And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul.
The church of God throughout all the world.
Some of you may remember that, at our last meeting, we grouped our reflections around the sentiment of reverence. The conclusion was reached that this sentiment is necessary to the completeness and happiness of an age or a soul. Closely related to that theme and following it naturally comes a more specific inquiry. The task set for this hour is to find some of the reasons for the form of associated life called the church and to ascertain what place it has held and may hold in society. The theme being so much larger than the time allowed for a sermon we must be permitted to divide it into two parts. The church historic will be enough for this time while some future Sunday morning will furnish opportunity in which to think of the church actual.
It may be assumed that religion is a purely natural sentiment. It is not a revelation from God; it is a growth in the development of man. At a certain stage in history it sprang up from the rich depths of the human spirit. The time of its coming is concealed by distance, but this does not take it out of the order of nature. The hidden is not necessarily supernatural. Thus the sentiment of religion is no more miraculous than is the sentiment of liberty or justice or beauty.
If this be true, the reasons for a church appearing in the world are evident. Every thought, every emotion has a tendency to externalize itself. Hence the church is religion attempting to take visible shape. The ideas of liberty and justice constituted make the state; so the ideas of religion constituted make the church. In art or in literature a group of persons of similar temperament and similar taste exalt some principle that to them seems essential. In time a school of artists or writers is formed. They enact certain rules of taste to which all must conform. The classic or romantic or realistic school in literature and the Italian or Flemish or French school in art represent an assemblage of persons who are agreed upon certain laws of style or form or color. The church is simply a group of persons entertaining similar ideas of religion who wish to give them outward expression. It is the body of which religion is the soul.
The determination of life into organs, suggests the manner by which came the many forms of associated life. Through all the ages creative energy has flowed into forms of use and beauty. As soon as a new organ was needed, to make a new inlet for the world or a new outlet for the soul, its formation would begin and it would slowly pass toward perfection. How long it was before eye and ear came no one knows. In the same way reason and the perception of right are concealed below the horizon of the immense past. But, finally, they came. Civilization is the product of humanity more amply and more delicately organized. State, church, and family are so many organs by which life manifests itself and interprets its highest meaning. The forests of a given period show the kind of soil and climate of the territory in which they grew. Thus do the institutions of a place or an age reveal the character of its people. In them may be read what ideas of liberty, education, art, religion were considered valuable. Civilization is an embodied idea.
” What if all of animated Nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed
That tremble into thought as o’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each and God of all.”
Hastily sketching the outlines of the Christian Church it appears as follows :In Judea One appeared who seemed to have a juster thought concerning religion than any of his contemporaries. Old ideas and customs were worn out or were rapidly wearing out. In its political form Judea had ceased to exist as a nation. What power it still possessed was by sufferance of Rome. Its unity was traditional rather than actual. It was founded upon precedent rather than upon principle. To this religious world, tottering on its foundation, Christ came with a commanding principle. If he did not come with a new idea, it was so – much enlarged and so original in its method that it had all the force of a new idea. He invited twelve men to come and group themselves around it. He affirmed that it was greater than any temple made with hands. Having forsaken the past, it was moving toward the future. It would pass over the sea and make conquest of the mightiest nations. From it new hymns, new music would rise to celebrate the heart’s new joy. New prayers would float out on the quiet air of morning and evening. Upon it new altars would be erected from which the perfume of new incense would ascend toward the sky. In near and far off years multitudes, count-less as the stars, ravished by its austere beauty would be irresistibly drawn toward it. All this may be constructively read in the New Testament.
But scarcely had Jesus time to utter the spiritual meaning of religion until he was met in his way by death. His countrymen heard his rebukes, but not his promises ; his despair over the old, but not his faith in the new order of things. For such a case they thought death was the only remedy. It is ever thus. It has always been the true believers who were cast out and made wanderers. The marytrs were burned, not for their lack, but for their excess of faith.
By the light of burning heretics
Christ’s bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back ;
And these mounts of anguish number
How each generation learned
One new word of that grand Credo
Which in prophet-hearts hath burned
Since the first man stood God-conquered
With his face to heaven upturned.”
From what we can see of that Palestine Friend of man, at this remote day, it is not surprising that so many and so many kinds of persons were drawn to him. It is said the multitude heard him with gladness. Fishermen, tax collectors, rich, poor, Roman soldiers, sinful women were found among his followers. A holy, humble, disinterested man, his whole passion was to instruct and inspire mankind. He set the Perfect as goal of his endeavor and made no bargain for private happiness. The purpose of life made his personality self-luminous, resplendent as if his soul was the abode of God. It is no wonder the old painters loved to en-circle his face with a crown of light.
While Jesus was alive no trace of an organized movement can be seen. The soul of the church had come, but not the body. The Disciples were held together, not by an ordinance, but by an idea. The Greek word for church signifies those who are ” called out.” Thus the Christian church was, in the beginning, a company of persons who had heard a voice calling them and had gladly obeyed it. Inspired with new ardor, a new love for man and God, a new estimate of the value of the spiritual life, they came out of the old world lying around them with its imperfect philosophy, meaningless customs, soulless religions, and met around a new center called Christ. They were without a definite theology, a definite form of government, a definite policy. As touching many things, their individuality was undisturbed. There was agreement in their enthusiasm for the religion they had espoused, in their personal attachment to Jesus while he was with them and in their veneration for his memory after he had left the earth. A household of brothers and sisters differing in many things, they were one in love.
But a change was imminent and necessary. Life creates organs through which to manifest itself. Thought seeks to express itself in words. So the ideas entertained by these friends of Christ must take out-ward form. Their relation to other systems of thought and religion must be determined. How did they stand toward the ancient religion of Judea? How did they stand toward Greek philosophy ? The answer to these questions would gradually become authoritative. Things adopted for convenience become usage and custom and acquire the force of a law. Thus a policy and government would be formed. Some sentiments would be poetical and would demand symbols to express them. Hence rites and sacraments were instituted. Baptism became an oath of allegiance to the banner of Christ. The Last Supper became the poetic form of a sacred memory. We rear a marble shaft to remind us of the virtues of some honored man or we wreathe a grave with flowers as emblems of our love for those who have gone away from earth. So those friends of the departed Christ chose the family table, where all enmities are banished, as a symbol of their love and their loss. Doubtless in the beginning of Christianity every meal was a sacrament.
That portion of history showing the growth and complexity of the Christian organization is interesting, but painful. – Gradually the simplicity and spirituality of Christ’s teaching disappeared. The organization was out of proportion to its need. Intended as an expression of the heart’ s love to God and man, the church became a colossal institution with endless ceremonies and a conscience-mastering power that was fatal to all rights of the individual soul. The slave made laws for the master. Body conquered spirit. The word imprisoned the thought. The spirit’s wings were clipped and, like caged birds, it lost power of flight through the free air. That stream of moral enthusiasm set in motion by the life and death of the young Nazarene, flowing through the centuries would have been cleansing and regenerating ; but, arrested by the barriers thrown across its way it became a stagnant and malarial pool. Intended to be a friend, the church became an enemy to mankind.
Emerging from a long reign of ecclesiastical power we cannot too often be reminded of the original simplicity and freedom of the church. If we would escape joining the ranks of those who oppose it or merely tolerate it as a necessary evil, but would preserve regard for its true meaning, we must return again and again to its underlying philosophy. Having lost its power to control the soul in the present and prescribe its destiny in the future, it must henceforth take its place among human institutions. If it have power it will be because it can :show some inherent use and necessity for its existence. It must be as flexible as the soul that forms and maintains it. It must be able to adapt itself to changing conditions and open its doors to every new truth discovered in our universe. Seeing that it has come along the same path that all our institutions have come, that it is subject to similar laws for its origin and growth, that, like the family and state, it is purely human and, being human, is fallible, we can be more tolerant toward its past errors, its present defects and, with more heart, can labor to make its future better than its present or its past.
A strong reason for the presence of the church is the sentiment of friendship. Man is not only a reason-able, he is also a social being. Seeing only the egotisms and fierce competitions of the race, some have maintained that all things ultimately rest upon a selfish instinct. As animals herd together, not from sympathy, but only for protection, so human society is a survival of the instinct of self-preservation. Sympathy, helpfulness, self-sacrifice,fair flowers as ever grew in the garden of earth, are all cut down at one stroke. In their place are seen savage instincts held in check by self-interest. It is quite easy not to believe this theory. It is hardly possible that the fine harvest of sympathy and kindness grew up in a soil so hard and sterile as that of selfishness. We do not gather grapes from thorn-trees nor figs from thistles. In the moral, as in the material world, like produces like.
Doubtless selfishness and sympathy have both helped mould society into its present shape, These are the two oars that have urged the boat far up the stream. Self-preservation is strong, but it is in part checked by regard for others. If selfishness has stained history with carnage and cruelty, sympathy has bound up wounds and wept over the fallen. If on one side is the wild Ishmael whose hand is against every man, on the other is the gentle Christ who loved and pitied and forgave. In whatever way it came, man at last learned to say not only “I” and “mine,” but “thou” and “thine.” Society could not exist until this lesson was learned.
What cohesion is to the atoms, what gravitation is to the planets, friendship is to the race. Each star has a tendency to live an unrelated life. In every bright world of our solar system is a force that would hurl it along a straight line into an infinite solitude.
Another power balances that tendency and makes its orbit a beautiful circle. Without this the universe would be disorganized; the city of God, there, in the sky, would be given over to anarchy; our star would lose its way in the awful void and destruction would overtake all things. Thus in human life centrifugal and centripetal forces are both needed. On one side man tends toward individualism and selfish isolation; but some acquired or inborn power stops him in his course and relates him to humanity at large. Take away the sentiment that groups the race into families and states and disintegration would ensue. Without mutual sympathy and helpfulness earth would be strewn with the ruins of nations and families and churches. It is a law of nature, as well as of Scripture, that no man liveth to himself.
“Like warp and woof all destinies
Are woven fast,
Linked in sympathy like the keys
Of an organ vast.
Pluck one thread and the web ye mar;
Break but one
Of a thousand keys, and the paining jar
Through all will run.”
From the heart’s desire for companionship and its wish to share all good with its friends the church may be seen arising. We all find the pleasure awakened by the beautiful in nature or in art greatly increased when it is enjoyed with appreciative companions. The mad king of Bavaria loved to have the greatest singers of Europe sing for him alone. He used to order the operas of Wagner to be given with all auditors except himself excluded. But, in listening to the music which calms or exalts, or to the eloquence which in-spires, sane persons find their enjoyment doubled if they can share it with kindred hearts. The basis of love is, in part, the strong native desire for sympathetic companionship. Solitude has its charms and its uses, but they are only partial and temporary. Their greatest service is in fitting one for the happiness and the opportunities for usefulness furnished by society. ” How delightful is soltitude! But how much more delightful when you have a friend to whom you can say: How delightful is solitude!” One can worship alone and worship truly; but there is something in the heart in this, as in other things, binding it to all other hearts. Having made its solitary flight into the realms of the spirit a soul loves to return to earth and, in company with other souls, report what it has seen and hard. “In society all the inspiration of my lonely hours seems to flow back on me.” Thus the church is simply a rallying center for those who love God and man. The love of friends for friends within its walls adds beauty to the worship of God while worship strengthens and purifies the human love. The church is a form of noble friendship.
Being a human institution, it is not perfect. But, if it is necessary to society, its imperfections are not an adequate excuse for remaining aloof from it. If its aim is to increase goodness and happiness on earth, then every well-wisher of mankind, by seeking a closer alliance with it, would help further that aim. Originating in the order of nature and upheld, ideally, by some of the most sacred of life’s sentiments in some form it will endure. After many centuries have passed and many changes have come human beings will most likely assemble at stated intervals in some form of temple. They will worship the Friend unseen in the midst of friends whom they have seen.
Ancient cities had gates opening on every side. Man has as many gates opening outward. Through some of these he passes out to meet the many forms of the material world. There is one through which he goes to find the beautiful in form and color. One opens toward the land of sweet sound. One leads him into the realm of thought. There is another through which he passes when he seeks the bower of love.
“Open innumerable doors
The heaven where unveiled Allah pours
The flood of truth, the flood of good,
The Seraph’s and the Cherub’s food.”
But there is one gate opening toward the spiritual world. By this one stands the church. Its office is to see that this mysterious portal is kept open. Over its threshold all mortals should often pass. Going out in search of art and truth and love at each visit we may find much that is very attractive. Against these visits no word need be spoken. But at times, with exalted pleasure, we should pass through the gate whose path leads out among the great spiritual realities of the universe. Having found them, admiration and gratitude, praise and prayer are most becoming. Thus going our lives will be rounded more and more toward completeness. We shall better distinguish between the seeming and the real, between the passing and the permanent. We shall be more assured that there is something within us superior to all limitations of time and place and our life-path is not bounded by earth’s horizon.