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 VICTORY OF FAITH.
(Preached at Fond du Lac, January 26th, 1879)
The last sermon preached by Dr. de Koven.
"This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith." —1 ST. JOHN v., part of verse 4.
BEAUTIFUL for situation and famous among cities was the city of Antioch. The stately mountains, the flowing Orontes, the luxurious climate, the glorious buildings, the street which stretched from one side of the city to the other, with its shady colonnades, the motley throng from East and "West which filled its streets, made it to the ancient world something like what Paris is to the modern. The story of the city tells of mighty generals who died there, of poets who passed their youths there, of emperors who visited and admired it. Macedonian kings, Roman emperors, Persian invaders, Saracen conquerors, devout crusaders, pass through its gates and dwell in its magnificent palaces, where the modern traveler finds only a few wretched huts, the silent ruins of towers and walls, and the mountains and the river which neither war, tempest, nor earthquake can utterly change.
But there is another memory that belongs to the city. The disciples "were first called Christians in Antioch." The moldering gate that still bears his name tells us that St. Paul preached there; the heart thrills with the story of the martyrdom of Ignatius, its Bishop. The burning eloquence of Chrysostom is still borne to our ears from the far-off past, and we remember Antioch not merely as the "Gate of the East," but as the seat of a great Christian Patriarchate, and its history as a wondrous record of the victories the faith has won.
Nor is there wanting to-day a marvelous memorial of the victory of Christianity in the Patriarchate of Antioch. In the center of it, in a mountain region not far from Antioch, are to be found the ruins of one hundred and fifty cities within a space of thirty or forty leagues. In the most glorious days of Christianity, when it ruled the Roman world, these Christian cities were invaded by either the Persians or the Saracens, and, as the story goes, forsaken by their inhabitants in a single night. Twelve hundred years have passed away since then, and, in spite of time and earthquake and the burning Syrian sun, the traveler who visits them scarce dares to call them ruins. Not as thoroughly preserved, indeed, as Pompeii or Herculaneum, they still tell the story of Christian civilization in the days when the Church had recently won its victory over persecution and tyranny. The signs of comfort and of peace appear on all sides. Bath-houses and stables, balconies and shaded porticoes, wine-presses, and even jars for preserving wine, yet remain. Still are to be seen magnificent churches, supported by columns, flanked by towers, surrounded by splendid tombs. Crosses and monograms of Christ are sculptured on most of the doors, and numerous inscriptions may be read upon the monuments. He who has visited Pompeii, with its sad record of the refinement and corruption of Rome, can not fail to notice the difference, as he reads written over the door of a house, "The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth for evermore"; and on another, "Lord, succor this house and them that dwell therein"; or on a tomb where the dead are sleeping, "Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge; no evil shall approach thee, no plague come nigh thy dwelling."
But what is most observable is the tone of triumph and victory that the inscriptions seem to breathe. On the porch of a house is written, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" and a sepulchral monument records the triumphant sentence, "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." Nay, even an obscure painter who, while engaged in decorating a tomb, tried, it would seem, his chisel on the wall of rock, as he rudely traced a monogram of Christ, in his enthusiasm as a liberated Christian, carved in the stone to remain for ages, touto nika, "This conquers."
The victory of faith, my brethren, this is my subject to-day—that triumphant strain which St. John proclaimed in the text; which Ignatius of Antioch in the presence of the Roman Emperor revealed when he said that his name was Theophorus, "one who bore God within him"; which martyrs and saints, confessors and doctors, from age to age, have carried on; which in our day is louder than the busy noises of earth; and which shall go on until the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of the Lord and of His Church. "This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith."
I must briefly remark, first, that the obvious meaning of the text is that the faith of Christ and in Christ, the faith that believes that Jesus is the Son of God, the faith of the Church, overcomes the world. The world is ever against it. If it has ever seemed to accept it, it has only been that it might corrupt, where it could not destroy. Thus the history of the Church has ever been a history of contests and a story of victories. Whenever there have been defeats, it has been because the faith has been forsaken; it has been because in some way the central truth that Jesus is the Son of God has been ignored or slighted. Whenever there have been victories that endured, it has been because this central truth has been vindicated and upheld. Around the Divinity of Christ, the union of His two natures in His one Divine Person, His threefold offices of Prophet, Priest, and King, the fullness of His atonement, the verity of His resurrection, the work of His Spouse and Body the Church, the reality of His Sacraments, the precious blessings of His Gifts, the combat has ever gathered. Now one and now another has been called to bear the banner of Christ into the midst of the foe. He has stood alone. Around him the surging hosts have gathered. He has seemed to fall overpowered and overwhelmed. The enemy has proclaimed its victory. But when the weary night has gone and the morning light has broken, still, with folds unspotted and unstained, the banner of the faith has fluttered in the morning breeze, and hands all cold in death have grasped it still—a staff and a stay for evermore. Thus the Creed of the Church, when with united voices we utter it, or bear it upward as well we may in a tide of harmonious melody, is the Church's song of victor; and the Amen at the end of it does not simply pray "So may it be," but "So it shall be" until the end of time. Thus, again, he who fights against the faith, or diminishes it in aught, or tampers with it, or is afraid to proclaim it, or basely shrinks from the danger of a contest, or explains it away, is so far joining himself to that evil world, which, however it seems to conquer, is verging ever to its final and total overthrow.
But, secondly, the text means that the faith of the individual Christian overcomes the world. What is the world? Who can easily draw the dividing line between it and the Church—between innocent pleasures and guilty compliance—between its pomps and vanities and the enduring realities? The word pomp conveys to our mind no such definite meaning as it did to the primitive Christian. When the solemn pomps, the stately procession, to celebrate a triumph or keep the Circensian games, swept by, with statues of the gods and all that made the religion of the ancient world beautiful; when the Colosseum was filled with its myriads of spectators rising tier upon tier, emperor, and senators, and knights, and vestal virgins, and Roman matrons; when the gladiators marched by all ready for the contest, and cried, "Hail, Caesar! they who are about to die salute thee"; when, amid the cries of sport and the applause of the multitude, arose suddenly the fiercer shout, "Christians to the lions!" they needed no careful explanations or nice definitions to show what was meant by the pomps and vanities of this wicked world.
But now, how hard it seems to distinguish. Into what waste of time and argument is he drawn who tries to prove this or that amusement, this or that form of enjoyment, this or that success in what may be allowable, the marks of the wicked world. It hems us in on every side. It is about our path and about our bed. It is in our dress and equipage, and the way we spend our time; it is in our wives and daughters; it is in our newspapers and in our books; it is in our pews, and churches, and vestries. It is heard in many an eloquent sermon, and many a minister is, alas! its most melancholy illustration. Nay, who shall dare to draw his sword and fight his fight in that contest, lest he find, when the foe is slain, that he has been guilty of parricide or suicide? Viewed in this light, there is a marvelous power in the words of the text. It is like some other passages of Scripture: it does not say what we would expect. It does not say that faith is the means by which the world is overcome. It does not say that by faith the battle is fought and the victory is gained. It says that faith is the victory itself. It does not bid us marshal our forces against the world. It does not command us to contend with this or that evil. It does not require us to array on one side faith and on the other the world, and assure us that when the weary fight is done, through blood and toil and bitter contest, the latter shall be overcome. It draws us up into a higher plane. It leaves the world far below. It lets it move on for the time unheeded. It does not care for its hurried rush, its shout of defiance, its cry of victory. It places before the soul the eternal realities—heaven and hell, life and death, the power of the sacraments, the influence of prayer, the ministrations of the angels, the watchful love of an overruling Providence, and, above them all and in them all, the Incarnate Saviour uniting man and human nature to the Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Three in One and One in Three.
The soul is bidden to believe, and if it respond—if it hath faith, I will not say so much as a grain of mustard-seed, for then it could remove mountains, but never so little—in His sight who has said, "A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench," the victory is won. The battle has been fought where the world had no portion, in another sphere than where it moves with its pomps and vanities; and as the soul passes on, though never so feebly, strong in the strength of the power of God, the world owns, now with cries of fear, now with unwilling applause, in some little child, or feeble woman, or true-hearted man, or saintly priest, that it has found another conqueror!
The faith which overcomes the world will have five marks, my brethren, by which it may be known:
1. It will pray. It will believe the Divine promise, "Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you." It will know that whatsoever it asks in the name of Jesus it must obtain.
2. It will believe in the ministration of the angels, and know that as they do their service in heaven, so, by God's appointment, they will succor and defend us on earth. An heir of salvation, it knows that there are ministering spirits sent forth to succor him.
3. It will acknowledge, with grateful love and an ever-increasing acceptance, that there is an overruling present Providence that guides his path and leads him in the way by which he ought to walk. He will cry with the Psalmist, "Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit, and whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I climb up into heaven, Thou art there; if I go down to hell, Thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning and remain in the uttermost parts of sea, even there also shall Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand shall hold me."
4. It will love the Church of God, its houses of prayer, its consecrated ministers, its holy services, its blessed 'sacraments, its mighty spiritual powers. It will pray for the peace of Jerusalem, for they shall prosper who love her.
5. And beyond all these, it will find in them all, and see hidden behind the outward veil, Jesus, the Mediator of the New Covenant, and the Cross of Jesus with its outstretched arms. It will be filled with a burning, unsatisfied, yet ever-satisfying love for the Saviour of men. It will own, in short, a personal allegiance to a personal Master.
Do you ask me, my brethren, what will be the attitude of such a faith as this toward our complicated civilization, toward this marvelous result of time and Providence which is found in our modern life? I can not answer. I have no rules which can specifically meet the varying responsibilities of different stations, and apparently conflicting duties. But there are certain things which I am confident, if they do not already, will soon make the dividing line between the life of faith and the life of the world more distinct than it is now. I believe the time is soon to come when Christian people will have to practice a plainer mode of living, a simpler style of dress, a less luxurious pampering of the body, a sterner rule, a more austere life, a greater curbing of what they, accept in amusements, in fashion, in attire, in equipage, in tone of thought.
To amass a huge fortune, and then hoard it meanly or spend it coarsely, can scarcely be regarded as the end and aim of an immortal soul. There are mutterings in the air; there are signs and portents, if men will only heed them. "Why are the intellectual and the high-minded, the grave gentlemen and true patriots of a generation scarcely gone, so rarely to be found in the halls of legislation? What meant those mutterings of communism which only the other day burst forth in what had seemed to be a time of unexampled prosperity? What mean these stories of sin and shame which we scarcely dreamed that we could ever hear of in this land of freedom and education? Are not our children, my brethren—our children, fair and gentle, brave and innocent—are they not inheriting too often enfeebled bodies and weakened wills and irresolute purposes, and, guided by the poorest examples, sent forth to fight a battle, never so terrible as it is to-day, with the curse of our guilt added to their own frail weakness?
Ah, beloved, as the battle still rages around us, I call you not so much to a contest with this or that evil, this or that fault of character. This indeed is a part of each man's necessary and daily struggle, but in the midst of it we sometimes forget the divine method of gaining the victory. Many a man goes toiling and failing all his life, working at everything else save in the appointed path of conquest. To surrender the will, to humble the pride, to become like a little child; to believe in the unseen; to know that there is another world than that about us, to enter it by Baptism, to live in it by the Holy Communion; to be guided by the voice and hand of an invisible Master; to be drawn nearer and nearer to that blessed Home of which death is only the portal; to see the solemn pageant of the world's great activities go marching by as in a spectacle; to be in it, yet far above it; to despise none of its beauty or goodness or excellence, and yet to have the life hid with Christ in God; above its din and noise, to hear celestial harm or peace; sober rest in this is faith lies; in the midst of its Hurry and bustle, to be at to care neither for its honors nor its persecutions; in prosperity, patient and resigned in adversity, at life, at rest in death, one with Christ for ever—the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith!