Sermon preached in the University Chapel, Sewanee, 1911
I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. —1 Corinthians 2:2
On this one occasion of my life, in this place, and upon this spot, I may presume to be somewhat personal. When the suggestion was made to me of this week, naturally the meaning and the possibly useful purpose of it came very powerfully over me, and long and very serious thought arose – of myself, of Sewanee and my forty years here, of the church that placed us here, of the time, and the times, past and future. What have we done? What are we? What are we going to do and to be? In fact, the very first hint, some years ago, of such an occasion as this came to me coupled with some such questions: What can we put, not only into shape, but into motion here at Sewanee, for Sewanee, for the church, for our country, and our time? No doubt such questions have come to many of us in the form: What new thing can we devise, what new interest arouse, what new movement inaugurate? I suggest in anticipation what is probably a better form of the query: How can we acquire the secret of making the old ever new, and keeping it so?
Some illustrations have recently come to us right here of how something like that might be accomplished. It is not so long since doubts and fears and forebodings were rife in many of our minds. Under the look of things as they were, it was impossible to come here or be here and not ask: Are we in the right place? How much longer can we live under these conditions? We came here this summer – and looked around – and rubbed our eyes – and asked ourselves: Where are we? What has happened? The old place, the very, dear, old spot, had been transfigured, had become new. With it the whole tone of things was altered: What a beautiful place was Sewanee! What a perfect, predestined spot for such a mind and heart and life center! But that was not half the transformation. We had heard that students, trustees, alumni, residents were all disheartened and despondent – and, lo! the transfiguration on our mountain top of the mere ground was as nothing to that which had come over the spirit of Sewanee; never was determination so determined and, by sheer consequence, never were hopes more high or was life more active.
What is the moral already? We do not forever want new things; we want the art of keeping things forever new. The change we need is not in the things, it is in us and our hold upon the things – our life in them, our use of them, our labor for them. Let us remember that our Lord taught absolutely nothing new – the gospel was older than the law. God’s love than man’s obedience. He, himself, the incarnation of our faith, our hope, our life, was before Moses, before Abraham, before Adam, before the foundation of the Earth, as old as God, because he was God’s love-disposition, love-purpose, self-realization in us and in his world. Our Lord spoke only of God and of man, and their mutual relations; on God’s part, of love, grace, and fellowship or oneness with us (coming down) – and on our part (going up) of faith, hope, and love that make us one with him. Our Lord uttered no new word, gave no new commandment, even instituted no new sacrament – water and bread and wine were already in themselves not only symbols or signs, but instruments and agents of birth and life. He took all the old things as they were, and he made them all living and new. When he took his disciples up with him into the very high mountain, it was not really in himself, but only to them that he was transfigured. They saw him as the sun and his raiment as the light; they heard words from Heaven, claiming him for God and declaring him to man. But their so seeing and hearing was only through the exaltation of their own spiritual selves and faculties. Jesus was always so, if their senses could but have perceived it. We do indeed live only in our supreme moments. Things are monotonous, dull, dead enough, day after day, perhaps year after year, until somehow we are taken up – let me say, however that we are never taken up, except as also, with all our spiritual cooperation, we take ourselves up – into the exceeding high mountain, and there all our world becomes transfigured before us. “Old things are passed away: behold all things are become new.” Mind, not all new things have become, or come to pass, but all things, the old things, have become new. God and Heaven are everywhere and always here if we could but see them; but alas! almost nowhere, and so seldom here, because so few of us can see them, and we so seldom.
How is it that our Lord, himself, could live so continuously and so high? I am speaking of him humanly; and speaking so, we must remember, however, that he had his deep places as well as his high, his darkness as well as light, his desertions and emptiness as well as his exaltations and fullness. His descents into hell as well as his ascents into Heaven. But still, how could our Lord walk as continuously as he did upon the mountain tops, with such deep waters and desert places, such Gethsemanes and Calvaries always beneath his feet? We must look for very old and simple and human answers if we would know our Lord as he came to be, and was, the Way, the Truth, and the Life for us. It is because, what time he could spare from the valleys, ministering to the multitudes, going about doing good, he was wont to spend upon the mountains, drawing breath and strength and life from God.
Let me state, or restate, my proposition and afterward draw from it one of more corollaries. The proposition is that we do not want any new outward truth or law or scheme in itself, but only a new, and ever new, inward relation, or relation of ourselves to the ever-old, ever-new truth. We want the spiritual art and science of a self-renewing and self-sustaining faith and hope and love. The Jesus who was transfigured upon the mount is he who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. The subject of conference in the transfiguration was the old story of the cross. They spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. “I determined,” says Saint Paul, “to know nothing among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” If we cannot get high enough, often enough, to get and keep these truths illuminated and glorified in our minds and hearts and lives, we must be content to remain in the dark. For what is Jesus Christ but God in us and we are in God? And what is the cross but the actual process by which all that is not God dies in us, and all that is lives and grows in us? And what other end or content can there be to our faith, hope, and love?
The trouble to which we are ever coming back is that we cannot keep the flame burning more steadily in us, that individuals, communities, churches, the Church of Christ should so live, and so need to live, in mere occasional re-awakenings and revivals. At least, it is a blessing and a comfort to us to know that it is only our own infirmity that it is so; it is something to have discovered, and to be able to hold fast to the discovery, that when we are at our best, and just in proportion as we are at our best, we know the truth and know it to be the truth; and equally, that when we are in the truth, and in proportion as we are so, it gives us all the promised power to be at our best. The power of the truth in that sense to “make us free” is its divine credential to us. We are very finite beings, entrusted with and handling infinite forces. The omnipotence of God is at our puny disposal; his eternal love, his infinite grace, his perfect fellowship and oneness with us are ours to command. “All things are ours” if we will but take them and use them. God does not give piecemeal or halfway; his very kingdom and throne are theirs who will take it; he invites us, in Jesus Christ, to occupy it with him, and offers as well as bids us to be perfect, even as he is perfect. We have no other end of goal than God himself. We are very finite beings entrusted with infinite forces; let us not be too much disheartened that they do not work infinitely in us, that we handle them very crudely; we are trying and learning to drive the chariot of the sun. At the same time, let us never cease to aim at and labor for their perfect handling, the straight and true driving. If it be true that we do live, if only in our supreme moments, is not every moment in which we have so lived a new and sufficient proof to us of the eternal and infinite reality of the Life Indeed? – and a new and compelling incentive to us to live it, though it take us forever, and we have to pass through deaths and resurrections, to do so? How much longer and greater a thing is life than we know or think! In the meantime, the fact that even our Lord, in the needful and inevitable infirmity of our present humanity, had moments in which he needed to know anew that he was the son of God, that he had to learn afresh upon the very cross that there is no such thing as a divine forsaking, though so often there so seems to be, ought to teach us how to have faith in even our darkest hours, and hope when we are faintest and farthest off.
All the new things, all the modern isms, of Christianity that have life in them, as many of them have, are but broken fragments of the truth that is one and is ever the same. While our sects and our parties live by the truth that is in them and that is vital in them, they are but too apt to live also in a deadly competition with other truths as true as they, and so in fatal detriment to the whole and the wholeness of truth. The course of truth and of life, with beings such as we are, never can move centrally and evenly, wholly and altogether. It is always one side or some part of it that is in motion or in action, and that too often in a way to incur the misunderstanding and resistance of the other parts. There is always fault on both sides: the new, renewed, or revived side of the truth that is in action is so apt to narrow its outlook and vision to the restricted field of its immediate interest and attention, and then to become exclusive, intolerant, and arrogant toward all other views or conceptions. The side or sides that are not in action, or in the movement, are not as appreciative of, or as hospitable to, the revived truth and life in the new movement as they ought to be – and then they proceed to lower their own life by becoming to the “party” in progress an equally mere party in opposition.
The principle of competition, of antagonistic, divisive, separative, of hateful, hating, and deadly competition, has been prevailing in Christianity just as much as in our earthly life and business. The times are changing, and the call, the appeal, comes to us from every source and direction – comes to us Christians, to show the way, the better way, among ourselves, in our own relations with one another, of love and mutual understanding and peaceful and fruitful cooperation.
We have been here now nearly the week – our week together. I think I have seen everything we have done and heard everything we have said. I have looked and listened with very sensitive and interested and anxious organs, with every sense alert. We who are gathered here are of every sort and of all sorts as to our natural and acquired attitudes toward truth and life; we represent all the sides and aspects of faith and opinion; we have all the allowable differences among ourselves. In all this conference and in all our personal association I have not heard one note, I have not detected one tone that did not, or could not, carry me back behind all our differences to the one theme that has occupied all our thoughts, filled all our hearts, and been upon all our tongues to the exclusion of everything else – The Life – the life that was lived, that lived for us – that lives in us, and in which alone we live. In the truest sense we have gone back to Christ, back behind everything else, to Christ, who is our life.
We stand indeed today together upon an exceeding high mountain – upon this mountain, not only as itself transfigured, but as itself no less a Mount of Transfiguration. It is our Lord, himself, who has brought us up hither. And we have been talking with him and with one another about him. We have seen his face as the sun, and his vesture whiter than any fuller or fuller’s soap on Earth could whiten it. All our talk has been of him, of the decease that he accomplished for us at Jerusalem, of the life that he lives with us and in us now and forever.