YOU all know, my dear children, for what this sad day is set apart. You have all heard something of the bloodshed and violence and cruelty that have made India desolate,--and know that from one end of England to the other an earnest cry has, to-day, gone up to GOD that He would stretch forth the right hand of His Majesty to be the defence of those that are in danger, the comfort of those that are in misery, and to wipe away the tears from the eyes of the mourners. You have heard how children younger than yourselves have been actually torn in pieces by the hands of Pagans and Mahometans;--and there are hundreds and hundreds of others, as full of life, and hope, and expectation as you are, who are still in the same danger, still--unless GOD is pleased to help them--in the same certainty of destruction. But I am not going to speak to you of those fearful scenes. The knowledge of wickedness, as the wise man says, is not wisdom. This is a day of prayer, and I am going to tell you a story of how GOD hears prayer. It shall be a story that you all know very well: a story taken out of Holy Scripture: a story that you may have read many, many times;--but, perhaps, if I try to make you fancy it as it really was, it will come fresh and new to you. For this is the way in which we ought to read or think about, Scripture stories: we should try and bring them up, as much as we can, before our minds, so that if we read of any place we should endeavour to see it, its streets, its houses, its people; if we read of a mountain or valley we should try to think them of some particular shape, and colour, and so on.
Now the place to which I am going to take you is a quaint old-fashioned seaport town: walled in on three sides, for when it was built there were savage nations near at hand, who might otherwise have made a prey of its inhabitants, but on the fourth, open to the sea. In these seas there are no tides, such as you used to see at Brighton. The water is clear and blue, far far clearer, far far bluer than any sea in this dark cold northern land. Sometimes, in the setting sun, it is purple as dark wine; and then, like a faint blue cloud in the distance, you may see the hills of that which they then called Thrace, but which we now name Turkey in Europe.
As you walked through this city, you could see here and there a beautiful marble porch, leading into some vast temple. If you entered, it was one very high huge hall, dark, except for the lights burning in it,--for there are no windows--with the statue of the god or goddess to whom it was dedicated at the upper or further end, and an altar, a small altar on which to burn incense, in the very middle. For this was the time in which almost all the nations of the earth bowed down to idols of wood and stone; this was the time in which some of the dear Apostles of our LORD still walked upon the earth,--when S. James was still Bishop of Jerusalem; when S. John was still living in Ephesus, and had not as yet been banished to Patmos, for the word of truth, and for the testimony that he kept.
Well; one Saturday afternoon in Easter week,--but the inhabitants of that place knew nothing about Easter,--and very little about Saturday, except that a despised race of people called the Jews observed it as their Sabbath; some of the town's people were standing on the little pier that jutted out into the sea, and watching the waves as they curled and danced beneath the fresh setting wind. Presently, far away to the northward, they saw a vessel on the horizon, coming up quickly with the wind; so that whereas a few moments ago you could only see her masthead, and then her sails, now you can see her deck quite plainly.
"I wonder," one of the citizens said, "where that vessel is bound?"
"Then I can tell you," says another. "I know her at a distance; her name is the Castor and Pollux; she is now from Philippi, and there her owner lives. There are some passengers on board who are given into my charge."
"Who are they?" asked another.
"A very odd sort of people," answered the first merchant. "You have heard of that new sect, called Christians, in this town, have you not?"
"You mean," said his friend, "those who worship a malefactor that was crucified in Jerusalem about thirty years ago. I thought they were the same as the Jews."
"No; they are not the same," replied the merchant. "They came out of Judaea at first; but the Jews hate them and persecute them, and kill them whenever they can. Yes; they do believe in that malefactor; and as He suffered on a Cross, so they hold the sign of the Cross in great reverence. Well; one of their ringleaders is coming in this very vessel. And the singular thing is, that this man was once a Jew himself, and persecuted the Christians wherever he could find them. But when he was in Syria, he says that he had a vision in the middle of the day, with a light brighter than the sun, and a wonderful voice that no one could hear but himself; and that since that time he has been as enthusiastic a Christian as any one. I have heard that in different places he has been stoned, scourged, imprisoned, had to fly for his life, mocked, ridiculed, and more than once shipwrecked, but still he persists in preaching of one JESUS, Which is dead, Whom he affirmeth to be alive."
"What a strange delusion!" said one of the bystanders.
"So it is," said the merchant: "and the man must be mad. But I must be civil to him, however, for Eratosthenes is a good customer to me at Smyrna, and he is a Christian himself, and has recommended this man of whom I have been telling you to my care."
By this time, a little group of seven persons came down to the same pier.--If I look at the Bible, I can tell you what their names were. Sopater of Berea; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timotheus; and of Asia, Tychicus and Trophimus.
"I told you," said one of them, "that we might expect him this afternoon. That is the ship beyond all manner of doubt."
"Five days," said another, "is not a bad passage, and it is just five days since he left Philippi."
"The brethren," said Secundus, "were very anxious that he should meet them in the breaking of bread to-night; and he must have much to tell us of what he has done and suffered."
"He must not tarry here, though," said Sopater: "he will not delay anywhere: he told me just before we left him that he would even sail by Ephesus; for that he hasted if it were possible for him to be at Jerusalem the day of Pentecost."
"That is as much as he will do," replied Tychicus," unless the GOD Whom the wind and the waves obey, shall help His servant on his voyage."
"How fast the vessel is coming up," cried Gaius of Derbe. "This, I think, is the host with whom he is to lodge."
"Good evening, sirs," began the merchant of whom I have told you. "You are on the lookout for your friend, I perceive. The Castor and Pollux is a good sailer; you will not have long to wait. You came yourselves by land, I think?"
"We came by land," answered the youngest of the party, whose name was Timothy. "He so desired it."
"Wonderful man your friend must be," replied the merchant. "I hear of him everywhere; how not alone at Ephesus, but almost throughout all Asia, he hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying, that they be no gods which are made with hands."
"He is a wonderful man," replied Tychicus, "but not in himself. His bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible; but it is the grace of GOD in him which enables him to do what he does."
"Well, for my part," said the merchant, "I am content to abide by the gods of my fathers. They have served the turn well enough for more centuries than I can count, and they will serve my turn to the end."
"The times of that ignorance," said Timothy, "GOD winked at; but now commandeth He all men, everywhere, to repent: because He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world by that same JESUS Whom Paul preacheth."
"At all events," said the other, "I shall have a more convenient season to listen to such matters: and it must not be now: for I must give orders about the ship's coming into dock."
In half an hour there was all the bustle on the pier that the arrival of a fine vessel naturally occasions in a little seaport town. Among the passengers who stepped on to the narrow plank which joined the pier to the vessel, was one, certainly not distinguished by his personal appearance, but behind whom, an affectionate little group followed close. You might see their love, their respect, their veneration, in every gesture, and in every word. Their leader was under the common height--as we have him described by those that had seen him, with light brown hair, a light brown beard, worn short, an active and almost restless manner, and very weak eyes.
The merchant stepped forward. "I believe," he said, "you have letters for me from my friend Eratosthenes. I have heard from him: and he does me the honour of committing you to my charge."
"We have," said the stranger, in a voice which, though he spoke Greek with a Jewish accent, made you forget everything else in its sweetness and melody. "He has been a succourer of many and of myself also."
"I will conduct you to my house then," said the merchant: "I will but speak to the captain about your goods, and will join you again."
"It is a joy, indeed," said the Apostle, "to see so many known faces in a strange land."
"You have been eagerly expected by the brethren," said Gaius. "They meet this very evening; and have prayed for favourable winds that you might be with them."
"Then GOD be thanked Who has brought us safely hither; where do the brethren meet?"
"In the house of a young man who has but lately received the faith. He is wealthy enough, and has turned the best part of it into a church; they need it the more because the synagogue is shut against us."
While that little band is accompanying their leader to the lodging prepared for him, I will take you on before to the church of which Gains had spoken. It was in one of the best quarters of the city. A largish house had been entirely stripped of all its inside fittings; floors and rooms had been removed, and the whole interior flung into one. But to hold the more people three large galleries had been built round the whole of the inside; and what between these and the ground floor, a large number of worshippers might be contained. By six o'clock the place was well-nigh filled. Besides all the Christians in the city, a good number of Jews, and some among the heathen had tried to find their way in. But it was told them that on this occasion they could not be present: that they might hear for themselves at another time, and in another place; but that now those rites were about to be performed at which the worshippers of CHRIST did not permit the presence of any strangers.
A large table placed in the middle of the empty space, and with only one covering of fine linen, served as the altar; paten, as yet, there was none; and the flagons which were to contain the Blood of our LORD, were only of the ordinary shape which might have been seen in any Roman banquet. There was a saying which afterwards became a proverb,--that in those early days, the chalices were of wood and the priests of gold; whereas afterwards, the priests were of wood and the chalices of gold. By sunset, all the church was filled: the strangers Gaius, Tychicus, Timothy, and the rest, came in and took the place appointed for them, on a small platform whence their chief and leader might be best heard. The whole place was full of lights; and these and the crowd soon made the heat very great.
I will not stop to tell you now how they then performed their Communion Service; how they first read several chapters from the prophets; how then one of the strangers--his name was Luke--stood up and read part of an account of our LORD'S doings and sufferings, even as they had delivered them which from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word, and of which, he said, he had had understanding from the very first; how then there was the same sentence that we say now, Lift up your hearts, and the same answer, We lift them up unto the LORD; how after that, they repeated the words by which our LORD had first consecrated Bread and Wine into His Body and Blood, and called down the HOLY GHOST, to bless and sanctify His own gifts; then how they prayed for the Emperor,--wicked man though he were, and for all sorts and conditions of men, whether in the world or in the Church; and lastly, how, after the proclamation had been made, Holy things for holy persons, the deacons carried round the Holy mysteries in great plates and flagons, till all the faithful, standing up, had communicated.
When the communion was over, then began the Apostle to speak. He told them of his hairbreadth escapes, of the many nations among whom he had proclaimed the Gospel; of the multitudes whom he had turned from darkness into light and from the power of Satan unto GOD; how much he had laboured and suffered; yet, as he constantly reminded his hearers, "not I, but the grace of GOD which was with me;" and so he went on till it was midnight. The young man to whom the house belonged, and who, as you may easily imagine, had been wearied and perplexed about its arrangements, had taken up his place in one of the upper galleries, as soon as the Apostle began his sermon; so that he might see everything that was going on and what was wanted. And to get higher and see better he climbed up into one of the deep recesses of the windows, and there sat.
Hour after hour went on: the room became closer and hotter: at last there was a loud shriek, a heavy fall, and the young man lay on the floor, senseless and motionless. Then all was confusion: his friends and those who stood round raised him up heavily and slowly: there was no pulse, no feeling, no sound, no motion: he was dead.
Then the preacher came down and knelt beside him. "Trouble not yourselves," he said, "for his life is in him." And he prayed earnestly by his side.
And in a moment, sight, and sound, and colour, and being came back at once. The great miracle had been wrought. Prayer had done its work, and had been heard. And it is written, "They brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted."
And, dear children, since an act of prayer did so much then, can it not do as much now? Is the LORD'S arm shortened that it cannot save, or His ear heavy that it cannot hear?
If we only try, we shall know better. GOD grant that we may so try, every hour!