A Growing Gospel
( Originally Published 1912 )
He that believeth on me, t he works that I do shall he do also; and greater works shall he do, because I go unto my Father. Jesus.
Nothing seems to be complete in itself, but points to something else for its fulfillment. Our language has its different degrees running from positive to superlative. These ,degrees and all the qualifying forms of speech exist in language because they first existed in nature. But the superlative is never absolute, but only relative. After the best is a better; after the greatest is a greater. Thorwalsden wept when he found, him-self satisfied with his statue of Jesus, because, seeing nothing better he feared was an omen that his genius was about to ,decline. The stairway of intellectual or moral or artistic ascent has no end, and alas! for him who thinks he has reached the last step. It is man's wisdom to see that his most eminent performance does not terminate in itself, but is preparation;—a mere friendly island at which he can halt only long enough to refit his ships and then sail away to discover new islands and new continents.
Personality is temporal; only principle is eternal. Long since the form of Plato disappeared from earth, but the philosophy of Plato, after the lapse of ages, is still present. It is the distinguishing mark of a great soul that it is able to distinguish between opinions and thought, between the stationary deed and an-streaming energy, between that which is for to-day and that which is for all time.
Than Jesus, perhaps history furnishes the name of no one with more of this ability. He seems to have understood and fully accepted the method of nature. He saw that progress is infinite; that the kingdom of God never fully arrives, but is forever coming. Generations follow each other like waves of the sea ; but, like the sea itself, humanity is always present. Re-formers die, but the reform must be taken up by other hearts and carried forward. Of Jesus, John said: "He must increase, but I must decrease." But there came a time when, in his mortal form, he, too, must pass over the horizon and disappear from earth. Yet so unequalled was his trust, so unwavering his balance, he could contemplate this without dismay. The cause to which he had consecrated his life was not mortal. Poets and musicians ,die, but poetry and mu-sic ,are immortal. They are born anew in the heart of each generation. So he might die, his native Pales-tine be destroyed, the thrones of the Cæsars swept out of sight by the onsweeping flood of time, yet he was not disheartened. Looking toward the future, he could see other nations rising on far off shores among which prophets and bards would appear to foretell the redemption of mankind and chant again the noble strain of righteousness and love. His attitude is that of expectancy, of leaning toward the future. He and his personal deeds were only part of a greater purpose. His forms of speech are of progression and growth. Religion was like leaven; like seed cast into the ground as preparation for the harvest; like the plant becoming a great tree; like the light, first shining in the east, then gradually spreading over the whole sky. The work he did was for his land and age, but the purpose under which he wrought was for all lands and all ages. The local was to become universal. The whole world was to become a Palestine. The Gospel must grow.
The beginnings of things cannot be discovered. The new is only a different combination and application of the old; and the old is only a reappearance and re-adjustment of the older. We do not know who was the original inventor of anything. Socrates told Ion that inspiration flowed from the Gods through the poets and their interpreters to the multitude, as magnetism is communicated from a lodestone through a series of connected rings. So, in tracing the history of any discovery in art or morals, when the first man or nation is reached, the inquiry then is as to whence it came when it arrived at that point. Who first thought of the Golden Rule? Indications of its presence may be found in times long prior to the Christian era and in lands far away from Palestine. The cylinder press is a great invention and helps make our century glorious, but it has been coming for a thou-sand years. Long ago; when the first man etched on a leaf or on the bark of a tree, a rude symbol of what was passing in his mind, its invention was begun. We have recently learned how to light our cities with electricity, but when Thales discovered, twenty-five hundred years ago, that, if amber were rubbed, electricity could be produced the world was on the way to find the modern dynamo. Everything was in nature before it was in art. In the arches of his cathedrals man is only imitating the boughs of trees bending under the weight of snow and the stained glass 'windows imitate the red light of an October sunset streaming in among the bare branches of a forest. The columns of a Doric temple are like the trunks of trees lifting themselves for many feet without limbs, while the Corinthian column is the palm tree with the tuft of leaves and blossoms at its top. So all forms of art, from Sistine Chapels to cotton looms, which are only other forms of the soul of Angelo and Arkwright, are applications of principles that are as old as time. Given an acorn and there is the promise of a thousand forests of oak. Given the human soul and from it will flow epochs, kingdoms, laws, religions, libraries and the whole broad stream of history.
The progress of the world is marked by the unfolding and application of a few fundamental principles. We breathe the same kind of air that nourished Abraham and the kings of Egypt, only we use the strength it gives, not to gather herds and build pyramids, but to gather dollars and build railroads. Matter has the same inertness now that it had in Chaldea, only we use steam and the hydraulic press instead of a million slaves to overcome it. The starlight which cheers us has been an age in getting here, but the star whence comes—when was it not shining there in the sky? The many tints found in a rainbow or in a meadow in June are the combination of a few primary colors. The chemist cannot do otherwise than mix a few simple elements which long outdate his science and were present when the foundation of the earth was laid.
The same thing is true in religion. Begin where we may we end with a few principles. Follow any ray of light far enough and its shining path terminates in the sun ; so all religions end in the same place. Their differences are in their application to life. Begin anywhere—in temple, cathedral, church—listen to prayer and praise of saints in pagan or catholic or protestant land, and they all mean the same thing. The prophets of Asia, Europe, America all declare the supremacy of the moral law whose origin is found, not on some local Sinai, but in the universal human soul. The Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul's hymn of Charity cannot be exactly duplicated, but traces of their presence may be found in many places ; while the universal acknowledgment of their wisdom and beauty and the confession that their application to life would make an almost ideal moral condition indicate how ancient and universal they are.
It may be assumed that the greatness of a religion consists in its fidelity to principles and its power of expansion to meet and adapt itself to the conditions of every age. It will have pliancy and power of adjustment. It will not live only in memory and history. It will not cumber itself with forms and opinions that are obsolete and useless, but will cast them off as freely as the tree sheds its leaves when preparing for a new ring of growth. It will be prophetic and expectant. It will have the upward look and forward step. It will be no camp follower in the march of humanity, but will be in the vanguard and unfurl its banner as the rallying point of civilization.
It is easy to picture Christ as thinking thus when he said that those who come after him would do greater works than he had done. Looking toward the future with its complex life, he confesses that the greatness of religion lies in its unfoldment. He must abandon his work and go away from earth, but under the same spirit that had mastered him the work itself would go forward. Reverence toward God and kindness toward man would become enthroned in a multitude of hearts. Invading lands as yet unknown, his religion would master them. It would work wonders, making those ,wrought there in his native land shrink in magnitude and brilliancy until they would seem to be only as Palestine is to the world and as dawn is to the day. Christianity was to be its own greatest miracle.
It would carry us far beyond the limits of the time permitted for a sermon to attempt to picture in detail the kind of life that lay around the beginnings of Christianity. A few sentences gathered from history must suffice. One writer says : "The reign of the Csars was one of elegance and cruelty, ,art and blood, romance and murder." During one reign a half mil-lion lost their lives in unjust wars. The waves of cruelty and sensuality rolled over the Roman empire. Hospitals for the sick, asylums for orphans were unknown. Philosophy was largely one of despair or fatalism: Looking over the whole scene Tacitus closes his survey by saying: "Nothing was sacred, nothing safe from the hand of rapacity; virtue was a crime; persons who lived without an enemy died by the treachery of some friend." It is thought by some historians that the sun has not looked down upon worse scenes than were enacted in the days into which Christ came with his noble theory of life.
We must not claim more for Christianity than rightly belongs to it. It would be a mistake to assign all of the world's good to its agency. There are many things in our civilization which did not come to it directly from Palestine. Yet there can be no doubt that much has come from that source. Within a century after the death of Jesus a marked change appeared. Gibbon ,wrote a famous chapter in which he accounts for the success of the new religion. The chapter has been opposed by churchmen because the historian as-signs its success to natural, rather than supernatural causes. Whoever is right in the controversy, one thing is evident the religion did actually succeed. A new spirit was at work in society. The social condition gradually changed. The things that Jesus is re-ported to have done while on the earth were symbols of what his spirit, working through his followers, was accomplishing on a much vaster plan. The devils cast out of Rome, in number and malignancy, far surpassed those cast out of the woman of Magdala. Passions that had raged more fiercely than the waves of stormy Galilee, gradually fell into a calm. Where age had been exposed to die, where the woes of the unfortunate often called forth ridicule, where power was the chief virtue, where the slave was tortured at the pleasure of the master, and captives were drawn at the chariot wheels of the conqueror, a divine Presence appeared carrying pity and love in its train as the sun carries summer to all the zones.
Many sad pages of history must be wriitten by him who traces the course of Christianity through the centuries. Often the teaching and example of its founder have been almost wholly concealed. Yet there can be no doubt that-society has become humane in proportion to the incorporation of his gentle, reasonable, peace-loving spirit into its customs and laws. His name has become the symbol for every kind and gracious deed.
"Whatever in love's name is truly done
The spirit of love set in motion in Judea has been an expanding force. We read that Jesus took two or three little children in his arms and blessed them; but Christianity is taking thousands of children who would be outcast and giving them homes. In an age when blindness and poverty were thought to be a mark of punishment for sin, the spectacle of Jesus showing pity to a blind beggar is significant. Much more impressive is the present scene of a state taking pity on all the blind. It builds asylums for them. It protects and instructs them. By cultivating the other senses, which are avenues of the soul, the treasures of literature, of the mechanical arts, and of music are freely opened; and, if physical sight is not given, the mind is so flooded with light that its night is turned into day. Wherever the blind children are gathered and their minds are opened to those scenes lying beyond that which the natural eye can see there is definite fulfillment of the promise : "Greater works than these shall ye do." We read that Jesus had power over the insane. At his approach reason returned. Each chord of the mysterious life-harp sounded its true note and all discord died away. But now, not on a single spot of earth, but everywhere the insane ate objects of pity and care. The reports of the asylums are a new chapter of the gospel written in our native tongue. Are we full of wonder at the story of the multitude fed upon the mountain slope? Our amazement may in-crease when we see that on all the hills and in all the valleys, not thousands, but many millions are fed from day to day and from year to year. It is a perennial miracle and worthy of constant wonder that Nature sets a table for all her children and there is more left than they consume.
The doctrine of peace and brotherhood which Jesus enunciated makes him glorious and enables him to defy oblivion. He had only time to declare it when he was called away from earth. But with his forward looking soul he must have seen that it would grow in meaning and practice. Great is it to speak to one's countrymen for the first time : "Do unto others as you would they should do unto you ;" but it is not as great as to make those golden words into the laws and life of a nation. The noble Soul of Palestine, looking through the centuries must have caught sight of many of like mind with himself who would try to make these words the law of society. That part of our history which has to do with human liberty and justice and rights ought to accompany the New Testament. It is the Sermon on the Mount brought up to date. It is Christ in the nineteenth century. Whatever separates us from cruelty, casts unclean spirits out of society, makes forgiveness to the fallen more free, feeds the multitude with courage and hope, calls from the tomb the soul's buried aspirations and resolutions and en-lists all hearts on the side of right, helps fulfill the promise ,of Jesus. The miracle of miracles will be the accomplishment in fact of what he saw as a possibility. The gospel of mercy ,and love must grow until it includes the world.
To this gospel we should dedicate our lives. The good Spirit that hovers over earth is much hindered. Misery, cruelty, crimes and vices still vex and rend society. To all who love mankind come hours of great heaviness. But these must be followed by hours of hope and trust. Those who wish to help their age just not be broken hearted They should study the method of the Divine Providence. They must see that the gospel of 'humanity grows slowly indeed, but that it actually grows. Its great principles and motives must more and more invade the mind and awaken the heart. As it transformed those ,who stood near Christ ,during his earthly years, it must continue its blessed work until it has transformed mankind. It must lessen the sorrows, and increase the joys of the world. It is not enough that the nineteenth century surpasses the tenth century or the first century. It should excel itself. To have freed the black slaves will always make this era glorious in history, but many emancipation are yet needed. We should constantly work at purifying the moral atmosphere. Personal purity and integrity should become the natural condition of human beings. Each generation, as it comes, should find an earth more favorable to virtue and at last one should arrive which, beginning its career unincumbered by bad inheritance, it would follow the path of the moral law as naturally as the rivers flaw in their channels and the stars roll in their shining orbits.
Consecrating our lives to further this end they can-not be devoid of use; they cannot be empty of beauty. Making our church serve this purpose it needs neither explanation nor apology. It justifies its existence and becomes an object of love and loyalty. To give and work for it, is to give and work for God and mankind. The religion to which we pledge ourselves has a boundless future. We and all who come after us, following whither its flag may lead, shall find we have been led aright. Our duties will he many and great, but our strength and hope will equal them. Having done our part in making earth better, without regret we shall resign our task to other hearts and hands ; and we shall go away without fear, sustained by the trust that, like our noble Brother, we, too, are going to our Father.