By John Percival
"We are labourers together with God; ye are God's husbandry; ye are God's building."--1 COR. iii. 9.
In this passage St. Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for that spirit of party which was dividing them into followers of this or that teacher and so destroying their unity in Christ. You do not belong, he says, to Paul or to Apollos; 'we' have no claim upon you; ye are not to be called by 'our' name: you are 'God's' husbandry, and 'God's' building, not ours; we are but labourers in His service and ministers for your good. Therefore, see to it that you live as one society in Christ Jesus, discarding all divisions, factions, and party passions and watchwords, imbued with one spirit. It is a noble exhortation to unity of life and purpose; but we may notice in it more than this.
As Paul himself disclaims all personal merit--as he presses it on their attention that neither is he that planteth anything nor he that watereth, but God that giveth the increase, he is unconsciously exhibiting to us an example of that rare humility which is characteristic of all the greatest and most effective workers; whilst in the vivid and expressive metaphors of my text--ye are God's husbandry, God's building--he makes us to feel the value and the dignity of each human soul.
It would be interesting to dwell on these calls to unity of life in Christ, and the close connection between such unity and the spirit of humility; in fact, we might say, the absolute necessity of the spirit of humility and self-forgetfulness in individuals if there is to be unity in the society. And we might apply the thoughts with much profit to our own social relations, for they are never out of date; but I desire to turn to- day to that which is suggested by these descriptive metaphors, the value and dignity of each human life.
St. Paul pressed it on these Corinthians that their souls were nothing less than the seed-field of which God Himself was the Husbandman, or the temple built by His hand; and they could hardly have listened to such language without being stirred to take care how they sowed in that field, or without feeling the consequent value of their life in the sight of God.
If they were thus the objects of the Divine care they could not be thought of as insignificant units in a crowded city; or as living an obscure life which was of no particular importance, as they might otherwise have been tempted to fancy, as we are still sometimes tempted to think about an individual life. This picture of each life amongst us in its relation to God, as His seed-field or His temple, is a continual reminder that where a human soul is concerned there is no such thing as insignificance or obscurity.
As St. Paul thought of that little company--a company small and obscure to the outward eye--what he saw in them was the temple of the Holy Ghost, and the spiritual life that was breathing there was a Divine life; and this intense conviction of the value of each soul and each society and its consequent sanctity was a never-failing inspiration to him.
Through it he saw in every one who listened to his words, as he went from city to city, a man created and endowed with a Divine mission and Divine capacity, if they could only be roused.
It transformed every soul that crossed his path, so that he looked on life with new eyes. The common crowd had a new interest for him, the suffering poor, the downtrodden slave, the heathen in his blindness, the degraded sinner.
And it has been so with all the great servants of God; out of this feeling the love of souls has grown in men.
But this feeling of the value of each individual life, because of the Divine element and presence in it, is a peculiar gift of the Christian revelation.
In the ancient pagan world a man's life was of little account; it is out of the Bible that this new thought has come that every soul has in it an indefinite element of Divine possibilities, and is therefore of value in the sight of God. It is by virtue of this contribution to our thought that the Bible is truly described as the Great Charter of human rights, and as the source of the great stream of charity and self-sacrifice, of that enthusiasm of humanity which more than all else separates and distinguishes our life from that of heathen antiquity.
It would indeed be difficult to point to any one single thing which makes so great a difference between the quality of one man's life and another's as the presence or absence of this feeling about the value, the possibilities, the sanctity of each individual soul.
"Let man estimate himself," said Pascal, "let him estimate himself at his true value, honour himself in his capacities, and despise himself in his neglect of those capacities." Yes, if a man is once brought to this condition that he feels the greatness of the ends for which God has made him, and that he estimates his life by the possibilities of growth that are in it, and by the thought of the Divine influences that work in it; and if he despises himself for neglect of these capacities or possibilities and of these influences, he has awoke to a sense of the first word of Christ and His Apostles.
Your soul is God's seed-field, God's building; we are labourers together with God. Such a description of each individual life is very significant everywhere, and not least in such a society as ours.
To us who are here in this society as masters they are just a parable of our own life; setting forth to each of us what should be his estimate of his own work and aim and purpose, exhibiting to him his field of work with the Divine light on it, and interpreting to him his own endeavours as a fellow-labourer with God, hoping to contribute in some degree towards the filling in and completing that Divine plan, that ideal picture of the life of every one of you which is in the heavens, and which in imagination he sees as a thing some day to be realised, and the realisation of which, or its failure, may largely depend on his own share in our life and work. It is this feeling that every heart contains the germ of some perfection that makes our life so profoundly interesting, and, it may be added, our responsibilities for the cultivation or neglect of any such germ or capacity so serious and engrossing.
But to you, too, these apostolic suggestions about the Divine influences at work in each heart, and the value of each life in God's sight, and the Divine voices claiming to be heard in it, should be quite as stimulative as they are to us.
They have in them the germ of all striving after purity and goodness, and of all hatred of sin, and enthusiasm for the uplifting of social life.
The words of Paul to his Corinthian converts may furnish you with new interpretations of your own daily life and duty.
If they were God's husbandry, or God's building, are not you? If the Spirit of God dwelt in them, how does He not dwell likewise in you? striving for your growth in holiness and good purpose, and for your salvation from sin and its defilements, as he strove for theirs?
And if it was good for every man in that Corinthian community to be warned how he built upon the foundation of life that had been laid in Christ; if it was good for them to be reminded that every man's work would be made manifest, and that the fire would try it, of what sort it was; it is good also for us, masters and boys alike, to remember that we are living under the same law, and that we should take care lest haply we be found to be working against God.
That Epistle of St. Paul's was written in pain and anguish of heart. The seeds of Christian life which he had sown among them, the purifying influences of the Holy Spirit which were working among them through him and his fellow-labourers, all these ought to have produced fruits easily described, such as peace and love, and purity, and good works; but instead of these, and threatening their destruction, there had sprung up dissension and strife, party spirit, self-conceit, and gross sins which I need not name.
In all this there was grief, disappointment, bitterness; for did they not prove that his work was threatened with failure?
Yet in all that storm of feeling his chief exhortation is this reminder of the dignity of their calling. In the midst of all their sin and failure, though he does not spare rebuke and warning, he always aims at inspiring them by uplifting. And we know that this is the true method, because there is nothing which exercises an influence so strong to uplift and purify as the feeling of our kinship with the life above us, and that we are degrading our life when we forget this or ignore it. And herein is the value of this word of his that God is dwelling and working in us. "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, that the Holy Ghost dwelleth in you, and that God's temple is holy? and if any man destroy the temple of God, him shall God destroy."
Let us then begin again our common life with a determination to bear in mind the possibilities and the sanctity of each separate soul that comes amongst us.
Living in crowds, we are apt to forget this; and, forgetting it, some treat their own souls as if they were of no value, and some the souls of others, and so the work of sin and waste goes on from generation to generation.
But in our best moments, in our times of serious thought, if we have been once enlightened, we can never again cease to feel the dignity and the value of each human life.
When we think of God's care for us we feel it; when we think of the possibilities He has ordained for us we feel it; when we think of the endless life that lies before us we feel it; above all, we never fail to feel it when our thoughts revert to any life that has been snatched away from us. Some of you are thinking to-day of the master whose home is darkened by the presence of the angel of death. You think of her whom God has taken, who was moving among you not so long ago, as your tender, considerate, and helpful friend. It may be that you were not uninfluenced by her self-devotion and holiness.
When you think of such an one you feel no doubt about the value and the sanctity of each human life.
Well, then, transfer this feeling to your own life, or to the life of the boy who sits beside you, or who lives as your companion. In the purpose of our common Father, your lives also are destined for holy uses.
To remember this may be a safeguard against temptation or sinful habit; it may inspire you with a new feeling of the value of 'all' the lives around you, and a new sense of the duty you owe to the good life of this society in which God has placed you, that you may prove a vessel of honour sanctified for His service.