SERMON XII. PRESENCE IN ABSENCE
Eversley, third Sunday after Easter. 1862.
St John xvi. 16. "A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father."
Divines differ, and, perhaps, have always differed, about the meaning of these words. Some think that our Lord speaks in them of His death and resurrection. Others that He speaks of His ascension and coming again in glory. I cannot decide which is right. I dare not decide. It is a very solemn thing--too solemn for me--to say of any words of our Lord's they mean exactly this or that, and no more. For if wise men's words have (as they often have) more meanings than one, and yet all true, then surely the words of Jesus, the Son of God, who spake as never man spake--His words, I say, may have many meanings; yea, meanings without end, meanings which we shall never fully understand, perhaps even in heaven, and yet all alike true.
But I think it is certain that most of the early Christians understood these words of our Lord's ascension and coming again in glory. They believed that He was coming again in a very little while during their own life-time, in a few months or years, to make an end of the world and to judge the quick and the dead. And as they waited for His coming, one generation after another, and yet He did not come, a sadness fell upon them. Christ seemed to have left the world. The little while that He had promised to be away seemed to have become a very long while. Hundreds of years passed, and yet Christ did not come in glory. And, as I said, a sadness fell on all the Church. Surely, they said, this is the time of which Christ said we were to weep and lament till we saw Him again--this is the time of which He said that the bridegroom should be taken from us, and we should fast in those days. And they did fast, and weep, and lament; and their religion became a very sad and melancholy one--most sad in those who were most holy, and loved their Lord best, and longed most for His coming in glory.
What happened after that again I could tell you, but we have nothing to do with it to-day. We will rather go back, and see what the Lord's disciples thought He meant when He said,--"A little while, and ye shall not see me; and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father." One would think, surely, that they must have taken those words to mean His death and resurrection. They heard Him speak them on the very night that He was betrayed. They saw Him taken from them that very night. In horror and agony they saw Him mocked and scourged, crucified, dead, and buried, as they thought for ever, and the world around rejoicing over His death. Surely they wept and lamented then. Surely they thought that He had gone away and left them then.
And the third day, beyond all hope or expectation, they beheld Him alive again, unchanged, perfect, and glorious--as near them and as faithful to them as ever. Surely that was seeing Him again after a little while. Surely then their sorrow was turned to joy. Surely then a man, the man of all men, was born into the world a second time, and in them was fulfilled our Lord's most exquisite parable--most human and yet most divine--of the mother remembering no more her anguish for joy that a man is born into the world.
I think, too, that we may see, by the disciples' conduct, that they took these words of the text to speak of Christ's death and resurrection. For when He ascended to heaven out of their sight, did they consider that was seeing Him no more? Did they think that He had gone away and left them? Did they, therefore, as would have been natural, weep and lament? On the contrary, we are told expressly by St Luke that they "returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and were continually in the temple," not weeping and lamenting, but praising and blessing God. Plainly they did not consider that Christ was parted from them when He ascended into heaven. He had been training them during the forty days between Easter Day and Ascension Day to think of Him as continually near them, whether they saw Him or not. Suddenly He came and went again. Mysteriously He appeared and disappeared. He showed them that though they saw not Him, He saw them, heard their words, knew the thoughts and intents of their hearts. He was always near them they felt; with them to the end of the world, whether in sight or out of sight. And when they saw Him ascend into heaven, it seemed to them no separation, no calamity, no change in His relation to them. He was gone to heaven. Surely He had been in heaven during those forty days, whenever they had not seen Him. He had gone to the Father. Might He not have been with the Father during those forty days, whenever they had not seen Him? Nay; was He not always in heaven? Was not heaven very near them? Did not Christ bring heaven with Him whithersoever He went? Was He not always with the Father, the Father who fills all things, in whom all created things live, and move, and have their being? How could they have thought otherwise about our Lord, when almost His last words to them were not, Lo, I leave you alone, but, "Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world."
My friends, these may seem deep words to some--doubtless they are, for they are the words of the Bible--so deep that plain, unlearned people can make no use of them, and draw no lesson from them. I do not think so. I think it is of endless use and endless importance to you how you think about Christ; and, therefore, how you think about these forty days between our Lord's resurrection and ascension. You may think of our Lord in two ways. You may think of Him as having gone very far away, millions of millions of miles into the sky, and not to return till the last day,-- and then, I do not say that you will weep and lament. There are not many who have that notion about our Lord, and yet love Him enough to weep and lament at the thought of His having gone away. But your religion, when it wakes up in you, will be a melancholy and terrifying one. I say, when it wakes up in you--for you will be tempted continually to let it go to sleep. There will come over you the feeling--God forgive us, does it not come over us all but too often?--Christ is far away. Does He see me? Does He hear me? Will He find me out? Does it matter very much what I say and do now, provided I make my peace with Him before I die? And so will come over you not merely a carelessness about religious duties, about prayer, reading, church-going, but worse still, a carelessness about right and wrong. You will be in danger of caring little about controlling your passions, about speaking the truth, about being just and merciful to your fellow-men. And then, when your conscience wakes you up at times, and cries, Prepare to meet thy God! you will be terrified and anxious at the thought of judgment, and shrink from the thought of Christ's seeing you. My friends, that is a fearful state, though a very common one. What is it but a foretaste of that dreadful terror in which those who would not see in Christ their Lord and Saviour will call on the mountains to fall on them, and the hills to cover them, from Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the anger of the Lamb?
But, again: you may think of Christ as His truest servants, though they might have been long in darkness, in all ages and countries have thought of Him, sooner or later. And they thought of Him, as the disciples did; as of One who was about their path and about their bed, and spying out all their ways; as One who was in heaven, but who, for that very reason, was bringing heaven down to earth continually in the gracious inspirations of His Holy Spirit; as One who brought heaven down to them as often as He visited their hearts and comforted them with sweet assurance of His love, His faithfulness, His power--as God grant that He may comfort those of you who need comfort. And that thought, that Christ was always with them, even to the end of the world, sobered and steadied them, and yet refreshed and comforted them. It sobered them. What else could it do? Does it not sober us to see even a picture of Christ crucified? How must it have sobered them to carry, as good St Ignatius used to say of himself, Christ crucified in his heart. A man to whom Christ, as it were, showed perpetually His most blessed wounds, and said, Behold what I have endured--how dare he give way to his passion? How dare he be covetous, ambitious, revengeful, false? And yet it cheered and comforted them. How could it do otherwise, to know all day long that He who was wounded for their iniquities, and by whose stripes they were healed, was near them day and night, watching over them as a father over his child, saying to them,--"Fear not, I am He that was dead, and am alive for evermore, and I hold the keys of death and hell. Though thou walkest through the fires, I will be with thee. I will never leave thee nor forsake thee." Yes, my friends, if you wish your life--and therefore your religion, which ought to be the very life of your life--to be at once sober and cheerful, full of earnestness and full of hope, believe our Lord's words which He spoke during these very forty days,--"Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world." Believe that heaven has not taken Him away from you, but brought Him nearer to you; and that He has ascended up on high, not that He, in whom alone is life, might empty this earth of His presence, but that He might fill all things, not this earth only, but all worlds, past, present, and to come. Believe that wherever two or three are gathered together in Christ's name, there He is in the midst of them; that the holy communion is the sign of His perpetual presence; and that when you kneel to receive the bread and wine, Christ is as near you--spiritually, indeed, and invisibly, but really and truly--as near you as those who are kneeling by your side.
And if it be so with Christ, then it is so with those who are Christ's, with those whom we love. It is the Christ in them which we love; and that Christ in them is their hope of glory; and that glory is the glory of Christ. They are partakers of His death, therefore they are partakers of His resurrection. Let us believe that blessed news in all its fulness, and be at peace. A little while and we see them; and again a little while and we do not see them. But why? Because they are gone to the Father, to the source and fount of all life and power, all light and love, that they may gain life from His life, power from His power, light from His light, love from His love--and surely not for nought?
Surely not for nought, my friends. For if they were like Christ on earth, and did not use their powers for themselves alone, if they are to be like Christ when they shall see Him as He is, then, more surely, will they not use their powers for themselves, but, as Christ uses His, for those they love.
Surely, like Christ, they may come and go, even now, unseen. Like Christ, they may breathe upon our restless hearts and say, Peace be unto you--and not in vain. For what they did for us when they were on earth they can more fully do now that they are in heaven. They may seem to have left us, and we, like the disciples, may weep and lament. But the day will come when the veil shall be taken from our eyes, and we shall see them as they are, with Christ, and in Christ for ever; and remember no more our anguish for joy that a man is born into the world, that another human being has entered that one true, real, and eternal world, wherein is neither disease, disorder, change, decay, nor death, for it is none other than the Bosom of the Father.
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