Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.New Testament.
The standing plaint of the world comes from the contrast between that which the ardent and forward-looking mind sees ought to be and that which actually exists. Between thought and deed, desire and performance, prayer and its answer, a bridgeless chasm always seems to lie. That which Coleridge said of the two estranged friends may be repeated here:
“They stand aloof
Like cliffs which have been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now flows between;
But neither heat nor frost nor thunder
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.”‘
How prophecy of the best hesitates and finds a hundred reasons for failing to become history ! How commonplace is experience when compared with the brilliant promises of youth ! In every state, in every home, in the soul of every fiery reformer and every devout saint this discord may be found. Heaven seems to deceive earth with many false promises. In the breast of some ardent mortals is placed the desire to acquire power or learning or truth or beauty or fame or virtue, without limit. There is a hunger as if for the infinite.
This desire is never fully satisfied. Beholding some-thing which, if possessed, would bring perfect peace, man tries to run swiftly toward it. But although he may find many other things of value while in the pursuit, the one thing he is pursuing he never overtakes. There is a time in the history of some lives when nothing seems impossible. They would levy upon earth and sky for contributions to build and maintain their pro-posed empire. They would make gravitation their ally, trade winds, gulf streams, celestial currents their servants. The course of history shall be changed; ages of human experience shall be set at naught; and the decrees of all-conquering Fate shall be annulled to further their daring enterprise. Later there usually comes a time they are willing to play a much humbler role and confess that some things lie beyond their power. They consider themselves fortunate if they are housed and clothed and fed for their services; and, as one illusion after another vanishes, they settle down into the conviction that the faithful doing of the common duties assigned them is a sufficient mission; a steady impulse toward virtue is sufficient motive ; and to be thought worthy to be treasured in the loving memory of a few noble hearts is sufficient reward of life.
But this mood cannot permanently possess any heart. Much less can it become a universal human habit. The soul carries within itself corrective and antidote for all its depressions and skepticisms. The present hour has many limitations. It abounds in severe and unyielding realities which no optimism can conceal and nothing but mental obtuseness can overlook or mental perversity can deny. Nature has its homely and necessary, but none the less tyrannizing laws of wind and wave, of fire and frost, of demand and sup-ply, of hunger and thirst. Society has its unwelcome facts of ignorance, vice, crime, poverty, wailing children, cursing men, and moaning women. All these limiting and hostile things are beheld by the clear-seeing soul. Nevertheless, it is not conquered and imprisoned by them. It refuses to live wholly in the present. Experience is not permitted to become the boundary and measure of life. We are, indeed, compelled to pay respect to the near and common facts of earth. We must conform to the laws of each passing day with its punctual sunrise and sunset, with its familiar necessities of food and sleep and its ever recur-ring round of tasks brought by it to our doors. But we are all unwilling to take the present with its uninteresting details as finality. What days have some-times dawned upon our lives ! Days not noted in any earthly calendar; those days in which we forgot to look at the clock to see when our task should end ; when our commonest duties seem to assume an unexpected worth ; when the common air we breathe seems to be surcharged with truth and goodness ; and every common object gleams as with a sacred meaning. Many opiates are given to benumb the spirit, but it cannot be drugged into complete slumber. In spite of Delilah, Sampson at last escapes. Notwithstanding all its allurements, Jason sailed away from the island of Lemnos in search of the Golden Fleece. Although curtains may be hung, fold upon fold, some rays of light will find their way into our darkened room with a message from the outer splendor. The whole course of nature preaches a gospel to mankind. We may see, in the circle of the seasons, dull and mute Novembers give way to spangled and vocal Junes. In the transformations of nature we may see a heavy, sluggish chrysalis change into a volatile, winged flower. In history we may behold races, at the further edge shading off into darkness and savagery, on the hither side passing into light, building cities, erecting altars, writing Bibles, and, with the step of conquest and singing paean, marching toward the boundless future.
Thus it may be seen how broad and deep is the foundation upon which rests the beautiful story of the coming of the child of Nazareth to earth. The song the shepherds are reported to have heard is one strain of an anthem that is wide as a world and as long as the history of man. Not only the Hebrew, but every nation and every heart has confidently expected the arrival of a Messiah. That which occurred in Palestine occurs everywherewhen he does come he is not recognized until it is too late. Appearing among the lowly, he passes across the earth in disguise; and it is not until after he has gone that his true worth is discovered. Long after it is recalled how he was foretold ; what high hopes were centered in him ; what signs and celestial omens attended his birth; how angels announced his advent, and stars forsook their orbits that they might come and hover over his cradle. Always listening for a gospel, when it hears it the world often fails to distinguish it from the voices heard every day, and, unheeded, its gracious tones are permitted to lose themselves in the common turmoil of life. He came to his own and his own received him not, is the pathetic confession we all make after our saviors have left us.
These reflections have come in a preliminary and uninvited way while the attempt was being made to think of the condition of the so-called religious world and its attitude toward the gospel. The theme falls into two parts. For convenience, these may be named the Gospel of Christ and the gospel of church councils; or the religion of Nature and the Soul and the religion of theology and ecclesiasticism.
There can be no doubt that, to his time and his land, the personality and the spirituality of Jesus were a true gospel. They were a message from heaven, and well deserved to be called good news. Over Palestine gloom had fallen almost like a starless night. National life had ceased to exist. The once proud and powerful kingdom of David and Solomon had become a mere appendage of Rome. That religion which had been the distinguishing mark of ancient Israel, giving bards and prophets whose poetic fervor and exaltation and whose spiritual insight and loyalty to righteousness have never been surpassed, had degenerated into maxims and ritesinevitable precursor of death for any religion. Pharisaism and Sadduceeismthe high-churchmen and the agnostics of that daydivided society between them. Meanwhile, in a few bosoms glowed an ardent hope that they were already on the border of a better era. A few faces were turned to-ward the horizon as if expecting a rising sun that should scatter the darkness. Into these scenes at last came Jesus.
For some years criticism has been very busy with the sacred books that contain the record of the career of this Judean saint. Some things read by foregoing generations as literal history are now read as poetry and legend. Many readers who would still like to believe in the literal truth of all they find in the Scriptures are sometimes compelled to doubt. They falter where once they firmly trod.
But, after criticism has done its work, there is enough of material left out of which to construct a real personality and the actual scenery and circumstance amid which this person lived and acted his part. Divested of all legend, we may see an actual child, growing in a natural way through youthhood to man-hood. What thoughts and dreams swept through his brain and heart are not recorded, but they were probably such as come to any youth ardent and gifted and sensitive. Whatever may have been these thoughts and inspirations, in him they became the prevailing life motive. Deeply religious, like all such he was deeply in earnest. Prophet and seer of spiritual realities, what others knew by a process of reasoning he saw by direct vision. Looking into the heart of things, he was able to draw the line between the seeming and the actual, between that which endures for a day and that which endures forever. He dared to be true to what was in him without asking consent of Roman emperor or Jewish high priest. To him the voice of God came with more authority than the decree of Caesar or the command of Caiaphas. His final appeal was to the soul. There was the Pontiff whom all churches, all customs, all mengovernor in his palace, priest in his temple, John in prison, tax collectors at the receipt of custom, fishermen with their nets, And centurions with their bandsmust respect. With a heart warm and loving, he was capable of shedding affection upon all persons, saint or sinner, pure Mary in the home, impure Magdalen in the street. Nevertheless, he possessed a character clear, strong, erect, and was hostile to all forms of wrong. With an eye that could ray forth tenderness and pity for all who were unfortunate and overflow with tears at the grave of a friend, yet could dart forth lightning gleams of indignation against the oppressor and pretender. Living in the present and feeling its limitations, yet he never lost sight of the future and its boundless possibilities. Seeing that the world had fallen upon evil days, yet his hope never seemed to falter. Sin everywhere, and everywhere its attendant sorrow; but, without hesitation he predicted the coming of an era of righteousness and its attendant happiness. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his voice touched responsive chords in the hearts of his friends, awakening strains of sympathy and hope and spiritual aspiration that had long lain in slumber. By word and life he inculcated the undying truth that absolute and unwavering obedience to the moral law is the only worthy rule of life. The Divine beauty, the Divine truth, and the Divine goodness are not exceptional and miraculous, but universal and natural. Like air, like sunshine, they are free gifts for all mankind. His life and his philosophy are so lofty that they seem as if they might have come from heaven; and yet they do not seem impossible nor foreign nor out of place on earth. They match well with actual surroundings; with real childhood and womanhood and manhood; with the growing wheat and the flowing river ; with the purple hills around his native village ; with silent, solemn Syrian nights and the broad, cheerful days. Of high speech and behavior, as if related to the unfathomed Source of life, vet he shares human qualities in common with all mortals. So human, so much our brother he seems, so near and so natural his personality, that there are times when all distinctions are blotted out, and across the mighty flood of years that roll between him and us the throbbing of his heart may be felt.
Here, indeed, was a veritable gospel. Here was redemption from a slavery worse than that symbolized by Herod or Pilate. There was escape from servitude to form and letter in religion. He proclaimed that the soul was again its own master and was free to take up its flight toward the Perfect.
But history tells how that gospel was received. He who proclaimed it was called a disturber of the established order, and enemy of religion. That which followed is too painful to recite in detail. Arrested like a common criminal, the great tragedy of Palestine was enacted. The brief, but blazing star disappeared from the sky.
But when it was gone a meteor began its erratic course through the gloom. This, by many, was mistaken for the original star and they began to follow it. In its aberrations it led its misguided followers through centuries of hopeless wanderings.
Every reader of church history knows how soon the personality of Jesus was distorted. His natural and beautiful character, having passed away from its oriental surroundings and having been brought into contact with more western and more analytical and more aggressive habits, became unnatural and unlovely. When he was taken away from actual life and was made a subject of metaphysical speculation, when he became a subject of tumultuous debate and sometimes of actual violence in church councils, he was unrecognizable. How many Christs have there been in the history of Christianity ? As many as there have been nations brought under the nominal sway of Christianity. Divergent opinions concerning him may be found in the earliest Christian writings. The Christ of Paul is not the Christ of John. The Christ of the book of Hebrews is not the same kind of person who uttered the Sermon on the Mount. Later there appeared a Grecian or philosophic, then a Roman or imperial, then a Gothic or destroying conception of Christ. The friend of the lonely and outcast, he came to be pictured as a despot ruling earth with a scepter of iron. The pure-hearted man, who best loved to worship in mountain solitudes beneath the stars, was represented as a high priest offering himself perpetually as a bleeding sacrifice to appease the wrath of Jehovah. The humble, unassuming man, upon whose lips often fell the hush of silence at thought of the immensities by which he was surrounded, who, in common with all sensitive mortals, felt the weight of bereavement and loneliness, who, like every son of man, was at times conscious of his own weakness, and in his hour of human stress be-sought strength from the infinite Powerthis loving, sorrowing, toiling and dying man was afterward rep-resented as himself the God of the universe, and it was thought right to kill him who doubted it. The song of angels in the sky, heralding his birth, in the course of centuries, on earth might well have become a wail of regret that ever he had been born.
His doctrine suffered in a similar way. His high poetic speech was reduced to most literal and dismal prose. Clear-seeing, spiritual intuitions were interpreted in terms of the most exact mathematics. Figures of speech, word pictures thrown out with a large freedom when the emotions were holding their jubilee, were seized upon by literal minds, chained to logical forms, and made into dogmas that must be accepted by all who sought salvation. To reject them implied persecution here and eternal pain hereafter. The spirit of his teaching was banished that its form might be enthroned. He taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was purely spiritual. It would be a reign of universal goodness and universal peace. It would come without violence, gently and gradually as the day dawning in the east. Within a few generations his words were interpreted as referring to a material kingdom and the attempt was made to found it with the sword. He taught his early followers to call God their Father. This was a gospel, indeed, to a race that sometimes felt orphaned and outcast. But this gospel was perverted until it became the worst news that ever came to earth. In the theology, miscalled Christian, God was not represented as a Father. He was more like a merciless despot. He is pictured as calling into existence countless millions of human beings with the fore-gone conclusion that by far the greater number should be eternally lost. This inevitable fate was the result of an unchangeable decree issued in eternity, and the object of sending the great majority of human beings into eternal pain and sorrow was to manifest his power and unyielding justice. Jesus taught that all man-kind, alike, reposed under the Divine goodness. God’s grace was impartial, like rains and dews and sun-beams. But some of those who came after him said that God had favorites among mankind. By his sovereign will he had chosen a few members of the race as objects of special grace. Those who went to ever-lasting misery were not sent there because of any special fault of their own, but because, by an arbitrary act of their Creator, that horrible destiny had been decreed for them ages before they came into actual existence. In a similar manner those few persons who went into everlasting happiness did not go there because of any special virtue they possessed, or by any act of their own, but solely because, by an arbitrary act of God, they had been selected from among the multitude of the condemned as objects of favor. To a very high degree Jesus saw and exalted the value of the soul it-self all apart from the place it occupied in the social or political or ecclesiastical world. In the administration of his religion this estimate was almost entirely lost. External pomp, place, office, gorgeous raiment and impressive ritual came to be regarded as much more important than the truth-loving and worshiping soul. He taught that man, by birth, is a child of God. That which, for a long time, was taught, and in some of the creeds is now taught, as his gospel, is that man is a child of Satan. He is totally depraved by nature. He comes to earth deserving hell, and nothing less than a miracle can save him from his awful doom. Jesus took little children to his breast and likened them to the Kingdom of God. Surely this is a gospel for every mother; especially is it for that mother whose baby slips from her arms and passes beyond that veil through which she cannot see. But, for a long time, that beautiful scene of Christ blessing childhood found no recognition in church theology. It was taught that every infant is depraved because of its relation to Adam and Eve. This hereditary taint makes all children subject to divine wrath. Jesus believed that God cared for birds and grass and flowers. But a theology pretending to be founded upon his teaching pictured this merciful Being as torturing countless throngs of men and women and children throughout eternity for his own glory. Is this the Gospel of Christ? It seems more like the message of some savage. Is this Heaven’s good news to earth? Then let us all hope it is not true.
Humanity is vast in size and variety. It is composed of many grades of mental power and many kinds of intellectual habits. But for all human beings there are a few great principles to govern all thinking and all doing. A few universal laws cover all great literature, all great painting, all great sculpture and architecture, all great music. Thus a few principles are prominent in the religion of Palestine. In the human family there are always some who wish to be philosophical and critical. They would rather analyze a flower than love it. They would rather lecture upon the chemical and atmospheric phenomena of a sunset than admire it. A scientific essay on sound gives them more pleasure than listening to the greatest oratorio. There is na objection to them for this. Only they must not mistake their analysis of a flower for all the beauty of garden and meadow; nor try to make us think their learned explanation of it can be as impressive as the gorgeous sunset itself ; nor try to deceive us into thinking that any scientific analysis of harmony can ever take the place of music.
The same is true of religion. There are those who, make it a complex system of theology. They are at perfect liberty so to do. Only they should not try to make us think that their logic and metaphysics are the simple Gospel of Christ. Looking upon the brilliant evolutions of an army, a general is reported to have said to his staff : “Gentlemen, that is magnificent, but it is not war.” So when we see great systems of theology, a great ecclesiasticism with many officials of all grades of power, and a gorgeous ritualism, we may say : “It is magnificent, but it is not religion.” Even a child reading the New Testament would easily see that Jesus did not come to teach a system of logic, or formulate a plan of church government, or establish a liturgy. His religion was a sentiment instead of a philosophy ; his church was the sea-shore and the hill-side; his liturgy was the simple prayer beginning, “Our Father which art in heaven.” When his friends met, in the days following his death, they did not debate concerning his divine or human nature; they simply loved him. They tried to be animated by his holy sentiment; they recalled sacred memories; they sang hymns and uttered prayers; they hoped and aspired; and, like their beloved Friend, they tried to see, far in the future, an earth over which was waving a flag of universal righteousness and universal happiness.
Asking for permission to continue this sketch next Sunday morning, we may now close by expressing the conviction that our world still needs this gospel. In its uncorrupted form it is nothing less than the gospel of the universal heart of Humanity. It comes, not from book nor church nor council nor sect, but has slowly risen from the weakness and suffering and longing and striving and hoping and ascending of the human soul through a hundred ages. Thus coming, it possesses a breadth that compels it to be true and a height that compels it to be divine. It contains the power and the goodness of a God. Its central principle is love. Its motive is the ideal good. Its reward is happiness on earth and then a greater happiness in heaven.