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Sermons on the Black Letter Days
Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England
by John Mason Neale

London: Joseph Masters, 1872. Third edition.


Being the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.
S. Augustine. August 28.


PILATE said this, as you all know; and we follow Pilate's example again and again. What I have said, I have said, so a man reasons within his heart. I might be wicked or foolish for saying it; no matter: it would look mean and poor-spirited to unsay it, or to confess that I am sorry for having said it. I know it was wrong, but I will defend it to the last: what I have said, I have said. Or again; at such a time I did such and such a thing, which I ought to have left undone. If I had the chance, I would not do it again. I see that it has caused harm, but to own that it was foolish--no, never! What I have done, I have done.

This is what we do when the thing is known to our neighbours: we defend it, we justify it, we think it a part of our honour not to confess that we are sorry for it. We imitate Pilate very well indeed.

But suppose the sin is not known to our neighbours--then what do we do? We hide it. Every one feels this temptation; it is natural to man. Adam did so first of all. After he had eaten the fruit of the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he hid himself. To confess is the one thing that people will not do. They will say that they are sinners, but they will be determined not to own any particular sin. It is so very hard--it goes so much against the grain--to confess sin, that some men have chosen rather to go to hell than to own it. Murderers have walked up the scaffold with a lie in their mouths, calling GOD to witness that they were innocent, because they could not bear the shame of confessing their guilt. Most of us, I am afraid, have before now committed a second sin to hide the first, and a third to hide the second.

Yes: we all know how difficult it is to say, boldly and plainly, I was mistaken; and how still more difficult it is to confess, At such a time I committed such a sin; I stole such a thing; I told such a falsehood; I cheated such a person. Now see what an example we have in the Saint of this day--S. Augustine.

S. Augustine was the most learned and the most holy writer that GOD ever raised up in His Church. From his day to this,--and he lived fourteen hundred years ago,--all the great teachers of the Church have looked up to him as their master. Sunday after Sunday, all over the world, as well as here in England, many a preacher tells the people what he himself learnt from Augustine. You have often heard me--if GOD spares us all, you often will again hear me--teach you here, what S. Augustine has taught me. He wrote one hundred and eighteen books,--sermons, letters, tracts, notes on different parts of the Bible; and they have all been bound together in twenty immense volumes.

Well: suppose you were able to read these, and begin at the beginning--what do you think you would find to be the names of the two first works? I will tell you. The first would be the Mistakes of Augustine,--the next, the Confessions of Augustine, and both written by himself. What! the mistakes and the sins of such a great Saint, and so learned a man! and these to take up two books! Yes; and Augustine was never more like a saint than when thus confessing his sins to the whole world; and never more like a learned man than when thus acknowledging his mistakes.

He had not always been holy. Though he had a most holy mother, his father was a heathen, and he grew up without being baptized. When he became a young man, he fell into open and abominable sin, and he also turned away from the true faith, and became a heretic. His mother, S. Monica, never ceased to pray for him; and she was persuaded that the child of so many prayers would not be lost. As for Augustine himself, he always hoped that some day or other he should repent; and he used to pray, "LORD, make me holy, but not now!" For many years he went on, wearying himself in sin; and when he would have left it off, he could not bear to tear himself away from his favourite temptations. He felt just what S. Paul tells us in the Epistle for to-day; "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would."

And this was the way in which he was converted. He had been hearing of some of the Saints of earlier times,--how, for the love of CHRIST, they gave up everything that they had,--how they chose rather to be afflicted, and poor, and despised in this life, and to reign with CHRIST hereafter. He rose from his chair, and said to a friend that was with him, "What! shall men like these, poor, and weak, and ignorant, enter into the kingdom of heaven, while we, with all our learning and all our powers, are going to hell? Why do we not mend our lives at once? why not to-day? why not this very hour?" He went into the garden in great agony of mind, and threw himself on the ground; thinking how hard it was to give up all his sins, and yet how much harder it would be to be shut out from the kingdom of heaven. While he was thus torn almost in pieces by the struggle, he heard a sweet voice as of a child that cried, "Take up and read! take up and read!" He looked round--there was no one near; and he thought that some children must be at play in the next garden. But he listened, and the voice sounded quite close to him, "Take up and read! take up and read!" Again he looked round, and he saw a copy of S. Paul's Epistles lying on the grass: he had thrown it down there when he went out into the garden. He took up the book, and opened at this verse: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the LORD JESUS CHRIST, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof." Then it was that he determined, cost what it might, to take the kingdom of heaven by violence; and to tear himself away from all that might offend GOD. In time he was baptized; and some persons say that, at his baptism, that glorious Hymn was made which we so often use,--"We praise Thee, O GOD: we acknowledge Thee to be the LORD." After some years, he was made a Bishop; and then he thought that it would be for the glory of GOD if he gave a history of his former life, and published it to all the world. He set down his sins, and mourned over them; and then he had the courage to send this book abroad, so that every one might read it. If it is so painful to confess a sin to only one person, think what it must have been to Augustine to make them manifest to all the world! Thus he speaks of himself: "I wish," he says, "to call to remembrance my past vileness, and the corruptions of my soul, not because I love them, but that I may love Thee, O my GOD! I do this for the love of Thy love, calling to mind my most evil ways, that, when I feel the bitterness of my own sin, then I may also feel how sweet Thou art."

It is not wonderful that GOD should have abundantly blessed a book thus written to His honour; and many and many a sinner, who was going on in sin, has been converted and brought again to GOD by the Confessions of Augustine.

When he was an old man, and looked back on the multitude of books that he had written, he determined to put down all the mistakes he had found out for himself in them, or that others had shown him. He did so, and thereby proved how different he was from Pilate's spirit, and from ours. He did not say, "What I have written, I have written." He did not think it was any disgrace to own himself in the wrong. And thus he made his very mistakes and sins to glorify GOD, by the humbleness wherewith he confessed them before men.

His last illness was a fever. He caused some of the Psalms to be written out plainly, and pinned up at his bedside, so that they might always be before his eyes.

And he departed to the LORD on this day, the 28th of August, about fourteen hundred years ago, being seventy years old.

I said just now, how great must have been the grace of GOD in Augustine, which enabled him to confess his sins to the world! But remember this; that the time will come when the same thing will happen to all of us,--when the whole mass of sin that we have committed, ever since we had first the power of sinning, will be proclaimed in the hearing of men and of angels; of sins that we have done, not like Augustine, before we were baptized, but after we were baptized, after we were confirmed, after we had again and again received our LORD'S Body and Blood, after we had all the means of GOD'S grace, after the HOLY GHOST had made us His Temples. This will be for all, good as well as bad; dreadful to all, even to those who enter into everlasting life: but what for those that, after thus having all their sins proclaimed to the world, will be cast into the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death?

He that confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall find mercy. But he must confess them now: it will be too late to confess them then, when, whether he will or not, they will be made known. It is better to suffer any pain or shame here, than hereafter to be tormented with everlasting pain, and to have our portion in everlasting shame and contempt.

From which GOD of His mercy deliver us, for JESUS CHRIST'S sake: to Whom with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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