-- Hebrews 7:16.
The message and hope of immortality are nowhere more distinctly conveyed to our minds than in connection with that resurrection morn when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene. The anniversary of that day will ever be the festival of the human soul. Even those who do not clearly understand or fully accept its meaning in history and religion, -- even children and ignorant folk and doubters and unbelievers, -- yes, even frivolous people and sullen people, feel that there is something in this festival which meets the need and longing of their hearts. It is a day of joy and gladness, a day of liberation and promise, a day for flowers to bloom and birds to sing, a day of spiritual spring-tide and immortal hope.
Mankind desires and needs such a day. We are overshadowed in all our affections and aspirations, all our efforts, and designs, by the dark mystery of bodily death; the uncertainty and the brevity of earthly existence make us tremble and despair; the futility of our plans dismays us; the insecurity of our dearest treasure in lives linked to ours fills us with dismay.
Is there no escape from Death, the Tyrant, the autocrat, the destroyer, the last enemy? Why love, why look upward, why strive for better things if this imperator of failure, ultimate extinction, rules the universe? No hope beyond the grave means no peace this side of it. A life without hope is a life without God. If Death ends all, then there is no Father in Heaven in whom we can trust. Who shall deliver us from the body of this Death?
Now comes Easter with its immortal promise and assurance, Jesus of Nazareth, who died on Calvary, a martyr of humanity, a sacrifice of Divinity, is alive and appears to His humble followers. The manner of His appearance, to Mary Magdalene, to His disciples, is not the most important thing. The fact is that He did appear. He who was crucified in the cause of righteousness and mercy, lives on and forever. The message of His resurrection is "the power of an endless life."
The proof of this message is in the effect that it produced. It transformed the handful of Jesus' followers from despair to confidence. It gave Christianity its growing influence over the heart of humanity. It is this message of immortality that makes religion vital to the human world to-day, and essential to the foundation of peace on earth.
We must not forget in our personal griefs and longings, in our sorrows for those whom we have lost and our desire to find them again, in our sense of our own mortal frailty and the brief duration of earthly life, the celestial impulse which demands a life triumphant over death.
The strongest of all supports for peace on earth is the faith in immortality. The truth is, the very character of our being here in this world demands continuance beyond death. There is nothing good or great that we think or feel or endeavour, that is not a reaching out to something better. Our finest knowledge is but the consciousness of limitation and the longing that it may be removed. Our best moral effort is but a slow advance towards something better. Our sense of the difference between good and evil, our penitence, our aspiration, all this moral freight with which our souls are laden, is a cargo consigned to an unseen country. Our bill of lading reads, "To the immortal life." If we must sink in mid-ocean, then all is lost, and the voyage of life is a predestined wreck.
The wisest, the strongest, the best of mankind, have felt this most deeply. The faith in immortality belongs to the childhood of the race, and the greatest of the sages have always returned to it and taken refuge in it. Socrates and Plato, Cicero and Plutarch, Montesquieu and Franklin, Kant and Emerson, Tennyson and Browning, -- how do they all bear witness to the incompleteness of life and reach out to a completion beyond the grave.
"No great Thinker ever lived and taught you
"No Musician ever held your spirit
"No real Poet ever wove in numbers
"So with Love: for Love and Art united
"Love may strive; but vain is its endeavour
"Things of Time have voices: speak and perish.
And can it be that death shall put the final seal of irretrievable ruin on all this uncompleted effort? Can it be that the grave shall whelm all this unuttered love in endless silence? Ah, what a wild waste of precious treasure, what a mad destruction of fair designs, what an utter failure, life would be if death must end all!
The very reasonableness of our nature, our sense of order, declare the impotence of Death to create such a wreck. And most of all our deep affections cry out against the conclusion of despair. They will not hear of dissolution. They reach out their hands into the darkness. They demand and they promise an unending fellowship, a deepening communion, a more perfect satisfaction. Do you remember what Thackeray wrote? "If love lives through all life, and survives through all sorrow; and remains steadfast with us through all changes; and in all darkness of spirit burns brightly; and if we die, deplores us forever, and still loves us equally; and exists with the very last gasp and throb of the faithful bosom, whence it passes with the pure soul beyond death, surely it shall be immortal. Though we who remain are separated from it, is it not ours in heaven? If we love still those whom we lose, can we altogether lose those whom we love?"
To deny this instinct is to deny that which lies at the very root of our life. If love perishes with death, then our affections are our worst curses, the world is the cruellest torture-house, and "all things work together for evil to those who love." Do you believe it? Is it possible? Nay, all that is best and noblest and purest within us rejects such a faith in Absolute Evil as the power that has created and rules the world. In the presence of love we feel that we behold that which must belong to a good God and therefore cannot die. Destruction cannot touch it. The grave cannot hold it. Loving and being loved, we dare to stand in the very doorway of the tomb, and assert the power of an endless life.
And it seems to me that this courage never comes to us so fully as when we are brought in closest contact with death, when we are brought face to face with that dread shadow and forced either to deny its power, once and forever, or to give up everything and die with our hopes. I wish that I could make this clear to you as it lies in my own experience. Perhaps in trying to do it I should speak closer to your own heart than in any other way. For surely
"There is no flock, however watched and tended
A flower grew in your garden. You delighted in its beauty and fragrance. It gave you all it had to give, but it did not love you. It could not. When the time came for it to die, you were sorry. But it did not seem to you strange or unnatural. There was no waste. Its mission was fulfilled. You understood why its petals should fall, its leaf wither, its root and branch decay. And even if a storm came and snapped it, still there was nothing lost that was indispensable, nothing that could not be restored.
A child grew in your household, dearly loved and answering your love. You saw that soul unfold, learning to know the evil from the good, learning to accept duty and to resist selfishness, learning to be brave and true and kind, learning to give you day by day a deeper and a richer sympathy, learning to love God and to pray and to be good. And then perhaps you saw that young heart being perfected under the higher and holier discipline of suffering, bearing pain patiently, facing trouble and danger like a hero, not shrinking even from the presence of death, but trusting all to your love and to God's, and taking just what came from day to day, from hour to hour. And then suddenly the light went out in the shining eyes. The brave heart stopped. The soul was gone. Lost, perished, blotted out forever in the darkness of death? Ah, no; you know better than that. That clear, dawning intelligence, that deepening love, that childlike faith in God, that pure innocence of soul, did not come from the dust. How could they return thither? The music ceases because the instrument is broken. But the player is not dead. He is learning a better music. He is finding a more perfect instrument. It is impossible that he should be holden of death. God wastes nothing so precious.
"What is excellent
But I am sure that we must go further than this in order to understand the full strength and comfort of the text. The assertion of the impotence of death to end all is based upon something deeper than the prophecy of immortality in the human heart. It has a stronger foundation than the outreachings of human knowledge and moral effort towards a higher state in which completion may be attained. It has a more secure ground to rest upon than the deathless affection with which our love clings to its object The impotence of death is revealed to us in the spiritual perfection of Christ.
Here then, in the "power of an endless life," I find the corner-stone of peace on earth among men of good-will Take this mortal life as a thing of seventy years, more or less, to which death puts a final period, and you have nothing but confusion, chance and futility, -- nothing safe, nothing realized, nothing completed. Evil often triumphs. Virtue often is defeated.
"The good die young,
But take death, as Christ teaches us, not as a full stop, but as only a comma in the story of an endless life, and then the whole aspect of our existence is changed. That which is material, base, evil, drops down. That which is spiritual, noble, good, rises to lead us on.
The conviction of immortality, the forward-looking faith in a life beyond the grave, the spirit of Easter, is essential to peace on earth for three reasons.
I. It is the only faith that lifts man's soul, which is immortal, above his body, which is perishable. It raises him out of the tyranny of the flesh to the service of his ideals. It makes him sure that there are things worth fighting and dying for. The fighting and the dying, for the cause of justice and liberty, are sacrifices on the Divine altar which shall never be forgotten.
II. The faith in immortality carries with it the assurance of a Divine reassessment of earth's inequalities. Those who have suffered unjustly here will be recompensed in the future. Those who have acted wickedly and unjustly here will be punished. Whether that punishment will be final or remedial we do not know. Perhaps it may lead to the extinction of the soul of evil, perhaps to its purifying and deliverance. On these questions I fall back on the word of God: "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
III. The faith in immortality brings with it the sense of order, tranquillity, steadiness and courage in the present life. It sets us free from mean and cowardly temptations, makes it easier to resist the wild animal passions of lust and greed and cruelty, brings us into eternal relations and fellowships, makes us partners with the wise and good of all the ages, ennobles our earthly patriotism by giving us a heavenly citizenship. Yea, it knits us in bonds of love with the coming generation. It is better than the fountain of youth. We shall know and see them as they go on their way, long after we have left the path. The faith in immortality sets a touch of the imperishable on every generous impulse and unselfish deed. It inspires to sublime and heroic virtues, -- spiritual splendours, -- deeds of sacrifice and suffering for which earth has no adequate recompense, but whose reward is great in heaven. Here is the patience of the saints, the glorious courage of patriots, martyrs, and confessors, something more bright and shining than secular morality can bring forth, -- a flashing of the inward light which fails not, but grows clearer as death draws near. What noble evidences of this come to us out of the great war.
"Are you in great distress?" asked a nurse of an American soldier whose legs had been shot away on the battle-field. "I am in as great peace," said he, "through Jesus my Lord, as a man can possibly be, out of Paradise."
A secretary of the Y.M.C.A., the night before he was killed, wrote to his father: "I have not been sent here to die: I am to fight: I offer my life for future generations; I shall not die, I shall merely change my direction. He who walks before us is so great that we cannot lose Him from sight."
A simple French boy, grievously wounded, is dying in the ambulance. He is a Protestant The nurse who bends over him is a Catholic sister. She writes down his words as they fall slowly from his lips: "O my God, let Thy will be done and not mine. O my God, Thou knowest that I never wished war, but that I have fought because it was Thy will; I offered my life so that peace might prevail. O my God, I pray for all my dear ones, ... father, mother, brothers, sisters. Give a hundredfold to those nurses for all they have done for me. I pray for them one and all."
Here, in the midst of carnage and confusion, horror and death, was perfect peace, the triumph of immortality.
What then shall we say of the new teachers and masters, the cynical lords of materialism and misrule, who tell us that they are going to banish this outworn superstition and all others like it from the mind of man? They are going to make a new world in which men shall walk by sight, and not by faith; a world in which universal happiness shall be produced by the forcible division of material goods, and brotherhood promoted by the simple expedient of killing those whom they dislike; a world in which there shall be neither nation, God, nor Church, nor anywhere a thought of any life but this which ends in the grave. It is a mad dream of wild and reckless men. But it threatens evil to all the world. Do you remember what happened when the French Revolution took that course, abolished the Sabbath, defiled the Churches, broke down the altars, and enthroned a harlot as the Goddess of Reason? The Reign of Terror followed. Something like that has happened, recently, in many parts of Europe. And if these new tyrants of ignorance, unbelief, and unmorality have their way, the madness and the darkness will spread until the black cloud charged with death covers the face of the earth for a season with shame and anguish and destruction. A sane world, an orderly world, a peaceful world, can never be founded on materialism. That foundation is a quicksand in which all that is dearest to man goes down in death.
Religion is essential to true peace in the soul and to peace on earth through righteousness. Immortality is essential to true religion. Thanks be to God who hath given us Jesus Christ, who was dead and is alive again and liveth forevermore, to touch and ennoble, to inspire and console, to pacify and uplift our earthly existence with the power of an endless life.