"But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept."--I COR. xv. 20.
WE are spending our quiet day, my brothers and sisters in Christ, somewhat in the way of serious and deep reasoning, and are so making it a day of serious exercise of the intellectual and spiritual faculties; not because high spiritual truth is gained by the intellect, by itself, for when it has done its utmost, the affections of the heart have to be aroused, that all our faculties may be lifted up by the power of the Holy Spirit into communion with God, for we have the capability, even in this world, of enjoying real communion with God.
If this is hard mental exercise for you, and I fear it is for some, especially for you, my younger brethren, and in some sort not a rest, yet it is not bad, for you will become more rooted and grounded in the faith, and more steadfast, less likely to be moved this way and that by every blast of strange doctrine.
So we saw this morning that the doctrine of the Resurrection remains, in spite of the objections being raised as to its being miraculous, and the proofs have only been strengthened by the evidence adduced, just as the cavils raised as to the date and authorship of one of the Gospels have only doubled the proofs in its favour.
It remains, and is bound up with Christianity as a whole, and with the moral character of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many of you are aware that in these last days another way of objecting to the Resurrection has arisen. They say, "Let alone the Gospels, and the books of the Bible; let the story we are told there be true, but still the Resurrection is not true," and they have tried to account for it by what is called the theory of visions. People have tried to upset the old belief by saying that it was not a real fact, but a vision only, an apparition, that they thought they saw Him, and that was all!
Those who saw Him first, like S. Mary Magdalene, were, they say, of excitable temperaments. The women who went to the sepulchre were very earnest, and very eager, and they wanted very much to see Him, and so they thought they saw Him. The disciples were in a state of ecstasy, and S. Paul uses the very word -vision in describing what he saw, "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision." And so they represent the whole story as only the outcome of the anxious longing of the disciples to see their Lord. Now, what are we to say to this theory of visions? Will it stand? I believe if we look at it honestly, in its origin, in its development, and in its cessation, we shall find it untenable and unreasonable.
First, as to its origin. It has been admitted, psychologically as we call it, it cannot be explained by visions. In order for this theory of visions to be true, it would be necessary for all who saw it to be exceedingly full of the belief that He would appear again, but this does not appear to have been the fact. History does not show that they were full of ecstatic expectation. When S. Mary Magdalene saw Him first in the garden, she was not in a state of ecstatic expectation. It was very much the other way. When she first came to the garden and found Him gone, she thought some one had taken Him away, and asked the gardener where they had laid Him--that was her first thought. When the women came and found the tomb empty, and the angels told them that the Lord was risen, and they came and told the others, and said they had not seen Him, but had found the tomb empty, they doubted what was said. They were not in a state of ecstatic expectation, but were filled with sorrow and dejection. They thought the women had told them mere idle tales, and would not believe them. When S. Thomas was told they had seen the Lord he would not believe. He doubted, and said that unless he saw the prints of the nails he would not believe. When the two disciples were going to Emmaus, and our Lord came and walked by their side, at first they did not know Him. They were full of sorrow. They were very sad, and when He asked them why they were so sad, they said, "We had hoped that this was He which should have redeemed Israel." "We had hoped this. And to-day there are things said about His rising from the dead, but we don't know, we don't know!" They were not excited. They were not lying in a trance by the side of the road. They were very sorrowful, and very practical. They were not lying by the side of the road, but they had walked all the way from Jerusalem, side by side", along the road. People in a state of rhapsody don't do that. But they were quite the reverse.
When He appeared to the disciples in Galilee we are plainly told some doubted. History depicts the moral condition of those who saw Him, as not such as they would wish to produce who would pass the theory of visions off upon us. Indeed, this theory has had to be given up as to its origin, because the requirements are wanting.
As to its origin, so in its development, or mode of spreading, it fails. How can we account for so many different people seeing the same vision? The women told the apostles they had seen Him. It would be a psychological perplexity how precisely the right condition could be created in them, nor is it reasonable to suppose that so many could have brought their internal desire so strongly to the same point, simultaneously, rapidly at the same moment, so as to have created the apparition. And this difficulty becomes greater as the numbers increase, and when it comes to be five hundred brethren at once, the psychological difficulty becomes almost an impossibility. That five hundred should, just at the same moment, be in such a state of ecstasy as to project the same vision, is, in itself, a much greater difficulty than the difficulty we are asked to believe in--the fact of the Resurrection.
So the facts do not warrant this theory in its development, or spread. It breaks down here too. So, too, it breaks down in its cessation. How is it if there were ten appearances of our Blessed Lord during forty days, and it is granted that these did occur, that afterwards He did not appear at all? Except to S. Paul, there is no appearance that we know of but the vision of S. John, and the time when the heavens were opened and S. Stephen saw Him standing at the right hand of God, and that is different. Why should these appearances suddenly cease after the forty days, so that He was not seen again? Had He not appeared and declared it was the same Body, "That it is I Myself," and had been in and out, and had eaten with them? How are we to account for the sudden cessation of these visits, if they were visionary? It is quite unaccountable, if the love and longing of the disciples continued the same. It ought to have gone on spreading, if the theory was to hold good. The new believers ought to have seen Him. There was the same intense love and longing among them, but they do not say that the Lord appeared to them. Why is this, but for the fact that after forty days He ascended into heaven? Those people who try to raise a difficulty, and account for these appearances as the internal creation of the fancy of expectant and ecstatic people, really create a much greater difficulty than the fact itself. Indeed, the theory breaks down; as in its origin and mode of progress, so in its cessation, for it stops abruptly, with no reason.
Yet there remains the appearance to S. Paul, and that is very much pressed upon us, for he himself said it was a vision, and they declare that it was only a vision created by the expectation of the apostle, and the belief that He would appear. Look at Acts xxvi., and read it honestly, and take the context with the words quoted, and you will see that there is no doubt that S. Paul considered the appearance of our Lord to himself, as of the same kind as that to the other apostles who saw the Saviour after He had risen from the dead, and he definitely speaks of having seen Him, the Saviour, Who had risen from the dead. He had no idea that it was the created Image of his own heated fancy, but an appearance of the real, living Jesus, Who' had risen from the dead. Now look at the 8th, 19th, 22nd and 23rd verses of this chapter of the Acts; in the 19th verse he says, "I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision." But in the 8th verse, when he was arguing before the king, he says, "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" Now S. Paul is not the sort of man to make an illogical slip in an argument, and he speaks here plainly of the Resurrection from the dead, "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?"
We have seen that there are various properties in God, reserves of power, and knowledge, and wisdom after the creation; why, then, is it incredible that God should raise the dead? Then, in the igth verse, he speaks, as we have seen, of having seen the heavenly vision, and in the 22nd and 23rd verses he goes on to say, "I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come: that Christ should suffer, and that He should be the first that should rise from the dead."
We are, then, taking a liberty with S. Paul's words, "heavenly vision," if we understand that he used them wilfully to express what was merely an imagination of his own heated fancy, when the whole argument points to his having seen the real risen Saviour.
Just the same result is attained if we follow the sequence of appearances in I Cor. xv. There we hear of six appearances of our Lord, and these appearances are not mentioned as visions, and the sixth is, "Last of all He appeared unto me also." It would be an illogical and wrong distinction to speak like this, "He appeared unto me also," at the end of a series of appearances, if he had only seen some imaginary phantom. It is placing an unwarrantable construction on his narration of facts. "He was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve, after that He was seen of above five hundred brethren at once, after that He was seen of James, then of all the apostles, and last of all He was seen of me also." S. Paul is simply enumerating a series of facts--so obviously, the "heavenly vision" and all he saw was not the result of his own fancy.
Brethren, I might indeed apologize for troubling you, a congregation of faithful believers, with all these proofs, but before proceeding I have one homely word to say. If you know these things, happy indeed are you, and if you, my mothers and sisters in Christ, have the charge of children; if in your own homes you have the inestimable gift of children committed to your charge, or to help to teach; or if as sisters you have that mysterious power of influencing brothers, I ask you, in the name of the young men I have to teach, to do what you can that the young around you may learn these things while they are young. For, believe me, the best hope of retaining young men in the faith lies in the instruction they have received at home. What they learn at home, or at some homelike school, before they encounter the roughness of the world and hear of these theories of visions and criticism or what not, sticks by them, and they are the strongest who can fall back on what they were taught at home when they were boys. All should learn the faith when young. One of the greatest dangers of the day is that at so few, if at any, of the public schools is the fullness of the faith taught to these poor lads, and it goes hard with them when they have to encounter the doubts and difficulties of the day, with the temptations of the flesh urging them to take the lower side, and the world ready with all its plans to captivate and ensnare them. All these temptations can be put away if only they have had the inestimable blessing of Christian instruction at home. Do not, then, grow weary of teaching the facts of the faith. It is sowing, and after a time the corn will come up. The children may sometimes weary of the Scripture lesson, and feel they do not want it. Never mind if they think it dull; persevere in it, it will be of use hereafter. If you know these things, my dear mothers and sisters in Christ, do persevere in teaching them to the young in your own homes.
Now we will proceed. We have touched on two or three objections lately raised, and we have seen how we can accept this old fact as true. Thank God for it. Now what are the results on our life? These facts of the faith, have, or ought to have influence over our personal conduct and life. If you say to me, "I know the fact of the Resurrection is true, don't trouble me with proofs," I will turn and say to you, "Take care that this knowledge has the right effect on your own personal life." One effect it ought to have is this. There should be a peculiar separation. Our Lord, when He rose, left the linen clothes. He left the world, in a sense. He did not any more go in and out amongst them, and mix so freely with everybody, as He did before. He was not seen this way and that, by all. There was a separation. He was only seen by His faithful followers and disciples, not by the people out in the rough world. There was a peculiar separation. He companied with, and appeared to, only His own faithful ones, in a way quite different to what He did before.
Now, I am well aware that this has been made the ground of objection and doubt, that He was only seen by those who believed in Him after He was risen, and His enemies never saw Him. Now, why was He not seen by His enemies and the rough people out in the world? There is a subtle truth contained in this. Because it wants spiritual eyes to behold the risen Lord, spiritual insight, and a pure heart, and faith and love to see Him. It would have robbed us of a very precious truth if He had been seen everywhere, if the veil had been withdrawn. It is a very precious truth for us, for it shows us the blessedness of the pure in heart, that they only shall see God. We may well pause and ask if we have this clearness of faith in the risen Saviour, and if not, why not? Is there a film of sin before our eyes which hides Him from us? It is no good to stand before a beautiful picture if we are blind, and we shall be blind after all if we have not the spiritual insight which the Holy Spirit alone can give. Dear people, if I have put some of you a little upon your mettle in taking too low a ground with you, I will now turn upon you and ask, Have you that conscious companionship with the risen Saviour which ought to be so clear if He is an object of faith?
There was a peculiar separation about Him; so there should be for us if we believe in the risen Lord. "Set your affections on things above," only do not be troubled about that, and think it must be wrong to love things here. I will tell you something I was told, which helped me very much about that text, "Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth."
Now look at that third chapter of Colossians. Look at the end of that same chapter. There we see "Husbands, love your wives," etc. This same S. Paul who tells you to set your affections on things above, there teaches you to love your husband and your children. It is the same apostle, writing the same letter, under the guidance of the same Spirit. So you are to set your affections on your husband, and wife, and children. There is nothing wrong in loving them with a true home love. And you may admire, and love, and rejoice in all the wonderful pleasures and beauties of the spring time which God has in reserve for us. What is wanted is a definite separation from anything we believe to be wrong. We must at any cost let that go.
Then we must be continually rising higher and higher, and growing in spiritual understanding, and interpretation of the things round about us in this world, reading through the outer veil and seeing the inner meaning. We may enjoy the good things which God has given us, if we are living with the peculiar separateness which the saints of God should live in. We shall be gaining a fuller and clearer perception of spiritual things, and gaining a greater independence of the things of sense.
There are some here who will agree with me more or less when I say, If you read Goethe you are not rising onward and upward. If you read Schiller you rise at least to the love of Fatherland. If you read Dante you rise higher unto the realms of spiritual truth, but when you read the Psalms of David there are two truths of which we are most happily and most constantly reminded: the Personality of God, and our own personality. "O God, Thou art my God." "I have set God always before me." There is a kind of peculiar purity in it. We must be always going on, rising through and up. We may enjoy the beauties in these poets; we may admire, but we must not lie down and rest in them, except in so far as they lead us up higher.
So in the things around us. There must be a peculiar separation. As year by year passes, and we compare ourselves with what we were last year, we should ask ourselves, How far am I conforming myself to this secret separation? Am I getting a greater clearness in the knowledge of right and wrong, and an increasing penetration in things spiritual, and in this one thing is there in me this secret separation? Observe that our risen Lord separated Himself off from the things of the world.
Then there should be consecration. Our Blessed Lord rose and ascended into heaven, and having ascended, He offers continually before God that Body in which He rose. The completion of the act of consecration is the continual offering before the Father, the continual pleading of that Sacrifice which He had made for the sins of the world.
And if the Resurrection implies consecration on the part of our Lord it should be the same with us. I would venture to suggest that this word, consecration, contains three aspects. It implies separation, and sanctification, and it also implies reunion. And I would ask you how far these elements show themselves in you as a consequence of your belief in the fact of the Resurrection. To Him it was a step within the veil to complete the offering of Himself. How is it with myself? Do I find, year by year, an increasing separation from what is wrong? And as to sanctification. Do I find year by year, as Easter comes round, an increasing sanctification of body and mind, a greater purity of heart, and an increasing dedication of myself to the service of God? Am I realizing more truly that this belief in the Resurrection implies consecration?
Brethren, think of these things, and on this quiet day ask yourself, What is the purpose of my life? Am I using all the powers I have so as to serve Him as best I may? What am I doing? What am I striving to do?
So we see the necessity of these two results, separation and consecration, and the third is reunion. Is it not so? The Resurrection of our Blessed Lord should give us an additional and peculiar hope and comfort in the thought of meeting again those who have died and passed on before us. Surely we ought to remember that there was no further change in our Lord's Body, after the Resurrection, before the Ascension, and that in it He ascended into heaven. Well, then, we may suppose that this was intended to give us something of an idea as to what our own spiritual bodies will be.
Then we may observe this--our Lord was recognized. The disciples knew Him, and He appealed to them as if they ought to have known Him. "Handle Me and see that it is I Myself." And this recognition was demanded in His risen and now ascended Body. So we shall recognize the bodies of our dear ones in heaven. We even know this, that His Voice was the same, for He was recognized by His Voice, by the penitent when she was in the garden. He said unto her, Mary! Then she knew Him. This may be a great help and comfort to us. Just as we do know that we shall exist after death, and as we do know, by the promise made to the penitent thief that we shall be with Him, "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise," so here, these facts concerning the Resurrection, confirm our hopes that there will be a full and firm recognition one of another. The spiritual body may be somewhat different, but it will be the very same, and the recognition will be real. We shall be able to perceive, recognize, and know, each other, yes, even to the very tone of the voices we love, for S. Mary Magdalene heard the same tone, and by His Voice she knew Him!
There is a verse in the Thirty-ninth Psalm, "O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength, before I go hence, and be no more seen." And the words, "that I may recover my strength," may be translated in another way, "That I may shine again," and the idea is of light breaking out afresh. After the darkness of night then morning dawns, and heralds the coming day. "O spare me a little, until the light breaks out, till the heaviness of night is past, and the light rests on me of the dawning day."
It is a fact known to those who have watched by the bed of the dying, that there is often, just before death, a peculiar smile, a freshness which conies over them, reminding us of the freshness of early youth. Surely it is the dawn coming upon them, the breaking of the light of the endless day of Paradise! And this is rendered by the words, "That I may smile again." After sorrow, light.
In conclusion, as I have ventured to trouble you so far, I will add a thought from my own life. I speak in all gratitude to God. Since I spoke to you last, I have passed through what has been, by far, the heaviest trouble of my life, yet, I have experienced, by God's goodness, a most sustaining power from this old truth, the doctrine of the Resurrection, and the knowledge of the reunion of souls after death. [The allusion is to the death of his mother. Mrs. King died in May, 1883.] It certainly has been to me a truth more sure, more precious, more sustaining, and more brightly hopeful than I ever thought it could have been. And I desire to offer to any one who is now passing through a time of sorrow and affliction, this verse, which has been such a comfort to me. "O spare me a little, that I may smile again."
It is past what one would believe possible, when sorrow is upon us, the cheerfulness, the joy, the hope which can be given us, when God has given us a real belief in the living Christ, and the certainty of reunion with those we love, in His Presence. If we are really rooted and grounded in this old truth of the Resurrection, it ought to have these three effects on our lives.
(I) Separation. (2) Consecration. And (3) A greater realization of reunion, which is called the Communion of Saints.