"Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled; and they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus. And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye."--ACTS iv. 13, 18, 19.
I think that the quality, the grace of God, which St. Peter's character and story specially forces on our notice is courage--the true courage which comes by faith. The courage which comes by faith, I say. There is a courage which does not come by faith. There is a brute courage which comes from hardness of heart; from obstinacy, or anger, or stupidity, which does not see danger, or does not feel pain. That is the courage of the brute. One does not blame it or call it wrong. It is good in its place, as all natural things are which God has made. It is good enough for the brute; but it is not good enough for man. You cannot trust it in man. And the more a man is what a man should be, the less he can trust it. The more mind and understanding a man has, so as to be able to foresee danger and measure it, the more chance there is of his brute courage giving way. The more feeling a man has, the more keen he is to feel pain of body, or pain of mind, such as shame, loneliness, the dislike of ridicule, and the contempt of his fellow-men; in a word, the more of a man he is, the more chance there is of his brute courage breaking down, just when he wants it more to keep him up, and leaving him to play the coward and come to shame.
Yes; to go through with a difficult or dangerous undertaking a man wants more than brute courage. He wants spiritual courage, the courage which comes by faith. He needs to have faith in what he is doing to be certain that he is doing his duty--to be certain that he is in the right. To give one example. Look at the class of men who in all England in times of peace undergo the most fearful dangers; who know not at what hour of any night they may not be called up to the most serious and hard labour and responsibility, with the chance of a horrible and torturing death. I mean the firemen of our great cities, than whom there are no steadier, braver, nobler-hearted men. Not a week passes without one or more of those firemen, in trying to save life and property, doing things which are altogether heroic. What do you fancy keeps them up to their work? High pay? The amusement and excitement of the fires? The vanity of being praised for their courage? My friends, those would be but weak and paltry motives, which would not keep a man's heart calm and his head clear under such responsibility and danger as theirs.
No; it is the sense of duty. The knowledge that they are doing a good and a noble work in saving the lives of human beings and the wealth of the nation--the knowledge that they are in God's hands, and that no evil can happen to him who is doing right--that to him even death at his post is not a loss, but a gain. In short, faith in God, more or less clear, is what gives those men their strong and quiet courage. God grant that you and I, if ever we have dangerous work to do, may get true courage from the same fountain of ghostly strength.
Yes; it is the courage which comes by faith which makes truly brave men, men like St. Peter and St. John, who can say, "If I am right, God is on my side, I will not fear what men can do unto me." "I will not fear," said David, "though the earth be moved, and the mountains carried into the midst of the sea." The just man who holds firm to his duty will not, says a wise old writer, "be shaken from his solid mind by the rage of the mob bidding him do base things, or the frown of the tyrant who persecutes him. Though the world were to crumble to pieces round him, its ruins would strike him without making him tremble."
Such courage has made men, shut up in prison for long weary years for doing what was right, endure manfully for the sake of some great cause, and say--
"Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage, Minds innocent and quiet take That for an hermitage. If I have freedom in my thought, And in my soul am free, Angels alone that soar above Enjoy such liberty."
Yes; settle it in your hearts, all of you. There is but one thing you have to fear in heaven or earth--being untrue to your better selves, and therefore untrue to God. If you will not do the thing you know to be right, and say the thing you know to be true, then indeed you are weak. You are a coward, and sin against God. And you will suffer the penalty of your cowardice. You desert God, and therefore you cannot expect Him to stand by you. But who will harm you if you be followers of that which is right?
What does David say:--"Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved."--Psalm xv. 1-5. Yes, my friends, there is a tabernacle of God in which, even in this life, He will hide us from strife. There is a hill of God in which, even in the midst of danger, and labour, and anxiety, we may rest both day and night--even Jesus Christ, the Rock of Ages--He who is the righteousness itself, the truth itself. And whosoever does righteousness and speaks truth, dwells in Christ in this life, as well as in the life to come. And Christ will give him courage to strengthen him by His Holy Spirit, to stand in the evil day, the day of danger, if it shall come--and having done all to stand.
Pray you then for the Spirit of Faith to believe really in God, and for the spirit of ghostly strength to obey God honestly. No man ever asked honestly for that Spirit but what he gained it at last. And no man ever gained it but what he found the truth of St. Peter's own words--"Who will harm you, if you be followers of what is good?"