WILBERFORCE

THE MOTHER CHURCH


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Ernest Roland Wilberforce, son of Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Winchester, was born in 1840, and educated at Harrow and Oxford. He was appointed bishop of Newcastle in 1882, and thence translated to Chichester in 1895.

Lewis O. Brastow, D. D.


WILBERFORCE

Born in 1840

THE MOTHER CHURCH

Take up thy son.—2 Kings iv., 36.

There is a metallic sound about most missionary sermons which seems, at least to some, instinctively to harden the hearts and to invalidate the sympathies of the listeners. The jingle of the coming collection appears to be inextricably mixed up with the solemn truths and heartfelt appeals that flow so often from the preacher's lips, and we feel that at least we would rather separate the two by as wide a chasm of intervening time as may be possible consistently with the well-known cooling tendencies of all human emotions. I have no reason to think that this sermon will prove itself to be in any real sense an exception to this general rule, and yet, my brethren, I seek, as God may now enable me, to remind you very briefly of some of the deeper principles that underlie all missionary success, believing as I do that these are possest of a peculiar power of eliciting enduring support, since they flow from the bosom of the Godhead itself.

"Take up thy son." God alone, it has been said, who Himself created it, can fully understand the infinite pathos of human nature. Certain it is that beneath the inspired record the histories of men and women of old begin to sparkle and to burn as, endowed with life and personality, they act anew their histories before us as we sympathize with their mistakes, wonder at their endurance, admire them for the traits of humanity they display, and feel drawn toward them by the attractive power of their love; we feel that we can be no longer really solitary here below, that, however tiresome may be our lot, we have friends who speak from those old records, friends who link yet living hands the closer round our hearts as we see much of our own life-history faithfully anticipated in theirs, and learn to read the solution of many of the struggles of the present in the difficulties of the past. "Take up thy son." From that old chamber, built originally to form a sanctuary for the honored servant of his God, where now the corpse of the only child of the household is lying, there seems to me to speak a voice of prophecy with regard to God's dealings with humanity at large.

It was a time of overshadowing and of darkness in that Eastern household. The death of her son, marvelously given in her husband's old age, had left the mother's heart a thousand times more aching, crusht, and weary than before. Instinctively that heart reaches out toward the man of God. The mother's feet are turned to Carmel. She will accept no substitute; no wand of office, no symbol of authority will satisfy the eager cravings of her love. Drawn by the cords of that great, all-constraining power, at length the prophet stands within the darkened room, and through the personal contact of the prophet with the dead, the power of God revives the corpse. So both in the distance and within the darkened room, while anxious, expectant hearts keep watch below, do Elisha's actions typify the deeds of One Who within a thousand years will walk the streets and lanes of Eastern towns, and will be known by loving hearts throughout the countryside. Humanity had died by sin throughout all the bygone ages; the symbols of authority from the Carmel of God's presence had been reached down to men upon the Fall. On human nature, wrapt in the fell sleep of sin, the wand of office had been used, but there had been no bringing back to life. Messenger after messenger had come, men who had communed with their God, as undoubtedly as Gehazi had left the presence of Elisha to go that day to Shunem; but there was neither voice nor hearing, and sorrowfully still each servant witnessed in succession to his mission: "The child is not awaked." Ah, who, my brethren, should venture to guess, still less to dogmatize, how prayer might be said to quicken the accomplishment of the counsels of the triune God? Yet had prayer no part in the plan of the Incarnation? If the love of the Shunammite mother compelled the presence of the prophet, could then one of the greatest moral forces known within the universe be purposely excluded from the great work of man's redemption by the God Who has caused it to be recorded of Himself, "Thou nearest prayer?" Could fervent prayer and mighty intercession that rolled upward from the breasts of so long a line of kings, and patriarchs, and prophets, and so many a lonely and unnoticed spot amid the hills and valleys of Judah, where Baal found seven thousand knees that were recalcitrant to his false and bloody worship, even when the great Elijah believed himself to be alone in the one worship of the true God of Israel; could the longings of the hearts that desired to behold the things that after-generations saw, could the cry of the souls from under the altar, "Oh, Lord, how long?" could, I ask, all these be fruitless and in vain? Or had each its own due place at least in hastening the coming of the kingdom, and in determining when the fulness of time had arrived?

This, at least, is sure. Constrained by the laws of an imperious love, God gave Himself to bring what all His messengers had failed to convey. Clothed in that very flesh which once by sin had died, Christ stood in personal relations to mankind, His hand in theirs, His eyes to their eyes, His mouth to their mouth; and lo! beneath His personal contact there began to glow again the warmth of pristine life which once had burned in Eden, when God and man held free and undiverted commerce. And then Christ filled up full with all its spiritual meaning that final action of the Syrian prophet which had seemed to be so simple and so natural. For, ere He left the arena where He had proved Himself to be the Conqueror of death, Christ called forth the Church which He had formed, and He bade it tend the life which He had reimplanted in the hearts of men, accompanying the mighty commission with a plenary promise of abiding power: "Shepherd my sheep; feed my lambs: lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." Uniformity of action in every position, mechanical exactness in every class of work, whether you evangelize under frozen climes or torrid zones, whether you preach to polished Eastern intellects or instruct the degraded savage, is neither to be expected nor yet to be desired. The religion that becomes mechanical always stops itself. But within the lines of her commission the Church of God is bound to show in practise that she can touch all hearts, enlist all sympathies, influence all lives, gather up into her ample bosom all whom the Master loves; just as a mother folds to her heart the entire members of her family, irrespective of their diversity of tastes, habits, and mode of life, nay, even in spite of their failings, and often of their sins, and beneath the loving sympathy of that loving embrace all know instinctively that they have each their own peculiar place within the many mansions of the widely loving heart.

We are living in an age of development. Within old bottles it is certain new wine is beginning to ferment, and elemental forces gather for the strife. Life implies assimilation; assimilation means union of powers, or new energies rising out of such combinations. In early days the Church of Christ assimilated the life, the teachings, the powers around her, casting out the false, ennobling the true; and she became the living force to which the history of the world bears testimony. And what does all this teach us? Even that as a mother adapts herself to the varying characters displayed by her children in her wise government of the family, so must the Church of England in all her work take up her son into her bosom, teaching the good and enforcing the true, yet adapting her methods to win wisely, to win surely, to establish a lasting yet a spiritual dominion.

Here there is a real danger, one all the more real because speciously veiled from our sight; philanthropy is busy around us—so much so that now it is almost a reproach not to be the instigator of half a dozen schemes for the elevation of this class or that people, or of some other country. But is not this far too often accompanied by a revolt from all dogmatic truth? Are not many of these schemes simply social and not religious, and, therefore, at best, temporary rather than eternal in their aims, since they are founded upon man, and not upon God?

Religious feeling, I fear, is dying. The past acquirements of man are ever laughed to scorn by the succeeding generation. These are not to be the standard to which all is to be referred. Utilitarian principles and emotional subjectivity seem now to go hand in hand; and the old formula, "Thus saith the Lord," is to be a formula no more amid the forces of the world; religious feeling, I say, I fear, is ebbing away, and with it goes infallibly all real missionary enterprise. These are inseparably linked. If it be true, as it is, that the spiritual life of a nation, a parish, or an individual be in danger of languishing unto death unless there be in it some manifestation of missionary zeal, so also is it true that unless there be some more powerful lever at work than mere desire for social reformation, unless God be the end and the object of life, then no one will continue to spread God's teaching, or to carry far and wide the good news of the Son of man.

The first human mother came from out of the side of Adam at the call of God; our great spiritual mother came from the side of Christ our Lord. Oh, my brethren, we have so much to thank God for; so much that bids us now take courage, so much that ennobles our aims and helps to strengthen our objects. From all parts of the world, wherever the energy of Englishmen has penetrated, there now is coming the cry in gathering tones, "Take up thy son." Hearts are asking for the priceless boon of the gospel to be preached to them. Heathen tribes are looking wistfully across the waste of intervening waters, and rich England, rich in her transmitted treasure of dogmatic truth and revealed faith, rich in her dower of sons as well as in her possession of silver and gold, is giving as yet an insufficient answer, and has not as yet fully embraced her son. How long shall there be this suspense, as that of early dawn ere the sunshine fills the twilight? Let there be but more true love and warmth in the mother's heart, let there be, that is, a revival of spiritual life at home, and once more shall it be said, "Great was the company of preachers," as in the iron-clad armor of chastity, temperance, and righteousness, men go forth to work and win for Christ. Have ye each made this yet sufficiently a matter of prayer, of self-denial, of deep, faithful trusting all to God? My brothers, in the kingdom and patience of our God already clarion notes are sounding out around us, and signs are but repeating notes of warning. Messages of deep importance seem to tremble in the air, forces to be gathering for some greater conflict than has been ever known before. Community of work is producing unity in thought; hands are clasping now that have been kept asunder far too long. The earth is being girdled gradually with spiritual fortresses, whence is flashed on and ever on the golden light till Christ shall come again and claim His bride. Can we then wonder at all forms of opposition meeting us? But gathering gradually is the mighty family which in the day of revelation shall call God their Father. Some time will the fellow soldiers know one another; some day shall the long muster roll be called. Then will the Captain of our salvation gather all His children round Him. Is it long to wait, hard to fight, difficult to keep up the spirit during the discouragements that beset all missionary life? Do they wear too dark a hue at times? Lo, the words of Revelation are now finding echo in the pages of science, and in unison these voices blend. Beneath us even now this solid orb begins to know fatigue and to slacken in its course. Remarkable words lately written are these: "Even now as the earth circles on in her appointed orbit, the northern ice-cap slowly thickens, and the time gradually approaches when its glaciers will flow again, and austral seas, sweeping northward, bury the seeds of present civilization under ocean wastes, as it may be they now bury what once was as high a civilization as our own. And beyond these periods science discovers a dead earth, an exhausted sun, a time when, clashing together, the solar system shall resolve itself into a gaseous form, again to begin immeasurable mutations." What Revelation has loudly declared, that science is now at length beginning to understand. From both, I say, the voices call; they blend into a trumpet warning mellowed with unutterable pathos: "Work while it is day; take up thy son."