The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.The Gospel for Christmas
[A Christmas Sermon]
At Christmas time we are expected to be full of charity and goodwill. That is the very spirit of the season. It was in this strain that the angels sang when they were heard by the shepherds of Bethlehem. But even goodwill requires to be defined. Many people think it is all included in a hot family dinner on Christmas Day, concluded with the proverb—How true it is that one half of the world does not know how the other half lives. The quotation of this proverb is supposed in some way to have subscribed to the relief and comfort of the poor. Other persons seem to imagine that goodwill is limited to persons of their own way of thinking. We cannot help thinking kindly of those who agree with us on the deepest subjects. When men differ from us we naturally denounce them as incapable, shortsighted, and pitiable creatures; but when the same people agree with us, we see in them at least the dawning of genius and the budding of sound statesmanship. That is a little peculiarity of men. It comes out very strongly in some newspapers. When I differ from them I am cordially disliked, and represented by many invidious and vivid epithets; when I agree with them I instantaneously become "an eminent Congregational minister." I want to extend the area within which our goodwill is to operate, so as to include some from whom we are intellectually, and even theologically, separated. For example, how we as Gentiles hate Jews. Why should Jews be hated by Gentiles, and especially hated by Christians? Have they not a right to their own convictions? Are they not the most historical people in the world? Is not salvation of the Jews? We shall never convert them by abusing them. Let us show them how grand a thing is Christianity. We may do more by charity than by controversy. If we outdo them in moral nobleness, they will begin to respect us. If we outdo them in spite and resentment, they will begin to think that our creed has not done much for our purification and ennoblement.
Then again, how we suspect people who do not belong to our chapel, whatever that chapel may be. We will not be responsible for their future. Baptists may possibly go to heaven—if heaven is a very very large place—but as Congregationalists we will not guarantee it. Congregationalists may escape perdition, but the risk is very great in the estimation of the Antinomians, who consider themselves that nothing can possibly happen to hinder them from the occupation of the choicest places in the celestial world. Quakers are very objectionable to some other communions. Quakers are not themselves the largest-minded persons in the world; this may arise not so much from want of disposition as from want of information. They have lived an insular life. They have never been upon the Continent of the larger public opinion. I want to change all this miserable feeling. We should take the very best view of men, and do so simply because we are followers of Christ. Christianity, properly understood, is the most enlarging and the most ennobling religion known to mankind. Our Master, blessed be his name, came not to destroy men's lives but to save them. He was the guest of publicans and sinners. Friendless women loved him. Little children nestled in his bosom. Repentant sinners caught his sunlight on their tears. I believe in all honest men. I lay great stress on the word "honest." Even Christianity may be professed dishonestly. Some men are better than their creed. That is a fact which is often overlooked in the criticism and estimation of our fellow-men. We look at the creed and think that the men who profess it must be exactly as it is. That is unjust in both ways; it may be unjust as making some men too little, and it may be equally unjust in making other men too great. Perhaps you would not allow an infidel to enter your house. You have a horror of infidels. Perhaps you are right. You may be wrong. We must first of all know what you mean by infidel. Infidelity may be an intellectual term; or it may be a moral term; and before we can say anything about it we must know which it is. Limitation is sometimes definition. It is quite certain that there are some professing Christians whom I would not trust with an open cheque. Their creed is very grand; and so capable of expansion is what they call their mind, that they could take in ten more creeds of any size that human imagination chooses to prescribe; but, because they are corrupt in heart, I would not trust them out of my sight, and whilst they are in my sight I would inflict upon them the most vigilant suspicion and distrust. In your treatment of honest men be just, and you will be noble.
How cordially Churchmen and Dissenters love one another! On Christmas Day it is even permitted to a man to be slightly, but not maliciously, ironical. Why should not Churchmen and Dissenters love one another? A Dissenter may be as good as a Churchman, and a Churchman may be quite as good as a Dissenter. They should know one another better. I am perfectly persuaded that, if men knew one another better, they would in many cases have a larger mutual charity and appreciation. Men should look for each other's best points. I do not see why Roman Catholics should be hated by Protestants, or vice versa, I do see that men may be fatally opposed from an intellectual point of view, and yet not necessarily seek to assassinate one another. Certain terms have come to have bad reputations. No term has so bad a reputation in the estimation of a Protestant as the term Roman Catholic; yet it is perfectly possible, even for a Protestant, not to know what a Roman Catholic is. He may be blinded to justice by what is known as the odium theologicum. Terms are not to be defined always by the dictionary. In fact, a dictionary may be most misleading in its definition. Some terms can only be interpreted by atmosphere, but mutual association, by insight into masonic relations and ultimate purposes; in a word, we must often trust to experience, rather than to etymology, in defining theological designations and boundaries.
Your Christianity amounts to nothing, if it does not enable you to see the best of every man. I say emphatically, the best. There is a best in every one of us, if only it could be found. It is possible to stand up for the truth in a spirit of error. We may do right wrongly. Be perfectly assured of this in all our propagandism, that we cannot abuse men into the kingdom of heaven. People are not to be arrested as if by constabulary strength, and thrust into heaven as criminals are thrust into a prison. Only Wisdom can save souls. The Authorised Version reads, "He that winneth souls is wise," but the Revised Version teaches us to believe that it is Wisdom that saves souls; that is to say, wherever there is Wisdom there is a saving force in the world. Only meekness can really inherit the earth. Pomposity and boastfulness may seem to have it, and may go so far as to hold the legal title-deeds of it; but true and everlasting ownership can only be realised by the meek in heart.
The great law of charity should operate all round. We all need it. A Christianity that will not allow you to take into your love all who serve the Saviour is not of heaven, and is not of good men. Let it name its own awful origin. Are we then to love all men alike? The inquiry is absurd. We must prefer some to others. Love is discriminating. You prefer gold to silver; yet you do not throw away the inferior metal. You prefer your own home to next door, yet you do not burn down your neighbour's house. I know how extremely difficult—how well-nigh impossible—it is for an Englishman to think well of any other nation. My inquiry on this happy Christmas Day is, Why should there not be a larger knowledge and a truer appreciation of one another all through and through the social distinctions and classifications by which society is ramified? Perhaps we shall see some improvement in this direction amongst political critics and reviewers. The amplitude of the political vocabulary is simply astounding. No man innocent of political relations and responsibilities could imagine that the English language is so rich in terms of abuse and ridicule. It would really seem as if a man differing from me in political opinion were too bad to go even to perdition. It certainly does seem sometimes as if we applied this doctrine to religious differences. As I have already said, we have only to suggest that such and such a man differs from us in some of our theological conceptions in order to enable us, and indeed to compel us, instantly to class that man as an unbeliever, an infidel, an atheist, and a dog with whom it would be a degradation to hold companionship.
Christianity came into the world to unite the human family. This is the burden of the music of Christ's heart. He always goes out after that which is lost until he finds it. He will not have any man stand outside who is really anxious to come in. His marching orders to his Church are, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature." When all authority on earth and in heaven was committed to him, he said, "Go ye therefore and teach all nations." Other religions keep at home. They do not care for missioning the world. There have been two or three apparent exceptions to this home-keeping, but the exceptions have been apparent rather than positive. Christianity cannot keep at home; Christianity is the travelling religion. It is the greatest explorer; it is the most adventurous navigator. It longs to learn all languages, and to baptise them in the name of the living Christ. We are perfectly aware that men have gone out with divisive theologies and mean ecclesiastical contentions; but they have never been able to justify such separations and conflicts in the name or in the spirit of the Cross. Judge your Christianity by your magnanimity. If your minds are growing less and less, then you simply know nothing about Christ or his religion. If your sympathies are daily contracting, then you are inflicting deadly injury on the Cross of the Saviour. If you cannot give at least the crumbs to the dogs, you are unjust when you profess to be followers of him whose birth we are celebrating. Magnanimity does not mean latitudinarianism. Magnanimity does not mean laxness, vagueness, carelessness about spiritual thought, or moral distinction. But magnanimity does mean that we should hope the most and the best about all men who show any evidence of being reverent and sincere in religious inquiry. We must not condemn men for merely intellectual error. The head may be wrong where the heart is right. It is by the heart that God will judge the world. Not what we intellectually think, but what we morally love and reverence and pursue, will determine the destiny of men. Make sure of your faith by your charity. By your charity I do not mean merely almsgiving. Sometimes the giving away of money may be the easiest part of a man's dower. By charity I mean love, sympathy, comprehensiveness of noble feeling towards all races, classes, peoples, and languages. Christianity sees even in the savage a son of God. Christianity finds the soul of good in things evil. Under no other compulsion could the Son of God have laid aside his glory and accepted the incarnation, which this day we recall with feelings of adoring thankfulness. The more you are impelled to do good, the more are you in Christ. If you cannot rest until you have saved another man, you may be perfectly sure that you are under the inspiration of the Cross. If you can rest perfectly well without caring what becomes of other souls, then know for a certainty that you have not yet seen or felt the meaning of the power of the Cross of Christ.
In the spirit of the Cross would I solemnise and celebrate Christmas Day. Let there be no family quarrels after this morning. It is useless to boast of your Christian aspiration and Christian feeling, if you are not prepared to associate on terms of affection and confidence with all persons within your own house who are willing to reciprocate such feelings. Is it possible that a husband and wife may be living in enmity? Let this be the moment of the cessation of hostilities, and let each emulate the other in a spirit of forgiveness. Is it possible that any son has run away from his father's house and is afraid to return? Let him this day resolve that he will knock at the door of the old house, confess his sin, and ask to be taken once more into the bosom and the love of the family. Are there differences amongst partners in business, amongst old companions and comrades? Are there differences as between the old and the young? Let each consider how he can most earnestly fulfil the law of Christ; let him indeed try to invent opportunities of reconciliation. Let it be his solemn business before God to find the door by which he can re-enter into loving intercourse with those with whom he has held lifelong association. If we really want to be reconciled there can be no difficulty about the matter. Yet all this must be done, not as an expediency and calculation, not with a view to ultimate results in the form of rewards; all this must be done because we have seen Christ, and known him, and felt the power of his own love in our hearts. If we will act in this way, this Christmas will be the brightest day in a life that must of necessity have known much change, felt the coldness of much shadow, and seen the uncertainty of the richest treasures which belong only to time. In this spirit I venture to address you, to counsel you. Let us pray for one another. With the dying year let us bury all our differences. I do not say, Let us obliterate moral distinctions. We cannot inter dishonesty in the grave of the year. We cannot bury unfaithfulness as if it had never been shown. Where there has been moral dishonour there must be the profoundest moral repentance; and fruits meet for repentance must be brought forth, otherwise the guilt can never be buried and forgotten.