Sermon V. The Church a Brotherhood. By George W. E. Russell, M.A., LL.D., Lay-Reader in the Diocese of Southwark.
YESTERDAY I was speaking of the Church in its widest sense as opposed to the idea of Individualism; and I was endeavouring to show how the idea of a Catholic Church satisfies an instinct, which I for my part believe to be a root-instinct in all human nature, and which at any rate is very markedly seen in these latter days in England; an instinct expressing itself in all manner of different modes, but teaching always the same lesson, urging on the conscience of mankind that old truth that no man lives or dies to himself, but that all mankind are brothers. Brothers, not because they have chosen one another, but because God made them so. We are His sons in the great human family, and we are all bound each to each by the strongest ties of mutual obligation and service.
There are three main images or similitudes under which this idea of the social life of the Church is presented in the New Testament.
It is presented most often--as I was trying to present it yesterday--under the image of "members," or limbs of one body. We are "members one of another "--we are the limbs of the same body, because we are all members of Him Who is the Head of the Body, our adorable Lord and Master Jesus Christ. With His glorified nature we are united through the Sacraments, the revealed points of contact between His nature and ours. That is the most frequent of all the ways in which the social idea of the Church is presented in the New Testament.
Then there is the idea of the Church as a Family or Brotherhood; and again that of an Army. We are the soldiers of Christ. He is the "Great Captain of our salvation"--we are bound to one another by discipline and order as well as affection. That is an idea of very frequent occurrence both in and out of the Bible, and of that idea I propose to speak to-morrow.
To-day I would speak in what is a more endearing thought, that we are all brothers and sisters in one family. The hymn which we have just been singing was chosen with the view of reminding you of these two aspects:--
"One army of the living God
To His command we bow;"
"One family we dwell in Him,
One Church above, beneath."
Now, the Brotherhood of Christian men and women in the family of God, if it be a truth, has no geographical or racial limitations; it must run all round the world. We owe not merely our flaccid sympathy, but our effective help to those who are in tribulation, anywhere and everywhere, whether they be the missionaries in China or the Christians in the dominions of the Sultan, or those nearer home in European countries who are persecuted for the cause of Christ by the dominant forces of unbelief. Wherever men are suffering, and more especially where men are suffering for the name of Christ, the sympathy of their brothers and sisters must go out to them. We must recognize them, as S. John would have us recognize them, as our brothers and companions in tribulation, and in the Kingdom and Patience of Jesus Christ.
But we must beware of being satisfied with what I may call "Spiritual cosmopolitanism." If we are to be practical--and Lent, if any season of the year, should help to make our religion practical--we must condescend to bring our thoughts down from the Church at large to smaller areas and local circumstances. It is not much good professing the love of the brethren as a whole unless we are realizing our brotherly obligations to those who are close to us in our ordinary work and in our daily life.
I suppose the ideal would be for each parish to be a sort of microcosm of the Catholic Church--for each parish to be a Christian family, a brotherhood. No doubt the parochial system was an institution which did for a long period, more particularly in country places, help that idea of spiritual patriotism, and enable people to see and feel in a practical way that they were closely united with each other.
But, throughout the Church of England generally, and very certainly in our great towns, the parochial system has broken down, and has been replaced by the congregational system. This being so, we must transfer that microcosm of the Catholic Church from the parish to the congregation to which we belong. I suppose we all of us consider ourselves more particularly attached to one Church than to any other. The centre is the Altar at which we communicate. Those with whom we communicate ought to be in a very special sense our brothers and sisters in the great family of God.
And on this point I would like to quote the words of a great preacher, the late Dr. Vaughan, to whom in my younger days I owed very much. He said:--
"What is the meaning of the Church but this, that God would give us in association a strength and a comfort which we cannot find in isolation? He would have us strengthen our brethren, and be in turn strengthened by our brothers, and feel the tie of friendship and of brotherhood. Surely it should be impossible for those who kneel together at Christ's Holy Table to treat one another henceforward as if it mattered not to one what happened to another, as if it were nothing to one what befell another, or into which of the two eternities he eventually found his way."
And now for some humble and practical suggestions towards the realization of this ideal in our lives as communicant members of some particular Church.
The first and most obvious of all the ways of realizing our brotherhood is the way of Almsgiving. It has been said over and over again that unless a man's religion touches his pocket it has not got far down into his nature. And although that is one of the humblest of truths, it is one on which it is not unprofitable to dwell. I know of course the perils which beset the published Subscription List--the miserable sort of emulation, half expressed, but still quite conscious, which leads a man to put down five pounds where another has put three pounds. It would not be a disadvantage to the higher interests of Christian charity, if public subscription lists were done away altogether. It would be far better if we contributed to the relief of our brothers in the weekly collection made at "The Lord's Service on the Lord's Day." The great advantage in this is that it would root out all ideas of ostentation, and desire for applause. We should each give just what we felt spiritually bound to give. We should be under no obligations to respectability, there would be no conventional inducements to us to give what we did not wish to give. The man who gives quietly at the Holy Communion gives what he wishes to give; his heart is right with God, and he has no fear of man before his eyes.
But the practical question is, "Do we give all that we can afford to give?" Is there anyone of us who can honestly say he gives quite as much for the service of his brothers and sisters in the Christian family as he can afford, having made first of all due provision for his personal necessities and for those dependent on him? After he has provided for all that, does he, out of the margin that remains, give what he possibly can?
Of course I may be answered by someone in the congregation, or by all, that their conscience gives them a favourable verdict in this matter. They know and affirm that they have given all they can possibly afford. If so, I will only say let them at least then not go back from their practice in past years. But for many of us I cannot help thinking it would be possible to go forward. Very often one of the most useful and helpful ways of contributing to the relief of one's brothers, is not merely to give a stated or fixed sum, but resolutely to refuse oneself some definite object on which the mind has been set, and give what that would have cost to the service of someone in need. We may have been thinking about having a little expedition at Easter on the Bank Holiday, or a new suit of clothes, or a new book, all perfectly legitimate things; but the young man might, I think, do a great deal worse than to say "I will go for a less expensive trip," or "I will do without that suit of clothes till six months later on," and give them the three, five, or ten pounds, whatever the sum may be, to relieve some case of physical or social distress which has come under his own personal observation.
But of course again I may be answered that even after consideration we feel we have given all we can afford out of our limited income, and then I approach my second way of realizing our Christian brotherhood.
There is one treasure of which we have so much that we cannot possibly exhaust it, most of us indeed hardly try to spend it at all, our treasure of Sympathy.
Nobody who has not tried it would believe the miracles which sympathy works, or its power in softening hard hearts. There is sympathy in sickness--we are all ready with that. But there is one form even of that which we sometimes neglect. I have had a great deal to do with Hospital work, and, depend upon it, there is no more really practical and sensible way of showing one's sympathy with that sickness, which is the common lot of humanity, than to spend a Sunday afternoon in the ward of a hospital, visiting some patient who has no friend in reach. Imagine the case of a young man who has come up from the country to undergo some operation, and who lies there in the hospital, even if the operation has been successful, out of reach of all the companionship and affection he has been so accustomed to receive. He has no one to talk to, nothing to think about except his own sufferings. To go to a hospital on a visiting afternoon (generally Sunday and one week-day), and to give a few words of encouragement and sympathy, a kindly smile, or even to listen to his woes, is to bring home in a very real way the sense of brotherhood which should unite us.
Then again there is the sympathy which we are most of us all too unwilling to expend--sympathy with those in disgrace. It was a fine eulogium which was passed by a statesman of Queen Victoria's reign upon a leader of society, who was thought by most to be rather worldly. Somebody said of this man, in the presence of the statesman, "He is a man to whom I would go in trouble; I am sure he would help me;" but the statesman himself said, "He is the man I would go to in disgrace; I should know he would not turn his back on me." There indeed is a true exemplification of what Christian sympathy may be. When a man has fallen by his own fault, when he has come within the grasp of the law it may be, surely we can do no more Christian thing than to go to such an one and extend to him the right hand of fellowship. We can bid him rise, and to regain his self-respect, say to him, "Yes, you have sinned and fallen, but repentance, contrition, and absolution, can do away the sin; now set to work and regain your place in society; don't lose heart and hope; disgraced you may be, but only for a moment; punished you have been, but that is over; set your face towards the sunrise; be a man again."
But there is yet another way of showing our brotherhood and making it practical. There is the power of example and influence. Every day we live we are, consciously or unconsciously, influencing those with whom we come in contact. We can no more escape from our influence than we can from our shadow. In our work, in our play, our business, our recreation, whatever it may be, we are exercising influence upon our brothers and sisters who surround us. Every moment that we live we are doing something for good or evil to those among whom our lives are cast.
And in order that I may show you I am not imagining impossible things, let me give you a practical illustration of what I mean by reading you a letter, which is a true human document. Anyone who is connected with the University of Cambridge, or anyone who is at all versed in the annals of cricket, will probably remember the name of Cyril Digby Buxton, who played cricket for Cambridge during the years 1883-5. He was a splendid all-round athlete, both at Harrow School and at the University. As a lad his was the purest character; as a man. he was as a tower of strength to those who leant on him. His life came to a sudden and sad termination in his twenty-sixth year, and his heart-broken parents, the apple of whose eye he was, could find nothing to comfort them until, among the few papers he had left, they came across this letter, written to him by a school-fellow when both were leaving Harrow at about the age of eighteen or nineteen:--
"I couldn't bear saying good-bye to you, old chap, the other day, perhaps for so long, but I hope not. You have been the best friend I have ever had Cyril, and the only one I love as much as my own brother--and even more. I wonder if you noticed any change in me, since we came to know each other. It was from knowing you that I came to see how worthless some fellows are. You were always so unselfish and straightforward in everything; and you made me feel that I was exactly the contrary, and that you couldn't care for me at all, unless I improved a bit. So you have done me more good than you can imagine, and I am very much obliged to you for it.
"Now, Cyril, please forgive this rot and don't think me a. fool or a hypocrite, for I really mean what I say, and I am one of those chaps who cannot keep their feelings to themselves."
Sometimes the obligation of Brotherhood carries us a step further, and it becomes our duty not merely to be content with doing what we can by influence, but to utter the "word in season." "In season," you note, for a word "out of season "will do twenty times more harm than good. But the "word in season" is sometimes a real duty. When we see one whom we know and love slipping down the hill--beginning to take his pleasure on the very edge of the precipice, at the bottom of which lies the abyss of uncleanness--becoming neglectful of his prayers and Communions, careless or profane in speech, then if we are truly brothers the word of warning must be spoken. For my own part I can conceive of no greater happiness than that when I am dead somebody should come and stand over my grave, and say, "There lies the best friend I ever had; he saw me becoming the victim of a deadly evil; he warned me of my danger; and he saved my soul."
And if this sense of Brotherhood really enters into our hearts and lives, it will make us better neighbours, better citizens, better politicians, better in all the contingencies of life. I turn back to S. John again--S. John whom one is never tired of quoting; he says, "Beloved, now are we the offspring of God "(and therefore brothers of one another), "and not yet is it made clear what we shall be." But of this we can be pretty sure, that the more we cultivate the spirit of self-sacrifice, self-surrender, sympathy and love for one another, and mutual effort for the common good, the more closely we shall approach even while we are here on earth to the temper and life of the glorified saints in heaven.
I suppose one of the most familiar names among the religious teachers of England, is that of Thomas Arnold, Head Master of Rugby. And as we know from his sermons and biography, and from that incomparable story "Tom Brown's Schooldays," the gist of all the preaching and teaching, which, originating with him, has permeated and leavened all Public school life, was the perpetual reminder that we are brothers in Christ and members one of another; that we are bound together by obligations of mutual service. I do not think I could better end than by reading the concluding words of that book which I have called, and think "incomparable"--a book seemingly for boys, but really a book for men though about boys. The last scene of all in that book describes how Tom Brown himself, hearing the news of Dr. Arnold's sudden death, returns to Rugby, hoping to be in time for the funeral. He finds it over, and the body of his loved master lying buried under the altar in the school-chapel.
"Here let us leave him--where better could we leave him than at the altar, before which he had first caught a glimpse of the glory of his birthright, and felt the drawing of the bond which links all living souls together in one brotherhood--at the grave beneath the altar of him who had opened his eyes to see that glory, and softened his heart till it could feel that bond?"
"And let us not be hard on him, if at that moment his soul is fuller of the tomb and him who lies there, than of the altar and Him of Whom it speaks. Such stages have to be gone through, I believe, by all young and brave souls, who must win their way through hero-worship, to the worship of Him Who is the King and Lord of heroes. For it is only through our mysterious human relationships--through the love and tenderness and purity of mothers, and sisters, and wives--through the strength and courage and wisdom of fathers, and brothers, and teachers--that we can come to the knowledge of Him, in Whom alone the love, and the tenderness, and the purity, and the strength, and the courage, and the wisdom of all these dwell for ever and ever in perfect fulness."