Project Canterbury Six Sermons to Men Preached in St. Ignatius' Church
New York City
During Lent, 1888. By the Rev. Arthur Ritchie New York: American Bank Note Co., 1888.
FIFTH SERMON. PRACTICAL RELIGION. ST. MATTHEW viii. 21, 22.
"And another of His disciples said unto Him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him. Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead."
Most men have some sort of belief in a future life. There are those indeed who profess to believe in annihilation, but one may well doubt whether they feel quite satisfied with that belief in their own hearts; certainly it is illogical, since the facts of nature do not warrant belief in the annihilation of anything. And almost all who believe in a future life have the conviction that their happiness or misery in that life will in some way depend upon their virtue or vice in this world; so that even to the man who does not make any great account of religion the question is a rather momentous one, "What must I do to be saved?" This question was asked by a certain jailor of Philippi, who had the charge of Sts. Paul and Silas when they were imprisoned in that city. You all probably remember the story, how an earthquake was felt in the prison in the middle of the night which caused all the doors to be opened, and everyone's bands to be loosed. The jailor hardly comprehending the miracle supposed that the prisoners had all escaped, and was about to kill himself; but St. Paul cried out "Do thyself no harm, for we are all here." Then he realized the miracle, and came trembling and fell down before Sts. Paul and Silas, saying, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" In this practical age men would probably say a little more, so as to qualify their question; it would be "What must I do to be saved? but I want to know only the essentials; there is a great deal of red tape about ordinary religion; I don't care for that, I have no time for it; give me the fundamentals and I will try to be faithful to them." The most obvious thing which comes up in answer to this is to say, I will give you St. Paul's reply to the question of the Philippian jailor, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved, and thy house." But our practical friend retorts, "That is just the way with so many of you clergymen, you give one nothing definite; it is easy to say ' Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,' but what am I to dot I believe in the Lord after my way, but I want some sort of practical religion that I can get hold of and use day by day."
The most easily accepted part of practical religion is that which concerns our fellow-men. The man of the world says, "My idea of religion is being upright in one's dealings and charitable towards all who are in distress of any kind." No one can deny that this is a very important part of religion. It is the part which St. John Baptist laid so much stress upon when the people all came to him seeking the baptism of repentance. They cried "What shall we do then?" St. John replied "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise?" It was good practical doctrine. Our Lord beautifully illustrates the same teaching, giving it the widest possible scope by making one's neighbor every one who is in distress, in the great parable of the good Samaritan. He gives the matter of charity the most detailed exposition in that solemn picture He paints of the last day; "Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was a hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying, Lord, When saw we Thee a hungered, and fed Thee? or thirsty, and gave Thee drink? When saw we Thee a stranger, and took Thee in? or naked, and clothed Thee? Or when saw we Thee sick, or in prison, and came unto Thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was a hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we Thee a hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto Thee? Then shall He answer them, saying, Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me." Is not then His great saying "Thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself" well called the golden rule? No one can fail to see the reasonableness and the excellence of this side of religion; a certain human instinct tells us that whatever one may think about the rest of religion, as taught by the Church, he is bound to accept this. Duty to one's neighbor easily divides itself into two heads.
1. It calls for justice, that is, uprightness, truthfulness, honesty. We must deal always fairly with our neighbour; "Do as you would be done by." No one can dispute the place of this duty in practical religion; for our social life requires it that men may count upon and trust one another. It is true that men betray the trust their fellows repose in them, and set at nought the law of right and justice every day; it is often the fact that might makes right even in civilized communities; but no one defends the principle; every one condemns it, and those who act unjustly always strive either to hide their evil deeds, or to defend them as not evil, but as so misrepresented by those who condemn them.
2. The other head of duty towards one's neighbour is that of mercy, or charitableness. There are those who say a man must be just, but he need not be generous; yet the great voice of humanity says that man ought to have compassion in his heart for his fellow-men, and be ready always to lend a helping hand to a brother in distress.
With the law of duty towards one's neighbour the Church sets forth the various works of mercy, founded upon that marvellous saying of our Lord which I but just now repeated to you, incumbent upon Christians. They are of two classes Corporal and Spiritual.
The Corporal works of mercy are:
To feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To harbour the stranger and the needy.
To visit the sick.
To minister to prisoners.
To visit the fatherless and widows, and
To bury the dead.
The Spiritual works of mercy are:
To instruct the ignorant.
To correct offenders.
To counsel the doubtful.
To comfort the afflicted.
To suffer injuries with patience.
To forgive wrongs done us.
To pray for others.
And if one should perfectly fulfil all of these, would he have need of any further religion? Surely a noble and lovely character would be his, and one could ask nothing more. Is that quite true? Has man then no duty to his God, as well as to his fellow-man? Then the answer may be given, But God needs nothing of us, whereas our fellow-man is dependent for many things upon our justice and mercy; what can our service profit God? Suppose that a child should argue in this way about its parents; My parents provide for me, they look after my welfare, God has ordered things so; but I cannot help them any, nor profit their lives; why then talk to me about duty to my parents? To such an one the wise teacher would reply; Is love then nothing in our human life; and do obedience and respect go for nought? Have parents no right to ask these of their children, and to expect to receive them? You see at once there are other obligations of our human life besides those of caring for the necessities of our fellow-men and treating them with straightforwardness.
The Church teaches us that man has a duty towards God just as important as his duty towards his fellow-man, and just as much a fundamental part of true religion. Let us analyze the nature of this duty. In what relations do we stand to God? He is our Creator and our Preserver; He provides all the necessaries of our lives; so He is in the highest sense our Father. He is our King also, the supreme ruler of the universe, holding the power of life and death absolutely over His subjects; how great majesty and honour are His due, because of His royal prerogative.
He is our Friend, the companion of our lives, always beside us, ready to help in every way, carrying on a gracious work of benevolence in the world by making Himself man's neighbour and fellow-worker as well as his God.
1. Therefore we owe Him obedience. He has the supreme right to demand this of us, and we have no right in conscience to refuse it to Him, for it is a law of nature that children should obey their parents. Howbeit we stand in the relation of servants to God just us truly as in that of children. He made us, and He has the same right to us as the potter has to the vessel he has made of the clay. We take the brutes and make them our slaves, requiring entire subjection to our will. Why should not God deal in the same way with us? He might if he chose; but He rather asks of us the obedience of love, as a Father of His children.
2. This duty of love may be hard to render practical because there is a difficulty in loving One Whom we do not know by our senses; yet one may truly illustrate the principle of love by giving honour and by giving help. We give honour to God when we worship Him and when we pray to Him. Worship is the tribute of man's love and honour to his God. How do we know that God cares for worship at our hands? Because from the beginning He expressly demanded it, and gave man directions how to perform it; because under the Christian law our Lord's words, just a little while before His death were, "This do in remembrance of me." What was it they were to do? To offer that mysterious Eucharist He had just instituted. So that became the great act of worship of the Christian Church.
More than that; from the beginning God set apart one day in the week as peculiarly His own, in which man was to give up so far as possible his worldly avocations, and keep the day sacred to God. We know that Sunday in the Christian Church is the one day in seven which is thus sacred to God by His ordinance. That is the reason why from the very first days of Christianity men thought it their duty to celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday. To attend this celebration, to hear Mass as it is called, is the first obligation of worship. Is this reasonable or not? Does not one's own sense of the fitness of things say, "If God be my Father, my King and my Friend it is right that I should do Him honour in the way and at the time He asks it of me?" Thus to worship God by hearing Mass is a fundamental part of true religion.
3. Not different in principle is the duty of prayer. Why should a man pray? Because he owes it to God as his Friend to go to Him with his confidences, uttering the desires of his heart, seeking sympathy and help. Prayer is instinctive with men; but if it were not it is supremely reasonable just because God is what He is, and we are what we are. Therefore prayer is a part of true religion.
4. Then there is succor of God, or giving to His cause. The fact that God has made Himself our Friend, associated Himself with our earthly life, and organized a Society, His Church, to carry on His work of mercy in the world, brings it about that we owe to Him the duty of helping in the work of the Church. The principle is the same as that which makes it the duty of a child, in the parent's old age, to care for and protect that parent, so far as he may need help; this is an universally recognized obligation of filial piety. While God does not need our help and succor in His work for His own sake, He asks it of us for our sakes, that we may realize our duty of gratitude to Him and have the opportunity of giving evidence of it by our actions. Therefore the Church teaches it as a part of practical religion that men should work for, and give of their means to the support of the Church, as an act of filial piety to God who founded the Church in the world and made it, at least in part, dependant upon man's help and good will.
And you see this is all only fulfilling the words of our Lord, for when He was asked "Which is the great commandment in the law?" He replied "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself." It is significant that our Lord puts duty to God as the first commandment, and duty to one's neighbour as the second. We have up to this point seemed to take them in the other order simply because man more easily acknowledges his duty to his neighbor than his duty to God. Yet obviously if there be any duty to God it must stand as the first of all duties, to which all else must give way where there is conflict. God is so unselfish that He permits us to consider the duties of necessity and charity in our earthly life before the obligation of His worship, but we must admit the first claim upon our time and our service to be absolutely His if He chooses to demand it. So when in the instance recorded in our text, one who had been bidden to follow Him asked leave first to go and bury his father, our Lord would not give it him. He meant him to understand that there was a higher duty than that of burying one's father, the duty of unquestioning obedience to the word of God. The Master's reply seems harsh to us because we do not appreciate the Divine side of it. The whole order of the universe would be inverted if man had a right to feel that his duty to his fellow-men intrinsically outranked his duty to God, in other words that the creature is to be preferred to the Creator. God may dispense us from service to Him when urgent calls of our own kind meet us, but we ought to remember the dispensation is the outcome of His generosity, not of any intrinsic equity. Therefore the principle set forth in our Lord's answer, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead," is one which our own reason must approve as a part of true religion, God first, man afterwards.
Now, you may say, surely you have exhausted the essential parts of practical religion, for if a man does faithfully his duty to his neighbour, and his duty toward God, and takes heed that the duty toward God should hold of right the first place of all, what more can there be in religion? In one sense there is no more, but in another there is a whole field of religious duty yet unexplored by us. We may call it duty to one's self. Surely we owe something to ourselves, as well as to God and to our neighbour,
1. He who makes much of the physical aspect of human life will tell you that man has a double duty to perform on behalf of his body; first, to keep it in health, guarding it against disease and hurts of every kind; secondly, to develop and strengthen it for the more satisfactory accomplishment of its functions.
2. In the same way he who makes much of the human intellect will tell you that man has a double duty to perform on behalf of his mental faculties; first, to keep them sound, unimpaired by erroneous ideas and false conceptions; secondly, to develop and educate them more and more, advancing continually in all good learning.
3. Is it unreasonable to look for something of the same kind in the study of man's moral or spiritual part? Have we reason to suppose that there are conditions of our spiritual life logically involving the same sort of processes as those appropriate to the conditions of our physical and intellectual life? Let us see. Have we any counterpart of disease of the body and of false conceptions of the mind in our spiritual nature? Of course we have, you reply; there are positive acts of sin, many bad habits, innumerable evil inclinations. You cannot help seeing the analogy between these failings of the moral nature and the corresponding failings of the physical and intellectual natures. And have we any reason to suppose that our moral nature is capable of further development and growth as are our physical and mental natures? Of course, you reply, for how many moral excellences can we imagine, yea, see already developed in other lives, not yet our own. Can we doubt therefore that man has for a part of his religious duty the extirpation of evil from his moral nature, and the effort to elevate that moral nature to a higher plane of excellence? The glory of our Catholic religion is that it at once supplies both the perfect type of fully developed moral nature, and the most suitable means for reproducing that type. This is more than your professor of physics can do, for his Hercules or Apollo Belvidere are ideals never realized in living men; and more than your professor of intellectual philosophy can do, for he can give you no example of a perfectly developed human mind. Let me then try to make good the boast of our religion.
1. You find in yourself many positive deeds of sin, well remembered even though committed long ago; many more habits which you despise yourself for, and inclinations to evil ever rising up as temptations, and so often seducing you to yield to them. It is your duty to get rid of all of these; at least to expel from your heart those acts of sin, to overcome those bad habits, to hold in mastery those evil inclinations. Can you doubt that this is a part of practical religion? Perhaps you reply, Yes, I must doubt it because I do not believe there is any way of effecting these results? Are we to suppose then that the same wise God who filled the earth with every sort of drug for the cure of human disease, and implanted in the human mind the capacity of the physician's art, could find no medicine for the far more terrible disease of the soul, and no physician's diploma wherewith its healer should be commissioned?
2. In the Church's ordinance of Confession we have these very things provided by God Himself in perfection. He promises to take away sin upon the honest confession of it; it is the purging draught which carries off the poison of sin from the soul. If you ask me what I mean by Confession, I reply, Not keeping one's sin to one's self, telling it to some one. Well then, you reply, perhaps, Let me tell it to God. Ah, but are you not keeping it to yourself just as much as before? It is as truly your own secret as at first, for God saw it there in your heart all the time. There is no real Confession so long as we keep things to ourselves; we should let some one know it whom we suppose at least not to know it already. And any thinking man can judge for himself, by his experience of human life, of the moral effect of this upon the soul. Directly the sinner has confessed his sin the load of it is off his conscience, he feels it so, he is absolved by his very confession. This is not especially Church doctrine, it is human nature. When the murderer has confessed his evil deed the load of it is off his conscience, but he is still guilty in the eyes of the law for his transgression; yet the human court may find reasons for acquitting him. If so he is absolved judicially. In the Church God gives us Absolution as well as Confession, and He has empowered His priests to be the physicians of souls, supplying the bitter medicine of Confession, and then the healing balm of Absolution. Can any one doubt, if this ordinance be indeed provided by God for the cure of sin, that it is a part of practical religion for a man to go to Confession, and by faithful use of it purify and keep in sound health his spiritual life?
3. And once more; I told you that the Church could show you a type of perfected manhood, physical, intellectual, spiritual. It is the Lord Jesus Christ. It shall belong more properly to our next Sermon to trace through the next world's life the process of the full development of the graft from His perfect humanity which was implanted in each one of us at Baptism. But in this world the Church tells us of the existence of a marvellous food and supernatural elixir of life, of which I spoke to you last week, the very Body and Blood of the Lord Himself, set before us on the Altar day by day that we may eat as often as we will, and abundantly slake our thirst. These holy gifts of the Altar hold in themselves the secret of the perfect development of human life. If this be true, that the partaking of Holy Communion can perfect us with the truest perfecting, can we doubt that it is a part of practical religion for a man to use this Holy Sacrament?
To sum up--We are sure that practical personal religion means:
1. Honoring God with worship and glad work in His service;
2. Doing toward our fellow-men as we would have them do toward us, both fair-minded justice, and works of mercy, corporal and spiritual;
3. Ridding our souls of sin in its various forms by Confession, and developing a higher humanity in us by Holy Communion.