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The Mystery of the Cross

A GOOD FRIDAY SERMON.

PHILIPPIANS II. 5-8.

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a slave, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.

The second Lesson for this morning's service, and the chapter which follows it, describe the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, both God and Man. They give us the facts, in language most awful from its perfect calmness, most pathetic from its perfect simplicity. But the passage of St Paul which I have chosen for my text gives us an explanation of those facts which is utterly amazing. That He who stooped to die upon the Cross is Very God of Very God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, is a thought so overwhelming, whenever we try to comprehend even a part of it in our small imaginations, that it is no wonder if, in all ages, many a pious soul, as it contemplated the Cross of Christ, has been rapt itself into a passion of gratitude, an ecstasy of wonder and of love, which is beautiful, honourable, just, and in the deepest sense most rational, whenever it is spontaneous and natural.

But there have been thousands, as there may be many here to-day, of colder temperament; who would distrust in themselves, even while they respected in others, any violence of religious emotion: yet they too have found, and you too may find, in contemplating the Passion of Christ, a satisfaction deeper than that of any emotion; a satisfaction not to the heart, still less to the brain, but to that far deeper and diviner faculty within us all--our moral sense; that God-given instinct which makes us discern and sympathise with all that is beautiful and true and good.

And so it has befallen, for eighteen hundred years, that thousands who have thought earnestly and carefully on God and on the character of God, on man and on the universe, and on their relation to Him who made them both, have found in the Incarnation and the Passion of the Son of God the perfect satisfaction of their moral wants; the surest key to the facts of the spiritual world; the complete assurance that, in spite of all seeming difficulties and contradictions, the Maker of the world was a Righteous Being, who had founded the world in righteousness; that the Father of Spirits was a perfect Father, who in His only-begotten Son had shewn forth His perfectness, in such a shape and by such acts that men might not only adore it, but sympathise with it; not only thank Him for it, but copy it; and become, though at an infinite distance, perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect, and full of grace and truth, like that Son who is the brightness of His Father's glory, and the express image of His person. Such a satisfaction have they found in looking upon the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of Him who knew that it would be followed by the revolt of the fickle mob, and the desertion of His disciples, and the Cross of Calvary, and all the hideous circumstances of a Roman malefactor's death.

But there have been those, and there are still, who have found no such satisfaction in the story which the Gospel tells, and still less in the explanation which the Epistle gives; who have, as St Paul says, stumbled at the stumblingblock of the Cross.

It would be easy to ignore such persons, were they scoffers or profligates: but when they number among their ranks men of virtuous lives, of earnest and most benevolent purposes, of careful and learned thought, and of a real reverence for God, or for those theories of the universe which some of them are inclined to substitute for God, they must at least be listened to patiently, and answered charitably, as men who, however faulty their opinions may be, prove, by their virtue and their desire to do good, that if they have lost sight of Christ, Christ has not lost sight of them.

To such men the idea of the Incarnation, and still more, that of the Passion, is derogatory to the very notion of a God. That a God should suffer, and that a God should die, is shocking--and, to do them justice, I believe they speak sincerely--to their notions of the absolute majesty, the undisturbed serenity, of the Author of the universe; of Him in whom all things live and move and have their being; who dwells in the light to which none may approach. And therefore they have, in every age, tried various expedients to escape from a doctrine which seemed repugnant to that most precious part of them, their moral sense. In the earlier centuries of the Church they tried to shew that St John and St Paul spoke, not of one who was Very God of Very God, but of some highest and most primeval of all creatures, Emanation, AEon, or what not. In these later times, when the belief in such beings, and even their very names, have become dim and dead, men have tried to shew that the words of Scripture apply to a mere man. They have seen in Christ--and they have reverenced and loved Him for what they have seen in Him--the noblest and purest, the wisest and the most loving of all human beings; and have attributed such language as that in the text, which--translate it as you will--ascribes absolute divinity, and nothing less, to our Lord Jesus Christ--they have attributed it, I say, to some fondness for Oriental hyperbole, and mystic Theosophy, in the minds of the Apostles. Others, again, have gone further, and been, I think, more logically honest. They have perceived that our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, as His words are reported, attributed divinity to Himself, just as much as did His Apostles. Such a saying as that one, "Before Abraham was, I am," and others beside it, could be escaped from only by one of two methods. To the first of them I shall not allude in this sacred place, popular as a late work has made it in its native France, and I fear in England likewise. The other alternative, more reverent indeed, but, as I believe, just as mistaken, is to suppose that the words were never uttered at all; that Christ--it is not I who say it--possibly never existed at all; that His whole story was gradually built up, like certain fabulous legends of Romish saints, out of the moral consciousness of various devout persons during the first three centuries; each of whom added to the portrait, as it grew more and more lovely under the hands of succeeding generations, some new touch of beauty, some fresh trait, half invented, half traditional, of purity, love, nobleness, majesty; till men at last became fascinated with the ideal to which they themselves had contributed; and fell down and worshipped their own humanity; and christened that The Son of God.

If I believed that theory, or either of the others, I need not say that I should not be preaching here. I will go further, and say, that if I believed either of those theories, or any save that which stands out in the text, sharp-cut and colossal like some old Egyptian Memnon, and like that statue, with a smile of sweetness on its lips which tempers the royal majesty of its looks,--if I did not believe that, I say--I should be inclined to confess with Homer of old, that man is the most miserable of all the beasts of the field.

For consider but this one argument. It is no new one; it has lain, I believe, unspoken and instinctive, yet most potent and inspiring, in many a mind, in many an age. If there be a God, must He not be the best of all beings? But if He who suffered on Calvary were not God, but a mere creature; then--as I hold--there must have been a creature in the universe better than God Himself. Or if He who suffered on Calvary had not the character which is attributed to Him,--if Christ's love, condescension, self-sacrifice, be a mere imagination, built up by the fancy of man; then has Christendom for 1800 years been fancying for itself a better God than Him who really exists.

Thousands of the best men and women in the world through all the ages of Christendom have agreed with this argument, under some shape or other. Thousands there have been, and I trust there will be thousands hereafter, who have felt, as they looked upon the Cross of the Son of God, not that it was derogatory to Christ to believe that He had suffered, but derogatory to Him to believe that He had not suffered: for only by suffering, as far as we can conceive, could He perfectly manifest His glory and His Father's glory; and shew that it was full of grace.

Full of grace. Think, I beg you, over that one word.

We all agree that God is good; all at least do so, who worship Him in spirit and in truth. We adore His majesty, because it is the moral and spiritual majesty of perfect goodness. We give thanks to Him for His great glory, because it is the glory, not merely of perfect power, wisdom, order, justice; but of perfect love, of perfect magnanimity, beneficence, activity, condescension, pity--in one word, of perfect grace.

But how much must that last word comprehend, as long as there is misery and evil in this world, or in any other corner of the whole universe? Grace, to be perfect, must shew itself by graciously forgiving penitents. Pity, to be perfect, must shew itself by helping the miserable. Beneficence, to be perfect, must shew itself by delivering the oppressed.

The old prophets and psalmists saw as much as this; and preached that this too was part of the essence and character of God.

They saw that the Lord was gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repented Him of the evil. They saw that the Lord helped them to right who suffered wrong, and fed the hungry; that the Lord loosed men out of prison, the Lord gave sight to the blind; that the Lord helped the fallen, and defended the fatherless and widow. They saw too a further truth, and a more awful one. They saw that the Lord was actually and practically King of kings and Lord of lords: that as such He could come, and did come at times, rewarding the loyal, putting down the rebellious, and holding high assize from place to place, that He might execute judgment and justice; beholding all the wrong that was done on earth, and coming, as it were, out of His place, at each historic crisis, each revolution in the fortunes of mankind, to make inquisition for blood, to trample His enemies beneath His feet, and to inaugurate some progress toward that new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness, and righteousness alone. That vision, in whatsoever metaphors it may be wrapped up, is real and true, and will be so as long as evil exists within this universe. Were it not true, there would be something wanting to the perfect justice and the perfect benevolence of God.

But is this all? If this be all, what have we Christians learnt from the New Testament which is not already taught us in the Old? Where is that new, deeper, higher revelation of the goodness of God, which Jesus of Nazareth preached, and which John and Paul and all the apostles believed that they had found in Jesus Himself? They believed, and all those who accepted their gospel believed, that they had found for that word "grace," a deeper meaning than had ever been revealed to the prophets of old time; that grace and goodness, if they were perfect, involved self- sacrifice.

And does not our own highest reason tell us that they were right? Does not our own highest reason, which is our moral sense, tell us that perfect goodness requires, not merely that we should pity our fellow-creatures, not merely that we should help them, not merely that we should right them magisterially and royally, without danger or injury to ourselves: but that we should toil for them, suffer for them, and if need be, as the highest act of goodness, die for them at last? Is not this the very element of goodness which we all confess to be most noble, beautiful, pure, heroical, divine? Divine even in sinful and fallen man, who must forgive because he needs to be forgiven; who must help others because he needs help himself; who, if he suffers for others, deserves to suffer, and probably will suffer, in himself. But how much more heroical, and how much more divine in a Being who needs neither forgiveness nor help, and who is as far from deserving as He is from needing to suffer! And shall this noblest form of goodness be possible to sinful man, and yet impossible to a perfectly good God? Shall we say that the martyr at the stake, the patriot dying for his country, the missionary spending his life for the good of heathens; ay more, shall we say that those women, martyrs by the pang without the palm, who in secret chambers, in lowly cottages, have sacrificed and do still sacrifice self and all the joys of life for the sake of simple duties, little charities, kindness unnoticed and unknown by all, save God--shall we say that all who have from the beginning of the world shewn forth the beauty of self- sacrifice have had no divine prototype in heaven?--That they have been exercising a higher grace, a nobler form of holiness, than He who made them, and who, as they believe, and we ought to believe, inspired them with that spirit of unselfishness, which if it be not the Spirit of God, whose spirit can it be? Shall we say this, and so suppose them holier than their own Maker? Shall we say this, and suppose that they, when they attributed self-sacrifice to God, made indeed a God in their own image, but a God of greater love, greater pity, greater graciousness because of greater unselfishness, than Him who really exists?

Shall we say this, the very words whereof confute themselves and shock alike our reason and our conscience? Or shall we say with St John and with St Paul, that if men can be so good, God must be infinitely better; that if man can love so much, God must love more; if man, by shaking off the selfishness which is his bane, can do such deeds, then God, in whom is no selfishness at all, may at least have done a deed as far above theirs as the heavens are above the earth? Shall we not confess that man's self-sacrifice is but a poor and dim reflection of the self-sacrifice of God, and say with St John, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins;" and with St Paul, "Scarcely for a righteous man would one die, but God commendeth His love to us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us"? Shall we not say this: and find, as thousands have found ere now, in the Cross of Calvary the perfect satisfaction of our highest moral instincts, the realization in act and fact of the highest idea which we can form of perfect condescension, namely, self-sacrifice exercised by a Being of whom perfect condescension, love and self-sacrifice were not required by aught in heaven or earth, save by the necessity of His own perfect and inconceivable goodness?

We reverence, and rightly, the majesty of God. How can that infinite majesty be proved more perfectly than by condescension equally infinite? We adore, and justly, the serenity of God, who has neither parts nor passions. How can that serenity be proved more perfectly, than by passing, still serene, through all the storm and crowd of circumstance which disturb the weak serenity of man; by passing through poverty, helplessness, temptation, desertion, shame, torture, death; and passing through them all victorious and magnificent; with a moral calm as undisturbed, a moral purity as unspotted, as it had been from all eternity, as it will be to all eternity, in that abysmal source of being, which we call the Bosom of the Father? It is the moral majesty of God, as shewn on Calvary, which I uphold. Shew that Calvary was not inconsistent with that; shew that Calvary was not inconsistent with the goodness of God, but rather the perfection of that goodness shewn forth in time and space: then all other arguments connected with God's majesty may go for nought, provided that God's moral majesty be safe. Provided God be proved to be morally infinite--that is, in plain English, infinitely good; provided God be proved to be morally absolute--that is, absolutely unable to have His goodness affected by any circumstance outside Him, even by the death upon the Cross: then let the rest go. All words about absoluteness and infinity and majesty, beyond that, are physical--metaphors drawn from matter, which have nothing to do with God who is a Spirit.

But God's infinite power too often means, in the minds of men, only some abstract notion of boundless bodily strength. God's omniscience too often means, only some physical fancy of innumerable telescopic or microscopic eyes. God's infinite wisdom too often means, only some abstract notion of boundless acuteness of brain. And lastly--I am sorry to have to say it, but it must be said,--God's infinite majesty too often means, in the minds of some superstitious people, mere pride, and obstinacy, and cruelty, as of the blind will of some enormous animal which does what it chooses, whether right or wrong.

If the mystery of the Cross contradict any of these carnal or material notions, so much the more glory to the mystery of the Cross. One spiritual infinite, one spiritual absolute, it does not contradict: and that is the infinite and absolute goodness of God.

Let all the rest remain a mystery, so long as the mystery of the Cross gives us faith for all the rest.

Faith, I say. The mystery of evil, of sorrow, of death, the Gospel does not pretend to solve: but it tells us that the mystery is proved to be soluble. For God Himself has taken on Himself the task of solving it; and has proved by His own act, that if there be evil in the world, it is none of His; for He hates it, and fights against it, and has fought against it to the death.

It simply says--Have faith in God. Ask no more of Him--Why hast Thou made me thus? Ask no more--Why do the wicked prosper on the earth? Ask no more--Whence pain and death, war and famine, earthquake and tempest, and all the ills to which flesh is heir?

All fruitless questionings, all peevish repinings, are precluded henceforth by the passion and death of Christ.

Dost thou suffer? Thou canst not suffer more than the Son of God. Dost thou sympathize with thy fellow-men? Thou canst not sympathize more than the Son of God. Dost thou long to right them, to deliver them, even at the price of thine own blood? Thou canst not long more ardently than the Son of God, who carried His longing into act, and died for them and thee. What if the end be not yet? What if evil still endure? What if the medicine have not yet conquered the disease? Have patience, have faith, have hope, as thou standest at the foot of Christ's Cross, and holdest fast to it, the anchor of the soul and reason, as well as of the heart. For however ill the world may go, or seem to go, the Cross is the everlasting token that God so loved the world, that He spared not His only-begotten Son, but freely gave Him for it. Whatsoever else is doubtful, this at least is sure,--that good must conquer, because God is good; that evil must perish, because God hates evil, even to the death.


Charles Kingsley