Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.

[85] IX

Capernaum: Love Active

"He went about doing good." ACTS x. 38.

JESUS lived a busy life. We are told that at one time He had no leisure so much as to eat; that at another crowds ran round the Lake of Gennesaret, so as to forestall the boat when He crossed to the other side; that the multitude thronged Him, and once in Capernaum they had taken the roof off so as to let down a paralysed man. Capernaum was His headquarters. But He was always moving about. He had not where to lay His head.

So little place in the record has that anemic lay figure of lily-white gentleness which some would paint as the portrait of Jesus of Nazareth. Not the least noteworthy fact about Him is the harmony and exquisite balance of His activities. Yet clearly this confession of crowded hours was vivid in the minds of the evangelists. Yet He never lost his calm. That serenity has [85/86] misled many; just as a quiet manner often disguises strength or even cruelty of will, so the gentleness of Jesus disguises from some the burning passion of love which consumed Him. Jesus never gets excited. There is no trace of flurry, no overlapping in His work. Yet every moment of the day was filled.

Still more ludicrous is the notion of Jesus as One Who could not face reality. His whole method is concrete. He shows no interest in abstraction. He is blamed for lack of theory. Those vivid images and illuminating metaphors, the parables so simple yet so profound, could have come only from One Who was alive to all that went on around Him. No recluse, no dream-haunted absentee from the highways of men, could have been so ready with plain tales, and metaphors, how perfect and unliterary, flashing like stars. The gospels are a model for style. They arrest the affectations of a sophisticated culture, delighting in echoes, unable to say a plain thing plainly. Had Jesus been a hermit or a student or a professional of any kind, there would be in them more of artifice, less of life.

Jesus' activity is indeed remarkable. Yet more so is the way in which He was active. Nothing of policy is here, nothing of programme. He was not an organizer. It is doubtful how [86/87] far it is correct to say that He founded the Church. By fulfilling the meaning of Judaism, He caused it to be founded, in so far, that is, as the Church was something new. The Call of Abraham is the real founding of the Church. Dr. Goudge has reminded us that we ARE the Jewish Church, and inherit the promises. [1] [(1) Goudge, The Mind of S. Paul.] That must be so, if we are right in thinking Jesus the Messiah.

Our Lord did little else than found the Apostolic College, so far as institutions went. Doubts have been thrown on His institution of the sacraments, except indirectly. These doubts seem to me singularly lacking in historical insight. No one acquainted with other fields of historical inquiry would say that it is a likely interpretation of the Words of institution that our Lord had nothing to do with the origin of the Eucharist. Supposing it were so, it would make no difference to the theology or practical value, for the Catholic contention is that our Lord is continuous with the life of the Church. No one doubts that the Eucharist had developed very soon after Pentecost. What I want to emphasize here is the absence of grandiose programme. Jesus of Nazareth was, and the rest came out of it. That is all.

A story told of a famous Victorian [87/88] schoolmaster is pertinent here. When a candidate for a new post, he was asked at the interview whether he did this or that, and taught the sixth, lectured on Divinity, and so forth. "No," was his reply to all his questioners. At last one governor flashed out, "Then perhaps, Mr. Blank, you would be good enough to tell us what you did do at Dunchester?" "I walked round," was the reply. They gave him the post.

Some such reply might have been made by our Lord to any hustling ecclesiastic. He went about. He walked up and down the hills of Galilee, He went from village to little town and across to the parts beyond Jordan. He healed one person here and a group of people there. One day He stopped and took luncheon with a publican. Another time He dined with a Pharisee. He stopped His mule to talk to a few children; on the Sabbath He would go into the synagogue for the usual service, and if asked would teach. All is easy, natural, free. He moved about diffusing a gracious presence. We cannot picture Him working to a scheduled time-table.

How different all this from the political Churchman or even from the laborious student or the professional philanthropist. How odd Jesus would look by the side of a [88/89] perspiring ecclesiastic, never so happy as when addressing a diocesan board. How difficult he would be to classify for the organizing incumbent, who has all his work docketed on the card-catalogue system. One such man said once to me of a parish, that no useful work was done in it, because the curates did nothing but visit. Lately some one has been saying that visiting is an impertinence. That is not my experience as a parish priest. Personal work, it is said, we must set aside in favour of boards and committees. Doubtless personal work has its dangers. If it had not, it would not be much good. But at least it is the method of our Lord. The other is not. It has always been the method of those who in the common opinion have been most like our Lord, a S. Francis, a FĂ©nelon, a Father Stanton. With the example of Jesus' ministry before him, it is little short of amazing that any Christian teacher should deprecate personal individual work, and cry up system.

So far from personal work being the defect of the Church of England, it is its absence which is the cause of most of our troubles now. So far as a large number of Churchpeople go, preaching is the main means of grace. Communion is rare, intercourse with the priest is slight. Sermons they do hear. Now sermons are a good thing. The Tractarian depreciation of preaching [89/90] has done harm. To brilliant preachers it is very good advice "not to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think." On the average man, however, this tendency is evil; for it makes him think he need take no trouble about his sermons. The low level of preaching about which so much is said is due partly to this. Preaching is sometimes the best means of bringing one man's vital experience into outward expression. Neither preaching nor book-writing is exactly individual work. People talk of the preaching of Jesus. But our Lord was not a preacher in the strict sense. He was the utterer of vivid images, and single phrases, like, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Crowds listened to His parables. But if you read the characteristic preachers of any age, you would find little to remind you of His method. Christian preaching was developed under the influence of the schools of rhetoric, so flourishing in the antique empire. S. Augustine was a professor of rhetoric before he became a Christian. Rhetoric is not always a bad thing. If you are to speak to people in masses it is well to know how to do it. But rhetoric, whether good or bad, has nothing to do with the sayings of Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth was Love Active. He spoke just as He healed diseases, and taught deep [90/91] truths. He had none of the paraphernalia of the orator, any more than He had of the professional healer or the trained scholastic. His work was effective, because it was like play. All the finest things are like that. Drudgery and hardship come first; afterwards a fine spontaneity. It is obvious in what we call games. It is true of all the arts. I expect also that it is so with the higher forms of business and with the professional work of lawyers and doctors, of teachers, and even of the rare politicians who rise above vulgar aims. Work is at its best when (after long drudgery) methods have been assimilated, and our chief delight is the play of activities. That is why they say that in middle life a man's real play is his work.

Jesus was like that. But He was not obsessed by it. No task is so important that He cannot interrupt it for good reason. He went about doing good. We with our committees and our engagements and our strategics of evangelization are apt to have no time for mere kindness. We are too important. Sympathy is impossible to many a Christian owing to the zeal with which his time is mapped out. If we are selfish it is with a good conscience, ad majorem dei gloriam. That is a peculiar temptation of us clergy. But all good people are apt to copy the Levite who passed by on the other side. We [91/92] need to be loving God all the time, not to be so deeply absorbed in the means of serving Him that we forget the end.

This activity was essential if Jesus were to reveal love to men. We could not have the Incarnation without it. It is no Christian notion of God and His lovers, which sets them in a paradise apart, relieved from all obligations to society. That may be oriental pessimism or pagan stoicism. It is not Christianity, however much some Christians now and then give way to it. Yet it is a natural result of individualist religion. If religion be a matter only between the soul and God, then social activity will not be of its essence: it is merely something we choose to do.

We saw last week, on the topic of authority, that it all turns on the question whether membership in the Christian society is essential to the making of the Christian, or whether it be a convenient afterthought.

If the Church is integral to the Christian life, then active love, which is the expression of brotherhood, is essential. Yet how far we are, even devout Christians, from realizing this. People who kneel side by side at the altar would do anything rather than meet at the same table. Some congregations, even among those which preen themselves on their Churchmanship, are [92/93] far from the spirit of fellowship. Eclectic bodies of individuals drawn from everywhere, they have no natural cohesion, like a parish in the country. They do not feel themselves a community, except by the grace of God. Sometimes that seems absent.

On another side it is worse. How far can it be said that the Church promotes brotherhood between the classes in England? Do the wage-earners look upon us as the embodiment of fellowship or love? If they do not, why not? Do Churchpeople behave as such? What is their attitude in any labour crisis? Is it one of sympathetic understanding? Does their prejudice lie on the side of the poor or the rich and the latter, remember, means the comfortable classes, not merely the folks with large incomes? What is their cry, dividends or the lives of the people which make dividends possible? In the troubles last year in Wales, how many of those who denounced the men took any pains to learn the facts? How many of them knew either that the owners were making huge war profits, or that the men were demanding only what had been conceded by mine-owners else-where? The poor are not always right. I think they were wrong then, since the war was a fact. But why should Churchmen be ostentatious of sympathy with the top-dog, and so timid of [93/94] giving unwise help to the poor? It is wrong to help the poor unwisely, but it is more wrong to pander to the self-complacency of the rich.

These problems, you say, are hard; I don't know what to think. They are. I am not saying that any solution is obligatory. What I am saying is that we as Christians ought to be worried about social justice more than unbelievers are. Not about comfort. There a materialist may well be more zealous than we need be. Yet it is not lack of comfort, it is a sense of economic injustice which is the rankling sore in our existing social system.

Above all this Jesus' life rebukes the selfish religionist. Men may be in earnest, yet all the while their religion is a personal luxury, a matter of taste. Modern transport facilities make this easier. In large towns every one can select the church he likes. The moment he is annoyed he can leave it without disloyalty. Eclecticism is rampant. Churches cater for this or that taste, music or preaching or ritual or what not. Even the Catholic movement suffers from this spirit, although it is its polar opposite. The spirit of the conventicle is not a matter of doctrine. It consists in making religion an affair of a coterie. Yet zeal is a good thing, and where this is absent a man cannot be bound to attend the church he most dislikes. How, then, are we to distinguish [94/95] between zeal for Christ and His Church and mere excitement about a hobby of our own? The best criterion is that of the text, Active Love. If you go about doing good, your Church is to you something more than a luxury. Our Lord's active love affected His work in yet another way. His teaching is not abstract: It never reeks of a class-room. There is nothing stuffy or second-hand about it, nothing learnt by heart. It is universal, human. Much is made just now of the atmosphere of the Jewish world of that day, and on those points such knowledge may help us to understand Him. But it is curious how this provincial among provincials has struck the most universal note in all history. People say that our Lord does not discuss ideas; certainly He does not lay down a system like Plato. Yet the work of genius is always the work of intuition: even in science this is true, as witness the case of Newton or Darwin. The systematizer who works out its implication comes later. Our Lord did not talk technical terms, but whole philosophies, like that of S. Thomas Aquinas, [This is not to deny the debt of S. Thomas to Aristotle.] are based upon Him. It is because He is the Truth, not because He spake the truth, that our Lord was a stimulus to the human mind. That Life which is the Light of [95/96] men has flamed out into wonderful beauty in every kind of art. The charge against Jesus that He was not a specialist is true in the sense of fact. The implied condemnation, that because He was not an academic theologian He had nothing to teach, is ludicrous, especially to those who have acquaintance with academic theologians.

Let us pray God, that we may learn from the life at Capernaum; that our piety be never selfish, but that active love may show itself in our lives and make men take note "that we have been with Jesus."

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