SERMON XXXVII. THE WORTHY COMMUNICANT
LUKE xviii. 14.
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.
Which of these two men was the more fit to come to the Communion? Most of you will answer, The publican: for he was more justified, our Lord himself says, than the Pharisee. True: but would you have said so of your own accord, if the Lord had not said so? Which of the two men do you really think was the better man, the Pharisee or the publican? Which of the two do you think had his soul in the safer state? Which of the two would you rather be, if you were going to die? Which of the two would you rather be, if you were going to the Communion? For mind, one could not have REFUSED the Pharisee, if he had come to the Communion. He was in no open sin: I may say, no outward sin at all. You must not fancy that he was a hypocrite, in the sense in which we usually employ that word. I mean, he was not a man who was leading a wicked life secretly, while he kept up a show of religion. He was really a religious man in his own way, scrupulous, and over-scrupulous to perform every duty to the letter. He went to his church to worship; and he was no lip-worshipper, repeating a form of words by rote, but prayed there honestly, concerning the things which were in his heart. He did not say, either, that he had made himself good. If he was wrong on some points, he was not on that. He knew where his goodness, such as it was, came from. 'God, I thank thee,' he says, 'that I am what I am.' What have we in this man? one would ask at first sight. What reason for him to stay away from the Sacrament? He would not have thought himself that there was any reason. He would, probably, have thought- -'If I am not fit, who is? Repent me truly of my former sins? Certainly. If I have done the least harm to any one, I shall be happy to restore it fourfold. If I have neglected one, the least of God's services, I shall be only too glad to keep it all the more strictly for the future.
'Intend to lead a new life? I am leading one, and trying to lead one more and more every day. I shall be thankful to any one who will show me any new service which I can offer to God, any new act of reverence, any new duty.
'I must go in love and charity with all men? I do so. I have not a grudge against any human being. Of course, I know the world too well to be satisfied with it. I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that millions are living very sinful, shocking lives--extortioners, unjust, adulterers; and that three people out of four are going straight to hell. I pity them, and forgive them any wrong which they have done to me. What more can I do?'
This is what the Pharisee would have said. Is this man fit to come to the Communion? At least he himself thinks so.
On the other hand, was the publican fit? That is a serious question; one which we cannot answer, without knowing more about him than our Lord has chosen to tell us. Many a person is ready enough, in these days, to cry 'God be merciful to me a sinner!' who is fit, I fear, neither to come to the Communion, nor to stay away either.
It was not so, I suppose, with the old Jews in our Lord's time. The Pharisees then were hard legalists, who stood all on works; and, therefore, if a man broke off from them, and threw himself on God's grace and mercy, he did it in a simple, honest, effectual way, like this publican.
But now, I am sorry to say, our Pharisees have contrived to make themselves as proud and self-righteous about their own faith and repentance, as the Jewish Pharisees did about their own works and observances; and there has risen up in England and elsewhere a very ugly new hypocrisy. People now-a-days are too apt to pride themselves on their own convictions of sin, and their own repentance, till they trust in their repentance to save them, and not in Christ, just as the Pharisee trusted in his works to save him, and not in Christ; and when they pray, I cannot help fearing (for I am sure many of their religious books teach them it) that they pray very much like that Pharisee, 'God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are, carnal, unconverted, unconvinced of sin, nor even as that plain, moral, respectable man. I am convinced of sin; I am converted; I have the right frames, and the right feelings, and the right experiences.' Oh, of all the cunning snares of the devil, that I think is the cunningest. Well says the old proverb--'The devil is old, and therefore he knows many things.'
In old times he made men trust in their own righteousness: and that was snare enough; now he has learnt how to make men actually trust in their own sinfulness, and so turn the grace of God into a cloak of pride, and contempt of their fellow-creatures
My friends, do you think that if the publican, after he had said, 'God be merciful to me a sinner!' had said to himself, 'There--how beautifully I have repented--how honest I have been to God--I am all right now'--he would have gone down to his house justified at all? Not he. No more will you and I, my friends. If we have sinned, what should we be but ashamed of it? Ay, utterly ashamed. And if we really know what sin is--if we really see the sinfulness of sin--if we really see ourselves as God sees us--we shall be too much shocked at the sight of our own hearts to have time to boast of our being able to see our own hearts. We shall be too full of loathing and hatred for our sins, too full of longing to get rid of our sins, and to become righteous and holy, even as God is righteous and holy, to give way to any pride in our own frames and feelings; and, instead of thinking ourselves better men than our neighbours because we see our sins, and fancy they do not see theirs, we shall be almost ready to think ourselves worse than our neighbours, to think that they cannot have so much to repent of as we; and as we grow in grace, we shall see more and more sin in ourselves, till we actually fancy at times that no one can be as bad as we are, and in lowliness of mind esteem others better than ourselves. We may carry that too far, too. Certainly there is no use in accusing ourselves of sins which we have not committed; we have all quite enough real sins to answer for without inventing more. But still that is a better frame of mind than the other; for no man can be too humble, while any man can be too proud.
But let us all ask God to open our eyes, that we may see ourselves just as we are, let our sins be many or few. Let us ask God to convince us really of sin by his Holy Spirit, and show us what sin is, and its exceeding sinfulness; how ugly and foul sin is, how foolish and absurd, how mean and ungrateful toward that good God who wishes us nothing but good, and wishes us, therefore, to be good, because goodness is the only path to life and happiness; and then we shall be so ashamed of ourselves, so afraid of our own weakness, so shocked at the difference between ourselves and the spotless Lord Jesus, that we shall have no time to despise others, no time to admire our own frames, and feelings, and repentances. All we shall think of is our own sinfulness, and God's mercy; and we shall come eagerly, if not boldly, to the throne of grace, to find grace and mercy to help us in the time of need; crying, 'Purge thou me, O Lord, or I shall never be pure; wash thou me, and then alone shall I be clean. For thou requirest, not frames or feelings, not pride and self-conceit, but truth in the inward parts; and wilt make me to understand wisdom secretly.'
Then, indeed, we shall be fit to come to the Holy Communion; for then we shall be so ashamed of ourselves that we shall truly repent of our sins--so ashamed of ourselves that we shall long and determine to lead a new life--so ashamed of ourselves that we shall have no heart to look down on any of our neighbours, or pass hard judgments on them, but be in love and charity with all men; and so, in spite of all our past sins, come to partake worthily of the body and blood of Him who died for our sins, whose blood will wash them out of our hearts, whose body will strengthen and refresh us, body and soul, to a new and everlasting life of humbleness and thankfulness, honesty and justice, usefulness and love.
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