THE WITNESS OF THE CHURCH TO THE RESURRECTION.
PREACHED IN THE
CHURCH OF S. ANDREW, SHIBA, TOKYO,
EDWARD BICKERSTETH, D.D.,
BISHOP OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND IN JAPAN,
ON EASTER DAY, 1890.
The following is the substance of a Sermon written only for delivery, but which it has been thought may be helpful to some in a more permanent form.
S. Andrew’s House, Shiba,
April 16th, 1890.
Acts x., 40-41. Him God raised up the third day and gave him to be made manifest, not to all the people, but unto witnesses that were chosen before of God.
There is a conviction of certainty and a sense of power in the very fact of the steady constant regularity from year to year of the Church’s Commemorations. The wrangle of argument goes on. Unbelief is now defeated, now, as it deems, triumphant. Some scoff. Many are indifferent. But to all, friend and foe, believer and sceptic, haughty and humble, enquirers and careless, the passage of the year repeats the same great message of the love of God, in the Life, the Death, the Resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Above all at the Easter-tide, as the cry, “The Lord is risen indeed,” once only that of a few poor trembling believers, goes up from the great company of the Christian People, till it finds its echo perhaps in a world ‘beyond these voices,’ it is impossible not to be conscious that faith, faith in a Risen Son of God, is a great power to-day among men.
This is the thought on which I will, God willing, say a few words this Easter-morning--the Church, not the world, the witness [3/4] of her Lord’s Resurrection, and again, the Church the witness of the Resurrection to the world.
The substance of a strong indictment recently made against our Faith by one, who as a Law Officer has done good service to the Crown in an Eastern country, is briefly this, “I cannot believe in the Resurrection of Jesus on the evidence of a Book, when I see that so many millions of persons since the world began, have all died and for none is a like claim made that he has risen again, except for Jesus only. The pages of the book are fragmentary; the accounts can be pieced together in different ways; the witnesses, it is admitted, were not philosophers but disciples. I love to stand with Jesus on the Mountain or by the Lake side and to hear Him tell the parable of the Sower. I cannot believe that he conquered this universal foe of death.”
Such as the objection. I should scarcely have referred to it here but that the answer seems to me full of teaching. It will already have come to your minds. In brief it is this--The evidence of the Resurrection is not solely the existence of accounts in an inspired Book, considered barely as a document, though we possess such, but the existence of a Society, to which the Book belongs, a Society, the very being and life and extension of which implies the reality of the Resurrection, which without the Resurrection is an inexplicable phenomenon.
Let us notice this a little more closely. Three things are quite [4/5] certain--not certain only in the sense that very much else is certain to us Christians, by faith--but certain in the sense that foes of our Religion admit them as well as ourselves.
1. It is certain and beyond all reach of reasonable doubt that for centuries before Christ came, a people existed, separate from all other peoples, in which there went on a great religious preparation, to which as we now know, the history of the Faiths of other nations offers not a parallel but a contrast--a contrast in this great particular, that whereas the history of other creeds, of Hindooism and Buddhism and Zoroastrianism is a history of progressive degradation, the religious history of Israel is a record of growing light, from the earliest to the last of the prophets. [This statement is, I believe, capable of proof in detail. It is one of the many remarkable confirmations of our Faith which we owe to a comparative study of religions. The condition of the Faith of Gautama, the Buddha, in this land is one of its most striking exemplifications.] Israel was in a sense, which no other nation, Eastern or Western, can claim to have been, the People of God. It had, if it may be so said, a genius for apprehending the divine. It had not the gifts of Greece or Rome or India. But it had what they had not. It was the prophet-nation of the world.
2. Again it is certain--no one disputes it now--that there lived and died in Palestine, the country where the long preparation had been made through the preceding centuries, where History and Psalm and Prophecy had pointed onward to some hoped-for Delivered, One who gathered up into Himself all earlier types of moral excellence, Whose example is even to those who reject every supernatural claim which His followers make for Him, still the perfect type of what they themselves would like to be.
3. And thirdly, it is certain that in the two generations which succeeded the death of Jesus Christ, while that is, many of His [5/6] first followers were still living, amid foes prepared to urge every argument which keen Greek and Jewish intellect, sharpened by enmity, could devise against their Faith, there grew up in various parts of that old World, in great capitals, such as Jerusalem and Antioch, and Rome, and provincial cities and country villages, companies of men, women, and children, drawn, as is now known, from every grade of society, from the Imperial family to the meanest servile home, who were prepared to give up all that men hold dear--position, home, prospects, life itself--because they held with a passionate belief, that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead to be “the Life of their life.”
I beg you again to notice that these things are quite certain on the testimony alike of friend and foe. The Jewish nation really went through a unique training and exhibited an exceptional type of national life. It was the organ of the Divine. The character of Jesus Christ is a great fact, quite impossible of delineation, unless it had been exhibited in a Person. The Christian Societies undoubtedly arose in the first century, and the basis of their common belief was this that Christ had risen from the dead.
And now let me ask you to put back the fact of the Resurrection amid these clustered certainties, to think of it as the point on which those earlier hopes converged; as the conclusion, the natural conclusion, I venture to say, of a Life so removed from all others that it is a Model for all; as the starting point out of which has sprung the great Community, with all its regenerating, purifying, ennobling powers, which we call the Christian Church. Think of it thus, and you cannot fail to see that the evidence for [6/7] the Resurrection is something very much more than the page of a Book. The pages of the Book are a record of belief. The believers themselves, those who came before and ‘rejoiced to see His day,’ those who companied with Him from Galilee to Olivet, those who in the earlier days believed on their word, yea add--though the evidence in part be of a different order--all those who have felt or feel to-day the touch and thrill of a new life in their innermost being, quickening dying energies to fresher powers, these--not written pages only--are the witnesses of the Resurrection. ‘Not to all the people but to witnesses chosen before of God.’
We have all of us read the story of a great living astronomer, who as his telescope scanned the heaven, and his brain worked out with faultless accuracy the numbers of the stars, determined that there was a planet, unknown to man before, moving along its own course, somewhere in that field of the sky. The numbers were right, but they could not be explained except by the existence of the planet. And not less surely, the admitted facts of history--the Jewish people, the character of Christ, the rise of the Christian Societies--demand the one Fact which explains all the rest and gathers them into a perfect unity, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Will any reply to us, ‘all the witnesses may have been mistaken’? In the bare abstract it may be admitted, but there is absolutely no fact of history of which we may not say the same. It is just possible that Caesar did not die by the daggers of the assassins in the Roman temple, but men do not really doubt that he did because it is possible that he did not; and if we were to deny it, they would reply, rightly enough, that that were to make unintelligible the whole history of the earlier Empire. And just [7/8] so we may reply to those who on like grounds doubt the Resurrection of Christ. ‘We can conceive indeed that the witnesses were all mistaken, but only at the cost of making unintelligible the whole History alike of the Jewish and of the Christian Church.’
Is it insisted on, ‘we would like another form of evidence. Why did not the Christ rise in full light of day and appear in majesty and strength before those who had crucified Him’? It might be possible to draw out sufficient reasons, but let it suffice to note that one form of evidence does not cease to be good and cogent because another form might have been granted us. [Canon Westcott and Prof. Milligan have considered the question at length in their works on the Resurrection.] We have the evidence of the Church. It is not less true because we have not the immediate evidence of the world.
Is it suggested that other facts may be sufficiently supported, but that far stronger evidence is required for a supernatural, yea unnatural fact, like a resurrection? The answer in part again is to be found in a study of the history. Man has certainly not moved along an even plane of unbroken and uneventful development. His has been a story of crises and degradations as well as of hope and advance. And among these crises that of the Christian era is such as to remove all unlikelihood in the mind of sincere Theists of such a special interference of God as we count supernatural. Unnatural the Resurrection was not. Suffering and death cannot be conceived of as the natural portion of men. The fact which is the earnest of their final annulment is most in accordance with his being.
But, brethren, this Easter morning let us answer our critics no longer. To us the Resurrection is as sure a fact as those others [8/9] on the ground of which we ask them to believe it. We add ourselves in faithful confidence to-day to the long unfaltering line of the Faithful who have preceded us. And what follows? We have seen that it is the Church, not the world, which is the witness of the Lord’s Resurrection; but none the less it is to the world that its witness is borne. Are we in such a sense that the world can understand it bearing our witness to His Resurrection to-day? If so, all experience tells that it is by life and deed more than by mere argument that we are bringing home to others what we believe ourselves. From the nature of the case there is no statement of the Christian Creed at the end of which you can write the words which close a theorem of Euclid, but equally certainly men are so made as not seldom to yield to the force of an unwavering conviction when exemplified in a life of love. Christ manifested in the life of the Church is both the primary evidence of the Resurrection of Christ and the means of the Church’s extension.
It was so in earlier days. It was impossible for men to deny that a great change had come over the first disciples, over their thought, motives, principles, conduct. They had to win their daily bread as other men, but their treasure was in another world than this. They owed obedience to Emperor and magistrates, as did others, and, as they confidently affirmed, they were the best subjects in the State, but all the same their ‘citizenship was in heaven.’ They were tempted as others, but on the whole they overcame as others did not. They suffered as much or more than other men, but they took their sufferings gladly. They sorrowed as did others at human griefs, but the grace of resignation grew up amid their tears. “Once I was not; now I am not; I know nothing about it; it does not concern me,” ran an inscription on the tomb [9/10] of a heathen. “Here lieth Maria, summoned by the angels,” “Eternal Peace be to thee, Timothea, in Christ,” are the quiet, restful words which tell of the faith inspired by the Resurrection. As one of themselves put it, they were ‘pressed on every side yet not straitened perplexed yet not into despair, pursued yet not forsaken, smitten down yet not destroyed, always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus, the life which He resumed at Easter, might be manifested in their body.’
Again let me say, we too have a witness to bear to our Lord’s Resurrection and that witness is for most of us the unassuming but evident reality of our own discipleship; temptation met, sin conquered, pleasure, if need be, put on one side, self denials welcomed, duties done, in the strength and for the sake of Him Who, we believe and confess, alone of the sons of men overcame death.
The oldest meaning of Sacrament, not to be forgotten amid later uses, is oath of allegiance. With all the Church on earth we are invited to day to pledge our fidelity anew in the Sacrament of His appointment, and to receive from Hands that were pierced for us the blessing of the faithful.