''It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you: but if I depart, I will send him unto you."-John xvi. 7.
At the idea of the persecution and sufferings which Jesus Christ had just set before his disciples in endless perspective their heart is overwhelmed. Amazement closes it against love. Taken up entirely with themselves, they think not of their Master. He himself, though present and close to each of them, requires to remind them of his presence, and putting into their mouth a question which they themselves ought to have asked, he says, "None of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?" And then anticipating, or following their thought, he himself answers the question which he had thus suggested, or rather another question which he perceives to be included in the first. "Whither goest thou" has doubtless this meaning: Why do you go away? Why do you not remain in the midst of us? Why do you leave us alone upon the earth? A question, brethren, implying great trouble and anxiety; a question which will appear very natural if we can put ourselves in the place of the disciples, and which our Lord answers even before he has heard it, apparently without any expression either of reproof or surprise.
The disciples were not then what they afterwards became. Jesus Christ had constrained them, so to speak, to believe in his bloody death as an event certain, necessary, and near. But Jesus Christ was to come forth from the tomb, to re-appear among the living; and why, when he had resumed possession of life, should he not prolong his stay in the midst of them in the bosom of his Church? How could this Church dispense with him? What was to become of it, or rather must it not be annihilated by the absence of its Head? They find not in themselves any answer to these questions; or, to speak more properly, they do find one; they find in the feeling of their feebleness and unbelief the most disheartening of answers, and they are obliged to say that if the future prospects of the Church depend only on them, frail and shaking reeds, the Church has no future.
Such was their weakness that Jesus Christ could not, at least at this time and with his own mouth, fully solve the difficulty which rises in their breasts. His reply, though complete in itself, is to them necessarily incomplete and temporary. It calms and re-assures rather than gladdens and edifies them. The Master has spoken. That is something. The Master has explained that a great advantage is to result from his departure; this is much, if they have regard to the authority of him who speaks, but it is little for persons in such a situation as theirs, and (remarkable circumstance!) before they have received or enjoyed the compensation which is promised them, I mean the mission of the Comforter, they are not in a condition either to appreciate this compensation, or form an idea of it. It is for the Comforter himself to make them know the Comforter; it is for the benefit promised to furnish them by actual enjoyment with the proper measure of its value. The words of Jesus are no doubt precious, precious as instruction, precious as a prophecy, the accomplishment of which will gloriously display the infallibility of the divine Prophet, but it is at a later period that its full value will be felt. At the time of delivery it is to the apostles like many other prophecies, "a light shining in a dark place."
Let us do justly, brethren; all of us would, like them, have been apt to ask Jesus, "Lord, why goest thou away? Remain with us, Lord! for without thee we are nothing, and far from thee we perish!" And perhaps we are tempted to ask even in the present day; perhaps the absence of Jesus, and of every visible sign of his invisible presence, alarms our faith, and this longing to see, which suggested to the heart of the disciples the mournful question, "Whither goest thou?" perhaps this longing agitates ourselves, and dictates to us on different occasions many objections, it may be many murmurings, analogous to the question put by the disciples.
Let us suppose, then, that the question is ours, and that the answer is given to us, the only difference being that we do not say like the disciples, "Whither goest thou, Lord?" but "Lord, why hast thou gone away, and why dost thou not remain amidst us till the end of time?” Let us listen to the reply of Jesus.
But no: before his reply let us listen to our own. He alone will tell us the whole truth, and even any answer which we might give ourselves comes from him. We are wise only with his wisdom. There can be no question of concealing any thing from him; but it may be proper to see whether before knowing the proper answer of Jesus Christ to the question of his disciples, we and they also might not have some means of accounting for the departure and disappearance of Jesus Christ.
Let us suppose, then, that the Son of man, in condescension to the weakness of his disciples, and our secret wish, had consented after his resurrection to remain upon earth until the last day of the last age reserved for its existence. He could not thus remain except to die daily, or to be for ever triumphant. On which of these two alternatives must we fix? You know too well, brethren. Jesus Christ, always equally entitled to be loved, will always be equally hated. The same thirst for his blood will exist in all places and at all times; so that were Jesus Christ to appear successively in different countries, each of them would in its turn be moistened with his precious blood. Horrible to think, and horrible to say! Jesus, each time he sprung again from the bosom of the earth, (become his mother,) would again yield up his innocent and hallowed flesh to the wicked; all forms of execution would alternately be tried on his adorable body; all the fearful varieties of human corruption would be exercised, and, if possible, exhausted in this eternal parricide, and the Church called, according to the words of St. Paul, to fill up what is wanting in the sufferings of her Head; in other words, to represent and continue him in this part of his work, the Church would suffer with him, unless indeed she were, as the example of the first disciples might lead us to suppose, to flee far from his cross, leaving there at most some St. John to whom Jesus, more a stranger upon the earth than before, would not be able to give the charge of another Mary.
If it accords with piety to believe that the Son of God died once, the just for the unjust, if that is the very basis and foundation of the mystery of godliness, it is impious to believe that the Son of God could more than once be clothed with mortal flesh, and that the blessed seed of the woman was more than once to allow his heel to be bruised by the angel of darkness. Let us hasten then to reject this first alternative, though the most probable and the only one admissible, and Jesus, as we have supposed, continuing to honor the earth with his presence, let us conceive that, instead of enduring an eternal passion, he is to enjoy an everlasting triumph.
He has conquered; while living and clothed with our humanity, he has put infidelity completely to flight. The hosannah of some hundreds of Israelites on the road to Jerusalem has become the cry of all nations. Jesus reigns; he is the King of all the earth; he is the King of kings. His peaceful dominion is absolute. He has no more enemies, no more rivals, and what has been emphatically said in the Jewish book of an earthly king is strictly true of Jesus: "The earth is silent before him." His kingdom, whatever he may have said to the contrary, is of this world. Still this kingdom, glorious as it appears, is but a place of exile. For if humanity before it attains to glory in the heavenly places is an exile for the just, how much more must it be so for the Prince of the just? Jesus Christ is not in his proper place, and therefore methinks I hear Him exclaim as in the days of his ministry, "How long shall I be with you?" The subjects of this King of the world have here an advantage over him, and it is found, though in contradiction to the very words of Jesus, that the servant is more than his Master. For Jesus Christ having suffered once, what can those around him have to suffer? A single look from him crowns them with glory; to have been seen and noticed by him, to have received from him an order, a question, a sign merely, is enough to be in the eyes of all other men something more than a king; fidelity always recompensed, always sure of being applauded, no longer costs any thing; the idea, and even the name of disobedience have disappeared from all minds; there is no longer, on the part of the friends of Jesus, either difficulty to be surmounted or struggle to be maintained. It is no longer by fire that men are saved, nor by much tribulation that they enter into glory. The sacrifice is no longer salted with salt, or rather, there is no longer a victim. Religion is no longer a sacrifice; the blessing of the narrow way, and the kingdom of heaven taken by violence, are henceforth only empty sounds. After having asked what Jesus Christ is doing here below, it only remains to ask what his disciples are doing, and why, if we may so express it, earth is not already transformed into heaven?
Such are the replies which the most superficial knowledge of the Gospel at once suggests. Let us now listen to Jesus Christ. His reply alone is complete, and goes to the very bottom of the question. His answer alone can be called an answer. The question of the disciples had reference to themselves. "Why dost thou go away?" meant, Why dost thou leave us alone? what will become of us without thee? This is only part of the question which we have not already answered. We have omitted to place ourselves in the position of the disciples. The first thing which Jesus Christ does is to place himself in it, as is clearly shown by the very first words of his reply; "It is expedient for you that I go away." Let us see in what this expediency consists; an expediency not confined to the first disciples, but applicable to our case also.
"If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you."
Remain with us, Lord, and we will be comforted. Such, brethren, would perhaps have been our answer; for we indeed feel a general need of consolation. Alas! in their unhappiest moments it is for being alive and existing that many would wish to be consoled. But who can console better than Jesus? Jesus absent is only one misery more, and who can console us for the absence of Jesus?
Jesus might have answered, Are you consoled? does my presence suffice you? is the void of your heart filled? Is the disquietude of your spirit calmed? have you peace? No; and yet I am in the midst of you. You can every day see me, speak to me, and hear me, and after your manner you love me how is it, then, that while I am alive and present, something within you still cries for peace and comfort? Thus it appears you still require to ask, still to receive the Comforter.
Here the words following the text remind us that we must not give a strict interpretation to the term Comforter. The comfort in question is not merely that which compensates for a lost good, or makes it be forgotten. It is that which puts an end to the soul's solitariness, unites it to its object and its end, and puts it in possession of its true good. It implies all the light, strength, and life, of which it is susceptible; new eyes, a new heart, a second birth; the omnipotence of God in the feebleness of man. The Comforter is the Holy Spirit.
The signs or effects of his presence are numerous and varied. But as the object is to prove that the departure of Jesus is the condition of this Supreme grace, and that it is necessary for him (remarkable circumstance!) to go away in order to give place to the Holy Spirit, let us ascend from mere particular acts of grace which may seem to be compatible with the personal presence of Jesus Christ, to the more general acts which are the principle and source of all the rest. We shall then have no difficulty in understanding how these, and consequently all others, could only be formed and developed after the departure of the Son of man, and we will conclude with saying to this Divine friend, Yes, Lord, thy departure was necessary; it has been good for us that thou didst go away.
Two consolations of the Comforter, two gifts of the Holy Spirit, compose the whole new man. The one is faith; the other is that love in the Spirit of which St. Paul has said that it gives life. Jesus Christ is the object of both, but it is on condition of becoming invisible to us.
The first of the gifts of the new covenant is faith. The property of faith is to attach itself before all and above all to what God has said, be it command, instruction, or promise, and whether written on some material substance or engraven on the tablet of our heart. To believe is to repose entirely on the infallibility and faithfulness of God; it is to place his testimony above all kinds of certainty or guarantee; it is to regard every word proceeding from his mouth as more substantial and real than the reality itself; it is in practice to regard duty in the form in which God has enjoined it as the clearest and most imperative of all obligations; it is, consequently, to go forward with unflinching eye, and meet coming events as we would meet God himself; it is not to ask for sight, but to consider sight either as the special recompense of faith, or as a merciful solace which God, when he deems it necessary, may concede to our weakness; it is, in terms still more general, to live in the Spirit, which is the best part of ourselves; to renounce the tyrannical domination of the senses, and uniformly look to the foundation, the very essence of the truth, instead of looking to external accidents or signs; it is to prefer the invisible, which is eternal, to the visible, which passes away, and the possession of the sovereign good to the sensible signs of its presence: in fine, in regard to what especially concerns Jesus Christ, it is to bless God that the Word was made flesh, and that eternal Wisdom dwelt with the children of men, but not to regard Jesus Christ, although perfect man, as an ordinary individual, whose presence is indissolubly-attached to the body which represents him, as if he would be less present, less near, and less united to us when our eyes should cease to behold him. Now, such was the disposition of the disciples, and such, brethren, is human nature in general, that had Jesus Christ remained upon the earth, faith, the divine principle of a new life, would have remained for ever in an infant state. Its case would have been that of a young bird whose parent will not permit it to try its wings. Men would have reposed on the corporeal presence of Christ; not upon his spiritual, which is his real presence. Even with a Jesus Christ, poor and humble, we would have walked by sight; the man would have obscured the God ; the pure idea would never have been entirely disengaged from the external fact; all the thoughts of the Christian would have remained contracted and temporal; never would he have risen to that glorious liberty of the spirit which was to be the glory of the Gospel economy. In fine, the natural weakness of the disciples would have made them at every moment fall back upon this visible and present Jesus, who behooved, as such, to suffice for all our wants, and whose presence must therefore have made our state of minority perpetual. In regard to the present day, moreover, it would not be we who believed, but he who believed for us, who would live for us, and be the Christian while there were no Christians. The magnificent developments of the Christian Church would thus be strangled in the birth; or, to speak more properly, there would be no Christian Church; if by the Church we mean the assembly of those who walk by faith, and live in the Spirit.
After faith, I have named love in the Spirit. This is the second characteristic of the new man. He loves ; but the essential difference in this respect between him and other men is, that he loves spiritually. All human affection is carnal in its principle. The soul, which is of the earth, is the seat of this love; it does not go the length of the spirit, which is the sense of divine things. To love spiritually, is to love as God loves and wishes to be loved. All in love that is only nature, instinct, taste, self-complacency, all that in love is made in the image of the world and of time, disappears or is subordinate. Love, purified and made divine, rises and attaches itself to what is invisible and immortal; it becomes at once more tender and more holy, more intimate and more respectful; it loves God in every soul, and loves every soul in God. The believer who sees all things with the very eye of God, loves, if we dare so express it, with the very heart of God. And, to quote an example which brings us near our subject, almost all the world loves Jesus. Even the enemies of Christianity have a kind of love for Jesus. How is it possible not to love him who was meek and lowly in heart; who loved little children, and loved the poor; who chose to lead their life, and used his power only to succor and bless? In fine, how is it possible not to love him whose gentle name, for the eighteen centuries during which it has been pronounced, awakens in all minds ideas of clemency and peace, justice and mercy? But none of these men of the world, who after their manner love Jesus Christ, could have more love for him than the son of Jonas; and do we not know that Jesus deserved to be loved otherwise than he was by St. Peter; that though doubtless affected by his simple-hearted attachment, he however repulsed it, or at least restrained it; and felt indignant at this disciple when he was unwilling that his Master should taste of death? The affection of Peter was not spiritual; that of the world for Jesus is, if possible, still less so. It is a human attachment which Jesus does not count sufficient, and which he cannot accept; for this attachment does not contain any of the principles of the new life which he came to confer upon men, no spark of that fire which he hastened to kindle on the earth. This attachment does not lead to God. And how should it lead those whom, in the day when Divine wrath was threatened and pardon offered, it could not lead to the foot of the cross? But this attachment remained human so long as Jesus himself remained in a human condition. It could not take wings and fly away into heaven till Jesus himself should have ascended. Till then, Christ was only a person, and not the way, the truth, and the life. He was not loved as the way, the truth, and the life are loved; but loved as a person is loved. The visible, corporeal, limited person, behooved to disappear, in order to make room for the idea which it represented, and at the same time concealed. It was necessary that the love of Christ should not be liable in any way to division or change. In one word, it was necessary that in Christ men should truly love Christ. Human weakness in some measure demanded this salutary privation of Christ; a privation resembling that which the child suffers when the milk of its mother is withheld, in order to accustom it to more solid nourishment. The disciples at first did not understand this necessity, and how should they have understood it? But shortly after they saw it as if it had been transparent. I know no man after the flesh ;" exclaims the Apostle of the Gentiles, "yea, though I have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know I him no more." Do you hear? He congratulates himself on the fact, and glories in it. Another man would have gloried of having seen Christ. St. Paul, who probably had seen him, sets no value on his bodily presence. He considers it far more important to inform us that he does not know him according to the flesh; and this, doubtless, in order that he might teach us also to know and love him, not in that bodily way, but spiritually.
If faith and spiritual affection are the life of the Church, it was for the advantage of the Church that Jesus, instead of remaining in the midst of her, should go away. This has been well proved by fact. Where was the Church before the departure of Jesus? Nowhere; not even in the bosom of that college of Apostles who we have reason to believe knew Jesus far less, and loved him less completely than a poor Christian peasant now knows and loves him. If, as we are too naturally inclined to believe, corporeal presence is of great moment, and far superior to remembrance, the Apostles, having Jesus in the midst of them, must have been stronger than the Apostles separated from Jesus. And then we ought not to forget that the Spirit (for we are speaking of the Spirit,) had not been given to Jesus by measure, and that he had full power to take of his own, and to give to his friends. Why did he not do so? Why had his lessons less effect on the Apostles than those of the Apostles themselves afterwards had on others? Why was not his mere presence equivalent to an abundant and perpetual effusion of the gifts of the Comforter? Why is it that we may say of Jesus what at a later period was said of St. Paul, "His bodily presence is weak, but his letters are powerful." For, indeed, the facts cannot be disputed. Before the departure of Jesus Christ there is no Church, but there is one immediately after. Those men who after a long residence with their Master, put questions to him, and start doubts which almost make us blush for them, are after his departure enlightened, intelligent, resolute men. This Church, in which he leaves only his remembrance, and in which the visible signs of his power lasted only a very short time, still subsists, and even now, amid the decline of all belief and the overthrow of all systems, is the only thing which has strength, life, and a future. It is at least evident that the existence of the Church did not depend on the visible presence of its Head, and Jesus knew well what he was saying when he declared to his disciples that it was expedient for them that he should go away. "What! shall we suffer less? Shall we be less despised? Will our task be more easy?" Methinks I hear them putting these questions, which, however, Jesus had already answered by anticipation. So far from suffering less they were to suffer much more, and suffer with joy. Such is the advantage which they derived from their Master's departure. Facts thus afford a striking confirmation of what our Saviour foresaw, and prove that his departure was expedient.
But it is said that we suppress the miracle of Pentecost. We do not suppress it. Then it is said we overlook the meaning of the words, "I will send you another Comforter." We do not overlook it. We have not pretended that God is not the Master of his gifts, that he cannot withhold them, and that this one has no date. We believe that the manifestation of divine power on the day of Pentecost was necessary, and that nothing superfluous was then done; for the wonderful magnificence of God always restricts itself to what is necessary. But we have an important observation to make; it is, that God never forces any thing, never attacks our liberty, and that his grace is nothing but an eloquence altogether divine, a spirit speaking to a spirit, the Spirit of God to the spirit of man. He knocks at the door, but does not force it; he knows too well how to make it open. Though every thing is mysterious, there is nothing magical in the work of conversion; the laws of our nature are observed, and we cease not for one instant to be men. We apply this to the great revolution which took place in the heart of the disciples. It was the work of God, but this work God had himself prepared. God had rendered it naturally possible, by withdrawing his Son from the earth and reducing his disciples to mere faith and love. From him alone could they receive what they in fact received, but they could not receive it before their Master had exchanged his residence upon earth for the mansions of heaven: then only could their human confidence become faith, their human affection become love in the Spirit. This is all that we wished to establish, and we think that our trouble has been well bestowed.
The view of Christ risen, was decisive alike in regard to the calling of the disciples, and their future prospects. Without this view, nothing is possible ; and the Lord's tomb, empty though his friends knew it not, buried for ever both their hope and the Church. This event may suffice to explain their joy, their first ardor and devotedness. But let us not lose sight of the ideas which have been occupying our attention. What is Christianity when realized in the heart, but just the triumph of the invisible over the visible, and the reign of faith? What is the new life which attaches itself to this principle, but just a love superior by its purity and spiritual character to all earthly loves? The only question is, whether the germ of these two virtues, which constitute the whole of Christianity, could have been developed in a Church in which Jesus should have been personally present, even to the end of the world? We have tried to prove the contrary, and our only remaining question is: If this is not the meaning of our Lord's words, what do they mean? Apart from those ideas, how can we understand that it would have been advantageous for the disciples to see their Master go away, and that it can be advantageous to us to be deprived of his presence? Without dwelling on the fact that the earth could not retain Jesus Christ beyond the term fixed by eternal prescience, do we not perceive that his presence prolonged, (we mean his corporeal presence,) might be an obstacle to the accomplishment of some of the ends for which he had come in the flesh? Was not his departure the natural signal for the advent of the Holy Spirit? And was it not when the earth should possess spiritual men, who are the people of the new covenant, when the works of the Spirit should be manifest, and its fruits abundant on the earth, that this same Spirit should be able, in the words of our Saviour, to convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment? We leave you, brethren, to answer these questions, being impatient to arrive at the practical lessons which flow, as it were, spontaneously from our text.
Could we venture to maintain, brethren, that is was good for the disciples that Christ should go away, and that what was necessary and expedient for them is useless and bad for us? None of us certainly will say so. It is too evident that the situation, the wants, are still the same, and that we cannot any more then the Apostles dispense with the painful privation which their Master imposed on then.
No Christian whoever consents to it willingly. The resolution to do so depends on the measure of his spirituality, in other words, in proportion as Jesus Christ is possessed by the heart, is the distinctness of vision belonging to the eye of faith. But nothing is more universal or more natural than regret for not having seen Jesus Christ, than the desire of one day seeing him, I would almost say a feeling of envy in regard to the privileged persons who beheld him in the form of a servant. Forgetting how weak these persons were during the lifetime of their Master, and that all their strength dates from a period when their divine Head was no longer present on the earth, excepting by his Spirit, many imagine that they could do all with Jesus Christ were he to become visible, that there would then be neither doubt nor fear, that they would thenceforth be all ardor for the service of their great Master. That on a first impression man should think and speak thus, is conceivable, and may be pardoned; but after reflection how can they continue to use this language? and when they do use it, how far must they be from a full understanding of the Gospel!
What is the human body? A living statue. The body is an image, a memorial of the existence and presence of a moral being, to which through the body, so to speak, are addressed all the feelings which this being can inspire. That the soul never is without the body, and that their indissoluble union is an essential condition, an ineffaceable characteristic of human nature, we entertain no doubt, and we have even the sanction of the Gospel itself, which does not speak of the immortality of the soul, as philosophers do, but of the resurrection of the flesh. This flesh, however, this organization, though necessary to enable man to manifest himself and fulfill his destiny, does not constitute the man. This we all admit when we refuse to estimate a man's worth by his body, or any thing apparently dependent on his body, and make it wholly depend on his intellect and will. How can the element which we refuse to take into account in the valuation be the man himself, the whole man? On the other hand, is not the man, the whole man, in that intellect and will, which alone we introduce into the account?
Moreover, in our attachments we rise superior to the impressions which body can produce upon body; the more we rise (if I may so express it) above the statue to the man whom it represents, the more we feel satisfied with ourselves. An affection on which neither the external decay of the object loved, nor its absence, nor death, would have any power, such an affection would justly be entitled to the highest honor. It would not, I admit, be love in the Spirit in the gospel acceptation, but nothing would more strongly resemble it, nothing be more proper to give the idea of it, or even according to circumstances originate the desire or presentiment of it.
If any being should be loved purely, it is undoubtedly the Son of God. The worship in spirit, which he has recommended and rendered possible, is nothing less than the spiritual adoration addressed to the Spirit. If the Son of God appeared in the flesh, it was not to make us adore his flesh or corporeal presence, but to dwell among us, to be man like us, to lead a human life, and submit to death. He has given this as a support to our love; but our love should attach itself to that in him which thinks, invites, and loves. If it is not eternal truth and the eternal God that we love in Jesus Christ, we do not yet love him as he desires to be loved.
But since we are at this moment considering not so much principles as consequences, let us reply to those who exclaim, "O how strong we would be if we could only see Jesus Christ!" Alas! how many saw him, saw him at full leisure, and remained weak! So would it be with you, brethren, were Jesus Christ to appear and converse with you, if he did not at the same time communicate the Holy Spirit, which, as you know, was given to the first disciples only under the condition of his own absence. No doubt it was a high honor, as well as a great comfort to have seen the Son of man under the form of a servant, which is the foundation of his own glory. The first Apostles had so seen him; it was necessary for the execution of the apostolate; and we hear St. Paul, when misapprehended by a portion of the primitive Church, exclaiming, "Have not I too seen Jesus Christ?" But that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the question which we are considering. The question is this: The Spirit having been able to supply the place of Christ, and complete his work, could Christ, by his presence, have supplied the place of the Holy Spirit? Could his presence produce in us what the Holy Spirit might not have produced in us, or could not produce? Nothing, absolutely nothing, authorizes us to think so. Any analogy would be deceptive. The mere aspect of a great personage, the mere report of his presence, has sometimes, on grave emergencies, exercised a decisive influence. But however great the results might be, they were human. The means and the effect were not disproportioned to each other. But spiritual effects demand a spiritual cause, and the fact of Christ's corporeal presence, considered in itself, is not so. There is nothing spiritual in it. If it did not absolutely exclude the agency of the Spirit, it could not supply its place; but we are satisfied that the establishment of the reign of the Spirit in the Church is dependent on the presence of Jesus Christ at the right hand of his Father, and not on his presence in the midst of us.
This absence of a visible and corporeal Christ is regarded as a privation, a loss. But it is the flesh itself, it is the charm of the present life that makes us deem it so. Jesus Christ absent is not diminished, or rather, though absent, is not absent. His Spirit is himself. He is wholly present in the presence of his Spirit. It has been said of a great captain, that his ghost could have gained battles; but the Holy Spirit is not the ghost of Jesus Christ, who left us more than his portrait when he left us the Comforter. And if it is true that a perpetual warfare is allotted to Jesus Christ on the earth; if, as we doubt not, he is ever engaged in fighting battles, it is not his shade, but himself, that fights and wins them. In giving us his Spirit, he does more than take of his own to give it to us, he gives himself; yes, just as personally, just as effectually as on that memorable day when the sun was extinguished in the heavens. He still gives himself, though without shedding of blood, in glory and in power, invisible to the eyes of the flesh, but visible to the eyes of the soul, and immediately and personally apprehended by faith.
It is true that the hope of Christ's return must have some value. Whatever may be the form of that return, in whatever manner Christ may manifest himself on the great day, it has been promised to our faith, and will make that day differ from those whose fleeting hours compose the period of our pilgrimage. There will be a manifestation, a sight. Sight has always been the recompense, the encouragement of faith. But the first thing necessary was to believe.
Jesus Christ did few miracles, in other words, granted little to sight, when he met with much unbelief. After all, faith is life. Sight is royalty; but in order to reign, and before reigning, it is necessary to live; and sight is glory and felicity only to him to whom long before seeing it has been given to believe.
"Enough of this," you say, "perhaps too much. None of us have the idea, far less the hope, of withdrawing the Son of man from the blessed light of heaven to make him dwell a second time in the sad darkness of this life." I believe it, brethren; but do you not claim something which, in effect, is the very thing which you disavow?
If you presume not to claim the visibility of Jesus Christ's personal presence, you wish it in some other manner; in other words, you wish visible signs of his invisible presence. If the signs for which you call are only those fruits of the Spirit, those good works, that holy activity which constitutes and manifests Christianity in the heart, assuredly you are right. These signs, and many of them, are required, and we have only one observation to make in regard to them, and it is, that these signs of the presence of Jesus Christ you ought in the first instance to ask from yourselves.
But it is not of this holy desire that we speak. There is another less pure, that which suggested to the Israelites the rash demand, Make us gods to walk before us. There is not a man who does not, at the bottom of his heart, ask gods who may walk before him, nor a Christian who, at certain moments, would not ask them if he dared.
What is asked is not (God forbid) something like the golden calf; it is not even the ark of the living God, nor even the cloud. We are no longer in that position. What is it, then? I will tell you. It is any thing which will give a distinct form and tangible shape to the spiritual kingdom which Jesus Christ came to establish on the earth.
In the first rank are the institutions and customs which time has consecrated in the bosom of the Christian Church. These circumstances, which are wholly external and are not the Church itself, we so overvalue that we mistake them for the Church: if certain barriers, certain words, certain sounds, happen to fail, we think it is the Church herself that fails; it seems as if the strength of our communion, or Jesus Christ himself, is attached to these means or symbols, and that the event which has substituted for these other means, other symbols, has thereby deprived us both of that spiritual communion whose seat is in the heart, and of Jesus Christ himself, who is present in the midst of us only in so far as he dwells in our heart. We then feel, as it were, buried in darkness and lost in vacuity. We no longer know how to act; the earth seems to give way under our feet, our heart melts within us, and we can scarcely help exclaiming, with the woman at the sepulcher, "They have taken away my Lord; and I know not where they have laid him!"
Sometimes we consider Jesus Christ to be represented by men who are devoted to his service, and whom we believe to be penetrated with his Spirit. Every Christian, in a certain sense, represents Jesus Christ, and represents him the better the more implicitly he submits to him. The error lies in making a mere man the object of feelings which are due only to our Lord, and in regarding any instrument of whatever nature as necessary. This error is common, and alienates from Jesus Christ while it appears to pay him an homage of which he ought to be the sole object. How often in this manner is our adoration misplaced and led astray! How often do we make the altar of the living God the pedestal of an idol! And when the righteous hand of God throws down this idol and breaks it to pieces, when this man, supposed necessary, has disappeared, all has disappeared with him. He was the god who walked before us; his inspirations were all our wisdom, his voice, in spite of us, perhaps, had silenced the voice of the Spirit within us. Has he forsaken us? The silence is complete and the darkness profound. He had become to us unconsciously Jesus present, Jesus visible; and death, or absence, or some other dispensation, by removing away this man, has left us alone with ourselves, even after we had received the words of Christ, "I am with you to the end of the world."
The success, the internal prosperity of Christianity are also a kind of visible Christ to us. We are willing not to believe him absent so long as we see his religion honored, multitudes thronging his churches, society at least tacitly recognizing him as its head, infidelity blushing to avow itself, and hatred (for we cannot be ignorant that he has enemies,) blaspheming only in secret. Our faith takes courage at the sight; alas! this sight is all the faith possessed by the greater number. How readily our hope fails, and our faith is shaken, how soon we fall away, when, in consequence of any great change in the condition of society, enmity grows bold, and of a sudden "the hearts of many are revealed!" In all this, however, there is nothing new. Jesus Christ has no more enemies than he had; those who are hostile to-day were so yesterday; the only difference is that they are now known, and know themselves. But the very circumstance of its being believed that Jesus Christ has more enemies, diminishes the number of his friends. What do I say? It seems as if this host of enemies had carried Jesus Christ away. Like Enoch, he disappears and is not. It seems as if he had never appeared, as if he had never been, and as if, dreadful to say, his removal from the earth took away not a real being, but a name! After hearing and hearing again that the kingdom of God cometh not with observation, that the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, that the Church is not the world, that the doctrine of the cross is to the natural man foolishness, that the truth is always offensive, and that to the end true believers will be a small and select number, that humiliation and contempt are the inheritance of the Church upon earth, all this fades away from the memory, and it plainly appears that these expressions had hitherto been used without being understood or believed. All are not shaken in an equal degree, but the firmest feel their knees bending, and more than one of those who still believe, (because faith cannot die,) more than one cries to Jesus, as the disciples once did, "Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent!" Luke xxiv. 29.
But Jesus Christ, who cannot permit us either to serve him as an idol, or to put idols in his place, or to seek indubitable evidence of his presence any where but in ourselves; Jesus Christ, as on that day when the multitude erroneously wished to make him a king, "withdraws to a mountain." By this new retreat he extinguishes the bright light which he had kindled; he obliges us to seek him on the mountain, in other words, in our faith, and constrains us to look at him with other eyes than those of flesh. Those days, strongly resembling nights, are days of trial, but thereby days of blessing. True faith is astonished, we admit, but it recovers itself, or rather recovers the invisible Saviour from whom it had allowed itself to be drawn far away towards reflected objects and symbols. A similar day has been given to us. The darkness is gathering. The lights are being extinguished. The world is more completely than ever the world, and Christians are again in its eyes a peculiar people. It is not the substance but the aspect of things that has changed. The respective amounts of faith and unbelief have doubtless somewhat varied; but unbelief has with many changed its character; it is serious, it affirms, it believes, it removes mountains. These mountains will crush it to pieces, for it is strong only in denying, and when it rises to affirmation, it calls forth a unanimous and crushing denial from facts and from nature. Be this as it may, what grounds have we not for saying to the power of falsehood, "This is your hour and the power of darkness." Luke xxii. 53. This is one of those evenings, those gloomy evenings, in which the Church requires to be illumined by the light which she carries within her, but it is also one of those evenings whose darkness, so to speak, kindles a thousand fires in the sky of the Church. Do you not see them one after another start up and illumine the darkness? Do you not see life and motion springing up on every side, a reviving interest in the works of which the glory of Jesus Christ is the object, the spirit of enterprise and conquest again becoming the spirit of a Christian people so long a stranger to the divine impatience which sees the fields already white, though others think there are still three months till harvest? Who would dare to say that the Church, the true Church, ever dies? None, not even its proudest enemies. What although the flame burns flickering, and on a narrow hearth? What matters it if it is as pure, as vigorous, as devouring as ever?
Brethren, let us, with all the strength which God has given, resist the dangerous temptations of that "lust of the eye," which, from our carnal nature, we carry even into the purest of religions. Majestic power, ancient memorials, space and number, brilliant actions and fascinating talents, are all so many modes in which we would have Jesus Christ to become visible to our eyes. Notwithstanding his glorious ascension, we insist on clothing him in mortal flesh, in order that we may be able to know, according to the flesh, him who desires to be known and loved only according to the Spirit. We invest him with a mortal flesh, and thereby make him mortal. Yes, we render him subject to death a second time, and for ever; and when he does come to die in that flesh with which we have against his will invested him, alas! is there not ground to fear that he will also die in our hearts? Bible Christians, we look with pity on the believers in the real presence, and yet we differ from them only in form, since, like them, we call up a Jesus Christ in flesh, in order to secure his dying still more certainly on the altar of our hearts. A taste, a love, a reverence for the invisible, is still rare among the very men who are always repeating that they must set their affections on the invisible realities of eternity, and that their true life is hid with Christ in God. Brethren, we have all, in this respect, much progress to make. May we desire it! May we ask it! This were almost to have accomplished it.