St John xii. 24, 25. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal."
This is our Lord's own parable. In it He tells us that His death, His resurrection, His ascension, is a mystery which we may believe, not only because the Bible tells us of it, but because it is reasonable, and according to the laws of His universe; a fulfilment, rather say the highest fulfilment, of one of those laws which runs through the world of nature, and through the spiritual and heavenly world likewise. "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone;"--barren, useless, and truly dead to the rest of the world around it, because it is shut up in itself, and its hidden life, with all its wondrous powers of growth and fertility, remains undeveloped, and will remain so, till it decays away, a worthless thing, into worthless dust. But if it be buried in the earth a while, then the rich life which lay hid in it is called out by that seeming death, and it sprouts, tillers, and flowers, and ripens its grain--forty-fold, sixty-fold, an hundred-fold; and so it shows God's mind and will concerning it. It shows what is really in it, and develops the full capabilities of its being. Even so, says our Lord, would His death, His resurrection, His ascension be.
He speaks of His own resurrection and ascension; yes, but He speaks first of His own death. Before the corn can bring forth fruit, and show what is in it, fulfilling the law of its being, it must fall into the ground and die. Before our Lord could fulfil the prophecy, "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption," He must fulfil the darker prophecy of that awful 88th Psalm, the only one of all the psalms which ends in sorrow, in all but despair, "My soul is full of trouble, and my life draweth nigh unto hell. I am counted as one of them that go down into the pit: and I have been even as a man that hath no strength. Free among the dead, like unto them that are wounded and lie in the grave, who are out of remembrance, and are cut away from thy hand." So it was to be. So, we may believe, it needed to be. Christ must suffer before He entered into His glory. He must die, before He could rise. He must descend into hell, before He ascended into heaven. For this is the law of God's kingdom. Without a Good Friday, there can be no Easter Day. Without self-sacrifice, there can be no blessedness, neither in earth nor in heaven. He that loveth his life will lose it. He that hateth his life in this paltry, selfish, luxurious, hypocritical world, shall keep it to life eternal. Our Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled that law; because it is the law, the law not of Moses, but of the kingdom of heaven, and must be fulfilled by him who would fulfil all righteousness, and be perfect, even as his Father in heaven is perfect.
Bear this in mind, I pray you, and whenever you think of our Lord's resurrection and ascension, remember always that the background to His triumph is--a tomb. Remember that it is the triumph over suffering; a triumph of One who still bears the prints of the nails in His hands and in His feet, and the wound of the spear in His side; like many a poor soul who has followed Him triumphant at last, and yet scarred, and only not maimed in the hard battle of life. Remember for ever the adorable wounds of Christ. Remember for ever that St John saw in the midst of the throne of God the likeness of a lamb, as it had been slain. For so alone you will learn what our Lord's resurrection and ascension are to all who have to suffer and to toil on earth. For if our Lord's triumph had had no suffering before it,--if He had conquered as the Hindoos represent their gods as conquering their enemies, without effort, without pain, destroying them, with careless ease, by lightnings, hurled by a hundred hands and aided by innumerable armies of spirits,--what would such a triumph have been to us? What comfort, what example to us here struggling, often sinning, in this piecemeal world? We want--and blessed be God, we have--a Captain of our salvation, who has been made perfect by sufferings. We want--and blessed be God, we have--an High Priest who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, because He has been tempted in all things like as we are, yet without sin. We want--and blessed be God, we have--a King who was glorified by suffering, that, if we are ever called on to sacrifice ourselves, we may hope, by suffering, to share His glory. And when we have remembered this, and fixed it in our minds, we may go on safely to think of His glory, and see that (as I said at first) His resurrection and ascension satisfy our consciences,-- satisfy that highest reason and moral sense within us, which is none other than the voice of the Holy Spirit of God.
For see. Our Lord proved Himself to be the perfectly righteous Being, by His very passion. He proved it by being righteous utterly against His own interest; by enduring shame, torment, death, for righteousness' sake. But we feel that our Lord's history could not, must not, end there. Our conscience, which is our highest reason, shrinks from that thought. If our Lord had died and never risen, then would His history be full of nothing but despair to all who long to copy Him and do right at all costs. Our consciences demand that God should be just. We say with Abraham, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" Shall not He, who suffered without hope of reward, have His reward nevertheless? Shall not He who cried, "My God! my God! why hast Thou forsaken Me?" be justified by having it proved to all the world that God had not forsaken Him? But we surely cannot be more just than God. If we expect God to do right, we shall surely "find that He has done right, and more right than we could expect or dream. Therefore we may believe--I say that we must believe, if we be truly reasonable beings--what the Bible tells us; that Christ, who suffered more than all, was rewarded more than all; that Christ, who humbled Himself more than all, was exalted more than all; and that His resurrection and ascension, as St Paul tells us again and again, was meant to show men this,--to show them that God the Father has been infinitely just to the infinite merits of God the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,--to justify our Lord to all mankind by His triumph over death and hell, and in justifying Him to justify His Father and our Father, his God and our God.
And what is true of Christ must be true of us, the members of Christ. He is entered into His rest, and you desire to enter into it likewise. You have a right to desire it, for it is written, "There remaineth a rest for the people of God." Remember, then, that true rest can only be attained as He attained it, through labour. You desire to be glorified with Christ. Remember that true glory can only be attained in earth or heaven through self-sacrifice. Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; whosoever will lose his life shall save it. If that eternal moral law held good enough for the sinless Christ, who, though He were a son, yet learned obedience by the things which He suffered, how much more must it hold good of you and me and all moral and rational beings,--yea, for the very angels in heaven. They have not sinned. That we know; and we do not know; and I presume cannot know, that they have ever suffered. But this at least we know, that they have submitted. They have obeyed and have given up their own wills to be the ministers of God's will. In them is neither self-will nor selfishness; and therefore by faith, that is, by trust and loyalty, they stand. And so, by consenting to lose their individual life of selfishness, they have saved their eternal life in God, the life of blessedness and holiness; just as all evil spirits have lost their eternal life by trying to save their selfish life, and be something in themselves and of themselves without respect to God.
This is a great mystery; indeed, it is the mystery of the eternal, divine, and blessed life, to which God of His mercy bring us all. And therefore Good Friday, Easter Day, Ascension Day, are set as great lights in the firmament of the spiritual year,--to remind us that we are not animals, born to do what we like, and fulfil the sinful lusts of the flesh, the ways whereof are death; but that we are moral and rational beings, members of Christ, children of God, inheritors of the kingdom of heaven; and that, therefore, I say it again, like Christ our Lord, we must die in order to live, stoop in order to conquer. They remind us that honour must grow out of humility; that freedom must grow out of discipline; that sure conquest must be born of heavy struggles; righteous joy out of righteous sorrow; pure laughter out of pure tears; true strength out of the true knowledge of our own weakness; sound peace of mind out of sound contrition; and that the heart which has a right to cry, "The Lord is on my side, I will not fear what man doeth unto me," must be born out of the heart which has cried, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" They remind us that in all things, as says our Lord, there cannot be joy, because a man is born into the world, unless there first be sorrow, because the hour of birth is come; and that he who would be planted into the likeness of Christ's resurrection, must, like the corn of wheat, be first planted into the likeness of His death, and die to sin and self, that he may live to righteousness and to God; and, like the corn of wheat, become truly living, truly strong, truly rich, truly useful, and develop the hidden capabilities of his being, fulfilling the mind and will of God concerning him. Again, I say, this is a great mystery. But again, I say, this is the law, not Moses' law, but the Gospel law;--the law of liberty, by which a man becomes truly free, because he has trampled under foot the passions of his own selfish flesh, till his immortal spirit can ascend free into the light of God, and into the love of God, and into the beneficence of God. My dear friends, remember these words, for they are true. Remember that St Paul always couples with the resurrection and ascension of our bodies in the next life the resurrection and ascension of our souls in this life; for without that, the resurrection of our bodies would be but a resurrection to fresh sin, and therefore to fresh misery and ruin. Remember his great words about that moral resurrection and ascension of our wills, our hearts, our characters, our actions. "God," he says, "who is rich in mercy, for His great love, wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace are ye saved;) and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus."
And what are those heavenly places? And what is our duty in them? Let St Paul himself answer. "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God."
And what are they? Let St Paul answer once more; who should know better than he, save Christ alone? "Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report. If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."
Yes, think of these things,--and, thinking of them, ask the Holy Spirit of God to inspire you, and make a Whitsuntide in your hearts, even as He has made, I trust, a Good Friday and an Eastertide and an Ascension Day; that so, knowing these things, you may be blessed in doing them; that so- -and so only--may be fulfilled in you and me or any rational being, those blessed promises which were fulfilled in Christ our Lord. "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." "He that now goeth on his way weeping, and beareth forth good seed, shall doubtless come again with joy, and bring his sheaves with him." "Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee, in whose heart are Thy ways; who going through the vale of misery, use it for a well, and the pools are filled with water. They will go from strength to strength: and unto the God of gods appeareth every one of them in Sion." To which may God in His great mercy bring us all. Amen.