(Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.)
1 Cor. xv.8. Last of all he was seen of me, also, as of one born out of due time. For I am the least of the Apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
You heard in this text (part of the epistle for this day) St. Paul's opinion of himself. You heard, also, in the Second Lesson for this day, the ninth chapter of Acts, the extraordinary story of his conversion.
And what may we learn from that story? We may learn many lessons; lessons without number.
We may learn, first; not to be astonished, if we have to change our opinions as we grow older. When we are young, we are very positive about this thing and that, as St. Paul was; violent in favour of our own opinions; ready to quarrel with any one who differs from us, as St. Paul was. But let ten years, twenty years, roll over our heads, and we may find our opinions utterly changed, as St. Paul did, and look back with astonishment on ourselves, for having been foolish enough to believe what we did, as St. Paul looked back; and with shame, as did St. Paul likewise, at having said so many violent and unjust things against people, who, we now see, were in the right after all.
Next; we may learn not to be ashamed of changing our minds: but if we find ourselves in the wrong, to confess it boldly and honestly, as St. Paul did. What a fearful wrench to his mind and his heart; what a humiliation to his self-conceit, to have to change his mind once for all on all matters in heaven and earth. What must it not have cost him to throw up at once all his friends and relations; to part himself from all whom he loved and respected on earth, to feel that henceforth they must look upon him as a madman, an infidel, an enemy. To an affectionate man, and St. Paul was an extremely affectionate man, what a bitter struggle that must have cost him. But he faced that struggle, and conquered in it, like a brave and honest man. And the consequence was, that he had, in time, and after many lonely years, many Christian friends for each Jewish friend that he had lost; and to him was fulfilled (as it will be to all men) our Lord's great saying, 'There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my sake, and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, . . . and in the world to come eternal life.'
Next; we may take comfort, in the hope that God will not impute to us these early follies and mistakes of ours; if only there be in us, as there was in St. Paul, the honest and good heart; that is, the heart which longs to know what is true and right, and bravely acts up to what it knows. St. Paul did so. God, when he set him apart, as he says, from his very birth, gave him a great grace, even the honest and good heart; and he was true to it, and used it. He tried to learn his best, and do his best. He profited in the Jews' religion, beyond all his fellows. He was, touching the righteousness which was in the law, blameless. He was so zealous for what he thought right, that he persecuted the Church of Christ, as the Pharisees, his teachers, had taught him to do. In all things, whether right or wrong in each particular case, he was an honest, earnest seeker after truth and righteousness. And therefore Christ, instead of punishing him, fulfilled to him his own great saying, -- 'To him that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance.' He had not yet, as he himself says, again and again, the grace of Christ, which is love to his fellow-men; and therefore his works were not pleasing to God, and had, as the article says, the nature of sin. His empty forms and ceremonies could not please God. His persecuting the Church had plainly the nature of sin. But there was something which God had put in him, and which God would not lose sight of, or suffer to be lost; and that was, the honest and good heart, of which our Lord speaks in the parable of the sower. In that Christ sowed the word of God, even himself, and his grace and Holy Spirit; and, behold, it sprang up and bore fruit a hundredfold, over all Christian nations to this day.
Keep, therefore, if you have it, the honest and good heart. If you have it not, pray for it earnestly. Determine to learn what is true, whatever be the trouble; and to do what is right, whatever be the cost; and then, though you may make many mistakes, and have more than once, perhaps, to change your mind in shame and confusion, yet all will come right at last, for the grace of Christ, sooner or later, will lead you into all truth which you require for this world and all worlds to come.
Again, we may learn from St. Paul this lesson. That though God has forgiven a man, that is no reason that he should forgive himself. That may seem a startling saying just now. For the common teaching now is, that if a man finds, or fancies, that God has forgiven him, he may forgive himself at once; that if he gets assurance that his sins are washed away in Christ's blood, he may go swaggering and boasting about the world (I can call it no less), as if he had never sinned at all; that he may be (as you see in these revivals, from which God defend us!) one moment in the deepest agonies of conscience, and dread of hell-fire, and the next moment in raptures of joy, declaring himself to be in heaven. Alas, alas! such people forget that sin leaves behind it wounds, which even the grace of Christ takes a long time in healing, and which then remain as ugly, but wholesome scars, to remind us of the fools which we have been. They are like a man who is in great bodily agony, and gets sudden relief from a dose of laudanum. The pain stops; and he feels himself, as he says, in heaven for the time: but he is too apt to forget that the cause of the pain is still in his body, and that if he commits the least imprudence, he will bring it back again; just as happens, I hear, in too many of these hasty and noisy conversions now-a-days.
That is one extreme. The opposite extreme is that of many old Roman Catholic saints and hermits who could not forgive themselves at all, but passed their whole lives in fasting, poverty, and misery, bewailing their sins till their dying day. That was a mistake. It sprang out of mistaken doctrines, of which I shall not speak here: but it did not spring entirely from them. There was in them a seed of good, for which I shall always love and honour them, even though I differ from them; and that was, a noble hatred of sin. They felt the sinfulness of sin; and they hated themselves for having sinned. The mercy of God made them only the more ashamed of themselves for having rebelled against him. Their longing after holiness only made them loathe the more their past unholiness. They carried that feeling too far: but they were noble people, men and women of God; and we may say of them, that, 'Wisdom is justified of all her children.'
But I wish you to run into neither extreme. I only ask you to look at your past lives, if you have ever been open sinners, as St. Paul looked at his. There is no sentimental melancholy in him; no pretending to be miserable; no trying to make himself miserable. He is saved, and he knows it. He is an apostle, and he stands boldly on his dignity. He is cheerful, hopeful, joyful: but whenever he speaks of his past life (and he speaks of it often), it is with noble shame and sorrow. Then he looks to himself the chief of sinners, not worthy to be called an apostle, because he persecuted the Church of Christ. What he is, he will not deny. What he was, he will not forget, he dare not forget, lest he should forget that the good which he does, he does not -- for in him (that is, in his flesh, his own natural character), dwelleth no good thing -- but Christ, who dwells in him; lest he should grow puffed up, careless, self-indulgent; lest he should neglect to subdue his evil passions; and so, after having preached to others, himself become a castaway.
So let us do, my friends. Let us not be too hasty in forgiving ourselves. Let us thank God cheerfully for the present. Let us look on hopefully to the future; let us not look back too much at the past, or rake up old follies which have been pardoned and done away. But let us thank God whenever he thinks fit to shew us the past, and bring our sin to our remembrance. Let us thank him, when meeting an old acquaintance, passing by an old haunt, looking over an old letter, reminds us what fools we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Let us thank him for those nightly dreams, in which old tempers, old meannesses, old sins, rise up again in us into ugly life, and frighten us by making us in our sleep, what we were once, God forgive us! when broad awake. I am not superstitious. I know that those dreams are bred merely of our brain and of our blood. But I know that they are none the less messages from God. They tell us unmistakeably that we are the same persons that we were twenty years ago. They tell us that there is the same infection of nature, the same capability of sin, in us, that there was of old. That in our flesh dwells no good thing: that by the grace of God alone we are what we are: and that did his grace leave us, we might be once more as utter fools as we were in the wild days of youth. Yes: let us thank God for everything which reminds us of what we once were. Let us humble ourselves before him whenever those memories return to us; and let us learn from them what St. Paul learnt. To be charitable to all who have not yet learnt the wisdom which God (as we may trust) has taught to us; to feel for them, feel with them, be sure that they are our brothers, men of like passions with ourselves, who will be tried by the same standard as we; whom therefore we must not judge, lest we be judged in turn: and let us have, as St. Paul had, hope for them all; hope that God who has forgiven us, will forgive them; that God who has raised us from the death of sin, to something of the life of righteousness, will raise them up likewise, in his own good time.