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Westminster Sermons, 2 - THE PERFECT LOVE

By Charles Kingsley

      1 JOHN IV. 10.

      Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

      This is Passion-week; the week in which, according to ancient and most wholesome rule, we are bidden to think of the Passion of Jesus Christ our Lord. To think of that, however happy and comfortable, however busy and eager, however covetous and ambitious, however giddy and frivolous, however free, or at least desirous to be free, from suffering of any kind, we are ourselves. To think of the sufferings of Christ, and learn how grand it is to suffer for the Right.

      And why?

      Passion-week gives but one answer: but that answer is the one best worth listening to.

      It is grand and good to suffer for the Right, because God, in Christ, has suffered for the Right.

      Let us consider this awhile.

      It is a first axiom in sound theology, that there is nothing good in man, which was not first in God.

      Now we all, I trust, hold God to be supremely good. We ascribe to Him, in perfection, every kind of goodness of which we can conceive in man. We say God is just; God is truthful; God is pure; God is bountiful; God is merciful; and, in one word, God is Love.

      God is Love. But if we say that, do we not say that God is good with a fresh form of goodness, which is not justice, nor truthfulness, nor purity, bounty, nor mercy, though without them--never forget that--it cannot exist? And is not that fresh goodness, which we have not defined yet, the very kind of goodness which we prize most in human beings? The very kind of goodness which makes us prize and admire love, because without it there is no true love, no love worth calling by that sacred and heavenly name? And what is that?

      What--save self-sacrifice? For what is the love worth which does not shew itself in action; and more, which does not shew itself in Passion, in the true sense of that word, which this week teaches us: namely, in suffering? Not merely in acting for, but in daring, in struggling, in grieving, in agonizing, and, if need be, in dying for, the object of its love?

      Every mother in this church will give but one answer to that question; for mothers give it among the very animals; and the deer who fights for her fawn, the bird who toils for her nestlings, the spider who will rather die than drop her bag of eggs, know at least that love is not worth calling love, unless it can dare and suffer for the thing it loves. The most gracious of all virtues, therefore, is self-sacrifice; and is there no like grace in God, the fount of grace? Has God, whose name is Love, never dared, never suffered, even to the death, in the mightiness of a perfect Love?

      We Christians say that He has. We say so, because it has been revealed to us, not by flesh and blood, not by brain or nerves, not by logic or emotions, but by the Spirit of God, to whom our inmost spirits and highest reasons have made answer--A God who has suffered for man? That is so beautiful, that it must be true.

      For otherwise we should be left--as I have argued at length elsewhere--in this strange paradox:--that man has fancied to himself for 1800 years a more beautiful God, a nobler God, a better God than the God who actually exists. It must be so, if God is not capable of that highest virtue of self-sacrifice, while man has been believing that He is, and that upon the first Good Friday He sacrificed Himself for man, out of the intensity of a boundless Love. A better God imagined by man, than the actual God who made man? We have only to state that absurdity, I trust, to laugh it to scorn.

      Let us confess, then, that the Passion of Christ, and the mystery of Good Friday, is as reasonable a belief to the truly wise, as it is comfortable to the weary and the suffering; let us agree that one of the wisest of Englishmen, of late gone to his rest, spoke well when he said, "As long as women and sorrow exist on earth, so long will the gospel of Christianity find an echo in the human heart." Let it find an echo in yours. But it will only find one, in as far as you can enter into the mystery of Passion-week; in as far as you can learn from Passion-week the truest and highest theology; and see what God is like, and therefore what you must try to be like likewise.

      Let us think, then, awhile of the mystery of Passion-week; the mystery of the Cross of Christ. Christ Himself was looking on the coming Cross, during this Passion-week; ay, and for many a week before. Nay rather, had He not looked on it from all eternity? For is He not the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world? Therefore we may well look on it with Him. It may seem, at first, a painful bight. But shall it cast over our minds only gloom and darkness? Or shall we not see on the Cross the full revelation of Light; of the Light which lightens every man that comes into the world: and find that painful, not because of its darkness, but as the blaze of full sunshine is painful, from unbearable intensity of warmth and light? Let us see.

      On the Cross of Calvary, then, God the Father shewed His own character and the character of His co-equal and co-eternal Son, and of The Spirit which proceeds from both. For there He spared not His only-begotten Son, but freely gave Him for us. On the Cross of Calvary, not by the will of man, but by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, was offered before God the one and only full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sin of the whole world. God Himself did this. It was not done by any other being to alter His will; it was done to fulfil His will. It was not done to satisfy God's anger; it was done to satisfy God's love. Therefore Good Friday was well and wisely called by our forefathers Good Friday; because it shews, as no other day can do, that God is good; that God's will to men, in spite of all their sins, is a good will; that so boundless, so utterly unselfish and condescending, is the eternal love of God, that when an insignificant race in a small and remote planet fell, and went wrong, and was in danger of ruin, there was nothing that God would not dare, God would not suffer, for the sake of even such as us, vile earth and miserable sinners.

      Yes, this is the good news of Passion-week; a gospel which men are too apt to forget, even to try to forget, as long as they are comfortable and prosperous, lazy and selfish. The comfortable prosperous man shrinks from the thought of Christ on His Cross. It tells him that better men than he have had to suffer; that The Son of God Himself had to suffer. And he does not like suffering; he prefers comfort. The lazy, selfish man shrinks from the sight of Christ on His Cross; for it rebukes his laziness and selfishness. Christ's Cross says to him--Thou art ignoble and base, as long as thou art lazy and selfish. Rise up, do something, dare something, suffer something, if need be, for the sake of thy fellow- creatures. Be of use. Take trouble. Face discomfort, contradiction, loss of worldly advantage, if it must be, for the sake of speaking truth and doing right. If thou wilt not do as much as that, then the simplest soldier who goes to die in battle for his duty, is a better man than thou, a nobler man than thou, more like Christ and more like God. That is what Christ's Cross preaches to the lazy, selfish man; and he feels in his heart that the sermon is true: but he does not like it. He turns from it, and says in his heart--Oh! Christ's Cross is a painful subject, and Passion-week and Good Friday a painful time. I will think of something more genial, more peaceful, more agreeable than sorrow, and shame, and agony, and death; Good Friday is too sad a day for me.

      Yes, so a man says too often, as long as the fine weather lasts, and all is smooth and bright. But when the tempest comes; when poverty comes, affliction, anxiety, shame, sickness, bereavement, and still more, when persecution comes on a man; when he tries to speak truth and do right; and finds, as he will too often find, that people, instead of loving him and praising him for speaking truth and doing right, hate him and persecute him for it: then, then indeed Passion-week begins to mean something to a man; and just because it is the saddest of all times, it looks to him the brightest of all times. For in his misery and confusion he looks up to heaven and asks--Is there any one in heaven who understands all this? Does God understand my trouble? Does God feel for my trouble? Does God care for my trouble? Does God know what trouble means? Or must I fight the battle of life alone, without sympathy or help from God who made me, and has put me here? Then, then does the Cross of Christ bring a message to that man such as no other thing or being on earth can bring. For it says to him--God does understand thee utterly. For Christ understands thee. Christ feels for thee. Christ feels with thee. Christ has suffered for thee, and suffered with thee. Thou canst go through nothing which Christ has not gone through. He, the Son of God, endured poverty, fear, shame, agony, death for thee, that He might be touched with the feeling of thine infirmity, and help thee to endure, and bring thee safe through all to victory and peace.

      But again, Passion-week, and above all Good Friday, is a good time, because it teaches us, above all days, what it is to be good, and what goodness means. Therefore remember this, all of you, and take it home with you for the year to come. He who has learnt the lesson of Passion- week, and practises it; he and he only is a good man.

      Nay more, Passion-week tells us, I believe, what is the law according to which the whole world of man and of things, yea, the whole universe, sun, moon, and stars, is made: and that is, the law of self-sacrifice; that nothing lives merely for itself; that each thing is ordained by God to help the things around it, even at its own expense. That is a hard saying: and yet it must be true. The soundest Theology and the highest Reason tell us that it must be so. For there cannot be two Holy Spirits. Now the Spirit by which the Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed himself upon the Cross is The Holy Spirit. And the Spirit by which the Lord Jesus Christ made all worlds is The Holy Spirit. But the spirit by which He sacrificed Himself on the Cross is the spirit of self-sacrifice. And therefore the spirit by which He made the world is the spirit of self- sacrifice likewise; and self-sacrifice is the law and rule on which the universe is founded. At least, that is the true Catholic faith, as far as my poor intellect can conceive it; and in that faith I will live and die.

      There are those who, now-a-days, will laugh at such a notion, and say--Self-sacrifice? It is not self-sacrifice which keeps the world going among men, or animals, or even the plants under our feet: but selfishness. Competition, they say, is the law of the universe. Everything has to take care of itself, fight for itself, compete freely and pitilessly with everything round it, till the weak are killed off, and only the strong survive; and so, out of the free play of the self- interest of each, you get the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number.

      Do we indeed? I should have thought that unbridled selfishness, and the internecine struggle of opposing interests, had already reduced many nations, and seemed likely to reduce all mankind, if it went on, to that state of the greatest possible misery of the greatest number, from which our blessed Lord, as in this very week, died to deliver us. At all events, if that is to be the condition of man, and of society, then man is not made in the likeness of God, and has no need to be led by the Spirit of God. For what the likeness of God and the Spirit of God are, Passion-week tells us--namely, Love which knows no self-interest; Love which cares not for itself; Love which throws its own life away, that it may save those who have hated it, rebelled against it, put it to a felon's death.

      My good friends, instead of believing the carnal and selfish philosophy which cries, Every man for himself--I will not finish the proverb in this Holy place, awfully and literally true as the latter half of it is--instead of believing that, believe the message of Passion-week, which speaks rather thus: telling us that not selfishness, but unselfishness, mutual help and usefulness, is the law and will of God; and that therefore the whole universe, and all that God has made, is very good. And what does Passion-week say to men?

      "Could we but crush that ever-craving lust
      For bliss, which kills all bliss; and lose our life,
      Our barren unit life, to find again
      A thousand lives in those for whom we die:
      So were we men and women, and should hold
      Our rightful place in God's great universe,
      Wherein, in heaven and earth, by will or nature,
      Nought lives for self. All, all, from crown to footstool.
      The Lamb, before the world's foundation slain;
      The angels, ministers to God's elect;
      The sun, who only shines to light a world;
      The clouds, whose glory is to die in showers;
      The fleeting streams, who in their ocean graves
      Flee the decay of stagnant self-content;
      The oak, ennobled by the shipwright's axe;
      The soil, which yields its marrow to the flower;
      The flower which breeds a thousand velvet worms,
      Born only to be prey to every bird--
      All spend themselves on others; and shall man,
      Whose twofold being is the mystic knot
      Which couples earth and heaven--doubly bound,
      As being both worm and angel, to that service
      By which both worms and angels hold their lives--
      Shall he, whose very breath is debt on debt,
      Refuse, forsooth, to see what God has made him?
      No, let him shew himself the creatures' lord
      By freewill gift of that self-sacrifice
      Which they, perforce, by nature's law must suffer;
      Take up his cross, and follow Christ the Lord."

      And thus Passion-week tells all men in what true goodness lies. In self- sacrifice. In it Christ on His Cross shewed men what was the likeness of God, the goodness of God, the glory of God--to suffer for sinful man.

      On this day Christ said--ay, and His Cross says still, and will say to all eternity--Wouldest thou be good? Wouldest thou be like God? Then work, and dare, and, if need be, suffer, for thy fellow-men. On this day Christ consecrated, and, as it were, offered up to the Father in His own body on the Cross, all loving actions, unselfish actions, merciful actions, generous actions, heroic actions, which man has done, or ever will do. From Him, from His Spirit, their strength came; and therefore He is not ashamed to call them brethren. He is the King of the noble army of martyrs; of all who suffer for love, and truth, and justice' sake; and to all such he says--Thou hast put on my likeness, and followed my footsteps; thou hast suffered for my sake, and I too have suffered for thy sake, and enabled thee to suffer in like wise; and in Me thou too art a son of God, in whom the Father is well pleased.

      Oh, let us contemplate this week Christ on His Cross, sacrificing Himself for us and all mankind; and may that sight help to cast out of us all laziness and selfishness, and make us vow obedience to the spirit of self- sacrifice, the Spirit of Christ and of God, which was given to us at our baptism. And let us give, as we are most bound, in all humility and contrition of heart, thanks, praise, and adoration, to that immortal Lamb, who abideth for ever in the midst of the throne of God, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, by Whom all things consist; and Who in this week died on the Cross in mortal flesh and blood, that He might make this a good week to all mankind, and teach selfish man that only by being unselfish can he too be good; and only by self-sacrifice become perfect, even as The Father in heaven is perfect.

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