Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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sistent interpretations — one priestly, the other
1 Sir Oliver Lodge : " Raymond," p. 381.


prophetic. The priestly conception centered around
and was expressed by an elaborate sacrificial system
whose temple ran red with the blood of slaughtered
cattle. 1 This priestly conception Jesus Christ never
approved by word or act. He frequently promised
forgiveness of sin, but never suggested that the
penitent should offer a sacrifice to insure the for-
giveness or complete the penitence. He told his
disciples that he must himself suffer for sinful
humanity, that he must give himself a ransom for
many, that he must bear the cross and be borne
upon it; but he also told them that by so doing
he would show forth the glory of his Heavenly
Father. His suffering love Christ never inter-
preted as man's offering to God; but always as
God's offering to man. Man does not in his deep
abasement offer sacrifice to appease God's wrath;
God in his infinite love offers sacrifice to purify
man and to impart life to him.

Christ's instructions to his disciples are equally

1 In " The Life and Literature of the Ancient Hebrews " I
have indicated more fully the conflict between these two con-
ceptions of religion and traced very briefly the way in which
the priestly conception was borrowed from paganism and
grafted upon Judaism.


inconsistent with the notion that pardon is to be
purchased by sacrifice. He bade his disciples
forgive their enemies as their Father forgives them,
a counsel which would require us to ask a sacrifice
of every one that wrongs us, if the Father asks a
sacrifice by us or on our behalf as a condition of
his forgiveness. Christ told a story once which
makes this parallelism perfectly clear. A lord had
a servant who owed him one hundred talents and
when he had. nothing to pay, freely forgave him the
debt. But this servant went out and cast into
prison a fellow servant who owed him one hundred
pence. And his lord was wroth with him for
treating his fellow servant with such inconsistent
inhumanity. The ground of Christ's appeal to his
disciples to forgive freely those that have wronged
them is the fact that the Heavenly Father freely
forgives them that have sinned against him. In
neither case is the payment of the unpayable debt
to be demanded.

Is there then no sacrifice? Surely there is a
sacrifice ; but by God to man, not by man to God.

It has been said that in the parable of the Prodigal
Son there is no hint of sacrifice. Is this true?


There is no hint of any sacrifice by man to God.
The father in the parable does not wait to be
entreated, nor to have his wrath appeased, nor to
have his justice satisfied, nor to have the debt of
the sinful son paid by or for him. But the suffering
of God for his sinful children, is clearly and vividly
portrayed. The father had mourned his son as
lost, and behold he is found; he had mourned his
son as dead, and behold there is in his repentance
the sign of a dawning life. The father had com-
passion on him, that is, suffered with him. And
while the son still held himself afar off, ashamed
to go on but reluctant to turn back, the father
went out to welcome him. The son suffered the
shame of his own sin. The father suffered the
shame of his son's sin. This common experience
brought them together. If the son had not felt
ashamed of his sin no love of the father could have
made the son a sharer in his father's life. If the
father had not felt the shame of his son's sin, if he
had dismissed it lightly and carelessly as a " sowing
of wild oats," the son could not have shared his
father's life. But when the son and the father
share in a common sorrow, when repentance and


sacrifice meet, a life in common begins; the fatal
separation between the father and his child is ended ;
they are at one; at-one-ment is made.

The only sacrifice Christianity knows is self-
sacrifice; and self-sacrifice is the glory of God and
the power of God.

From the time of Christ the sacrifice in the
Jewish temple ceases. The Christian temple courts
are not reddened with the blood of victims. Sacri-
fices are no longer offered to God; the sacrifice of
the Son of God is accepted by man. The passion
and death of Christ are the witness of a love deep,
tender, true, eternal, in the heart of the Father,
the source of all love, causing all love; but itself
uncaused. The culmination of the long spiritual
development issues in the declaration, " Herein is
love, not that we loved God, but that he first loved
us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our
sins." He is not to be propitiated; he propitiates
himself. He satisfies his justice by his own
redeeming love. The life, suffering and death of
Christ are not to enable God to be a justifier, not-
withstanding he is just, but to show that his is a
justice which does justify, a righteousness which


rightens, a nature which, because he cannot brook
unrighteousness, suffers the shame of it as though
it were his own, until by his suffering love he has
entered even callous and indifferent hearts and
filled them with his Spirit.

Is this to say that sin is a light matter, easily
overcome, of small consequence, with little ill dessert
and little evil consequence? On the contrary, sin
not only fills to the brim with suffering the cup of
him who indulges in it, not only presses a cup of
even greater bitterness to the lips of every loving
and Christlike soul who longs and strives to deliver
his brother from the poisoned chalice, but it brings
suffering upon the heart of the infinite and loving
God, who is himself able to save his children from
their own self-destruction only by his own suffering
of their self-inflicted penalty. This is the Gospel.
And history proves it a far more effective message
for the redemption of mankind than any message
of law and penalty, however qualified and amelio-
rated by a message of mercy purchased only by
sacrifice offered by the sinner or on his behalf to an
angry God, hard to be entreated.


Let me try to make this clear by a simple illus-

A young girl grows up in culture and refinement.
She is surrounded in her home by every conceivable
comfort. The air she breathes is as pure as the
air that blows from Mont Blanc. But she reads the
story of sin and degradation in the Fast Side of
New York, and it fills her with bitter sorrow. It
is a terrible thing, she says, that men and women
should be living such lives as these. Will you
satisfy her by saying that they will suffer for it?
Will you satisfy her by saying, Let the drunkard
alone, and he will have poverty and disease and
hunger and every form of wretchedness? Let self-
ishness alone and it will embitter the lives of all
selfish people. Let malice alone and they that are
living in malice will pay the natural penalty of
their iniquity. Will that satisfy her? No! She
will reply, That is what troubles me. I want to
cure, not to punish. Justice does not satisfy love,
never can satisfy love. She leaves her home — the
physical luxury, the pure atmosphere, the congenial
companionship — goes over to the East Side, takes


a room, lives there with a single companion, and
gives herself to the work of cleansing where there
is filth, redeeming where there is vice, bringing love
in where there was hate. Go and look at her.
Her face shines with a glory that was never there
before. If you could see into her heart, you would
see there a joy inspiring her that she never knew
before. She has propitiated herself by her own
forgiving sacrifice. Her love is satisfying her.
All propitiation is self-propitiation. One person
can never satisfy another. There is no wrath of
God to be appeased by human sacrifice; none that
can be satisfied by natural penalty. The flames of
hell never could burn out the wrath of God. It
will be burned out by the fire of his own infinite

The sacrifice goes not forth from man to God
to win his mercy, but from God to man to win
him back to life. And it goes from man to man if
the spirit of God, that is, the spirit of love, service
and sacrifice is in man. What does Christ mean
when he says that we are to take up our cross and
follow him? What does Paul mean when he says


we must fill up that which is lacking in the suffer-
ings of Christ by our own suffering? Is the
wrath of God not yet appeased? Does he still hold
his anger, despite all these generations of tears,
suffering, pain, agony, and all the agony on Geth-
semane and the blood upon the cross? Must you
and I still suffer in order to appease the wrath of a
still angry God ? Surely not. To take up Christ's
cross and follow him is to share with him in offer-
ing the sacrifice of love to sinful humanity, to whom
love must still offer its sacrifice until sin is no

If I could paint the shadow of the cross, I would
not paint it as the shadow of a yawning boy cast
on the wall betokening his weariness of the task
which has been set him to perform. Have you not
seen the mother with her arms outstretched and
the little child drawn by this silent invitation of her
welcoming love, run quickly to her that the mother's
arms might clasp him to her bosom. I would paint
the shadow of that mother's love upon the wall;
for God's love reaches out to lay hold upon the
weakest, the poorest, the most sinful of his children,


and the cross of Christ is the shadow thrown upon
the earth of the Father's inviting and welcoming

The glory of Christ is not the triumphal entrance
into Jerusalem but the funeral procession from
Jerusalem to Calvary. And the glory of Chris-
tianity is in the lives of love, service and sacrifice
of the unnumbered millions who, following their
Leader, have laid down their lives and are laying
down their lives for their brethren. Christ's cross
is the throne of God. The crown which He
bestows upon his faithful followers is the crown of
thorns — the self-sacrifice of a life-giving love.



In all that Jesus said and did — inspiring a new
philanthropy, imparting the life of the spirit, curing
the sin-sick, laying down his life in ceaseless serv-
ice and self-sacrifice, — he was fulfilling the mission
which his Father had entrusted to him.

He began his ministry as a herald preaching to
an expectant people, The Kingdom of Heaven is at
hand. He ended it by testifying under oath to the
Sandhedrin that he was the long-hoped for Deliv-
erer and declaring to Pilate that he was a King
whose empire and whose arms were truth. To that
mission he devoted himself in life ; for that mission
he surrendered himself to death; that mission he
passed on to his followers; and the hope that the
Kingdom of God might come on earth which dom-
inated his life and sustained him in death he be-
queathed to them to be their prayer and their life



What did he mean by the Kingdom of God?

From the very beginning of their history as a
Nation, the Jews had been taught by their prophets
to look forward to a Golden Age when Israel should
be a world ruler, all peoples, nations and languages
should serve him, and under his just and beneficent
rule poverty, ignorance, oppression and wars should
cease. These prophecies are often obscure and
sometimes seemingly contradictory. Sometimes
this Kingdom is to be brought in by a King in his
glory, sometimes by a Sufferer who will be despised
and rejected of men, sometimes by Israel embodied
in a divine leader, sometimes by the Nation whom
the prophet personifies as itself a Leader. This is
not strange. We mistake if we imagine that the
object of prophecy is to give accurate information
of future events. This the prophets have never suc-
ceeded in doing, probably never endeavored to do.
They were poets; they were not anticipating his-
torians. They spoke words of hope to inspire to
courage and words of warning to admonish to cau-
tion ; and their words were not less effectual because
both the promises and the warnings were often ill-
defined and imperfectly understood. In the first


century the spirit of prophecy was dead in Israel,
scribes had taken the place of prophets. The peo-
ple, illy instructed by these " blind leaders of the
blind " interpreted literally the prophecies which
pleased them and ignored the others. This has been
the custom of literalists in all ages.

They were familiar with world empires. At suc-
cessive epochs Egypt, Chaldea, Assyria, Babylon
Greece, had ruled the world. At that time Rome
was ruler of the world. It was easy to believe that
Israel's turn would come, that the gods of the pagan
would disappear, that Jehovah would take their
place, that Rome would fall into ruins and Jerusa-
lem would become the world capital, that the
prophecy of Daniel would be fulfilled and the great-
ness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven would
be given to the people of the saints of the Most High.
Doubtless the national ideal was both vague and
contradictory. National ideals always are vague
and contradictory. In America to-day the ideal of
some is material prosperity, of others educational
development, of still others spiritual richness of life.
As now, so then. The Kingdom of God meant pros-
perity and happiness and also righteousness and


peace. Some put emphasis on prosperity, others on
righteousness. But they all agreed upon at least
two points: that Israel would rule the world; and
that her rule would be given to her by Jehovah as
a sudden and splendid gift. " The idea of a gradual
and regular progress upon earth was totally unknown
to them. They, on the contrary, were now familiar
with, and found no objection to, ideas of sudden or
catastrophic change. In fact they usually thought
that the Golden Age would (by divine intervention)
immediately succeed an age of violence and wicked-
ness; the worst would be immediately followed by
the best." They believed " that God could and
would suddenly, and one might almost say violently,
create a new world, not through human cooperation,
not through human achievement, but by His own
power, His own will, His own goodness, and for
His own sake and glory as much as for the sake and
glory of Israel." 1

In his first recorded sermon, preached in the syna-

*C. G. Montefiore: "Outlines of Liberal Judaism," p. 151.
"Some Elements of the Religious Teaching of Jesus," 1910,
p. 64. This interpretation by a liberal and scholarly modern
Jewish teacher cannot be suspected of Christian prejudice
against the Jewish conception of the Kingdom of God. In
fact Dr. Montefiore thinks Jesus shared that conception.


gogne of the village of Nazareth, the home of his
youth, Jesus took for his text a passage from one of
the ancient prophets foretelling the Golden Age. He
declared that the fulfillment of these prophecies was
at hand. He was heard at first with delight. But
when he went on to say that Jehovah was God of
the Gentiles as well as of the Jews, and took two in-
stances from the Old Testament history to illus-
trate the truth that God is no respecter of races as
he is no respecter of persons, the wrath of his hear-
ers knew no bounds, the worshipping congregation
was transformed into a mob, and he would have been
slain on the spot had he not with that mysterious
magnetic power, of which history affords other like
examples, awed the crowd and passed through their
midst unharmed. Never thereafter in public dis-
course did he attempt to define in unmistakable
terms his interpretation of the coming Kingdom.
His teaching concerning it was disguised in parables
— purposely disguised. If it were stated plainly
the people would have none of it. To stories they
would listen, and afterwards, thinking them over
and discussing them among themselves, they might
come to some glimmerings of the truth. When oc-


casionally he disclosed to his immediate friends his
mission he cautioned them to tell no one; to tell
would close the only door of access to the people
which was open to him and would do not good but
harm. When toward the end of his life his hearers
caught his meaning the effect was to fan the smoking
prejudice of the ecclesiastical party into a hot flame
of anger. When in a sermon of some length he ex-
plained to the people of Galilee, where his friends
were mostly to be found, that the Kingdom of God
could come only to a people who shared his spirit of
service and self-sacrifice, so many of his former dis-
ciples abandoned him that he turned sadly to his
twelve intimate friends with the question " Will ye
also go away ? "

Matthew has collected in one chapter of his narra-
tive several of these parables of the Kingdom. Add-
ing to them one reported by Mark but not by Mat-
thew, and guided by his own interpretation to the
Twelve of several of these parables, we may sum-
marize Jesus' interpretation of the Kingdom of God
as follows:

It will not come suddenly nor violently ; it will not
come as a divine gift without human cooperation,


nor by a catastrophic change. It will grow up like
a seed planted in the ground. As the earth bears
fruit of itself and we know not why nor how, so this
kingdom will grow up by spiritual forces within
men, — a growth not a gift, or, rather, a gift that is
a growth, but brought forth from men not imposed
upon them. Its growth therefore will depend upon
the nature of the individuals and of the races to
whom the truth of God comes. Evil will grow as
well as good; men will wonder whence the evil
comes, and why, and whether the world is growing
worse or better. The beginnings of the Kingdom
will be insignificant; but it will grow to be a shade,
a shelter, a bearer of fruit, a nesting place, a home
of abundant life. It will be like yeast, a source of
agitation. It will be costly, — all that a man hath
he must be willing to give that he may possess it.

Other parables add other aspects of Jesus' teach-
ing concerning the Kingdom. Often God will seem
like an absentee landlord ; men will be thrown upon
their own resources, will be left to their own de-
vices ; trusted that they may be tried. In this King-
dom men are judged by their practice not by their
profession. Of two sons, the one who promises his


father to do the task allotted to him and does noth-
ing is rejected; the son who declines the task and
then engages in it is accepted. The Kingdom is for
all sorts and conditions of men, for Jew and Gentile,
for good, bad and indifferent. It is like a feast to
which the lame, the halt, and the blind are invited.
It is a present life, not a something postponed to a
future age. All things are now ready. It is among
you. 1 It can he had by any one who wishes it. The
only condition is loyalty. It is not a place but an
attitude of mind, a course of conduct — in a word,
a life. The separation between those in the King-
dom and those without it is invisible, as invisible as
that between the loyal and the disloyal citizen of
America. But it is an infinite gulf — as deep as
hell, as broad as eternity. Two women are in the
same social company : one is in the Kingdom of God,
the other in the kingdom of fashion. Two mer-
chants are in the same store : one is in the Kingdom
of God, the other in the kingdom of greed. Two
lawyers are in the same court room: one is in the
Kingdom of God, the other in the kingdom of am-

1 Or within you ; either translation is possible, and there is
really no practicable difference between the two interpreta-


bition. Two statesmen are in the same legislative
chambers : one is in the Kingdom of God, the other
in the kingdom of party policy. Two ministers are
in the same ecclesiastical assembly: one is in the
Kingdom of God, the other in the kingdom of false
pretense. Everywhere there are sitting side by
side in the same room, breathing the same air, tak-
ing part in the same activities, Paul and Agrippa,
John and Judas, Christ and Caiaphas.

As the gulf, which separates the Kingdom of God
from the Kingdom of the world is invisible, so is
the mystic bond which unites in one great brother-
hood the citizens of the Kingdom of God. In this
Kingdom whose only law is love — doing justly,
loving mercy, and walking in reverent and affection-
ate companionship with the All-Father, we its citi-
zens, are united by a common purpose to make life
worth living and this world a happier because a bet-
ter world to live in ; and by a common hope, an as-
surance that we shall succeed, because we are not
only engaged in our Father's business but are work-
ing in his companionship and under the Leader
whom he has given to us. In the eighteenth century
Christians regarded themselves as pupils preparing


for a better world ; in the twentieth century they re-
gard themselves as architects and builders engaged
in making a better world. There is truth in both
conceptions; but the latter appears to me more in
accord with the teaching and life of the Master.
Our school is a practice school ; an ambition both to
acquire and show proficiency by practice inspires our
energies and rules our life.

Out of this Kingdom have grown churches with
their creeds, philanthropies with their constitutions,
schools and colleges with their staffs of officials.
But the Kingdom has neither creed, nor constitution,
nor officials. Church history informs us that the
creeds have been made for the purpose, not of in-
cluding all Christlike spirits, but of excluding all
of unorthodox opinions. When we meet in church
assemblies to consider plans for Christian unity, the
schemes proposed generally include acceptance of
the same creed, the same sacraments and the same
form of church organization. The process is dis-
appointingly slow, the results disappointingly inef-
fective. But when we cease talking about union
and engage in practical work, we find ourselves sur-
prisingly at one. Where is the Protestant who


does not honor the Christlike courage of the Roman
Catholic Cardinal Mercier in his single-handed de-
fense of Belgium against the brigands who had over-
run it? Where is the Churchman who does not
honor the self-devotion of the Quaker Herbert
Hoover to his task of administering the charities of
a united humanity in feeding the starving millions
of devastated and plague-stricken Europe? While
we have been discussing theological plans for adopt-
ing some common symbols, behold, without a plan,
our work for our fellow men has united us in a Red
Cross Society and we have hung the symbol of love,
service and sacrifice in the windows of Roman Cath-
olics, Protestants, Jews and Agnostics.

Nor is it only in work w T e are united but also
in our worship. " Theologians," wrote William
Wordsworth to his friend, " may puzzle their heads
about dogmas as they will, the religion of gratitude
cannot mislead us. Of that we are sure, and grati-
tude is the handmaid to hope and hope the harbinger
of faith." We may look in the creeds for conflict-
ing opinions; but it is in our hymn books we must
look for the experience of our faith and hope and
love. When in 1850 Henry Ward Beecher pub-


lished the Plymouth Collection, he was sharply
criticized by religious journals for including in it
hymns by Roman Catholic and Unitarian singers.
But now we invite to lead us in our worship The
Calvinistic Toplady, in " Rock of Ages cleft for me,"
the Methodist Charles Wesley, in " Jesus Lover of
my soul," the Roman Catholic Cardinal Newman in
"Lead, Kindly Light," the Quaker Whittier in
" Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," and the Uni-
tarian Miss Adams in " Nearer, My God, to thee."
As both the boundaries of this kingdom and the
bonds which unite its citizens in one great Brother-
hood are invisible, so is the law which governs it.
It is not engraven on stone nor written on parch-
ment. The Ten Commandments are not laws issued
by a King to which the citizens are subject ; they are
interpretations of laws wrought in man's nature by
the Creator. The laws of health are the laws of

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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 9 of 10)