Sermon 9. Indulgence in Religious Privileges

"These are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear." Jude 12.

[Note 1] {112} THE false brethren, spoken of by St. Jude in this passage, were stained with such heinous guilt, both in life and doctrine, that it may seem to promise little profit to us to take any part of it as a text. Their sin has passed with the early age, and let it pass from our thoughts. So it may be said, and in one sense both rightly and truly said; for it is true that the enormities which once were, are not now, and it is right surely to turn away from evil and hide it, when it is a thing past, not present. And yet, without recurring to those instances of fearful depravity and corruption, which insinuated themselves even into the Apostolic Church, according to the prophecy that the kingdom of heaven is like a net which gathers of every kind, good and bad, I think we may gain a lesson in matters which concern ourselves from the words in question, which have occurred {113} in the Service [Note 2], and are not unsuitable to this season of the year.

The first thought which the text suggests to us, when it speaks of religious feasting, obviously relates to the temper of mind in which we are accustomed to come to the most Holy Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The feasts indeed spoken of by St. Jude were of a different kind; they were an institution which soon came to an end, in consequence of the abuses to which they led; but still Holy Communion is especially "a feast of charity," and the fault which the Apostle imputes to certain apostate Christians of his day, may, in its degree (though God grant but in a very slight degree!), adhere to us. He says, that they were "spots in the feast," a disfigurement, and a disgrace, because they "feasted with" their brethren "without fear." They did in no sense recognize and realize that Holy Presence, before whom even St. John fell down as dead, till He laid His hand on him and said, "Fear not." [Rev. i. 17.] He says to all His servants "Fear not," when they fear; but till then, He says on the contrary, very emphatically, "Fear." For instance, "Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling." [Ps. ii. 11.] "Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably, with reverence and godly fear." "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure." [Heb. xii. 28. Phil. ii. 12, 13.]

We must come to God with fear. Yet we are told to "come boldly unto the throne of grace." [Heb. iv. 16.] Are not {114} these precepts incompatible with each other? No, surely, not in themselves, but we are very likely to find them incompatible, when we attempt them. We are very likely to find it difficult to fulfil two opposite duties, which are nevertheless both possible, and which are duties, because they are so opposite, because they are so difficult; for no one can suppose that easy matters are our duty, but difficult matters. We are very likely from our Lord's great condescension, from His gracious invitations, so free, so repeated, so unwearied, to forget His Majesty, and to become familiar with Him; and then we "feast without fear." And it stands to reason, the more frequently we accept His invitation, and seek Him in His sacred ordinance, the greater is our danger of this irreverence, unless we be on our guard.

Now in saying this, my brethren, I am not addressing myself to those of us who are in the practice of availing themselves in this church of our Lord's invitation to seek His Presence once a week. I have no reason for saying, I humbly trust I may with truth deny, that they are wanting in "reverence and godly fear;" though, of course, all of us, any one of us, might have far deeper and more solemn thoughts than we have at present, and (it is to be hoped) shall have, as year after year passes away; and though we, as others, are in danger of irreverence, unless we are on our guard. But I am not speaking of ourselves; I am thinking of the Church generally; I am thinking of the age. There is at this moment a growing perception of the beauty of religion, a growing reverence for, and insight into the privileges of the Gospel. Persons begin to understand {115} far more than they did, that Christianity is not a mere law, a Jewish yoke, but a new law, a service of freedom, a rule of spirit and truth, which wins us as well as commands, and influences us while it threatens. Hitherto, it has seemed as if all sense of the privileges and pleasures of religion were possessed by those who had but erroneous views of doctrine, and who, however well-intentioned and respectable in themselves, came more or less of an heretical stock; while men of more correct and more orthodox views seemed to be of a cold and forbidding school—nay, the less fervent, the less spiritual for their very exactness: but all this is gone by. A more primitive, Catholic, devout, ardent spirit, is abroad among the holders of orthodox truth. The piercing, and thrilling, and kindling, and enrapturing glories of the kingdom of Christ are felt in their degree by many. Men are beginning to understand that influence, which in the beginning made the philosopher leave his school, and the soldier beat his spear into a pruning-hook. They are beginning to understand that the Gospel is not a mere scheme or doctrine, but a reality and a life; not a subject for books only, for private use, for individuals, but for public profession, for combined action, for outward manifestation. Hence there is an increasing cultivation of all that is external, from a feeling that external religion is the great development and triumph of the inward principle. For instance, much curiosity is directed towards the science of ecclesiastical architecture, and much appreciation shown of architectural proprieties. Attention, too, is paid to the internal arrangement and embellishment of sacred buildings. Devotional {116} books also of an imaginative cast, religious music, painting, poetry, and the like are in request. Churches are more frequently attended on weekdays, and continual service is felt to be a privilege, not a task. And two services are felt to be short of that measure of devotion which the religious mind desires to pay to its God and Saviour.

Now no one can suspect me of meaning to imply that such signs of the times are not in themselves hopeful ones. They are so; but, O my brethren, be jealous of these things, excellent as they are in themselves, lest they be not accompanied with godly fear. I grieve to say, that the spirit of penitence does not keep pace with the spirit of joy. With all this outward promise of piety, we are suspicious of that which alone is its inward soul and life; we are very jealous indeed of personal strictness and austerity. We are alarmed at any call to national or personal humiliation and amendment; we like to be told of the excellence of our institutions, we do not like to hear of their defects; we like to abandon ourselves to the satisfactions of religion, we do not like to hear of its severities. We do not like to hear of our past sins, and the necessity of undoing them; and thus, however gay our blossoms may be in this our spring, we have a fault within which will show itself ere our fruits are gathered in the autumn. "The sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth." We are cherishing a shallow religion, a hollow religion, which will not profit us in the day of trouble. We are taking words for things; {117} we are led captive by an unreality. This is no new language on my part; I have said it [Note 3] before men took that interest which now they take in the Catholic doctrine: I say so now. I said then, as now, that the age, whatever be its peculiar excellences, has this serious defect, it loves an exclusively cheerful religion. It is determined to make religion bright and sunny and joyous, whatever be the form of it which it adopts. And it will handle the Catholic doctrine in this spirit; it will skim over it; it will draw it out in mere buckets-full; it will substitute its human cistern for the well of truth; it will be afraid of the deep well, the abyss of God's judgments and God's mercies.

Alas! ... Surely we are pretending allegiance to the Church to no purpose, or rather to our own serious injury, if we select her doctrines and precepts at our pleasure; choose this, reject that; take what is beautiful and attractive, shrink from what is stern and painful. I fear a number of persons, a growing number, in various parts of the country, are likely to abandon themselves to what may be called the luxuries of religion—nay, I will even call them the luxuries of devotion; and the consequence of this it is very distressing to contemplate. They are tending to "feast without fear." For this reason I should even look with jealousy on any considerable revival of weekly Communions. We are not fit for them; I am sure, men in general, such as we are, even religious persons, are not fit for them. We need a much deeper religion, a more consistent creed, a keener faith, a clearer insight into things unseen, a {118} more real understanding of what sin is, and the consequences of sin, a more practical and self-denying rule of conduct, before such a blessed usage will be safely extended among our congregations. I really do trust, as I have already said, that the effects of this observance among ourselves have been such as we could desire; but if ever it is introduced into our great towns, much evil will come of it [Note 4]. It is a very merciful provision, if we may thus speak of error overruled for good, that there should be so much opposition to it as there is at present. People say that the Holy Communion obscures the doctrine of Gospel grace; that in obeying Christ's command we are forgetting His atonement; that in coming for His benefits, we tend to deny His all-sufficient merits. Can any imputation be more preposterous and wild, however estimable the persons may be who cast it? Certainly none. But still I say this strange apprehension is doing us service. I am not at all sorry for it, and the clamour that follows upon it; for it hinders a great evil, it represses a luxuriant, rank, unhealthy vegetation in our religious habits.

Many a man, and especially many a woman, may abandon themselves to the real delight, as it will prove, of passing hours in repeating the Psalms, or in saying Litanies and Hymns, and in frequenting those Cathedrals and Churches where the old Catholic ideas are especially impressed upon their minds; and they will {119} find, in the words of Scripture, that our Lord's "Name is like ointment poured forth," [Cant. i. 3.] and His "fruit is sweet to their taste." [Cant. ii. 3.] Yet like the Prophet's roll, though ''in the mouth sweet as honey''—nay, almost literally so in a strange way—yet as soon as they have eaten it, it will be bitter, if they have forgotten that "before honour is humility," sowing in tears before reaping in joy, pain before pleasure, duty before privilege. Nothing lasts, nothing keeps incorrupt and pure, which comes of mere feeling; feelings die like spring-flowers, and are fit only to be cast into the oven. Persons thus circumstanced will find their religion fail them in time; a revulsion of mind will ensue. They will feel a violent distaste for what pleased them before, a sickness and weariness of mind; or even an enmity towards it; or a great disappointment; or a confusion and perplexity and despondence. They have learned to think religion easier than it is, themselves better than they are; they have drunk their good wine instead of keeping it; and this is the consequence. I need not enter, however, into the full consequences of this incaution; they are very various and sometimes very awful. I am but calling attention to the fact. And then the persons in question will be ashamed or afraid to confide to others what their state is, or will not have the opportunity; and all this the more, because affectionate, sensitive, delicate, retired persons are perhaps more open than others to the danger I have been describing.

The most awful consequences of this untrue kind of devotion, which would have all the glories of the {120} Gospel without its austerities, of course are those into which the dreadful heretics fell who are alluded to in the text; and of which it is well not to speak. Yet it must not be forgotten that even in these latter times, though not in our own Church, and not certainly among persons of high or refined minds, even immoralities have been the ultimate consequents of religious enthusiasm. But one need not dwell upon extreme results, in order to be impressed with the danger to which our Church is at present exposed. What indeed but evil can come of living like the world, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, faring sumptuously, dressing in purple and fine linen, and increasing in goods, and yet affecting to be the children of Apostles, and using the devotion of Saints?

Christianity, considered as a moral system, is made up of two elements, beauty and severity; whenever either is indulged to the loss or disparagement of the other, evil ensues. In heathen times, Greek and Barbarian in some sense divided these two between them; the latter were the slaves of dreary and cruel superstitions, and the former abandoned themselves to a joyous polytheism. And so, again, in these latter times, the two chief forms of heresy into which opposition to primitive truth has developed, were remarkable, at least in their origin three hundred years ago, and at times since, the one for an unrefined and self-indulgent religiousness, the other for a stern, dark, cruel spirit, very unamiable, yet still inspiring more respect than the other.

Even the Jews, to whom this earth was especially {121} given, and who might be supposed to be at liberty without offence to satiate themselves in its gifts, were not allowed to enjoy it without restraint. Even the paschal lamb, their great typical feast, was eaten "with bitter herbs." [Exod. xii. 8.] And, as time went on, the Prophets were given, who were more or less moulded after the pattern of Elijah, in "suffering affliction and in patience," and were typical of the one great Prophet of the Church who was to come. Much more are Christians bound to recollect, and to rejoice, that "the brother of low degree" is to be "exalted," and "the rich" to be "made low," and that the Apostles whose steps we are to follow (as we this day are especially reminded [Note 5]) hungered and thirsted, and were naked, and were buffeted, and had no certain dwelling-place, and were accounted the filth of the world and the offscouring of all things.

Let us thus enter upon the rich and happy months which lie before us, when the earth puts forth all her excellence, and robes herself in her bright garments, and scatters her most precious gifts. Thus let us hallow Rogation Sunday, which is today,—suitably to the Church's intention which has made three days of abstinence attend upon it, by way of warning us that we must not enjoy our Father's temporal blessings without reserve. "He visiteth the earth and blesseth it; He maketh it very plenteous ... He provideth for the earth; He watereth her furrows. He crowneth the year with His goodness, and His clouds drop fatness." [Ps. lxv. 9-12.] {122}

And we acknowledge His bountifulness, we commemorate His providence, we enter upon His gifts, by abstaining from them. As the Israelites brought the first fruits of their land in a basket [Deut. xxvi. 1-11.] and left it in the priest's hand before the altar of the Lord their God, so do we in another way, but in the same spirit, begin our thankful use of God's blessings by a prudent delay and a lowly prayer. We deprecate wrath, we entreat mercy; as Job sacrificed for his sons, so we for ourselves. We remind ourselves that though "every creature of God is good," we ourselves, God's creatures, are the one exception to that rule; that though His gifts are holy and innocent, our hearts are frail and wayward; that they are good in the sending, yet dangerous in the taking—good in the use, but harmful in the enjoyment. As before meat, day by day, we say a grace and then begin, so now do we ask a blessing on the whole year by pausing ere we enter upon it.

This is to feed ourselves with fear. Thus let us proceed in the use of all our privileges, and all will be benefits. Let us not keep festivals without keeping vigils; let us not keep Eastertide without observing Lent; let us not approach the Sunday feast without keeping the Friday abstinence; let us not adorn churches without studying personal simplicity and austereness; let us not cultivate the accomplishments of taste and literature without the corrective of personal discomfort; let us not attempt to advance the power of the Church, to enthrone her rulers, to rear her palaces, and to ennoble her name, without recollecting that she {123} must be mortified within while she is in honour in the world, and must wear the Baptist's hair-shirt and leathern girdle under the purple ephod and the jewelled breastplate.

And lastly, let us beware, on the other hand, of dishonouring and rudely rejecting God's gifts, out of gloominess or sternness; let us beware of fearing without feasting. "Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused." Let us beware, though it must be a sad perversion of mind which admits of it,—let us beware of afflicting ourselves for sin, without first coming to the Gospel for strength to do so. And let us not so plunge ourselves in the sense of our offences, as not withal to take delight in the contemplation of our privileges. Let us rejoice while we mourn. Let us look up to our Lord and Saviour the more we shrink from the sight of ourselves; let us have the more faith and love the more we exercise repentance. Let us, in our penitence, not substitute the Law for the Gospel, but add the Law to the Gospel. Those who do despite to baptismal grace fall under the Law; but they do not fall from the Gospel, if they are repentant; they fall under the Law without the Gospel, if they continue in sin; they receive the Law with the Gospel, if they return. The Law which once introduced the Gospel, in such cases becomes its instrument. They fall indeed under bondage, but they have the power of Christ's grace to enable them to bear it.

And in like manner, as they must not defraud themselves of Christian privileges, neither need they give up God's temporal blessings. All the beauty of nature, the {124} kind influences of the seasons, the gifts of sun and moon, and the fruits of the earth, the advantages of civilized life, and the presence of friends and intimates; all these good things are but one extended and wonderful type of God's benefits in the Gospel. Those who aim at perfection will not reject the gift, but add a corrective; they will add the bitter herbs to the fatted calf and the music and dancing; they will not refuse the flowers of earth, but they will toil in plucking up the weeds. Or if they refrain from one temporal blessing, it will be to reserve another; for this is one great mercy of God, that while He allows us a discretionary use of His temporal gifts, He allows a discretionary abstinence also; and He almost enjoins upon us the use of some, lest we should forget that this earth is His creation, and not of the evil one. I am not denying that there are certain individuals raised up from time to time to a still more self-denying life, and who have a corresponding measure of divine consolations. As some men are Apostles, others Confessors and Martyrs, as Missionaries in heathen countries may be called to give up all for Christ; so there are doubtless those, living in peaceable times and among their brethren, who acknowledge a call to give up every thing whatever for the sake of the Gospel, and in order to be perfect; and to become as homeless and as shelterless, and as resourceless and as solitary, as the holy Baptist in the wilderness: but extraordinary cases are not for our imitation, and it is as great a fault to act without a call as to refuse to act upon one.

May God give us grace to walk thus humbly, thus {125} soberly, thus without censoriousness in this day of confusion; enjoying His blessings, yet taking them with fear and trembling; and disciplining ourselves without gloom, yet not judging or slandering those who are more rigid or less secular than ourselves!

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Notes

1. Rogation Sunday.
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2. May 1.
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3. Parochial Sermons,. Vol. i., Sermon 24.
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4. Of course it must not be forgotten, that for the revival of the practice altogether we are indebted to clergymen in great towns, as in London and Leeds, whose instances cannot he supposed to come under the remark in the text.
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5. Feast of St. Philip and St. James.
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