. For, in whatever direction we have turned, the same sight has met our eyes. On the continent of America a devastating civil war, spread over a wider area of ground, and waged with larger armaments than any other civil war on record in modern history; among the people of Europe not once nor twice but many times nation grappling with nation in a fierce conflict for supremacy, for vengeance, for life; dynasties overthrown, empires founded, great military powers created or annihilated, peoples made and unmade; a series of wars culminating in this latest and fiercest struggle, which for the fatal magnificence of its operations, the size of its armaments, the capacity of its destructive engines, the rapidity and precision of its movements, the gigantic scale of its battles, its sieges, its capitulations, is quite without a parallel; and which has only ceased, to leave as its legacy to the vanquished a painful civil rebellion, whose horrors are unredeemed by the assertion of any lofty principle, or the championship of any patriotic cause. This is the fulfilment of our auguries, the realisation of our hopes. Our bright vision has vanished like an idle dream. International industry, international commerce, whatever else they have done, have failed to give us peace.
Well then may we turn, in the bitterness of our disappointment, to that older promise, which still invites our acceptance, but which in our self-sufficiency we have neglected for other more specious offers. 'Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.' At this season especially, when in the Gospels for each successive Sunday the promise of the Comforter is kept before our eyes, and when we are invited to linger over Christ's parting benediction, before He ascends into Heaven, it will be profitable for us to enquire what is the nature of the peace which He offers, and what has been the fulfilment of His promise?
The fulfilment of His promise! I fancy the objector will tell us to look to Christendom for an answer—to look to its past history, and to look to its present condition. We shall be reminded of the incessant conflicts, persecutions, schisms, which have disgraced and devastated the Church from the beginning. The finger of scorn will be pointed to those darker blots which have stained the pages of her annals. We shall be asked not to forget the Albigensian Crusades, and the Massacre of St Bartholomew. We shall be bidden to recall the untold horrors of the Inquisition. Nay, we shall be invited to look nearer home; to reflect on the scenes, of which, at a great crisis in the religious history of England, this very city, these sacred precincts, were witnesses—on the fires of Smithfield and on the fanaticisms of Paul's Cross. We shall be directed to the divisions, the strifes, the hatreds, which at this very moment divide, not only universal Christendom, but individual Churches in Christendom. And then this promise of our Master will be flung in our teeth, and we shall be asked, where is the peace which the Gospel has brought to men?
And yet the answer is simple. The same Christ, Who said, 'Peace, I give unto you,' said also, 'I came not to send peace, but a sword.' The same Christ, Who promised His disciples that in Him they should have peace, in the very next breath warned them that in the world they should have tribulation. Thus the result was foreseen, and foretold.
'Not peace, but a sword.' This is a hard saying. And yet all experience bears witness to its truth. So long as human nature remains unchanged, the result will be the same. Throw down among men any great truth, on the acceptance and interpretation of which momentous issues depend, and it is sure to become an apple of discord. Nay, in exact proportion to its importance will be the zeal—yes, and the bitterness—with which men will wrangle over it. Is this the fault of the truth itself? Is it not rather the fault of human impatience, human obstinacy, human passion?
There have been some—perhaps there are now some—who would put aside Christianity, would get rid of religion altogether, in order that they may get rid of religious zeal and religious fanaticism. What? Would you proscribe the use, that you may prevent the abuse? Would you throw away the most precious thing which God has given to mankind, because its very pricelessness has made it an object of fierce contention? Would you reduce human life to a dull, dead level of moral indifference, that you may leave nothing to inflame the passions, or to stimulate the animosities of men? Does not history tell you that fierce and deadly and hateful as religious wars and religious persecutions have been, yet the misery due to all these causes together is very small, very small indeed, compared with the aggregate of cruelty that outbursts of human passion have inflicted on mankind? Does not all experience teach you, that though you should succeed (which you never will) in thrusting religion wholly out of sight, yet men would still continue to wrangle and to fight over forms of government, over municipal rights, over thwarted ambition, or wounded vanity, or wealth, or power?
For indeed you cannot say that Christianity itself lends any countenance to the quarrelsome or the persecuting spirit . Nay, do we not hear the very opposite charge brought against the Gospel of Christ, that it lays excessive stress on the milder qualities, such as gentleness, humility, patience, submission; that it inculcates too exclusively the feminine virtues, as the phrase is, and too much overlooks the manly? Is not this, in short, the reproach—a just and a glorious reproach—that it follows too assiduously those things which make for peace?
But, if you would learn how Christ fulfils His promise to His true disciples, if you would test the value of this peace which He has left as His parting gift, do not seek it in the heat of controversy, in the wrangling of theological disputants, or in the strifes of religious parties: but go rather to the true disciples of Christ, to the lowly and the poor in spirit, to the suffering and oppressed, to the sorrowful and bereaved, to the sick and dying. Watch the wife cruelly outraged in her deepest feelings by the desertion, or worse than desertion, of a husband, for whose love she has given up all; or the mother wounded at heart by the base ingratitude of a child, for whose advancement she has sacrificed all the comforts, and was ready to sacrifice even the necessities of life. See how, notwithstanding the bitterness of her trial, a deep calm broods over the sufferer, lulling her sharpest pangs, and enabling her to forget her own sorrow, while she ministers to the less poignant sufferings of others. Go to the wretched hovel of the pauper, worn out with age, helpless, unfriended and alone, destitute of everything which could make the burden of life tolerable, and yet cheerful and contented, drawing from an unseen source never-failing draughts of comfort and hope. Go and stand by the bed of the dying man; watch his last agonies, as the soul struggles to set itself free; see how amid his paroxysms the gleam of joy lights up his features, flushing them with the consciousness of an invisible Presence, and the faint smile and the pressure of the hand bear witness to this inward peace, triumphant over pain, triumphant over death. Go and visit these scenes, and then say, whether Christ is slack to fulfil His promise, whether the peace of the Gospel is a delusion or not.
What then is this peace, which Christ has left us? What is its nature? How can we realise it? Whence comes it?
First of all then; peace is not apathy, not stagnation. Whatever else it may be, it is certainly not freedom from labour, nor suspension of energy; not, in this sense, repose. I fancy that not a few are repelled by the Christian ideal of the present life, as they imagine it to be—a life apart from the interests and the activities of their neighbours, alien alike from public business and private enterprise, a life of dreary listlessness, a tame, unmeaning, savourless life. I believe that more still turn away with a feeling akin to loathing from the Christian ideal of the future life, as it is represented by some, an ideal which separates it from all that interests us now, and reduces it to a level waste of barren nothingness, a dull monotony of S. P. S. IO
existence, a very life in death. What we shall be hereafter, we know not, we can only imagine, now; but of this we may be assured, that our state will afford the amplest scope for the exercise of all our highest faculties, purified, exalted, intensified. What we are expected to be here, we do know with sufficient certainty to guide us. The same Apostle, who describes the peace of God as passing all understariding, is he who laboured more abundantly than all. Let S. Paul be our type. Peace—the peace which Christ has left us—is not only consistent with the manifold occupations, energies, interests, cares of life; but through and in these we must seek it.
But, secondly; peace is not a stifling of the conscience, a deadness of the moral feelings. It cannot be denied that those, who have drugged their moral sensibility, may secure immunity from many misgivings and anxieties—nay, even from some agonies— which a lively conscience will inflict. In one sense they may be said to have attained repose—if a dull, oppressive, unrefreshing torpor, which promises relief and ends in paralysis, can be called repose. In one sense they have found peace, but their peace is a desolation. This narcotic of the soul may afford momentary ease, but it is fatal to life. It may numb the sense of sin in themselves, the sense of responsibility for the sins of others, but it hands over the whole being, motionless and helpless, to awake at length to the agony of a spiritual death.
And, lastly; if the peace of Christ is neither repose from active exertion nor immunity from a sensitive conscience, so also it is not freedom from external trial and suffering. In the same breath Christ offers to His disciples tribulation and peace—not as a choice, an alternative; but the one as accompanying the other, the one as the condition of the other. And their whole after lives were the comment on this strange, paradoxical promise. 'Not as the world giveth, give I unto you.' He holds out no expectation of escape from vexation, from misunderstanding, from calumny, from persecution, from any of the thousand forms of evil which friend or foe may inflict. Such might be the world's idea of peace. But He has promised to endow us with a spirit, which shall rise triumphant over all these things, and bear us up into a region of calm, unbroken, perennial peace.
Two worlds are ours;
this lower world with its privations, its miseries, its distractions, its fretting cares, which we realise only too vividly without an effort; that higher world, into which we are even now translated by faith, where even now the tear is wiped from every eye, and there is no more death, nor sorrow, nor pain.
This promise flows directly from the revelation of God in the Gospel, the knowledge of the Unity of God, the recognition of Him as our Father, the sense of reconciliation with Him in Christ.
From the knowledge of the Unity of God. The consciousness of one all-powerful, all-comprehensive, presiding will is the first stage. Without unity, there can be no harmony, and therefore no peace. The polytheist's religion was necessarily distraction. With one god of the hills and another of the plains, with one god of strength, and another of beauty, and another of wisdom, and another of vengeance, and another of so-called love, with the necessity of appeasing this and not offending that, peace was impossible. His religion was but the reflex of his worldly life, his conflicting passions, his changing moods, his distracting cares.
And the recognition of this one God as our Father is the second stage. We have earthly parents, to whom we are bound by the closest ties. We obey, reverence, love them. When they are taken away, we realise (some of us for the first time), how much they have been to us. We feel a vacuity, a sense of loss, an overpowering loneliness, which no time can repair. And yet even the relation between father and son, or between mother and daughter, does not satisfy all our yearnings after parental love and parental guidance. The feelings and interests of one generation are not the feelings and interests of the next. There is always some interposing barrier, some reserve, some drawback to unrestrained mutual confidence, to entire communion of heart and spirit. Only when we have learnt to throw ourselves unconditionally on the all-embracing love of our Father in Heaven, shall we find that complete satisfaction, that perfect peace which passeth all understanding.
And this lesson we learn through the Incarnation of the Son. Christ is not so much the realisation, as the manifestation, of the Father's love, for that love was perfect even from the beginning. God taught us His love in the life and teaching of Christ; God sealed for us His love in the Cross and Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Henceforth it is written in large letters, written right across the scroll of this world's history, so that men cannot choose but read. Christ has drawn us to the Father; has reconciled us to Him; has folded us in the arms of His infinite love. Here alone our deepest yearnings are satisfied; here alone we find repose for our weary spirits; repose from distraction and anxiety and temptation; repose 'in all time of our tribulation, in all time of our wealth, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment.'