Perhaps the most dismal fact of history is the failure of the great organized bodies of ecclesiasticism to understand the simple genius of Christ's religion. Whatever the best in the Churches of all time may have thought of the life and religion of Christ, taken as a whole they have succeeded in leaving upon the mind of a large portion of the world an impression of Christianity which is the direct opposite ofthe reality. Down to the present hour almost whole nations in Europe live, worship, and die under the belief that Christ is an ecclesiastical Christ, religion the sum of all the Churches' observances, and faith an adhesion to the Churches' creeds. I do not apportion blame; I simply record the fact. Everything that thespiritual and temporal authority of man could do has been done -- done in ignorance of the true nature of Christianity -- to dislodge the religion of Christ from its natural home in the heart of Humanity. In many lands the Churches have literally stolen Christ from the people; they have made the Son of Man the Priest of an Order; they have taken Christianity from the City and imprisoned it behind altar rails; they have withdrawn it from the national life and doled it out to the few who pay to keep the unconscious deception up.
Do not do the Church, the true Church at least, the injustice to think that she does not know all this. Nowhere, not even in the fiercest secular press, is there more exposure of this danger, more indignation at its continuance, than in many of the Churches of to-day. The protest against the confusion of Christianity with the Church is the most threadbare of pulpit themes. Before the University of Oxford, from the pulpit of St. Mary's, these words were lately spoken: "If it is strange that the Church of the darker ages should have needed so bitter a lesson (the actual demolition of their churches), is it not ten times stranger still that the Church of the days of greater enlightenment should be found again making the chief part of its business the organizing of the modes of worship; that the largest efforts which are owned as the efforts of the Church are made for the establishment and maintenance of worship; that our chief controversies relate to the teaching and the ministry of a system designed primarily, if not exclusively, for worship; that even the fancies and the refinements of such a system divide us; that thebreach between things secular and things religious grows wider instead of their being made to blend into one; and that the vast and fruitful spaces of the actual life of mankind lie still so largely without the gates? The old Jerusalem was all temple. The mediaeval Church was all temple. But the ideal of the new Jerusalem was -- no temple, but a God-inhabited society. Are we not reversing this ideal in an age when the church still means in so many mouths the clergy, instead of meaning the Christian society, and when nine men are striving to get men to go to church for one who is striving to make men realize that they themselves are the Church?"
Yet even with words so strong as these echoing daily from Protestant pulpits the superstition reigns in all but unbroken power. And everywhere still men are found confounding the spectacular services of a Church, the vicarious religion of a priest, and the traditional belief in a creed, with the living religion of the Son of Man.
"I saw no Temple there" -- the future City will be a City without a Church. Ponder that fact, realize the temporariness of the Church, then -- go and build one. Do not imagine, because all this has been said, that I mean to depreciate the Church. On the contrary, if it were mine to build a City, a City where all life should be religious, and all men destined to become members of the Body of Christ, the first stone I should lay there would be the foundation-stone of a Church Why? Because, among other reasons, the product which the Church on the whole best helps to develop, and in the largest quantity, is that which is most needed by the City.
For the present, and for a long time to come, the manufactory of good men, the nursery of the forces which are to redeem the City, will in the main be found to be some more or less formal, more or less imperfect, Christian Church. Here and there an unchurched soul may stir the multitudes to lofty deeds; isolated men; strong enough to preserve their souls apart from the Church, but shortsighted enough perhaps to fail to see that others cannot, may set high examples and stimulate to national reforms. But for the rank and file of us, made of such stuff as we are made of, the steady pressures of fixed institutions, the regular diets of a common worship, and the education of public Christian teaching are too obvious safeguards of spiritual culture to be set aside. Even Renan declares his conviction that "Beyond the family and outside the State, man has need of the Church . . . Civil society, whether it calls itself a commune, a canton, or a province, a state, or fatherland, has many duties towards the improvement of the individual; but what it does is necessarily limited. The family ought to do much more, but often it is insufficient; sometimes it is wanting altogether. The association created in the name of moral principle can alone give to every man coming into this world a bond which unites him with the past, duties as to the future, examples to follow, a heritage to receive and to transmit, and a tradition of devotion to continue." Apart altogether from the quality of its contribution to society, in the mere quantity of the work it turns out it stands alone. Even for social purposes the Church is by far the greatest Employment Bureau in the world. And the man who, seeing whereit falls short, withholds on that account hiswitness to its usefulness, is a traitor to history and to fact.
"The Church," as the preacher whom I have already quoted, most truly adds, "is a society which tends to embrace the whole life of mankind, to bind all their relations together by a Divine sanction. As such, it blends naturally with the institutions of common life -- those institutions which, because they are natural and necessary, are therefore Divine. What it aims at is not the recognition by the nation of a worshipping body, governed by the ministers of public worship, which calls itself the Church, but that the nation and all classes in it should act upon Christian principle, that laws should be made in Christ's spirit of justice, that the relations of the powers of the state should be maintained on a basis of Christian equity, that all public acts should be done in Christ's spirit, and with mutual forbearance, that the spirit of Christian charity should be spread through all ranks and orders of the people. The Church will maintain public worship as one of the greatest supports of a Christian public life; but it will alwaysremember that the true service is a life of devotion to God and man far more than the common utterance of prayer." I have said that were it mine to build a City, the first stone I should lay there would be the foundation-stone of a Church. But if it were mine to preach the first sermon in that Church, I should choose as the text, "I saw no Church therein." I should tell the people that the great use of the Church is to help men to do without it As the old ecclesiastical term has it, Church services are "diets" of worship. They are meals. All who are hungry will take them, and, if they are wise, regularly. But no workman is paid for his meals. He is paid for the work he does in the strength of them. No Christian is paid for going to Church. He goes there for a meal, for strength from God and from his fellow-worshippers to do the work of life -- which is the work of Christ. The Church is a Divine institution because it is so very human an institution. As a channel of nourishment, as a stimulus to holy deeds, as a link with all holy lives, let all men use it, and to the utmost of their opportunity. But by all that they know of Christ or care for man, let them beware of mistaking its services for Christianity. What Church services really express is the want of Christianity. And when that which is perfect in Christianity is come, all this, as the mere passing stay and scaffolding of struggling souls, must vanish away.
If the masses who never go to Church only knew that the Churches were the mute expression of a Christian's wants and not the self-advertisement of his sanctity, they would have more respectful words for Churches. But they have never learned this. And the result in their case of confounding religion with the Church is even more serious than in the case of the professing Christian. When they break with the Church it means to them a break with all religion. As things are it could scarce be otherwise. With the Church in ceaseless evidence before their eyes as the acknowledged custodian of Christianity; with actual stone and lime in every street representing the place where religion dwells; with a professional class moving out and in among them, holding in their hands the souls of men, and almost the keys of Heaven -- how is it possible that those who turn their backs on all this should not feel outcast from the Church's God? It is not possible. Without a murmur, yet with resultsto themselves most disastrous and pathetic, multitudes accept this false dividing-line and number themselves as excommunicate from all good. The masses will never return to the Church till its true relation to the City is more defined. And they can never have that most real life of theirs made religious so long as they rule themselves out of court on the ground that they have broken with ecclesiastical forms. The life of the masses is the most real of all lives. It is full of religious possibilities. Every movement of it and every moment of it might become of supreme religious value, might hold a continuous spiritual discipline, might perpetuate, and that in most natural ways, a moral influence which should pervade all Cities and all States. But they must first be taught what Christianity really is, and learn to distinguish between religion and the Church. After that, if they be taught their lesson well, they will return to honour both.
Our fathers made much of "meetness" for Heaven. By prayer and fasting, by self-examination and meditation they sought to fit themselves "for the inheritance of the saints in light." Important beyond measure in their fitting place are these exercises of the soul. But whether alone they fit men for the inheritance of the saints depends on what a saint is. If a saint is a devotee and not a citizen, if Heaven is a cathedral and not a City, then these things do fit for Heaven. But if life means action, and Heaven service; if spiritual graces are acquired for use and not for ornament, then devotional forms have a deeper function. The Puritan preachers were wont to tell their people to "practise dying." Yes; but what is dying? It is going to a City. And what is required of those who would go to a City? The practice of Citizenship -- the due employment of the unselfish talents, the development of public spirit, the payment of the full tax to the great brotherhood, the subordination of personal aims to the common good. And where are these to be learned? Here; in Cities here. There is no other way to learn them. There is no Heaven to those who have not learned them.
No Church however holy, no priest however earnest, no book however sacred, can transfer to any human character the capacities of Citizenship -- those capacities which in the very nature of things are necessities to those who would live in the kingdom of God. The only preparation which multitudes seem to make for Heaven is for its Judgment Bar. What will they do in its streets? What have they learned of Citizenship? What have they practised of love? How like are they to its Lord? To "practise dying" is to practise living. Earth is the rehearsal for Heaven. The eternal beyond is the eternal here. The street-life, the home-life, the business-life, the City-life in all the varied range of its activity, are an apprenticeship for the City of God. There is no other apprenticeship for it. To know how to serve Christ in these is to "practise dying."
To move among the people on the common street; to meet them in the market-place on equal terms; to live among them not as saint or monk, but as brother-man with brother-man; to serve God not with form or ritual, but in the free impulse of a soul; to bear the burdens of society and relieve its needs; to carry on the multitudinous activities of the City -- social, commercial, political, philanthropic -- in Christ's spirit and for His ends: this is the religion of the Son of Man, and the only meetness for Heaven which has much reality in it.
No; the Church with all its splendid equipment, the cloister with all its holy opportunity, are not the final instruments for fitting men for Heaven. The City, in many of its functions, is a greater Church than the Church. It is amid the whirr of its machinery and in the discipline of its life that the souls of men are really made. How great its opportunity is we are few of us aware. It is such slow work getting better, the daily round is so very common, our ideas of a heavenly life are so unreal and mystical that even when the highest Heaven lies all around us, when we might touch it, and dwell in it every day we live, we almost fail to see that it is there. The Heaven of our childhood, the spectacular Heaven, the Heaven which is a place, sodominates thought even in our maturer years, that we are slow to learn the fuller truth that Heaven is a state. But John, who is responsible before all other teachers for the dramatic view of Heaven, has not failed in this very allegory to proclaim the further lesson. Having brought all his scenery upon the stage and pictured a material Heaven of almost unimaginable splendour, the seer turns aside before he closes for a revelation of a profounder kind. Within the Heavenly City he opens the gate of an inner Heaven. It is the spiritual Heaven -- the Heaven of those who serve. With two flashes of his pen he tells the Citizens of God all that they will ever need or care to know as to what Heaven really means. "His servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His Face; and His Character shall be written on their characters."
They shall see His Face. Where? In the City. When? In Eternity? No; to-morrow. Those who serve in any City cannot help continually seeing Christ. He is there with them. He is there before them. They cannot but meet. No gentle word is ever spoken that Christ's voice does not also speak; no meek deed is ever done that the unsummoned Vision does not there and then appear. Whoso, in whatsoever place, receiveth a little child in My name receiveth Me.
This is how men get to know God -- by doing His will. And there is no other way. And this is how men become like God; how God's character becomes written upon men's characters. Acts react upon souls. Good acts make good men; just acts, just men; kind acts, kind men; divine acts, divine men. And there is no other way of becoming good, just, kind, divine. And there is no Heaven for those who have not become these. For these are Heaven.
When John's Heaven faded from his sight, and the prophet woke to the desert waste of Patmos, did he grudge to exchange the Heaven of his dream for the common tasks around him? Was he not glad to be alive, and there? And would he not straightway go to the City, to whatever struggling multitude his prison-rock held, if so be that he might prove his dream and among them see His Face? Traveller to God's last City, be glad that you are alive. Be thankful for the City at your door and for the chance to build its walls a little nearer Heaven before you go. Pray for yet a little while to redeem the wasted years. And week by week as you go forth from worship, and day by day as you awake to face this great and needy world, learn to "seek a City" there, and in the service of its neediest citizen find Heaven.