In the last sermon I partly considered the dialogue of which this is the concluding portion, and found that it consisted of an audacious question: 'Why cannot I follow Thee now?' which really meant a contradiction of our Lord; of a rash vow; 'I will lay down my life for Thy sake' -- and of a sad forecast: 'The cock shall not crow till thou hast denied Me thrice.' I paused in the middle of considering the second of these three stages, the rash vow. I then pointed out that, however ignorant the Apostle was of what 'following Christ' meant, he had hit the mark, and stumbled unknowingly upon the very essence of the Christian life, and an eternal truth, when he recognised that, somehow or other, to 'follow Christ' meant to die for Him. That is so, and is so always, for there is no following Christ which is not a 'dying daily,' by self-immolation and detachment from the world, and from the life of sense and self. But this rash vow has to be looked at from a somewhat different point of view, and we have to consider not only the strangely blended right and wrong, error and deep truth, that lie in its substance, but the strangely blended right and wrong in the state of feeling and thought, on the part of the Apostle, which it represents. And taking up the dropped thread, I first deal with that, and then with the sad forecast which follows.
So then, looking at these words as being like all our words, even the best of them, strangely mingled of right and wrong, good and evil, I find in them --
I. A noble, sincere, but transient emotion and impulse.
'I will lay down my life for Thy sake.' Peter meant it, every word of it; and he would have done it too, if only a gibbet or cross could have been set up then and there in the upper room. But unfortunately the moments of elevation and high-wrought enthusiasm, and the calls to martyrdom, do not always coincide. In the upper room, with its sacred atmosphere, it was easy to feel, and would have been easy to do, nobly. But it was not so easy, lying drowsily in Gethsemane, in the cold spring night, waiting for the Master's coming out from beneath the trembling shadows of the olive trees, or huddled up by the fire at the lower end of the hall in the grey morning, when vitality is at its lowest.
So the sincere, noble utterance was but the expression of impulse and emotion which lifted Peter for a moment, and did him good, but which likewise, running through him, left him dry, and all the weaker because of the gush of feeling which had foamed itself away in empty words. For let us never forget that however high, noble, or divinely inspired emotion may be, in its nature it is transient and is sure to be followed by reaction. Like the winter torrents in some parched land, the more they foam, the more speedily does the bed of them dry up again, and the more they carry down the very soil in which growth and fertility would be possible. A rush of feeling is apt to leave behind hard, insensitive rock. There is a close connection between a predominantly emotional Christianity and a very imperfect life. Feeling is apt to be a substitute for action. Is it not a very remarkable thing that the word 'benevolence,' which means 'kindly feeling,' has come to take on the meaning rightly belonging to 'beneficence,' which means 'kindly doing'? The emotional man blinds and hoodwinks himself, by thinking that his quick sensibility and lofty enthusiasm and warmth of emotion are action or as good as action. 'Be thou warmed and filled,' he says to his brother, and, in a lazy expansion of heart, forgets that he has never lifted a finger to help.
God forbid that I should seem to deprecate emotional religion or religious emotion! that is the last thing that needs to be done in this generation. If the Churches want one thing more than another, it is that their Christianity should become far more emotional than it is, and their impulses stronger, swifter, more spontaneous, more overmastering, and that they should be urged by these, and not merely by the reluctant recognition that such and such a piece of sacrifice or effort is a debt that they are obliged to clear off. Their service will be glad service, only when it is impulsive service and emotional service. Dear brethren, a Christian man whose life is not influenced by the deepest and most fervid emotion of love to the great Love that died for him, is a monster. 'The Lord's fire is in Jerusalem, and His furnace in Zion' -- is that a description of the fervour of this Church, or of any Church in Christendom? A furnace? An ice-house! Think of some deserted cottage, with the roof fallen in, and in the cold chimney-place a rusty grate with some dead embers in it, and the snow lying upon the top of it -- that is a truer description of a great many of our churches than 'the Lord's furnace.'
But the lesson to be taken from this incident before us is not the danger of emotion; it is rather the necessity of emotion, but with two provisoes, that it shall be emotion based upon a clear recognition of the great truth that He has laid down His life for me; and that it shall be emotion harnessed to work, and not wasted in words. The mightier the plunge of the fall, the more electrical energy you can get out of it, and set that to work to drive the wheels of life. Do not be afraid of emotion; you will make little of your Christianity unless you have it. But be sure that it is under the guidance of a clear perception of the truth that evokes it, and that it is all used to turn the wheels of life. 'Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.' Better is it that emotion should be reticent and active than that it should be voluble and idle. It is a good servant, but a bad master. A man that trusts to impulse and emotion to further his Christian course, is like a ship in that belt of variable winds that lies near the Equator, where there will be a fine ten-knot breeze for an hour or two, and then a sickly, stagnating calm. Push further south, and get into the steady 'trades,' where the wind blows with equable and persistent force all the year round in the same direction. Convert impulses and emotions into steadfast principle, warmed by emotion and borne on by impulse.
II. Again, this rash vow is an illustration of a confidence, also strangely blended of good and evil.
'I will lay down my life for Thy sake.' As I have said, Peter meant it. His words are paralleled by other words, in which two of the Lord's disciples answered His solemn question: 'Are ye able to drink of the cup that I drink of?' with the unhesitating answer, 'We are able.' A great teacher has regarded that saying as one of 'the ventures of faith.' Perhaps it was. Perhaps there was as much self-confidence as faith in it. Certainly there was more self-confidence than faith in Peter's answer, and his self-confidence collapsed when the trial came.
The world and the Church hold entirely antagonistic notions about the value of self-reliance. The world says that it is a condition of power. The Church says that it is the root of weakness. Self-confidence shuts a man out from the help of God, and so shuts him out from the source of power. For if you will think for a moment, you will see that the faith which the New Testament, in conformity with all wise knowledge of one's self, preaches as the one secret of power, has for its obverse -- its other side -- diffidence and self-distrust. No man trusts God as God ought to be trusted, who does not distrust himself as himself ought to be distrusted. To level a mountain is the only way to carry the water across where it stood. You can, by mechanism and locks, take a canal up to the top of a hill, but you cannot take a river up to the top, and the river of God's help flows through the valley and seeks the lowest levels. Faith and self-despair are the upper and the under sides of the same thing, like some cunningly-woven cloth, the one side bearing a different pattern from the other, and yet made of the same yarn, and the same threads passing from the upper to the under sides. So faith and self-distrust are but two names for one composite whole.
I was once shown an old Jewish coin which had on the one side the words 'sackcloth and ashes,' and on the other side the words 'a crown of gold.' The coin meant to contrast what Israel had been with what Israel then was. The crown had come first; the sackcloth and ashes last. But we may use it for illustrating this point, on which I am now dwelling. Wherever, and only where, there are the sackcloth and ashes of self-despair there will be the crown of gold of an answering faith. When thus, as Wesley has it, in his great hymn: 'Confident in self-despair,' we cling to God, then we can say: 'When I am weak then am I strong,' 'Behold! we have no might, but our eyes are upon Thee.' If Peter had only said, 'By Thy help I will lay down my life for Thy sake,' his confidence would have been reasonable and blessed self-confidence, because it would have been confidence in a self inspired by divine power.
And so, brethren, whilst utter diffidence is right for us, and is the condition of all our reception of energy according to our need, the most absolute confidence -- a confidence which, to the eye of the man that measures only visible things, will seem sheer insanity -- is sobriety for a Christian. The world is perfectly right when it says: 'If you believe you can do a thing, you have gone a long way towards doing it.' The expectation of success has often the knack of fulfilling itself. But the world does not know our secret, and our secret is that our humble faith brings into the field the reserves with the Captain of our salvation at their head. Therefore a self-distrusting Christian can say, and say without exaggeration or presumption, 'I can do all things in Christ, strengthening me from within.'
The Church's ideals are possibilities, when you bring God into the account, and they look like insanity when you do not. Take, for instance, missions. What an absurdity to talk about a handful of Christian people -- for we are only a handful as compared with the whole world -- carrying their Gospel into every corner of the earth, and finding everywhere a response to it. Yes; it is absurd; but, wise Mr. Calculator, counter of heads, you have forgotten God in your estimate of whether it is reasonable or unreasonable. Again, take the Christian ideal of absolute perfection of character. 'What nonsense to talk as if any man could ever come to that.' Yes! -- as if any man could come to that, I grant you. But if God is with him, the nonsense is to suppose that he will not come to it. Here is a row of cyphers as long as your arm. They mean nothing. Put a 1 at the left-hand end of the row; and what does it mean then? So the faith that brings Christ into the life, and into the Church, makes 'nobodies' into mighty men -- 'laughs at impossibilities, and cries, It shall be done!'
Still further, here, in this rash vow, we have an underestimate of difficulties. There was another incident in the life of the Apostle, a strange replica of this one, into which he pushed himself, just as he did into the high priest's hall, partly out of curiosity and a wish to be prominent; partly out of love to his Master. Without a moment's consideration of the peril into which he was thrusting himself, he sat in the boat, and said, 'Bid me come to Thee on the water.' He forgot that He was heavy, and that water was not solid, and that the wind was high and the lake rough, and when he put his foot over the side and felt the cold waves creeping up his knees, his courage ebbed out with his faith, and he began to sink. Then he cried, 'Lord! help me!' If he had thought for a moment of the reality of the case, he would have sat still in the boat. If he had thought of what would be in his way in following Jesus to death, he would have hesitated to vow. But it is so much easier to resolve heroisms in a quiet corner than to do them when the strain comes, and it is so much easier to do some one great thing that has in it enthusiasm and nobility, and conspicuousness of sacrifice, especially if it can be got over in a moment, like having one's head cut off with an axe, than it is to 'die daily.' Ah! brethren, it is the little difficulties that make the difficulty. You read in the newspapers in the autumn, every now and then, of trains, in that wonderful country across the water, being stopped by caterpillars. The Christian train is stopped by an army of caterpillars, far oftener than it is by some solid and towering barrier. Our Christian lives are a great deal likelier to come to failure, because we do not take into account the multiplied small antagonisms than because we are not ready to face the greater ones. What would you think of a bridge builder, who built a bridge across some mountain torrent and made no allowance for freshets and floods when the ice melted? His bridge and his piers would be gone the first winter. You remember who it was that said that he went into the Franco-German War 'with a light heart,' and in seven weeks came Sedan and the dethronement of an Emperor, and the surrender of an army. 'Blessed is he that feareth always.' There is no more fatal error than an underestimate of our difficulties.
III. Let me say a word about the sad forecast here.
'Thou shalt deny me thrice.'
We cannot say that poor Peter's fall was at all an anomalous or uncommon thing. He did exactly what a great many of us are doing. He could -- and I have no doubt he would -- have gone to the death for Jesus Christ; but he could not stand being laughed at for Him. He would have been ready to meet the executioner's sharp sword, but the servant-girl's sharp tongue was more than he could bear. And so he denied Jesus, not because he was afraid of his skin -- for I do not suppose that the servants had any notion of doing anything more than amusing themselves with a few clumsy gibes at his expense -- but because he could not bear to be made sport of.
Now, dear brethren, I suppose we are all of us more or less movers in circles in which it sometimes is not considered 'good form' to show that we are Christian people. You young men in your warehouses, you students at the University, where it is a sign of being 'fossils' and 'behind the times' and 'not up to date' to say 'I am a Christian,' and all of us in our several places have sometimes to gather our courage together, and not be afraid to declare whose we are. No doubt life is a better witness than words, but no doubt also life is not so good a witness as it might be, unless it sometimes has the commentary of words as well. Thus, to confess Christ means two things; to say sometimes -- in the face of a smile of scorn, which is often harder to bear than something much more dangerous -- 'I am His,' and to live Christ, and to say by conduct 'I am His,' 'Whosoever shall confess Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father, and whosoever shall deny Me, him will I also deny.' Do not button your coats over your uniform. Do not take the cockade out of your hats when you go amongst 'the other side.' Live Jesus, and, when advisable, preach Jesus.
But Peter's fall, which is typical of what we are all tempted to do, has in it a gracious message; for it proclaims the possibility of recovery from any depth of descent, and of coming back again from any distance of wandering. Did you ever notice how Peter's fall was burnt in upon his memory, so as that when he began to preach after Pentecost, the shape that his indictment of his hearers takes is, 'Ye denied the Holy One and the Just,' and how, long after -- if the second Epistle which goes by his name is his -- in summing up the crimes of the heretics whom he is branding, he speaks of their 'denying the Lord that bought them.' He never forgot his denial, and it remained with him as the expression for all that was wrong in a man's relation to Jesus Christ. And I suppose not only was it burnt in upon his memory, but it burnt out all his self-confidence.
It is beautiful to see how, in his letter, he speaks over and over again of 'fear' as being a wise temper of mind for a Christian. As George Herbert has it, 'A sad, wise valour is the true complexion.' Thus the man that had been so confident in himself learned to say 'Be ready to give to every man that asketh you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear.'
And do you not think that his fall drew him closer to Jesus Christ than ever he had been before, as he learned more of His pardoning love and mercy? Was he not nearer the Lord on that morning when the two together, alone, talked after the Resurrection? Was he not nearer Him when he struggled to his feet from the boat on the lake, on that morning when he was received back into his office as Christ's Apostle? Did he ever forget how he had sinned? Did he ever forget how Christ had pardoned? Did he ever forget how Christ loved and would keep him? Ah, no! The rope that is broken is strongest where it is spliced, not because it was broken, but because a cunning hand has strengthened it. We may be the stronger for our sins, not because sin strengthens, for it weakens, but because God restores. It is possible that we may build a fairer structure on the ruins of our old selves. It is possible that we may turn every field of defeat into a field of victory. It is possible that we may
'Fall to rise; be beaten, to fight better.'
If only we cling to the Lord our Strength, the promise shall be ours -- whatever our failures, denials, backslidings, inconsistencies -- 'though he fall he shall not be utterly cast down, for the Lord upholdeth him with His hand.'