Sermon 9. Half-Shares
PETER SAID: "ANANIAS, WHY HATH SATAN FILLED THINE HEART, TO LIE TO THE HOLY GHOST, AND TO KEEP BACK PART OF THE PRICE OF THE LAND?" These words are written in the third verse of the fifth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I always believed it was Sapphira who began it. You see, Ananias may have been guilty of concealment, but it was left for Sapphira actually to lie about it. History has been unjust to Ananias in treating him as a proverbial liar; he was not a liar at all. Nevertheless, his punishment was the punishment of Sapphira. Now why?
The crime of the unfortunate couple was not their want of truthfulness, but their want of trustfulness. You can imagine Sapphira saying to her husband over the breakfast table: "My dear, mightn't we do a little flutter in this Christianity people talk so much about? It's not quite clear what their capital is, or even what they are driving at; but I hear Barnabas has been selling out all his investments and trying to make a corner in the thing." And Ananias would say: "Well, yes, Barnabas is a good man; he wouldn't go into that kind of thing with his eyes shut; but you know, we can't afford to sell out of that little business at Antioch." So they tried to take half-shares in the Catholic Church; such sound finance, so like the spirit of our modern [55/56] empire-builders! And they didn't tell the Apostles about that little business at Antioch; of course that wouldn't matter. But it did matter, and they were both struck down dead.
Not their want of truthfulness, but their want of trustfulness. The secret of Christianity is that there are no half-shares in it; you have to take it absolutely, and with all its consequences; you can't stop half-way, and say: "Look here, what exactly am I letting myself in for?" You cannot satisfy the claims of the Church with the cold homage of an intellectual assent, or with the distant bestowal on it of your distinguished patronage. Poor Ananias is a painfully common figure to-day. He has turned into that "average layman," of whose existence a certain school of clergymen are continually reminding us. He calls himself a layman, that is, but chiefly because it looks well as a signature, when he writes letters to the Times newspaper denying the doctrine of the Real Presence. On the strength of a large contribution to a cottage hospital, he regards himself as an active shareholder, if not actually a director, of the Church of Christ. Not that this sense of proprietorship makes him feel at all at home on the occasions of his intermittent attendance at divine Service; rather, he goes through the familiar ceremonies with all the nervousness of a grown-up person suddenly called upon to take part in a romp with the children. He does not contribute to the support of apostolic missionaries, because he believes that the heathen are being saved in their thousands by their devotion to Mumbo-jumbo, a view explicitly condemned by the 39 Articles. Although his Prayer Book prescribes Confession in cases of mortal sin, he looks upon the tribunal of penance as a superstition, if not an indecency. He is not fond of All Saints, Margaret Street; but he tolerates the Church of Rome, because he says he "can understand their position"; which is directly untrue, because he has no notion of the doctrine of Merit, and persistently fails [56/57] to distinguish between the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception. In a word, he has taken half-shares in Christianity, and regards it as a sound business investment--no more.
His wife also being privy to it. The modern Sapphira is equally under the impression that she has picked up Christianity as a bargain, at a considerable reduction. She is a slightly more regular Church-goer than her husband; she even helps with bazaars, but only such as are extensively patronized by royalty. She has given up doing Church work, because Church work is dowdy. She is kind to the Vicar, but chiefly as an amiable curiosity. And meanwhile she is keeping back a part, and oh, how large a part, of her spiritual resources; though, she knows in her heart that Jesus claims all she has. She half believes the Christian doctrine of immortality, yet she goes to a spiritualist to find out whether it is true. She half entrusts the care of her future into the loving hands of God, but she goes to a palmist to find out what the future is going to be. She half relies on the divine providence to look after her family, yet she is willing to take precautions that her family shall not be unmanageably large. She lies to the Holy Ghost.
Of course, when Ananias dies, he will have a glowing obituary notice in the Times under the heading "Death of a prominent layman." But the keys of the kingdom of heaven were not given to the gentleman who writes the obituary notices in the Times. They are in the hands of the Galilean peasant, who spoke so severely to Ananias and Sapphira that they fell down dead.
Now, although it is very easy for us, it is not always very good for us, to spend our time contemplating the sins of other people; we should do so, only to see, as in a magnifying glass, our own imperfections. So we must pass on from considering the fatal effects of trustlessness in Ananias and his wife to the consideration of the spirit of trustfulness, of our own failure to attain [57/58] to it, and of how the Blessed Saints, while they were yet in statu via, came to merit by it the glorious heritage where now they dwell, in which as at this time we praise them.
For the faith of the Saints is the substance of things hoped for; it consists in treating the world to come and its promises as more substantial than the substantial world in which we live: the uniqueness of Christian sanctity lies in a willingness to stake all on a hope, which is itself based on no human calculations. You may find the fortitude of the martyrs outside the Church--in Socrates or in John Huss. You may trace the purity of the devoted female sex in the Vestal Virgins. But the peculiarity of the Catholic Saints is that their whole emphasis in life and death was laid on another world. "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, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he hath prepared for them a city." These could say with Walter Hilton: "I am nought, I have nought, I care for nought in this world; and I desire nought in this world but the love of Jesus, that I may see him in peace at Hierusalem." This is the spirit we have lost nowadays, the spirit of pilgrimage; the spirit of the bona fide traveller, who uses the refreshment-room as a refreshment-room, a place where you may pass an irksome hour of waiting, not as an end in itself. And the joy of All Hallows has become to us a sort of pious gratification that we are not as the Saints were; that we are no longer called upon to wander about in anything so uncomfortable as sheepskins and goatskins. We have become proud of being citizens of this world, and in spite of all authority and experience, we persistently forget that citizens of this world will have to present themselves at heaven's gate in the position of undesirable aliens. We are keeping back a part of the price; half of our soul is rooted in this world; [58/59] and that is why, when we take any important step in life, we always consult our doctors nowadays, and our lawyers, and sour bankers, but never consult our confessors till afterwards. We have never learned to stake our last farthing on the Christian hope, we are the victims of a desperate anxiety to back ourselves both ways against the day of judgment, an intolerable habit of always going spades.
And yet the teaching of the lives of the Saints is so clear, so unmistakeable. It is a lesson of absolute and uncompromising obedience to the laws of a kingdom which is not of this world, with no thought either of reasons or of consequences. And here as everywhere the first and foremost of the Saints is Mary. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." As the first woman sinned by disobedience, so by obedience the greatest among women prepared the way for our redemption. As Heva brought sorrow into the world by seeking to understand, where she ought to have trusted, so Mary became our Refuge in sorrow by being content to trust, and not expecting to understand, the word of Gabriel. In that act of complete self-resignation, she was not merely accepting perpetual Virginity, and the reproach which belongs, in the world's eyes, to the mother of a fatherless child. She was accepting her share in all the tribulations of the Man of Sorrows, all the bitterness of the seven swords of Calvary. But she never drew back.
And what Mary practised herself, she taught to others: we can be sure of that from the miracle of Cana. You know the scene--a wedding-breakfast at a little town in Galilee. Something has gone wrong with the arrangements; there are agitated colloquies going on between the butler and the best man; the waiters hurry past, affecting not to notice the appealing eyes of the guests. They have no wine. And they do not think it worth while to go straight to Jesus, though Jesus is there. Not being Protestants, the servants think it quite natural to [59/60] go to Mary instead, and trust to her availing intercession with him to gain their purpose. And, like all faithful souls who have trusted in Mary's intercession, they were not disappointed. But what I want to emphasize here is the instructions she gave to them. "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." Do it, however unreasonable or even meaningless it may appear; even if it is filling up half a dozen old water-jugs with water. Don't stand about asking questions, wanting to know why he couldn't do the miracle without any water, or whether that wouldn't be enough if they were half full, or whether milk wouldn't do as well. Do it.
And now that Mary is exalted above all the choirs of angels, her word is still the same to those who ask her succour: "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." He said: "Whoso marrieth her that is divorced committeth adultery ": don't ask whether this is in accord with the teaching of sentimental modern novels. Believe it. He said: "Go ye into all the world": don't ask why you should support apostolic missionaries, and whether the heathen wouldn't get on better without them. Do it. He said: "Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them": don't say that confession doesn't attract you, or that the clergyman is no better than you are yourself. Practise it.
But the example of the Saints and the counsel of our Lady do not apply only to the obedience due to the commands of Holy Church, which are obligatory for all alike. For each of us individually God has his own purpose, his good pleasure which he seeks to manifest in us. Jesus is not content with the work of Justification, he wishes each of us, according to his own needs and in so far as his state of life permits, to strive towards the further goal of perfection. And although it may not be possible for us, who are living an active life in the world, to aspire to the unitive way, there is none so entangled in the affairs of this world, none so hard pressed by the claims of business or social duty, as to have no chance of attaining [60/61] a closer walk with God. But here again, the indispensable condition and sole pathway of Christian progress is absolute self-surrender.
In each case the method of spiritual advance may be different, but there is one rule which is the same for all; we must learn to rely wholly on Jesus, and have all our desires centred in him, and in no earthly support whatever. You cannot learn to float in the sea, until you are content to take your legs off the ground, and throw your head back entirely on the resistance of the water, which seems so yielding and so unsubstantial. And you cannot learn to repose yourself on the ocean of the divine love, until you abandon entirely, in intention and in will, all the comfortable support you derive from earthly and material things, and let your regard dwell completely on the heavenly places, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God.
For the soul is like a plant which puts out its suckers or tendrils on every side, feeling for the support of a neighbouring wall; when once her tendrils have rested for a little against the wall, that is, upon some earthly object of affection, they naturally cling to it and cleave to it, so that they cannot without great pain of separation be detached from it: and when this affection becomes ruinous, as walls do, and at last crumbles away, there is danger lest the whole plant should be borne down and perish with it. So it is the office of prayer and meditation to detach the soul from temporal desires, to let her tendrils rest on them indeed, but never cling to them; she must be rooted wholly in the love of Jesus, who is a jealous lover, and will not suffer his love to share a place with unnecessary luxuries, unrelinquishable comforts, and inordinate violent affections. If we are to imitate the Saints at all, it must be Jesus only, Jesus always, and all for Jesus.
For if Jesus paid once for all the full price of our ransom, we still owe him all we have and all we are. Bankrupts, we can never repay him the debt in [61/62] full, but is that any reason .why we should not repay him as much as possible in the pound? If and in so far as we admit into our hearts any affection which is outside of and apart from his love, if and in so far as we let ourselves be distracted from a sense of his presence by the janglings of the world, we are keeping back a part of the price of our redemption, we are like Ananias, lying to the Holy Ghost. Our Queen still commands us to await our King's bidding, and fulfil it without demur; and he still says: Fill the water-pots with water--the cold, colourless water of your imperfect devotion, your wandering prayers, that I may turn it by a miracle of my grace into the rich and warm and luscious wine of heavenly contemplation. And therefore, if we try to live with half our heart in another world, and half in this, the blessed festivity of All Hallows will neither increase our devotion nor advance our salvation; and we shall have forfeited our share in the glorious kingdom, eternal in the heavens, where the saints in white robes follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. To which may he of his infinite mercy bring us, and all who devoutly celebrate this holy commemoration.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.