Sermon 8. St. Paul's Gift of Sympathy Seasons - Sexagesima

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all consolation. Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we also may be able to comfort those who are in any distress, by the exhortation wherewith we also are exhorted by God." 2 Cor. i. 3, 4.

{106} THERE is no one who has loved the world so well, as He who made it. None has so understood the human heart, and human nature, and human society in its diversified forms, none has so tenderly entered into and measured the greatness and littleness of man, his doings and sufferings, his circumstances and his fortunes, none has felt such profound compassion for his ignorance and guilt, his present rebellion and his prospects hereafter, as the Omniscient. What He has actually done for us is the proof of this. "God so loved the world, as to give His Only-begotten Son." He loved mankind in their pollution, in spite of the abhorrence with which that pollution {107} filled Him. He loved them with a father's love, who does not cast off a worthless son once for all, but is affectionate towards his person, while he is indignant at his misconduct. He loved them for what still remained in them of their original excellence, which was in its measure a reflexion of His own. He loved them before He redeemed them, and He redeemed them because He loved them. This is that "philanthropy" or "humanity" of God our Saviour, of which the inspired writers speak.

None, I say, can know the race of man so well, none can so truly love it for its own sake, as He who sent His Co-equal Son, as He who came from the Eternal Father, to save it. But His knowledge of it and His love of it arose, not from any sympathy of nature, but because it was His Divine prerogative to "know what was in man." And, even when He became man, still He knew only by means of that Divine Omniscience, and not experimentally, the disorder of our minds and the tyranny of Satan. He was partaker indeed of our infirmities, but He could not partake of our waywardness, our passionateness, and our ignorance.

But there is a knowledge and a love of human nature, which Saints possess, which follows on an intimate experience of what human nature actually is, in its irritability and sensitiveness, its despondency and changeableness, its sickliness, its blindness, and its impotence. Saints have this gift, and it is from above; though it be gained, humanly speaking, either from the memory of what they themselves were before their conversion, or from a keen apprehension and appreciation of their own natural feelings and tendencies. And of those who {108} have possessed it, I think the most conspicuous and remarkable instance is the great Apostle of the Gentiles; and this is a time of year when it cannot be out of place to speak of him, considering how diligent the Church is in the weeks which are now closing, to bring him before us. First, on Christmas Eve she lets us hear his voice, like some herald's trumpet, announcing again and again through the day the coming of Incarnate Grace upon earth. Then she proceeds to read his Epistles till Septuagesima; and further, not content with the feast of his Conversion, she reiterates his festival on Sexagesima, which sometimes falls on that very day, and which is a second commemoration of the Apostle. As then I have already made some remarks on his love of human nature, or philanthropy, generally, so now, on Sexagesima, I will describe it, as far as time will admit, as exercised by him within the Church, towards his brethren,—exercised towards them, not simply as heirs of heaven, but as children of Adam who are heirs of heaven, as possessed still of that nature as fully as before, which had to be redeemed.

He says in the text, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all consolation. Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we also may be able to comfort those who are in any distress, by the exhortation wherewith we also are exhorted by God." Here he speaks of a ministration of charitable services, and he makes it arise out of sympathy with others; our own memory and experience of trouble urging us, and enabling us, to aid others who are in like trouble. Charity, we know, is a {109} theological virtue, and the love of man is, properly speaking, included in the love of God. "Every one," says St. John, "that loveth Him that begat, loveth him also who is born of Him." Again, "This commandment we have from God, that he who loveth God, love also his brother." But there is another virtue distinct from charity, though closely connected with it. As Almighty God Himself has the compassion of a father on his children, "for He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are dust"; so, after His pattern, we are called upon to cherish the virtue of humanity, as it may be called, a virtue which comes of His supernatural grace, and is cultivated for His sake, though its object is human nature viewed in itself, in its intellect, its affections, and its history. And it is this virtue which I consider is so characteristic of St. Paul; and he himself often inculcates it in his Epistles, as when he enjoins bowels of mercy, benignity, kindness, gentleness, and the like.

It is the habit, then, of this great Apostle to have such full consciousness that he is a man, and such love of others as his kinsmen, that in his own inward conception, and in the tenor of his daily thoughts, he almost loses sight of his gifts and privileges, his station and dignity, except he is called by duty to remember them, and he is to himself merely a frail man speaking to frail men, and he is tender towards the weak from a sense of his own weakness; nay, that his very office and functions in the Church of God, do but suggest to him that he has the imperfections and the temptations of other men. {110}

As an apposite instance, take the passage in which, without speaking of himself in particular, he describes the sublime place which he, as well as the other Apostles, held in the Christian body. He was one of those Twelve (to use the mystical number) who were the special High-Priests of the New Testament, who sit on thrones as judges of the people, and offer before the Lamb, as Scripture speaks, golden vials, full of odours, that is, the prayers of the Saints. Yet that privilege of pontifical elevation was to him only a personal humiliation, for he himself was one of that sinful race for whom the sacrifice was offered. He contrasts all earthly High-Priests with Christ Himself, in order to bring them down to the level of their flocks. "Every High-Priest," he says, "taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins; who can have compassion on them that are ignorant and err, because he himself also is compassed with infirmity. And therefore he ought, as for the people, so also for himself, to offer for sins." Observe his singular condescension; the one thought which his hierarchical dignity impresses on him, is that he who bears it offers sacrifice for his own sins, and ought to feel for those of others.

And when he speaks of himself and of his own office more immediately, it is in the same way. "We preach not ourselves," he says, "but Jesus Christ our Lord, and ourselves, your servants through Jesus." And then he proceeds, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency may be of the power of God, and not of us; always bearing about in our body the mortification {111} of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies."

His two chief scenes of labour, as far as sacred history has preserved the record, were Asia Minor and Greece. Of both countries he is especially the Apostle, but observe how he puts off the Apostle, if I may so speak, when he goes upon his Apostolic work, and rejoices to exhibit himself on that footing of human infirmity which is common to him and his hearers and converts, who in the order of grace and of the Church were so immeasurably his inferiors.

Speaking of his Apostolic labours in Greece, he says first: "When we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest; but we suffered all tribulation; combats without, fears within." Next he came down into Achaia, and his trial, and his confession of it, continue as before. "I was with you," he says to the Corinthians, "in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling"; and this all the while that he was evidencing his Apostolic commission, as he says, "in spirit and in power." On another occasion he finds it necessary to rehearse to the same converts some of those Apostolic signs, but he is ever interrupting his catalogue with apologies for making it, and with incidental mention of his personal failings. "Although I be rude in speech," he says, "yet not in knowledge." "That which I speak, I speak, as it were, foolishly, in this matter of glorying." And then, after referring to his visions and ecstasies, he is not content without coming back and dwelling anew upon the infirmities he had as a man. "Lest the greatness of the revelations," he says, "should exalt me, there was {112} given me a sting of my flesh, an angel of Satan, to buffet me. For which thing thrice I besought the Lord that it should depart from me; and He said, My grace is sufficient for thee, for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly, therefore, will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me." What does all this argue in the great Apostle, but a profound self-knowledge, and an impatience lest he should not appear to his converts partaker of the same earth and ashes as themselves?

Thus he felt and spoke as regards his converts in Greece; and in Asia Minor, his manifestations, if I may so call them, are of the same kind. "I would not have you ignorant, brethren," he says, "of our tribulation, which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above our strength, so that we were weary even of life." And when he takes his last leave of his converts there, his language is the same; he speaks to them as their equal rather than as an Apostle, and calls them to witness that he had ever so regarded himself: "You know," he says to them, "from the first day I came into Asia, in what manner I have been with you for all the time, serving the Lord with all humility, and with tears and temptations."

Now we could have easily anticipated what would be the consequence of a temper of mind so natural and so open. A man who thus divests himself of his own greatness, and puts himself on the level of his brethren, and throws himself upon the sympathies of human nature, and speaks with such simplicity and such spontaneous outpouring of heart, is forthwith in a condition {113} both to conceive great love of them, and to inspire great love towards himself. So was it with St. Paul, and we have the evidence and record of it on that farewell visit, of which I have begun to speak, to his brethren at Ephesus, Tyre, and Cęsarea. He was leaving them for his enemies; leaving them to go to suffer at Jerusalem. What was it that was his trouble then? not the prospect of suffering, but the pain which that prospect gave to his friends. "Behold," he says, "being bound in the spirit, I go to Jerusalem, not knowing the things which shall befall me there, save that the Holy Ghost in every city witnesseth to me, saying that bonds and afflictions wait for me at Jerusalem; but I fear none of these things." So far he is calm as well as brave. But they earnestly besought him not to go up to Jerusalem: observe the effect this had on him: "What mean ye," he says, "weeping and afflicting my heart? for I am ready, not only to be bound, but to die at Jerusalem, for the Name of the Lord Jesus." You see, my Brethren, what intimate personal attachment, what keen affection, existed between him and them. Further, he told them that whatever happened to him, certainly they would not see him again. "Now behold I know that all you, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, shall see my face no more. And, kneeling down, he prayed with them all." We might have been sure what would follow on their part: "There was much weeping among them all; and, falling on the neck of Paul, they kissed him, being grieved most of all for the word that he had said, that they should see his face no more."

There are Saints in whom grace supersedes nature; so {114} was it not with this great Apostle; in him grace did but sanctify and elevate nature. It left him in the full possession, in the full exercise, of all that was human, which was not sinful. He who had the constant contemplation of his Lord and Saviour, and if he saw Him with his bodily eyes, was nevertheless as susceptible of the affections of human nature and the influences of the external world, as if he were a stranger to that contemplation. Wonderful to say, he who had rest and peace in the love of Christ, was not satisfied without the love of man; he whose supreme reward was the approbation of God, looked out for the approval of his brethren. He who depended solely on the Creator, yet made himself dependent on the creature. Though he had That which was Infinite, he would not dispense with the finite. He loved his brethren, not only "for Jesus' sake," to use his own expression, but for their own sake also. He lived in them; he felt with them and for them; he was anxious about them; he gave them help, and in turn he looked for comfort from them. His mind was like some instrument of music, harp or viol, the strings of which vibrate, though untouched, by the notes which other instruments give forth, and he was ever, according to his own precept, "rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that wept"; and thus he was the least magisterial of all teachers, and the gentlest and most amiable of all rulers. "Who is weak," he asks, "and I am not weak? who is scandalized, and I am not on fire?" And, after saying this, he characteristically adds, "If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things that concern my infirmity." {115}

This faithful affection towards his brethren, this ardent, yet not idolatrous, love shows itself in all that he writes. For instance, we can fancy the burning desire which an Apostle must have felt to leave this scene of anguish and to be taken to enjoy the Divine Presence; yet he speaks of himself as "straitened between two, having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better; but to abide still in the flesh," he continues, "is needful for you."

And when he looks forward to that happy day, when he shall receive God Himself for his reward, he associates the joys of heaven with the presence of his converts. "What is our hope, or joy, or crown of glory? Are not you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? for you are our glory and joy."

And so of his friends, one by one: amid the fulness of his supernatural union with the Infinite and Eternal God, he is still ever eager for the sight of their familiar faces. "I rejoice," he says, "in the presence of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for they have refreshed both my spirit and yours." Again, "I had no rest in my spirit, because I found not Titus my brother." Again, "God who comforted the humble, comforted us by the coming of Titus." Again, he speaks of Epaphroditus as "sick nigh unto death; but God had mercy on him, and on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow." He says with a tender lament, that "all they who are in Asia are turned away from him." For so it was, that now too, when he was about to be martyred, still, as before, he had time to think of his friends, of those who were near him, those who were away, and those who had deserted him. {116} "At my first answer," he says, when I was first put upon trial, "no man stood with me, but all forsook me, but the Lord stood with me." "Demas hath left me, loving the present world." Luke, "the most dear physician," as he elsewhere calls him, "only Luke is with me."

I might go on in like manner, if time permitted, to remind you also how desirous he is of the approbation of his brethren:—"To God we are manifest," he says, "and I trust also in your consciences we are manifest." I might show how alive he is to slights, though at the same time most forgiving: how sensitive he is of ingratitude, though as meek and gentle as he is sensitive: how fearful he is of the effect of his punishments upon offenders, though firm in inflicting them when it is his duty: how, in short, there is not any one of those refinements and delicacies of feeling, which are the result of advanced civilization, not any one of those proprieties and embellishments of conduct in which the cultivated intellect delights, but he is a pattern of it, in the midst of that assemblage of other supernatural excellences, which is the common endowment of Apostles and Saints. He, in a word, who is the special preacher of Divine Grace, is also the special friend and intimate of human nature. He who reveals to us the mystery of God's Sovereign Decrees, manifests at the same time the tenderest interest in the souls of individuals.

And, such being his characteristics of mind, as I have been describing them, you will understand how indignant he would be sure to be, for no lighter word can be used, at the sight of jealousies, enmities, and divisions in {117} the Christian body. He would abhor them, not only as injurious to his Saviour, but as an offence against that common nature which gives us one and all a right to the title of men. As he loved that common nature, so he took pleasure in viewing all who partake of it as one, scattered though they were all over the earth. He sympathized with them all, wherever and whatever they were; and he felt it to be one special mercy, conveyed to them in the Gospel, that the unity of human nature was henceforth recognized and restored in Jesus Christ. The spirit of party, then, was simply antagonistic to the spirit of the Apostle, and a great offence to him, even when it did not go so far as schism. "Every one of you saith, I, indeed, am of Paul, and I am of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ. Is Christ divided?" "There is neither Gentile nor Jew, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free, for Christ is all, and in all."

And now I will conclude with one allusion, which it is natural for me to make, and which will justify me in saying that I have not in any great degree misconceived the Apostle's character. It is recorded of St. Philip Neri that he was specially fond of St. Paul's writings. "Of the different books of Saints," says his biographer, "he had a particular liking for the Epistles of St. Paul; in order to make his reading of them fruitful, he read slowly, and made pauses. When he felt himself warmed by what he read, he went no further, but stopped to ponder the text. When the feeling subsided, he resumed his reading, and so he went on with passage after passage." Now we may ask at first sight what special sympathy {118} could there be, except that they both were saints, between a humble priest, without station, without office, without extraordinary endowments of mind, and a Ruler and Doctor of the Church, a preacher, a missionary, a man of the world, and an accomplished scholar? Why did the Apostle's words come home with especial force to Philip's heart, and become food to his mind, in his small cell in the midst of a crowded city? It was, I think, because, different as the two were from each other in every other respect, in position, in gifts, and in history, they had, nevertheless, some points strikingly in common in their personal character:—these I shall sum up briefly under two heads, and so conclude.

1. And first, St. Philip Neri bears the title of the "Apostle of Rome." Why? Was he a great divine? No; he never professed any theological learning, sufficiently as he was versed in it; and it is remarkable that, great as has been the learning of many Fathers of his Congregation after him, not one of them, as far as I know, has written on a dogmatic subject, or is an authority in the sacred sciences. Did he undertake to form great saints? not so; for, leaving (as is commonly said of him) that high office for others, he turned himself in his humility to the sanctification of ordinary men. He was not a theologian, not an ascetical writer; but in a familiar way, by precept and maxim, by biographical specimens, by the lessons of history, he addressed himself to the whole community, with a view of converting all men, high and low, to God, and forming them upon the great principles, and fixing in their hearts the substance and solidity, of religious duty. He lived in an age, too, when literature {119} and art were receiving their fullest development, and commencing their benign reign over the populations of Europe, and his work was not to destroy or supersede these good gifts of God, but, in the spirit, I may say, of a Catholic University, to sanctify poetry, and history, and painting, and music, to the glory of the Giver. Now do you not see, my Brethren, that I am but continuing my illustration of St. Paul's own character by thus speaking of the modern Saint who was his pupil? For surely St. Paul too, though an inspired Teacher, and though "nothing less than the great Apostles" in theological knowledge, nevertheless in his Epistles, instead of insisting on science and system, addresses himself chiefly to the hearts of his disciples, and introduces doctrine, not so much for its own sake as for practical uses. And hence, though he was especially the "Doctor Gentium," yet the chief exercise of his Apostolic Office lay in forming the character and improving the heart, according to the lines of the Hymn,—

Egregie Doctor Paule, mores instrue,
Et nostra tecum pectora in cœlum trahe.

2. So much on St Paul's work: and the latter of these two lines suggests, secondly and lastly, his manner of fulfilling it. Here, too, he was the forerunner of St. Philip. The one indeed was a ruler and a Prince in the Church, with the amplest jurisdiction; St. Philip was an obscure priest, with only the jurisdiction of a confessor; yet the highest and the lowest agreed in this, that, putting aside forms as far as it was right to do so, and letting influence take the place of rule, and charity stand instead of authority, they drew souls to them by {120} their interior beauty, and held them captive by the regenerate affections of human nature. St. Paul seems to have felt towards his awful Apostolic power, in some sense as David felt towards the armour of his King; and, though he used it at the call of duty, he preferred "the cords of Adam," and the voice of persuasion. What he says on one occasion to Philemon, forms a sort of motto to his whole ministry. "Though I have much confidence in Christ Jesus to command thee that which is to the purpose, for charity's sake I rather beseech, as Paul an old man, and now a prisoner also of Jesus Christ."

No wonder then that my own Saint, being what he was, should have felt the most intimate sympathy with such a man as this; that he, who is recorded never to have said "I command" but once, and who won and guided his children by his voice and eye and look, should have felt the tenderest devotion towards the loving heart of that glorious Apostle, who was gentle on the pinnacle of the sublimest power, cheerful after ten thousand disappointments, and affectionate and sweet-tempered amid the trials of old age.

May we all of us, my Brethren, in our respective callings and stations, be partakers of this same gift, a gift which is especially needful in this age, a gift which is in singular correspondence with the duties and the objects of a University.

(Sexagesima Sunday, 1857. Preached in the University Church, Dublin.)

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