By John Percival
"So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another."--ROMANS xii. 5.
There are some moral and spiritual truths which it seems to be almost impossible to impress upon the practical life of the world, although they meet with a sort of universal acceptance.
Men agree with them, they re-echo them, they applaud them; they do everything, in fact, but exhibit them as the moving, inspiring, and guiding truths of their daily practice.
And among these I fear we must still class that one which is expressed in the text I have just read, a text which sets forth the fundamental fact that whatever else Christianity may teach, it teaches as one of its first and principal lessons that a Christian man has to live in Christ for his neighbours.
If such a text means anything, it means that Christianity is essentially a religion of society, that it sets before us social claims as standing before all other claims; that, starting from the Divine Sacrifice as the central fact of human life, it was intended to root out of our hearts the noxious weed of selfishness by the power of the Divine love, and to build up the organisation of men in their common relationships upon this new basis.
It may sound somewhat strange to speak at this time of day of what Christianity is intended to do, rather than what it has done already.
But it is even more strange to read the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, and all the other words of the Lord; all the lessons of His life and His sacrifice; the history of the first generation of Christians; the descent of the Spirit upon them; and the teaching of the apostolic brotherhood--to remember that all this is our accepted faith; that it has been the faith of one generation after another for eighteen hundred years; that we grow up in this faith, live in it, and die in it; and at the same time to contemplate side by side with it all the elements of the common life, all the rules and customs of society, all the standards of conduct which ordinary men take as their measure of daily duty and purpose.
Thus, whilst on the one hand Christian influences, and all the changes in the world's life which are due to them, fill us with wonder and gratitude, the failures of Christianity are scarcely less impressive.
When we consider the ordinary run of men's lives, so different for the most part in spirit, and in aim and guiding rules, from that type which the New Testament sets before us, it would almost seem as if to the majority their religion was not a ruling and dominating principle, pervading this present life, but only an 'ideal', shedding around us a glow of indefinite hopes and possibilities, an ideal hardly to be realised, laid up somewhere in the heavens--[Greek text]. These contrasts between the revelation of the Gospel and the standards of the Christian world have always troubled the most earnest spirits in every generation. Some of you remember, no doubt, how this contrast between Christian profession and the life of selfish sin and waste flashed into fierce poetry in one such spirit of the last generation, who grew up in this school.
"Through the great, sinful streets of Naples, as I passed, With fiercer heat than flamed above my head My heart was hot within me, till at last My brain was lightened when my tongue had said Christ is not risen."
And men who are truly in earnest about faith and life, and who are perplexed and distressed by the contradictions and insincerities that meet them, must often be moved as he was.
And yet, when we look closer, and consider that the battle of spiritual progress has this peculiarity attached to it, that it has to be fought over again, in every generation, and in every separate individual soul, the result is less surprising. Remembering this, we do not expect the victory of the last generation to save us from defeat or failure.
And this has to be borne in mind equally in regard to the continuous life of societies and to our own separate lives. Thus in such a society as this, if our predecessors uplifted the standards of conduct, inculcated high principles, and inspired their generation with a strong pervading spirit, this should make it easier for us to do likewise; but it does not insure our doing it. All this higher life will die in our hands if the same regenerating spirit is not alive and working in our hearts also. So, again, your individual victory over sin in the power of the Spirit in you, does not save my life from having to fight the battle for itself and win its own victories.
So that, however perplexing the phenomena of life may seem whilst we look at them in the mass or from the outside, if we read the Gospel of Christ as a message to our own souls a great deal of the perplexity disappears. And it was with this personal message that Christ came, and there is no hope of our understanding His mission, or of living in the light of His transforming spirit, if we think of it in any other way than this.
The purpose of His revelation is to crucify the selfish instinct in us, and to rouse us to the life of self-devotion, to the idea of consecrated energies; and this being so, all Christian life is of the nature of a warfare; and a warfare which begins afresh with each generation of men; because selfishness, with all its tribe of attendant appetites and passions, springs afresh in every single soul, and is nurtured, strengthened, cultivated, by so many of the conditions of life.
If, then, the Spirit of Christ is really to prevail in our life, it must be by effecting our emancipation from selfish instincts, and rousing in us the spirit of devotion to the good of other lives.
In proportion as you diminish selfishness in your own life or in any other, by fostering generous affections and cultivating the spirit of social duty and religious aspiration, by walking in the footsteps of Christ and living in the light of His presence, you are laying the only possible foundation of any lasting progress, you are following the one true method by which the mystery of sin is to be overcome.
We may wonder that this should be so difficult; for of selfishness we should say that we all dislike it. In its grosser forms we repudiate it. The very word is one which we articulate with a certain accent of contempt.
But when we come to its refined and subtle workings in our nature, when we think of its Proteus-like changeableness, its power of assuming the various guises even of duty or religion; when we reflect how it can clothe itself in the choicest garb of art, or science, or divine philosophy, we find very likely that we are always in danger of being enslaved by it.
And we do well to pray in all sincerity that grace may expel our selfishness; for indeed the influence of true religion is to be gauged by the extent to which this prayer is being fulfilled in us. The fulfilment of it is what we mean by the regenerate life.
I need not ask you how you feel in the presence of any character which you recognise as cleansed from all taint of selfishness, a character, softened, refined, purified, inspired, consecrated. I would rather ask whether you know of any personal influence to be compared with that of such a character.
And if, as I anticipate, you would answer that there is none like it, I would ask you to bear in mind that this influence may be yours. You are invited by all the highest calls within and around you to make it yours. "What is the aim and purpose of his life?" is a question which men are justified in asking about us; and they are justified in passing their verdict upon us by the answer which our life gives.
Does he live for himself, they will ask, for his own pleasures, his own delights, be they coarse or refined, his own indulgence, his own particular interest? Is there anything of the spirit or enthusiasm of sacrifice visible in the ordinary tenor of his actions?
The world, this Christian world, is full of those concerning whom the answer to such questions can only be a distinct negative; and yet we know that in all such characters, whether in youth or age, Christianity is a failure.
Therefore we shall accept it as our primary duty, the purpose of our existence as a Christian school, to train up men who shall be penetrated by the spirit of unselfishness, possessed by the feeling that their lives are to be consecrated to the common good.
Societies differ very widely in the type of character they impress.
Here and there we see a society, here and there a school, which has somehow acquired the power to stamp on those who go out from it a certain impress of nobility.
They go forth like the knights of our famous English legend--imperfect no doubt and erring, but each one of them inspired with the consciousness that his life is a holy quest.
There are other societies and schools among them which seem to possess everything but this one power.
What, then, are we to say of our hopes? What is to be the mission of our generation here? Shall we contribute anything to raise the common type? Or shall we drift on as the world drifts, a little better, or a little worse?
Shall we not rather pray and hope as we begin once more to weave the web of mutual influence, that you may grow up here not altogether like the herd of common men, but emancipated early from the life of selfish desire, feeling the spirit of Christ within you, remembering your baptismal vows, with eyes open to heavenly visions, and not disobedient unto them?