GREAT pity would it be that this solemn and happy occasion should be allowed to pass away, without earnest effort in us all to turn it to good account; that the dedication of this holy and beautiful house may be honoured with that, which is indeed of more price than all gifts however costly, the winning some souls to Christ. As we trust it will be so hereafter by God's blessing, so let it be our prayer, that this beginning may be a happy earnest and pledge of blessings, which generations yet unborn may find in this place.
I have made choice of those words of the holy Apostle for the subject of this discourse, not only because the occasion itself for which we are gathered together suggests such thoughts; but also because the main stress which the Apostle evidently lays upon prayer, intercession, and giving of thanks implies, that our estimate of the proper work of religion cannot be right unless we assign its due place to this particular part of our religious duty.
Not that I would for one moment be understood to join in any cry so senseless as that of undervaluing the other duties of the ministerial office, such as public preaching, and applying the saving doctrine of Christ our Master to the hearts and consciences of men: but, even for the sake of the due discharge of that, as of all other religious offices and duties, prayer, both in public and in private, being absolutely necessary, I suppose it may not be unseasonable to lay hold of this present opportunity for a few observations upon this subject.
No one can read these words of the holy Apostle without being struck with the way in which they describe the character of the Litany, which the Church has appointed to be "sung or said after Morning Prayer, upon Sundays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, and at other times when it shall be commanded by the Ordinary." The word Litany means, as you will see if you look at your Prayer Book, a general supplication, a supplication chiefly of a penitential character, but supplication mixed with prayers deprecating God's wrath, with intercessions, and with giving of thanks. In no part of our service, if perhaps we except the Psalms for the day, have the people greater share; if said by the priest alone without the people, or by the people alone without the priest, it would lose much of its power. Nay, if the priest says his part, but the people are silent, then no prayer whatever is offered up to God by His Church, for one part is not complete in itself. The words said by the priest form no prayer, till they are filled up by the response of the congregation. The priest may supply what is wanting as far as he himself is concerned, by adding mentally the petition of the people; and this he must do, even when the people respond, lest he should himself lose the benefit of these prayers. But, when the people are silent, even though the priest thus mentally supplies their lack of service, yet there is no offering of prayer to God from His Church. The Litany, you see, is of a mixed character; there is the priest interceding, and the people responding; and this is derived from the usage of the first Christians. The substance of the Litany in our Prayer Book, is taken from that of Gregory, who was Bishop of Rome, A.D. 590, and compiled the Litany for that Church from the devotions then generally in use. The Litany was wont to be said in processions of the priest and people. The traces of these processions remain in the custom that still prevails in some places of walking the parish boundaries in Rogation week. The Litany was ordered to be said in the way in which we use it now at the Reformation. It was appointed to be used on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; the two latter days being the days on which our Lord and Master Jesus Christ was betrayed and crucified. [See Sermons on the Book of Common Prayer, &c., by the Rev. J. H. Pinder, from whose work, as well as from Bp. Jebb's Pastoral Instructions, the greater part of this and the three following pages is taken.]
The Litany, to use the words of Bishop Jebb, as it is in its substance probably the most ancient, so in its range it is the most comprehensive of our public prayers. And yet, comprehensive as it is, nothing can be more simple than its method; nothing more solemn, nothing more calculated to fill us with reverence and godly fear. It begins with calling upon the Name of the awful Trinity; and who can call upon that Holy Name without fear? And yet, when there is set before him what great things God as his Creator, and his Redeemer, and his Sanctifier, hath done for his soul, who can call upon that Holy Name without love? and how shall man show his love? How, but by penitence, and by fleeing from sin, and by obedience to His word, by calling to mind more earnestly his Lord's incarnation, nativity, passion, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and by fervent intercession for his fellow men? Hence, there follows, addressed to the second Person of the Trinity, an earnest deprecation of sin, its causes and consequences, its several kinds and degrees, inward and outward, spiritual and carnal. We deprecate the judgments which it provokes, and the dangers which it causes, both in church and state. Above all, we pray to be delivered from all hardness of heart, and that contempt of God's word and commandment which alone can seal us up in final impenitence and everlasting ruin. And what hope have we, my brethren, of escaping everlasting death? What hope have we but in the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, His death and passion? This, alone, even all that our Lord hath done and suffered for us, can afford us strength and consolation as we pass through this world, whether we be in prosperity or adversity; this alone can support us, in all time of our tribulation, in all time of our wealth, in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment; therefore we close this part of the Litany with representing to our Lord, to our Elder Brother, all that He hath done and suffered in our behalf. But, observe. Sin is first prayed against, and most fully enlarged upon, as far more grievous and intolerable than lightning and tempest, than plague, pestilence, or famine, than battle and murder, or sudden death. These we may suffer, and yet be saved; yea, they may add to our glory and felicity hereafter. But we cannot go on wilfully in sin, and yet hope for salvation. Sin unrepented can only be followed by everlasting damnation, by our being sent out for ever from God's presence, by hearing the fearful sentence, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels." Therefore, whatever we pray to be delivered from, above all, we pray earnestly that the good Lord would deliver us from all sin.
Then follows the intercessory part of this office. As Christ now liveth to make intercession for us at His Father's right hand; so the Church, which is His Body, carries on the same work on earth, and fearfully would the Church be wanting were she to neglect this work of love. If this were omitted, in her likeness to Christ, she would be wanting in one main feature. Almost the last prayer of Jesus, before His arrest, was an intercession for His Church, for His Church in all ages. He prayed that those who called themselves by His name might be one, even as He and the Father are one, that the world might believe. He prayed for His most devoted followers, for those who should be sifted by Satan, that their faith might not fail. Almost His last prayer upon the cross was for His enemies, that their great sin might be forgiven them: "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." How then could the Church neglect the office of intercession, and have any likeness to her glorious Head? But here, when weighed in the balance, the Church is not found wanting. The office of intercession in the Litany is distinguished by a rare union of comprehensiveness and detail. [See Bishop Jebb's "Pastoral Instructions."]Having prayed first for the government of the Holy Church universal, we then seek the temporal and spiritual welfare of that branch of the Catholic Church to which we belong, praying for the happiness of its earthly head, for wisdom and holiness in her spiritual pastors, asking the peculiar blessing and keeping of God's faithful people, that unity, peace, and concord may prevail among all nations, as preparatory to the enlargement and final establishment of our Saviour's promised dominion. Our own personal concern in the kingdom of Christ is next alluded to. "We ask from God, as the foundation of all things, the spirit of religion, hearts filled with His fear and love, lives devoted to His service. We pray that we may not be slothful, but that we may go from strength to strength; and therefore we seek that increase of grace; which hears the word of God with meekness, receives it with pure affection, and brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, After this provision is made for every casualty; prayer is offered up against every temptation. We pray for those who cannot or will not pray for themselves; whilst by our intercession we help those who continue instant in prayer. We pray that wanderers may be brought back, that the weak-hearted may be comforted, that the fallen may be raised, that those who stand may be strengthened, that the enemy of our souls may be beaten down. Like Him who took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses, we are touched with the feeling of the infirmities of others; and therefore we pray for comfort and support for those who are in any trouble, sickness, or affliction; we pray to Him who neither slumbereth nor sleepeth, to keep the going out and coming in of those who travel by land or by water. Like our Saviour on the cross, we pray for the forgiveness of our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers; and we close our intercessions by a confession that we are not worthy to pray at all; that even in prayer we sin, by negligences and ignorances, and so that even our prayers need to be repented of; our prayers with our lives need to be amended. Who then can take away our sins? Who but the Lamb of God? To Him therefore we pray for mercy and for peace. Yes, even to the Holy Trinity do we cry. We then approach our Father in Heaven with greater confidence, with increased earnestness, summing up our prayers in longer and more continued supplications, giving glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Thus does the Church fulfil the Apostolic injunction, "that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men."
The Apostle, as I have already said, lays great stress upon this duty of prayer; he puts it as the foundation, the first of all things in his list of duties, enjoined upon all ministers of Christ: and the reach of this duty he would have very comprehensive, embracing all mankind, even, as he reminds us, God's mercy does, who "will have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth." And then, for the manner of discharging this duty, he tells us it must be with holy hands, without wrath and disputing. Now compare with this, what St. John says in his first epistle, "Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God. And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight."
Compare, I say, the expressions of these two Apostles, and you will see how they both agree in laying down a law of very wide reach in God's spiritual kingdom, being no less than the condition of all acceptable prayer. And as prayer is the condition of life and health to the soul, it cannot but be interesting to search into the terms and conditions on which we may have a well grounded hope that our prayers will be acceptable before God.
The law which the Apostle lays down, may be stated in a twofold manner. Men, he says, must lift up holy hands. Of course you understand this to be a figurative expression: when we say a man comes before us with clean hands, we mean that he is free from any imputation or charge. Therefore, we will state the case, if you please, thus:--
An approving conscience, that is, in the language of St. John, the heart not condemning us, is the condition of acceptance; and just the opposite of this--an accusing conscience, that is, the heart condemning us--takes away all that confidence. Mind, I do not mean to go one inch further than the words of the Apostle warrant. I do not say that an accusing conscience takes away all hope, or power of prayer; nothing of the kind: but that it does place us under a heavy disadvantage, that it takes away the confidence of acceptance.
We must not say that an accusing conscience takes away all hope, or abolishes prayer; else we should shut men up at once in despair. What is it that calls out the voice of conscience? when does that voice make itself heard? evidently when we have been unfaithful and disobedient. To say, then, that such a state altogether hinders prayer, would be rash and dangerous: for then, how could we speak to men in such a case, and call them to repentance, and bid them pray for God's converting and renewing grace?
Nay, what is the voice of conscience, in such a case, but God speaking to man, and calling him to repentance?
What then is the doctrine of the Apostle? Why, surely it goes just so far as this, that an accusing conscience, the witness of an unholy and unfaithful life, though it does not take away hope, or the possibility of prayer, does put us under a fearful disadvantage: it makes our prayers weak and faltering; we speak to God with a stammering and hesitating voice; it takes away the happy and comfortable confidence that a dutiful child has in its parents; we go to God with suspicions and doubts; the heavens over us are as it were brass, shut up; no refreshing rain, no timely dew; the soul is dry and withered, the earth is as it were iron: we look up, God is hiding His face from us; we look at ourselves, our prayers are heavy and lifeless.
Would to God that all this were merely imaginary. But, alas! does not many a one among us bear witness that this is true? And does not this account for the listlessness and heaviness that so many complain of?
To expect to be fervent and lively in prayer, whilst our life is low and earthly and unspiritual, what is it but making bricks, like the children of Israel, without straw? and what else can be looked for but that God will hold back His helping and quickening hand?
Woe to us, if in this state of things we settle down helpless and hopeless! Too many do. The temptation thus to sink back and give over straggling is great and fearful. And yet men do not like to give over praying, so they cast about to find out some scheme to comfort themselves in this dreary, desolate condition. Prayer they dare not abandon altogether; but real prayer, going to God, and looking to Him for an answer, and waiting for that answer, in short, any idea that prayer is a real agent, this they have lost the power of really believing, and thus prayer becomes formal, dry, dead. Now I ask, did I use too strong language, when I said that an accusing conscience docs indeed put us under a fearful disadvantage; not, indeed, taking away all hope, not absolutely killing prayer, but next to that, making it thus weak, and faltering, and unreal?
Now consider the other position, which I have said is contained in the Apostle's language: an approving conscience, i. e. the heart not condemning us, is the condition of acceptance.
You see how an unfaithful life hinders, and deadens, and stifles prayer. Now consider what it is that will make vour prayers real and effectual; it is when, as the Apostle says, you can draw near to God with humble confidence; and this he says we may do, if our heart condemn us not; if the witness of our heart is, that we are really exercising ourselves to have a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man, i. e. a faithful life towards God and our neighbour; this only will enable us to approach God with confidence; for "if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things," but "if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God."
Let no man, under pretence of doing greater honour to Christ and His grace, try to put aside this doctrine as coming in between Christ and the soul with conditions, and terms, and limits.
I do not suppose that any of us have greater love for Christ than these two Apostles had; nor do I suppose that any of us have even half, or a quarter, or a thousandth part of their devoted love and zeal: this doctrine is not mine, but theirs; let no one then try to get rid of it.
What do we learn then from this doctrine? First of all, let us lay hold of this great practical truth, that as a man's life is, so will his prayers be. If the life is low and earthly, so will his prayers be; for what is prayer but the desire of the soul, expressed or not expressed in words? And if a man's life is spent mainly and chiefly on earthly cares, then, as sure as God's word is true, such will be his soul and spirit,--chained down, and clogged, and cleaving to the dust, even as our blessed Lord has taught us, "where our treasure is, there will our heart be also'." Be this then our first aim, to have our whole life, as well as our prayers, sustained and quickened by the grace of Christ: let us not be so foolish as to think of separating what our Lord God has thus joined together; let us take great pains to do what we ought to be doing in our several stations; this will add wings to our prayers, and they will thus ascend up before God. At the same time, that this great work of correction and discipline may go on and prosper, let every effort, every attempt to correct and amend what is amiss, be coupled with earnest prayer, that God's blessing may sustain and carry us on in the ways of holy living.
In the next place, let the character of your prayers help you to judge of your life. If you find you are heavy and listless in prayer, that your thoughts are running after other things, that you cannot collect yourself to this work, then you have good reason to look well into your way of life. If the pulse is faint, we judge that the body is not healthy: and so if prayer is thus heavy and listless, we may be sure the life is so too. Suppose, then, we find this to be the case with ourselves, it is not all the earnestness in the world in adding to our prayers that will correct the evil, unless Ave heartily apply ourselves to regulate and order our life according to God's will. Therefore, this must be our aim, to rouse ourselves to a. more earnest and faithful life; then may we hope that our prayers will be more earnest and accepted.
The third lesson I would wish to impress upon you is this:--Prayer, real prayer, is God's gift; it is the work of His Spirit. So St. Paul bids us pray always, with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit. Prayer is, indeed, the breath of the soul: as the life of the soul comes from God, so also the continued acting of that life. And here aa'airi you may see how the faithfulness and earnestness of a man's life must tell upon his prayers, for our Lord has told us, He bestows His gifts on men according to their use of them. And how can any of us expect to receive from God this blessed gift of prayer, unless we are taking pains to make a due use of His gifts? Does not this explain why most of us are so weak in prayer? for how few are there among us whose lives are devoted and really earnest! The result of the whole then seems to be this: No man can expect God to grant him near access to Him in prayer, who is not faithful and earnest according to his opportunities; and therefore, if you would make a fit use of this holy house of prayer, begin by doing what God so often tells us by His servants the Prophets,--return unto Him heartily with a true and earnest amendment of life; then you will find that your prayers will be growing day by day more real,--that prayer is a real agent, mighty and powerful in its work; and in this way prayer will sustain and strengthen the spiritual life.
Brethren, you have helped to build this house, which is now holy to the Lord. Again I say, as I said before, May the Lord in His mercy remember you for this. And again I say, Rest not in the outward offering of alms which you have made. Rather be it yours to show, by your hearty, earnest, faithful lives, that you are not serving God only with outward gifts and costly offerings; but that along with your offerings and gifts, you give that without which even the most costly gifts are nothing--yourselves also. Be it yours to show this, by your readiness to join in works of piety and mercy; be it yours to show, in an age of laxity and carelessness, that to you your Christian privileges as Churchmen are dear. I could wish, on such an occasion, to keep clear of words of ill omen; but, Brethren, whilst I thank God for that He hath given you a ready and a willing mind to take part in the building of this holy house, and that so far ye have begun well; yet, have we not seen fair beginnings marred and spoiled by the apathy and indifference of the congregation? Have we not seen zeal growing lukewarm, faith weak, and love cold? Have we not seen and known parishes where Church privileges, such as you now happily enjoy, have been lost and surrendered by apathy and unfaithfulness?
It may be permitted me to say, that when the Great Head of the Church has put before you such opportunities as you have in the Daily Service, and will have in frequent Communions, then it will depend upon your use of these privileges, whether your parish shall continue to enjoy them. [Weekly Communions were begun on the Sunday after the consecration of the Church.]
God knows I say it with a heavy heart! But experience proves, that when Christians neglect their privileges, sooner or later they lose them: "from him that hath not, shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have." I could not forbear this caution: some among you know that it is not wholly unnecessary. But let me hope better things; that such a spirit of sober, intelligent, earnest piety will, by God's blessing, be fostered here, that this good work may go on and prosper more and more; that by the prayers and intercessions offered up in this holy house day by day, and by the fruits of these in your lives, God may be glorified, and the salvation of men set forward.
And now, my Brethren, in conclusion, let me again call your attention to that part of the Litany, in which intercession is made for all sorts and conditions of men. I have said, that if the Church neglected intercession, she would have but little likeness to Christ. Our Saviour Christ is gone into the Holy Place: at present we are not able to enter therein with Him, and many have no desire. I verily believe that some, if now the offer were made to them to depart out of this world, and be with Christ, are so worldly that they would deliberately choose to stay here. However, He is still about His Father's business; and that is, to pray for us, who are not yet with Him where He is; to pray for those who desire to depart, and be with Him; to pray also for those, who have no such desire. And so too, my Brethren, some of us come up to this holy place, leaving, alas! many in the streets and dwellings of our town, and hard by the Church door, who refuse to come up with us. And some there are who would, but are not able,--the old, and the sick, and the infirm. We then come up to the house of God to be about our Father's business; and one part of that business is, to make intercession for others,--to pray for those who would be glad to come up to the house of God if they could,--to pray for them, that their loss may be made up to them, that God would vouchsafe to be with them, and bless them in their own dwellings, or on the bed of sickness; and to pray also for those who wilfully forsake the assembling of themselves together,--to pray for these, that God in His mercy would bring them to a better mind.
For all these wants of our fellow-men we pray in the Litany, and in this the Church resembles Christ her Head. Yes, my Brethren, even though He is in heaven, and we on earth,--though He is at His Father's right hand, and we at His footstool,--though He is infinite in holiness and power, and we bowed down with infirmity and sin, yet, wonderful condescension on his part! wonderful honour bestowed upon us! our work and His are in one respect still the same. He is entered into the Holy Place, and ever liveth to make intercession for us at God's right hand. And we are allowed access into God's house, and are permitted to make intercession for our brethren. If there be any, then, who value their privileges, and strive by the grace of God to live worthy of them, and if such persons see others who with the same privileges offered them, value them not, and live ungodly lives; oh! let not those who value God's gifts boast themselves, and despise or dislike those who slight them: rather, let them pray earnestly; yes, while life lasts, let them make intercession in behalf of the ungodly and the thoughtless. Let not the sober man despise the drunkard, but rather pity him, and with great charity pray for him, that he may become sober. Let not the chaste man despise and hate the sensual, and the profligate, and the impure; rather let him pity, and in great charity pray for him, that the impure may be made pure. Let not the honest despise and hate the dishonest, but rather pity, and in great charity pray for him, that the dishonest may be true and just in all his dealings. Let not those who come to church despise and hate those that forsake the assembling of themselves together; rather let them pity, and in great charity pray that all such may learn to worship God in spirit and in truth. Let not the communicant despise and hate those who turn away from God's holy table; rather let him pity, and in great charity pray that they may no longer trample under foot the Son of God, and deprive their souls of that food, without which they cannot live. The righteous must, indeed, avoid the unrighteous; but still, let not the righteous despise or hate the unrighteous; rather let him pity, and in great charity pray that the unrighteous may be made righteous. How many do we see going on from day to day in careless levity, without any thought of God! And if, by the mercy of God, we have been brought to think seriously, the sight of these careless Christians should remind us of the misery of their condition. It should next constrain us to grieve for them. Sorrow for their lot should lead us to pray for them; yes, to "weep between the porch and the altar, and say, Spare Thy people, O Lord." [Vid. S. Augustine, in Psal. xcix. 4.] And the very fact that we ourselves have been delivered from this same thoughtlessness, in which they are still living, should prevent our despairing of their being ever set free.
Though, then, so many are impatient and restless, without any thought of God, we should continue instant in our prayers to Him who is King, and sitteth between the cherubims, beseeching Him "to bring into the way of truth those that have erred and are deceived;" to open their eyes that they may see, and their ears that they may hear, and their hearts that they may understand the things that belong to their peace; to give them "a heart to love and dread Him, and diligently to keep His commandments," that so they may acknowledge Him to be "great in Zion, and higher than all the people;" and thus may learn to "give thanks unto His name, which is great, wonderful, and holy." Yes, my Brethren, the name of Jesus is indeed great, wonderful, and holy; and it is in His name that we make our prayers, whether for ourselves or others. All our prayers are made in His name. But in these our intercessions we pray to Him Himself--to God the Son--to our elder Brother,--a Brother, in comparison with whose mercy, the mercy of Joseph to his brethren was cruelty. We pray to Him, and shall not He who died for us hear us when we pray? Who then shall despair of any one, however great his sins may be? Exhortations, and warnings, and promises may all be without effect; shall we then give up the cause as hopeless? God forbid. "I exhort," says St. Paul, "that first of all supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving thanks be made for all men,"--for all, the righteous and the unrighteous.
Continue, then, instant in prayer; and while we pray, let us take heed to ourselves that we be holy. "If I regard iniquity in my heart," saith David, "the Lord will not hear me." Our sins will stand in the way of our prayers, whether we pray for ourselves or for others. And it may be on this account that the office of intercession in the Litany is followed closely by a prayer for repentance for ourselves, that God would forgive the sins, negligences, and ignorances of which we have been guilty in prayer. It may be on this account that we pray to God not "to deal with us according to our sins, nor to reward us according to our iniquities," for then our prayers could never be heard. It is on this account that, near the close of the Litany, we pray God "mercifully to look upon our infirmities," even the infirmities of which we have been guilty in prayer, by wandering thoughts and inattention, and "to turn from us the evils that we deserve." It is on this account that we pray that we may "put our whole trust in His mercy," that "we may serve Him in holiness and pureness of living, to His honour and glory." It is, that neither by unbelief nor unholiness, our prayers maybe hindered from rising up to heaven. The words we use are holy words. God make us holy in deed and in thought, that we may use them aright, and so obtain the blessing of the Lord, through His Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, our Advocate with the Father, and the Propitiation for our sins.