Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard.
Whatever difficulties we may find in understanding and applying many parts of the prophetical Scriptures, yet every thinking person could follow readily enough, I suppose, the chapter from which these words are taken, as it was read in the course of this morning's service; and he would feel, while understanding it as said, immediately and in the first instance, of the Jewish Church or nation, seven centuries and a half before the birth of our Lord, that it was no less applicable to this Christian church and nation at the present period. We cannot, indeed, expect to find a minute agreement in particular points between ourselves and the Jews of old; the difference of times and circumstances renders this impossible; both they and we stand, on the one hand, in so nearly the same relation to God, and we both so share, on the other hand, in the same sinful human nature, that the complaints, and remonstrances of the prophets of old may often, be repeated, even in the very same words, by the Christian preacher now.
If this be so, then the language of various parts of the service of the Church in this season of Advent ought to excite in us no small apprehension; for whilst the lessons from the Old Testament describe the evil state of the Jewish people in the eighth century before Christ, and threaten it with destruction, so the gospels for this day, and for last Sunday, speak of the evil state of the same people when our Lord was upon earth; and the chapter from which the gospel of this day is taken, contains, as we know, a full prophecy of the destruction that was, for the second time, going to overwhelm the earthly Jerusalem. We cannot but fear, therefore, that if our state now be like that of God's people of old, eight centuries before our Lord's coming, and again like their state at his coming: and if, after the first period, their city and temple were burnt, and they were carried captive to Babylon, -- and again, after the second period, the city and temple were burnt again, and the people were dispersed, even to this day, -- that, as the punishment has twice surely followed the sin, so it will not fail to find it out in this third case also.
And be it remembered that the people, or church of God, as such, can receive their punishment only in this world: for, taken as a body, it is an institution for this world only. We each of us, no doubt, shall have our own separate individual judgment after death; and, in the mean time, our fortunes and our character often bear no just correspondence with each other. But nations and churches have their judgments here: and although God's long-suffering so suspends it for many generations that it may seem as if it would never fall, yet does it come surely at the last; and almost always we can ourselves trace the connexion between the sin and the punishment, and can see that the one was clearly the consequence of the other. And thus our church and nation may feel their national judgments in this world quite independently of the several personal judgments which will be passed upon us each hereafter individually, when we stand before Christ's judgment seat.
I have thus ventured to bring the condition of the church as a body before our minds, although well knowing how much more we are concerned with the state of our own souls individually. Yet still the more general view is not without great use; and indeed it bears directly upon our individual state: our actions and our feelings having often a close connexion with, general church matters; and these actions and feelings being necessarily good or bad, according to the soundness of our judgment on the matter which occasions them. Besides which, it seems to me that general views, rather than what relates to particular faults, may be with most propriety dwelt on by those who have no direct connexion with the congregation which they are addressing.
In the first place, then, whenever we think of the state and prospects of Christ's church, whether for good or for evil, it is most desirable that we should rightly understand our own relations to it. "The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel;" or, in the language of the New Testament, "Christ is the vine, and we are the branches." Men continually seem to forget that they are members of the church; citizens, to use St. Paul's expression, of Christ's kingdom, as much as ever they are citizens of their earthly country. But they speak of the church as they might speak of any useful institution or society in their neighbourhood, whose object they approved of, and which they were glad to encourage, but without becoming members of it, or identifying themselves with its success or failure. For example, they speak of the church as they might speak of the universities, which indeed are institutions of great importance to the whole country, but yet they are manifestly distinct from the mass of the community: they have their own members, their own laws, and their own government, with which, people in general have nothing to do. And so many persons speak and feel of the church, regarding it evidently as consisting only of the clergy: our common language, no doubt, helping this confusion, because we often speak of a man's going into the church when he enters into holy orders, just as if ordination were the admission into the church, and not baptism. Now, if the clergy did indeed constitute the church, then it would very much resemble the condition of the universities: for it would then be indeed a society very important to the welfare of the whole country, but yet one that was completely distinct, and which had its members, laws, and government quite apart: for men in general do not belong to the clergy, nor are they concerned directly in such canons as relate to the peculiar business of the clergy, nor does the bishop's superintendence, as commonly exercised, extend at all to them. But God designed for his church far more than that it should contain one order of men only, or that it should comprise commonly but one single individual in a parish, preaching to and teaching the rest of the inhabitants, like a missionary amongst a population of heathens. Look at St. Paul's account of the church of Corinth, in the 12th chapter of his 1st epistle to the Corinthians, and see if any two things can be more different than his notion of a church, and that which many people seem to entertain amongst us. Compare the living body there described, made up of so many various members, each having its separate office, yet each useful to and needed by the others and by the body, -- and our notion of a parish committed to the charge of a single individual: as if all the manifold gifts which the church requires could by possibility be comprised in the person of any one Christian; as if the whole burden were to rest upon his shoulders, and the other inhabitants might regard the welfare of the church as his concern only, and not theirs.
But not only is the church too often confined in men's notions to the single class or profession of the clergy, but it has been narrowed still farther by the practical extinction of one of the orders of the clergy itself. Where the laity have come to regard their own share in the concerns of the church as next to nothing, the order of deacons, forming, as it were, a link between the clergy and the laity, becomes proportionably of still greater importance. The business of the deacons, as we well know, was in an especial manner to look after the relief of the poor; and by combining this charge with the power of baptizing, of reading the Scriptures, and of preaching also, when authorized by the bishop, they exhibited the peculiar character of Christianity, that of sanctifying the business of this world by doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. No church, so far as we know, certainly no church in any town, existed without its deacons: they were as essential to its completeness as its bishop and its presbyters.
Take any one of our large towns now, and what do we find? A bishop, not of that single town only, but of fifty others besides: one presbyter in each, church, and no deacons! Practically, and according to its proper character, the order of deacons is extinct; and those who now bear the name are most commonly found exercising the functions of presbyters; that is, instead of acting as the assistants of a presbyter, they are often the sole ministers of their respective parishes; they alone baptize; alone offer up the prayers of the church, alone preach the word: nothing marks their original character, except their inability to administer the communion; and thus, by a strange anomaly, the church in such parishes is actually left without any power of celebrating its highest act, that of commemorating the death, of Christ in the Lord's supper; and if it were not for another great evil, the unfrequent celebration of the Communion, the system could not go on: because the deacon would be so often obliged to apply to other ministers to perform that duty for him, that the inconvenience, as well as the unfitness, of the actual practice, would be manifest to every one.
Again, what has become of church discipline? That it has perished, we all well know: but its loss is the consequence of that fatal error which makes the clergy alone constitute the church. It is quite certain that men will not allow the members of a single profession to exercise the authority of society; to create and define offences; to determine their punishment, and to be the judges of each particular offender. As long as the clergy are supposed to constitute the whole church, church discipline would be nothing but priestly tyranny. And yet the absence of discipline is a most grievous evil; and there is no doubt that, although it must be vain when opposed to public opinion, yet, when it is the expression of that opinion, there is nothing which it cannot achieve. But public opinion cannot enforce church discipline now, because that discipline would not be now the expression of the voice of the church, but simply of a small part of the church, of the clergy only.
So deeply has this fatal error of regarding the clergy as the church extended itself, that at this moment a man's having been baptized is no security for his being so much as a believer in the truth of Christianity: no matter that he was made in his baptism a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven; no matter that at a more advanced period of his life he was confirmed, and entered into the church by his own act and deed; still the church belongs to the clergy; they may hold such and such, language, and teach such and such doctrine; it would be very improper in them to do otherwise; and he has a great respect for the church, and would strenuously resist all its enemies, but truly, as for his own belief and his own conduct, these he will guide according to other principles, as imperative upon him as the rules of the church upon churchmen. Well indeed, do such men bear witness that they are not of the church, indeed; that their portion is not with God's people; that Christ is not their Saviour, nor the Holy Spirit their Comforter and Guide: but what blasphemy is it to call themselves friends of the church! as if Christ's church could have any friends except God and his holy angels: the church has its living and redeemed members; it may have those who are craving to be admitted within its shelter, being convinced that God is in it of a truth; but beyond these he who is not with it is against it; he who is not Christ's servant, serves his enemy.
Farther, it is this same deadly error which is the root and substance of popery. There is no one abuse of the Romish system which may not be traced to the original and very early error of drawing a wide distinction between the clergy and the laity; of investing the former in such a peculiar degree with the attributes of the church that at last they retained them almost exclusively. In other words, the great evil of popery is, that it has destroyed the Christian church, and has substituted a priesthood in its room. This is the fault of the Greek church, almost as much as of the Roman; and the peculiar tenet of the Romish church, that the supreme government is vested in one single member of this priesthood, the Bishop of Rome, is in some respects rather an improvement of the system, than an aggravation of it. For even an absolute monarchy is a less evil than an absolute aristocracy; and an infallible Pope is no greater corruption of Christ's truth, than an infallible general council. The real evils of the system are of a far older date than the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, and exist in places where that supremacy is resolutely denied. And if we attend to them carefully, we shall see that these evils have especially affected the Christian church as distinguished from the Christian religion. It is worth our while to attend to this distinction; for the Christian religion and the Christian church together, and neither without the other, form the perfect idea of Christianity. NOW, by the Christian religion, I mean the revelation of what God has done or will do for us in Christ; the great doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, the presence of the Holy Spirit amongst us, and our own resurrection hereafter, to an existence of eternal happiness or misery. And these truths, if revealed to any single person living in an uninhabited island, might be abundantly sufficient for his salvation; if God disposed his heart to receive them, and to believe them earnestly, they would be the means of his overcoming his corrupt nature, and of passing from death unto life. But because men do not generally live alone, but with one another; and because they cannot but greatly hinder, or help each other by their mutual influence, therefore the Christian church was instituted for the purpose of spreading and furthering the growth of the Christian religion in men's hearts; and its various ministeries, its sacraments, its services and festivals, and its discipline were all designed with that object. And it is all these which popery has perverted; popery, whether in the Roman church or in the Greek church, or even in the Protestant church, for it has existed more or less in all. But even in the Roman church, where the perversion has been most complete, it has comparatively affected but little the truths of the Christian religion; all the great doctrines, which I mentioned, are held as by ourselves; the three creeds, the Apostles' creed, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, are used by the Roman church no less than by our own. Thus it often happens that we can read with great edification the devotional works of Roman Catholic writers, because in such works the individual stands apart from the Christian church, and is concerned only with the Christian religion: they show how one single soul, having learnt the tidings of redemption with faith, and thankfulness, improves them to its own salvation. But the moment that he goes out of his closet, and begins to speak and act amongst other men, then the corruption of popery shows itself. The Christian church was designed to help each individual towards a more perfect knowledge and love of God, by the counsel and example of his brethren, and by the practices which, he was to observe in their society. But the corrupt church exercises its influence for evil; it omits all the benefits to be derived from a living society, and puts forward, in their place, the observance of rites and ceremonies; knowledge and love are no longer looked to as the perfections of a Christian, but ignorance and blind obedience; not the mortifying all our evil passions universally, but the keeping them chained up, as it were under priestly control, to be let loose at the priest's bidding, against those whom he calls the church's enemies; that glorious church which he has destroyed and converted it into an idol temple, in that he, as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
To resist this great and monstrous evil, we must not exclaim against it under one of its forms only, even although that form exhibit it, indeed, in its most complete deformity; but we must strive against it under all its forms, remembering that its essence consists in putting the clergy in the place of the church; and taking from the great mass of the church their proper share in its government, in its offices, and therefore in its benefits, and in the sense of its solemn responsibilities. We speak often of church extension, meaning by this term the building new places of public worship, and the appointing additional ministers to preach the word and administer the sacraments. And no doubt such church extension is a good and blessed work, for it brings the knowledge of the truths of Christ's religion, and the benefit of his ordinances, the sacraments, within the reach of many who might otherwise have been without them. But it were a yet truer and more blessed church extension which should add to the building and the single minister, the real living church itself, with all its manifold offices and ministries, with its pure discipline, with its holy and loving sense of brotherhood. Without this, Christ will still, indeed, as heretofore, lay his hands on some few sick folk and heal them; his grace will convey the truths of his gospel to individual souls, and they will believe and be saved. But the fulfilment of prophecy; the triumph of Christ's kingdom; the changing an evil world into a world redeemed; this can only be done by a revival of the Christian church in its power, the living temple of the Holy Ghost, which, visibly to all mankind, in the wisdom and holiness of its members, showed that God was in the midst of it. It may be that this is a fond hope, which we may not expect to see realized; but looking on the one hand to the strong and triumphant language of prophecy, I know not how any hope of the advancement of Christ's kingdom can be more bold than God's word will warrant: and on the other, tracing the past history of the church, its gradual corruption may be deduced distinctly from one early and deadly mischief, which has destroyed its efficacy; so that, if this mischief can be removed, and the church become such as Christ designed it to be, it does not seem presumptuous to hope that his appointed instrument, working according to his will, should be enabled to obtain the full blessings of his promise.
And now, in conclusion, if we ask, what should follow from all that has been said? what it should lead us all, if it be true, to feel or to do? -- the answer is, that considerations of this sort are not such as lead at once to some distinct change in our conduct; to the laying aside some favourite sin, or the practising some long neglected duty. And yet the thoughts which I have endeavoured to suggest to your minds may, if dwelt upon, lead, in the end, to a very considerable alteration, both in our feelings and in our practice. First of all, it is not a little matter to be convinced practically, that it is baptism, and not ordination, which makes us members of the church; that it is by sharing in the communion of Christ's body and blood, not by being admitted into the ministry, that the privileges and graces of Christ's church are conferred upon us. And most wisely, and most truly, does our Church separate ordination from the two Christian sacraments, as an institution far less solemn, and conferring graces far less important: for the difference between a Christian and a Christian minister is but one of office, not of moral or spiritual advancement, not of greater or less nearness to God. One is our master, even Christ; and all we are brethren. Words which certainly do not imply that all members of the church are to have the same office, or that all offices are of equal importance and dignity; but which do imply, most certainly, that any attempt to convert the ministry into a priesthoood, that is, to represent them as standing, in any matter, as mediators between Christ and his people, or as being essentially the channel through which his grace must pass to his church, is directly in opposition to him; and is no better than idolatry. It was by baptism that we have all been engrafted into Christ's body; it is by the communion of his body and blood that we continue to abide in him; it is in his whole body, in his church, and not in its ministers, as distinct from his church, that his Holy Spirit abides.
Thus feeling that we each are members of the church, that it is our highest country, to which we are bound with a far deeper love than to our earthly country, is not its welfare our welfare; its triumph our triumph; its failures our shame? We shall see, then, that church questions are not such merely, or principally, as concern the payment of the clergy, or their discipline, but all questions in which God's glory and man's sins or duties are concerned; all questions in the decision of which, there is a moral good and evil; a grieving of Christ's Spirit, or a conformity to him. And in such questions as concern the church, in the more narrow and common sense of the word, seeing that we are all members of the church, we should not neglect them, as the concern of others, but take an interest in them, and act in them, so far as we have opportunity, as in a matter which most nearly concerns ourselves. We feel that we have an interest in our country's affairs, although we are not members of the government or of the legislature; we have our part to perform, without at all overstepping the modesty of private life: and it is the constant influence of public opinion, and the active interest taken by the country at large in its own concerns, which, in spite of occasional delusion or violence, is mainly instrumental in preserving to us the combined vigour and order of our political constitution. And so, if we took an equal interest in the affairs of our divine commonwealth, our Christian church, and endeavoured as eagerly to promote every thing which tended to its welfare, and to put down and prevent every thing which might work it mischief, then the efforts of the clergy to advance Christ's kingdom would be incalculably aided, while there would then be no danger of our investing them with the duties and responsibilities which belong properly to the whole church; they could not then have dominion over our faith, nor by possibility become lords over God's heritage, but would be truly ensamples to the flock, the helpers of our joy, the glory of Christ.