Project Canterbury

Thoughts on Present Church Troubles
Occurring in Four Sermons Preached in St. Paul's Cathedral in December, 1880

By H.P. Liddon, D.D.
Canon Residentiary of St. Paul's, and Ireland Professor at Oxford

London, Oxford and Cambridge: Rivingtons, 1881

"Only one way to Life:
One Faith, deliver'd once for all;
One holy Band, endow'd with Heaven's high call;
One earnest, endless strife;
This is the Church th' Eternal framed of old." Lyra Apostolica.

Sermon I. Second Sunday in Advent. The Coming of the Divine Kingdom.

"The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation."--ST. LUKE xvii. 20.

THIS was our Lord's reply to a question which the Pharisees had addressed to Him. They had asked when the Kingdom of God should come.


In asking this question the Pharisees were the spokesmen of the great mass of their countrymen. There was a general expectation of a good time coming; of a time so good and so satisfying to man's best hopes that it would seem like a reign of God upon the earth.. " The Kingdom of God! " To the mind of the people at large that cherished expression often did not convey any very definite sense. The phrase had come to them, across the ages, from Psalmists and from Prophets; it had been repeated by father to son for a long series of generations; but whenever any positive meaning was now popularly attached to it, it was, on the whole, a meaning which was not originally intended. At the present day, we all of us read into our religious language, if we use [3/4] it at all sincerely, the wants and the circumstances of our own lives and age; we read our own meaning into it so often and so resolutely that what it was meant to mean often becomes, in our eyes, first obscure and then improbable; and this is what had happened to the Jews of old. They were, when our Lord came, a conquered people, that had not yet forgotten its days of freedom and of glory; and so in their eyes the Kingdom of God seemed to be merely a new national future; when the sacred soil would be cleared of the Roman invader; when the legionary, and the tax-gatherer, and the governor, and the lictors, and the eagles, would have disappeared in utter rout and confusion from the emancipated land; and when Israel, in her restored unity and strength, would be what she once had been under David and Solomon, or something yet more glorious.

This was the Kingdom of God of which the Pharisees were thinking when they put their question to our Blessed Lord. Having this idea of what the Kingdom of God was to be, they asked Him when it would come; and He took the true meaning of their question to be, how would they know that it was coming. They thought, naturally and reasonably enough, that such a kingdom as this, succeeding to, and being based on a great political change, could not come without some tokens of its approach; that some symptoms of social and revolutionary movement would be manifest at least to discerning eyes. How could the fabric of the Roman power, even in [4/5] a single province, be broken up and disappear; how could a new order of things be prepared to take its place, without some indications that might be read, of what was at hand? When, in after-years, the great empire itself tottered to its fall, men traced the presages of coming ruin long before it came. Long before the Indian mutiny of 1857, our English Government was warned that mischief was in the air. The question of the Pharisees was in accordance with experience, when it presumed that a great change, such as they anticipated, would not take place without being preceded by events of a nature to announce it.

Supposing the Pharisees to be right in their idea of the Kingdom of God, their question, or rather its drift, was reasonable enough; but then they were wrong in this their fundamental assumption. Our Lord first set aside their expectations as to the coming of the Kingdom; He then went on to say what, in its essence, the Kingdom was.

The Kingdom of God, He said, cometh not with observation: its advance is not obvious to the senses and curiosity of men; it moves onwards and diffuses itself, without being perceived and commented on. And the reason for this is, that the Kingdom is in its essence not a purely political fabric, such as the materialized and unspiritual fancy of the later Jews, misled by a false patriotism, had conceived it to be, but a spiritual realm, touching this earth indeed by its contact with, and [5/6] empire over, human souls, but reaching far, far away from the sphere of sense, aye, to the utmost confines of the world invisible. Men were not to say, "Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God was within" them. [St. Luke xvii. 21.] Its seat of power lay wholly beyond the province and capacity of eye and ear; it was set up in the hearts and consciences and wills of men; and until the most secret processes of the human soul could be displayed in sensuous forms beneath the light of day, the coming of such a Kingdom must needs be "not with observation."

Observe that our Lord speaks of the "coming of the Kingdom." For when it had come, it could no longer, from the nature of the case, be thus wholly invisible. It was to consist, at least in part, of men still living on the earth; and living men who act and speak as members of a common society cannot but attract observation. We now see the earthly side of the Kingdom of God in the visible Church of Christ. The visible Church is indeed only a very small part of the vast empire of souls that is ruled by God. But when our Lord had given to a company of disciples a code of conduct in His Sermon on the Mount; and in a series of parables had foretold how this company would presently grow; and had bequeathed it His best promises of support and consolation in His discourse in the Supper room; and, when He had died, and had risen from death, and had ascended into heaven; and further, had sent down God the Holy [6/7] Spirit to quicken and invigorate it with a superhuman life; and lastly, by the words and acts of His apostles, had given it a complete and final form, so that to the end of time the faithful should know what He, its Founder, bad willed it to be; the Kingdom of God, thus visibly constituted, could not escape observation. "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid." But its coming had been without observation; it stole in upon the world, like a breeze or an inspiration. The Roman power stood unshaken in its strength and pride; there were no signs of its approaching dissolution; but the Divine Kingdom had also come. It was even within the souls of some of those who heard the announcement; it had been welcomed to their hearts and minds; but it had not attracted the attention of the world.


"Not with observation." Let us trace this characteristic of the coming of the Kingdom of God, at some of the more solemn moments of history.

Never did the Kingdom of God come among men in a manner so direct, so blessed, and yet so awful, as when He, the King of Kings, the Infinite and Everlasting Being, deigned, in His unutterable love and condescension, to robe Himself with a human Body and a [7/8] human Soul in the womb of a Virgin mother, and thus in human form to hold high court among the sons of men. Never did the King of heaven so come among us men, as when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea. Compared with this stupendous event, the greatest catastrophes, the sublimest triumphs, the most critical epochs in the world's history, dwindle into insignificance; "God manifest in the flesh" was a phenomenon, the like of which had never yet been seen, and it must throw into the shade every other event in the annals of mankind. And what amount of public notice did it attract? What were the thoughts and interests of the mass of men in Palestine on the day of the Nativity? The last news from Rome, the seat of empire; the sayings and doings of the able but capricious statesman who for a few years held in his hands the fate of the civilized world; the last reports from the frontier, from the Rhine, from the Danube, from the Euphrates; the state and prospects of trade in the Eastern Mediterranean; the yield of the taxes in this province or that; the misconduct of one provincial governor or of another: or matters more local than these--some phase of a long controversy between the soldiers and the civilians, between Roman officials and Jewish mobs, between this and that class of a subject population; the rivalries, the efforts, the failures, the successes, the follies, the crimes, the misfortunes, of a hundred contemporaries;--of these things men were thinking when Our Lord was born. The common staple of human [8/9] thought and human talk, sometimes embracing the wider interests of the race, more often concentrating itself upon the pettiest details of daily, private, and domestic life, was in those days what it is in these. Aye, on that wonderful night it was so even with the villagers of Bethlehem: they could find no room for the Heavenly Visitor in the village hostelry; they little heeded the manger grotto outside, where He, the Infinite in human Form, was laid along with the ox and the ass. Truly, then the Kingdom of God came "not with observation."

Nor was it otherwise when some years later this Kingdom came, proclaimed by His own Divine lips, as the beautiful vision of a new life and a new world, and taking possession by gentle but resistless persuasion of the hearts and imaginations of the peasants of Galilee. No observer noted the steps of its approach, or the steps by which it succeeded. It passed like a secret contagion from soul to soul; one brother brought another; this disciple engaged, seemingly without effort, the sympathies of that; villages, districts, populations were won, they hardly knew why or how, by an invisible charm, which opened before their eyes the vision of a higher and a brighter life, and whispered that it was attainable. Such was our Lord's presence in Galilee. There were no doubt a few decisive words; some acts, too, which awed the multitudes into wonder and gratitude; but on the whole, it was a profound stirring of the thoughts and [9/10] hearts of men, yet without anything to challenge the notice of the world. It caused as yet little anxiety to the official chiefs of the Jewish religion in Jerusalem: it won even less notice from the high political and military authorities, than would be commanded in London to-day by some knew fanaticism among the Zulus. Yet there it was, the Kingdom of God upon earth;--truly it had come, and not with observation.

And when He Who was the centre and sun of this movement, Jesus our Lord, had been crucified, and had risen, and had ascended into the heavens, and had, by the labours of His apostles, fully organized and founded the earthly portion of this Kingdom as His own Catholic Church, and had sped it on its course through the centuries, it still, for many a year, continued to illustrate this its early and Divine characteristic: it came, again and again, to claim new subjects from among men, but "not with observation." It spread from one place to another, from one race or nation to another, from one class or profession to another; it made the intercourse of friends, and the activities of trade, and the discussions of the learned, and the currents of political life, in their various ways its messengers; it appeared, no one knew exactly when, or how, in the camp, in the school, in the court, in the senate; it was at once select and popular, rough and refined--appealing to the heart and the imagination, but also taking captive the understanding and subduing the will; it could whisper a word of [10/11] counsel and guidance to the studious and the thoughtful, as well as a word of warning to the sinful and the indifferent, and a word of sympathy to the suffering and the poor.

A question has often been asked, especially in modern days, the difficulty in answering which illustrates the point on which I am insisting. When and by what means did the Faith of Christ first reach the city of Rome? It might have been thought beforehand that the answer must be at once forthcoming; that, whatever else was obscure, there could be no difficulty in naming the agency by which the capital of' the ancient world received the Faith which was to have such a momentous influence on its later history. Yet, as a matter of fact, the question does admit of no certain reply. There are indeed popular answers ready to hand; but they will not bear investigation. Did that great apostle whose name has in later ages been claimed by Rome as its especial monopoly, as its crowning glory--did St. Peter introduce Christianity into Rome? The supposition is untenable, for one especial reason among others; St. Peter could not have been at Rome when St. Paul, some ten years before their common martyrdom, wrote his Epistle to the Romans, in which St. Peter is never once even remotely alluded to. St. Paul could not have so violated his own rule of not building on another man's foundation, [Rom. xv. 20.] as to write an authoritative letter to the Roman Church [11/12] without once acknowledging his obligations or his duties to an apostle who had preceded him; and St. Peter's visit to Rome is, in all probability, to be placed at a later date, not more than two or three years before his death. Was St. Paul then the author of Roman Christianity? was he the apostle who founded the Roman Church? This again is impossible: St. Paul wrote to the Roman Church as a church already numerous and flourishing, but which he had never yet had time to visit. [Rom. i. 10, 13; xv. 24.] The names which are most nearly associated with the earliest church in Rome are those of the private undistinguished Christians Aquila and Priscilla; [Rom. xvi. 3; Acts xviii. 2, 18.] and yet there is no evidence which goes to show that they actually introduced the Faith into the city of the Caesars. In fact the answer to this question is lost in the haze of the earliest Christian history: it could only be given accurately, where it is recorded, in the world above. Who they were, by whose lips, Christ our Lord was first named in the capital of the empire, whether Christians flying from Jerusalem after the death of St. Stephen, or baptized proselytes returning to their native synagogue on the morrow of Pentecost, we know not; we never shall know in this life. There is here abundant room for imaginative conjecture; and, in the absence of real knowledge, we may observe how remarkably the origin of the Roman Church itself illustrates the principle laid down by our Lord, that the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation.

[13] Contrast this characteristic of Christ's Kingdom with what we find elsewhere. No one would say that the religion of Mahomet made its way in the world without observation. It burst upon civilization as the war-cry of an invading host; it was dictated at the point of the scimitar to conquered populations, as the alternative to ruin or to death: The history of its propagation throughout the eastern world was written in characters of blood and fire; the frontier of its triumphs was precisely determined by the successes of its warriors; and in these last centuries it has receded in a degree exactly corresponding to the progressive collapse of the barbarous forces to which it was indebted for its earlier expansion.

The Kingdom of God came without observation, and we have seen that when it had come it could not but be, in some sense, observed; since it was to consist of believing men; since it was to be, as St. Paul says, one body as well as one spirit; [Eph. iv. 4.] since as an institution, with public officers and territorial arrangements of its own, it so far entered into the sphere of sense. But a time came when, we must sorrowfully admit, our Lord's words no longer served to describe the manner in which efforts were always made to promote the advance of His Kingdom. Christians were truer to Him when they prayed and suffered in the catacombs, than when, after Constantine's conversion, they had learned to wait as courtiers in [13/14] the antechambers of the Caesars. And when the Roman Empire fell, and amidst the general collapse of the old society the Church remained as a solitary institution, standing erect in the midst of a world of ruins, it followed that her chief pastors became, in the natural course and by the pressure of events, great temporal princes, ruling the bodies as well as the souls of men; and that her bishops took their seats in earthly legislatures; and that her public action commingled with that of the powers of this world, and attracted at least an equal share of human observation. And then even good Christian men brought themselves to think that the Kingdom of God could somehow be made to come, not merely with great "observation," but by the mere manipulation of physical force; that it would come in the wake of conquering armies, or at the dictates of earthly magistrates, or in obedience to the sword, not of the Spirit, but of the soldier or the policeman. Now this gigantic and degrading misconception was undoubtedly, [14/15] in its origin, due to a particular kind of intimacy between the Divine Kingdom and the powers of this world; as intimacy of such a sort and character, that the methods for extending and guarding an earthly empire seemed to be immediately applicable to the work of protecting and enlarging the Kingdom of God. ["Jesus Himself expressly declared that His 'Kingdom is not of this world;' assigning as a natural consequence and proof of this, that His servants did not fight to save Him from being delivered to the Jews. St. John xviii. 36. He did not evidently intend to imply that He had no Kingdom in this world, and that His dominion existed only in reference to the glorified Saints and Angels in heaven; for in saying that His servants did not fight for Him, He implied that He had servants on earth, who of course were, and might be called by an equivalent expression (inasmuch as He proclaimed His own regal dignity) subjects of His Kingdom. Nor did He mean, as some well-intentioned Christians have imagined, to prohibit self-defence against robbers or hostile invaders; but that He forbade His followers to fight for Him; to support by force the cause of His Kingdom; to have recourse to arms for the maintenance of His authority, and the defence of His religion. 'If My Kingdom,' said He, 'were of this world then would My servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is My Kingdom not from hence.' It is plain, therefore, that the Kingdom which He claimed, and in which He gave authority under Himself to His Apostles, saying, 'I appoint unto you a kingdom, as My Father bath appointed unto Me,' was a Kingdom existing indeed in this world, but not of this world,--sanctioned by the rewards and punishments of a future state,--maintained by no secular means of coercion,--neither superseding nor combined with, nor in any way interfering with civil government."--"Letters on the Church," by an Episcopalian. London. 1826. Letter 1, p. 6. This volume is attributed to Archbishop Whately.] The days of that old intimacy are, it would seem, passing away all over Christendom. And if when we look back on them, we must, as Christians, regret the loss of that public honour which was thus assigned by our forefathers to religion among the lesser concerns of life; still, we may reflect that the true strength of Christianity lies, not in the outward symbols of its empire, but in the reality of its empire over hearts and wills; that the Kingdom of God which "cometh not with observation" does not really need contrivances for causing it to be "observed;" and that a possible future of the Church, which may seem, to worldly eyes, sheer poverty and failure, may yet contain within [15/16] itself the springs of a renovating moral force--a force intense and concentrated--whereby to win back to the fresh faith and love of early ages the worn-out or decaying energies of a jaded and heart-sick world.


As with the Church so with the soul, the law holds good, that "the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation."

When are the first germs of the new life deposited? It is when in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, the water of baptism is poured on an infant brow. This is what St. Paul calls "the washing of regeneration;" this is what our Lord had Himself described as being "born of water and of the Spirit." We see nothing that is not perfectly ordinary and commonplace; a clergyman, a font, the infant, the parents, the godparents, the few surrounding worshippers. But true Christian faith knows that He is there, Who was crucified in weakness and Who reigns in power; present by the agency of His Divine Spirit, to turn what but for Him would be an empty and useless form, into a solemn act of momentous import, which is registered above; to make the child, who can offer no resistance such as an adult might offer to the influences of grace, then and there a "member of Christ, a child of [16/17] God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven." Truly, at a christening, the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation.

And if, in after-years, the precious grace thus given is, as it well may be, sinned away and lost, and nothing but the stamp or socket of the Divine gift remains, without its informing spiritual and vital power, then another change is necessary, which we call conversion. And what is conversion? Is it always a something that can be appraised and registered, as having happened at some exact hour of the clock; as having been attended by such and such recognized symptoms; as announced to bystanders in these or those conventional or indispensable ejaculations; as achieved among certain invariable and easily described experiences? Assuredly not. A conversion may have its vivid and memorable occasion, its striking and visible incidents; a light from heaven above the brightness of the sun, may at midday, during a country-ride, flash upon the soul of Saul of Tarsus; a verse of Scripture, suddenly illuminated with new, and unsuspected, and constraining meaning, may give a totally new direction to the will and genius of Augustine. But in truth the types of the process of conversion are just as various as are the souls of men; the one thing that does not vary, since it is the essence of what takes place, is a change--a deep and vital change,--in the direction of the will. Conversion is the substitution of God's Will as the end and aim of life, for all other aims and ends whatever; and thus, human [17/18] nature being what it is, conversion is as a rule a "turning from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that" a man may "receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among them which are sanctified through faith that is in" Christ. [Acts xxvi. 18.] And this change itself most assuredly cometh not with observation. The after-effects indeed appear; the generosities of self-sacrifice; the unity of purpose which gives meaning and solemnity and force to life; the proper fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, each in such measure as befits the requirements of natural character. Certainly when the Divine Kingdom has come into a soul, the result may often be traced by sure marks of its presence; but in this case too, the Kingdom of God cometh, at least as a rule, not with observation.

And so it is with all the more solemn and precious incidents of the life of the spirit of man. They do not court observation, they elude and shrink from it. Discussion, publicity, still more recognition and applause, are nothing less than death to them. It is only a shallow stream which catches the ear by its noisy ripples, as it forces its way over the pebbles in its bed: deep waters run still. Of the greatest lives that are lived, little or nothing is often heard at the time; if, indeed, much is ever heard in this world. The ruling motives in a good Christian, constantly, because instinctively, acted on, are never referred to; the most solemn voices that [18/19] reach the soul are oftenest heard, not in the excitement of a vast crowd gathered in a lighted church, but in the loneliness of sorrow, or in the stillness of the midnight hour, when we feel that God is about our bed, and spying out all our ways; or at an early Communion, when the soul hastens to lay its best and freshest efforts of thought and will, unimpaired, untainted, by the busy cares and intercourse of a working day, at the feet of its adored Redeemer. In these and like matters it is true that the Kingdom of God cometh not with observation.

Will it ever be thus? In its full solemnity and import the Kingdom of God will come to every man as never before, at death and in Judgment. It will be brought home to each of us then; it will be inflicted upon our earthbound tempers, upon our palsied wills, upon our dull and reluctant senses, with an importunity from which there can be no escape. Even then, too, its approaches may be gradual and unperceived. Already, here or there, death may be preparing his stealthy march when the seeds of organic disease are sown in some constitution of proverbial soundness and strength. And if, as we heard in to-day's Gospel, the Last and Awful Judgment will be heralded by signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth by distress of nations with perplexity, the meaning and import of these tokens of the coming of the Son of Man may nevertheless escape all who are not expecting Him: in spiritual things [19/20] "the fig-tree, and all the trees," may "shoot forth" without our "seeing and knowing of our own selves that summer is now nigh at hand." [St. Luke xxi. 29, 30.] But when we are in the act of dying, and see before us the manifested Judge, the Kingdom of God will be borne in upon the spirit irresistibly, in all its blessedness or in all its awe. " Every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him, and all the kindreds of the earth shall wail because of Him." [Rev. i. 7.] God grant that we may take to heart the solemn words of Christ our Lord; certain that, if at this moment there is no token of His coming upon which observation can certainly fix, yet that the long train of preparations is ever hastening forward in the unseen world, until, at the predestined moment, as a thief in the night, as a lightning flash across the heavens, He comes to Judgment.

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