Project Canterbury Three Sermons by Dr. Barry
THE LAST SERMON ST. MATTHEW XI, 12.--"The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."
AS YOU KNOW this is the last time I shall speak to you as rector, but I trust that it is not the last time that I shall preach here. You will not expect from me any sentimental reminiscences or any lachrymose farewells. When I first preached as your rector I took for my theme and as the essence of my programme as rector, the words of St. Paul: "I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." A good lady was much troubled that I spent so much time over the sayings of "one Paul," when I might have given thought to the affairs of the modern world in which we live. It seems to me that the distinction of the lady is a false one; that the words of "one Paul" still have application to this modern world. That it needs Jesus Christ and him crucified to-day as much as ever it did.
Anyone carefully reading the Gospels will see that the mission of Jesus Christ was a social mission. He came to proclaim and to lay the foundation for the upbuilding of a new social order which he called the Kingdom of God. His Gospel is not individualistic; it has not in view this or that man. He no doubt proclaims the salvation of individuals, but it is through their membership in the Kingdom that he is establishing. He does not set forth a set of general truths which John Doe and Richard Roe may consider and select from as pleases them and, "having nothing between their soul and God," reach an individual religious development. He proclaims a new society which John Doe and Richard Roe are called to enter and therein to participate in a social work of reconstruction together with their brethren.
The proclamation of a new social order naturally and inevitably meant antagonism with the old social order. The new Kingdom of God stood over against the old Kingdoms of this world. The word "world" acquires a new and striking significance in the New Testament teaching. It indicates the alliance of all the forces which are opposed to the purpose of God. The Kingdom of God comes into sharp antagonism with the Kingdom of the world--with the "world-rulers of this darkness," as St. Paul so vividly designates them. Men are called to make definite choice. "You cannot serve God and Mammon." And the trouble is that men have thought and still think they can. They refuse the division and seek a compromise--we will serve both. And the Kingdom does not come, not because God does not want it to come, but because we do not want it and will not cooperate with him.
It was so from the beginning--this definite division. The Rulers of the Roman Empire recognized in Christianity an antagonistic force and quite naturally set themselves to destroy it. Christianity is a revolutionary movement. It could not help opposition to the established order when it found it utterly rotten. You may gush as you like over Greek philosophy and art; over Roman law and administrative competence; it remains that both Greek and Roman society was corrupt from top to bottom--the rich and powerful grasping at ever more riches and power to expend in luxury; the poor seeking pleasure, bread and circuses; and the whole society resting on the basis of slavery. In such a society the Kingdom of God was, of necessity, revolutionary.
Its first work was to lay definite foundations for a new order. It did this in the enunciation of fundamental principles of belief and conduct. Of these, the chief was the unveiling of the nature of God that was the heart of our Lord's mission. He proclaimed God as seeking love, sacrificing love. He made clear that the work of God for men was the gathering of men into union with himself and thereby into union with one another. The Kingdom was revealed as a redeemed society, as an organization of believers, as an organism instinct with divine life sacramentally communicated. The members of the Kingdom were called to think of themselves as parts of a living Body and to act in unison and harmony for common ends. They would come to understand God and his purposes by participation in his life. They would learn that the power of God is the love of God and that their mission was to convert the "world" by the manifestation of that love.
What has come of this work after all these centuries? The answer depends on the angle from which we judge it. From one point of view, we may say that the result has been tremendous; from another that it has been disappointing. From one point of view, we see that during nineteen centuries there has been a constant stream of innumerable thousands of human beings passing through the gates into the Kingdom. Men, women, children of all races have been there built up into spiritual maturity, have learned to love and serve God, have contributed to the expansion of his Kingdom, and have passed out of the earthly sphere of the Kingdom into the fuller life of the next "mansion" of the Father's House. These redeemed and sanctified souls are the Kingdom's work here. From another point of view, we say that the Kingdom's work has been disappointing. Its programme of social reconstruction is not yet carried out. There is no Christian nation, no Christian cities or villages. Men, even Christian men, resent and oppose the attempt to bring the principles of the Gospel to bear on the social order. Socially, as Christians, we have not accomplished much because we have not understood much.
What has happened?
The world is not converted After all these centuries not half the people of the world have even heard of the Gospel of Jesus. That is a sad comment on our missionary work. The mission of the Church began well. It swept over the Roman world; it converted the Northern nations; it made its way far into Asia where today it is unheard of. And then it stopped and Christianity became, broadly speaking, a European religion with Asiatic fringes. It is a fact that we need carefully to consider that the medieval world, with all its limitations, the limitations which have led men to call it the "Dark Ages," did push out into the world of heathenism and make converts. With the rise of the "modern world" this stopped. Why did it stop? Why are missions so fruitless today? Because the modern Western world, the world that considers itself supremely civilized, has turned its attention to money-making. The heathen world for it is not a field wherein to sow the seed of the Gospel, but a world to be exploited in the interests of imperialism and commerce. To this modern world, the missionary is either a nuisance who gets in the way of expansion, or an agent to forward nationalistic purposes.
And the world wherein Christianity "flourishes" is much the same rotten world as the world into which it was introduced. There are numbers of Christians, but no converted society. There is only a surface difference between the present Paris and London and New York and Chicago and the ancient Ephesus and Alexandria and Athens and Rome. There is the same decadent society given over to gain and dissipation. I have recently read three novels, one by a Russian, one by a Frenchman, one by an Englishman. They all depict the same stratum of the present social order and as equally corrupt wherever you look. There are other strata that might be depicted--but would the difference be essential? Would it be possible to find a Christian stratum that is effective? Look at the contemporary struggles of the Church. The national church strives to raise its budget and has great difficulty. The diocesan church is cramped in its efforts for expansion. The parish is always compelled to limit its field because of lack of means--and this is the richest society in the world! In a society that spends enormously on mere luxuries. Think of the huge sums that each year are spent in this country on cigarettes, on cosmetics, on the movies and theater, on chewing gum! And the Christian Church pleads in vain! It would probably flourish if the youth of the country gave it what they spend on cigarettes.
What is the trouble?
There are within the membership of the Church many people who are practical atheists. They formally accept the creed of the church in which they were brought up. If you ask them, they will say that they believe in God. But they never do anything about it. Like the small boy's father, they are Christians, but they are not working at it just now. What is the use of a belief in a creed which is not translated into life? What is the good of saying that we believe in God when nothing follows in conduct, when our conduct is the same as that of those who do not believe? The existence of such members of the church is a heavy weight for it to bear. They counteract much of its effort.
There is another group within the church, a larger group, who are pure individualists. They are indifferent to anything but their own interests. Their notion of religion is getting, not giving. They regard religion as a failure if it does not give them something. One meets people who say: "O yes, I go to church, I make my communions, I contribute, but it means nothing to me. I get nothing from my religion." The obvious question that rises to one's lips is: "What do you put into it? What, that is, more than mechanical and nominal service? If you are not putting your life into your religion you cannot expect to get anything out of it." Such have no sense of belonging to the Kingdom of God, to a social organism which requires service first of all; no notion of a vocation to build up a divine society in this world. Therefore is the Kingdom no stronger for their existence. They are an obligation, not an asset.
The deepest root of our troubles lies in our divisions. We can face the power of the Kingdoms of the world with no united witness, with no unhesitating voice of conviction. The Church is Balkanized, and isolated and hostile parties reproach one another for the weaknesses of which we are all partial causes. The Kingdom is dissolved into a group of antagonistic states.
What is the outlook? Nothing of much encouragement. There is little hope unless we wake up to the realities of the situation. We need a restored sense of the situation as a contest between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. A realization of the meaning of our Lord's words: "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force." We need to wake up. We need to shake off this langourous acquiescence in things as they are, this facile assumption that things are all right and that we are good Christians because we follow a certain routine that we conceive to be religion. Our trouble is that our religion does not dominate life; it is not energetic, violent. Religion, to be effective, must be not an interest among other interests, but the supreme interest. If it is not all, it is nothing. Other interests must be subsumed under it, must be energised and given significance by it. Life must be organized as religious. If this does not take place in any life, what it thinks of as its religion is flaccid and eventless; it has no conquering power. The Kingdom of Heaven does not belong to it.
Facile pulpit rhetoric, all this? So to regard it is an easy way to shirk responsibility. We can say that such a presentment of Christian obligation is exaggerated and one sided, and go on our way undisturbed. In which case the world goes on its way to its inevitable destruction. Violent? Can we think of any Christian congregation as being violent about religion--can we think of this congregation in such wise. You--violent! To be violent would be to make yourself a nuisance. In other words to become the salt of the earth: you prefer to be the salt that has lost its savor. I remember a man in a former parish of mine who was pointed out to me as becoming insane. When I asked what the symptoms were, I was told that he talked of religion in office hours! We do not wish to be thought insane, we do not wish to be thought fanatics, we do not wish to be excommunicated from our social group, and therefore we prefer the silent acquiescence in things as they are, and to adopt the theory that religion is a personal private matter, that it is not good taste to produce it in public, that it has no place in "society." Religion has nothing to do with politics. It is bad form in society. We even feel with the English statesman, that things have come to a pretty pass if religion is to interfere in private life! Thus our conception of religion is narrowed down and limited till it ceases to have any significance that is worth speaking of. A mere routine for an occasional Sunday. Any violent appeals to make it more than that we can wave aside as "pulpit rhetoric."
Unfortunately, all this does not wave aside the crisis that modern society is facing. It solves none of the pressing moral and social problems of the day. It leaves unanswered the divine challenge: "Behold the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him." The certainty that we all face is the certainty of Judgment--"we shall all stand before the Judgment seat of Christ." And we stand not only as individuals but as members of a society, of a Body into which we have been incorporated, and for the success of which we are held responsible. Once more, it is not our individual life separated from all others that is in question (there is and can be no such life), but our life as a member of the Kingdom the fortunes of which have been committed to our hands and the success of which is our responsibility. The call of the divine Master has gone forth: Go ye into all the world, preach the Gospel, make disciples of all nations. This is a call to every member of the Kingdom, a responsibility in which all share in proportion to their opportunity. It is a call to cooperate with God--to pray, to work, to give. And when the call comes to the ears of Christians, they turn away and go, one to his farm, another to his merchandise, and leave the Kingdom to struggle on as it can. Fortunately, hitherto there has always been a "remnant" that carries on, so the Kingdom is still able to challenge and to testify to faith committed to it.
But because of these things, the Judgment draweth nigh. For there is not only a Judgment of individuals but of nations, and the nations of the Western world are facing that Judgment. God has offered himself to them in Christ and it is obvious that they are rejecting him. The crisis draws near when God shall loosen over sea and land the thunder of the trumpets of the night of the Judgment. That Western society repudiates this conception of responsibility to God is not a strange thing. That it is surprised that the reality of its progress and the greatness of its civilization should be called in question is to be expected. It has indeed been foreseen and warned against--fruitlessly. When the hour strikes we shall say, "we have eaten and drunk in thy presence and thou hast taught in our streets." What complete knowledge of human psychology is contained in these words of our Lord! That is precisely what we shall say. It will seem to men--it does now seem to men--that being in the presence of Christ is the equivalent of being Christians: that knowing about is the same as knowing. Imagine this conception of religion--we have eaten and drunk in thy presence and thou hast taught in our streets! What other possible answer can there be than "I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity."