1 Cor. xii. 31; xiii. 1. Covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
My friends, let me say a few plain words this morning to young and old, rich and poor, upon this text.
Now you all, I suppose, think it a good thing to be gentlemen and ladies. All of you, I say. There is not a poor man in this church, perhaps, who has not before now said in his heart, 'Ah, if I were but a gentleman!' or a poor woman who has not said in her heart, 'Ah, if I were but a lady!' You see round you in the world thousands plotting and labouring all their lives long to make money and grow rich, that they may become (as they think) gentlemen, or, at least, their sons after them. And those here who are what the world calls gentlemen and ladies, know very well that those names are names which are very precious to them; and would sooner give up house, land, money, all the comforts upon earth, than give up being called gentlemen and ladies; and these last know, I trust, what some poor people do not know, and what no man knows who fancies that he can make a gentleman of himself merely by gaining money, and setting up a fine house, and a good table, and horses and carriages, and indulging the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life; for these last ought to know that the right to be called gentlemen and ladies is something which this world did not give, and cannot take away; so that if they were brought to utter poverty and rags, or forced to dig the ground for their own livelihood, they would be gentlemen and ladies still, if they ever had been really and truly such; and what is more, they would make every one who met them feel that they were gentlemen and ladies, in spite of all their poverty.
Now, people do not often understand clearly why this is. They feel, more or less, that so it is; but they cannot explain it. I could tell you why they cannot; but I will not take up your time. But if they cannot explain it, there are those who can. St. Paul explains it in the Epistle. The Lord Jesus Himself explains it in the Gospel. They tell us why money will not make a gentleman. They tell us why poverty will not unmake one: but they tell us more. They tell us the one only thing which makes a true gentleman. And they tell us more still. They tell us how every one of us, down to the poorest and most ignorant man and woman in this church, may become true gentlemen and ladies, in the sight of God and of all reasonable men; and that, not only in this life, but after death, for ever, and ever, and ever. And that is by charity, by love.
Now, if you will look two or three chapters back, in the Epistle to the Corinthians--at the 11th and 12th chapters--you will see that these Corinthians were behaving to each other very much as people are apt to do in England now. They all wanted to rise in life, and they wanted to rise upon each other's shoulders. Each man and woman wanted to set themselves up above their neighbours, and to look down upon them. The rich looked down on the poor, and kept apart from them at the Lord's Supper; and no doubt the poor envied the rich heartily enough in return. And these Corinthians were very religious, and some of them, too, very clever. So those who, being poor, could not set themselves up above their neighbours on the score of wealth, wanted to set themselves up on the score of their spiritual gifts. One looked down on his neighbours because he was a deeper scholar than they; another, because he had the gift of tongues, and understood more languages than they; another could prophesy better than any of them, and so, because he was a very eloquent preacher, he tried to get power over his neighbours, and abuse the talents which God had given him, to pamper his own pride and vanity, and love of managing and ordering people, and of being run after by silly women (as St. Paul calls them), ever learning and never coming to the knowledge of the truth. And of the rest, one party sided with one preacher, or one teacher, and another with another; and each party looked down on the other, and judged them harshly, and said bitter things of them, till, as St. Paul says, they were all split up by heresies, that is, by divisions, party spirit, envying, and grudging in the very Church of God, and at the very Table of The Lord.
Now says St. Paul, 'Covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet show I you a more excellent way;' and that is charity; love. As much as to say, I do not complain of any of you for trying to be the best that you can, for trying to be as wise as you can be, as eloquent as you can be, as learned as you can be: I do not complain of you for trying to rise; but I do complain of you for trying to rise upon each other's shoulders. I do complain of you for each trying to set up himself, and trying to make use of his neighbours instead of helping them; and, when God gives you gifts to do good to others with, trying to do good only to yourselves with them.
For he says, you are all members of one body; and all the talents, gifts, understanding, power, money, which God has bestowed on you, He has given you only that you may help your neighbours with them. Of course there is no harm in longing and praying for great gifts, longing and praying to be very wise, or very eloquent; but only that you may do all the more good. And, after all, says St. Paul, there is something more worth longing for, not merely than money, but more worth longing for than the wisdom of a prophet, or the tongue of an angel; and that is charity. If you have that, you will be able to do as much good as God requires of you in your station; and if you have not that, you will not do what God requires of you, even though you spoke with the tongues of men and of angels. Even though you had the gift of prophecy, and understood all mysteries, and all knowledge; even though you had all faith, so that you could remove mountains; even though you had all good works, and gave all your goods to feed the poor, and your body to be burned as a martyr for the sake of religion, and had not charity, you would be nothing. Nothing, says St. Paul, but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal--an empty vessel, which makes the more noise the less there is in it. If you have charity, says St. Paul, you will be able to do your share of good where God has put you, though you may be poor, and ignorant, and stupid, and weak; but if you have not charity, all the wisdom and learning, righteousness and eloquence in the world, will only give you greater power of doing harm.
Yes, he says, I show you a more excellent way to be really great; a way by which the poorest may be as great as the richest,--the simple cottager's wife as great as the most accomplished lady; and that is charity, which comes from the Spirit of God. Pray for that--try after that; and if you want to know what sort of a spirit it is that you are to pray for and try after, I will tell you. Charity is the very opposite of the selfish, covetous, ambitious, proud, grudging spirit of this world. Charity suffers long, and is kind: charity does not envy: charity does not boast, is not puffed up: does not behave itself unseemly; that is, is never rude, or overbearing, or careless about hurting people's feelings by hard words or looks: seeketh not its own; that is, is not always looking on its own rights, and thinking about itself, and trying to help itself; is not easily provoked: thinketh no evil, that is, is not suspicious, ready to make out the worst case against every one; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; that is, is not glad, as too many are, to see people do wrong, and to laugh and sneer over their failings: but rejoiceth in the truth, tries to find out the truth about every one, and judge them honestly, and make fair allowances for them: covereth all things; that is, tries to hide a neighbour's sins as far as is right, instead of gossiping over them, and blazoning them up and down, as too many do: believeth all things; that is, gives every one credit for meaning well as long as it can: hopeth all things; that is, never gives any one up as past mending: endureth all things, keeps its temper, and keeps its tongue; not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, but, on the contrary, blessing; and so overcomes evil with good.
In one word, while the spirit of the world thinks of itself, and helps itself, Charity, which is the Spirit of God, thinks of other people, and helps other people. And now:--to be always thinking of other people's feelings, and always caring for other people's comfort, what is that but the mark, and the only mark, of a true gentleman, and a true lady? There is none other, my friends, and there never will be. But the poorest man or woman can do that; the poorest man or woman can be courteous and tender, careful not to pain people, ready and willing to help every one to the best of their power; and therefore, the poorest man or woman can be a true gentleman or a true lady in the sight of God, by the inspiration of the Spirit of God, whose name is Charity.
They can be. And thanks be to the grace of God, they often are. I can say that I have seen among plain sailors and labouring men as perfect gentlemen (of God's sort) as man need see; but then they were always pious and God-fearing men; and so the Spirit of God had made up to them for any want of scholarship and rank. They were gentlemen, because God's Spirit had made them gentle. For recollect all, both rich and poor, what that word gentleman means. It is simply a man who is gentle; who, let him be as brave or as wise as he will, yet, as St. Paul says, 'suffers long and is kind; does not boast, does not behave himself unseemly; is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.'
And recollect, too, what that word lady means. Most of you perhaps do not know. I will tell you. It means, in the ancient English tongue, a person who gives away bread; who deals out loaves to the poor. I have often thought that most beautiful, and full of meaning, a very message from God to all ladies, to tell them what they ought to be; and not to them only, but to the poorest woman in the parish; for who is too poor to help her neighbours?
You see there is a difference between a Christian man's duty in this and a Christian woman's duty, though they both spring from the same spirit. The man, unless he be a clergyman, has not so much time as a woman for actually helping his neighbours by acts of charity. He must till the ground, sail the seas, attend to his business, fight the Queen's enemies; and the way in which the Holy Spirit of Charity will show in him will be more in his temper and his language; by making him patient, cheerful, respectful, condescending, courteous, reasonable, with every one whom he has to do with: but the woman has time to show acts of charity which the man has not. She can teach in the schools, sit by the sick bed, work with her hands for the suffering and the helpless, even though she cannot with her head. Above all, she can give those kind looks and kind words which comfort the broken heart better than money and bodily comforts can do. And she does do it, thank God! I do not merely mean in such noble instances of divine charity and self-sacrifice as those ladies who have gone out to nurse the wounded soldiers in the East--true ladies, indeed, of whom I fear more than one, ere they return, will be added to the noble army of martyrs, to receive in return for the great love which they have shown on earth, the full enjoyment of God's love in heaven:--not these only, but poor women--women who could not write their own names--women who had hardly clothes wherewith to keep themselves warm--women who were toiling all day long to feed and clothe their own children, till one wondered when in the twenty-four hours they could find five spare minutes for helping their neighbours;--such poor women have I seen, who in the midst of their own daily work and daily care, had still a heart open to hear every one's troubles; a head always planning little comforts and pleasures for others; and hands always busy in doing good. Instead of being made hard and selfish by their own troubles, they had been taught by them, as the Lord Jesus was, to feel for the troubles of all around them, and went about like ministering angels in the Spirit of God, which is peace on earth and goodwill towards men.
Oh, my friends, such poor women seemed to me most glorious, most honourable, most venerable! What was all rank or fashion, beauty or accomplishments, when compared with the great honour which the Lord Jesus Christ was putting upon those poor women, by transforming them thus into His own most blessed likeness, and giving them grace to go about, as He the Lord Jesus did, doing good, because God was with them!
Then I felt that such women, poor, and worn, and hard-handed as they were, were ladies in the sight of that Heavenly Father, who is no respecter of persons; and felt how truly a wise ancient has said,-- 'It is virtue, yea, virtue, gentlemen, which maketh gentlemen; which maketh the poor rich, the strong weak, the simple wise, the base- born noble. This rank neither the whirling wheel of Fortune can destroy, nor the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate; neither sickness abate, nor time abolish.' No; for it is written, that though prophecies shall fail, tongues cease, knowledge vanish away, and all that we now know is but in part, yet charity shall never fail those who are full of the Spirit of Love, but abide with them for ever and ever, bringing forth fruit through all eternity to everlasting life.
But what sort of virtue? Do not mistake that. Not what the world calls virtue; not mere legal respectability, which says, I do unto others as they do unto me; which is often merely the whitening outside the sepulchre, and leaves the heart within unrenewed, unrighteous, full of pride and ambition, conceit, cunning, and envy, and unbelief in God: not that virtue, but the virtue which the Apostle tells us to add to our faith, the virtue from above, which is the same as the wisdom from above, which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated; in one word, the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of Divine Love and Charity, which seeketh not its own, which St. Paul has described to us in this epistle; the Holy Spirit of God, with which the Lord Jesus was filled without measure, and which He manifested to all the world in His most blessed life and death.
Ah, my friends, this is not an easy lesson to learn. Christ's disciples and apostles could not learn it all at once. They tried to hinder little children from coming to Him. They rebuked the blind man who called after Him. How could the great Prophet of Nazareth stoop to trouble Himself about such poor insignificant people? They could not conceive, either, why the Lord Jesus should choose to die shamefully, when He might have lived in honour: it seemed unworthy of Him. They were shocked at His words. 'That be far from Thee, Lord,' said Peter. Afterwards, when they really understood what that word 'Lord,' meant, and what sort of a man a true and perfect Lord ought to be, then they saw how fit, and proper, and glorious, Christ's self-sacrifice was. When, too, they learnt to look on Him, not merely as a great prophet, but as the Son of the Living God, then they understood His conduct, and saw that it behoved an only-begotten Son of God to suffer all these things before He entered into His glory.
But the Scribes and Pharisees never understood it. To the last they were puzzled and angered by that very self-sacrifice of His: He must be a bad man, they thought, or He would not care so much for bad men. 'A friend of publicans and sinners,' they called Him, thinking that a shameful blame to Him, while it was really the very highest praise. But if they could not see the beauty of His conduct, can we? It is very difficult, I do not deny it, my friends, for the selfishness and pride of fallen man: it is difficult to see that the Cross was the most glorious throne that was even set up on earth, and that the crown of thorns was worth all the crowns of czars and emperors: difficult, indeed, not to stumble at the stumbling-block of the Cross, and to say, 'It cannot surely be more blessed to give than to receive:' difficult, not to say in our hearts, 'The way to be great is surely to rise above other men, not to stoop below them; to make use of them, and not to make ourselves slaves to them.' And yet the Lord Jesus Christ did so; He took on Himself the form of a slave, and made Himself of no reputation: and what was fit and good for Him, must surely be fit and good for us. But it is a hard lesson to the pride of fallen creatures: very hard. And nothing, I believe, but sorrow will teach it us: sorrow is teaching it some of us now. We surely are beginning to see, that to suffer patiently for conscience sake, is the most beautiful thing on earth or in heaven: we begin to see that those poor soldiers, dying by inches of cold and weariness, without a murmur, because it was their Duty, were doing a nobler work even than they did when they fought at Alma and Inkermann; and that those ladies who are drudging in the hospitals, far away from home, amid filth and pestilence, are doing, if possible, a nobler work still, a nobler work than if they were queens or empresses, because they have taken up the Cross and followed Christ; because they are not seeking their own good, but the good of others. And if we will not learn it from those glorious examples, God will force us to learn it, I trust, every one of us, by sorrow and disappointment. Ah, my friends, might one not learn it at once, if one would but open one's eyes and look at things as they are? Every one is longing for something; each has his little plan for himself, of what he would like to be, and like to do, and says to himself all day long, 'If I could but get that one thing, I should be happy: If I could but get that, then I should want no more!' Foolish man, self- deceived by his own lusts! Perhaps he cannot get what he wants, and therefore he cannot enjoy what he has, and is moody, discontented, peevish, a torment to himself, and perhaps a torment to his family. Or perhaps he does get what he wants: and is he happy after all? Not he. He is like the greedy Israelites of old, when they longed for the quails; and God sent the quails: but while the meat was yet in their mouths, they loathed it. So it is with a man's fancy. He gets what he fancies; and he plays with it for a day, as a child with a new toy, and most probably spoils it, and next day throws it away to run after some new pleasure, which will cheat him in just the same way as the last did; and so happiness flits away ahead before him; and he is like the simple boy in the parable, who was to find a crock of gold where the rainbow touched the ground: but as he moved on, the rainbow moved on too, and kept always a field off from him. You may smile: but just as foolish is every soul of us, who fancies that he will become happy by making himself great; admired, rich, comfortable, in short, by making himself anything whatsoever, or getting anything whatsoever for himself. Just as foolish is every poor soul, and just as unhappy, as long as he will go on thinking about himself, instead of copying the Lord Jesus Christ, and thinking about others; as long as he will keep to the pattern of the old selfish Adam, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, the longings and fancies which deceive a man into expecting to be happy when he will not be happy; instead of putting on the new man, which after God's likeness is created in righteousness and true holiness: and what is true holiness but that very charity of which St. Paul has been preaching to us, the spirit of love, and mercy, and gentleness, and condescension, and patience, and active benevolence?
Ah, my friends, do not forget what I said just now; that a man could not become happy by making himself anything. No. Not by making himself anything: but he may by letting God make him something. If he will let God make him a new creature in Jesus Christ, then he will be more than happy--he will be blessed: then he will be a blessing to himself, and a blessing to every one whom he meets: then all vain longing, and selfishness, and pride, and ambition, and covetousness, and peevishness and disappointment, will vanish out of his heart, and he will work manfully and contentedly where God has placed him--cheerful and open-hearted, civil and patient, always thinking about others, and not about himself; trying to be about his Master's business, which is doing good; and always finding too, that his Master Christ sets him some good work to do day by day, and gives him strength to do it. And how can a man get that blessed and noble state of mind? By prayer and practice. You must ask for strength from God: but then you must believe that He answers your prayer, and gives you that strength; and therefore you must try and use it. There is no more use in praying without practising than there is in practising without praying. You cannot learn to walk without walking: no more can you learn to do good without trying to do good.
Ask, then, of God, grace and help to do good: Pray to Him this very day to take all selfishness and meanness out of your hearts, and to give you instead His Holy Spirit of Love and Charity, which alone can make you noble in His sight; and try this day, try every day of your lives, to do some good to those around you. Oh make a rule, and pray to God to help you to keep it, never, if possible, to lie down at night without being able to say, 'I have made one human being at least a little wiser, or a little happier, or a little better this day.' You will find it easier than you think, and pleasanter: easier, because if you wish to do God's work, God will surely find you work to do; and pleasanter, because in return for the little trouble it may cost you, or the little choking of foolish vulgar pride it may cost you, you will have a peace of mind, a quiet of temper, a cheerfulness and hopefulness about yourself and all around you, such as you never felt before; and over and above that, if you look for a reward in the life to come, recollect this--what we have to hope for in the life to come is, to enter into the joy of our Lord. And how did He fulfil that joy, but by humbling Himself, and taking the form of a slave, and coming not to be ministered to but to minister, and to give His whole life, even to the death upon the cross, a ransom for many? Be sure, that unless you take up His cross, you will not share His crown. Be sure, that unless you follow in His footsteps, you will never reach the place where He is. If you wish to enter into the joy of your Lord, be sure that His joy is now, as it was in Judaea of old, over every sinner that repenteth, every mourner that is comforted, every hungry mouth that is fed, every poor soul, sick or in prison, who is visited.
That is the joy of your Lord--to show mercy; and that must be your joy too, if you wish to enter into His joy. Surely that is plain. You must rejoice in doing the same work that He rejoices in, and then His joy and yours will be the same; then you will enter into His joy, and He will enter into yours; then, as St. John says, you will dwell in Christ, and Christ in you, because you love the brethren; and you will hear through all eternity the blessed words, 'Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these little ones, ye did it unto Me.'