Sermon 12. Profession without Ostentation

"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid." Matt. v. 14.

{152} OUR Saviour gives us a command, in this passage of His Sermon on the Mount, to manifest our religious profession before all men. "Ye are the light of the world," He says to His disciples; "A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Yet presently He says, "When thou doest alms ... when thou prayest ... when ye fast ... appear not unto men … but unto thy Father which is in secret." [Matt. vi. 2-18.] How are these commands to be reconciled? how are we at once to profess ourselves Christians, and yet hide our Christian words, deeds, and self-denials?

I will now attempt to answer this question; that is, {153} to explain how we may be witnesses to the world for God, and yet without pretension, or affectation, or rude and indecent ostentation.

1. Now, first, much might be said on that mode of witnessing Christ which consists in conforming to His Church. He who simply did what the Church bids him do (if he did no more), would witness a good confession to the world, and one which cannot be hid; and at the same time, with very little, if any, personal display. He does only what he is told to do; he takes no responsibility on himself. The Apostles and Martyrs who founded the Church, the Saints in all ages who have adorned it, the Heads of it now alive, all these take from him the weight of his profession, and bear the blame (so to call it) of seeming ostentations. I do not say that irreligious men will not call such an one boastful, or austere, or a hypocrite; that is not the question. The question is, whether in God's judgment he deserves the censure; whether he is not as Christ would have him, really and truly (whatever the world may say) joining humility to a bold outward profession; whether he is not, in thus acting, preaching Christ without hurting his own pureness, gentleness, and modesty of character. If indeed a man stands forth on his own ground, declaring himself as an individual a witness for Christ, then indeed he is grieving and disturbing the calm spirit given us by God. But God's merciful providence has saved us this temptation, and forbidden us to admit it. He bids us unite together in one, and to shelter our personal profession under the authority of the general body. Thus, while we show ourselves as lights to the world far {154} more effectively than if we glimmered separately in the lone wilderness without communication with others, at the same time we do so with far greater secresy and humility. Therefore it is, that the Church does so many things for us, appoints Fasts and Feasts, times of public prayer, the order of the sacraments, the services of devotion at marriages and deaths, and all accompanied by a fixed form of sound words; in order (I say) to remove from us individually the burden of a high profession, of implying great things of ourselves by inventing for ourselves solemn prayers and praises,—a task far above the generality of Christians, to say the least, a task which humble men will shrink from, lest they prove hypocrites, and which will hurt those who do undertake it, by making them rude-spirited and profane. I am desirous of speaking on this subject as a matter of practice; for I am sure, that if we wish really and in fact to spread the knowledge of the Truth, we shall do so far more powerfully as well as purely, by keeping together, than by witnessing one by one. Men are to be seen adopting all kinds of strange ways of giving glory (as they think) to God. If they would but follow the Church; come together in prayer on Sundays and Saints' days, nay, every day; honour the rubric by keeping to it obediently, and conforming their families to the spirit of the Prayer Book, I say that on the whole they would practically do vastly more good than by trying new religious plans, founding new religious societies, or striking out new religious views. I put out of account the greater blessing they might expect to find in the way of duty, which is the first consideration. {155}

2. One way of professing without display has been mentioned;—obeying the Church. Now in the next place, consider how great a profession, and yet a profession how unconscious and modest, arises from the mere ordinary manner in which any strict Christian lives. Let this thought be a satisfaction to uneasy minds which fear lest they are not confessing Christ, yet dread to display. Your life displays Christ without your intending it. You cannot help it. Your words and deeds will show on the long run (as it is said), where your treasure is, and your heart. Out of the abundance of your heart your mouth speaketh words "seasoned with salt." We sometimes find men who aim at doing their duty in the common course of life, surprised to hear that they are ridiculed, and called hard names by careless or worldly persons. This is as it should be; it is as it should be, that they are surprised at it. If a private Christian sets out with expecting to make a disturbance in the world, the fear is, lest he be not so humble-minded as he should be. But those who go on quietly in the way of obedience, and yet are detected by the keen eye of the jealous, self-condemning, yet proud world, and who, on discovering their situation, first shrink from it and are distrest, then look to see if they have done aught wrongly, and after all are sorry for it, and but slowly and very timidly (if at all) learn to rejoice in it, these are Christ's flock. These are they who follow Him who was meek and lowly of heart, His elect in whom He sees His own image reflected. Consider how such men show forth their light in a wicked world, yet unconsciously. Moses came down from the {156} mount, and "wist not that the skin of his face shone" as one who had held intercourse with God. But "when Aaron and all the children of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come nigh him." [Exod. xxxiv. 29, 30.] Who can estimate the power of our separate words spoken in season! How many of them are recollected and cherished by this person or that, which we have forgotten, and bear fruit! How do our good deeds excite others to rivalry in a good cause, as the Angels perceive though we do not! How are men thinking of us we never heard of, or saw but once, and in far countries unknown! Let us for a moment view this pleasing side of our doings, as well as the sad prospect of our evil communications. Doubtless, our prayers and alms are rising as a sweet sacrifice, pleasing to God [Note 1]; and pleasing to Him, not only as an office of devotion, but of charity towards all men. Our businesses and our amusements, our joys and our sorrows, our opinions, tastes, studies, views and principles, are drawn one way, heavenward. Be we high or low, in our place we can serve, and in consequence glorify, Him who died for us. "A little maid," who was "brought away captive out of the land of Israel, and waited on Naaman's wife," [2 Kings v. 2.] pointed out to the great captain of the host of the king of Syria the means of recovery from his leprosy, and "his servants" spoke good words to him afterwards, and brought him back to his reason when he would have rejected the mode of cure which the prophet prescribed. This may quiet impatient minds, {157} and console the over-scrupulous conscience. "Wait on God and be doing good," and you must, you cannot but be showing your light before men as a city on a hill.

3. Still it is quite true that there are circumstances under which a Christian is bound openly to express his opinion on religious subjects and matters; and this is the real difficulty, viz. how to do so without display. As a man's place in society is here or there, so it is more or less his duty to speak his mind freely. We must never countenance sin and error. Now the more obvious and modest way of discountenancing evil is by silence, and by separating from it; for example, we are bound to keep aloof from deliberate and open sinners. St. Paul expressly tells us, "not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother (i.e. a Christian) be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one, no not to eat." [1 Cor. v. 11.] And St. John gives us the like advice with respect to heretics. "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine (i.e. the true doctrine of Christ), receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed; for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds." [2 John 10, 11.] It is plain that such conduct on our part requires no great display, for it is but conforming to the rules of the Church; though it is often difficult to know on what occasions we ought to adopt it, which is another question.

A more difficult duty is that of passing judgment (as {158} a Christian is often bound to do) on events of the day and public men. It becomes his duty, in proportion as he has station and influence in the community, in order that he may persuade others to think as he does. Above all, clergymen are bound to form and pronounce an opinion. It is sometimes said, in familiar language, that a clergyman should have nothing to do with politics. This is true, if it be meant that he should not aim at secular objects, should not side with a political party as such, should not be ambitious of popular applause, or the favour of great men, should not take pleasure and lose time in business of this world, should not be covetous. But if it means that he should not express an opinion and exert an influence one way rather than another, it is plainly unscriptural. Did not the Apostles, with all their reverence for the temporal power, whether Jewish or Roman, and all their separation from worldly ambition, did they not still denounce their rulers as wicked men, who had crucified and slain the Lord's Christ? [Note 2] and would they have been as a city on a hill if they had not done so? If, indeed, this world's concerns could be altogether disjoined from those of Christ's Kingdom, then indeed all Christians (laymen as well as clergy) should abstain from the thought of temporal affairs, and let the worthless world pass down the stream of events till it perishes; but if (as is the case) what happens in nations must affect the cause of religion in those nations, since the Church may be seduced and corrupted by the world, and in the world there are myriads of souls {159} to be converted and saved, and since a Christian nation is bound to become part of the Church, therefore it is our duty to stand as a beacon on a hill, to cry aloud and spare not, to lift up our voice like a trumpet, and show the people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins [Note 3]. And all this may be done without injury to our Christian gentleness and humbleness, though it is difficult to do it. We need not be angry nor use contentious words, and yet may firmly give our opinion, in proportion as we have the means of forming one, and be zealous towards God in all active good service, and scrupulously and pointedly keep aloof from the bad men whose evil arts we fear.

Another and still more difficult duty is that of personally rebuking those we meet with in the intercourse of life who sin in word or deed, and testifying before them in Christ's name; that is, it is difficult at once to be unassuming and zealous in such cases. We know it is a plain and repeated precept of Christ to tell others of their faults for charity's sake; but how is this to be done without seeming, nay, without being arrogant and severe? There are persons who are anxious to do their duty to the full, who fear that they are deficient in this particular branch of it, and deficient from a blameable backwardness, and the dread of giving offence; yet, on the other hand, they feel the painfulness of rebuking another, and (to use a common word) the awkwardness of it. Such persons must consider that, though to rebuke is a duty, it is not a duty {160} belonging at once to all men; and the perplexity which is felt about it often arises from the very impropriety of attempting it in the particular case. It is improper, as a general rule, in the young to witness before the old, otherwise than by their silence. Still more improper is it in inferiors to rebuke their superiors; for instance, a child his parent, of course; or a private person his natural and divinely-appointed governour. When we assume a character not suited to us, of course we feel awkward; and although we may have done so in honesty and zeal (however ill-tutored), and so God may in mercy accept our service, still He, at the same time, rebukes us by our very feeling of perplexity and shame. As for such as rudely blame another, and that a superior, and feel no pain at doing so, I have nothing to say to such men, except to express my earnest desire that they may be led into a more Christian frame of mind. They do not even feel the difficulty of witnessing for God without display.

It is to be considered, too, that to do the part of a witness for the truth, to warn and rebuke, is not an elementary duty of a Christian. I mean, that our duties come in a certain order, some before others, and that this is not one of the first of them. Our first duties are to repent and believe. It would be strange, indeed, for a man, who had just begun to think of religion, to set up for "some great one," to assume he was a saint and a witness, and to exhort others to turn to God. This is evident. But as time goes on, and his religious character becomes formed, then, while he goes on to perfection in all his duties, he takes upon himself, in the {161} number of these, to witness for God by word of mouth. It is difficult to say when a man has leave openly to rebuke others; certainly not before he has considerable humility; the test of which may be the absence of a feeling of triumph in doing it, a consciousness that he is no better by nature than the person he witnesses before, and that his actual sins are such as to deserve a severe rebuke were they known to the world; a love towards the person reproved, and a willingness to submit to deserved censure in his turn. In all this I am speaking of laymen. It is a clergyman's duty to rebuke by virtue of his office. And then, after all, supposing it be clearly our duty to manifest our religious profession in this pointed way before another, in order to do so modestly we must do so kindly and cheerfully, as gently as we can; doing it as little as we can help; not making matters worse than they are, or showing our whole Christian stature (or what we think to be such), when we need but put out a hand (so to say) or give a glance. And above all (as I have already said), acting as if we thought, nay, really thinking, that it may be the offender's turn some day to rebuke us; not putting ourselves above him, feeling our great imperfections, and desirous he should rebuke us, should occasion require it, and in prospect thanking him; acting, that is, in the spirit in which you warn a man in walking against rugged ground, which may cause him a fall, thinking him bound by your friendly conduct to do the like favour to you. As to grave occasions of witnessing Christ, they will seldom occur, except a man thrust himself into society where he never ought to have been, {162} by neglecting the rule, "Come ye out, and be separate;" and then he has scarcely the right to rebuke, having committed the first fault himself. This is another cause of our perplexity in witnessing Christ before the world. We make friends of the sinful, and then they have the advantage over us.

To conclude.—The question is often raised, whether a man can do his duty simply and quietly, without being thought ostentatious by the world. It is no great matter to himself whether he is thought so or not, if he has not provoked the opinion. As a general rule, I would say the Church itself is always hated and calumniated by the world, as being in duty bound to make a bold profession. But whether individual members of the Church are so treated, depends on various circumstances in the case of each. There are persons, who, though very strict and conscientious Christians, are yet praised by the world. These are such, as having great meekness and humility, are not so prominent in station or so practically connected with the world as to offend it. Men admire religion, while they can gaze on it as a picture. They think it lovely in books: and as long as they can look upon Christians at a distance, they speak well of them. The Jews in Christ's time built the sepulchres of the prophets whom their fathers killed; then they themselves killed the Just One. They "reverenced" the Son of God before He came, but when their passions and interests were stirred by His coming, then they said, "This is the Heir; come, let us kill Him, and the inheritance shall be ours." [Mark xii. 7.] Thus Christians {163} in active life thwarting (as they do) the pride and selfishness of the world, are disliked by the world, and have "all manner of evil said against them falsely for Christ's sake." [Matt. v. 11.] Still, even under these circumstances, though they must not shrink from the attack on a personal account, it is still their duty to shelter themselves, as far as they can, under the name and authority of the Holy Church; to keep to its ordinances and rules; and, if they are called to suffer for the Church, rather to be drawn forward to the suffering in the common course of duty, than boldly to take upon them the task of defending it. There is no cowardice in this. Some men are placed in posts of danger, and to these danger comes in the way of duty; but others must not intrude into their honourable office. Thus in the first age of the Gospel, our Lord told His followers to flee from city to city, when persecuted; and even the heads of the Church, in the early persecutions, instead of exposing themselves to the fury of the heathen, did their utmost to avoid it. We are a suffering people from the first; but while, on the one hand, we do not defend ourselves illegally, we do not court suffering on the other. We must witness and glorify God, as lights on a hill, through evil report and good report; but the evil and the good report is not so much of our own making as the natural consequence of our Christian profession.

Who can tell God's will concerning this tumultuous world, or how He will dispose of it? He is tossing it hither and thither in His fury, and in its agitation He {164} troubles His own people also. Only, this we know for our comfort. Our light shall never go down; Christ set it upon a hill, and hell shall not prevail against it. The Church will witness on to the last for the Truth, chained indeed to this world, its evil partner, but ever foretelling its ruin, though not believed, and in the end promised a far different recompense. For in the end the Lord Omnipotent shall reign, when the marriage of the Lamb shall come at length, and His wife shall make herself ready; and to her shall be granted "fine linen, clean and white; for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints." [Rev. xix. 6-8.] True and righteous are His judgments; He shall cast death and hell into the lake of fire, and avenge His own elect which cry day and night unto Him!

"Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb." May all we be in the number, confessing Christ in this world, that He may confess us before His Father in the last day!

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Notes

1. Acts x. 4.
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2. Acts ii. 23; iii. 13-17; iv. 27; xiii. 27.
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3. Isa. lviii. 1.
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