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 CHRISTIAN STRUGGLE.
(Preached at Christ Church, Cambridge, before St. Paul's Society, 1873.)
"I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me."—GAL. ii. 20.
THE statement that life is a struggle, though it embodies the speculations of the latest form of the scientific imagination, seems but a commonplace. Commonplace or not, to the young and brave there is no sound of sadness in it. They are eager to engage in it. The noise of the distant fray, the murmur of discordant voices, the hurry of them that come and go, the story of mighty ventures and of great successes, fall on the listening ear. If even oftener there comes the tale of loss and ruin and shipwrecked hopes, and the wail of the despairing, they are too hopeful to heed it. They at least will be victors, whoever else may fail. "We who have lived longer, who, whether we have lost or won, know the weariness of the toil, warn all in vain. Like Cassandra, we prophesy; like Cassandra, we utter the truth; like Cassandra, we are never believed.
Rather let us accept it, this eager hopefulness, as a part of God's merciful provision to enable men to fight bravely. We will help them to gather the flowers for bridal wreaths, though bells are tolling in our ears. We will strengthen with words of cheer, though the tear starts unbidden. We will go with them to the lists with banner and pennon and martial strain, though we pause to bear some wounded knight away; and as the fray thickens, and' the combat deepens, and the sun is hidden in mist and clouds, we will turn and pray before the altar to the Lord of hosts, who alone can give the victory. First, let us consider the necessity and universality of the struggle. Whether it be some law of our being which ever tries to preserve the strongest and send the weakest to the wall, an inevitable power against which we fight and fight in vain, though fight we must, as the words of Holy Scripture fall on the ear, "Strive to enter in at the strait gate," "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God," and catch a glimpse of the King of Glory and His stately train with crowns of royal might and palms of victory; or whether we simply observe what is going on around us, and take the results of experience without seeking for the law which underlies it—of the unavoidable character of the struggle we must be assured. Nay, we know that no man escapes it. Whether it be of the flesh or of the spirit, or of both—the struggle for bread, the labor for reputation, the cultivation of the intellect, the pursuit of gain, the weary grasping for power, the effort to keep something gained or to recover something lost—nay, if it be only a frantic push to get a foothold somewhere, the struggle goes on.
We sometimes imagine that there are estates and conditions in life in which it ceases. We are wont to fancy some calm retreat, some reach of sunny lawn, some hush of air and sky, some autumn days of hazy light and breathless peace, or else the stillness of the silent snow and glittering ice; and yet there can be no condition in which there is not some higher glory or some lower depth which may be ours. We may surrender this or that; we may yield things that are most precious; we may fancy the struggle over because what some would rather die than lose is no longer ours, or because we have in secure possession what others are battling for; yet behind us or before us is something to dread or something to hope for; and, whatever else there is, unceasingly life toils with death and verges ever to the hour when, in one last long agony, it must suffer at least a temporary defeat, and hear the cry, "Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes."
Again, let us consider the twofold character of the struggle as it is within us. It is of the flesh or of the spirit, and very often of both. Who can realize, but one who has felt it, the pain and anguish of the struggle with the passions—the care and watchfulness, the abstinence and self-denial, beyond all, the steady patience with one's self, and the perseverance that knows neither discouragement nor cessation—which are necessary in order to attain continence, self-control, and moderation? Who can estimate the difficulty which is added to the struggle by the aggravations which result from thoughtless or unwilling failure, from inherited tendency, from the softness of luxurious living and eagerly-sought-for comforts, from the easiness of temptation, and from the voices on every side that cry aloud, "Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth, and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes "—but never add," Know that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment."
It is a question worth deeper consideration than has perhaps been given to it, whether intellectual pursuits and high culture are the protections they are sometimes thought to be in the struggle with the passions. There must be, no doubt, protection in any pursuit heartily entered into. This is as true, however, of physical labor as of intellectual work; but whether, beyond this point, the exercise of the mental faculties, with the culture that results therefrom, is a greater assistance, may be open to doubt. Intellectual pursuits do not fully satisfy the imagination. They leave the heart still longing for an Object to love. They create desire, they stimulate the nerves, they cause restlessness; they affect the body, whence the difficulty chiefly comes only indirectly, and so far possibly unfavorably; while hard exercise, and stern labor, and the discipline of air and storm and rugged earth, give to the body the outlet that it needs, and cause it to crave the rest which results in quiet nights and easier days.
Ah! my brethren, there are shadows that fall upon the days of the highest advance in philosophy which the world has known; and from the ruined Parthenon and silent Acropolis come other voices than calm discussion and un-impassioned reasoning and philosophic peace.
But would to God the struggle were with the flesh alone. It penetrates deeper. The age does not accept authority. It searches into the grounds of all belief. It finds, as well as it may, difficulties manifold in religion, and the evil heart more easily turns these difficulties into doubts. Nor this alone. There is a more subtle trouble. Sturdy doubting admits of being vanquished. Sometimes even the amount of the doubt is the measure of the faith of which the same soul is capable. More dangerous is the spirit that thinks all religious views worthy of equal consideration, because all are alike unworthy of any; which is tolerant, because it cares for nothing; which substitutes for disbelief the worse error that belief or unbelief, religion or irreligion, faith or doubt, are alike unimportant considerations; which dreams that all pursuits, all studies, all training can be accomplished as well without religion as with it; and which, by ignoring the spiritual world, fancies that it has been gotten rid of. But, mighty and vast, the spiritual world stretches around us, with its heights and depths, with its shadows and dreams, with its angels and spirits, with its heavens and hell, with its eternal voices and its unending felicities. It is governed by its own laws and its own principles, and these, too, in strict harmony with the laws of nature and of mind. The soul, spiritual and immortal, needs, and its very being craves, these laws and principles. Vainly we dredge the ocean, or climb the Andes, or are parched beneath the torrid sun, or penetrate the frozen seas, if mightier heights and depths, and frozen hearts, and fevered souls, move us not to labors as earnest. Daily is some one called upon to witness a spectacle as old as humanity, and the mystery of which no mortal tongue has solved. Beside some silent form, the quiet stillness of the dead, we stand and ask, Where is the man we loved? A moment since he breathed, he spoke; we watched the gasping breath; with voice and touch and asking eyes, his soul met ours; we heard him say farewell; the glassy change that fell upon his countenance came in a moment. Where is he now? Tell me not of physical laws and the working of disease, of forces, and gases, and currents. Philosophy and science and culture have no words warm enough to comfort me. O Cross of Christ! cast thou thy shadow on my breaking heart, and whisper to my soul the Christian hymn of triumph, and that alone: "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"
I must say something which may sound discouraging. In the struggle I have spoken of, there is a great likelihood of failure. In some parts of it our manifold civilization makes competition the greater, and at the same time, by softening and refining and cultivating, makes us the more unfitted to cope with the difficulties of life. Who that has passed the freshness of youth but feels at times the hurry and push, the absence of peace, the noise of them that rush eagerly by, the receding voices of them that are weary of the race, the new ideas, the increasing knowledge, the greater range of thought, the making many books of which there is no end, the questions that arise on every side and seem to say they must be settled now or never, the ease with which barbarians and pagans of every clime, from East and West, meet us at every turn; and, however courageously he takes his stand to do his part, and do it well, can not but find the struggle of life the harder because of the new duties all these involve?
But it may be said that the likelihood of failure is the less in proportion to the worthlessness of the objects for which we struggle; the loftier the aim, the surer the reward. If we lay up treasures in heaven, moth and rust are sure not to corrupt. It is ever so, and yet I have watched with a pastor's eye the struggle of many a man. I have seen him fight against certain temptations to which he was exposed, and yet I have known him, on the whole, to fail. A year or two has gone by, and he has again come under my observation. I have found him struggling still, but—and here was the difference—it was on a lower plane. The sins which he had first fought against, whether merely things of the past or still the habits of life, had never been conquered; nay, he had ceased working against them, and they had become a part of his spiritual nature. He was fighting still, but on a lower level, and against more terrible evils. I have asked myself: Supposing this should go on—supposing, as the years came and went, each lapse of time should find him, not utterly giving up, but ever fighting farther and farther away from perfection? Sometimes, too, one beholds in such cases what the world calls a sudden fall into sins which even the world itself condemns, and there is disgrace, dishonor, and blighted prospects. But, sudden as the fall appears, it may only be the legitimate result of a steady decay. I have watched persons thus going downward. I have pleaded, warned, implored, entreated, and prayed—and all in vain. I have learned to know how helpless reason is in the presence of either passion or intellectual pride. I have again seen efforts made, frantic efforts sometimes, for a little space of time, and still the decline continue. It has seemed like a garrison defending a fort, driven first from one redoubt to another, always maintaining for a while this or that position, but, as days went on, ever drawing nearer to the citadel. One knew that around the banner, which, torn and rent by many a ball, still spread its folds to the summer breeze, upon the pinnacle of the fortress, the combat must finally gather; and what if the banner should fall?
It is true, it may be said that there are advantages in struggle, independent of its result. It requires, just so far as it goes, the deliberate choice of the better instead of the worse. It demands watchfulness, patience, fortitude, self-denial. It insists on self-control, self-surrender, generosity, magnanimity, contempt of the world. It requires faith in the unseen hope which purifies, and love for something beyond our sight and sense. It compels us to hate anger, lust, disobedience, untruthfulness, and, if it reaches so far, pride and covetousness. And, even for a day, to have stood out against evil, and called to our aid the nobler instincts of our nature, at least lessens the amount of wrong under which the weary world is groaning.
But, I ask, is there nothing which can make the struggle easier, and give to him who labors a fuller surety of reward? A merciful and loving Father could never have made it so hard to do right, except there were a blessing in the very hardness; could never have allowed the liability of failure to be so great, increasing perhaps as the world grows older, except He had given some still mightier counteracting influence. I find it in the Gospel and in the text. I do not mean simply that I find there the noblest precept and the highest example. Both are there; yet precept and example, though often inspiring, as often only make us despair; they are so far beyond our weakness, that while we wonder, we know that we can not attain. If the Gospel only gave precept and example, it would not be the Gospel. It must reveal a new life, a life of which we may be partakers, as real and true as throbbing pulse and aching brain, and muscle and nerves, and flesh and blood. It must not merely bid us gaze upon a spiritual world, and tell us of its duties and its happiness, but take us into it, and first give to man the germ of the higher life it demands. If it ask for faith, it must give faith; if it ask for sacrifice, it must give the power to offer it; if it ask for victory, it must give the ability to conquer, and must only demand of us that we should use the gifts aright.
In short, the struggle which God has appointed for man requires, and must have, a supernatural life and supernatural gifts. St. Paul says: "I am crucified with Christ. . . . Christ liveth in me. The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God." The Cross of Christ, the life of Christ—not things of the past, but of the present; not His alone, but ours; a death with Him and a life with Him—these alone make struggle possible.
When St. Paul said, "I have been and am crucified with Christ"—for this the Greek implies—it was not with him an isolated expression, a strong figure, once used and not again. He says in another place, "God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world." And lest it should seem to be something personal to himself, he says in another place, "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts"; and in another place he declares that "the old man "(that is, our common, fallen nature) "is crucified with Christ." All this, too, he connects very plainly with the Sacrament of Baptism, when he says, "Know ye not that so many of you as have been baptized into Jesus Christ, have been baptized into His death?"
But this is not all. St. Paul does not merely speak of crucifixion and death; he connects it with life. He says, "Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God." Nor is this again a solitary expression. It is of the very essence of the Apostle's teaching. The Christian, as he teaches, not only dies and is buried with Christ, but is quickened together with Him. He rises unto Christ, he lives in Christ; nay, the Christian dwells in Christ, and Christ in the Christian. The Christian is a member of His body, as out of His flesh and out of His bones. Christ is called the Head of a body of which the Christian is a member; nay, that body is itself called Christ. And all this, too, St. Paul connects with Baptism. "Know ye not that so many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ?" "Buried with Him in Baptism, ye are risen with Him by the operation of the Holy Ghost." And, lest any one could doubt, he appeals to the inner consciousness of his hearers in proof of his assertion, "Know ye not of your own selves, that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?"
But this is not all. There is nothing in which Holy Scripture is more express than the assertion that the sacrifice on Calvary was once offered; that it was a full and perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; that by one offering He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. There is no truth to which we more fully assent than that our Lord has ascended into heaven, is set down at the right hand of God, and is in the midst of the adoring hosts. And yet that adoration is represented by St. John as offered to a Lamb as it had been slain. Whether it be of the four living creatures, and the four-and-twenty elders on the steps of the throne, or the numberless angels, ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands; or afar off, every creature which is in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and all that are in the sea—their hymn of praise is ever the same: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain! "Nay, the same Scripture which asserts so emphatically the oneness of Christ's sacrifice, is just as emphatic in dwelling on the perpetuity of the priesthood. He is a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedec; and as we speak of His priesthood, fall on the ear the words of institution of the Christian sacrifice: "This is My Body; this is My Blood; "offer this for My memorial; and St. Paul's comment on the words, "For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord's death till He come."
Nor is this all. Across the Scripture record lies a truth full of comfort and warning, and which the heart must accept. Christ is still the Good Shepherd. He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. Still, with pierced hands and feet, and brow marked with glorious scars, He waits to be gracious; while, on the other hand, there are words, the full import of which may we never realize, of crucifying the Son of God afresh and putting Him to an open shame.
Does any one object that all this—the Lamb as it had been slain, the perpetual priesthood, the showing forth of the Lord's death till He come, the tender sorrow, the marvelous pity, the ceaseless knocking at the door of our hearts by day and night, the being crucified afresh—is incompatible with the perfect bliss of the right hand of God? Ah! my brethren, Christ is human as well as Divine; He is for ever the God-man. What do we know of happiness? The best joys we dream of are most akin to tears; the highest happiness mortal man is capable of is to save a soul from death. How do we know, but that the highest bliss of perfect human happiness may need this longing anguish for the souls of others, for the perfection of its joy?
Brethren, this is the meaning of my argument. The crucifixion, death, and resurrection of our Lord, as historical facts, are events of the past; as energizing powers, they endure for evermore. The perpetual intercession, the awful pleading of the one sacrifice once offered, the eternal life in glory, are for ever going on. And from the living Saviour, by the outpoured Spirit, through the living Church, and in the living sacraments, flow the supernatural life, and supernatural gifts, which alone can make the struggle of life anything better than heart-rending failure or heathen stoicism.
But, one may say, is Christian struggle, with the help of sacramental grace, and this supernatural life, after all, so much better than any other struggle? Brethren, have ye ever tried it, or beheld it practiced? If it ever seem to be lacking, it is because men are content with sacraments, rather than seeking to find Christ in His sacraments. It is because they have not prayed for faith, and striven to increase their faith by deeds of faith. They have worked for the Church, as though it were a human club that depended on their efforts. They have given to the poor to gratify their own vanity or love of ease, or selfish pleasure in giving. They have confessed their sins, and rested in that as though it could take the place of effort. They have knelt at the Eucharist, and have not seen their living Lord behind the veil of the outward ordinance. Faith in Him, the unseen, ever present, incarnate Jesus; and because of faith—love. He is the beginning and end of all struggle; without Him, labor and almsgiving, absolution and communion, are all in vain. He is in them all, but we must find Him in them.
Beloved, my whole argument in connection with this solemn service upon which we are now to enter, will have made you realize that it is the blessed mission of the Christian priest to stand in Christ's stead as the steward of His mysteries, to speak to struggling souls the words of comfort and of peace. It is his to proclaim the word of life, to tell of the love stronger than death of Him who died that we might conquer. It is his to pour the mystic laver, and to be the minister who, through the power of the Holy Ghost, makes even the unconscious child a member of Christ and an heir of heaven. It is his to bear the awful commission, "Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained." It is his to plead the one sacrifice once offered, each time that upon the earthly altar the hidden glory beams upon the eye of faith. It is his to bind up the broken, to bring again the outcast, and to stand With the incense of his supplications rising to heaven, like Aaron "between the dead and the living until the plague is stayed." It is his to be the ambassador of unfailing power and eternal strength, and, over this world's battlefields, to bear in triumph the banner of that faith "which is the victory that overcometh the world." It is his to open wide the gates for the majestic march of the King of Glory, "who is the Lord of hosts, even the Lord mighty in battle." O my friends, how does he need your prayers, lest his hand tremble, or his foot stumble, or his heart fail!
And for you, my brethren, who are to-day to be made the leaders of the spiritual host, who fain would be the conquerors who shall overcome, consider what St. Paul meant when he said, "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." This was the result of a struggle on his own part, the noblest this world has ever witnessed. He beat under his body, and brought it into subjection, lest that by any means, when he had preached to others, he himself should be a castaway. He gave up all things, and had no certain dwelling-place, for a hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned world. In bitterness of sorrow, in the midst of all his labors, he confessed that he was the least of all the apostles, not meet to be called an apostle; and many a time, how often we know not, in the early morning when the night had passed away, he brake the bread of life for weary souls, and was fed himself as he offered for others. As he did all these things in Christ, for Christ, as unto Christ, his natural life became absorbed in the life of his Lord. Each movement of the flesh, each pulsation of passion, each struggle of the earthly spirit, each rising of the will, each revolt of the lower reason, was transfixed and transformed by the nails and the thorns of the Passion of Jesus. Love and faith and hope, and chiefly love, throbbed in their stead; and to him it became a literal truth that "to live was Christ, and to die was gain."
Seek, then, for the two gifts which chiefly made him what he was—Christian courage and Christian love. "We live in an age when cowardice in religious matters has been dignified into a virtue. Pray to God to make you bold to do his will. Dare to give up the world, with its pomps and its pleasure and vain applause. Be not afraid of its sneers or laughter, or, what one needs to dread much more, its tenderness and anxiety and solicitude. It will applaud you as long as you echo its own tone, but it cries out against fasting and prayer, and obedience and penitence, and the ever-recurring Eucharist. Dare to believe in Christ and the Bride of Christ, and to practice what you believe.
But there is another gift without which courage will become rashness; boldness, recklessness. Pray above all things that your souls may be tilled with the love of Jesus. Better than knowledge, better than faith, better than all other gifts, is the loftiest of all graces, the love of the Saviour. "Without it, good works, if they exist at all, become pharisaical; worship is changed into mere sentimentality; the soul is emptied of every lofty purpose, and withers and wastes. But once let it fill the soul, and the priest is transformed into another being. Ah! this is the hidden difference. He bears about with him the marks of the Lord Jesus. He is bold, yet fearful; strong, yet gentle; persevering, yet patient. Without means, single-handed, forsaken, even persecuted, he does his work well and bravely. Ay, and when the murky clouds begin to gather in the western sky, when the shadows of the evening fall fast and heavily, when the gloom of the dark mountains deepens about the tottering footsteps, from afar will sound that hymn of triumph St. Paul so long ago began, and which echoes on from age to age: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of glory, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me in that day."
O, infinite and incomprehensible Light, do Thou illumine them! Most high and unchanging Fortitude, do Thou make them valiant! Unfading and undying Love, be Thou their portion, now and for ever!