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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.


S. Cyprian. September 26.


FEW Martyrs have overcome more gloriously than S. Cyprian, an African Bishop, whose memory we keep to-day. He lived in the time of famine, and plague, and persecution; he was the good shepherd of his people through all. Many of his writings we have even now, and in them we see how truly and faithfully he followed in the steps of the Shepherd of shepherds, JESUS CHRIST; and at last, as on this day, he was beheaded in the presence of a vast crowd of Christians, who glorified GOD in his death.

The text, then, applies to him, but it applies to us also. To see how this is, we must look back to what is said of the Church of Smyrna, to which this Epistle is written. "We find that even then it was in great affliction. "I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich;)" and we find also that this affliction was to be increased: "Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." This promise then--like the rest of the Epistle--is given to all of those who are in trouble or temptation of any kind, and who may reasonably look for more. Therefore, it is given to most of you. The last days of life are not its pleasantest days. "The clouds return after the rain" then, as the wise man says; that is, the times of suffering are no sooner passed, than they come back again: sickness, when it leaves you, does not leave you for long; and you have very certainly and very soon to look forward to that grievous time of tribulation and distress, when the dust shall return unto the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to GOD Who gave it.

Now, then, see how GOD would comfort you, by seeing how He comforted this poor and suffering Church of Smyrna.

How does the letter begin? "These things saith the First and the Last, Which was dead and is alive." Why, there is comfort even in this. "The First and the Last." The First to bear all the cares and troubles of this life, which are appointed to be the portion of His servants. The First to go through "the valley of the shadow of death," that we might follow Him safely. The First to say, "In the world ye shall have tribulation;" "if a man will not deny himself, and take up his cross, he cannot be My Disciple." And He is the Last: He will remain when all these tribulations shall have passed away. He will be our "exceeding and eternal great reward," when the very name of temptation shall not be so much as heard again. Whatever else is dissolved, He continues "the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever." In everything else we may trust and be deceived. In Him only, if we put our confidence, we shall never be confounded. If He then suffered so much before us, shall we think it much to suffer after Him? If He ever liveth to receive us at last, shall we think it hard to suffer here, to the end that we may have a home with Him there?

But, again: these words have comfort for us in another sense. "These things saith the First and the Last." The First indeed He was from all eternity: for He was GOD of GOD, Very GOD of Very GOD, of One Substance with the FATHER; by Him all things were made: "In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with GOD, and the WORD was GOD." He was First in glory, First in might, First in wisdom: according to that saying,--"that in all things He might have the pre-eminence." But He, for us men and for our salvation, became the Last, the most dishonoured of all men. His most sacred Face, Isaiah tells us, "was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men." He was a very Servant of servants, reviled by the meanest of His creatures; obedient to the death of the worst and most disgraced of malefactors,--the death of the Cross. Yes; He, the First in Heaven, was the Last on earth.

Thus, then, the HOLY GHOST seems to speak to us: "What great thing is it, if thou, O man, sufferest for thine own sins, when He, Who did no sin, suffered for thine?--if thou sufferest a little, when He endured great agonies for thee?--if thou art disgraced, when He was reckoned among the transgressors?--if thou art poor, when He had not where to lay His head?--if thou art sick, when Himself took thy infirmities and bare thy sicknesses?" What great thing indeed? "We indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but He hath done nothing amiss."

But He goes on: "These things saith the First and the Last, Which was dead and is alive." This also is for our comfort. He was what we all must be. He was dead and buried; and, in those respects, we too must be like Him.. But He is alive. If He rose again, so shall we also. This is what S. Paul reasons about in the fifteenth chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians:--"If the dead rise not, then is CHRIST not raised: and if CHRIST be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in CHRIST are perished." "But," as he goes on, "now is CHRIST risen from the dead, and become the Firstfruits of them that slept." When our time comes, then it will be like a soldier falling by his leader. Our Leader, the LORD JESUS CHRIST, by death overcame him that had the power of death, that is, the devil: and so shall we, if we truly follow Him also. For after that, Satan will have no more power over us at all. He that is dead is free from sin. As an old hymn says:--

"Fear'st thou the death that comes to all,
And listens to no pleader?
Oh, glorious struggle! thou wilt fall
The Soldier by the Leader!

"CHRIST went with death to grapple first,
And conquered him before thee;
His darts then--let him do his worst--
Can gain no triumph o'er thee!"

And all this brings us to the promise: "He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death." The first death is the death of the body: that we have all to suffer. "We see," as David tells us, "that the wise men die and perish together, as well as the ignorant and foolish." "He that overcometh,"--he that conquers the devil, the world, himself,--will have to die all the same: there is no promise that he shall escape that. But the "second death,"--the death of the soul--he shall escape. He shall escape "the worm that never dieth, and the fire that never shall be quenched." He shall escape the place where "the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever."

But now, lest we should take these words in a wrong sense, there is something else. By "he that overcometh" is not meant he that sometimes overcometh, he that is content now and then to conquer a temptation, and more often to yield to it,--to conquer what gives little trouble, and to give way to that which is harder: neither yet does it mean, he that always overcometh,--for then, who could be saved? The just man falleth seven times a day, and we, exceeding sinners, seventy times seven. But it means him who on the whole, by the grace of GOD the HOLY GHOST,--not without many defeats, not without many hindrances,--is overcoming the devil. It means what is said in the verse before: "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." We must, with whatever weakness and infirmity, be bent on doing our King's service; and we must do it, not this month or this year only, but until death. Up to that time, we must neither wish nor expect to be freed from trouble. " If ye be without chastisement," says S. Paul, "whereof all are partakers, then"--what?--then are ye GOD'S dear children? not so: "Then are ye bastards, and not sons." That is, though you are called His sons, and, in one sense, are His sons, because you were made so in Baptism, you are not doing the work of His sons, and at the last day will not be reckoned among His children.

Now, in a certain way, we must all do what the Captain of our Salvation did. No help for it; we must all do it, or perish. No choice between that and hell. It is the one thing, it is the only one thing that is truly worth a thought. It is the only one word which is worth making the study, the hope, the longing, the prayer, the struggle of a life. And what is the word? Not a long one, but GOD knows a difficult one. Easy to be understood: oh, how hard to practise! What is it? Why, this: we must conquer! All the promises are to that. " To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the Tree of Life." "He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death." "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the Temple of My GOD, and he shall go no more out." "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My Throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My FATHER in His Throne."

He then conquered, and so must we. But we cannot conquer as He did. He destroyed the works of the devil, at once: we must take them piece by piece, one by one, cut them off in detail, tread them under foot one after another. Therefore holy writers have always advised, when a man, after having permitted himself to be the slave of Satan, determines to become in earnest the servant of GOD, and, whatever it costs him, to win the Kingdom of Heaven, that he should first discover what his most besetting sin is, and then, the grace of GOD helping him, set himself against that as the object of his life. And when, after many defeats and many falls, and infinite discouragements, it is kept down, then that he should single out the next strongest temptation, and attack that in the same way. It is a good and a safe plan. Let it be anger, or sloth, or pride, or selfishness, or impurity, or falsehood, or what else it may be,--"The heart knoweth its own bitterness,"--pick that out as a private and personal enemy. You must kill it, or it will kill you. So, by degrees, and with great pain and anguish, and after many a prayer, though you will not in this life utterly destroy it, you will, as S. Paul says, "crucify it." Its death will be slow and painful, and cannot take place till you are delivered yourself out of this world; but it will be certain, as certain as that of a malefactor nailed to the Cross.

This then, should be our aim, and GOD give us grace to make it so; to strive, as S. Paul says, not as uncertainly--to fight, not as one that beateth the air--to take the Kingdom of Heaven in the only way that it can be taken, by violence--to "press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of GOD in CHRIST JESUS."

And then, by GOD'S goodness, the time will come when, as it was with His saints, so it will be with us, when we shall have rest from our struggles and our labours: not perfect rest from everything, but peace after war, quiet after struggle, home after journey, port after storm; when, if we have conquered, as our LORD and Master conquered, we shall reign as He reigns-- seeing Him without any darkness, serving Him without any weariness, knowing Him without any ignorance, loving Him without any coldness, and dwelling with Him without any separation. Which He grant, for His own merit's sake, to Whom, with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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