Our blessed Lord came to strengthen, to inspire, to stamp with divinest sanction, to render alone and eternally effectual by His life and by His death—this work and this protest—this hard fighting and this high testimony —of man for men. The tendency of churches to settle down contentedly into sham orthodoxy and spurious religion has never ceased; and again and again has the Holy Spirit of Christ broken up the fountains of the great deep of individuality to pour its lustral wave over the putrescent world. By the Apostles first,— by the flashing impetuosity of Peter; by the stainless asceticism of James; by the love and the lightning of John; by the heroism and dauntlessness of Paul—He carried on His work. Then, after the Apostles, came the Martyrs. During centuries of active and passive struggle, when they could do nothing else, they died. And so "by the unresistible might of weakness," as with the daring of " a host of Scaevolas," Justin, Ignatius, Polycarp, Cyprian, Lawrence, Sebastian, Pothinus, Blandina, Felicitas—philosophers, bishops, deacons, soldiers, old men, boys, maidens — they shook the world. And then when other types were needed of courageous protest and courageous individuality, to liberate souls from the confusion of a dying society in the third century, St. Antony fled into the desert; amid the wreck of empire, in the sixth century, St. Benedict founded a noble order of monasticism; in the midst of wealth and corruption, in the thirteenth century, St Francis of Assisi became the prophet of the poor. When the life of the Church grew more and more corrupt—when the revival of letters had made of Christianity a coarse because a less excusable Paganism—when Pope after Pope was a monster of avarice and crime, the wind of Heaven was still blowing where it listed, and pure foreheads were still mitred with the Pentecostal flame. In dissolute Florence the mighty voice of Savonarola repeated the denunciations of Amos against dissolute Jerusalem. In England the words of Wyclif, in Bohemia the words of Huss, denouncing usurpation, exposing falsehood, proclaiming truth, thrilled into the hearts of the people. In vain the guilty confederacies of priests and rulers burned Savonarola, burned Huss, exhumed and scattered to the winds the bones of Wyclif. Men may be burned, truth cannot be burnt. Against the mitred atheism and cultured vice of Leo X. arose one poor monk, and shook the worst engines of spiritual tyranny for ever to the ground. Tetzel was impudently selling his pardons and indulgences, and shamelessly demoralising the people, with all the power of the Papacy to back him, when Luther sprang into the thick of the battle. He nailed his theses to the cathedral door of Wittenberg; he flung into the flames the papal bull of condemnation; strong in the simple invincibility of an awakened sense of truth and justice, he faced emperors, popes, dukes, cardinals, doctors, theologians. In vain they told him of perils, of imprisonment and assassination; " Were there as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs, I would go there." " Here stand I; I can no other; God help me." They bid him moderate his words; he will not moderate his words ; " the word of God," he says, " is a war, a sword, a perdition, a stumbling-block, a ruin." So he stormed, and so he set free the fettered conscience of mankind. And many rose to continue his work. In Scotland, Knox arose, of whom the Regent Morton said, " Here lies one who never feared the face of man;" who said himself that " he had looked in the faces of many angry men." When he was working in chains on the galleys in France, they brought him an image of the Virgin, and bade him worship the mother of God. " Mother of God," he exclaimed, "it is a pented bredd" (or board), and he flung it into the river to sink or swim. " Who are you ? " said Mary Queen of Scots to him, " that presume to school the nobles and sovereign of this realm ?" " Madam," he answers, " a subject born within the same." " Have you hope ?" they ask him on his death-bed, when he can no longer speak; and lifting his hand he pointed upwards with his finger, and so, pointing to heaven, he died. He died, but not his work; that was being continued when the Mayflower sailed from Delft Haven to found on the grand principles of Puritanism the mighty Republic of the West. It was being continued when Hampden and Cromwell were fighting, and Milton uttering words of fire, to save England from the Star-Chamber and from ship-money, from the divine right of an unscrupulous tyranny and from the ruthless intolerance of a narrow ecclesiasticism. And when again Protestantism had run to the dregs, when the Church of England—the Church of Cranmer and Latimer—the Church of Jeremy Taylor and Andrewes —the Church of Butler and Tillotson—the Church of Ken and Wilson—had grown sleepy and effete, showing everywhere the trail of nepotism, worldliness, and sloth, smitten with the disease of contented commonplace, once more the fire of God burst forth to scathe the very cedars, while the brambles in their dense undergrowth wen being consumed. It broke forth in the last century in the voices of Wesley and Whitefield, which shamed into repentance, and startled into decency, a dissolute and faithless age.
What is all this to us ? Nothing, if life be nothing; nothing, " if the chief use and market of our time be but to sleep and feed ;" nothing, if the main object of life be in the vulgar sense " to get on; " nothing, if to puff and push our way into rank, or to toil and moil for money, and then to spend it on ourselves, or accumulate it in masses for the aggrandisement of our families, be deemed a worthy life; nothing, if we were only born to indulge, like natural brute beasts, our meanest passions ; nothing, if the sigh of Jesus were nothing, or if He would find no wrongs to sigh for now.
To all of us the record of the good men who have gone before us is as a trumpet's blast to make us cry, " O that the forces indeed were arrayed ! O joy of the onset ! Sound, thou trumpet of God ; come forth, great cause, to array us! King and Leader, appear; Thy soldiers, sorrowing, call Thee".
But He, the King and Leader, answers, " Walk in My steps, as these did. They tended My sheep; they fed My lambs; they flung the offenders of My innocents with millstones round their necks into the sea; they crushed the viper-head of lies; they quenched the fire of intolerance; they dashed their hands on the lion-mouth of tyranny; they set at liberty the bruised victims of oppression." They did all this: can you do nothing? Begin by thinking a little of others. Begin by sparing a little of your substance. Begin by giving cups of old water in Christ's name to Christ's little ones. Begin by doing faithfully the small simple duty which lies nearest you. Begin by trying to feel so much of what Jesus felt when he sighed for a ruined world, as at least not daily to wring with sighs the heart of His ruined children, the heart of His faithful servants. So perchance may He at last send you also, were it but at the eleventh hour, to work in His vineyard. So may He enable you to rise above yourselves and your own selfish interests— to feel what His sigh meant, and to labour in His sick and suffering world.
Ephphatha Sermons, p. 79.