UPON THE INSTRUCTION TO CORNELIUS AND HIS KINS-
REV. O. S. PRESCOTT.
Transcribed by Richard Mammana in 2012 from a copy provided by the Reverend Canon Jervis Zimmerman.
THE author thinks that he has a right to say, that while he never would have thought of publishing this sermon himself, he is not willing to take the responsibility of refusing it to others, who have asked for it, they thinking that it may be helpful to some at the present time.
It will be noticed, that the sermon deals only with the terms upon which the Church of God was opened to the Gentiles. The after-duty of submission to Church obligations in the use of the Sacraments, etc., is not touched upon.
In one part of the sermon the author has run into, what may be called, an accommodation of some words of a friend; these words are not marked as quoted, for the sole reason that the author feels that his friend would not be willing to be regarded as responsible for the general tone of teaching.
CHURCH OF THE TRANSFIGURATION,
New York, Dec., 1889.
The word which God sent unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ: (He is Lord of all:) that word, I say, ye know, which was published throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee, after the baptism which John preached;
How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.
And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree:
Him God raised up the third day, and showed him openly;
Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead.
And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead.
To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins. (Acts x. 36-44.)
THIS is a long text, but it is a short sermon. It was preached by St. Peter and reported by St. Luke, and it is the first Christian sermon to the Gentile world of men outside the nation of the Jews. It reads like a Creed—and how could it be otherwise, embodying, as it does, the substance and the sum of all Christian doctrine; and indicating as it does, the central points in the argument for the truth of that doctrine? We must consider the circumstances under which this sermon was preached, if we would get an adequate idea of its importance.
You know how very prominent St. peter was in the first promulgation of Christianity. St. Paul says that the Gospel of the circumcision was committed to him. On one of his apostolical journeys he visited Lydda, a town not far from Joppa. At Joppa there lived a certain good woman called Dorcas. While Peter was at Lydda Dorcas took sick and died. They washed her and laid her out in an upper chamber, and the disciples mourned for her with a very real mourning. Then, hearing that St. Peter was at Lydda, they sent two of their number to him to beg that he would come to them without delay. St. Peter went with them, and they brought him to the upper chamber where Dorcas was [1/2] laid out in death. He kneeled down and prayed, and then turning toward her body, he called her by her name and bade her “Arise;” and Dorcas opened her eyes at his voice and sat up, and Peter presented her to her friends alive. After this Peter stayed with them many days.
About thirty miles from Joppa was the city of Caesarea. There lived at Caesarea a centurion of the band called the Italian band, named Cornelius. This Cornelius was a devout Gentile who feared God with all his house, and gave much alms to the people and prayed to God alway. About three o’clock, one afternoon, an angel of God came to him, and called him by name, and told him that his alms and prayers were come up for a memorial before God; and then he bade him send to Joppa for Peter, telling him where Peter lodged in that city, and where the house was situated. So soon as the angel went away, Cornelius called to him two of his household servants and a devout soldier, and after making known to them what had happened, he sent them to Joppa.
The next day, as they drew near to Joppa, St. Peter went apart at noon to pray. Most likely he was fasting also, for he became very hungry and desired to eat. Whilst food was gotten ready for him he fell into a trance, and saw Heaven opened, and a vessel like a great sheet held by the four corners was let down to him, and in it were all manner of beasts and birds and creeping things, and a voice bade him “Slay and eat.” But this he refused to do, saying that he had never eaten anything common or unclean. Then the voice spake to him again, saying, “What God hath cleansed that call not thou common.” This was done three times, and the vessel was received up again into Heaven. Now, while Peter was wondering what all this might mean, the men from Cornelius came to the gate of the house of Simon the tanner, by the seaside, at which St. Peter was staying, and the Spirit of God made known to Peter that three men were seeking him, and bade him go with them because He had sent them. The next day Peter went with them. The day after he arrived at Caesarea, and found Cornelius waiting for him with his relations and near friends. St. Peter told Cornelius why he had come to him, and Cornelius told Peter why he had sent for him, and then Peter preached to those who had come together to meet him the sermon which we have for our text.
Then a great miracle was wrought; for while he was preaching the same thing took place which had taken place when St. Peter was preaching to the Jews on the first Christian feast of Pentecost—the Holy Ghost was poured out upon them, and they began to speak with tongues and glorify God. Then Peter, recognizing the great power of God, commanded them to be baptized. So God granted to the Gentiles also repentance unto life. When Peter came up to Jerusalem again the Apostles and brethren called him to account for what he had done, and Peter defended himself and his action, telling them of the vision which he had seen and of the voice which he had heard;—of the angel which had appeared to Cornelius; of his going with six of the brethren, who were then in Jerusalem, from Joppa to Caesarea; of his preaching, and of the outpouring of the gift of the Holy Ghost, adding: “Forasmuch, then, as God gave them the like gift as He did unto us who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, what as I that I could withstand God?” Peter’s defence was accepted and his action was confirmed, and in the person of Cornelius and his company the Gentile nations were received by Holy Baptism into the Church of Christ and welcomed by the Jews at Jerusalem into the household of God.
The acceptance by the Church of that which Peter had done, involved the acceptance of that which Peter had said. St. Peter spoke for Christianity in laying down the terms on which the Gentiles might be made Christians by Baptism, and those terms are one and unchangeable, as Christ is one and unchangeable, for, like Him, they are the same yesterday, to-day and forever.
Should anyone ask any of you, “What are the conditions of admission to the communion of the Church to which we owe obedience?” the answer is ready, and it is this: “They are those laid down by St. Peter when, in fulfilment of the promise of the Christ, he opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers, by preaching at Caesarea to Cornelius and his relations and friends—which conditions Cornelius accepted, and thereupon was baptized and admitted to the fellowship of the Apostles, being made one with them in the Body of the Lord Jesus.”
Men are apt to make very difficult the doctrines of Christ, but they are as simple as a dream of a child when preached by St. Peter. They are not a system of theology, but a creed; and that creed is a brief and exact summary of the Life of the Lord as it is recorded in the fourfold Gospel, supplemented by a statement of that which the same Lord commanded His Apostles to preach after His Resurrection. In laying down the terms, or conditions, [3/4] on which men might be made Christians in Baptism, St. Peter sums up the essential points of the Gospel narrative and the Lord’s last commands, and they are: His ministry of grace and power, His miracles of mercy and healing, His Resurrection and open manifestation to chosen witnesses, His declaration to the Apostles that it is He who was ordained of God to be the judge of quick and dead, and the assurance that whosoever believeth and is baptized shall receive remission of sins. In these few facts lies, according to St. Peter, the very essence of Christianity; and that essence is the supernatural character of our Lord and Saviour, His miraculous power, His authority to forgive sins, His commission to judge all flesh. From this, we see why from the earliest ages until now, the confession of a belief in the Apostles’ Creed has been required of all persons as a condition precedent to Baptism. And what is that Creed but a summary of facts, which facts comprise a record of the life and words and deeds of Jesus Christ the Son of God?
We see now what a Christian is. A Christian is a person who believes those facts—past, present and future—which St. Peter preached to Cornelius and which are recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Holy Apostles, and summed up in the Creed which is called the Apostles’ Creed, and who in that belief is baptized. He is not merely a man who submits himself to the moral teaching of Christ, though that, as a matter of course, is involved in the belief in Him as judge of quick and dead—a belief which gives to that teaching an absolute and supreme authority. To be a Christian, a person must regard Jesus of Nazareth as having exerted in the past the power and influence which the Gospels record, and as exercising the same power and influence in the present, and as destined to exercise it with infinite majesty and might in the future. All this a Christian must believe, and under this belief he must surrender himself to Christ for life and death, in sure and certain knowledge that, in Him, he is made a child of God, and endued with grace and power, so to live, in resistance of the moral evil which besets him in this world, that in the world to come he may live again in purity of soul, and in incorruptibility of body, through an eternity of full and most satisfying communion with the truth and the goodness and the love of the Divine Nature.
Without the Creed of the Apostles there is no Christianity properly so called, for no one can go to Christ unless Christ is [4/5] known as He is. To know Christ, as He is, we must know Him as they knew Him who were eye-witnesses of His life, and their knowledge of Him is contained in their statement of facts is given to us in their Creed, and therefore the Creed is the very substance of the Faith. The Christian Faith is one. It was given by the one Word of God to those whom He chose and prepared to receive it; it was made to live and act in them by the One Holy Ghost which came upon them; it was clear, fixed, defined, and from its very nature it was unalterable. Man did not make it, nor can man unmake it. The most that man can do for it is to receive it, to profess it, and to hand it on to his children and his children’s children as the most precious of all legacies. Not to do this is not to do anything against the Creed, for we can do nothing against the truth; but it is to make shipwreck of the faith, and to fall upon that stone, which in turn will fall upon us and grind both body and soul to powder for time and eternity.
Christianity is a living Creed, and so a life. It is what Jesus was and said and did. Men are apt to think that this is a system of theology or a scheme of doctrine. Out of this notion comes the fancy that divisions among Christians are a benefit, or, at any rate, are not an unmixed evil. Men who think this forget the great law laid down by Christ, that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. I do not mean to say, or even hint, that the ministers of the denominations outside the Church overlook the moralities of the Gospel, nor to deny that they do good in the world; but is it not the simple fact that the one overshadowing characteristic of the American religious method and spirit as it has worked and is working around us, is found in the doctrinal instruction received by the people, and in their doctrinal beliefs, and that these are not Christian?
These instructions have led, and are all the while leading, to new confessions of faith. And these confessions are more or less elaborate. They are proffered to persons seeking admission into membership with particular congregations as tests, or terms, or conditions, to full communion or fellowship. These confessions of faith contain, as a matter of course, theological propositions which have truth in them, and which, at the time, are the expression of the belief of the congregation. But times change and men change with them, and it happens with confessions of faith of this sort as with other like documents. First there comes loss [5/6] of interest, then repugnance, and finally open repudiation. Take for an example the history of religion in New England, the result of which is Unitarianism. How united was the Puritan commonwealth, how powerful was its rigid system of doctrines, and how deep and thorough was the breaking away of the children from the Church of the fathers, denying the Son who bought them! When the granite rock of the united public sentiment split, it went all to pieces.
One need not wage war on bodies of men which have other conditions of fellowship than the old historic Creed, but one may observe them, and one may tell the truth about them. If observation makes it clear, that without the Apostles’ Creed, theological belief has had no principles of unchangeableness in the past, then, if unchangeableness in the faith once for all delivered be desirable, the Apostles’ Creed becomes a necessity in the present. No matter how good and true other confessions of faith may seem to be, no one of them has stood the test of time and human nature. And why? Because it has come of change; and because, in itself, it is the result of a disorganizing and disintegrating process—it cannot rise above its source. I am not aware that the fact that this has been so is questioned even among our separated brethren, and it is spoken of as the inevitable result of identifying Christianity with a system of theology. What is true of the Church of our Puritan ancestors, is true all around us now. It is the working out of cause and effect. Again, observation reveals the fact of the breaking up of system after system. Preachers of the Gospel leave their province of speaking for and from God and ministering for and to God, and make themselves, so to speak, tribunes of the people; they devote themselves to a study advocacy of the right, in matters pertaining to the public good of their fellow-citizens; they work hard and earnestly to do good to their fellow-men, and to lead their fellow-men to do good to themselves; they build places of assembly and they fill them with large audiences; their zeal is a rebuke to us, and yet all the while it remains a question, whether as a nation we are not becoming more and more disturbed, and even unsettled, on the momentous subject of faith in a revealed God.
Let there be plain speaking on the matter. There are in this city I do not know how many organizations called churches, no one of which agrees with all the others in their confession of faith. Without exception, they each and everyone have [6/7] something over and above the simple Creed of St. Peter, as made known to Cornelius. And herein lies the difference between them and the Holy Catholic Church in which we profess our belief. That Church, no matter what may be appearances to the contrary, finds herself set firmly where St. Peter stood, i.e., upon the simple Creed of what Jesus was and did and said, and she has this in words which have come down to her from the beginning. She demands the reception of that Creed, for she knows it to be unalterable. She leaves the question of scientific theology and of systems of doctrines to the individual judgment. She does not meddle with the Christian liberty of her priests or her people. She does not make herself responsible for any corrupt contrivance of metaphysics or metaphysical divinity. She distinguishes between what is of faith and what is of opinion. She insists inexorably upon the faith in its historical sense and meaning, while she lets opinion go as beyond, or outside the law, by which she is controlled. Thus asking of men no more than St. Peter asked of the Gentiles, she is broad as the oracles of God. She has sympathy with the past, for she is part and parcel of it; she has hope for the future, for she knows that she has her place and position in it; and she has confidence in the present, for she feels that in the spheres of belief and thought she presents distinctly the two great forces of stability and progress. There is stability in the Creed, which in one sense is herself; and there is progress in her though, which also in one sense is herself; and there is progress in her thought, which also in one sense is herself; and her thought is safe, for it works under the conditions which her unalterable Creed imposes. In her Prayer Book, which in all its essentials is as old or older than her New Testament, her Creed is set to worship. She lives Christ in His acts, His Birth at Christmas, His Death on Good Friday, His Resurrection on Easter Day, His Ascension on Holy Thursday, and His Sending of the Holy Ghost on Whitsunday, from the Father and from Himself, to keep in remembrance while time shall last all that He was, and did, and said, and is.
This being the case, we see how the whole edifice of the Christian Faith rests upon the historic truth of the Life and Ministry of our Lord, as narrated in the Gospels and summarized by St. Peter and the Apostles. In times and circumstances like our own, when we are daily called upon to give to ourselves, if not to others, a reason for the hope that is in us, it seems of importance that we should clearly make real to ourselves, that, after [7/8] all, this is the main question which is at issue. Again and again must we fall back upon the few facts contained in the simple preaching of St. Peter—the question as to who and what Jesus was and is, whether He was anointed with the Holy Ghost and with power, whether He did indeed rise again, and whether He bade His Apostles proclaim Him as coming again to judge the quick and the dead. As it was with St. Peter, so ought it to be with those who follow in his ministry—while they urge on men moral and spiritual truths, and, as stewards of the mysteries of God, impart to men spiritual gifts, they must also bring a message to men from the Man Christ Jesus, who declared Himself to be God, and who proved His declaration to be well founded by showing that He possessed the authority which He claimed, not only by the words which He spake, but by His manifest control over all the powers of nature.
We entreat you, then, for these reasons to surrender yourselves to Him, to learn of Him, to obey Him, to put your whole trust in Him, to worship Him and to call upon Him for daily support, for guidance, for discipline, for purification, and for all the graces which your complex nature, physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual, needs, and to commend yourselves in life, in death, and in the day of judgment, and for eternity, into the hands of His infinite mercy and love.
And to this may He bring us all, who died for us all, even Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.