Project Canterbury

The Church in Bondage

By R. A. Hilary Knox
Chaplain Fellow of Trinity College Oxford

London: The Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1914.

Sermon 6. The Religion of the Tabernacle

NOW THEY DESIRE A BETTER COUNTRY, THAT IS, AN HEAVENLY, WHEREFORE GOD IS NOT ASHAMED TO BE CALLED THEIR GOD, FOR HE HATH PREPARED FOR THEM A CITY. These words are written in the sixteenth verse of the eleventh chapter of the Epistle of Blessed Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The attitude of God's saints, as described in this passage, is an attitude towards life that is frequently criticized nowadays by persons calling themselves Christians as morbid or sentimental or otherworldly, or, if they want to be very impolite, mediaeval. There are people who are never tired of making fun of certain ways of Christian thought, more especially of certain hymns, which use language suggesting that life is a pilgrimage, that we are strangers here, that heaven is our home, that the world is very evil, that we crave for rest, that we are exiles on Babylon's strand. When people object to language like that, all you have got to do is to take them and set them down face to face with the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The most brutal language of fifteenth-century mediaeval thought, the most mawkish language of eighteenth-century Evangelical thought, cannot go further than Holy Scripture goes in this passage in the way of other-worldliness. Abraham looked for a city which hath foundations; all the holy patriarchs died, not having received the promises, but, having seen them far off, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers [39/40] and pilgrims on the earth; for they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned, but now they desire a better country. So Moses is described as choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward. That is the language of this Epistle, it is the language of St. Paul all through; it is the language of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount; it is the language of all the Saints, and all the mystics, of Puritan John Bunyan, just as much as Catholic Walter Hilton; I am nothing, I have nothing, I care for nothing in this world, and I desire nothing in this world but the love of Jesus, that I may see him in peace at Jerusalem.

That is the attitude of historic Christianity. There is one word only to describe it, it is an attitude of homesickness. Every Christian is bound to be homesick. The Saints are distinguished from other men and women in various ways, but one thing they have in common, that beyond all other men they felt homesick. Their attitude to the pleasures of this life was the attitude of pilgrims. I am sure you have all read at some time or another the notice which is written up outside refreshment rooms in any large railway station: "These rooms are open on Sundays only for the use of bona fide travellers." They are not for people who want to go in and have a drink, they are for people who are forced, unwillingly, to spend weary hours of waiting on their journey. The refreshments, in fact, are not for people who enjoy them, but for people who don't enjoy them, people who would much rather be having a meal at home. And that ought to be our attitude, as Christians, towards the pleasures of the present world. Christians are to be bona fide travellers; earthly enjoyments are not objects which we should deliberately set out to [40/41] attain, they are casual accommodation we must put up with on our homeward journey, desiring all the while a better country, looking for a city which hath foundations, confessing that we are strangers and pilgrims upon the earth. I don't mean that we are to pull long faces whenever we sit down to a meal, that we are to refuse all invitations to any innocent festivity. After all, the world is our host, and it would be discourteous to our host to make show of our anxiety to be forward on our journey. All I mean is that when we raise the winecup to our lips, we should not do it without thinking of that day when we shall drink with Jesus the fruit of the vine new in our Father's house; that our tongue had better cleave to the roof of our mouth than that we should forget our heavenly country, than that we should fail to remember Jerusalem in the forefront of our mirth.

And what I am protesting against is a certain hearty and breezy spirit about a particular type of modern Christianity, a type which excels in organization, which loves nothing so much as committees and mass meetings. There is a spirit going abroad among many such people, which somehow makes out that it will be time enough to think about heaven when we get there. That our earthly life is not a pilgrimage, but a sort of walking tour; and we have every right to get the best out of it we can, so long as we don't stray out of the beaten track of the ten commandments. That the reason why we are put here is in order that we might leave the world a better place than we found it. To which I would reply, that on this showing there would be every excuse for saying, "It will be time enough to think about hell when we get there." That the Saints, whom the whole Church professes, as at this time, to venerate, did not look upon life as a walking-tour, but as a pilgrimage. That it is a far more scriptural, and at the same time a far more modest ambition, to hope that the world may leave us better people than it found us.

[42] Of course we cannot get on without organization, and serving of tables, and perhaps mass meetings; of course Martha has her place as well as Mary, and we dare not grudge honour where honour is due for lives devoted to service, for great movements undertaken single-heartedly for the glory of God. But for all that there is danger in having our thoughts too much set on this world, even for the sake of bettering it. God help us, if for a moment we begin to let the religion of the alms-bag overshadow or undermine the religion of the Tabernacle. God help us if we try to substitute the ideal of the mass meeting for the ideal of the Mass. All our mortifications, says St. Gregory, are as nothing without good works, and good works are nothing without mortification. We must take heed, he adds, that we are not merely refraining from sin in the hope of credit in this world; that rather we are constantly tending, in aspiration, towards the heavenly country which is our home.

It is to St. Gregory we owe that distinction between the status viae, the life of pilgrimage, in which the Saints struggled in this world, and the status patriae, or life of restoration from exile in which the Blessed Saints have become comprehensores, and see Jesus face to face. And when we think of the Saints, as we must this evening, as they lived on earth, the warning they have for us is surely this: that in aspiration at least we must have our eyes set on the world to come, not on the things of this world; that if there is any religion, however great its achievements in the way of numbers and organization, which can find in the doctrine of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews nothing but an antiquated view of the world, based on an immediate expectation of the last judgment, then that religion is on the road to starving its own devotional life. The claims the Gospel has on us, dear brothers, will not be satisfied when we are all members of the Church of England Men's Society. That is what this passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews has to say to us. But it does not leave us there; it is not content [42/43] to describe the Saints in their mortifications, their torments, the wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins, in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. It gives us a glimpse also of the Saints in their glory.

I once heard of a discussion between a priest and his bishop, on the subject of the honour due to the Holy Virgin, which the priest finally closed in despair by saying: "Well, my Lord, what it comes to is this, I regard the Virgin Mary as the Queen of heaven, and you regard her as a dead Roman Catholic." That is roughly the difference between the Catholic and the Protestant view of the Saints. Now, which of these two views is taken by the Epistle to the Hebrews? For that you have to look on to the passage at the beginning of the twelfth chapter, which is really part of the same passage as this: "Wherefore seeing that we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience the race that is set before us." Here, you see, our life in the world is called no longer a pilgrimage, but a race, and the Saints in heaven are represented as spectators of that race. Which hardly looks as if they were dead. Whatever else they can or cannot do, they can certainly see us. And I think the words of Scripture allow us to go farther than that. The witnesses of a sporting event are not as a rule merely disinterested spectators. They do not look on in a vague sort of way wondering which side is going to win. That at least is not my own recollection of the days when I used to go as a small boy to watch the Aston Villa football matches. What I seem to remember is standing on the seat and booing the referee. The Saints are not witnesses merely, but sympathetic witnesses, of our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil; they understand our failures, they triumph in our successes. And what they feel they express by prayer. For that we must look to the Book of the Revelation, where Blessed John sees under the Altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, crying, "How long, O Lord, dost [43/44] thou not avenge our blood on them that dwell in the earth?" The Saints see us, the Saints feel for us, the Saints pray for us; and if they can see us, I suppose they can hear us, and if they can hear us and can pray for us, I suppose we are at liberty to ask their prayers.

"These all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promises, God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." The work which they began in the flesh, the long warfare, was left to us for its completion; the work which they now perform, in their own true country, interceding before the throne, is made perfect only in us, for those intercessions have us for their object, and have issue in the spreading of the Gospel, the conversion of sinners, the perfecting of their brethren in the state of pilgrimage and the Holy Souls in Purgatory, the liberty and exaltation of our Holy Mother the Church. They knew our needs, they felt our trials. Let us entreat the great Mother of God, Mary Queen of All Saints, to help us her poor children as with faltering hearts we seek for Jesus; she too, and Blessed Joseph, have sought him sorrowing. Let us entreat the Prince of the Apostles for the helplessness of our sundered Church and our apostate nation. Let us entreat your own patron, Saint Jude, for the confounding of those heresies that have grown up among us, whose coming he foresaw; "for there are certain men crept in unawares, denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ." Let us entreat all the Holy Martyrs and Confessors that our treasure may be where theirs was, our longing as theirs was, to depart and be with Christ, our eyes straining always, like theirs, for the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Whither may he bring us, persevering through temptation, and with the sight of his unveiled glory wipe away all tears from our eyes.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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