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Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008


.--Acts ii. 39.

IT is the foremost of the Apostles who speaks; and along with him speak all his brethren, with equal authority and with harmonious voices. The place is Mount Zion, whence the Word of the Lord is to go forth to all the nations. The time is the great Christian Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost has just come down from heaven, with the rushing mighty wind and the tongues of fire. The hearers are the multitude who, pricked in their heart, have cried out, in that melting appeal to the Apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" The result is the conversion of the first three thousand to Christ, and the beginning of that Church of Jerusalem, which is to be the mother of all Churches. An occasion of more spiritual grandeur was scarcely witnessed at Sinai or at Bethlehem; and words more fruitful than those which the Holy [3/4] Ghost then gave the Apostles to utter have not been heard since the Ten Commandments rang in the ears of Israel from the midst of the fire, or the Gloria in Excelsis of the heavenly host floated over the slumbering earth. "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; for the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off; even as many as the Lord our God shall call." So, the spiritual heritage of Jew and Gentile is announced in this one broad grant of grace.

The Gospel is chiefly and of necessity a religion of promises. It has its stern denunciations, its solemn requisitions, its blessed precepts, and its holy observances: but not all of these could make it good tidings of great joy to all people; since the deepest wants of our souls lie beyond the remedial power of any rules as such, even though those rules be divine. Not even its one transcendent and perfect example, with all the light which surrounds that sacred head, crowned first with thorns and then with glory, can remove the load which always presses us down, and which especially, at the sound of a message from heaven, bows us in awe and trembling. The heart answers from its secrecy, "I have transgressed those commands, and still trangress them; I never yet walked by those precepts with all my might; [4/5] I have profaned those ordinances, or have been held from them by the fear to profane them, through the evil of my thoughts; and that spotless example has no living image in me: I need forgiveness; and I need power to choose and to fulfil the law of love: these must be mine, or I perish." That religion, therefore, which shall be good and glad tidings to the race of men, must promise such forgiveness and such power; and this it is which makes the Gospel a Gospel. The promise of remission of sins through the blood of the Redeemer, and of the regenerating gift of the Holy Ghost, is for you and your children, and for as many that are afar off as the call shall reach; and happy are the ears that hear this word, and blessed the lips that may speak it, far or near!

This religion of promises, though complete on the day of Pentecost, began neither with that coming of the Holy Ghost, nor with the advent of the Son of God. It was the most precious part of the covenant of Israel, though that were so largely a religion of laws and ordinances. Like a golden thread entwined with a cord of firmly twisted and less costly texture, it ran through all the Mosaic institutions. It was the soul of the patriarchal faith, from the day when man was assured of the victory of his seed over the seed of the serpent. Never since that first pledge of mercy has there been a period when promises have not been suspended, side by side, with commandments; [5/6] when the emerald rainbow has not been round about the cloud-enveloped throne. Types, prophecies, covenants; the revelations to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Jacob, to David, to Isaiah, to Daniel, all had this common character; the very heathen retained old traditions, and caught occasional glimpses, of a glory once promised, and yet to come; and the ancient ages moved on, pregnant with this celestial hope. Dim or clear, it had but one significance; it could have but one accomplishment.

That accomplishment itself in Christ was but as if you emerged from a narrow stream overhung with woods, to float down the broad, bright bosom of a grand river, towards the unbounded ocean. It is still by promises only that we are wafted along; but they are unspeakably more full, and mighty, and fragrant with celestial joy. The victory has been achieved within our sight; the Deliverer is no more promised, but He promises now, and, enthroned over heaven and earth, dispenses his sovereign bounties. They flow to us; they overflow on every side; and the word which He has sent forth to every creature, notwithstanding all its revelations of the wrath of God against ungodliness, all its calls to flee from that wrath to come, all its terrible denunciations of hypocrisy, and all its awful disclosures of the final judgment and the irrevocable doom, is yet chiefly and characteristically a summons to a marriage supper, an invitation to living waters, [6/7] an entreaty to return to the house of a Father, and a vast, general gift of eternal life to all who do not live to spurn, and so live as to spurn, the inestimable riches of mercy in Christ Jesus. Not to condemn, but to save, did the Father send the Son; not to exclude, but to embrace, exists the communion of the saints; not as warriors armed for the extirpation of enemies, but as messengers of grace, seeking and saving the lost, are the ministers of the Lord to follow in His footsteps. They also who would obey Him, and sit at His feet, and enter into His glory, must not address themselves as to a hard life of bitter toil which shall earn its recompense at last; nor frame for themselves a minute system of doctrines to be held, duties to be done, and customs to be observed, where every failure endangers, and complete accuracy secures the soul; but they must believe in the love of God in Christ, and clasp the promise of salvation. Then, in the strength of an answering love, they will hold every commandment dear, and work out that which remains with fear and trembling, lest even this salvation should be neglected, and the tenfold guilt of the despiser should crush the soul at last.

Because the Gospel is thus a religion of promises, the Church of God, by the same necessity, must express the fact, and thus declare that divine mercy already embraces and enfolds the children of men. The very design of its [7/8] existence is, that it may both represent and fulfil these promises. As the kingdom of heaven, it must have an open door; and if it suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force, it is not as when the armed legions storm the walls of a hostile city, but rather as when the famished crowds pressed through the gate of Samaria to the food which the Lord had marvellously prepared for them in the tents of the Syrians. There must always be the form of a covenant; and there can be no covenant between God and man as between equal parties: it must begin with an act of grace on His side, and never with one of merit or of effort on ours. "The promise is to you and your children." It was said, in substance, to our first parents, when they took their solitary way from Eden; it was said to those who survived the flood; it was said to the father of the faithful; it was said to Jacob and his twelve sons; it was said to the tribes assembled before Moses; and it was said on the day of Pentecost. The antediluvian Church, with its sacrifices like that of Abel; the patriarchal Church, with the token of its covenant in the cloud; the Abrahamic Church, with the sign of circumcision; the Church of the children of Israel, with its pledged, national heritage of Canaan; the Mosaic Church, with all the so significant ceremonial of the law; the Christian Church, with its universal baptism in the threefold name; all are alike in this, that [8/9] successive generations, from the first onward, are made heirs of the promise, and receive the instituted, consecrated, transmitted seals of this fellowship and brotherhood, without any other title except the forgiving mercy and fatherly love of God.

It is the possession of such a promise that must make the Church a visible body, with actual succession through successive ages. Apart from every question of the mode and order of such succession, it is itself a necessity. For, an accidental incorporation, a mere accumulation of individual minds, drawn together by affinities of belief and community of sentiment, without designation from beyond themselves, without relations to the past or to the future, cannot collectively represent a promise like this. The promise was given at a certain period: it must come down from that period. It was given through certain persons: it must come down from those persons. It was fastened to certain seals: it must be attended by those seals. It was given to those who first received it and to their children: it cannot fail to continue along the line of parentage and descent. It was given also to all afar off, whom the Lord should call: it must pass on wherever the call of His word and His messengers reaches the ears of mankind. A promise is not the simple intention of the mind of the promiser; it is not an inference, however just, from his character; it is not the judgment, however confident [9/10] or authorized, of the wisdom or experience of the receiver; it is not the reliance of his affection. It is an assurance given and pledged by one party to another; and whether it be extended to many or limited to few, conditional or free, purchased or bestowed, given to convey something which otherwise could not be obtained, or given only to impart an expectation of that which might otherwise still be secure, it always must distinguish, so far as it has a purpose and a value, those who have it from those who have it not. Even in a family, where all the sons share the same place in the paternal heart, and the same rights under the law of the land, yet he who has the written and sealed promise of his father has something beyond the rest; nor could he, when it was proffered, have neglected it without disrespect and loss. But in the dominion of a sovereign, the solemn grant under the broad seal of state is in its own sphere the indispensable title; the only one that could be presented before the royal tribunals. Everywhere they to whom the same promise has been given are by that very fact associated in a certain fellowship; important in proportion to the dignity of that which they have thus in common. If the tokens and pledges of the promise be such as must pass through their hands, from the elder to the younger, from the messenger to those to whom he is sent, from the past generation to the present, and from the present to the [10/11] future; if, in connection with these, there be also mutual duties to be done, offices to be executed, acts of communion to be performed together, and benefits to be participated by each with each, then is there, by virtue of the promise, a society, an organization, a succession, a combination, all under a higher law than agreement, affinity, accident, or choice. "The promise is to you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call;" and this promise, were there nothing further, would create the Church, and make it catholic.

Far be it from our hearts to narrow the scope of words which were plainly issued as the widest of proclamations, or to limit the Pentecostal promise one inch within the positive requisitions fixed by the Holy Spirit in the Holy Scriptures. Let us think largely and generously of the Church of Christ; but let us most sacredly hold it to be His sacramental body, and not a school of thinkers following a teacher, nor a vast number of voluntary associations, springing up into separate life, framing their several constitutions, and capable, at their own will, of extinction and revival. Let us not attempt nor consent to tear asunder the body and the soul which God has joined together, nor to have a religion without a history, doctrines without sacraments, or preachers who disclaim all apostolic derivation or authority. The promise creates [11/12] the fellowship, which must be therefore the same with that to which the promise was announced by Peter and the eleven; the same with that which was addressed and blessed in its first great ministers and members, on the Mount of Olives, just before the Ascension.

In the happy consciousness of this identity, the ancient ages of the Christian faith found constant nutriment for their heroic patience and charity. We will not linger, however, at any picture of the Church as it ever was, at any one time; but rather rise to the conception of that which it might have been; that which, under this charter and promise, it was clearly designed to be; that which, in its different parts, in different measures, it certainly has been; that which in the predicted days, it may yet be, with fairer proportions and fuller reality, through the restoring and harmonizing power of the Holy Spirit.

We paint for ourselves a Christian commonwealth or country. It has received the Gospel originally from the apostles, or from those whom the apostles sent, or from those who at a somewhat later point were sent by these. They brought with them the volume of the Holy Scriptures; and from their charge and practice the observance of the Lord's Day and of the Lord's Supper began. They baptized those who administered the same baptism to others, by whom in their turn it was still administered, till it had become the sign of a vast fellowship. They [12/13] ordained elders in every place, and left behind them the same ministry which they exercised, with the power and the direction to perpetuate itself through the same imposition of hands, under the same promise of the Lord Jesus. The creeds which were introduced at first have been preserved alike in every congregation; or if they have sustained any addition, it has been with one consenting voice. "There is one body and one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism." Amongst many local and accidental diversities, perhaps, of usage, and many shades of individual opinion, and many not unbrotherly discussions, and many ebbs and flows of general feeling, a Christian people has remained, leaning back on the faith and customs of a Christian ancestry, and at peace with itself, and in communion with all the churches of Christ throughout the world. Amidst whatever variety, the great, familiar features and landmarks are all the same, where the same language is spoken; one version of the Bible in all churches; one catechism for children; one profession of doctrine from the clergy; the same old hymns and anthems and doxologies, ascending to Him to whom generations are as hours, a thousand years as one day. Each corner of the land has its pastor or teacher; under a wise, harmonious and all-pervading division of labor and of allotment. Without other constraint than that which binds the conscience and the heart; able to reform that which has been corrupted, [13/14] to restore that which has become decayed, and to improve that which is imperfect, but not to subvert anything which was from the beginning, all abide in a fellowship unbroken and entire, uniting and sanctifying, primitive and perpetual. When they read of the old days of apostolic zeal and martyrdom, they say, "The promise was to our fathers and to us." When they sow the spiritual seed for times to come, they say, "The promise is to us and to our children." When they launch the missionary on his voyage to heathen coasts, they say, "The promise is not only to us and to our children, but to all that are afar off."

Once more it concerns us not to inquire whether all this was ever real, to its widest extent; for it has certainly been more real than at this day; and he has faint dreams of the future of the kingdom of God who cannot believe that it will be more real hereafter. But let us now turn to another view, and both speak and hear in all sober earnestness, and even tenderness, and not with any sentiment of bitter and causeless triumph; for the heart, the conscience, and every temporal joy and every eternal hope bleed, sooner or later, with the wounds of Christian love and truth.

We bring before us a progress, which may have been anywhere more or less a matter of history, but every part of which has somewhere been fulfilled to the utmost [14/15] verge or depth. The thought of a promise for all that are afar off, of an actual love of God for the whole fallen race of man, has yielded to that of a compassion not on man as man, but on the chosen as chosen. Then it became difficult to believe that a whole people, of common blood, the descendants of the same ancestors, could have more than a nominal interest, which is no interest at all, in the Gospel, though all were called alike. The conception of a Church that can comprehend within itself any considerable diversity of judgment, of character, and of practice, falls next to the ground. Any bond that should reach into former ages of much ignorance and corruption, and so through them to the beginning, is held to be vitiated by such contact. The succession of the ministry has actually descended thus, and could only thus descend; and so, it is deemed worthless. There is now no longer a continuous past, in which the religion of the present may find a grateful support; nor any general fellowship, enclosing that of local communities with any consciousness of large and elevating associations. Old festivals, time-hallowed usages, venerated seasons of special devotion, all are felt as burdens; are regarded only as the channels for the abuses which have fastened themselves upon them; and are deliberately trodden down. Vain are the attempts to substitute an imitation of Hebrew customs, names, and tastes, or a simplicity that will nowhere pass beyond the [15/16] letter of the New Testament; all issues in an ecclesiastical barbarism, from which the escape is but through another education of Christian architecture, music and letters, pursued amidst all the discouragements of hereditary prejudice. In the mean time, the promise to us and to our children becomes paler, even within the narrowed circle by which all promises are bounded. Little children are not suffered to come to Christ in His Church, for the avowed reason that not "of such is the kingdom of God;" and, therefore, they are denied baptism, at first, unless for the piety of an immediate parent; and afterwards altogether. Sacraments, esteemed but signs of truth and fellowship, not pledges of a promise, and means of its fulfilment, are sometimes quite rejected as beggarly elements, often respectfully declined, and sometimes painfully degraded into unmeaning ceremonies of indiscriminate application. The creeds of all Christendom cease to be heard; each congregation has its own; each individual his own; less and less distinct, till faith becomes too vague to employ a definite language. It is no longer faith in a promise; but promise and revelation are almost identical; and now, revelation is assailed: assailed in the forms of baptismal profession, of apostolic benediction, and of universal adoration; assailed in the personality of the Revealer and Comforter, and in the Deity of the incarnate Word; assailed in the authority of all Scripture given by [16/17] inspiration; assailed in the answering consciousness of all who have been taught of God; assailed in the certainty of all invisible things, angel or spirit, good or evil; and all predicted things to come, the latter days of the earth, the advent of the Judge, the resurrection of the body, the judgment itself, the second death, and even the life eternal. Nothing, nothing, is sure; and at last there is left no more than a sceptical philosophy, a heathen literature, and a creedless religion.

If, somewhere in this progress, one, anxious both to save himself and those who hear him, should pause and struggle against the descending current, and cry, "Lord, increase my faith," "Lord, teach me to pray," "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" we are sure that he would not remain unguided or unguarded, but would, sooner or later, be brought to plant his feet upon the rocky shore. But where should he now place himself? Where could he place himself, except as far as might be possible, from all that dangerous whirlpool? Shall he check himself at any intermediate spot, or return to the first point of departure? Must he not go to the very shadow of the original promise, and rest content in no isolated attitude, no partial restoration to the imperilled inheritance? Is he to try over again the whole daring experiment? Shall he consent to occupy any dubious ground for the sake of present peace, immediate usefulness, [17/18] or personal regards? Can he avoid recurring to the first foundations, inquiring for the old paths, and casting in his lot under the securities of the ancient fellowship, of the liturgies of ages, of the apostolic episcopacy, and of the catholic creeds? Oh, my dear brethren, how greatly do they err, who imagine that there is here only a tasteful preference for an impressive form of worship! How little know they of the struggles, the convictions, the overpowering constraint, and then the glowing affection, the sacred, heavenly joy, and the sealing experience, which make it to so many of us a simple blank impossibility that, so long as He who walks among the candle-ticks preserves this one, we should be anywhere but here!

To have complied on this occasion with the mere letter of the rubrical provision for the ordination of Deacons, by declaring the duty and office of such, would have been to have forgotten the spirit and import of the service of to day. It is enough to remember the words of the Lord Jesus: "He that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve." Among the untold conflicts and obstacles which you, my reverend and dear brother, have passed in coming to the act of this day, you, I am sure, will not very seriously have numbered this, that in the order of the Church, the way to its higher ministries must lie through the humbler. [18/19] You bow your head at the lowly door, as you enter the sublime tabernacle of the Lord of Hosts. But we would welcome you at once to a foremost place in those honorable toils for which God has given you the endowments and the heart; and we shall rejoice in all the richness of that blessing which will attend you, as we trust and pray, while through many coming years you shall serve God with a satisfied conscience, and in a sphere where you shall be assured by every sign that you labor under the fulness of His promise. You know too well the weakness and the sin which go with man into the most sacred places and privileges, to expect that which you will not find: the fair, untroubled union of all truth with perfect peace. Our errors and our dissensions will cause you pain, but not astonishment. But come to the great, good work which the Providence that has guided you through ways so wonderful has surely reserved for your hands, and, with the freshness of your own glowing purpose, aid us to lay a better tribute at the feet of our Redeemer. Encumbered by no previous associations, and looking solely to the one common end, you may nourish in others as well as in yourself a noble brotherly confidence, a generous eagerness to press on together, in the excellent service to which we are surely beckoned by the finger on high. Called to the holy office of maintaining quietness, peace, and love among all Christian people, you [19/20] will be forbidden, by every past trial of your own soul, to lend yourself to the zeal of those who insist on enrolling all of us under names and banners, whether we will or not, and making odious divisions amongst brethren. The sympathy which you have painfully learned with the struggles and the doubts of many minds, will repress all efforts to arouse, to guide, and to persuade, except those which the heart always recognizes as kindest, manliest, and at once most faithful and most feeling. You will add vigor to the arm and light to the hopes of your honored Diocesan, while your lips and your life shall burn with the enkindling power of that unadulterated Gospel which he loves with all his soul and strength. You will send out to all the soldiery of Christ the cheering trumpet-blast which tells them that, in the very heart and stress of their contest for the truth, the Captain of their salvation has summoned another champion to their aid, of such as He can always command and furnish with His weapons. But since those weapons are not carnal, may you but have grace to exercise every power with godly simplicity, to clothe every endowment with humility, to persevere in prayer; and, established, strengthened, settled, to bring many with you to Him who conquers by love, whose chief soldiers are but pastors, and who has no title more glorious in His own sight than that of the great "Shepherd of the Sheep!"

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