SERMON: Sympathy With Saints And Martyrs, by John Keble

Sympathy With Saints And Martyrs John Keble

Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. (1 Peter v.9)

When people are sick and in bad pain, we know how apt they are to imagine, Surely never anyone was so afflicted as I am.  How often do we hear them say, they are sure no person living can have a notion of what they suffer: no tongue, they are certain, can tell, no thought imagine it.  Yet all the while, physicians and nurses, and those about them, who are experienced in sickness, can tell them a good deal about their own feelings.  When they see their patients cast down with the notion of there being something new and strange in their trial, something worse than others have to bear, they would tell them, “You are not the first that have had these feelings, neither do we expect you to be the last.  It is no new nor very strange case.  Such and such persons have been ill in the same way, and have recovered: they all complained, more or less, in the same way as you do: they all know how to pity you, and so do those who have waited on them, and have been much with them in their sickness.”

Like to this comfort which sick men receive, in the distressing thought, that no one was ever ill as they are, is the comfort which the holy Apostle here offers to the souls of sinful men in temptation and distress.  “Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world.”  As if he had said, “I am not ignorant how you feel, when temptations and trials come upon you.   I know it comes over your mind continually, Surely no one ever was tempted exactly as I am; surely my trials, and burthens are more intolerable than men commonly endure.” When the persecution of the heathen comes on, then, Saint Peter seems to say, then each one of you will be inclined to think his own share in it worse than that of all others.  With that imagination, the devil would slacken your resistance, would make you less hearty and earnest in standing firm against all that he can do.  He goeth about the fold, like a roaring lion prowling about, seeking whom he may devour, which of the lambs he may find straying.  But be not you moved by him; set your faces steadily against him, knowing that the same trouble, or quite as bad, has to be endured by your brethren, scattered, as you are, among the heathen.  Other Christians in other places will be persecuted as well as you.  They will be comforted in thinking of you, as you may be in thinking of them.  You are not alone in the world.  Christ’s Body everywhere, in its distressed members, feels for you and with you.  They all fear and grieve in your fear and grief: all rejoice with you when the Almighty grants you relief.  Therefore be of good courage: that which is the portion of all God’s saints and servants ought not to seem hard to you.  It is what he gives to those whom he loves best: you should account it a token of his love, and so make it welcome, hard as it may be for flesh and blood to bear.  Thus Saint Peter encourages his suffering brethren, when a time of trouble was coming on; much as Saint Paul had before encouraged the Corinthians.  “There hath no temptation taken you, but such as is common to man:” nothing that is beyond human strength, assisted by the grace of the Holy Ghost, to bear.  “For God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will, with the temptation, make also a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” God, as the saying is, suits the shoulder to the burden.  If he lays any part of his son’s cross upon you, you know that he has united you to that son, has made you a member of him, that by his strength you might endure what you never could endure by yourself.

This is the answer to those who think the commandments of the Gospel too strict, too pure to be obeyed.  They hear it said, thou shalt not trust in riches, thou shalt take the lowest room, thou shalt not look on a woman to lust after her, and other such sayings they hear; and they turn a deaf ear to them, making up their minds that such commands cannot be obeyed; as if all that Christ meant by them was to humble us, and make us run for shelter to his pardoning grace.  But, surely, this is very unbelieving; since God has promised his Holy Spirit to help us against these very temptations.  God offers us a way to escape: is it not then our own fault if we are caught?

And to encourage us still more, he shows us, as here in the text, the example of our brethren that are in the world.  He seems to say, “Look at my promise: look at the plain words of the Bible, ‘Your Father, which is in Heaven, will give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him.’ And if that be not enough, look at the lives of my saints: look and see how good and penitent persons, from time-to-time, have really been helped to keep these commands, which you think too hard, and to resist these temptations, which you think too strong.  Think of your brethren that are in the world, how they have the same afflictions to endure, and are not overcome.  The same helps which are offered to them, are offered to you.  The same hand which upholds them, is stretched out to you.  ‘Only do you lay hold of it, and keep your hold.’ ”

On the other hand, the evil spirit, that roaring lion, who is ever seeking whom he may devour, he will be busy encouraging in you just the contrary of these good thoughts.  If you are in trouble and, distress, he will try to make you feel as if no other person was ever in so bad a condition; as if it was really too much for human patience: for he knows that he will have his own way with you, if he can once get you to go on in unbelief and repining.  If he can, he will persuade you that all or a great part of your trouble arises from such and such a person’s ill-usage, and so he will make you spiteful and envious; or a rebel, perhaps, and a hater of those who are set over you.  Other persons, who are not so ill-used, may do well to be forgiving and meek: but your case, he will whisper, is really too hard, too bad.  Irreligious, ill-disposed people, taught by him, will say to you, as trouble after trouble comes on, what Job’s wife said to Job, “Dost thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God and die.” What is the use, they will say, of such exact goodness? You may as well give it up; for you see it does not save you from ill-usage and suffering.”

Thus the enemy moves us to discontent, when we are afflicted or ill-used: but still more does he encourage us to sin, when we are in strong temptation from our own passions, or the evil example of others.  He will at such times set us on thinking, that surely our passions are stronger than other men’s, and, therefore, there is more excuse for our giving way to them.  And if we see or hear of others who have overcome the same kind of danger, and kept their innocency, though ever so strongly tempted, he tries to persuade us that they perhaps were differently made from what we are; or that perhaps they were not, in reality and in secret, so good as they appear to be.  Be assured, that when such imaginations come into your mind, the enemy of your souls is not far off.  They are his foul and noisome breath; you cannot take them in without corrupting and poisoning your souls.  He would gladly persuade you, if he could, that there is not really such a thing as a saint in the world; nay, that never anyone was such in reality; that all men, at all times, have had not only their human infirmities, but even their great and serious faults, in which they have lived and died, notwithstanding the grace of God.

This is how the devil would beguile us, and a very serious temptation it is: he would have us believe, either that there never were any saints, any persons really good and holy, or that if there have been any, they were such by a kind of miracle, and that their example is nothing to us.  To guard us, no doubt, against this very deceit, the good providence of Almighty God has called all Christian people from old times to learn and say, I believe in the Communion of Saints: that is, I believe in the gracious working of God’s Holy and Almighty Spirit, entering into sinful men, uniting them to Jesus Christ as members of him, separating them from the evil world, keeping them from all willful and serious sin, and making them truly and really holy.  I believe that there have been, are, and will be saints, holy persons, men and women, lifted, by God’s mercy blessing their own hearty and humble endeavors, above the level of ordinary Christians: and believing this, I am without excuse, if I mistrust the power of the same Spirit to preserve me from willful and habitual sin: I am without excuse, if I knowingly give way to any temptation, under the plea of its being irresistible.

This is how we ought to reason, who say every morning and evening, we believe in the Communion of Saints.  And to help us in that holy resolution, Saint Peter in the text uses two words, well fitted to stir up every good and noble feeling of our hearts.  One of these words is “brethren,” or brotherhood; the other is, “accomplished,” or “fulfilled.” “The same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren,” or your brotherhood, as many as are yet in the world.  To be afflicted, then, is a mark of Christian brotherhood: it is a token that we belong to God’s family.  It is a touch of the cross, bitter in itself, but sweet as being Christ’s own mark, a portion of Christ’s own burden.  To draw back from it with any sort of cowardice or impatience, is an unbrotherly thing, and shows want of family affection.  Suppose a household of brothers and sisters, and some great trouble coming upon them, pain, infectious sickness, anxiety, want, reproach: which of us does not feel that true love would make them all desire to bear each one his portion of the common burden? If anyone were quite exempt, he would almost feel it unfair; might he choose, he would rather take his share, relieving, if so it might be, his brethren.

Or take the case of comrades and fellow-soldiers, what sort of spirit is he thought to have, who draws back and spares himself when the rest are entering upon labor and danger? Certainly every true soldier will understand the feeling of David’s faithful servant, Uriah, who, being invited to refresh himself, when accidentally away from the army while the war was going on, made answer and said, “The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and the servants of my Lord are encamped in the open fields: shall I then go into mine house to eat and to drink?”

He was even ashamed to enjoy himself, while his comrades were in danger and self-denial: and that because he was a true and loyal soldier.  Now we Christians are also soldiers, sworn and enlisted soldiers of our crucified king.  Ought it not sometimes to come into our minds, that surely we do wrong to be seeking all the ease and enjoyment we can get, while so many of our brethren are suffering so much, wanting so many things which we have? It is the very thing, which all persons feel in the history of the rich man and Lazarus.  Why do we naturally dislike that rich man?  Why, even before his punishment, should we be most unwilling to resemble him?  Is it not because of his selfishness and hardness of heart? That he could be content to go on in his purple and fine linen, faring sumptuously every day, while the poor beggar was laid at his gate full of sores?  Something like this, I should think, must come into the mind of many a thoughtful Christian, when he sits quietly at home or in church, and reads or hears of the toils and sharp pains of the martyrs and holy men, who, at sundry times, have given up all for Christ’s sake.  High and glorious as they are above us, we know that by the grace of baptism we are their brethren; when we hear therefore of their sufferings, we may well experience a sort of shame, that, we in a manner should have left them to do all the hard and painful work.

And here comes in the other word, by which, as I said, Saint Peter in the text would stir us up to a Godly jealousy of the saints.  The word I mean is “accomplished.” Their afflictions are accomplished, ours but just beginning.  Our times are in comparison quiet; our course of life is marked out: we are not called to follow them, outwardly and bodily, bearing the cross and the Gospel among unbelievers.  We are not called on to be stoned with Saint Stephen, nor to be banished with Saint John to a lonely island.  Have we then any chance of those blessed and glorious titles, which such as they were might give to one another?  Can we in any sense be their “companions in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ?”  We may be so, at least in some small degree, if we will strive to meet our simple and lowly trials, and to work out our humble tasks, in the same pure self-denying spirit, in which they suffered exile and martyrdom.  When, for Christ’s sake, you put up with rude words, with cross and sullen looks, with indifferent and scanty food, you are in earnest following those saints, although, it be, very far off.  When you go out of your way, when you put yourself to inconvenience, in mind, body, or estate, to do a kind action to a fellow Christian, you are in the way to a great blessing: for you are practicing, so far, the mind that was in Christ Jesus, and caused him to become Incarnate for us.  When you are lying on your sick bed, enduring pain which you cannot help, you may turn that pain to the best possible account, by remembering what you may have heard of the grievous pains which saints have borne for Christ’s sake: and you may beseech God for grace to offer up your own pains as a kind of sacrifice to him, together with theirs: He will graciously receive both, for the sake of those meritorious pains which Christ endured on the saving cross.

Moreover, the remembrance of the saints’ trials is full of help and comfort, in respect not only of our afflictions, but of our temptations to sin: I mean, of course, so long as we are striving against them: as for such as give way to their own wickedness, and are minded so to go on, the thought of God’s saints must be to them full of pain and shame: but to one who in earnest longs and labors to amend, the comfort is unspeakable, of knowing that even those best of men had, by nature, and in the beginning, the same enemies to contend with that we have, and if they, by God’s grace, overcome them, so may we.

To conclude: whereas the Apostle’s word is, that whatever we suffer, the same afflictions are accomplished in our brethren that are in the world, we understand that when they are once out of the world, there is an end of their affliction and care forever.  The saying carries our thoughts on to that happy time when, if we throw not away our baptismal blessing, God will admit us to perfect communion with his saints; not by their sympathizing in our sorrows and dangers, but by our entering in where they are, and joining to the song of glory which they sing.  May we so practice their lowly beginnings, as not to fail of our part in that glorious ending!

 

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