EXCEPT IT DIE.
That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.
i Corinthians Xv. 36.
Trinity College Chapel, Sexagesima Sunday, 1873.
There is no one in this congregation who will not be reminded by these words of some one moment —the most solemn in his life. He will recall the time when he joined in the slow-paced procession, and listened to the mournful language of the Psalmist bewailing the shadowiness, the vanity, the futility of human life, and stood over the yawning grave, and shuddered at the sharp rattle of the soil on the coffin-lid, and then looked down and read the brief memorial—the name, the age, the date—all that remained to the eye of the varied activities of an exuberant life. And then he turned away, thinking sadly of the warm heart that had ceased to beat, and the bright smile which would greet him no more, and the never-failing sympathy which henceforth he would invoke in vain.
And yet, in the midst of his deepest grief, all is not grief. Underlying the pain of immediate loss is a hope, an assurance, which thrills him with a feeling of joy, almost of rapture. He has listened, and his heart has responded, to the great paean of victory which the Apostle sung eighteen centuries ago over the last enemy fallen, and which the Church repeats as each time she consigns a son or a daughter —no longer to the darkness of despair, but to the hope of a joyful resurrection. And as personal experience and suggestive analogy and impassioned remonstrance and vivid imagery all contribute in turn to the force and fulness of the Apostle's appeal, his heart and mind are wrought into harmony with the magnificent theme, till he joyfully responds to the final Hallelujah, 'Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.'
'Through our Lord Jesus Christ.' It is to the triumph of the Gospel embodied in these last words that I would ask your attention this morning. The description of Christ's work given by one great Apostle is this; that by His appearing He 'abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light.' The thanksgiving to God for Christ's mission uttered by another is this; that 'according to His abundant mercy He hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.' Death vanquished, immortality assured—this, in the language alike of S. Paul and of S. Peter, is the fruit of Christ's epiphany to the world.
I propose therefore to enquire into the significance of these Apostolic sayings; and I do not know any better starting-point for the thoughts which the subject suggests, than the language of the text,' That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.' The difference between death with Christ, and death without Christ, could not possibly have a more striking illustration than in the sentiment which dictated these words. For observe, the Apostle does not speak here merely of death conquered, death annihilated, death put out of sight; but death is retained, is transformed, is exalted into an instrument of God's merciful purpose. Death is no longer an unknown terror, but a joyful assurance. Death is the necessary condition of a higher life. 'Verily, verily, 1 say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but, if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.' Christ's death bore fruit in the life of the whole world. Each man's death shall bear fruit in his own individual life. But in both cases alike the divine law is the same, 'Except c. s. 5
it die.' Where there is no death, there can be no life.
All external nature, all human institutions, ourselves, our affections, our fame, our carefully devised plans, our solidly constructed works, all are subject to this inevitable law. It may be a question of days or of centuries; but the end is the same. Decay, dissolution, death—from these there is no appeal. All creation groaning and travailing in pain together, seeking to be delivered from the bondage of corruption—this idea is not the feverish dream of an overwrought religious sensibility; it is the practical experience of every day and every hour. And yet, though the fact is so patent, human feeling, aye and in some sense human conviction, is a persistent struggle against the operation of this law. We will not, we cannot, resign ourselves to it. Life, permanent life, is a craving of our inmost nature; life, not only for our own personality—though this is a primary aspiration of our being—but life also for whatever is noble, whatever is beautiful, whatever is good. We cannot endure the thought that such should perish. It seems to be a denial of its very nature, that it should exist for a brief span and then pass away. Between the experience of actual fact then, and the invincible craving of the spirit, there is apparently a direct antagonism. No compromise, no truce, between the one and the other seems possible. It is only when we fall back on the idea in the text, 'Except it die,' that we approach at length to a solution of the problem. Here is the true consolation of humanity amidst the wrecks of an ever-decaying and perishing world. Here is the only reconciliation between the fact without and the yearning within.
I do not know any enigma more perplexing than that the freshness, the enthusiasm, the exuberant vivacity of youth should give way to the dull cold monotony of middle age. It seems as though all that is fairest and most glorious in the human creature were fated by a stern law of his nature to be crushed out at the very moment when it gives the brightest promise; as though the moral life of man were only too faithfully pictured in the growth of the flower or the maturity of the fruit, and ripeness and bloom must be the immediate precursors of corruption and decay. It is a sad thought that the brightness and the buoyancy of youth must be overclouded and weighed down with the cares and the cynicisms and the distrusts of the grown man; that the freedom of youth must be fettered by the selfwoven entanglements of maturer age; that the enthusiasm of youth must be numbed and deadened by the freezing moral atmosphere of worldly experience. It is a sad thought, and it would be an intolerable thought, save for the assurance involved in the words, 'Except it die.' Only at the cost of youth can the grander acquisitions of mature life be purchased, heavy as the price may seem. Only on the 'stepping-stones of their dead selves' can men rise to a higher life, painful and rugged though the path must be.
And so again with human institutions. Grand philanthropic schemes, powerful organisations for the service of God and the good of mankind, societies banded together on principles of absolute self-devotion, projects carried out by individuals at a sacrifice of everything that men commonly hold dear—all these perish in rapid succession. Not the nobleness of their ideal, nor the devotion of their champions, nor the grandeur of their results, can save them from decay. Corruption comes, not seldom comes earliest in the noblest. They pass away, like the fabled order of the blameless king, lest one good custom—even the best—should corrupt the world. Here again, what is the consolation of mankind for the loss, but the law of progress enunciated in the words,'Except it die?' The institution dies, but the work remains. The example, the inspiration, the idea, develope into a higher life. Over the mangled corpses of dead endeavours and dead institutions—the forlorn hope of history—over the ranks that first scaled the strongholds of ignorance and wrong, humanity presses forward and storms the breach and plants the standard on the surrendered heights.
But these examples, pathetic though they are, will bear no comparison with the death of which the text directly speaks, the dissolution of the natural life of man. We call death a trite theme. Trite it is in one sense. Poets and preachers and moralists and philosophers have spent themselves upon it. Trite it is—trite enough. With every beat of the second's pendulum, almost with every word that I utter, one human being is passing away into eternity. But worn-out, threadbare, this it is not, and can never be. Its tragic interest only increases with reflection: its strangeness grows stranger with familiarity. Is there one even in this congregation of young men, who passes a week, or a day, without casting at least a transient thought—if it be no more—on the time when he will be severed from all the associations and interests of the present, when the studies and the amusements that have attracted him, and the projects that he has planned, and the companionships that he has formed, will be as though they were not, and he will set forth on his last long journey, stripped of everything, isolated and alone? Can any one, whose affections are warm, look on the face of another with whom his life is bound up—of mother or sister or friend—without sometimes thinking, and trembling to think, that the severance must come at length, may come at any moment, when nothing will remain but the memory of a love which was dear to him as life itself? Death is a theme of never-dying interest to us. It has a fascination for us. We cannot put away the thought, even if we would.
And at the present time especially this theme appeals to us with more than its wonted power. During the few past weeks great men have been falling thick on every side. Names famous in government, famous in science, famous in law, famous in literature, have swelled the obituary of the opening year. And within the narrower sphere of our collegiate life too the awful presence of death has been felt. Only the other day we followed to his grave the mortal remains of the most venerable member of this society1. While we were laying him, our oldest brother, in his last resting-place, within the familiar walls of this college which for nearly seventy years had been his home, and winter spread the ground with a timely pall of snow—far away, among strange faces and in a foreign land, another member of this
1 Adam Sedgwick, LL.D., Woodwardian Professor of Geology and Senior Fellow of the College, died on the morning of January 27th, 1873, aged 87, and was buried in the College Chapel on February 1st.
body, one of our youngest graduates, was struck down by a fever caught under a semi-tropical sun among the historic ruins of ancient Sicily; and the hand of death was upon him, though we little suspected it1. Letters came expressing his hope of recovery, sketching his plans for the future, providing with characteristic thoughtfulness for the continuance of his interrupted work here. A few hours later the fatal intelligence was flashed to us, that all was over. Then arrived other letters, still in the same strain, still without any foreboding of the end; a voice speaking to us from the very grave, and thus through the irony of circumstances emphasizing with a novel solemnity the uncertainty of human life.
What lesson does all this read to us? Have we here only one illustration more of that cruel commonplace, the instability of life? To the heathen indeed it could not have suggested any less gloomy thought than this; but to you, who read it in the light of Christ's resurrection, the consolation and the joy and the triumph are there; for the Apostle's words ring clear in your ears, 'Except it die.'
If therefore we have learnt in Christ a new estimate of death, if His revelation, without detracting from the solemnity of our conceptions, has yet
1 William Amherst Hayne, B.A., Scholar of the College, died on February 5th, 1873, at Catania, aged 25.
invested it with a beauty and a peacefulness and a glory unknown before, if in short by inspiring new hopes and pointing out new paths He has drawn its sting—then this is a priceless boon, for which we are bound to offer our perpetual thanksgivings.
And that mankind does owe this inestimable gift to Christ, and to Christ alone, I think it is impossible to deny. An eminent English writer in a famous passage avows his conviction that, if Jesus Christ had taught nothing else but the doctrine of the resurrection and the judgment, 'He had pronounced a message of inestimable importance, and well worthy of that splendid apparatus of prophecy and miracles with which His mission was introduced and attested: a message in which the wisest of mankind would rejoice to find an answer to their doubts and rest to their enquiries.' 'It is idle to say,' he adds,'that a future state had been discovered already; it had been discovered as the Copernican system was; it was one guess among many. He alone discovers who proves' I know that exception has been taken to this passage; but I believe the statement to be substantially true. I turn to the Jews, and I find that the very chiefs of the Jewish hierarchy—the high-priests Annas and Caiaphas themselves—belonged to the sect of the Sadducees, which denied the resurrection. I turn to the Gentiles, and I find that a Roman moralist treats the doctrine of another world and a retribution after death as an exploded fable, no longer believed by any but mere children. This may be an exaggeration, as such sweeping statements in all ages are commonly found to be. But we may safely infer from it that even the shadowy conceptions of immortality and judgment, which were handed down in the popular mythology, had very little hold on the consciences of men. It seems hardly too much therefore to say that the doctrine was a discovery revealed in Christ. It is certainly true, that as an assurance, a motive, a power influencing the whole mind and the whole life, this doctrine then first took its proper place in the estimation of mankind. If we would convince ourselves of this, we need only compare the inscriptions on heathen monuments and the dirges of heathen poets—the pervading sadness, the bitterness, the despair, the gloom which not one single ray of hope pierces—with the radiant joy and trust which light up the thoughts and the language of the Christian mourner, even in the moments of his deepest sorrow. All history is a comment on the Apostle's bold saying, that Christ 'abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.'
I am well aware that in heathen times men were found, not a few, to meet death with unfaltering step and stedfast eye and unquivering lip. There were heroes then, as there are heroes now. But this is not the point. The conception of death was unchanged. Death was still a stern implacable foe, to be faced and fought. Victory was impossible; but to be vanquished manfully, to succumb without a tear and without a sigh, this at least was within their reach. At best death was to them a negative advantage: it released from trouble, released from suffering, released even from shame. But no joy nor hope attached to it; for it was an end, not a beginning, of life.
But, it may be said, why should not the analogy in the text have suggested to them the true conception of death? Through countless generations seeds were sown and rotted in the ground, and germinated and sprang up into a fresh and more luxuriant life. 'Except it die' had been written on the face of creation from the beginning. The analogy which held good for S. Paul should have been equally convincing to those who lived long ages before.
This is to misconceive the Apostle's meaning. He does not bring forward his analogy to establish his point. His proof of the immortality and the resurrection of man is twofold. It is first and foremost the fact of Christ's resurrection; and it is secondarily the influence which this belief has had in nerving Christ's disciples to a life of persistent selfrenunciation and suffering. Only when this point is established, does he adduce the analogy to meet an objection raised by his opponents, 'How are the dead raised?' Just as the plant, he replies, is developed from the germ of the seed, so also is the heavenly life an outgrowth of the earthly.
It is true that Christian writers have from the very first found in the decay and revival of universal nature types, analogies, evidences (if you will) of man's immortality. But nevertheless it is most certain that these analogies were only felt after the belief was established by the knowledge of Christ's resurrection. Suns set and rose before Christ; seeds decayed in the ground, and plants sprang up before Christ. But what was the impression that these regenerations of nature left on the heathen mind? Why, they appeared not as analogies, not as resemblances, but as contrasts to human destiny. All else seemed to speak of incessant renewal, of continuous life; man alone was born to eternal, irrevocable death. 'Suns may set and rise again,' writes one, 'but we, when our brief day has set, must slumber on through one eternal night.' 'Alas! the flowers and the herbs,' mourns another, 'when they perish in the garden, revive again afterward and grow for another year; but we, the great and strong and wise of men, when once we die, sleep forgotten in the vaults of earth a long unbroken endless sleep1.' It was the morning ray of Christ's resurrection which changed the face of external nature, lighting it up with new glories; which smote upon the stern features of the mute colossal image, striking out chords of harmony and endowing it with voices unheard before. The majestic sun in the heavens, the meanest herb under foot, joined now in the universal chorus of praise, proclaiming to man the glad tidings of his immortality.
For just this was wanted to give the assurance which mankind craved. Hitherto it had been a hard struggle between physical appearances on the one hand, and human aspirations and instincts on the other. It was difficult to witness the gradual decay of the mental powers, to watch over the sick-bed and see the bodily frame wasting day by day, to count the pulsations of the heart as they grew fewer and feebler till the last throb was hushed; then to gaze on the relaxed muscles, the glazing eye, the marble brow, the bloodless lip; then to consign the motionless body to the greedy flames of the pyre or the slow putrefaction of the grave, and to know that only a few handfuls of dust remained of what so lately
1 Catullus, Carm. 5; Moschus On the death of Bion, ioo sq.
was instinct with volition and energy—to see and to know all this, and still to believe that life could survive the momentous change. But yet there was that within the man which told him that his destiny could not end here. He had capacities, which in this world never attained their proper development or worked out their proper results. He had affections, which were imprisoned and fettered here, and which seemed reserved for a larger scope. He had aspirations, which soared far beyond the limits of his present existence. He could not—do what he would —put away the thought that he had a personal interest in the generations to come; that the future of the world was not, and could not be, indifferent to him. Therefore he was anxious that he should leave a good name behind him, that his fame should linger on the tongues of men: and so by stately mausoleums and heaven-aspiring pyramids, by inscribed tablets and sculptured images, he recorded his stammering protest, that he was still a man among men, that he was still alive. But all was vague, uncertain, faltering.
From this suspense Christ set us free. His resurrection dispelled the mists which shrouded the conceptions of mankind; and where before was an uncertain haze, there burst forth the brightness of the unclouded sun. Truth entered into the lowliest cottage doors. Truth made her home in the hearts of the peasant and the artisan. The feeblest child now grasps the idea of immortality with a firmness which was denied to the strongest intellect and the most patient thought before Christ.
And yet now, after the experience of eighteen centuries, we are asked (as though it were a small thing) to throw aside the miraculous element of revelation, to abandon our belief in the fact of the resurrection, that is, to abandon the Christ of the Gospels, the Christ as we have known Him; and to begin anew from the beginning, to grope our way once more 'through darkness up to God,' to seek to discover arguments for the immortality of the soul. What is this but to stultify the experience of history? What is this but to throw mankind back into second childhood? What is this but to return to the state when even with the gifted few, as it has been aptly said, 'a luminous doubt was the very summit of their attainments, and splendid conjecture the result of their most laborious efforts after truth ?1
This we cannot do. Christ has given us the victory, and we will not lightly surrender its fruits. Christ has given us the victory. We know now that death is not annihilation, is not vacancy, is not despair. Death is not an end, but a beginning—a beginning of a regenerate and glorified life. The assurance of our immortality has scared away all the nameless terrors which throng in the train of the king of terrors. One weapon only remained in his hands, and this too has been wrested from him by Christ. The sting of death is sin. This sting Christ has drawn: for He has defeated, and in Himself has enabled us to defeat, even sin. So the last terror is gone. The triumph is complete. Death is swallowed up in victory. And all mankind are bidden to join in the Apostle's psalm of praise: 'Thanks be to God that giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.'