Project Canterbury




Church of S. Mary the Virgin and S. Nicholas, Littlemore,








Heb. xii. 22, 23, 24.

"But ye are come unto Mount Sion, and unto the city of the Living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of Angels. To the general assembly and Church of the first-born which are written in Heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect; and to Jesus the Mediator of the new Covenant, and to the Blood of Sprinkling that speaketh better things than that of Abel."

THE special object of this Feast differs in kind from that of any other in the Church's kalendar. Hitherto we have traced the prints left upon the sands of this world by men of like nature with ourselves. Following their King, the saints of Christ have one by one preceded us, bearing our burdens, groaning under our sorrows, tried by our temptations, assailed by our enemies, weakened, it may be, [3/4] by our falls, upheld by that grace which may be ours. Peaceful as is now their unbroken rest in Christ's paradise; safe as they are in His hands, refreshed as we believe them to be in that unknown land, which the fourfold stream of God's presence ever waters, by special visitations of the Beloved of their souls; new and great, and on many sides by us inconceivable as are the conditions of that life of theirs, which is so entirely hidden with Christ in God; yet are they our very brethren. With some of them we have directly conversed; upon some of them we have leant heretofore in our journey through life: and very bare and desolate has it been to us since they were taken to their rest. Many have been patterns whom we have striven, with whatever feebleness, to copy. With all we have, and feel, the deep and mysterious union of a common nature. High and awful as is the thought, we do believe that what they are, that we may be: that the grace which wrought in them works in us: that the marvellous gift of regeneration which, even from the cradle, drew some of them by a multitude of small steps and imperceptible gradations, up to the highest mysteries of the hidden life, and which in others wrought more marvellously yet, transforming pollution into purity, sinners into penitents, and penitents into saints, that this fearful and blessed gift is ours also, and must work in us either a [4/5] horrible destruction or the likeness of their glory. And hence the first instincts of the new life draw us into a sensible unity with the blessed company of Christ's saints; of "the spirits of just men made perfect."

But, so it is not as to those blessed spirits of whom we keep remembrance to-day. With them we have no community of nature; we know not even whether they are material beings, or beings purely spiritual. Directly there seem no common links between ourselves and them; nay, their very nobleness of state seems to part them from us utterly. Wherever we read of them in the Word of God, it is as of those who are in the full radiance of the light ineffable, and are pervaded with its lustre. Like clouds which float in the fulness of the sunbeams, they give back to us the radiance of the eternal throne, and are themselves of a brightness too dazzling for our weakened gaze. Such was that Angel whom S. John saw in vision, and at whose feet he would have fallen down and worshipped, by whose glory the earth was lightened. And this majesty which rests upon them is the outward expression of their inward holiness; they are emphatically "the holy Angels." What a ground then of separation is there here between ourselves and them. They have never known sin. It is not with them as with the highest saint, who has himself been recovered by a mighty [5/6] grace, and even in his utmost purity, still knows the secrets of corruption, and can feel in the true unity of sympathy for the tempted and the guilty. They are "the elect Angels;" the Angels who kept their first estate. On their perfect purity of being has passed no shadow of blemish or corruption. They are as they were when the infinite Love of the Creator breathed forth their unsullied being into the full perfectness of absolute holiness. They have ever known, and done, and loved in all things the Will of God. To each one of them that blessed law which holds together their exalted ranks, has been the very purpose of his being. How must sin then appear to such as these? How incomprehensible must be its mystery, how hideous its defilement. If, as it seems alike from God's Word and the conclusions of reason, the creature cannot possess a knowledge of evil whilst he is himself unstained with it, what a black darkness must wrap us up from that angelic gaze. Self--will, that master sin, with all its train of fleshly impurities, and spiritual defilements; the high thought, the unbelieving heart, the rebellious striving, the imbruted spirit, how must the sight of these in one so feeble as man shew to those elder born of God's creation, whose whole glorious and exalted being is but the energy of perfect love, rejoicing in the blessedness of the Creator's Will,

[7] Yet it is of such we make mention in the Church to-day; speaking of them as though we and they were united together in its mysteries, and had already a true fellowship one with the other. And in doing this we do but act upon the plain words of God's revelation to us. The words which I have read to you from the epistle to the Hebrews, would, if they stood alone, be sufficient to establish this wonderful truth. "Ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the Heavenly Jerusalem; and to an innumerable company of Angels, to the general assembly and Church of the first-born which are written in Heaven." Plainly here this is spoken of as now our condition. "Ye are come;" ye have now a fellowship with that general assembly of God's holy creatures to which belong the innumerable company of the heavenly host. This the fruit of the great act of redemption. This is to be already in the Church of Christ. This was what was wrought for us, His brethren, by the bitter passion of our Lord. And this passage does not stand alone. We are expressly told that we are the objects of the care, and love, and service, of these holy beings. By some mighty and marvellous secret of the new kingdom, instead of rejecting us utterly, as defiled with sin, they wait upon us. "Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?" and Holy [7/8] Scripture is perpetually revealing the particulars of this ministry. We see their squadrons encamped around a beleaguered prophet; their hands laying hold upon a tarrying patriarch; their agency revealing now the deepest things of God to the soul of one of His appointed messengers, and anon the spring of water in the wilderness to the fainting child and brokenhearted mother. We find them cheering S. Paul in vision, and breaking S. Peter's chains, declaring themselves fellow-servants of S. John, and even turning from beholding the face of the Almighty Father to watch over the little ones of the earthly family.

What then is the mighty mystery of love whereby they, being what they are, can tend with care and look with love on such as we are? It is at least intimated to us in the Word of God. It is through our Lord Jesus Christ that we and they are brought together. Doubtless whilst Adam stood in the purity of creation those elder sons of light had full communion with this new being, upon whom was stamped the image of their God. And when Adam fell, he was not cast utterly away. We know not how far the mysteries of redemption were, from the first opening of its mighty works, revealed to the holy Angels; we know that those mysteries, as declaring God's great glory, do form the object of their adoring and enquiring wonder, for they are the things "into which the Angels desire to look." That great promise [8/9] which man's first uttermost necessity drew forth from the treasure-house of mercy, that “the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head," may have revealed to them, even from its utterance, some foreshadowing of the wonderful counsels of Almighty love, whereby mankind should be redeemed. Certainly they saw humanity as in a process of recovery; and when Christ the Lord became incarnate, when He, who from eternity, had been their King, when He, who was the express image of the Father's Person, He who, as it seems, manifests to every creaturely intelligence the unapproachable Father, when He, in the Virgin's womb, shaped for Himself a true body, and stood on earth a very man, then, for His sake and through Him, the holy Angels had indeed a fellowship with us; then was begun the fulfilment of that mystery which, in words the depth of which we cannot hope here to fathom, is darkly opened to us, when we are taught that “in the dispensation of the fullness of times he shall gather in one all are in Christ, both which are in Heaven and which are in earth, even in Him." This then, brethren, is the root of this day's celebration, and from this there follow one or two inferences at once bearing upon our special purpose to-day, and full of general instruction for us. Let us seek, with God's help, to learn them, and profit by them.

And first, we may see here the blessedness of our [9/10] redeemed life. It is not, my brethren, merely that for us there is a promise of future restoration; doubtless such promises are ours, and they are absolutely needful for our stay and solace through the trials and sorrows of this our earthly life. In one sense we are still afar from our rest. Blessed be God we know well that Heaven shall be most unlike this earth; into it shall intrude none of those many afflictions by which the souls of God's true servants are here continually harassed. Those who reach that world "shall have come out of great tribulation.” “There shall be no more pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing;" there shall be no more death, either in its first actings of internal decay, or in its stripping bare of this earth, and making hearts long desolate; or in its last sharp violence of agony. Far above all, there shall be no more sin, no more yielding to the enemy, no more clouding the soul, awaking the pangs of conscience, shutting out the light of God's countenance, bringing in the darkness of the pit. When we look at what that state shall be to those who, through God's grace, reach to it, the darkness and desolation of this sinful world seem almost entire and absolute. But it is far otherwise with those who believe in Christ. Even here He is truly with us; He is working in us; we are under His hands; the process of recovery is going on, painful often in its course, yea, even the "dividing asunder of soul and body," yet [10/11] most surely going on, already. Through Him who is in us, the holy beings of God's unsullied creation receive us back into their shining ranks. This earth is the portal of Heaven. It is upon this truth that the reality of what we are doing this day absolutely turns. It is because this earth is not abandoned; because in the Church of the redeemed we can even here glorify God; that we are setting apart this place to His service. We need not wait till we reach Heaven to glorify Him; wonderful as it is that so it should be, we can even here praise Him. Through the indwelling and intercession of Christ we can offer up praises in which the heavenly hosts can join. The dull earth, which has been so long a stranger to His praise, breaks forth again into singing; its silver and gold, its graven stones and carved work, these are no longer to minister merely to man's comfort, or honour, or device; they are set apart to the glory of the Highest. When the Church of the Lord takes possession of them in His name, when the company of the faithful is gathered together, pleading His promise, then in very deed Christ is amongst them; then the mere element of water becomes the instrument through which He works the marvels of His regenerating power; then the mere natural substances of bread and wine become, through His power, the outward means whereby His spiritual presence feeds and nourishes and quickens the souls [11/12] of those who believe in Him. We are here in God's very presence; His holy Angels mingle in our services, His eternal Son gives Himself to us, His coeternal Spirit is indeed in the midst of us. And this sheds a light upon all our life. When we leave this place we carry with us His presence. Our commonest works may be done to Him. In all we think, and speak, and do, we may "glorify God in our body and in our spirit, which are His."

And this same thought, my brethren, may shew us also the awfulness of our redeemed life. That life must be awful which is spent in such a presence, which is leading to such issues, which is governed by such powers. Oh! that we could but for a moment banish from our eyes these empty shadows of things present, which we mistake for what is real, and see the marvels of the spiritual kingdom which are indeed around us. Surely if we could see within this very Church to-day God's mighty Angels waiting to join in our praises, to unite with us in the adoration of the whole Church, and mingle with our thanksgivings their Hallelujahs, we should be altogether ashamed of the cold, unmeaning, wandering devotions which we so often offer up; surely we should strive to hallow this place, whensoever we enter it, by a more earnest and faithful lifting up of our souls to Him. And this same temper would then, through His grace, go forth with us to all our [12/13] employments. We should, by degrees, learn to feel and know that we are ever under His hand, that, in our most common actions, we are in His presence; that His holy Angels are looking on us, in our weary strivings with sin; that their hands are, as it were, continually held out to draw us up towards Heaven; and that the dark powers of hell, on the other side, are fiercely snatching for our souls. We should then see how awful a blessedness it is to have been redeemed, to have had Christ's mark stamped upon us, Christ's breath breathed on us, Christ's prayer offered for us, Christ's words spoken to us, to have His very indwelling; to be capable of such wonderful guilt as defying His Spirit, as polluting that which He has made His Body, of rejecting His Grace, of trampling on His Blood. We should see what, in His sight, are those mysteries of evil which we are wont to call our little sins. We should see what our past sins are, how dark their stain, how heavy their burden, how depressing their load, until they are indeed washed out (as they may be) altogether, in that blood which He shed for us; till His own gracious hand has lifted us out of the mire and slough in which we have chosen to wallow: till He has made ours, by kindling in us a living faith in Him as our Righteousness, that remission of sins, into which He, of His great mercy, has suffered us to be Baptized.

Lastly, let us see here the only condition through [13/14] which such as we are can attain to unity with God's holy creatures, or even with one another. It is only through union with Christ our Lord that this can be ours. It is only as denying and renouncing our own state of sinful separation from Him; it is only so far as by a lively faith we cling to Him;—to Him, that we may be pardoned, justified, and sanctified, by true living union with Him, the righteous one;—that we can draw nigh again to any of His holy creatures. All lower laws of union are inadequate to that purpose; for they cannot reach to the master evil, and cause of separation. All sin is the essence of self-will, and self-worship; and self-will separates every reasonable soul in which it reigns from the holy brotherhood, who love, as their first law of being, the One All Holy Will. My brethren, let us learn to-day something at least of this great truth; let us see it in the Church around us. There also all self-will is THE cause of division; there union with Christ is THE law of internal union. For the Church is His Body, and it is as we claim for ourselves in act and deed, and thought and feeling, union with Him, that we are held close to its unity. Let us endeavour to see this practically; not to think of the Church as an abstraction, but as His Body, and ever more to see Him in it; to see His presence and sure working in the sacraments of His grace; His glory in [14/15] worship; a drawing together in Him in united services; His indwelling in the Communion of His saints; to see that division is indeed a rending of His Body, that it is the fruit of self-will; to see that we may be drawn on to the most fearful divisions, under the very pretence of yielding to conscience and following His leading, if once we allow self-will to mingle with our religion. For manifold and most ensnaring are its delusions. We seem, it may be, to be giving up all for Christ, when we are indeed giving up much, in order to keep that which is dearest of all to fallen man, our own self-will; and so we are being led far from Him, and becoming an offence to His people, whilst we dream of following most closely after Him. Above all, let each one seek more earnestly for the reality of personal union with Him; let us pray Him to work His work within us; let us see that in nothing we interrupt His working. Let us seek to be stamped with His Image, to be anointed with His Spirit, to be transformed to His Will, that so we may more and more be drawn into unity with His Body mystical, and find our place prepared for us in that "general assembly and Church of the first-born, whose names are written in Heaven."

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