Pentecost - Sixteenth Sunday After (24th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
"The Presence of God"
By Rev. Joseph McSorley
It was the purpose of the Incarnation, dear brethren, to bring God and man together. Magnificently was that purpose fulfilled. Here, in this common world, a man among men, Christ dwelt visibly; He grew and labored, He spoke and suffered. A man among men, He was, at the same time, God among men. Forever, after the sight of Him, there was stamped upon the imagination of the race, an ineffaceable image of perfection. Twisted inextricably into the fibers of the human heart, were cords of strength, and patience, and supernatural holiness. God had come nearer than ever before; and, in consequence, man was to be for the rest of the centuries greater than ever before.
The history of Christian civilization demonstrates this, dear brethren. For all its gloom of shadow and its many steaks of blood, for all its disappointing blindness and hardness, for all its leaden-footed following of heroic leadership and its headlong rush into each new discovered path to fields of gluttony and of lust, - for all this, Christian society, down through the ages, displays the ever present influence of a divine ideal. It shows the blending of God's thoughts and actions with those of men; it proves that Christ never left the race He undertook to save at any price, - that He is among us in every time and place, that He is with us here and now. The best that is recorded in the human story, the finest achievement of civilization, displays, like threads of gold, deeds of divine brightness warped through the dark woof of a carnal-minded race, and making an exquisite pattern of splendid beauty. In and around, up and down, through and about, are winded the shining threads; and to the watchful eye, they reveal the outline of a design fairer than aught the mind of man could imagine in an eternity.
It is a different world, since Christ came here, and a different life, love and marriage are ennobled; birth and death are glorified. The hard tasks that daily fall to labor's lot are softened and sanctified. The care of little ones, the training of the young, the pursuit of knowledge have become divine vocations; they are among the hallowed things that men and women reverence. We gather for common worship about a Sacrificial Altar, and a Table of Wonder, where Christ again is offered up to save from sin, and Christ's Body again is broken like bread for souls to feed upon. All through the ranks of the uncounted millions who have taken to themselves the livery of His name, there is recognized, now clearly ad now dimly, yet universally recognized, an ideal of human relationship, which is peculiarly Christian. Bonded by some sort of indescribable fellowship, driven by an unnamed inspiration, men and women accept as an inevitable duty the burden of human service. It is a conception that dawns gradually and in some respects spreads slowly; generations may deny it and individuals reject it; but in the end it makes itself felt as the necessary consequence of being a Christian. On it goes, widening, deepening the channel of human sympathies, until human love, made pure by the touch of Christ in passing has flowed into the farthest, murkiest recesses of misery; and lepers, idiots, drunkards and criminals, who have been rescued, rise up and call Him blessed. Yes! it is scarcely to be denied by the patient historian, - the social order of the Christian world is permeated, illumined, energized, by a force, a light, a power, which in some mysterious, inexplicable way, comes and goes with the coming and going of Christianity. It is the presence of Christ making itself felt in the world.
Though this indeed, has been done; though the traces of His passing are too plain to ignore; though the world is forever different and better now; still, in each individual life, the process of improvement must recommence again; and in many an individual life little yet has been done. What may be hope for by each, is suggested in the prayer breathed by St. Paul, as he thinks of the needs of his dear Ephesians: "That Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts."
In these words, dear Brethren, St. Paul presents an ideal of what the life of the Christian ought to be. It should be a life spent with God. Every moment and each activity, all thought and endurance, all impulse and determination, the earning of one's daily bread, the strife against recurrent temptation, the grief at great bereavement, physical pain and sorrow and joy, strenuous fighting and exultant victory, tender communion and stern performance of heart-breaking duties, - none of all thee is apart from God. Into the grand harmony of the Christian's whole life, must be introduced the music of Christ's participation, divinely beautiful, strengthening, dominating. In nothing that he does can the Christian be quite as other men.
The fulfillment of this ideal of constant communion and harmonious cooperation with the Divine Presence, dear brethren, is a gift of God; it depends upon a generous grace of His, which we can never do enough to deserve. But it implies another element, too; for the bestowing of the gift is conditioned by the attitude we assume and the response we make. This aspect of the matter needs to be considered very carefully. What is the proper attitude for us to assume, when God draws near? What can be done? What must we do?
St. Paul has hinted the answer in one word of his, - "faith." We should have faith. And faith is a gift which we must stretch out our hands to receive; it approaches, like a divine guest whom we must go forth to meet, and strive heartily to entertain. Faith is at the beginning of holiness. It is the root, indispensable to the growing, and the budding and the blossoming of that fair flower whose fragrance should be wafted through the garden of our lives. If Christ is going to dwell at all within us, He will begin to dwell by faith.
Faith, dear brethren, includes, of course, implicitly or explicitly, every single truth that God has ever taught, or will ever teach. There is, however, one particular point of faith which may well be emphasized in connection with the matter now under our consideration. This is faith in the omnipresence of God. In every nook and corner of this visible world, in the midst of the big and little things that make up the daily lives of men and women, at every moment and in every sort of situation, God is near to us, looking upon us, sounding the depths of our consciousness. He is appealing to us, and he is sensitive to our response, to our good conduct, or our ill-doing. This is, indeed, the greatest fact of human life; and constant attention to this fact is the substructure of the greatest possible human holiness. To believe in the constant presence of the God who loves us and, for love's sake, lays a law upon us, - to believe in this and to act consistently with such belief, is the most practical general rule of holy living that can be devised. The cultivation of faith in God's omnipresence; and the endeavor to behave in a fashion consistent with this faith is, then, the beginning of the preparation for that ideal life of which St. Paul speaks. It and it alone will bring us to that state wherein Christ will dwell in our heart by faith.
To promote this sense of the presence of God, we should make the spirit of reverence habitual. It helps much, if we can bring ourselves always to act in the same temper as we have in church. This is far from saying that we may not rest and relax, laugh and amuse ourselves; but that always under the surface, there will be the subconscious sense that we are in the presence of God. It means that often, or even by mere aspiration, a prayer will be offered to the ever-present God. It means that temptation will acquire something of the horror of a desecration, of a sacrilege. To keep hold of the great fact; to refuse to let ourselves be drawn away by the vain argument and the fallacy of lying appearance which imply that here is no God, - this is the beginning of the holiness which ensures happiness. Remember the great fact of your life; and the remembrance will prepare your soul for the gift of Faith.
Then again, we must strive not only to be aware that God is present; but to act as if His interests were indeed supreme in life. The usual tendency of nature is to put material goods n the first place; and to rank other people after ourselves. We must go straight against this tendency, if we would be a fit habitation for the indwelling Christ.
It is not hard to see how different our lives would soon become, if the central fact of consciousness were the omnipresence of God. It would mean first of all, the possession of a spirit of prayer. Prayer is not confined to spoken communications; it is not limited to one or two of the possible sentiments possible to the human heart. Prayer is well described as conversation with God. How could one be ever conscious of God's presence, and yet refrain from frequent communication with Him? It might concern the great crises of one's life, or the trifling matters of a common day; it might be a petition for the things we need, or thanksgiving for precious favors already received; it could voice the agonized sense of desolation in a soul terrible tired, or the quiet adoration of one telling God simply, "It is good to be here." But at all times, and all places, the soul would be aware that God is within reach of every creature that cries to him, even in unspoken whispers; and its deep sentiment would be communicated to the closest and dearest Friend, whose sympathy is as certain as His power to help is great.
Nor is it hard to see that, almost inevitably, advertence to this dominating Presence would lead to a transposition of values in our appraisal of things and deeds. The shining baubles of the world look lusterless enough to a man familiar with the radiance of Christ's beauty. Ways of dealing that the world approves of, and that once we ourselves admired, shrivel up into pettiness and meanness beneath our full-grown dignity, if we have just been considering how they look to God. The law which regulates buying and selling in shop and market, seems impossibly barbaric, when we remember that Christ, who erected such different rules of conduct for His disciples, is here present, waiting to see whether we are loyal of heart or base traitors. In one word, if we remember that God is looking at us, we are very apt to behave as God wishes.
This, then, is what our text suggests; that the Incarnation brought God into more intimate companionship with the sons of men than had ever before been possible; and that the subsequent course of human history shows how mightily men have been influenced by that intimacy, even independently of their wishes and despite the willful resistance of many. And the large result is the creation of a different moral and social universe, wherein we find the best traceable to the dominant influence of the ever-present God. As it has been in the general life of the race, so too it is to be in the individual, who will be lifted and ennobled and who will attain his best development, by means of the ever active influence of the ever-present God. This happy consummation is the outgrowth of a living faith; and that faith can best be cultivated by the man who sets himself to practice internal reverence at every moment of his life, in much the same spirit as he would practice reverence in church; and who tires to act as a faithful disciple of Christ should act under the inspiration of his Master. To the soul that trains itself by this method, we may promise that, sooner or later, it will receive the blessing which Paul invoked upon the Ephesians: "May Christ dwell by faith in your hearts."