But He said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.
S. Luke xi. iS.
Third Sunday after Easter, 1876.
Tins saying, to which I purpose directing your attention this afternoon, is eminently characteristic of the Gospel teaching. It is the rapid, unpremeditated reply to a voice from the crowd—a voice proceeding from an unknown person, and dictated by a sudden impulse. And yet it contains a lesson which is unexhausted and inexhaustible. It is the Master's standing protest against the misconception, the abuse, the degradation of His Gospel by the preference of the external and formal over the personal and spiritual, by the divorce of religion from morality.
The Saviour has been teaching after His wont. He has uttered words of rebuke, words of consolation, words of grace and of truth. The shaft has pierced home to the hearts of His hearers. The proud spirit of the Pharisee has quailed before that stern denunciation. The humble penitent has found refreshment and strength in those cheering tones. There is a directness, a depth, a ufc, a potency, in this new teacher's utterances, which contrasts strangely with the scholastic subtleties and the trivial distinctions and the moral subterfuges of the doctors whom they are accustomed to hear. One voice, breaking the silence, gives expression to the feeling which is upmost in the minds of all. It is (can we doubt it?) the utterance of a mother's voice, the outpouring of a mother's heart. Proud indeed might that woman be, who could boast of such a son. What mother would not pray that her child might grow up to be like Him, so gentle, so strong, so pure, so good, so great a rabbi, so wise a prophet ?' Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck.'
What more natural than this sudden outburst of admiration? It found a hearty response—we may venture to say—in all the assembled crowd. And it was not more natural than true. This title of 'blessedness' belongs in a very special sense to her, to whom it is here assigned, to the mother of the Lord. It was conferred upon her by the voice of inspiration; it has passed from mouth to mouth throughout all succeeding ages. She herself declared in no faltering tones her conviction of the glory which awaited her; 'Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.' Nor has time falsified her conviction. Here at all events Scripture and tradition—the Gospel and the Church—are at one. Her title has indeed been dishonoured, and her diadem tarnished, by the profane exaggeration, which confers on the human mother the attributes and the worship belonging to the Divine Son alone. But no foolishness, nor superstition, nor blasphemy of men, can recall the promise of God.
It was not therefore because the words were untrue, not even because they had overstated the truth, that the cry of this simple woman needed correction. But she saw only dimly and partially. Her utterance was an imperfect utterance. She had stated a lower truth, and she had ignored a higher.
In His reply, therefore, our Lord does not deny or question her statement—it was beyond the reach of question or denial—but He fastens on it, as an opportunity for imparting a higher lesson. To her first, and to us—to the Church in all ages—through her, He seems to address such language as this.
'Do you think it a blessing to be linked with Me by ties of race or of kindred, to associate with Me outwardly, to eat and drink at the same table, to visit the same places, to gaze upon the same scenes? Ah! this is a poor and unworthy view of My Person, of My Gospel. Believe it, the true blessedness is not here; not in ties of relationship, even the closest, not in the communion of the senses—of the eye or the ear or the touch—not in any of these outward things; for these (even the best of them) are carnal, earthly, transitory, and I and Mine are eternal in the heavens. These may be blessings, if we use them aright; but they may also be curses—the most bitter and deadly curses. Here then is the blessing of which ye would speak: here in this inward communion with the Father through Me. Knit your hearts to My heart; think My thoughts; live My life. So shall ye be more to Me than all the ties of earthly kindred, even the most sacred; more than mother, more than sisters and brothers: for ye shall be one with Me— bone of My bone and flesh of My flesh, very members incorporate of My body—one in an indissoluble union, one eternally, one with the Father in Me.'
'Ye speak of the blessedness of My mother: ye speak rightly, for so it is. But know ye not, wherein her blessedness consists? Understand ye not, that it must be sought, where all true blessedness alone can be found, not in the sphere of the material world, not in the relations of outward things, not in a common blood, a common home, common sights and usages; but in the realm of spiritual verities, in a common heart and soul, in a common faith and love, in a common citizenship in the kingdom of heaven?' This was her blessedness, that by her purity and innocence, by her humble faith and unswerving trust in God, she was deemed the least unworthy among the daughters of men, to become the mother of the Redeemer. This was her blessedness; that when this unique privilege was announced to her, she believed the heavenly message; that hearing the story of the shepherds divinely guided to the manger in Bethlehem there to worship her babe, she pondered these things in her heart; that seeing the marvellous child grow from day to day—-grow in wisdom, as in stature—and hearing Him speak as never child spake before, she kept all these sayings in her heart. This was her blessedness, despite all her sorrows—for her sorrows were beyond the common lot of motherhood—despite her sorrows, or rather by reason of her sorrows; for these were to her a mighty witness of God's favour, a gracious trial of her faith, a merciful discipline for the kingdom of heaven. In one sense her blessedness is unapproached and unapproachable: but in another, and this the highest sense of all, her blessedness may be thine and thine; for ' whosoever will do the will of God, the same is My brother and My sister, yes, and My mother also.'
Such is the abiding lesson suggested by our Lord's reply. The truth, which it enforces, lies at the very root of the Gospel teaching—a truth even now but fitfully discerned in theory, and daily forgotten by us all in practice, yet a truth nevertheless which alone can give life to individuals and churches and nations. 'God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.' 'My kingdom is not of this world.' 'The kingdom of heaven cometh not with observation.' 'The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.' 'God accepteth no man's person.' 'Henceforth know we no man after the flesh : yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more.'
Again and again do prophets and evangelists and apostles enforce this elementary truth. No frequency of reiteration is too wearisome, and no solemnity of warning is too grave, to emphasize its importance. Yet it is hardly too much to say that the whole history of the Church is one continued search after this truth, one unintermitted struggle against its opposing error. Do we need any explanation of this fact? We have only to ask our own hearts, to test our own experiences. Is it not a very real danger with all men—with all, at least, who have any religious feelings or aspirations—to repose on a doctrine or an ordinance or a privilege, on something good and true in itself, it may be; something desirable or even necessary as a means to an end; but something external to ourselves, something short of the purification of our hearts, and the renewal of our lives?
This spirit was never more rife than in the age and among the countrymen of our Lord. It is the special temptation indeed of a religious epoch and a religious people. It was this which the Baptist denounced, when he warned the assembled throng that God was able of those very stones which lay at their feet—yes, of those inert, senseless, worthless things which they spurned at every step—to raise up children unto Abraham. It was this which again and again called forth those stern rebukes and those hateful contrasts from the lips of our Lord Himself— how hateful, because how repugnant to all their cherished partialities and their sentiments of national pride, we at this distance of time can but dimly realise. They were told that crowds should gather from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south—the loathed Philistine, the hated Idumaean, Moab and Ammon, Asshur and Egypt, the hard, tyrannical Roman, the reckless, profane Greek, these unclean dogs of heathendom, these reprobate sinners of the Gentiles—and should throng into Messiah's kingdom: while they, the sons of Abraham, they, the heirs of the promise, they, the guardians of the Law, should be excluded and have their place in the outer darkness, where is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. They were told—the proud, scrupulous, rigid Pharisees were told—that the very publicans and harlots should go in before them. What more bitter, what more humiliating, what more abhorrent, than such words as these? 'Blessed are they who have Abraham to their father: blessed are they who claim kindred with patriarchs and prophets and kings: blessed are they to whom is committed the keeping of the oracles of God: blessed are they to whom pertain the adoption and the glory, the covenant and the promises, for whom the Law was given amidst the thunders and the lightnings of Sinai, whose are the Aaronic priesthood, the temple-ritual, the daily sacrifice, the continual service of praise and thanksgiving.' But the voice of a higher inspiration breaking in disturbs this pride of patriotic selfcomplacency. 'Yea rather, blessed are they—sinners of the Gentiles though they be—blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.'
And from the schools of the Pharisees this leaven spread into the Church of Christ. S. Paul's whole life was spent in combating this error, this preference of the outward and carnal over the moral and spiritual. For what was his position in relation to his antagonists? They refused to acknowledge his authority; they declined to listen to his teaching; because forsooth, unlike the Twelve, he had not attended the Lord during His earthly ministry, had not wandered with Him on the shores of the Galilean lake, had not worshipped with Him in the sanctuary at Jerusalem, had not received the last bread and wine from His sacred hands, had not entered the judgment-hall of Caiaphas, and stood beneath the cross on Calvary, and explored the solitude of the empty grave, and parted from the Master on the brow of Olivet. It was nothing at all to them that he had laboured more abundantly than any of the Twelve: nothing at all that he had preached Christ far and wide with a power and an energy far beyond the rest: nothing at all that the signs of an Apostle were everywhere visible with him: nothing at all that he was ready to spend, and be spent, in Christ's service, that he was 'in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours,' 'in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness,' that for Christ's sake he died daily. None of these things moved them. One thing only they valued. To have known Christ after the flesh, this indeed was a privilege, which gave a title to hearing; this was all in all. 'Blessed are the eyes that have seen Thy face, and the ears that have listened to Thy voice, and the hands that have pressed Thy hand. Blessed are they who have spoken with Thee, eaten with Thee, walked with Thee.' S. Paul's life and work were the crushing reply to all this. 'Yea rather, blessed is he, who has lived for Me, has laboured for Me, has died for Me; blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.'
And as we descend the stream of time, the same tendency reappears again and again in different guises. One Church claims a paramount authority, because it was founded, or reputed to be founded, by a leading Apostle. Another attracts crowds of worshippers, because it possesses some imagined relic of the Life or Passion of Christ. Another is thronged by pilgrims from afar, because it is the real or supposed resting place of some devoted saint or martyr of old. A peculiar virtue is attributed to prayers uttered in such places; as if the favour of heaven were concentrated on them. We may find little resemblance at first sight between the grossest form of mediaeval superstition, and the innocent, impulsive cry of admiration wrung from this humble hearer of our Lord. Yet it is the same feeling, exaggerated and caricatured. The underlying sentiment in both is the conception of Christ's blessing as something external and sensuous. And these very exaggerations enable us to understand more clearly how salutary, how wise, how full of meaning for all ages, is this simple saying of the Gospel. 'Blessed are they that can trace their lineage to that Apostle to whom Thou didst commit the keys of heaven; blessed are they among whom repose the bones of Thy faithful servants; blessed are they who possess but one shred of that garment without seam which clothed Thy sacred body, but one spine of that thorny crown which tore Thy sacred brow, but one splinter of that ever-blessed, because all-accursed, wood, to which Thy hands and feet were nailed for our redemption.' 'Nay rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.'
And let me add one memorable example of this false sentiment, as it stands out in the history of the Church. The pilgrimages to the Holy Land exhibited it with a force and a passion never equalled before or after. It became the one yearning of the pious mind, the one solace of the troubled spirit, the best preparation for a peaceful death, the truest assurance of a joyful immortality, to have set foot on that sacred shore, to have visited those hallowed scenes, to have washed in that stream where Christ was baptized, to have prayed at the manger of Bethlehem, on the mount of Beatitudes, in the garden of Gethsemane, at the cave of the Sepulchre, on the hill of the Ascension. They who had done this were invested with a special sanctity. They were the veneration and the envy of all. Such a pilgrimage was the one fit atonement of the darkest crime, the one true consummation of the saintliest life. Thus, year by year, crowds flocked to Palestine from all parts of Europe, till at length this sentiment culminated in the Crusades; and thousands upon thousands went forth— not to convert the souls, but to slay the bodies, of the unbelievers: not to rescue the brethren of Christ from ignorance and sin, but to rescue the manger and the tomb of Christ from a foreign domination. 'Blessed are they who go forth on this holy errand; who carry fire and sword into the houses and the temples of the Saracen; who wrest Thy sepulchre from the profane grasp of the infidel. Blessed are they who visit the scenes, which Thou didst visit, who tread the ground, which Thou hast trodden, who pray in the holy places, where Thou hast prayed. Blessed, thrice blessed, are they, who die in battle in that land, where Thou didst die on the cross.' So said the hermit preacher; so said the Christian bishop. And the listening crowds, we are told, responded with one voice; 'It is God's will: it is God's will.' We need not countenance that self-complacency of the present, which sees nothing to admire in the struggles, even in the errors, of the past. It may be that in God's sight a momentary outburst of honest, unselfish enthusiasm like this is far more beautiful than whole cycles of assiduous money-getting and luxurious civilisation, just because it is unselfish. Yet must we not confess that here at least the voice of the people was not the voice of God? In this passionate enthusiasm His voice, ever soft and low, was unheeded and unheard; 'Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.'
And may it not be that among ourselves, in whatever religious school we may have been brought up, the same error is lurking still? Nay, must it not necessarily be so, while the human heart remains deceitful above all things? Are not we too tempted to place undue reliance on some external connexion; or, if not external, at least on some formal and superficial relations with Him; in any case, on something other than the life in Christ?
Do we lay stress on our position as members of an orthodox and Apostolic Church? Is it matter of self-congratulation to us, that the communion, to which we belong, preserves a just mean between superstition on the one hand, and anarchy on the other: that its ministry is duly ordained, that its services are decently performed, that its sacraments are faithfully celebrated? Is it a matter of the highest moment with us to observe rigidly the appointed seasons of the Church, to be diligent in our attendance on its ordinances? Do we think of this, and nothing more than this? 'Blessed are they that are baptized into Thy name, that frequent Thy churches, that keep Thy fasts and festivals; blessed are they that have the ministrations of an Apostolic priesthood.' 'Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.'
Or again; do we hold by some religious watchword, do we emphasize some special doctrine as the keystone of our system? Do we, for instance, uphold the Apostolic teaching of justification by faith, urging it in season and out of season? Has this, as a formula, taken possession of our minds wholly? And have we nevertheless, while repeating S. Paul's words, forgotten S. Paul's meaning? Have we failed to realise, that faith with him was not an intellectual assent, not a barren conviction, not a religious formula, however enthusiastically maintained; but an entire belief, confidence, trust in God, a conformity of his own will to the will of God, an unreserved submission of himself to the commands of God, a prompt, unquestioning dedication of strength, abilities, wealth, comfort, honour, everything, to the service of Christ, a readiness to live and to die for Christ? 'Blessed are they who adhere to the teaching of Thine Apostle Paul; blessed are they who have truly apprehended the plan of salvation; who know that human merit is as filthy rags, that saving faith is all in all.' And still the Divine caution is whispered in our ears; 'Yea rather, blessed are they who are followers of Paul, as Paul also was of Christ; blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it.'
This then is the lesson of the text, so simple in statement, so difficult in practice. This is the one absolute condition of spiritual blessing, the one ultimate test of true discipleship; 'By their fruits ye shall know them.'