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Westminster Sermons, 22 - NOBLE COMPANY

By Charles Kingsley

      HEBREWS XII. 22, 23.

      Ye are come to the city of the living God, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.

      I have quoted only part of the passage of Scripture in which these words occur. If you want a good employment for All Saints' Day, read the whole passage, the whole chapter; and no less, the 11th chapter, which comes before it: so will you understand better the meaning of All Saints' Day. But sufficient for the day is the good thereof, as well as the evil; and the good which I have to say this morning is--You are come to the spirits of just men made perfect; for this is All Saints' Day.

      Into the presence of this noble company we have come: even nobler company, remember, than that which was spoken of in the text. For more than 1800 years have passed since the Epistle to the Hebrews was written: and how many thousands of just men and women, pure, noble, tender, wise, beneficent, have graced the earth since then, and left their mark upon mankind, and helped forward the hallowing of our heavenly Father's name, the coming of His kingdom, the doing of His will on earth as it is done in heaven; and helped therefore to abolish the superstition, the misrule, the vice, and therefore the misery of this struggling, moaning world. How many such has Christ sent on this earth during the last 1800 years. How many before that; before His own coming, for many a century and age. We know not, and we need not know. The records of Holy Scripture and of history strike with light an isolated mountain peak, or group of peaks, here and here through the ages; but between and beyond all is dark to us now. But it may not have been dark always. Scripture and history likewise hint to us of great hills far away, once brilliant in the one true sunshine which comes from God, now shrouded in the mist of ages, or literally turned away beyond our horizon by the revolution of our planet: and of lesser hills, too, once bright and green and fair, giving pasture to lonely flocks, sending down fertilizing streams into now forgotten valleys; themselves all but forgotten now, save by the God who made and blessed them.

      Yes: many a holy soul, many a useful soul, many a saint who is now at God's right hand, has lived and worked, and been a blessing, himself blest, of whom the world, and even the Church, has never heard, who will never be seen or known again, till the day in which the Lord counteth up His jewels.

      Let us rejoice in that thought on this day, above all days in the year. On this day we give special thanks to God for all His servants departed this life in His faith and fear. Let us rejoice in the thought that we know not how many they are; only that they are an innumerable company, out of all tongues and nations, whom no man can number. Let us rejoice that Christ's grace is richer, and not poorer, than our weak imaginations can conceive, or our narrow systems account for. Let us rejoice that the goodly company in whose presence we stand, can be limited and defined by no mortal man, or school of men: but only by Him from whom, with the Father, proceeds for ever the Holy Spirit, the inspirer of all good; and who said of that Spirit--"The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. So is every one who is born of the Spirit"--and who said again, "John came neither eating nor drinking, and ye said, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and ye say, Behold a man gluttonous and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But I say unto you, Verily wisdom is justified of all her children"--and who said again--when John said to Him, "Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and he followeth not us"--"Forbid him not. For I say to you, that he that doeth a miracle in My name will not lightly speak evil of Me"--and who said, lastly--and most awfully--that the unpardonable sin, either in this life or the life to come, was to attribute beneficent deeds to a bad origin, because they were performed by one who differed from us in opinion; and to say, "He casteth out devils by Beelzebub, prince of the devils."

      These are words of our Lord, which we are specially bound to keep in our minds, with reverence and godly fear, on All Saints' Day, lest by arranging our calendar of saints according to our own notions of who ought to be a saint, and who ought not--that is, who agrees with our notions of perfection, and who does not--we exclude ourselves, by fastidiousness, from much unquestionably good company; and possibly mix ourselves up with not a little which is, to say the least, questionable.

      Men in all ages, Churchmen or others, have fallen into this mistake. They have been but too ready to limit their calendar of saints; to narrow the thanksgivings which they offer to God on All Saints' Day.

      The Romish Church has been especially faulty on this point. It has assumed, as necessary preliminaries for saintship--at least after the Christian era--the practice of, or at least the longing after, celibacy; and after the separation of the Eastern and Western Churches, unconditional submission to the Church of Rome. But how has this injured, if not spoiled, their exclusive calendar of saints. Amid apostles, martyrs, divines, who must be always looked on as among the very heroes and heroines of humanity, we find more than one fanatic persecutor; more than two or three clearly insane personages; and too many who all but justify the terrible sneer--that the Romish Calendar is the "Pantheon of Hysteria."

      And Protestants, too--How have they narrowed the number of the spirits of just men made perfect; and confined the Paean which should go up from the human race on All Saints' Day, till a "saint" has too often meant with them only a person who has gone through certain emotional experiences, and assented to certain subjective formulas, neither of which, according to the opinion of some of the soundest divines, both of the Romish, Greek, and Anglican communions, are to be found in the letter of Scripture as necessary to salvation; and who have, moreover, finished their course--doubtless often a holy, beneficent, and beautiful course--by a rapturous death-bed scene, which is more rare in the actual experience of clergymen, and, indeed, in the conscience and experience of human beings in general, than in the imaginations of the writers of religious romances.

      But we of the Church of England, as by law established--and I recognize and obey, and shall hereafter recognize and obey, no other--have no need so to narrow our All Saints' Day; our joy in all that is noble and good which man has said or done in any age or clime. We have no need to define where formularies have not defined; to shut where they have opened; to curse where they either bless, or are humbly, charitably, and therefore divinely, silent. With a magnificent faith in the justice of the Father, and in the grace of Christ, and in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, our Church bids us--Judge not the dead, lest ye be judged. Condemn not the dead, lest ye be condemned. For she bids us commit to the earth the corpses of all who die not "unbaptized," "excommunicate," or wilful suicides, and who are willing to lie in our consecrated ground; giving thanks to God that our dear brother has been delivered from the miseries of this sinful world, and in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

      At least: we of the Abbey of Westminster have a right to hold this; for we, thank God, act on it, and have acted on it for many a year. We have a right to our wide, free, charitable, and truly catholic conception of All Saints' Day. Ay, if we did not use our right, these walls would use it for us; and in us would our Lord's words be fulfilled--If we were silent, the very stones beneath our feet would cry out.

      For hither we gather, as far as is permitted us, and hither we gather proudly, the mortal dust of every noble soul who has done good work for the British nation; accepting each and all of them as gifts from the Father of lights, from whom proceedeth every good and perfect gift, as sent to this nation by that Lord Jesus Christ who is the King of all the nations upon earth; and acknowledging--for fear of falling into that Pelagian heresy, which is too near the heart of every living man--that all wise words which they have spoken, all noble deeds which they have done, have come, must have come, from The One eternal source of wisdom, of nobleness, of every form of good; even from the Holy Spirit of God.

      We make no severe or minute inquiries here. We leave them, if they must be made, to God the Judge of all things, and Christ who knows the secrets of the hearts; to Him who is merciful in this: that He rewardeth every man according to his works.

      All we ask is--and all we dare ask--of divine or statesman, poet or warrior, musician or engineer--of Dryden or of Handel--of Isaac Watts or of Charles Dickens--but why go on with the splendid diversities of the splendid catalogue?--What was your work? Did we admire you for it? Did we love you for it? And why? Because you made us in some way or other better men. Because you helped us somewhat toward whatsoever things are pure, true, just, honourable, of good report. Because, if there was any virtue--that is, true valour and manhood; if there was any praise--that is, just honour in the sight of men, and therefore surely in the sight of the Son of man, who died for men; you helped us to think on such things. You, in one word, helped to make us better men.

      Welcome then, friends unknown--and, alas! friends known, and loved, and lost--welcome into England's Pantheon, not of superstitious and selfish hysteria, but of beneficent and healthy manhood.

      Your words and your achievements have gone out into all lands, and your sound unto the ends of the world; and let them go, and prosper in that for which the Lord of man has sent them. Our duty is, to guard your sacred dust. Our duty is, to point out your busts, your monuments around these ancient walls, to all who come, of every race and creed; as proofs that the ancient spirit is not dead; that Christ has not deserted the nation of England, while He sends into it such men as you; that Christ has not deserted the Church of England, while He gives her grace to recognize and honour such men as you, and to pray Christ that He would keep up the sacred succession of virtue, talent, beneficence, patriotism; and make us, most unworthy, at last worthy, one at least here and there, of the noble dead, above whose dust we now serve God.

      Yes, so ought we in Westminster to keep our All Saints' Day; in giving thanks to God for the spirits of just men made perfect. Not only for those just men and women innumerable, who--as I said at first--have graced this earth during the long ages of the past: but specially for those who lie around us here; with whom we can enter, and have entered already, often, into spiritual communion closer than that, almost, of child with parent; whose writings we can read, whose deeds we can admire, whose virtues we can copy, and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, we and our children after us, which never can be repaid.

      And if ever the thought comes over us--But these men had their faults, mistakes--Oh, what of that?

      Nothing is left of them
      Now, but pure manly.

      Let us think of them: not as they were, compassed round with infirmities--as who is not?--knowing in part, and seeing in part, as St Paul himself, in the zenith of his inspiration, said that he knew; and saw, as through a glass, darkly.

      Let us think of them not as they were, the spirits of just men imperfect: but as the spirits of just men made, or to be made hereafter, perfect; when, as St Paul says, "that which is in part is done away, and that which is perfect is come." And let us trust Christ for them, as we would trust Him for ourselves; sure "that the path of the just is as a shining light, which shineth more and more unto the perfect day."

      Ah, how many lie in this Abbey, to meet whom in the world to come, would be an honour most undeserved!

      How many more worthy, and therefore more likely, than any of us here, to behold that endless All Saints' Day, to which may God in His mercy, in spite of all our shortcomings, bring us all. Amen.

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