Sermon VI. The Church an Army. By George W. E. Russell, M.A., LL.D., Lay-Reader in the Diocese of Southwark.
TO-DAY we are going to regard the Church under the aspect of an Army. The hymn we have just been singing:--
"A noble army, men and boys,
The matron and the maid,"
was chosen because I wanted to attune the service to that idea from the very first, to bring out the thought of the Holy Catholic Church as an Army, and of our duty as enlisted soldiers in that army.
This is one of the most familiar of all the illustrations by which inspired writers have tried to show us the corporate and social character of the Catholic Church. S. Paul uses military metaphors over and over again. His epistles bristle with them. As Dr. Liddon says, "Here is an Apostle of the Lord Jesus who uses the language of a soldier. He is planning a campaign, nay, rather, he is making war. He glows with the fire of a genuine military enthusiasm." Over and over again in his letters we come upon words of exhortation, bracing up the courage of his disciples by reminding them that they are fighting for God. The citadel has to be defended, the enemy's camp has to be attacked, and so on. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, when he is inciting us to loyalty to our Lord, calls Him "the Captain of our salvation." Even the beloved S. John, to whose nature one would have thought all military images, all thoughts of soldiering and bloodshed, were quite foreign, even he in that most divine and beautiful book, the Apocalypse, speaks in the same language, and shows us the armies in heaven following the Lord to battle, "upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean."
The idea has passed from the inspired writers into all sacred literature. Hymns abound with it; prayers constantly turn on it; it is the commonest phrase in our devotional books. In Holy Baptism, at the very start of our spiritual life, when we are enlisted without our will or knowledge under the blood-stained banner of the Cross, we are pledged to be Christ's "faithful soldiers" as well as His "servants," and to "fight manfully" against His enemies. Even in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, the great bond of brotherhood, the great social Sacrament which unites us more closely than anything else on earth because it unites us to Him Who is our Head--even in this we are not free from the idea of warfare, for the word "sacrament" in its first intention meant nothing else than the Roman soldiers' military oath--the oath of allegiance and obedience--by which he bound himself to go wherever he was ordered, to do whatever he was told, and to follow his captain to the death.
And so this idea of soldiership--of moving, acting, and fighting under the orders and directions of an absolute Commander, pervades all our religious life.
Turn for a moment from metaphor to actual warfare. However loathsome the idea of war may be, and I hope is, to us all, we cannot follow the history of a campaign without learning the blessings attached to Discipline and Comradeship. They seem to be the two characteristic notes of an Army. And whatever we may think about the justice or the injustice of a particular cause for which men are fighting, we cannot do wrong if we lay to heart these two ideas. The discipline may be directed to a bad end; the comradeship may be comradeship in a bad cause, but nevertheless they are the elements of Strength. The history of every campaign, large or small, ancient or modern, seems to show that.
And we may apply what is true in physical fighting to that, spiritual fighting to which we are all pledged. Here in the Church, if only we are loyal and true, we are amenable to a very strict and clear system of discipline. It is quite true that we can shirk it without any penal consequences in this life; whether we can shirk it without penal consequences in the life to come is not so certain. The Army of the Catholic Church has its rules, clear and unmistakable. And no man who has tried to conform his life to these rules of discipline can question that they bring with them a strength which would be lacking if he merely lived his life by the impulses of his own wayward will.
And as to Comradeship, it is unnecessary to enlarge upon its enormous value. The forces of evil are linked battalions; they are so closely in touch with one another that if you menace one you immediately find all the other forces of evil arrayed against you. Take, as a homely example, the evil of uncleanness. You attack that, and you find the evil forces of drunkenness arrayed against you; or conversely, you attempt a raid upon drunkenness; and those other worse forces rally up to the aid and in the interests of the imperilled industry. All the forces of evil are closely in alliance, and he who attacks one has to fight them all. They are highly organized, they are most systematically drilled; they are, we believe, directed by an intelligence keener than any earthly intelligence. With such enemies it is no wonder we are beaten back and defeated if we fight as single individual soldiers, as undisciplined volunteers. But there is a strength in Comradeship. There is comfort in knowing that on your right hand and on your left there are friends fighting the same enemy; that you are not alone, but are fighting with others, definitely and consciously, against the same spiritual enemy.
War may be of two kinds, Defensive and Offensive. Let us speak first of defensive warfare.
Our enemies, those against whom we have to defend ourselves, may be those evil thoughts "which assault and hurt the soul"--temptations, not necessarily from without, but from within, springing out of our fallen nature, and our undisciplined habits of life and thought. There are the strong temptations to sins of the flesh, to intemperance in drink, to dishonesty, either in the way of gambling or betting or commercial speculation, or in that peculiar shade of dishonesty which S. Paul called "eye-service"--the taking of money for work not perfectly and honestly rendered. I need not multiply instances, but I make my direct appeal to the conscience of any young man who hears me, and would ask such an one whether, when he had not realized his comradeship in the Catholic Church--when he had not realized that he was one of a body--he did not often feel that these temptations were too strong to be successfully resisted. A moment comes to many a young life when, after months or years of strenuous effort and fighting, he is inclined to say to himself that the temptation is getting stronger than he can bear. He knows it is luring him to destruction, it is gaining on him, and in his own strength he knows he cannot very much longer resist.
It may be that, under the pressure of the grinding business-life which most of us lead, the nerves get played out, and then the temptation to strong drink grows on him. He finds in himself a craving for that artificial stimulus which, as he imagines, will lighten the burden and brace up his nerves for the demands made on them. He may be manfully fighting against it, and yet he is secretly conscious that it is growing on him and he hardly knows where to turn.
Or again, how many, in an age when it is necessary "to keep up appearances" as it is called, to an extent that was unknown a few years ago, and with only a very limited income, are tempted to make money otherwise than quite perfectly honestly. The temptation has come at first very insidiously, but very insistently, and he is perhaps in despair. That is very often the moral state in which many a young fellow who is beset by some very urgent temptation sooner or later finds himself. He feels that as long as his burden is unshared he stands alone, as if he were the only person in the world on whom these attacks were made, as if in some way he had fallen out of the care of God, and were made a sport of the evil angels.
Well, there comes in, unless I mistake, the value of comradeship--the sense that one is a fellow-soldier with others. I should never advise anyone to be always talking about his temptations, and his difficulties. And yet, and yet! When, in the "microcosm" (to once more use that expression) of the particular church where we worship, we get to know pretty intimately some fellow-soldier in the Church's great warfare, and can venture to break down our insular shyness and speak freely of the things that concern our soul; when we have got to the point where we can say things that come from the heart, then surely many a time it has come to one as a sort of revelation to find that he is not an exception, not an isolated case, but that someone else, stronger and better than oneself, one's right-hand comrade, has been through it all just the same, has known exactly what the temptation was, and has come out of it, not only unscathed, but victorious. After all there is strength and comfort in knowing "that no temptation hath taken you but such as is common to man," or rather, but that "which is human," which is a better translation of the Greek word. There is nothing to cast one down in the fact that we may have to fight hard, harder sometimes than at others, particularly hard now and then in a crisis. We have the knowledge that we are fighting the same enemies as everyone else, that we have comrades who will do their best to help us by their prayers, by their example, by their words. It is that thought, that knowledge, which has put heart and hope into many a young fellow hard pressed in the battle. He says to himself, "What my comrade in the army has been enabled to do, I can do; God's grace has been sufficient for him, it will also be sufficient for me if I am faithful."
I do not know whether any of my hearers have ever heard the present Bishop of London, a man whom we all love and admire, narrate, as he sometimes does on the platforms of the White Cross League, his own striking experience in that respect. I cannot profitably tell the story in detail here, but you will never forget it if you ever hear it from the Bishop's own lips. It is the story of how he himself in his youth or early manhood was able to stand between a young friend and one of the strongest temptations to which young manhood is subject; and was enabled so to stand and protect his friend from moral disaster, by being able to say in answer to a straight question, "Well, I myself, by God's grace, have never fallen into that sin; it is not a necessity. I could live without it, and so can you."
I said just now that warfare is both defensive and offensive. And our warfare must sometimes be the latter. We must "carry the war into the enemy's camp."
"Curse ye, Meroz, said the Angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof, because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty."
There is the trumpet-call, which bids us make active and fierce war against all social wrong; against cruelty to man and beast; against drunkenness, that black spot on our white national scutcheon; and, above all, against that hideous traffic which sacrifices the bodies and souls of womankind to the lawless pleasure of dissolute manhood.
But in this great warfare we are animated not only by the sense of comradeship with those who are fighting side by side with us; we are animated also by the memory of those "who have gone before us and with the sign of faith "have passed out of this world, triumphant over evil. We remember in such a connexion names like Lord Shaftesbury, the pioneer of all our factory-legislation; of Wilberforce, the great champion of the abolition of the slave-trade; or of men less illustrious than these, men like Edward Denison, the founder of Social Settlements; or of Theodore Talbot, the "young man of great possessions "who did so much in the social and ecclesiastical work of St. Alban's, Holborn. And there is another name I venture to mention, that of Mr. Gladstone. While I was preparing these remarks I chanced to light on the March number of the Nineteenth Century which contains a most striking article by Lord Hugh Cecil. He thus describes Mr. Gladstone:--
"He was a Catholic, conscious and proud of his membership of the Apostolic and Universal Church--a patriot-citizen of the City of God. He felt for the Catholic Church a zeal which resembled, but transcended, Patriotism. It was as a Catholic that he felt and acted--it was as a sworn knight of the Queen who is glorious within, and her clothing of wrought gold."
It was that phrase, of course, about his being a "sworn knight" of the Catholic Church, that struck my fancy, and it reminded me of a similar phrase, a similar idea suggested to a very different man by the same life. Bishop Wilkinson, who ministered to Mr. Gladstone in his last illness, was preaching his funeral sermon, and he made use of an expression almost exactly the same. His words were:--"I like to think of him in his young manhood on that day when in the presence of only one intimate friend he solemnly made up his mind that, whatever else he accomplished in life, whether he was successful or whether he failed, he would, by God's help, never rest until he was able to bring back from the dreary wilderness of sin some of those poor women whose lives had been ruined by man's selfishness, man's thoughtless cruelty. I like to see him, like the young knight in the ancient legend, girding on his armour for that lifelong effort."
It was the image of the Knight and the warfare wherein the resemblance between the two passages lay.
And you will observe "the one friend "in whose presence Gladstone made that life-long vow. There is Comradeship on a small scale, one friend with another--each leaning on the other, and together arming for the fight.
And whether we are leaders or followers, officers or privates, we are all enlisted in the same struggle which will never end except with death, and we are looking through the Divine Mercy for the same "exceeding great reward."
But the pre-requisite (and this it is my bounden duty to say)--the pre-requisite for all victorious fights is that we must be clean in ourselves. You will remember that those ransomed souls who followed the Lamb to victory were clothed in "fair linen, white and clean." Are we clothed in that linen? If not, how can we hope to fight victoriously or acceptably? Is there in the heart of any in this church the memory of some sin which is not yet blotted out? Is there something which lies on your heart like a lump of ice, and paralyses your nerve, and makes your will ineffective? Then I would say to such: Remember that though the sin be past and discontinued, it is not necessarily forgiven. But if you want to know that your heart is right with God, that you are really "clothed in white linen," then you know to whom our Lord says, through the grace of Ordination, "Whose sins thou dost forgive, they are forgiven." I should indeed be a faithless friend, faithless to you who listen to me, and to my own life and experience, if I did not urge every young fellow whose conscience is still haunted by a sense of unforgiven sin, to get it right in Sacramental Confession.
But, by whatever method it be, whether by simple self-examination, or by recourse to the Sacrament of Penance, it is a pre-requisite of successful and victorious fighting that our hearts should be consciously right with God.
"And would we join that blest array,
And follow in the might
Of Him, the Faithful and the True,
In raiment clean and white?
How can we fight for Truth and God,
Enslaved to lies and sin?
He who would wage such war on earth
Must first be true within.
''O God of Truth, for Whom we long,
O Thou that nearest prayer,
Do Thine own battle in our hearts,
And slay the falsehood there.
So, tried in Thy refining fire,
From every lie set free,
In us Thy perfect truth shall dwell,
And we may fight for Thee."