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Lectures on Church Difficulties.

By the Rev. J. M. Neale, M.A.
Warden of Sackville College.

London: J. T. Hayes, N.D.


Preached at S. ——, London, on S. John Baptist's Day, the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, 1849: the Marriage Bill then pending in Parliament.

"He that hath the bride is the Bridegroom; but the friend of the Bridegroom, that standeth and heareth Him, rejoiceth greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice: this ray joy therefore is fulfilled."—S. John iii. 29.

THIS day stands out from the other festivals of the Church as something apart and by itself. The LORD'S messenger shall have his birthday to temporal, not to eternal, life, principally commemorated. He that shall foretell CHRIST, shall be foretold by an angel. He that shall preach to the people, shall be preached in the temple. He shall be called by his name before his conception. He shall prophesy by his father's dumbness, before by his own voice. He shall testify to that in his mother's womb, whereof afterward he doubted. He, the first in time, shall be the last in honour. He, the last of the old dispensation, shall be greater than all its saints. He shall not be That Light, but of That Light he shall bear witness. His shall not be the true baptism, yet he shall baptize its Author. He shall die a martyr, yet not for the name of CHRIST. He shall die a martyr, yet he shall not be called by that title. He is that Elias which was for to come. He is that Cyrus, of whom it is written, He shall fulfil all My pleasure; even saying to Jerusalem—the spiritual Jerusalem—thou shalt be built; and to the temple—the temple of GOD'S elect—thy foundation shall be laid: by preaching Him, other foundation than Whom can no man lay.

On these thoughts, and such as these, the Fathers love to dwell; and on any of them we might profitably employ this evening in meditation. But we will rather take a passage, the full meaning of which lies a little deeper, and dwell upon it, as GOD the HOLY GHOST, by the writings of the Doctors of His Church, shall have set it forth to us.

These words would be remarkable, if for nothing else, yet for this,—that they are the first time in the New Testament in which the Church is spoken of under the character of a bride; the first time that we learn to how sublime and excellent a mystery marriage was to be consecrated; with what sacramental grace endowed. And consequently, how fearful is the danger, and how horrible will be the punishment, of them that in any way violate it, in themselves or for others. In themselves, instead of entering into, and abiding in, that state reverently, advisedly, discreetly, soberly, and in the fear of GOD, by so speaking of it, and so acting in it, as if it were of the earth, earthy, as if they were brute beasts that have no understanding. For others, in presuming, with profane hands, to touch this, a type and figure of the true Ark of the Covenant; to remove the ancient landmarks which their fathers have set.

It is the expostulation of GOD in Isaiah, "What could have been done more for My vineyard that I have not done in it?" Most wonderfully, indeed, on all the commonest occurrences of life, the impress of something better is implanted. It is almost as if GOD would save us in spite of ourselves; as if all the inlets of danger He made avenues of salvation; just as on stormy headlands and perilous rocks at sea men built lofty lighthouses; just as on the most dangerous mountain-pass the most able guide is to be found. Take, now, one of the commonest objects in this world; it is by water that it has pleased GOD to accomplish our regeneration. What more common? What, but for this, less likely to raise our thoughts to heaven? How we should have viewed it, left to ourselves, there are, even yet, passages of Holy Scripture which may teach us. "Unstable as water," saith Jacob; "the wicked are like the troubled sea," saith Isaiah; "raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame," saith Jude. But now the SPIRIT of GOD,—with all reverence I say it,—still moves upon the face of the waters: and as He once gave them power to regenerate us, so now He gives them the opportunity of symbolising to us our duties and our privileges. Are we walking by a river? "There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of GOD." Are we standing on the sea shore? "His dominion shall be also from sea to sea." Does the rain fall? "He shall come down like the rain upon the mown grass; even as the drops that water the earth." Yes; perpetually are we reminded, by our use of water, of that stream, which washes away the filth of the spirit; that we are born again by that Sacrament which CHRIST ordained, and of which the Baptist preached.

So, in like manner, by one of those mysterious antitheses of which the Christian dispensation is so full, as water once destroyed the earth, and water shall save it,—so it was by eating, that sin entered into the world, and it is by eating, namely, our LORD'S Body and Blood, that we assure our joyful Resurrection. Bread, the staff of life, is turned into angel's food. Behold, no longer is it the sustenance of life only, but our staff in the valley of the shadow of death; formed of many grains beaten into one mass, it cements the multitude of the faithful into one body; the fruit of that green herb which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, it bears for us the fruit of immortality. So wine, by which so many sins have been wrought, from the time of Noah to this day, becomes, by the operation of the HOLY SPIRIT, that precious Blood, one drop of which is able to cleanse the sins of the whole world.

Thus much, and (perhaps) rather too much, on the analogy we are considering. And now here, we find the first institution of GOD, namely, marriage, elevated and consecrated in an inexpressible degree. It is true that we have intimations, as of Baptism and the LORD'S Supper, so of this, in the Old Testament. Not to mention that wonderful Song of songs, which, now that love has grown cold, is neglected almost by all—constantly in the prophets are we told, As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy GOD rejoice over thee: that He will rest in His love; that thy GOD delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.

It is a thought on which we do not dwell,—is it because of the lowness of our lives, or the weakness of our faith?—that when Ave entered into this state, we deliberately and advisedly constituted ourselves types of CHRIST. Seeing that this is so, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness? It has been made the subject of much discussion, what is that particular grace which is bestowed by the celebration of marriage. Some have held it to be the grace of love given to the parties, to remain betwixt them in spite of mutual failings and infirmities, and the wear and tear of a miserable and naughty world. Others have imagined it the grace of wisdom, that children may be virtuously brought up to lead a godly and a Christian life. But surely rather, as others think, it is the grace of being made? in a very especial manner, types of CHRIST. Mystical virtue went forth from the very hem of His robe, and healed the infirm woman, trembling though she came to touch it. Doubt not, therefore, but earnestly believe, that in this, partial, and imperfect, and materialised though the resemblance be, virtue nevertheless resides. And it is a high privilege, that not one act of love, of comfort, of authority, can be performed by the husband to the wife, but finds its antitype in the exceeding great love of our Master for the Church. S. Paul gives . a motto for the state, "Even as the LORD the Church." That kept in mind, should we not be ashamed that Christian marriage is the worldly thing it is?—that Christian households, as households, make so small progress in religion?—that Christian tongues will speak so lightly, and Christian hearts think so unworthily, of this great mystery? Is it "as the LORD the Church," I marvel, that there is so much unkindness, so little forbearance, so much evil speaking, so much strife? Is it not, rather, as if we took a pleasure in defacing the image that He has impressed? And again, to take the other side of the picture:—Is it not a high and holy thing to be constituted a type of the Church?—of her in whom shall be found neither spot, nor blemish, nor any such thing; in whom all the graces of GOD are laid up; the mother of such innumerable saints; the strength-cner of such glorious martyrs; that cannot be deceived, and that cannot lie; the fulness of Him, That filloth all in all? This, ever since the Mother of GOD removed the curse introduced by the mother of mankind, that as by the unbelief of a woman sin entered into the world, by the faith of a woman life also should enter,—(for the fathers are constant that, if S. Mary had hesitated in receiving the angelic message, the whole economy of grace would have been frustrated) —ever since, I say, this has been your high vocation. See, then, that what your condition sets forth, your lives do not disclaim.

I said that, if but for these considerations, the text would be most remarkable, most full of deep mystery. But now, by whom was it spoken? The speaker, in all cases, gives half the meaning to the words. We are not surprised to find the Apostle of love so earnest in teaching, "Little children, love one another;" we are not surprised to find S. Paul, who himself had fought with beasts at Ephesus, uttering the exhortation, "Fight the good fight of faith." But who is this that first tells us of the dignity of Christian marriage? It is the Saint of this day; the spiritual father of those holy men who wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth; who clad themselves in sheep-skins and in goat-skins; who forsook fathers and mothers, brethren and sisters, wife and children, for their LORD; of whom the world was not worthy; for whom the wilderness and the solitary place were glad; for whom the desert rejoiced, and blossomed as a rose; who, passing through the valley of Baca, made it a well; who, doubtless, if they had desired the country whence they set forth, might have had opportunity to have returned,—but now they desired a better country, that is, an heavenly; who have long since had their reward in heaven, where they hunger no more, neither thirst any more,—and their reward, too, on earth, for men have reviled them, and persecuted them, and said all manner of evil against their memories falsely for His sake. Yes: it was this saint, that wore camel's hair, whose food was locusts and wild honey, that spake these words. He it was that first taught us this great mystery.

And mark, with how holy boldness he calls himself the friend of the Bridegroom. Abraham, the father of the faithful, was called the friend of GOD; hut we never read that he presumed to call himself so. Here also we see that, among them that were born of women, there had not arisen a greater than John the Baptist. He, the austere man, the dweller in the wilderness, the friend of Him of Whom, in that very character here named, those who have entered into Christian marriage are a type! Truly, "all members have not the same office." One in the desert with the wild beasts; another in the dear home, with the love of a family. Yet both shall be ordered by that One and the self-same SPIRIT; both shall all their lives fight one and the same fight; both shall be received into one paradise at last.

Would you yet hear more of S. John Baptist? Think you that I have spoken too much of ourselves, and too little of him? Two points of his character we will notice from the text. Of that character the Collect for the day gives the popular view; " Constantly speak the truth, boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake." It does not profess to embrace it all. Shall we not from the text learn his humility? how he, the prophet famous all over Israel, sets himself below the yet unknown Bridegroom? Are there many fathers who, even of a beloved son, would delight in using the words, and be earnest in having them believed—"He must increase, but I must decrease?" Take the circumstances into consideration: S. John's birth manifestly miraculous: our LORD'S thought to be according to the ordinary course, of nature; S. John the elder, and already known over Palestine; our LORD the younger, and a dweller in an infamous city; S. John the son of a Priest, our LORD of a carpenter. Yet gladly did he see his mission at an end, his disciples fall off, his work no longer to do but to suffer; gladly did he utter the words, "The latchet of His shoe I am not worthy to unloose." And note the deep meaning of that speech. Incidentally, in the Book of Ruth, we find that, when a man refused to redeem his inheritance, this was the manner in former times; that the refuser plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour. But our LORD, so far from refusing to redeem His inheritance, left the throne for the cradle, and passed, through the cross, into hell, that, accomplishing all things in Himself, He might ransom it. Most fitly, therefore, is it said of Him, that the latchet of His shoe was not to be loosed.

But this humility is a constant feature of the blessed Baptist's character; one other part of it here only appears, or if not here only, here most principally. Austere in life and words, here he shows such tender, such intense love, as perhaps we could scarcely parallel even in the Epistles of S. John. "The friend of the Bridegroom, that standeth and heareth Him, rejoiceth greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice; this my joy therefore is fulfilled." It is full of more than a woman's tenderness. Now his course was done—all but its end of blood: it was enough for him to stand by that dear LORD, to hear His words, words not addressed to himself, but to another—for to whom else than the bride should the Bridegroom speak?—should hear Him without, so to speak, attracting His attention to himself,—it was enough to hear the beloved Voice, to see the beloved Face. Enough? Nay, it is the desire of his heart. It is joy; it is my joy, that joy beyond which I have nothing further to wish: it is this my joy—as if there could be none other: and as it was begun, so also is it finished, in this order of things—"this my joy is fulfilled."

And here, under other circumstances, I might end. But it is our duty, as ambassadors of GOD, to be instant, if at all times, yet in season particularly; to warn, if against all perils, certainly against present dangers especially. And GOD has wonderfully ordered it, that the word spoken in season, which is so good, should frequently be suggested by the regular course of the Church's year. We must often have noticed how, in any difficulty, or danger, or crisis of our own lives, the regular words of the Church in her daily offices have been precisely those which were most suitable' to our own case. So in the trials and struggles of the Church itself, the offices which she had centuries before marked out, are just those most applicable to her after need. Thus wise men of old have noted the number of the festivals of Virgin Martyrs which fall in Advent, as if to teach us that we, during that holy season, are to be like the Virgins that waited for their LORD'S coming. So—to come nearer our own time, and into our own Church— when, as on next Friday, the seven Bishops were on their trial for disobedience to the unjust commands of a King, the Epistle of the day told how, when Peter was kept in prison, and prayer was made without ceasing of the Church to GOD for him, the Angel of the LORD opened the prison doors, and led him out safely, so that he feared not.

Now, what is the Collect for this day? That, after the example of S. John Baptist, we may boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth's sake. These words have a meaning now which they perhaps never had before—a meaning, too, naturally connecting itself with that subject, on which the former part of the text led me to dwell. What vice was that of which the Baptist spoke? "Herod," says S. Matthew, " had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife." "For," adds S. Mark, " he had married her; for John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife." It is true that Philip was alive at the time; but it is also true that he had divorced his wife; therefore, according to the law (not then abrogated) any other man, save Herod, might lawfully have married her. But not he. S. John said unto him, "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife." Would to GOD there were no parallel in the case to our present circumstances! Would to GOD that the counterpart of that which was abominable and not to be tolerated in a Herod, and the rebuking of which conferred on S. John Baptist the glory of martyrdom, had not been, by part of a Christian legislature—whom GOD pardon!—declared to be allowable! What though the words of infallible Scripture, after a catalogue of abominations, of which it is shocking to Christian men to speak or to think—but of which this is one—conclude, "Ye shall not commit any of these abominations, that the land spue not you out also, when ye defile it, as it spued out the nations that were before you:" what though the sanctity of marriage among the Jews was as nothing to that which should prevail among Christians; these men have dared flatly to give GOD the lie, and, whereas He hath said, "For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh," as far as their power extends, to enact that they shall be one flesh no longer.

All public, and chiefly all legislative, violations of the law of GOD must always be awful; but above all, one of this character. For we see— dimly and indistinctly indeed, but yet certainly— that some dreadful teaching, some doctrines of devils on the subject of marriage will precede or accompany the coming of Antichrist, and the final apostacy. Partly, perhaps, we have seen this fulfilled in the case of those miserable men who declare two main roots of the wretchedness of this world to be, religion and marriage. GOD grant that this new event be not the first of a series of further manifestations to the same effect!

In the meantime, the practical inference for ourselves is clear. In the first place, to pray that this great curse to our Church and nation may yet, by GOD'S mercy, be averted; and we know for our comfort, that "the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much." How much more then, of so many righteous men as will doubtless make supplications in this matter! But if not, as it will be our part and duties to see—and doubt not but by GOD'S grace we will see—that no persons thus defiling themselves shall receive the Church's benediction on their sin; so it will be yours to follow the command of the Apostle S. John, and neither "to receive them into your house, nor bid them GOD speed: for he that biddeth them GOD speed is partaker of their evil deeds." To the same purpose S. Paul also writes, "Neither be partaker of other men's sins; keep thyself pure." This at least we can do; and if we suffer reproach or loss thereby, happy are we; for it will be for His Name's sake. So shall we best receive an answer to the Collect of the day, in which we will immediately join, "and patiently suffer for the truth's sake."

And now to Him of Whom the Baptist spake, be ascribed, with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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