SERMON XIII. THE LETTER AND THE SPIRIT
(Twelfth Sunday after Trinity.)
II COR. iii. 6.
God, who hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the Spirit: for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.
When we look at the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for to-day one after the other, we do not see, perhaps, what they have to do with each other. But they have to do with each other. They agree with each other. They explain each other. They all three tell us what God is like, and what we are to believe about God, and why we are to have faith in God.
The Collect tells of a God who is more ready to hear than we are to pray; and is 'wont to give'--that is, usually, and as a matter of course, every day and all day long, gives us--'more than either we desire or deserve,' of a God who gives and forgives, abundant in mercy. It bids us, when we pray to God, remember that we are praying to a perfectly bountiful, perfectly generous God.
Some people worship quite a different God to that. They fancy that God is hard; that he sits judging each man by the letter of the law; watching and marking down every little fault which they commit; extreme to mark what is done amiss; and that in the very face of Scripture, which says that God is NOT extreme to mark what is done amiss; for if he were, who could abide it?
Their notion of God is, that he is very like themselves; proud, grudging, hard to be entreated, expecting everything from men, but not willing to give without a great deal of continued asking and begging, and outward reverence, and scrupulous fear lest he should be offended unexpectedly at the least mistake; and they fancy, like the heathen, that they shall be heard for their much speaking. They forget altogether that God is their Father, and knows what they need before they ask, and their ignorance in asking, and has (as any father fit to be called a father would have) compassion on their infirmities.
There is a great deal of this lip-service, and superstitious devoutness, creeping in now-a-days; a spirit of bondage unto fear. St. Paul warns us against it, and calls it will-worship, and voluntary humility. And I tell you of it, that it is not Christian at all, but heathen; and I say to you, as St. Paul bids me say, God, who made the world, and all therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing that he giveth to all life and breath, and all things. For in him we live and move, and have our being, and are the offspring--the children--of God.
Away, then, with this miserable spirit of bondage and fear, which insults that good God which it pretends to honour; and in spirit and in truth, not with slavish crouchings and cringings, copied from the old heathen, let us worship THE FATHER.
But this leads us to the Epistle.
St. Paul tells us how it is that God is wont to give us more than we either desire or deserve: because he is the Lord and Giver of life, in whom all created things live and move and have their being. Therefore in the Epistle he tells us of a Spirit which gives life.
But some may ask, 'What life?'
The Gospel answers that, and says, 'All life.'
It tells us that our Lord Christ cared not merely for the life of men's souls, but for the life of their bodies. That wherever he went he brought with him, not merely health for men's souls by his teaching, but health for their bodies by his miracles. That when he saw a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, he sighed over him in compassion; and did not think it beneath him to cure that poor man of his infirmity, though it was no such very great one.
For he wished to show men that his heavenly Father cared for them altogether, body as well as soul; that all health and strength whatsoever came from him.
When we hear, therefore, of the Spirit giving life, we are not to fancy that means only some high devout spiritual life, or that God's Spirit has to do only with a few elect saints. That may be a very pleasant fancy for those who believe themselves to be the elect saints; but the message of the Gospel is far wider and deeper than that, or any other of vain man's narrow notions. It tells us that life--all life which we can see; all health, strength, beauty, order, use, power of doing good work in God's earthly world, come from the Spirit of God, just as much as the spiritual life which we cannot see--goodness, amiableness, purity, justice, virtue, power of doing work in God's heavenly world. This latter is the higher life: and the former the lower, though good and necessary in its place: but the lower, as well as the higher, is life; and comes from the Spirit of God, who gives life and breath to all things.
And now, perhaps, we may see what St. Paul meant, by his being a minister 'not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.'
Do you not see yet, my friends? Then I will tell you.
If I were to get up in this pulpit, and preach the terrors of the law, and the wrath of God, and hell fire: if I tried to bind heavy burdens on you, and grievous to be borne, crying--You MUST do this, you MUST feel that, you MUST believe the other--while I having fewer temptations and more education than you, touched not those burdens with one of my fingers; if I tried to make out as many sins as I could against you, crying continually, this was wrong, and that was wrong, making you believe that God is always on the watch to catch you tripping, and telling you that the least of your sins deserved endless torment--things which neither I nor any man can find in the Bible, nor in common justice, nor common humanity, nor elsewhere, save in the lying mouth of the great devil himself;--or if I put into your hands books of self-examination (as they are called) full of long lists of sins, frightening poor innocents, and defiling their thoughts and consciences, and making the heart of the righteous sad, whom God has not made sad;--if I, in plain English, had my mouth full of cursing and bitterness, threatening and fault-finding, and distrustful, and disrespectful, and insolent language about you my parishioners: why then I might fancy myself a Christian priest, and a minister of the Gospel, and a very able, and eloquent, and earnest one; and might perhaps gain for myself the credit of being a 'searching preacher,' by speaking evil of people who are most of them as good and better than I, and by taking a low, mean, false view of that human nature which God made in his own image, and Christ justified in his own man's flesh, and soul, and spirit; but instead of being an able minister of the New Covenant, or of the Spirit of God, I should be no such man, but the very opposite.
No. I should be one of those of whom the Psalmist says, 'Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness'--and also, 'Their feet are swift to shed blood.'
To shed blood; to kill with the letter which killeth; and your blood, if I did succeed in killing your souls, would be upon my foolish head.
For such preaching as that does kill.
It kills three things.
1. It kills the Gospel. It turns the good news of God into the very worst news possible, and the ministration of righteousness into the ministration of condemnation.
2. It kills the souls of the congregation--or would kill them, if God's wisdom and love were not stronger than his minister's folly and hardness. For it kills in them self-respect and hope, and makes them say to themselves, 'God has made me bad, and bad I must be. Let me eat and drink, for to-morrow I die. God requires all this of me, and I cannot do it. I shall not try to do it. I shall take my chance of being saved at last, I know not how.' It frightens people away from church, from religion, from the very thought of God. It sets people on spying out their neighbours' faults, on judging and condemning, on fancying themselves righteous and despising others; and so kills in them faith, hope, and charity, which are the very life of their spirits.
3. And by a just judgment, it kills the soul of the preacher also. It makes him forget who he is, what God has set him to do; and at last, even who God is. It makes him fancy that he is doing God's work, while he is simply doing the work of the devil, the slanderer and accuser of the brethren; judging and condemning his congregation, when God has said, 'Judge not and ye shall not be judged, condemn not and ye shall not be condemned.' It makes him at last like the false God whom he has been preaching (for every man at last copies the God in whom he believes), dark and deceiving, proud and cruel;--and may the Lord have mercy upon his soul!
But I will tell you how I can be an able minister of the New Testament, and of the Spirit who gives life.
If I say to you--and I do say it now, and will say it as long as I am here--Trust God, because God is good; obey God, because God is good.
I preach to you the good God of the Collect, even your heavenly Father; who needs not be won over or appeased by anything which you can do, for he loves you already for the sake of his dear Son, whose members you are. He will not hear you the more for your much speaking, for he knows your necessities before you ask, and your ignorance in asking. He will not judge you according to the letter of Moses' law, or any other law whatsoever, but according to the spirit of your longings and struggles after what is right. He will not be extreme to mark what you do amiss, but will help you to mend it, if you desire to mend; setting you straight when you go wrong, and helping you up when you fall, if only your spirit is struggling after what is right.
This all-good heavenly Father I preach to you, and I say to you, Trust HIM.
I preach to you a Spirit who is the Lord and Giver of life; who hates death, and therefore wills not that you should die; who has given you all the life you have, all health and strength of body, all wit and power of mind, all right, pure, loving, noble feelings of heart and spirit, and who is both able and willing to keep them alive and healthy in you for ever.
This all-good Spirit of life I preach to you; and I say to you, Trust HIM.
I preach to you a Son of God, who is the likeness of his Father's glory, and the express image of his person; in order that by seeing him and how good he is, you may see your heavenly Father, and how good he is likewise; a Son of God who is your Saviour and your Judge; who judges you that he may save you, and saves you by judging you; who has all power given to him in heaven and earth, and declares that almighty power most chiefly by showing mercy and pity; who, when he was upon earth, made the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, the blind to see; who ate and drank with publicans and sinners, and was the friend of all mankind; a Son of God who has declared everlasting war against disease, ignorance, sin, death, and all which makes men miserable. Those are his enemies; and he reigns, and will reign, till he has put all enemies under his feet, and there is nothing left in God's universe but order and usefulness, health and beauty, knowledge and virtue, in the day when God shall be all in all.
This all-good Son of God I preach to you, and I say to you, Trust HIM, and obey him. Obey him, not lest he should become angry and harm you, like the false gods of the heathen, but because his commandments are life; because he has made them for your good.
Oh! when will people understand that--that God has not made laws out of any arbitrariness, but for our good?--That his commandments are LIFE? David of old knew as much as that. Why do not we know more, instead of knowing, most of us, much less? It is simple enough, if you will but look at it with simple minds. God has made us; and if he had not loved us, he would not have made us at all. God has sent us into the world; and if he had not loved us, he would not have sent us into the world at all. In him we live, and move, and have our being, and are the offspring and children of God. And therefore God alone knows what is good for us; what is the good life, the wholesome, the safe, the right, the everlasting life for us. And he sends his Son to tell us--This is the right life; a life like Christ's; a life according to God's Spirit; and if you do not live that life you will die, not only body but soul also, because you are not living the life which God meant for you when he made you. Just as if you eat the wrong food, you will kill your bodies; so if you think the wrong thoughts, and feel the wrong feelings, and therefore do the wrong things, you will kill your own souls. God will not kill you; you will kill yourselves. God grudges you nothing. God does not wish to hurt you, wish to punish you. He wishes you to live and be happy; to live for ever, and be happy for ever. But as your body cannot live unless it be healthy, so your soul cannot live unless it be healthy. And it cannot be healthy unless it live the right life. And it cannot live the right life without the right spirit. And the only right spirit is the Spirit of God himself the Spirit of your Father in heaven, who will make you, as children should be, like your Father.
But that Spirit is not far from any of you. In him you live, and move, and have your being already. Were he to leave you for a moment you would die, and be turned again to your dust. From him comes all the good of body and soul which you have already. Trust him for more. Ask him for more. Go boldly to the throne of his grace, remembering that it is a throne of GRACE, of kindness, tenderness, patience, bountiful love, and wealth without end. Do not think that he is hard of hearing, or hard of giving. How can he be? For he is the Spirit of the all-generous Father and of the all-generous Son, and has given, and gives now; and delights to give, and delights to be asked. He is the charity of God; the boundless love by which all things consist; and, like all love, becomes more rich by spending, and glorifies himself by giving himself away; and has sworn by himself--that is, by his own eternal and necessary character, which he cannot alter or unmake--'This is the new covenant which I will make with my people. I will write my laws in their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; and I will dwell with them, and be their God.'
Oh, my friends, take these words to yourselves; and trust in that good Father in heaven, whose love sent you into this world, and gave you the priceless blessing of life; whose love sent his Son to show you the pattern of life, and to redeem you freely from all your sins; whose love sends his Spirit to give you the power of leading the everlasting life, and will raise you up again, body and soul, to that same everlasting life after death. Trust him, for he is your Father. Whatever else he is, he is that. He has bid you call him that, and he will hear you. If you forget that he is your Father, you forget him, and worship a false God of your own invention. And whenever you doubt; whenever the devil, or ignorant preachers, or superstitious books, make you afraid, and tempt you to fancy that God hates you, and watches to catch you tripping, take refuge in that blessed name, and say, 'Satan, I defy thee; for the Almighty God of heaven is my Father.'
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