ANATHEMA means accursed, excommunicated; it is the expression that has ever been used when the Church has been launching her heaviest censures against errors in doctrine, however gross; against no sin in practice, however grievous, could any denunciation be found stronger than this.
St. Paul, in the course of this his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, had been blaming them much for not keeping up the discipline which he had taught them to observe, while he was with them. In his absence he heard that there were amongst them schismatics, creating divisions, and saying, "I am of Paul, I of Apollos;" there were fornicators, there were those that partook of idol sacrifices, and there were those who profaned Christ's body and blood at His own holy and awful table; there were heretics also, who denied the resurrection of the dead; above all, there was one still allowed to remain within the pale of the Church, who had been an incestuous adulterer, "had been guilty," St. Paul says, "of such fornication, as was not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife."
And what was worst of all, they were not distressed about the evil that was done amongst them; they were satisfied, they gloried, "they were puffed up," he tells them, and did not mourn. This their glorying, the holy Apostle warns them, was not good; a little leaven of sin was leavening their whole lump. He required of them that they should "purge out" this leaven of sin from amongst them, that they might be fitted to keep the Christian Passover as disciples of Christ, ever living in the joy of His resurrection. And now, at the close of his Epistle, in the words I have taken for the special subject of this discourse, words written with his own hand, that they might have a still greater weight with them, he, as their supreme spiritual judge on earth, pronounces a general sentence on all such offenders. "If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema;" accursed, excommunicated. For the one common source of all sin and heresy, is want of love to our Saviour. For he that loves the Lord Jesus Christ, keeps the commandments; and he that keeps the commandments, that desires to do God's will, he has the promise that he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God. "So that," as Bishop Wilson has observed, "in these words of St. Paul, there is a positive direction to the Church to excommunicate all such as plainly show they have no love for Christ, all such as are scandalous and profane in their life or creed." [Sacra Privata, p. 171, Oxford Edition.] And so far as any Church fails to lay her anathema on them which do such things, she has, we must confess it, reason to dread lest the guilt of her sinful children, whom she thus leaves uncorrected, may lie on her own head.
And this is a subject of shame and fear to the whole Church of Christ on earth in these evil days; for, alas! what branch of the Church has now preserved at all, as it ought to have done, this Christian discipline?
It is a subject of shame and fear to us all; of shame, in that having been so loved, we do not take more pains to keep the Lord's body such as the Lord would have it to be: of fear, lest when He come again, we should find that we have incurred His displeasure; lest, having neglected to judge ourselves here, we should then incur eternal judgments. These thoughts of shame and fear are naturally suggested to us by the very words of the text. The sentence on him whose doctrine or works show that he does not love his Saviour, is not merely, let him be anathema, but anathema maranatha; and this word, maran-atha, signifies in Syriac, the Lord is come; or, the Lord cometh; and it is added here to express the reason and justice of this awful sentence, as though it had been God's own Son come from heaven to earth to save him. Whosoever knowing this, loves not his Divine Saviour, such an one is justly under the curse, and justly to be excluded from communion with Him. Or again, if we take it to mean, the Lord will come, God's coequal Son is coming to be our judge, to judge His Church; must we not put away from us the unclean thing, lest wrath break forth upon us on that awful day?
This sense of shame, this fear, so moved the Bishops of the early Church, that those who had been guilty of any deadly sin, such as fornication, adultery, were for several years entirely shut out of the very doors of the Church, excluded from all participation in its services. Gregory of Nyssa mentions that, in his time, persons were entirely excluded from religious offices, three years for fornication, six years for adultery, then for as many years admitted only to hear the lessons, without being allowed so much as to join in the prayers; at the end of this time they were allowed to pray with the congregation, and then, after another period of equal length, they were at length re-admitted to the Holy Communion.
Thus, according to the testimony of this Father, a penance and separation of nine years in all were required for fornication, of eighteen for adultery; in the case of murders this was lengthened to twenty-seven years, divided into three periods of nine in each state of penance, as above; first, outside the Church doors, then as hearers, and lastly, as joining in the prayers, hut still shut from the Holy Communion. But in cases where persons fell away, unforced, into sins of idolatry, or deadly heresy, like what Manicheism was then, and Socinianism is now, such an one would stand condemned to penance all his life; he would be obliged to put up his prayers apart from the rest of the faithful; and would stand for ever debarred from all participation of the body and blood; only in extreme danger of death, would he be allowed to communicate.
Those who had been forced into compliance with idolatrous practices by pain or torments, were restored after a certain time of penance, according to the circumstances of the case.
In the earlier period of their penance, while utterly expelled from joining in public worship, they used to stand or kneel at the doors, repeating by themselves the penitential psalms, and entreating the prayers of persons entering into the congregation, whom they hardly ventured to call their brethren. And before they were restored to the peace of the Church they were required to make a public profession of their past sins and present repentance, in the face of the whole congregation.
And this discipline was not only applied to such as were convicted on the evidence of others; persons were encouraged publicly to acknowledge their sins, when they might have concealed them, and submit to penance for them, as a means of counteracting the baneful effects of past sin, and of proving and exercising their repentance, and thus obtaining mercy from God. This ancient discipline, which can clearly be shown to have existed in the Church in the very earliest age to which we can trace up her history, was even then considered as the great appointed medicine for the healing of men's souls, when diseased through the influence of grievous and wilful sin. [The object of public penance is twofold; first, it is designed for the benefit of the persons themselves who submit to it, that they "being punished in this world," and so brought to a humble and contrite state of mind, "their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord;" secondly, for the good of Others, that "being admonished by the example of those whom they see thus put to open shame, they might be more afraid to offend." Penance, of course can, under no circumstances, have an expiatory power, although submission to penance is a sign of true repentance, such as is acceptable with God, and may move Him to pardon us. Neither can any outward penance avail at all towards our pardon, unless there be that inward penance Christ requires, which consists of contrition, confession, an amendment of former life, and an obedient reconciliation to the laws and will of God."--See Bishop Wilson, Sacra Privata, p. 203, Oxford Edition.]
It would lead me far beyond the limits of a single discourse to attempt to show how this godly discipline was by degrees corrupted, and at length, as one may say, lost. For whatever benefits may result in some cases from private confession to a priest, and private penance performed under his direction, this is plainly a discipline wholly differing in kind from this of public confession, and public penance, the loss of which we deplore, and the restoration of which we desire.
When I speak of public confession of sins, I would not be thought to question the undoubted truth, that in times like these, the public confession of particular sins in many cases, might tend rather to scandal than edification.
And, indeed, in the early Church, this was by no means held in all cases essential, at least those who sought thus to unburden their consciences of any heavy load of sin, by confessing it in the Church, were taught first to open their griefs privately to the Bishop, or to a priest appointed by him for the purpose, who was to prepare the party for public-penance, if the grievousness of their sins seemed to render such discipline necessary; and in order to it, they used to direct what should be acknowledged in the face of the congregation, and what was unfit to be there revealed.
Many, doubtless, will pronounce such a discipline at once impracticable. But as Bishop Wilson has well said, that cannot be: "It cannot be impracticable, when it was practised for so many years in the primitive Church." [Sacra Privata, p. 207, Oxford Edition.] The commands of Christ cannot be impracticable when He promised to be with His Church to the end of the world. He engaged to enable her to overcome the obstacles which perverseness or wilfulness should cast in her way. No, the restoration of primitive Church discipline is no more impracticable than any thing else that is good and holy; that is, it is impracticable till we have faith to practise it. But how are we to seek its restoration? We shall never obtain that, or any other good object, by putting ourselves, any of us, out of our proper place in the Church and body of Christ.
We can, all of us, pray for it; we can and ought to pray often and earnestly, that in this and in all other ways, the Church and spouse of Christ may return to her first love. And although it is only by Bishops that the restoration can be fully made, yet priests may do much to advance this blessed end, by carefully observing, to the utmost of their power, the rubrics at the beginning of the Communion Service. And the laity, by a hearty confiding support of those who are set over them in the Lord, may do still more to advance our return to this pure and sanctifying discipline.
But we must remember our blessed Lord's words, "He that hath," that is, who makes the most of what he hath, "to him shall be given, and he shall have abundance." Let us consider, then, what we have left of ancient discipline; and however little it be, though it seem as nothing compared to what it was, let us endeavour duly to use that little, and we have good ground to trust God will give us more in His own time, when He sees it best.
The penance the Church in England now enjoins on her sinful children is simply this:--That every year, once at least, at the beginning of Lent, and as often besides as their Bishop shall appoint, they should confess with their own lips the curse of God to be due to those sins of which they have been guilty.
The Church in general has ceased to lay her anathema on such as they have become; but in this land she still requires them at least to confess it to be their due.
If this penance, the public acknowledgment that we deserve the curse, were performed with reverence, humility, and contrition, surely we might then humbly trust that it would avail much in the sight of our gracious Heavenly Father, who looks with pity on the prodigal, as soon as once he is inclined to acknowledge the folly, error, and misery of his ways. Our hearts, moreover, would thus be softened, to receive the awful warnings of judgment to come, and those moving promises of mercy through Him that died for us, which are afterwards read in that awful and affecting exhortation in the Commination Service; and thus we should be prepared, when we repeat the fifty-first Psalm, to offer unto God that very sacrifice, which we there say He will not despise,--the sacrifice of a troubled spirit, of a broken and a contrite heart. And so the earnest prayers for pardon and conversion, which close the service, would in all likelihood be offered up with such a fear of God's judgments, and with such shame for having so grievously sinned against Him, that there would be ground to hope they would not be wholly rejected,--that we should obtain grace to begin the work of penance.
For the Ash-Wednesday Service is only the beginning of the penitential exercises of Lent. Our Church has appointed to us that one act of penance for the very beginning of Lent; that it may, by the motives of fear, and shame, and remorse, move us to persevere in bewailing our sins, and in earnestly praying for grace to amend what is amiss in us.
Unless the Commination Service so affects us as to prepare us for this, we make it no more than a form; and whenever it is so, a man's state is rendered, in some respects, worse than before. For to perform this or any other penance, so as not to be the better for it, is only to harden our hearts,--to make our wounds more hard to cure.
It concerns us, therefore, more than words can tell, that we should consider, that we should realize to ourselves, what we are doing, when we are performing that solemn act of penance, which our Church has substituted for a time, till the godly discipline of better days can be restored.
If our consciences should tell us we have ever been guilty of such sins as those upon which we then affirm the curse of God to be due, if, in short, we can perceive in our life, in our actions, our words, our thoughts, that we love not the Lord Jesus Christ, then let us consider what we are doing. The Church, indeed, no longer, as in her purer days, lays any anathema upon us, nor shuts us out of her doors; but instead of this she is requiring us to pronounce our own anathema, to declare with our lips that the curse of God might justly fall upon us--that it is deserved by us. And this she does to awaken us to a wholesome fear, yet a fear mingled with hope,--hope of forgiveness, if only we will heartily forsake these sins, and seek God's mercy in Christ, in ways of holy penitence. For, with sinners, the surest way to a well grounded hope is through an awakening and continuing fear. For we must even so fear as not to cease to hope, and so hope as still to fear. For, alas! do not our inconsistencies prove only too clearly, that our love for .our Redeemer is weak and wavering? Ought we not, therefore, to fear lest the awful sentence and anathema will sometime overtake us? It will, unless we flee from it, unless we strive to love Christ more, and to show and exert our love to Him, by keeping His commandments. "We must be more watchful against the love of self and of the world, against all confidence in ourselves, or in any thing earthly, lest it steal our hearts from God, and from our due trust in Him. Of all the sentences in the Commination, none appears so awful as that wherein it is said, "Cursed is ho that putteth his trust in man, and maketh man his defence, and in his heart goeth from the Lord." For how often are we, in various ways, tempted to look for happiness, for help, for guidance, to human aids, to the neglect and comparative exclusion of Him, who alone can help and guide us? And. does not this look as if our love for Christ was far from what it ought to be?
If any of us is disposed to think that he need be under no fear of an undue love of the world and of self, let him remember that those who seemed far advanced in holiness above any of us have fallen by it. Demas, of whom you heard in the Epistle, had been for some time the chosen companion and friend of St. Paul; twice in his Epistles does the great Apostle himself mention him as such; but at last Demas forsook him, from love of this present world. [This Sermon was preached on St. Luke's day.] The love of this world had prevailed over the love of Christ. And so it was with Judis, though he was one of the chosen twelve, to whom the promise was made that in the regeneration they should sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel; yet in him the love of gain prevailed over the love of Christ, and he fell for ever. On him was pronounced that fearful sentence: "It would have been good for that man if he had not been born." If we desire to escape such a condemnation, let us judge ourselves, as the Church teaches us, that we be not judged of the Lord. Let us pronounce the sentence; let us lay the curse on ourselves, that we may escape that awful sentence on the last day, "Depart from me, ye cursed."
And now, the Church enjoins no toilsome penance, no service of tears and prayers, to be performed by us, excluded from the Church, by ourselves. She requires us only to pronounce on ourselves what sentence we deserve, and then she holds out to us hopes of mercy. But even to this little act of penance many object; they cannot bear so much as to acknowledge that grievous and wilful sinners deserve God's wrath.
If any who now hear me have hitherto been careless about attending the Commination Service, I would beseech them to consider, that, in the first place, we have reason to believe that the godly discipline of the early Church was an ordinance Apostolic and Divine. And if this be the case, although we have a plea for our disuse of it, in that the chief rulers of Christ's Church no longer enjoin or even authorize it, we have no manner of excuse for neglecting that simple penance which our Church still requires us to perform. And observe before, that in saying Amen at the end of those sentences, you do not (as ignorant persons suppose) pray that God may curse you. Far from it. Although the word Amen is used at the end of prayers, to signify our desire that it may be as we have prayed, and as answering to our words "so be it;" yet such is not the meaning of Amen here, neither is it the first and commonest meaning of the word. It occurs a great many times in the Greek original of the New Testament, and wherever it is translated at all, it is almost always rendered by the word "verily." "Wherever this word verily is used in our translation at the beginning of our Lord's sayings, as, Verily, verily I say unto you, it is, in the Greek, Amen, amen I say unto you. This, then, is the proper meaning of the word Amen; namely, Verily, indeed. And thus, in the sentences in the Commination Service, Amen means, Verily, it is so. It is not used to express a desire the thing may be so, but rather positively to declare our conviction that so it is. The Minister, speaking in the name of Christ, declares them to be justly accursed, that show by grievous allowed sin that they do not love their Saviour. They are said to be accursed; and you are required to acknowledge that the curse of God is indeed denounced of God against them, as by them it is deserved; and this you do in order that you may repent of such sins, in whatever degree you have been guilty of them, and walk more warily for the time to come. You may refuse to join in this Service, if you will; as you may refuse to do any thing else the Church or God Himself enjoins you. But you can no more escape God's curse, by refusing to acknowledge you deserve it, than you can escape the eternal punishment of your sins by refusing to confess your guilt and unworthiness before God. As they that hide their sins from themselves, and before God, deprive themselves of the means of forgiveness; so they that will not acknowledge they deserve His curse, wilfully shut themselves out from the only way of escaping it.
Although you may continue in the Church now, while you refuse her only penance, yet the time will come, when they who continue in sin, when they that love not the Lord Jesus Christ, must be cast out from her, when the Lord shall come to visit and judge His Church, and we must stand before His judgment-seat. We may then earnestly wish, when it is too late, that we had accustomed ourselves to hear and consider those fearful sentences, that so we might have been moved to flee from sins, from the punishment of which there will then be no place to flee unto. Let us be wise, therefore, in time, and open our ears to these sentences now, when we may escape them,--that we may not hear them then, when the guilty shall call in vain on the mountains and rocks to fall on them and hide them. It will not be possible for them on that fearful day to close their ears to the sentence of God's curse; from which, moreover, when that time is once come, no prayers nor tears may any more deliver them. Now there is a deliverance from the curse, through Christ, however justly we have deserved it; but then it will be too late to cry for mercy, too late to seek deliverance, because the time will have come for justice.