Ephesians iii. 3-6. How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery (as I wrote afore in few words, whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the Gospel.
This day is the feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany, as many of you know, means 'shewing,' because on this day the Lord Jesus Christ was first shewn to the Gentiles; to the Gentile wise men who, as you heard in the Gospel, saw his star in the east, and came to worship him. And the part of Scripture from which I have taken my text, is used for the Epistle this day, because in it St. Paul explains to us the meaning of the Epiphany. The meaning of those wise men being shewn our Lord, and worshipping him, though they were not Jews as he was, but Gentiles. He says that it means this, that the Gentiles were fellow-heirs with the Jews, and of the same body as them, and partakers of God's promise in Christ by the Gospel.
This does not seem so very wonderful to us; and why? Because we, though we are Gentiles like those wise men, have lived so long, we and our forefathers before us, in the light of the Gospel, that we are inclined to take it as a matter of course; forgetting what a wonderful, unspeakable, condescension it was of God, not to spare his only begotten Son, but freely to give him for us. God forgive us! We are so heaped with blessings that we neglect them, forget them, take them as our right, instead of remembering our sins and ungratefulness, and saying, Thy mercies are new every morning; it is only of thy mercies that we are not consumed.
But to St. Paul it was very wonderful news. A mystery, as he said; quite a new and astonishing thought, that heathens had any share in God's love and Christ's salvation.
And so it was to St. Peter. God had to teach it him by that wonderful vision, in which he saw coming down from heaven all sorts of animals, and God bade him kill and eat; and when he refused, because they were common and unclean, God forbade him to call anything common or unclean, now that God had cleansed all things by the precious blood of his dear Son. Then Peter was bidden to go to the Gentile Roman soldier Cornelius. And he went, though, he said, he had been used to think it unlawful for a Jew even to eat with a Gentile. And when he went, he found, to his astonishment, that God's love was over that Gentile soldier and his family, because they were good men, as far as they had light and knowledge, just as much as if they had been good Jews. And God gave St. Peter a sign which there was no mistaking, that he really did care for those Gentile Romans, just as much as if they had been Jews; for, as he was preaching Christ to them, the Holy Ghost fell on them, not after, but before they were baptised. So that St. Peter, astonished as he was, was forced by his own conscience and reason to say, 'Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptised, who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we' (Jews)? Then he commanded them to be baptised in the name of the Lord.
And what was the lesson which God taught St. Peter by this? St. Peter himself tells us; for he opened his mouth and said, 'Of a truth I see that God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation, he that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted by him.'
Now, my dear friends, this is (as the Lord Jesus Christ tells us) God's everlasting law, 'That he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundantly; but from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he seems to have.'
So it was, as I have just shewn you, with Cornelius; and so it was with those wise men. They were worshippers (as is supposed) of the one true God, though in a dim confused way: but they had learnt enough of what true faith was, and of what true greatness was, too, not to be staggered and fall into unbelief, when they saw the King of the Jews, whom they had come so many hundred miles to see, laid, not in a palace, but in a manger; and attended not by princesses and noblewomen, but by a poor maiden, espoused to a carpenter. Therefore God bestowed on them that great honour, that they, first of all the Gentiles, should see the glory and the love of God in the face of Jesus Christ, his Son.
And so it was with our forefathers, my friends. And I think that on this Epiphany, we ought to thank God, among all his other blessings, for having given us such forefathers, and letting us be born of that noble stock, to whom he gave the kingdom of God, after he took it away from the faithless and rebellious Jews, and afterwards from the false and profligate Greeks and Romans, to whom the epistles of the apostles were written. I will tell you what I mean.
When the Lord Jesus came on earth; our forefathers did not live here in England, but in countries across the sea, in Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, which did not belong to the Roman Empire; for the Romans, who had conquered all the world beside, could never conquer our forefathers. It was God's will, that whenever they tried they were beaten back with shame and slaughter; and our forefathers, almost alone of all, remained free men, even as we are at this day. But for that very reason, the apostles could never come among us to preach the Gospel to us; for they could not pass the bounds of the Roman empire; and that was so large, that they had enough to do to preach the Gospel in it; so that it was not till at least 400 years after the apostles' death, that their successors, zealous missionaries, priests and bishops, came and preached to our forefathers; and when they came, they found us a people prepared for the Lord, who heard the word gladly, and turned, thousands sometimes in one day, from vain idols to serve the living God, and were baptised into that holy church in which we now stand. And it has been among us, and the nations who are our kinsmen, that the light of the gospel has shone ever since, while all through the East, where the apostles preached most and earliest, it has died out. So that our Lord's words have been fulfilled, that many that are last shall be first, and those that are first shall be last. God grant that it may not always be so. God grant that his kingdom may return to its ancient seat at Jerusalem, and that all nations may go up to the mountain of the Lord's house, in the day of which St. Paul prophesies, when the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled, and all Israel shall be saved, when the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. But it is not so now; and cannot be so, as far as we can see, for many a year to come.
But in the meanwhile, why were our forefathers--heathens though they were, and sinners in many things, being truly children of wrath, fierce, bloodthirsty, revengeful, without the grace of Christ, which is Love and Charity--nevertheless a people prepared for the Lord? How was it true of them that to him that hath shall be given?
I will tell you. There is an old book, written in Latin by a heathen gentleman of Rome, who lived in St. Paul's time, and wrote this book about twenty years after St. Paul's death. It is a little book; but it is a very precious one: and I think it is a great mercy of God that, while so many famous old books have been lost, this little book should have been preserved: for this Roman gentleman had travelled among our forefathers; and when he returned he wrote this book to shame his countrymen at Rome. In it he calls us 'Germans;' but that was the Roman fashion. By Germans they meant not only the people who now live in Germany, but the English and the Danes, and the Swedes, and the Franks, who afterwards conquered France. In fact he meant our own forefathers. And he said to the Romans,--
'Look at these wild Germans. You despise them because they go half- naked, and cannot read or write, and live in mud cottages; while you go in silk and gold, and have all sorts of learning, and live in great cities, palaces, and temples, in worldly pomp and glory. But I tell you,' he said, 'that these wild Germans are better men than you; for, while you are living in sin, in cheating and falsehood, in covetousness, adultery, murder, and every horrible iniquity, they are honest, chaste, truthful; they honour their fathers and mothers; they are obedient and loyal to their kings and their laws; they shew hospitality to strangers; they do not commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, covet their neighbours' goods. And therefore,' this Roman felt (and really it seems as if a spirit of prophecy from God had come on him), 'something great and glorious will come out of these wild Germans, while the Romans will rot away and perish in their sins.' That was true enough. We see it true at this day.
For what happened? That great Roman empire, Babylon the great, as St. John calls it in the Revelations, perished miserably and horribly by its own sins; while our forefathers rose and conquered it all, and live and thrive till this day. But it is curious that they never throve really, though they made great conquests, and did many wonderful deeds, till they became Christians: but as soon as they became Christians, they began to thrive at once, and settled down, and became that great family of nations, and kingdom of God, which we call Christendom; England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and the other countries of Christian Europe; which God has so prospered for his Son Jesus Christ's sake, in spite of many sins and shortcomings, with wealth and numbers, skill, and learning, and strength, that now the empire of the whole world depends upon these few small Christian nations, which in our Lord's time were only tribes of heathen savages: so that here again our Lord's great parable was fulfilled.
The gospel seed which the apostle sowed in those rich, luxurious, clever, learned, Romans, was like the seed which fell on thorny ground; and the cares and pleasures of this life, and the deceitfulness or riches, sprang up, and choked the word, and it remained unfruitful. But the gospel seed which was sown among our poor, wild, simple, ignorant forefathers, was the seed which fell on an honest and good heart, and took root, and brought forth fruit, some thirty, some fifty, and some one hundred fold. Epiphany came late to us--not for three hundred years after our Lord's birth: but, when it came, the light which it brought remained with us, and lights us even now from our cradle to our grave: and so again was fulfilled the Scripture, which says, that God chooses the weak things of this world to confound the strong; the foolish to confound the wise; yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought the things which are, that no flesh should glory in his presence.
That no flesh should glory in his presence. For mind, my friends, our business is not to be high-minded but to fear. And we English are too apt to be high-minded now. We pride ourselves on our English character, English cleverness, English courage, English wealth. My friends, be not high-minded but fear. We have no right to pride ourselves on being Englishmen, if we do the very things which our forefathers were ashamed to do even when they were heathens. They honoured their fathers and mothers. Do we? They were loyal and obedient to law. Are we? They were chaste and clean livers: adultery was seldom heard of among them; and, when it was, they punished it in the most fearful way: while what astonished that old Roman gentleman, of whom I spoke, most of all, was the pure and respectable lives of the young men and women. Is it so now-a- days among us, my friends? They were honest, too, and just in all their dealings. Are we? They were true to their word; no men on earth more true. Are we? They hated covetousness and overreaching. Do we? They were generous, open-handed, hospitable. Are we? My friends, this was the old English spirit, which God accepted in our forefathers. Is it in us now? We must not pride ourselves on it, unless we have it. Nay, more, what is it but a shame to us, if, while our forefathers were good heathens, we are bad Christians? They had but a small spark, a dim ray, as it were, of the light which lighteth every man who comes into the world: but they were more faithful to that little than many are now, who live in the full sunshine of God's gospel, in the free dispensation of God's spirit, with Christ's sacraments, Christ's Churches, means of grace and hopes of glory, of which they never dreamed. May they not rise up against some of us in the day of judgment, and condemn us, and say,-- 'Are you our children? Do you boast of knowing God better than we did, while you did things which we dared not do? We knew that God hated such sins, and therefore we kept from them. You should know that better than we; for you had seen God's horror of sin in the death of his own Son Jesus Christ; and yet you went on committing the very sins which crucified the Lord of Glory.'
My friends, I speak sober earnest. God grant that our old heathen forefathers may not rise up against us in the day of judgment, and condemn us. Let us turn to the Lord this day with all our hearts, and come to this holy table, confessing all our sins and unfaithfulness, and backslidings, that we may get there cleansing from his most precious blood, strength from his most precious body, life from his life, and spirit from his spirit; that so we may go away to lead new lives, following the commandments of God, and living up to our great light and knowledge, at least as well as our forefathers lived up to their little light. And so we shall really keep the feast of Epiphany in spirit and in truth: for Epiphany means the shewing of Jesus Christ to us Gentiles; and the way to prove that Jesus Christ has been shewn to us, and that we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, is to keep his commandments, and live lives like his.