Home      Back to Advent 3

 

 

 

 
Advent Sermons, 1885
By R. W. Church
Sometime Dean of St. Paul's
London: Macmillan and Co., 1901.

Transcribed by the Rev. Walter Hannam. 

Reproduced from the Project Canterbury Website with permission.


 

Sermon III. The Kingdom of God--II

(link for Sermon II. The Kingdom of God--I)

"Now, after John was cast into prison, Jesus came into
Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God."
ST. MARK i. 14.

"THE kingdom of God" was one of the chief subjects of that inspired interpretation of the facts of human life in the Old Testament which we call prophecy. It was the faith, the joy, the hope of the Psalmists, and of those great teachers and witnesses of righteousness who came after them. And in the idea of it which possessed the minds of the Psalmists and Prophets we have two leading features. They thought of it, above all its wonder and greatness, as directed to a moral [59] end and governed by a moral purpose; and, though they connected its presence specially with the history and fortunes of their own chosen race, they conceived of it as a universal kingdom; they extended it, without hesitation or doubt, in its judgments and its hopes, to all the families of mankind. Though the heathen knew not God, though at this or that moment they might be the enemies and oppressors of His people, they, too, were not without their interest in the blessing of Abraham, for they were the creatures of Him Who had said "All souls are Mine." "The Lord is King; the earth may be glad thereof; yea, the multitude of the isles may be glad thereof. Clouds and darkness are round about Him: righteousness and judgment are the habitation of His seat." "Tell it out among the heathen that the Lord is King, and that it is He Who hath made the round world so fast that it [60] cannot be moved: and how that He shall judge the people righteously." I need not remind you that, open where you will, Psalm or Prophet, you will find such words as these. When St. Paul wrote "There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him," he said what sounded very strange to Jewish narrowness; but he said no more than he had learned from the Old Testament, than he found loudly proclaimed by David and Isaiah.

It was plain to St. Paul, but to the society in which St. Paul had been brought up it was unmeaning. Such words lay undeveloped in men's minds, listened to, familiar, but unrealised, unnoticed in their eventful significance, till the process of time cleared them up and disclosed the import with which they were charged. That, of course, which at last fulfilled and revealed their [61] meaning, which brought these words again with fresh force and point into men's memories and hopes, was the coming of Him for Whom Psalmist and Prophet had been so long preparing. Then indeed, as could not but be, the idea, the belief, of the kingdom of God received a light it never had before, and presented new aspects which belonged to that great unveiling of the thoughts of God. For He was among us Who was King in that kingdom. From Him the world was to know, in parable or direct speech, what were the mysteries, the secrets, the laws of the kingdom of God, of which for ages men had heard so much. From Him men were to know all that was to be made known, under the conditions of time and sight, of that invisible and everlasting rule which reaches from end to end, and orders and governs all things. With Him it was a favourite and characteristic expression; He [62] has enshrined it in the Prayer of prayers; it stood, in His use of it, for all that He brought with Him, of mercy, of blessing, of light; of grace here and of perfectness afterwards. For all were streams flowing from one fountain; all were adminstrations, powers, creations, presences, influences, of one supreme sovereignty--the kingdom of the God of righteousness, holiness, and love.

Taking the idea as a whole, with special reference to the aspects of it presented in the Old Testament and the New, we may ask what is added by the later to the earlier conceptions of it? And in the New Testament it seems that, while the old features, its supreme moral end, its universality, are retained and emphasised, it becomes at once more definite and tangible, and at the same time more removed to a sphere beyond human experience than it was to the thoughts of the Jewish prophets. For to us it is [63] embodied in the person of the King Himself; that most awful of Beings has been with men; He bears a human name. And on the other hand, all that- this world knows of the proofs of greatness and power has nothing to do with Him. What was shown to the eye of flesh, of Him Who "sits on the throne judging right," was the "form of a servant" and the helplessness of the Crucified. He was indeed victorious, with such a victory as human life had never yet seen; victorious over sin, over death, over the hearts of men; but it was not shown on the scene where earthly success shows its triumph and glory. To the last that the world saw of Him, He was the "despised and rejected of men." Strange contrast to the forecast of Messianic prophecy--"Thou art fairer than the children of men; full of grace are Thy lips;" yet another prophecy had warned us what this would look like in all outward appearance. [64] "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him." And, as with the King, so with the kingdom. The world was to see it, and to feel it, as the kingdom of God had never been felt before; yet who could say for certain, "Here is its presence; here is its supremacy"? Evangelist and Apostle never doubt that "the kingdom of God" is indeed "come with power;" they know that it enshrines and makes certain all that man ever hoped for; they feel that they are in it and of it, fulfilling its tasks, spreading abroad the news of its wonders, wakening up hearts and consciences to discern its tokens. But, as we well know, they go off from the Old Testament idea of a "kingdom"--a power acknowledged upon earth, compelling recognition by visible greatness. All thought of outward greatness has passed into the background in the pages of the New Testament. [65] They speak, indeed, of the greatness and glories of the kingdom of God; but it is a greatness and glory of an infinitely different order from anything that can ever be seen here. That eternal kingdom, with its risen and glorified Lord, shrinks not from association with what here is held to be weak and poor and of no account. Its very emblem is the Cross--earthly defeat, earthly suffering. Its diadem is the crown of thorns. It is here among the souls and the doings of men, "conquering and to conquer;" but its judgments and its conquests, and the awful steps of its march through time, are masked and veiled behind the shows and shadows of this world; sometimes indicated, sometimes partly disclosed, but more than half kept back--too real not to be felt, too much hidden and crowded out by the things of the present to arrest the careless or the worldly heart. It is, indeed, such a kingdom as St. Paul describes [66] in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Day by day in the eternal world, by "the principalities and powers in heavenly places," it is seen how, "in the dispensation of the fulness of times, God hath gathered together all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are in earth." Day by day there they continually cry, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Thy glory;" they sing the song of Moses and of the Lamb, saying, "Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints. Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy Name? for Thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before Thee; for Thy judgments are made manifest." "Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth." So they see, so they rejoice, in the "heavenly places;" but we cannot hear their song, [67] their strain of perpetual praise: here on earth the work and life of a minister and instrument of the kingdom of God is thus set before us: "By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report: as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things."

"My kingdom is not of this world," said the King Himself. It was not only a kingdom of righteousness, a universal kingdom: it would not, as so many expected, as so many desired and took for granted--it would not accept the conditions on which things are recognised and welcomed and honoured as great on the scene of this visible world. It would not as yet reveal all that it was, all that it could claim, all that one day would [68] be known about it. It appealed to men, and challenged their homage, not by signs of power which the world could judge of, not by glory which could dazzle the world, but by those inner forces and tokens which the world imperfectly discerns--the powers of truth and holiness and love and goodness. The whole idea of the kingdom of God in the New Testament is of a kingdom out of sight--the most real, the most certain, the nearest of all things--whose power and presence were to be felt in the world in ways that experience had never dreamed of, but which baffled all experience when it tried to penetrate that impalpable barrier which made the kingdom of God unlike all human things. "The kingdom of God is within you," was the answer when the disciples looked for something which they could point to. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: blessed are they that are persecuted for [69] righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Theirs who are of the least account here; theirs to whom here is assigned the bitter lot of undeserved and unjust suffering. "The kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;" not dependent on outward necessaries of life and strength, but showing itself, "not in word but in power," by those heavenly virtues which mark His rule Who is "King of Righteousness" and "King of Peace;" "by pureness, by knowledge, by long-suffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned." "My kingdom is not of this world;" not of this world's customs, and this world's objects, and this world's instruments; not of this world's success or this world's vicissitudes; not amenable to this world's tests; not resting on what makes this world's strength; not altered by its revolutions, not failing with its [70] failures: but behind all that this world sees and knows--lasting while men and nations come and go, strangely from time to time breaking in on the course of human affairs--the kingdom of God accompanies this world's history; the kingdom which was sung by Psalmists and imagined by Prophets and announced by Apostles, moving on in its eternal order, whether opposed or neglected or honoured upon earth, until "the mystery of God is finished," and His judgments are made manifest, and "the earnest expectation of the creature" shall be satisfied by "the manifestation of the sons of God." That kingdom is "not of this world;" but it is in this world, and it has its witnesses and representatives in this world, in its varied and manifold aspects and working. It has its witnesses in individual souls. It has its witness, its representative, in the universal Church of Christ. Nothing can be an [71] adequate representative of that invisible kingdom of God; it extends, even on earth, beyond even the bounds of the universal Church. But His Church is the designated and appointed recognition of His kingdom, in a sense in which nothing was or could be before He came. "I appoint unto you a kingdom, as My Father hath appointed unto Me; that ye may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel"--this was His language to the founders of His Church. And from the time that His Church was founded there was that personal relation to Him, the mystery and the closeness of which human words and images have been taxed to the utmost to shadow forth. "Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fulness of Him Who filleth all in all"--I need not tell you how those awful words are developed and illustrated, in the most [72] unexpected ways, in the Epistles of St. Paul and the Gospel of St. John. The Church in Jewish times was part of the kingdom of God by laws and organisation; the Church of Christ by personal union with Him Who is the King Eternal. That must indeed be a very real part of "the kingdom of God," which is joined in such a communion with its King. That can be no mere voluntary association of men, thinking and feeling alike. That can be no creation of the will or power of earthly teachers or earthly rulers. Who could call into being so mysterious a fellowship but He Himself whose unutterable love had brought Him into union with His creatures? Who could dare to use such words, unless they came from Him Who sits on the throne of the kingdom of God?

This is that religious society which He has called into being, to be the shadow and the instrument of His kingdom, and which [73] we call the Church of Christ; a religious society existing as a fact among the facts of the world, springing from faith and love to Him, depending on His words, worshipping His name, joined to His Person and nourished by His sacraments, kept alive by His Spirit, continuing on from age to age of decay and change by virtue of an order which has never failed, of a hope which nothing can destroy. This, we believe, is the Church of the Bible and of history; this is the Church of our Prayer-books; this, and nothing less than this; this, and not another. It has looked very different to the outward eye in the many different stages of its actual course here. It has looked like an obscure and unpopular sect; it has looked like a wonderful human institution, vying with the greatest in age and power; it has looked like a great usurpation; it has looked like an overgrown and worn-out system, out of date and ready [74] to fall to pieces; it has been obscured by the outward accidents of splendour or disaster; it has been enriched, it has been plundered; at one time throned above emperors, at another under the heel of the vilest; and it has been dishonoured by the crimes of its governors, by truckling to the world, by the idolatry of power, by greed and selfishness, by their unbelief in their own mission, by the deep stain of profligacy, by the deep stain of blood. Yes, "the treasure" was in "earthen vessels" in a very different sense from what the Apostle meant; it was in the hands of mortal and sinful men, and they have abundantly left the traces of their mortality and sin. But in that Church, whether for judgment or for blessing, or rather, surely, for both--in it, in its core, in its unshaken depths, was the life and energy of the kingdom of God: never was the sense of its reality lost, never the faith in its King [75] quenched; in the worst days of rebuke and blasphemy, from many an unknown altar, and many an unknown and humble heart, "hidden privily by His presence from the provoking of all men; kept secretly in His tabernacle from the strife of tongues," the songs of the kingdom of God went up unceasingly, witnessing to its continuous presence, telling of trust and love undisturbed, till the storm passed and the days were better. For the sake of the purposes and victories of the kingdom of God, the Church was set up by its Master, Christ; for the sake of them it continues to be; the reason of its existence is that we believe Christianity to be not a historical phenomenon, not a philosophy, not a mass of precepts and principles for individuals to choose from, but a divine religion. Forget that, and all is confusion in our thought of the Church. Remember that, and nothing of outward [76] event or outward interference can take from her what she is.

But the Church cannot help on one side of it touching human society, its interests and its changes. That kingdom of God, for whose purposes the Church exists, cannot be moved. But the Church must have a human history. It may easily have to share the vicissitudes of those earthly things in which, at each moment of time, its lot may be cast. The course of its history at times has run parallel with that of human society, and in association with it--for human society, too, is part of the kingdom of God, and God takes care of what is His creation and watches over it in its best days and its worst. But so also the Church may find itself at cross purposes with the prevailing forces of society. We could hardly expect but that it must sometimes be so, when the invisible interests of the world to come find [77] themselves in contact with the powers and interests of this world. Such moments may be, and have been, moments of great trial, well or ill borne, wisely or unwisely passed through. We cannot help seeing signs--they may be exaggerated, they cannot be said to be fanciful--that such a critical time may yet, sooner or later, be within our experience.

Before such times come, it is well to consider, calmly and devoutly, what should be the temper and attitude of the Church when apparently called to prepare for the possibility of grave changes, it may be, great disadvantages, in its outward condition.
The first thing to -remember and to imprint on our minds is that these changes in condition are in themselves outward things; and that the Church, though we see its members, and worship in its shrines, and handle its property, and teach in its schools, and join in its administration, is in itself--in [78] the "soul and being of its life," [1] the spiritual body of its invisible Lord and Bridegroom, the "house not made with hands"--to be the "temple of the Holy Ghost;" a visible, a historic body indeed, but whose words are worse than idle unless it exists primarily and above all things for ends which are beyond this world, and is kept alive and shaped by influences which are not of this world. The Church, as we speak of it here, is first and above all things a religious society for religious ends; part, in time and in place, of that universal religious society which Jesus Christ created among men, and for whom and to whom He gives gifts for the blessing of the world. It seems a commonplace; but it is not so easy to translate it into a master principle of all judgment and all action in everything that relates to the Church. Yet it is only with a vivid and [79] ever-present sense of what the Church really is, and what it exists for, that we can rise to the height of any fitting and adequate and worthy argument as to the importance of outward things and their action on her proper interests.

But outward things may affect her very deeply. Outward things may be the machinery created and committed to her by her Master, to be used, as the time requires, for the ends of the kingdom of God. She has no more right to make light of that machinery, or to surrender it, than she could have the right to say that she could not do her Master's work without it. She has it; it is confessedly very powerful for the ends she is bound to seek; she cannot, without cowardice, without ignominy, affect not to care about it, at the first summons of hostility, or ignorance, or indifference. Surely we may be pardoned if the prospect, even [80] distant, of vast and unknown changes in the relations of the Church to society make us anxious. Surely it need not be personal position or material interests which must be supposed to fill all our thoughts at the chances of a possible great break-up, a tearing up of what has been so familiar to all of us--so precious and venerable to some of the noblest and best among us. A far-reaching unsettlement, which must cripple and embarrass religious work, which must humble the Church and the religion which the Church teaches, in the eyes of the world, may well stir the hearts of Churchmen who, if earthly loss could further the kingdom of God, or might even make human society go more smoothly and more righteously, would not shrink from saying that the Church had better resign itself to sacrifice what is its own of outward things. But such a result has not been made probable yet And [81] there can hardly be said to be such an exclusive sense of justice, such exclusive sympathy with high purposes, such manifest and equitable intelligence of all the bearings of the case, on the side of those who call for change, that Churchmen, who are Englishmen also, should not put their objections to it as strongly as they honestly and truthfully may, on the ground of civil right and social benefit; should not shrink from lightly venturing on so tremendous an experiment on the moral and spiritual forces to which we are accustomed in England; should not resist what seems to them a great wrong.

Who has a right to complain of such resistance? Yet, after all, what we have to remember is, that the object of our interest is not merely a great and time-hallowed institution, bound up with the history and character of English society, but the Church of Christ among us, the "Church of the living God." It is that [82] which we have to think for; it is that for whose welfare we are in our day responsible; it is that for which, if there is danger, we must strive. It is high spiritual interests that we have to guard; the highest that we can conceive among us--the faith, the spirit, the gifts, the life of what we believe to be Christ's Holy Catholic Church. This high idea of what we mean by the Church is not only the true one, not only the one really worthy the enthusiasm of Churchmen, but it is the safest and most powerful appeal to the thoughts of reasonable men. It was this that in days of danger fifty years ago--the revival of the great idea of the Church, the extrication of it, in its religious and spiritual significance, from the earthly associations which had encumbered and obscured it--it was this which in spite of great difficulties, great troubles, great disasters, staved off the dangers, and infused new life [83] and elevation and strength into all our religion.

After all, our Master has said, "My kingdom is not of this world." No words have been so misused, with such blind inconsistency and recklessness of their recoil, so that they seemed to hit an opponent. But there they are, all the same; they mean much for us, however they may be misquoted by others:--
"This is a text," says an impressive writer, [1] "which has, as it were, looked at the Church ever since the Church was founded. It is like an eye fixed upon her, from which she cannot escape. . . . Go where she will, and in whatever divergent paths, and branches of those paths, and circuits of those paths, that eye has been upon her. . . . That saying has looked through history, on all the successive phases of the Church's worldly position."

It has looked, and often in vain. But there the words stand, with their warning to us. [84] They warn us as to the methods, as to the temper, as to the reasonings, with which we wage our warfare for the Church of Christ. They warn us that there may be many ways legitimate, or at any rate customary, in questions of this world, which do not become those who are contending for what is not of this world. They warn us not to lose our sense of the realities of the kingdom of God, even in our zeal for its honour; not to lose our sense of proportion, even in asserting its claim to what is its own, to what cannot without wrong be taken from it. They bid us keep watch over our hearts and lips; to be just to others, even if they are unjust to us; to leave to those who will the language of passion or exaggeration, much more of recrimination and insult; to remember to whom it was said, "Ye know not what spirit ye are of;" to remember where it is said, "The wrath of man worketh not the right-[85]eousness of God." And, above all, they warn us against a temptation which has before now come in the path of the Church, and may again--the temptation of paying too high a price to gain or to retain the advantages of this world. There are few among us with knowledge so large and thought so comprehensive as to be able to take in the full measure of the blessing of a Church like ours, which can speak to the nation as nothing else can, which holds such a machinery for good in its hands. But we may be asked to pay too highly for keeping what we so value. We may be asked to give up in exchange what we have no right to part with; to barter things that concern the life of the Church as a religious body; to turn the Church which we have received into something different; to consent to precipitate experiments and ill-considered compromises; to rush, under the alarm and [86] perhaps danger of the moment, into projects of hasty change, in the hope of stopping a cry. Let us do our best; let us try to leave things better than we found them in the Church and in the world; let us "quit us like men," men of sense, men of courage, if we are forced into a struggle which must be a trying and a stern one; but let us remember, amid all its fortunes, Who has said, "My kingdom is not of this world."

Only let us do nothing unworthy of that "kingdom of God" in which we serve, to which we trust, and which has in it all our hopes. We are like soldiers in a vast, widely extended battlefield, wrapped in obscurity; in a fluctuating conflict of which we know not the phases, of which we seem utterly powerless to control the issues; but we are responsible for our own part; whatever goes on elsewhere, let us not fail in that. The changes of the world, which men think that they are bringing about, [87] are in the hands of God. With Him, when we have done our duty, let us leave them. Only may we have grace from the Merciful and the True, before Whom St. Paul bent his knee, to "know how we ought to behave ourselves in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth;" remembering what is that Truth of truths which the Church exists to keep and to preach--"Without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory."


[1] Wordsworth, Excursion, Book iv.
[1] Dr. Mozley, University Sermons, Sermon I.