Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.
with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.
THE LIVING ONE.
(Preached at Racine College, Easter, 1873, and again Easter, 1878.)
"Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen."—ST. LUKE xxiv., part of verses 5 and 6.
OVER against the sepulchre on Good Friday evening, as the sun went down, the holy women were sitting. They had seen the Sacred Form all cold and still, laid in the stony bed. They had returned and prepared spices and ointments to embalm their Lord, and had rested the Sabbath day according to the commandment. The great stone had been rolled to the door of the sepulchre; the Roman guard all day and night had watched the spot. In the solemn stillness, a mighty earthquake had shaken the holy city, and startled with affright chief priests and scribes, Pontius Pilate and Herod. Strange thoughts must have filled the hearts of those who waited for redemption in Israel. It was at midnight that God had brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. It was at midnight that Samson had arisen and carried away the posts and the bars of the city of Gaza. It was at midnight that Gideon came upon the hosts of the enemy with the trumpets and the lamps from the vessels broken. It was at midnight that the two closed gates of Babylon had opened before God's chosen deliverer. What now if one, of whom these were but the types, should break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut asunder the bars of iron? But the day began to dawn; the first faint streaks of light were seen far over the Mount of Olives. There was the first murmur of awakening life, a stir amid the hush of nature and of man, as the holy women, bearing the heavy weight of myrrh and spices, went forth upon their errand. They did not dare to speak; their very tears were dried. Their footsteps echoed in the stony way, as they passed by temple and palace and lowly hut, out through the Western Gate. Yes, there was Calvary. It was there the crosses stood; the very earth was dented with the tread of the thousand feet of them that had watched that awful sight; upon the ground, that all inanimate had wondered with a dumb amazement, there was still the stain of blood. A little farther, and lo! the garden gate, the rocky cavern, and the silent tomb; some stately palm, some gnarled olive-tree with deep-green leaves; perchance the freshness of the grass and the faint odor of early spring flowers. What mattered it to them when He was dead?
But, as they drew nearer, a strange perplexity. The stone, sealed with the Roman seal and guarded by the Roman guard, was rolled away. Within lay the darkness and the shadow; and He, as yet they thought, was lying there. I see them pause before the open door. They strain their eyes; they gaze at one another, and scarce can see for tears, or speak for an ever-deepening awe. They tread the sacred spot with noiseless footsteps; and lo! their Master is not there! They see the linen clothes folded and wrapped together, and the napkin in a place by itself with a divine order. They pass once more into the open day, and as the first bright rays of dancing sunlight light up city and hill and the peaceful garden, two shining angels greet them, white in their robes of righteousness, radiant with the joy of the everlasting morning, with the startling but blessed words: "Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen."
Eighteen centuries, my brethren, have not availed to make the mind fully grasp all that was meant by those wondrous words. They fell upon the affrighted ear of the women, and knocked at the door of their hearts, and could not enter because of exceeding joy. It was not till the day had passed, nor even then, till Mary Magdalen, and St. John, and St. Peter, who had denied Him, and those two disciples to whom He was known in the breaking of bread, had told the story of His resurrection—till they themselves had heard Him say, "Peace be with you," and had fallen at His feet and worshiped Him—nay, till St. Thomas had broken forth into the confession of the faith, "My Lord and my God "—that they fully knew what the words implied.
Do we understand them? The flowers blossom on the altar, the alleluias sound from white-robed choirs, the awful sacrifices are offered amid the adoring faithful. We say it is Eastertide; Christ is risen. However joyful our lives, there is to-day a deeper joy. In its springtide and its freshness, there is a better spring-tide. As perchance we look back over a long pathway shaded with cypress trees, on mournful marbles and quiet graves, the sunlight plays, and amid the chanting joy of the holy season and the worship, the solemn but comforting strain falls on the ear: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"
The fullness of Easter joy is to be found in understanding the meaning of the text. "Why seek ye the living among the dead?" There is a kind of reproof in the angel's words—as when our Saviour said on that same day, "O fools and slow of heart to believe, ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to have entered into His glory?" It is contained in these words: The Living One. It was not simply that He was risen from the dead; that might be only for another crucifixion, another agony, another death. The widow of Nain had embraced a risen son. Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, had seen his daughter delivered alive to her mother. Scribes and Pharisees had watched the shrouded form of Lazarus come forth from the tomb. Nay, he had sat at meat in that house at Bethany, when Mary had broken the box of spikenard and Martha had served at the table. Enoch and Elijah had appeared in flesh and blood, in transfigured glory, and had manifested themselves to the chosen three. The bodies of saints had come out of their graves when the rocks were rent at the crucifixion, and had gone into the holy city, and on this very day were to appear unto many. The very taunting question which the Sadducees had put to our Lord had shown how the Jews believed in a future resurrection of the body, and so in its possibility at any time.
When the angels called our Lord the Living One, they did not mean merely that He was risen. The implied reproof was that the women did not know that He must rise. The voice of another had raised up the son of the widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus, the brother of Martha and Mary. Christ had raised Himself up. He could not be holden of death. The Holy One could not see corruption. He was Lord of life and death; He had the keys of death and of hell. To know Him and the power of His resurrection, was to know that He was declared to be the Son of God, with power according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. When He bowed His head and gave up the ghost, He was still the Living One, because He was God. When He lay in the silent tomb He was still the Living One, because He was God. In the words of St. John the Divine, He was "then and for ever the First and the Last. He that liveth and was dead, and is alive for evermore. Amen." They, then, seek the living among the dead, who do not know the Risen Christ to be the King of kings and Lord of lords. This is easy to say, but not so easy to realize. It proves the crucifixion to be an infinite atonement, the sufferer on the cross to be a Divine Sufferer. It proves that the Incarnate God had conquered death. It proves that His glorified body, still bearing the marks and scars of His Passion, and His human soul, full of pity and tenderness for us, were to reign, subsisting in His Divine Person amid the raptures of the angels. It proves that His human nature, which could pass through closed doors, vanish out of sight, and ascend with speed swifter than light to the heaven of heavens, could become the Life of the world; so that which He said of it could be true: "I am the true bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever, and the bread which I will give is My flesh which I will give for the life of the world. Whoso eateth My flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
This leads me to the second point of my text. Christ is the Living One because He is the source of the life of Christians. As God, He is the source of their natural life; but that natural life fell in Adam, and so far as we are partaking of it we are but sharers in a living death. "In Adam all die." Christ is the source of another life for Christians, for the text just referred to goes on to say, "in Christ shall all be made alive." It must be a real life. It must have a beginning, a birth; it must throb and beat and glow. It must impel to action, to vigor, to movement. It must be capable of advance, development, and growth. It must have a capacity to meet every failing, every weakness, every difficulty inherent to our natural life. It must have power over hunger, thirst, weariness, sickness, and death. It must be so mighty that it can level inequalities of wealth, station, and intellectual power. It must have in it, since it is life, a possibility of dying. It may sicken and fade and grow weak, and totter, and at last, alas! become capable of an eternal death —and, thank God! of an infinite, eternal, glorious life. Mighty thus in its individual working, it must grow still more powerful when two or more such lives are united together. Nay, it must demand such a union. Because it is the life given of God, it can not live alone. If in the natural life there are no ties so dear as those of family and kindred, what must it be with the spiritual life? Once grant that there is a gift of life from God, once grant that it is given to more than one human being, and there must be union between these two or three or more. There must be not only children of God, but a family of God; not only the living Christian, but the Holy Catholic Church, the Body and the Head, the Spouse and the Bridegroom, the fullness of Him which filleth all in all. Moreover, the family of God must be able to meet the weaknesses and ills and wants of society and families and nations. It must be strong enough to conquer want and ignorance and divisions, and war and slavery and misery. As the life given to the individual Christian must go on until, at the last trump, he stands regenerated in the presence of Him that made, redeemed, and sanctified him, so the life given to the Church must march on in triumph until it is presented as a glorious Church, "not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, in the new heavens wherein dwelleth righteousness."
But how does the Living One impart this life? Some have maintained, though rarely in the Church, that this life is given to all men whether they ask it or take it, seek it or want it, like the sunshine and the rain, and the gift of natural life. I need not show you how contrary such a view is to the whole teaching of the Word of God. It is not simply that this or that text goes against it; it overthrows its whole teaching. If the gift of abundant life is promised, it is always promised under certain conditions. Faith and repentance, when they are needed and can be had, are essential prerequisites. Baptism and the Holy Communion are absolutely commanded, the one as the fountain of the new birth, the other as the food of the soul. The apostles are to go into the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned." Nay, if the theory were true, heathenism were as good as Christianity, and vain and futile the labor which would bring the nations of the earth to the foot of the Cross.
But there is a second theory of far wider influence, quoting for its support many texts of Scripture, regarded oftentimes as the bulwark of Protestantism, and beautiful, so far at least that in its maintenance many a saintly soul has lived and died. It is, that we become partakers of the risen life of Christ by faith in His atoning death and passion. The blessed gift of faith is exalted above all other gifts, as having this peculiar property, that he who believes—and to know who he is you must find the person who is assured in himself that he believes—becomes a partaker of the life of the Living One. Blessed, my brethren, is the gift of faith. More and more do we need to pray, all our lives, "Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief." Without repentance and faith, one who is capable of these graces can not inherit eternal life. They are essential prerequisites to the gifts of God. They are the spiritual qualifications which God demands. But Faith does not give—it can not give—the risen life of Christ.
Amid many arguments which might be adduced, there is one preeminent. If the risen life of Christ can not be given without faith, then no little children can be partakers of the life of Him who said, "Suffer little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not." It may be said, indeed, as it is sometimes said, that in the case of little children the faith of sponsors and parents is taken instead of their own; but, if it be so, what is that but an acknowledgment that the largest number of those who receive the gift in a Christian community receive it without their possessing the qualification which the theory supposes to be an indispensable necessity?
No, my brethren, the mercy of Almighty God was never more manifested than when He instituted Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Common elements—water, and bread, and wine—so common and simple that none could doubt that gracious gift came through the operation of the Holy Spirit, to be the means of beginning and continuing the risen life of Christ. Without faith, without works, without repentance, where these could not be—with faith and repentance where these were needed, but not through them—freely, lovingly, without stint, Christ imparts Himself. He restores His children, when fallen, by His absolution. He strengthens them with the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Ghost. He offers Himself for His whole Church in the Eucharist; He feeds His children with His Body and Blood. He sustains them in the valley of the shadow of death, and will raise them up again at the last day.
But, my brethren, I can not conclude without bidding you consider the strange light which the words of the angels throw upon the lives and occupations of many of us. We profess, most of us, to be seeking for Christ, not as though we had not found Him, not as though we were not His, though this is true of some before me; but as if His shadow ought to rest on home and friends, on business and work, on oar going out and coming in, our lying down and rising up. The only theory upon which men can live in the world, and be engaged in politics or business or literature, is that the Cross of Christ has sanctified them all, and that in working for them we are doing so as His, in Him, and for Him. Call up before you, then, the way in which you expect to spend the coming week. Consider the plans and projects, the busy schemes that fill your brain and occupy your heart, and scarce will keep away in this holy house and on this holy day. Do you expect to find Christ in them? Has He anything to do with them? Do not the words of the angels sound with accusing accents on your ears: "Why seek ye the living among the dead?"
"What are the vain and idle pleasures of youth, men and women alike, what is this heaping up of money for money's sake, giving it neither in life nor death to Him whose stewards you are—what is it all but seeking among the dead? Nay, for it needs to he said, what is most of our political and national life, but the ignoring of the grand old principles of honor and honesty, and patriotism and duty and the fear of God! Christ, the Living One, is not in them. He is speaking to some poor Magdalen. He is showing His hands and side to some timid doubter, who would fain believe. He is known to some in the breaking of bread. He is standing on the seashore in the early morning, and bidding another to feed His sheep and lambs. He is shining from heaven on some one zealous for a false cause, and crying "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" The Roman soldiers march to victory, to the games and the amphitheatre; the pleasure-loving throng in crowds; the scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat; and afar the angel cries, "Why seek ye the living among the dead?"
But, as men go other ways—tarrying not in sepulchres, wondering not at grave-clothes, in however good order they may be laid away, caring not even for myrrh and spices, if they are only meant to embalm the dead—the risen Christ reveals Himself. Humble duties bravely done, innocent pleasures crowned with His blessing, money turned into treasures in heaven, national duties done as to Him who is our King of old—all these lead near to Him. They are the duties of the living Christian, and the Living One is in them.
O vision of glory past all expression, when, in the crowded way or in the quiet home, when, mid the sound of music and of dancing, or by the bedside of the sick, the Christian sees and hears by faith the risen Saviour! O happier vision still, when the eye grows dim, and the breath weaker, and the throbbing heart ceases to beat, and the everlasting glory dawns upon the soul!
Brethren, seek for the Living One. Seek Him not among the dead. Then will He be yours in life, yours in joy, yours in sorrow, yours in death, yours for ever!