Project Canterbury

The Good News

By Bernard Iddings Bell, D.D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, [1921]

Chapter XI. The Touch of Jesus

ONE of the greatest and most beautiful chapters in the whole Bible is the seventeenth of St. John's Gospel--beautiful because in it we see Christ pouring forth His inmost soul, uttering His uttermost desires for His Church and for us who belong to it. With Him in that Chapter is that from which all His Church must grow. It is the night in which He was betrayed. The rulers have turned upon Him and rejected Him. The democratic crowd has also tuned upon Him and rejected Him. The world wills to have none of Him. There are, however, these few men who love Him. Through them must go out His saving power to all generations. With tremendous affection He prays over them.

And what is His greatest wish for them? He offers no intercession that they shall have wealth and worldly adulation. He prays not that they may become powerful and persuasive preachers.

His supreme desire is not even that they may have untiring zeal wherewith to serve their fellow men. His one great prayer, the spirit of which runs through the utterance, He summed up in these words: "Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, may be with Me where I am."

If you remember His assurance to them that He would be with them to the end of the world, you will see that He was not praying, as someone might at first glance think, that some day they might get to Heaven and so be with Him. He was anxious that in the very midst of their work for Him they might find themselves with Him, feeling the power of Him, won by His personal affection, guided by His Spirit, empowered with His strength, although He was withdrawn from their sight.

It was indeed just such contact with Jesus that made the holy saints of those glorious early days. Read the sermons those Apostles preached. They were seldom great oratorical efforts. Very feeble these men were in utterance. Nor were their writings remarkable as literary productions. But men took knowledge that they had been with Jesus. They preached and wrote about the power that is in Jesus Christ Crucified and Resurrected. St. Paul said that it was not he himself who worked mightily, but the power of Jesus Christ within Him. That was true of all of them.

Look back in Church history, after these first great men had died. Look at the ones who have really been of great religious help to the world. Wherein lies the power of St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, or of St. Francis de Sales, or of John Wesley, or of Savonarola, or of Stanton of St. Alban's, Holborn, or of Dr. James De Koven at Racine,--to mention but a few widely different examples? They lived close to Jesus, and men, looking to them, found a sweetness and a power and a simplicity that was more than of the earth. Weary of the world, tired of its specious falsehoods, anxious for a change from its clatter, its fuss, its foolishness, men in all ages have looked expectantly to Christ's Church. Whenever they have found in its pastors and people worldliness and ambition and bustle and tumult, they have sadly turned away again; but whenever they have found men and women who lived close to the quiet, loving heart of Jesus Christ, they have come and said, "Brethren, we would see that Jesus who has made you what you are. Lead us, too, to know Him." Whenever the Church seeks to use merely human methods and human "organization" in her advancement, no matter how efficiently she does it; when she substitutes anything else as her purpose than the bringing of men and women and growing children face to face with Jesus, she fails. Insofar as she has sought to make this substitution in our own day, she has failed. It is always so. Therefore it was that Jesus, longing for a Church which might help mankind powerfully in all ages, uttered as His greatest prayer His intercession that we Church people might constantly be with Him where He is. From Him we get all the real power we may have.

Now where is Jesus? Jesus is God. Therefore Jesus is everywhere. Yes, of course that is true. But we saw in an earlier chapter how difficult it is for us, limited in our human bodies, to have realization of comradeship with a God who is everywhere, unlocalized, vague, intangible. It was because of this very difficulty that Jesus took our human nature and dwelt among us. But is He now again intangible? Does He no longer incarnate Himself so that we can humbly meet Him? Is He no longer able to do for us what He did for His followers in Palestine long ago?

In camp men are willing to talk much more freely about their religious difficulties than they do at home. A number of them have said to me substantially the same thing which one fellow put more clearly than the rest. I believe what that man said most of us find true. He said to me:

"Chaplain, I wish to God I had lived back there when Jesus was on earth. I try to pray to Jesus and He is not real, real like you are, like the feb lows in the barracks are, like my mother and the girl back home are. Back there in Palestine He too was like other folks are. I could have gone to Him and knelt down before Him and looked up at Him and seen His face, and heard His voice, and felt Him reach out and touch Me, and then I could have gone about my work and known how deeply He cared and how much He, my friend, was helping. Chaplain, I feel that under those conditions I could have been a mighty decent sort of fellow. When this damned pull of sex got to dragging at me like it does, I should have kept decent. He would have understood and He would have helped. When I got sore and wished to boil over and cuss my company, He would have given me the stuff in me to keep cool. Chaplain, why did He ever go away?"

I told him that Jesus never had gone away.

"Yes," he said, "I know. You mean He is spiritually present. But that does not help enough. I do not want to find Him everywhere. I want to find him somewhere."

And then I told that lad that Jesus could meet him somewhere. I told him, as now I remind you, that the Holy Communion is the somewhere where Jesus arranged to meet us in the same real, simple, human fashion that our best human friends meet us.

I reminded him that all his friendships were sacramental things. They had an outward sign and an inward spirit. When he shook hands with his shipmate, when they left camp for different ships, there was the grip of material flesh on material flesh. Behind his shipmate's hand was his shipmate's invisible soul. Behind his hand was his invisible soul. It was only in the material handclasp that the souls made known to one another their abiding friendship. I reminded him that when he kissed his girl goodbye, there was the touch of lips on lips, a material contact. Back of her lips was the invisible soul of her that loved him. Back of his lips was the invisible soul of him that loved her. The kiss was a sacrament. I reminded him that in marriage the mating is physical, true; but that the physical marriage is but the sign and seal of a great, spiritual comradeship, and that so many marriages fail only because the sign is there without the thing signified. I showed him that all comradeship of person with person in this world is sacramental, that always there is the physical touch to make the spiritual touch perceptible. I reminded him that from the day of his conception he had never met another person, felt another soul, save sacramentally. No disembodied spirit had ever touched him, to his knowledge. I showed him that even spiritualists, in endeavors to communicate with the unknown world, never thought of doing it save through some sort of materialization,--a tipping table, a ghostly wraith, a ouija board. So universal is the sacramental law of friendship. Sacramentalism in personal relationships is as integral a part of the law of human existence as birth, as death.

"Then," I said to him, as now I say to you, "the trouble with your religion, the reason why you do not get Christ's help as vividly as did the Apostles, is that while you gladly and inevitably obey this law of the necessity of sacramentalism in personal relationship, touching every other person, you fail to observe it in your reaching out to Jesus Christ your God. You seek to get in touch with Him some other way, some unnatural way. In this you are demonstrably and scientifically wrong.

"The Holy Communion is Christ embodied to meet you humanly and easily. Christ instituted it. It was the only act of devotion He ever did institute. He said 'This do ye in remembrance of Me'. At the hands of him who is celebrating the Feast, He takes bread and says, 'This is My Body'. He does not mean it is changed into meat. Do you not see what He does mean? He means that He is going to use that bread of wheat, that He with it personally may touch your body. You, kneeling there, wishing for Jesus, wanting His strength, seeking His courage, desiring with all your heart His loving, friendly help, feel Him touch you. You get up off your knees and go out to face your life. It is hard, that life. It is puzzling. It is cruel, maybe, or painful, or full of sorrow. There in it lurks the temptation that has so often made wreck of you, the passion that stains, the folly that dims your youth. But this is now the difference. You know you do not have to face it all alone. Jesus Christ has touched you."

Then I told that boy, as now I tell you, that for sixteen hundred years the Church furnished to her people, as her one greatest help, this vital contact with Jesus Christ in the Sacrament. Most of the preaching, almost all of the teaching, was for the purpose of telling men how to find Jesus in communion,--Jesus, incarnate sacramentally. Then, because of the corruption of life and religion due to the Renaissance, there came a great and necessary cleaning up,--the Reformation. It did much good, to those in the Reformed Churches and also to Anglican and Roman Catholics; but its benefits were mixed with spiritual tragedy. The tragic thing about the Reformation was that men, then in the grip of the revival of learning, put entirely too much confidence in mere human brains, let the Sacrament go and substituted intellectual sermons as the chief activity of the Church. Luther did not do so as much as others less human. Still the altar is the center of the Lutheran Church in Norway and Sweden, where Lutheranism is more what Luther intended it than it is in Germany or in America. The Episcopal Church, thank God, did not make the mistake, although many within that body, disregarding the evident intent of its official book of worship, did so, and alas, still continue to do so. The altar is the center. The pulpit is merely a place wherefrom the preacher may guide Christ's people up to Christ's altar, to Jesus, that He may become real to them, as real as folks are, even more real than they are. The so-called "Evangelical Churches" for the most part did make the mistake. And that is why sacramental Christians find it difficult to unite now with them. Their conception of Christianity is apt to be didactic and intellectual, a thing of the pulpit, while that of the sacramental Churches is like that of the early Church, of the Eternal Church, a thing of personal contacts, humanly perceived, with a God who in His Sacrament is still incarnate on the earth to meet us.

But how, somebody asks, can Jesus, if indeed He is God, dwell especially in any one place? Is Re not everywhere? He is everywhere, truly, and yet He is in particular in the Sacrament. This is surely not difficult to believe. You walk abroad on a sun-lit day. All about you is the light It is so all-present that for the most part you fail to notice it. Let a burning glass be focused on your hand. Now you feel the heat. You look and the light is brilliant. Yet it is the same sun-light. You recognize the light and heat about you because for the moment it has in concentration touched you. The Sacrament is the burning-glass of God. Having at the altar realized His Presence vividly we remember the better how that Presence is ever about us, how always beneath us are the everlasting arms, how all-embracing is His love, how ever vital is His friendship.


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