TEXT: MARK xv.34-41.
HEAVENLY Father! On all who are assembling to day to commemorate the death of the Holy One, in whom Thou wast well pleased, look graciously down! Let not one go away from the cross of Thy Well-beloved without exclaiming, with new, living faith, Truly this was the Son of God! Let not one wipe away his tears of emotion until the heartfelt desire has taken possession of him that his end may be like that of this righteous One! Let not the feeling of holy reverence and admiration, that must lay hold on every one at the remembrance of the dying Christ, be left behind within these walls and bear no fruit; let it go forth with us all into our life, so that it may be more and more consecrated to Thee, and become more like to His, until at last we follow Him, in departing with good courage to Thee. Amen.
A sad and moved heart, my brethren, I take for granted in all of us at this hour, and to this I wish to address myself. Let us, I entreat you, lay aside, at least for the present, all the separate notions that each of us may have of certain particular benefits and blessings from the death of Jesus. I honour them all, if they dwell in a heart that I honour; but it would be sad if the most sacred of days were spent in raising questions, in sifting opinions, in instituting discussions, by which minds are not moved for good, and are often quite turned away from each other, through differences, which of course there must always be, coming to light at the very time when we desire to be most cordially united. No, we wish to unite in such meditations as may be of equal importance and equal blessing to us all, as surely as we all reverence in Christ the Author of our faith, as we all count His death a death of love and obedience, as we all set before us His life even to death as the pattern which we seek to follow; yes, His life even to death, not even excluding the last experiences of His holy soul. Whether we, like Him, shall retain to our last heart-beat the full use of all the faculties of our minds, is a question on which we can come to no decision; it is a special favour of God, depending on the circumstances in which He brings about the close of our life. But the last heart-beat is not really the end of life; life ceases with the last thought and feeling that our spirit brings forth in union with its body; with the last glance in which the surrounding world is still visible to us; with the last consciousness of our earthly circumstances; and if we are then to treat those circumstances, and to regard this world, and to look back on our past life just as He did, that can be the fruit solely of a life led just as His was, and of a mind just as collected. Therefore let us learn to die in seeing Christ die! It is no small thing that I expect from you in calling on you to do this; for it is with the death of the Saviour as it was with His life; let him who seeks only happiness and joy shun likeness to Him; let him alone seek it who covets what is great and perfect at any price. An easier end, a gentler sleeping away than the Saviour's there may easily be; but none that would be more sublime, none more worthy of a pious and virtuous heart. Let him who covets such an end look now with me at the perfecting of the Holy One of God.
In wishing that we may die as Christ did, I do not mean to advert to that state of mind which for every one who has walked in the right way is a matter of course. That regret for a wasted life may not be our last crushing feeling, that a too fond clinging to the joys and possessions of this world may not make the leaving of it more difficult than it ought to be, that no anxious doubt may mingle in our childlike submission to Him who is leading us into the valley of death; let there be no question of these things among us. There are three other particulars to which I wish to direct your attention as something greatly to be desired; desirable, I mean, just for this reason, that in order to act as Christ did in those circumstances, the close and complete likeness to Him, at which we are all aiming, will be necessary. I desire, then, that in dying we may all have, in the first place, the same sorrow over unaccomplished deeds; secondly, the same calmness under the unjust judgments of the world; and thirdly, that we may be in the same way surrounded by tender and faithful friends. Let your devout attention be directed for the present to these particulars.
I. Oh, that we might all die with the same sorrow over unaccomplished deeds, which was so plainly revealed in the Saviour's sorrowful cry, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" For do you suppose that this cry was wrung from Him by bodily suffering? Heavy as the pressure of that may have been, yet for Him to whom it still left strength for such expressions of kindness, of care and sympathy as Christ gave from His cross, it could not obscure the principle He had so often asserted, that suffering can just as little be a token of the displeasure of the Most High as success is a pledge of His favour. Or was it that Jesus clung to the joys of life, so that He was afflicted by the necessity of leaving it while so young? Or was it perhaps that His imagination was so filled with ideas of future worldly greatness that He was mortified at not being able to attain to it? No; but He loved His duty with His whole heart; the thought of the great work to which He had devoted His life still filled His soul. And when He reflected how far that work still was from completion; how in fact not one of His disciples had clearly understood His views and feelings or seen into His plan, how little they were prepared for all that must now burst upon them, and how easily the bond that held them together might be dissolved; could we well wonder if He had asked, My God, My God, why hast Thou withdrawn Thy protecting hand from this undertaking? But this He does not ask. fie knew how closely the thread of His designs was woven into the plan of Providence; He only wished that it had been appointed to Himself to carry on the great business still further; He only asks, from the depth of a heart that cannot do enough of good, why the Eternal should now call Him away, in order to carry forward the great work without His help; He saw so plainly what more He would have brought to pass; and the Most High was not permitting Him to do it.
It is this very desire and sorrow that I wish for us all in our last hours. It is not needful for this that we be snatched away, as Christ was, in the prime of life from some great work; every one may feel thus, in whatever position he may be. Are you servants of the State, administrators of public regulations; may you grieve that you cannot still reform abuses and introduce improvements! Are you independent and wealthy; may you grieve that you cannot set agoing one more benevolent institution, or do this thing and that for the unfortunate whom you protect! Are you scholars and philosophers; may you be reluctant to interrupt an instructive presentation of your thoughts, or to turn away from a new field of human knowledge! Are you artists and workmen; may it grieve you that you are not to bestow on one more piece of work at least the new perfection that you have planned or practised! You young men, may you long for even a little while in which to practise and set forth, in your own domestic life, the principles of virtue and religion which you hold dear! You men in your prime, may it break your hearts not to be able to complete the training of your children, to bring on further the young who were trustfully clinging to you! You old men, may it grieve you not to be able still longer to use, for the good of your descendants, the well-earned respect in which you are held, and to support with the counsel of your mature wisdom any good work that is undertaken around you!
In wishing this for you, my brethren, I am, in fact, only wishing that you may never cease to love your work, and to devote to it your whole consideration, your whole strength. If there could ever be a point in human life at which, for those so disposed, the account might be closed, and no work in process, I should be inclined to wish, for the sake of sparing you this pain, that each of you might die at that point of time, before a new series of operations were begun, which you could not complete; but such a resting-point you will not find. There is no rest and no standing still in a spirit that loves duty and work. Every change brought about by the course of nature and of human affairs brings with it new problems and new duties; while you are occupied in meeting the duties of one relationship another has already developed. And even were it not so, the reciprocal influence of action and reflection produces an incessant movement, and ever new desires and efforts. Each action enlarges and corrects our insight into the subject; and all improved insight makes us eager at once to apply it. In the midst of work, therefore, in the midst of unfinished work, death finds every one who is making a right use of life; and from the painful feeling that results from this, he alone can be free who cowardly flees from his obligations and buries himself in vanity and shadows when the voice of duty is addressed to him; such a one may die weary of life, for he has never known its fairest charm. Or the man of slavish spirit, who is content with an empty show of virtue, and knows no higher aim than to have done nothing deserving of punishment -- he also, provided his delusion holds out so long, may meet death without feeling; for the future which he is losing has not drawn him with the attraction of new services and completed works, but has only shown him fearful struggles and new temptations.
But, some one might say, even thus there remains also to the sensual and earthly-minded, who is driven from one desire to another, a still unsatisfied longing for some enjoyment; are we, then, with our pain, really in the least degree better than he? Are we better, indeed! We can do what he cannot: we can ask God why He sends us this pain, and He will answer us. Even Christ did not die in asking this sorrowful question. Whatever in it proceeds from the blameless desire that good may be done through us will be lost in the thought that His grace must be sufficient for us; whatever zeal we have for the cause of God will be changed into childlike confidence in Him who will find ways and means for His purposes without us. A divine repose thus soothes away that pain. If it is really only good that we have in view, then let us in commending our spirit to God also commend with comfort our works and plans to Him; and whatever may remain incomplete, we shall yet be able justly to say, It is finished.
II. Again, we could all desire to die with undisturbed tranquility, notwithstanding all unjust and unreasonable judgments, the most unfeeling and hostile behaviour of men. This we see in the case of Christ.
With the meanest cruelty His adversaries found amusement in the sufferings of His last moments, and misconstrued, out of malice or ignorance, His plain words, that they might turn them to ridicule; yet not the slightest sign of displeasure escaped His lips. That treatment from men to wards Him who had deserved so much from them appears perhaps the very bitterest ingredient in His cup of suffering; and yet I feel bound to say that even this is a kind of suffering which, as long as things are in their present state in the world, we also shall have to bear, though in a slighter degree; and in the face of which, in whatever way it ma} come upon us, the composure of the Saviour must be welcome and desirable to us. Unreasonable judgments are something that we must inevitably bear. No one is so high, and no one so low, that they cannot reach him. And a really Christian and upright disposition -- why should we shut our eyes to the fact? -- is everywhere so rare that men have too little opportunity of observing it to be able to discover and distinguish it. Then why should they presuppose just what is unknown and rare, in order to explain men's conduct by that? They take most satisfaction in what is most improbable; they exhaust themselves in ingeniously imagining what is absurd.
Moreover, it is not at all difficult to attribute every separate expression of this Christian feeling to some other motive. If incidentally something results from it that is agreeable to the ordinary inclinations of men, then the explanation is ready. If it cannot well be said that such a satisfaction was sought or aimed at in what was done, then it was vanity, the desire to appear singular; hypocrisy, seeking to make a show of virtue and unselfishness; or there was some hidden motive at the bottom of it, which the sagacity of a spy quickly discovers. And then if one action, thus explained, contradicts others, the assumptions become the bolder, and scorn is poured more maliciously on so inconsistent a man. He casts out devils by the prince of devils; this is the way in which those who truly honour God and His law in the most difficult positions, where they have acted most nobly, are judged by the great majority of men. They will rather believe that we do good out of hatred, that we care little for the good things of the world out of selfishness, that we expose ourselves to the ridicule of the world from a desire for glory -- rather all this than attribute anything to real and unfeigned godliness. If we are obliged during our lifetime to make a considerable experience of this, it will be all the more certainly the case in our last hours.
If we continue to the end vigorous and active in the community, the attention of many will be directed to our manner of withdrawing from the scene. If to the end we are the centre of a little circle of beloved and congenial spirits, with whom our thoughts, our counsels, the expression of our opinions had always some influence, other eyes will be turned with curiosity to our dying bed. And if we have then still strength to express our inmost feelings, those spectators will see in those hours everything that they were unable to understand or reconcile, pressed into very narrow compass. Our unchanged attachment to the occupations of life, which we have loved and earnestly carried on, and the joy with which we look forward to what is prepared for us in the better kingdom of Christ; the calmness with which we shall be ready to part with all that belongs only to our surroundings in this world, and to what is peculiar to the earthly condition; the calmness with which we shall even see our powers decaying, our senses failing, and our limbs growing benumbed under the first touch of the cold hand of death; and, together with that, our continued lively interest in everything that concerns the welfare of our friends and relatives, the prosperity of the Fatherland, the peace of society, the extension of truth, and the unimpeded progress of good in the world; how can all these things together be anything but incomprehensible to them? Then, that they may not be obliged to admire this greatness of soul, as they call it, they will call to mind every act of weakness, perhaps from long ago; or if they have not that at command, they will remember, as they did with Christ, words and actions which breathed the very spirit of His, but on which they had long ago pronounced a perverted sentence of condemnation; then, even in the last utterances of a pious heart that honours the law of God, they will again discover the old pride, which was long ago their abomination, the fanaticism that they long ago despised, the party zeal that they have always hated, the hypocrisy that they had often felt compelled to expose. Alas for us if then those who love us should be obliged carefully to conceal from us the last hard and false judgments that have been pronounced on us, lest they should awaken us from the sweet dream that men at least know and honour true piety and a moral tone of feeling, though they themselves have no share in it! Alas for us if it were necessary then to deceive us as to the opinion of men, lest some bitter feeling should cloud our last hours! It would be a sign that we had never learned to know men; that we had gone about among them innocently but also very ignorantly, and that if longer life were allotted to us, we should go on being mistaken about them, It is therefore with good reason that I wish for us all in this event the Saviour's calmness and equanimity; for it is the result of the most mature wisdom and the most genuine piety. He whose heart would not even in his last moments be broken by the blindness that degenerates into abuse and calumny, should it come under his notice, must be one who has long known the foolish wisdom and the deep corruption of men. He who, in such a case, is not betrayed into angrily repenting of the kindness he has shown them has certainly had in view in all his doings, not the favour of men, not praise, not gratitude, but only the will of the Most High. He who even then retains enough of goodwill to say, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, -- his love is of the purest and most divine kind.
III. We could all desire to die surrounded, as the Saviour was, with loving and suffering friends. There stood His tender mother and the disciple whom He loved, and He established between them a heartfelt bond of care and faith fulness; there stood the women who had followed Him, and no doubt many others of His worshippers less known to us. What a comfort must it have been to Him that He could still exert a beneficent influence on them all, and strengthen their faith and their purposes by everything great and divine that was manifested in Him! And as certainly must their fidelity and their presence have softened for Him the sufferings of death, and filled His heart with comforting feelings. If His sorrow at the interruption of His work bore witness that He had worthily maintained His post; if His equanimity under the mockery of His enemies could be a proof of the reality and fulness of His wisdom; on the other hand, this love and faithfulness, enduring even to death, were the best testimony that He, with His loving heart, had enjoyed in His whole sphere of work the highest happiness of life. And it is for such reasons that I wish for ourselves, above all things, to die in such company; nay, as much as lies with ourselves, I demand it of every one.
Do not say that it does not depend on you, but on the free grace of God, whether before your death the fairest ties of nature may be loosed, whether many a one among you may not perhaps remain the last of all his connection, whether death may not come upon many of you far away from parents and children, from brothers and sisters and kindred. I entreat you, honoured and blessed as those affections are which nature itself has created, do not think solely of them. It is the common rule that death has here made many blanks before it takes ourselves away from our place; but though all who are related to us by ties of blood were gathered round our dying bed, we could not experience the comfort afforded by the presence of friendship, unless they were at the same time the confidants of our sentiments, and under stood our inmost heart. Behold, said Christ once, pointing to His chosen friends, these are My mother and My brethren; just those it was, for the most part, who now, as sorrowing friends, stood round His cross; and. just such ought not to be lacking to any of us so long as we are still on earth. Do not doubt whether you can attain to this happiness; it would be no adverse fortune, but a mournful sign that you had not rightly solved the highest problem of life. The world is not arranged in so malevolent a spirit that from any one who needs and deserves it a friend should be with held to whom he may open his heart. The power of human nature in drawing congenial minds together is so great that if you only think more correctly and deeply about every thing, if you feel anything more heartily and particularly, and express it in your actions, the people who are certain to find this out are just those who know how to value it, or who are like you in that respect. It will only depend on your need of enjoying love and friendship whether a firm and lasting union of spirits is brought about; it depends only on your own will whether you shall still enjoy even in death the peculiar comforts imparted by the presence of friends. Do not fear, when you have found them, that the mutability of the human heart will deprive you of them; that does not reach the depths in which true friendship strikes its roots. Look at Christ; He lost none of His own, but only the one lost sheep, that the Scripture might be fulfilled; and be convinced that in real friendship there can be no instability, no unfaithfulness. Do not fear that death may nevertheless carry off all these from you before the goal of your own life is reached; for that faculty of the human spirit never ceases, and you can never be quite without objects on whom to use it. It is true, a friend whom you have lost will never be replaced; each later connection will take a different form from the preceding; but yet it may be deep and heartfelt, and then it gives the happy consciousness that you enjoy love and respect for your own sake, and influence the depths of a human soul by your own. And fear least of all, I entreat you, the destructive inroads that time may make on your own mind. Do not suppose that dying in possession of loving friends is a special privilege of those who, like Christ, are called away in the flower of their days. Whatever may be said, it is not in the nature of the human soul to become in old age blunted to those joys, to treat the old connections more coldly, and to form new ones reluctantly. If you have ever rightly estimated them, you will always long for them, and never, even in extreme old age, will you stand alone in the world; nay, even if you knew that the next day was to be your last, you would yet, if you met to-day for the first time with one whom you could embrace with hearty love, long to win his affection and try by tender ways to attract it to yourself. But, you will say, although it is possible and desirable to have friends till the end of life, ought we not then at least to send them away from us rather than to gather them round us? Why increase still more the bitter sensations connected with death by witnessing with sadness and anxiety the sorrow of our friends, and thinking of the critical circumstances in which we are perhaps leaving one and another? Why should we mutually make it obvious, by all that is most vivid in the present, how great a loss we are suffering? We see that Christ did not think in this way. He did not send away His mother and His friend from His cross, but willingly allowed them to be witnesses of His death. A sacred duty calls on us to do the same. We are not by our own fault to break off man's highest ministry even by a moment too soon. We do not know what profitable results the very last outpourings of love may have; and if we show to our friends how a man is exalted even in death by the power of piety and of true wisdom, it will be a blessed impression. But even for our own sakes I desire for us that very sorrow and sadness; for in order not to shrink from such experiences we must be animated by a certain courage, which has the most important effect on a man's whole life, and imparts something great and sublime even to its close. It is cowardly and ungrateful to deny ourselves the last enjoyment of any blessing, because we are obliged to remember that it is the last; for that would lead to casting away from us all the gifts of God, and prematurely to deprive our life of every thing pleasant. Even in happy youth does not the feeling of the transitory nature of all earthly things arise? Are we not often involuntarily seized by the thought that each joy may be the last; and ought we not often intentionally to hold fast that thought and look it in the face? but it ought just as little to disturb and discourage a brave spirit in his last moment as in the midst of the hope of a long life. It is an ignoble thing ever to shrink from a pain which is only made possible by the finest instincts of our nature; with so cowardly a state of mind we should have been obliged from the beginning to neglect what was best in us, because we are always exposed in some way to this pain; but a brave spirit will, even at the last moment, feel more strengthened and elevated by the consciousness of having possessed and cultivated this disposition than shaken and weakened by the deepest sorrow.
Let us all strive until our last moment after these purest joys of life! let us bind firmly every tie of love and goodwill, and most firmly of all, not perhaps those which afford us the most lively pleasure, but that which is meant to strengthen and perfect what is highest and noblest in us through real union of minds. Who could help thinking, in this connection, of the union which some of us are about to renew at the Lord's Table, of the covenant of brotherly love and of faithful following of Jesus! The more we value the being fellow-members of Christ, and the more worthy we are, so much the more certainly shall we become like Him, even in our death, in regard to all that we have now been considering. We know that wherever several persons are united in seeking the same end, each one's pleasure and zeal is increased. And if we take this serious view of the fellowship in which we stand with all to whom, in common with us, is committed the promotion of Christ's great work, on whom, as on us, His Spirit rests, how much more opportunity does that give us for all kinds of good! how much more cheerfully can we take up what lies in our own way! how many a call do we meet to lend our support to what others have begun! Oh, none are more diligent in good works than the members of this covenant! Death assuredly finds them in the midst of manifold activities; they certainly look with sad wistfulness, when leaving the world, at their noble legacy of deeds begun!
You are now engaging anew to go on according to our common rule of faith, you make your profession of this publicly and aloud, and there is no doubt that the more honesty and seriousness you show in this act the less can you escape the derision to which those who reverence religion are exposed. But the encouraging approval of your brethren will compensate you for the cruel judgments of the world; the example of so many who have patiently borne what was to be suffered for the faith will strengthen your courage. And what should be the nursery of sincere and faithful friends, if not the Church of Christ, the association of men with whom unselfishness and benevolence, sympathy and helpful love are natural sentiments, among whom every kind of wisdom and perfection ought to exist and to be ready for the service of each? Thus then renew with sincere and devout hearts this glorious covenant, and let us all desire that the Saviour who instituted it may look down on us well pleased, and that His Spirit may rest abundantly upon us.
(Preached before the King, in the Royal Garrison Church at Potsdam, probably in March.1799.)