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Selected Sermons Of Schleiermacher by Friedrich Schleiermacher

XIII. THE LAST LOOK AT LIFE,

(Passion Sermon.)

TEXT: JOHN xix.30. |When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, He said, It is finished.|

THESE greatest and most glorious of the last words -*- of our Saviour on the cross come immediately after those which are apparently of the least significance and importance. The Lord said, |I thirst;| then the moistened sponge was handed to Him; and when He had received the soothing, though not pleasant draught, He cried, |It is finished.| And we must not break the connection of these two sayings, for the apostle has joined them most closely by placing just before his report of them the words, |When Jesus saw that all things were now finished, that the Scripture might be accomplished.| Now if the former is the least important of the Saviour's last words, seeing that, considered in itself, it concerns merely the satisfying of a bodily need; the latter is indisputably the greatest of all those words; it is the saying which has always been, as it were, the anchor for the faith of Christians; the word in which this truth is perfectly proved and made glorious to them; that according to the divine counsel, salvation could be won for men in no other way than this; that He who was sent into the world for their salvation should be obedient even to the death of the cross. But if we direct our attention to this great word alone, we are overpowered by the infinity of the subject, and we have reason to be glad that the very apostle who has preserved this word for us has also left us a key to it, which gives our thoughts a more definite direction. Such a key we find in those preceding words, |When Jesus saw that all things were finished, that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, He said, I thirst.| John knew that the soul of the Saviour. was engaged in thus comparing all that had so far befallen Him, with the divine promises, as they were uttered through the whole series of revelations in the written word of God; and as He thus set promise and fulfilment side by side, and so became conscious in a human way of the completion of the divine purpose, He cried, |It is finished.|

Of course at that moment everything was not yet finished. As our redemption from sin and our justification before God must go together; so also it was necessary that He who needed to die there for our sin should be raised again for our justification. As the fact that the disciples saw the Father only in Him, was connected with this, that when He left the world He returned to the Father; so also the fact that He loved the disciples implied that He could not leave them orphans, but must send them another Comforter who should abide with them, and after them with us also; even the Spirit of truth. But the spiritual eye of the Saviour saw everything finished in the sacred moment of His death; and for this reason that moment is the central point of our faith. For by His obedience unto death He obtained for us the life-giving Spirit; in that He suffered, He has been crowned with glory and honour. Therefore if in the moment of His death He could say, in this sense, |It is finished,| He must have regarded His death in that infinite connection which begins with the first promise given to fallen man concerning the seed of the woman, and reaches forward into that eternity in which He will bring to the Father all those whom the Father has given Him, that they may share in the praise and glory with which He has been crowned. All this is no doubt perfectly true; but let us return to the definite direction that the apostle gives us, and confine ourselves to considering this word chiefly as the final look at a past life; and let us, especially in the first place, see in it as the Saviour did, the accomplishment of His destiny during this earthly life; and secondly, apply the great word of the Lord, as our heart constrains us to do, to ourselves.

I. As the Saviour said so often during His life that the Son of Man did nothing of Himself, but did the things that He saw with the Father, and spoke the words that He heard from Him; we must naturally suppose that He was constantly engaged in the profoundest meditation on the ways of God; and that, raised as He was above all human weakness of mind, it was so still, even in these last painful hours of His life; and thus all words relating to Himself in the Divine revelations of the Old Testament were present to His soul. We have already had an example of this in His earlier words on the cross; when even the pains and weakness that He had to endure recalled to His remembrance words of holy Scripture, and He applied one and another of them to- His own circumstances. But certainly we should ill understand Him, if we believed that it was these personal details in which He found everything finished that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. That He was hanging there on the cross, surrounded by the powerful enemies who had brought about His death; that His bones were consumed and His tongue clave to His jaws; that He saw His clothes shared among the soldiers and lots cast for His coat; the contemplation of separate incidents like these, and the comparing of them with the words of the Psalm, might indeed to a certain extent, and perhaps more than would have been the case with another, turn away the attention of the suffering Saviour from the torturing sense of physical pain; but to occupy entirely His soul, that was ever bent on greater things, was what those outward details could not do; nor was it those things on account of which He cried with such satisfaction, |It is finished.|

If then we must seek for greater things, let us not give the reins to our own imaginations, which certainly would not succeed in understanding Christ; rather let us speak of such words of Scripture as His disciples, in speaking of the essential facts of His life, apply to Him with inspired unanimity, and which must now have come most naturally before His mind. Now where could we find His whole office and- work in relation to the ruined and weakened human race more perfectly expressed than, in the first place, in those words of the prophet, in which one of the evangelists describes to us the Saviour's whole manner of dealing -- I mean those words, as tender as they are strong, |He will not break the bruised reed, and the smoking flax will He not quench|? These are words which, through what He had done throughout His life of duty, and what He was now doing in dying, were now being fulfilled to the whole human race, which might well be regarded as only a bruised reed and an expiring taper; so that even in the hour of death, yes, dying there alone, He could yet feel called on to praise and glorify the name of His Father in the great congregation; like him whose words He used when He said; |My God, why hast Thou forsaken me.| And thus He also found that other word perfectly fulfilled, which His disciples universally apply to Him; that He took upon Him our sicknesses and that through His pains we are healed; it was this which now in the last look at His life He saw finished, that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.

But we cannot properly feel the full value of this last word of Christ's, unless we can transport ourselves in thought into that time, and into the state of mind of all those who clung to the Lord with a faith that was still weak and imperfect. When He made His entry into the capital of His nation, coming to the feast which was to be the feast of His own death and resurrection, and was hailed by thousands as He who came in the name of the Lord, the promised Son of David; when the palms, the emblem of the victorious king who with victory brought peace, were strewn before His feet; what kind of expectations were probably stirring in the minds of that joy-intoxicated multitude, that streamed in from all directions to share in this triumphal entry? For the most part, unhappily, expectations of an external glory and power; expectations which the Saviour had never encouraged, and which He had not come to fulfil. And even His disciples, though many words must have lived in their remembrance by which the Saviour had often, indeed on every occasion, sought to turn away their hopes and their love from the glory of this world, and had pointed them to that spiritual world which would be subject to Him as its Lord and Master; -- even they were not yet quite sure whether in some way, though perhaps further off in the future, an outward power and authority might not be the means of setting up this kingdom in its full splendour; and even they were perhaps carried away by the enthusiasm of the people in those glorious days to share in such earthly expectations. But the palms that were then strewn before the Saviour's feet were now first wound into the true, glorious victor-wreath around His dying head, when all that was at that time said in human misunderstanding was fulfilled in its real, spiritual sense, according to the secret counsel and purpose of God, Thus, on the cross, in His death, Christ was altogether He who came in the name of the Lord, and thus and no otherwise was He to be magnified and blessed from that moment to all eternity. It was thus also that the apostle felt it, who has recorded this word for us; and therefore he says, When Jesus saw that all was finished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. So that the Scripture was now completely fulfilled in Him, and, erroneously as the great majority had always interpreted these glorious words of prophetic men, their true import would now be better apprehended by all; and therefore, in this sense also, all was finished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled; and then He bore testimony to Himself in that great word, which, uttered now and here, must have made His disciples abandon for ever all their false earthly expectations; -- then He exclaimed, |It is finished|! And now they knew also that seeing they could not fare better than their Lord and Master, they too could fulfil their vocation only through suffering and tribulation, and so enter into the kingdom of His glory; now they knew that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; for the flesh and blood of Christ had fastened Him to the cross, and that therefore they were now to know no man according to the flesh; now they knew that His whole work was a purely spiritual work, and that His authority, for which they were to fight and which they were to extend, was no other than that which He, as the Crucified, sets up for Himself in the hearts of the children of men.

But there is one thing more that we must not overlook. When the Saviour, in this connection with the fulfilling of Scripture, uttered the words, |It is finished,| we cannot but feel that the reference is not only, nor indeed even chiefly, to what He has done; that He is not merely looking back on what He might regard as His own work; but what He very specially points to is what has been done in and through Him. It was not His own work, and He could not mean in these words to represent it as such, that He had so early reached the goal of His great destiny; but it was the fulfilment of the divine decree, through the divine leading and foreknowledge. His death was the great moment for which all human things from the beginning of our race had been bound to work together; it was indicated long before through manifold pictures of the sufferings of God's servants in an evil world; and who could question that those pictures, wherever they are found, contained the expression of a knowledge that came from above, although as yet seen only in a very feeble and glimmering light? But those representations became more and more distinct in the sacred discourses of men who were filled with the divine Spirit; and now they were being realized; for the appearing of the Saviour was an offence and foolishness to the perversity of the human heart; and this perversity was increased to spite and malignity by the faith in the Saviour and love to Him that began to be manifested. It was what was done to Him He was now chiefly looking at. His life, as regarded work, He had closed already with that sublime prayer which this same evangelist has preserved for us, in which He gives account to His Father of how He had glorified Him, the Father, through His whole life, and at the same time declares His hope that now the Father will also glorify the Son. But confidently as He could at that time present Himself before God with those whom the Father had given Him and chosen out of the world, perfectly conscious as He was of duty fully and purely fulfilled, it was not then that He spoke the great word, |It is finished.| But if, speaking exactly, He did nothing more after that, what are we to understand by His refraining until now from saying, |It is finished|? Most evidently this: that the divine counsel concerning a man is never accomplished through that alone which the man does; and this holds good even of Him, the one gracious Man, of Him, the only righteous One. The counsel of God is always fulfilled through the working together of all the forces which the Most High sets in operation; not only those of which we can say, in a restricted sense, that He gives both the will and the accomplishment, but those also of which we like best to think that He merely says to them, Hitherto, and no further. The Divine counsel is only fulfilled through that which is utterly hidden from us -- the reciprocal influence of all times and all spaces; one day must tell it to another, the earth to the heavens, and the heavens again to the earth; from everything, taken together, that the individual man has power to do, and does, though never from that alone, there results that of which it can be said, |It is finished.| This word of the Lord therefore indicates to us that, in His last great moments, He forgot, or set in the background, even His own work on the earth, which for this very reason He had previously wound up, in order again to direct His thoughts solely to the work of His Father in heaven. That which filled up the last moment of His human life was this -- He was absorbed in contemplating the mystery of the divine counsels; so that even this great act of His departure, though, in another aspect, it was emphatically His own deed and His holiest service, He preferred to regard as what had been not only foretold but prepared, as what was now directly accomplished only through the divine wisdom and its leadings, working together to this end.

II. Now if this is the right idea of the state of mind in which the Saviour spoke the words of our text; if we recognise even in this greatest and most important of His last words the profound humility of Him who, though He was in the form of God and thought it no robbery to be equal with God, yet in the last hour of His life, putting in the shade His own deed and service, rested and rejoiced only in this, that the counsel of His Father was being fulfilled, how can we then think of applying this word to ourselves, and how shall I redeem the promise that I have given for the second part of our meditation? Were it a question merely of the active life, of the human influence of the Saviour, even then we might well ask, what are we in comparison with Him, and how could any one of us think of comparing him self with Him? And yet in that case the application to ourselves might be an easier thing. For when Christ, as our High Priest, in that prayer to which I have already referred, closed His account with His heavenly Father, it was with Him just as with other children of men. Although God was in Him, reconciling the world to Himself, yet that world still lay before His eyes unreconciled, enveloped in the darkness and shadow of death; and He presented to His Father only some few who had attached themselves to Him in faith and love as the fruit of His life-work, as those who were chosen out of the world, so that He could say with a glad heart, |They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world; they have heard and believed Thy word that. I have come forth from Thee.| And even then He had to mourn over a lost sheep, so that even in His own immediate circle what He Himself had said was fulfilled, that all are not chosen who are called; and thus He also experienced that in direct influence on men there is no perfect and in variable success. Then He also needed to come with prayer to His heavenly Father for the work from which Ho was now, as to His human agency, to withdraw His hand; and He thus acknowledged that though in another and a higher sense He had done all, yet the direct results were only now beginning, and that it was needful for the Father to complete what the Son could only initiate. In all this, therefore, my friends, we should find a great deal that we could apply to ourselves, if the question concerned the last converse of the soul with God before quitting this earthly scene. Each of us has those whom the Lord has given us, whom we are to present to Him as chosen out of the world; and he who, though feeling his own weakness, has faithfully and wisely carried on the work of the Lord on earth, desiring nothing besides, will also be able to say in faith, |Here am I, Father, and those whom Thou hast given me.| And to him who, like the Saviour, has to mourn over disappointed hopes, if one or another forcibly tears himself away from the loving and guiding hand, in spite of all guarding and upholding love, to him there will assuredly not be wanting such a comfort as this, |that the Scripture might be fulfilled.|

But this is not exactly the question with which we are concerned here in this great word of the Lord; it is rather as to what befel Him so that all that was written of Him might be fulfilled, and nothing left undone. And what kind of a comparison can we institute here? Do the Scriptures -- which, as He Himself said, testify of Him in every page, if the Spirit of God enlightens the eyes of the reader -- those Scriptures in which He was promised, from the beginning, and which He had in view as fulfilled in Himself when He spoke the word, It is finished -- do those Scriptures speak also of us, my friends? Can we also, at the close of our life, cast such a look into the past as to be able to rejoice that the Scriptures are fulfilled in us? Oh, doubtless, they speak of us all! Do they not say, the whole of you are sinners, and come short of the praise that you should have with God? That, you see, is the first Scripture which is fulfilled in us all; and if we imagine our eye directed, in the last hours of our life, to the time that will then be past, and to Him in whom glory to God and to the divine will is portrayed to us all, ah, then each of us will say, Now I am dying; this Scripture is fulfilled in me! But the Scriptures say also, Christ is become to us wisdom and righteousness and sanctification. Well, then, he who can glory in the grace of the Lord, who has not been deaf to the voice of His Spirit, who finds himself in that living fellowship with Christ in which all things are common to Christ and him, and in his last moments can look back on such a life, lived in faith on the Son of God, and Christ living in him, -- to him this Scripture is the most genuine expression of his consciousness of what has formed the full and complete value of his life. For whatever cannot be included under this, forms no part of the value of his life; and in the glad assurance that this Scripture, this edifying, saving Scripture, is fulfilled even in him, he will then be able to say, It is finished.

But let us not stop short, my friends, at the most general point of our faith, at the consciousness of salvation which is involved in fellowship with the Saviour; for in that fellow ship (though assuredly never but through and with Him) we can certainly follow out still further the analogy between this word from His lips, and our experience in the moment of our departure; or rather, in the last look at our past life that we may be permitted to take with as entire consciousness as the Saviour had. For the whole time of the Saviour's presence on earth, but very specially the great moment in which He completed, by His death, the work of reconciling the world to God, was, to an extent in which it can be said of no other time, the great point of transition, at which two different periods divided: the time of longing desire and hopeful anticipation, and the time of blessed fulfilment and of life-giving faith, creating men anew to works of love. But we also, as a whole, yea, every one of us, mean and obscure as our existence in the world may be, are in a similar way included in the great connected plan of the divine dealings. For the same thing is always occur ring over again in the Church of the Lord, only in less degrees. When Christ said to His disciples that He had yet many things to say to them, but they could not bear them now, and referred them to the Spirit whom He would send to them, He in fact introduced even for them a time of longing and anticipation, the fulfilment of which was not to come until later. And everything in the present time which we recognise as deficiency and imperfection stirs us to longing and anticipation, and these are followed by fulfilment. Now if this goes on until we have attained to the fulness of a perfect man in Christ -- and until then we cannot cease to wish and hope -- we are all so situated that longing and fulfilment alternate; and no sooner is one desire fulfilled, though always in only an imperfect way, than we long after something else. But to this still imperfect state of fulfilment something connected with the good pleasure and will of God is to be added by each living generation, leaving to the young only its unfulfilled aims; and to this work of the men of his time, every one who accounts himself a living member of this God-sanctified body is to contribute his share. Now as all that was to take place had not yet actually occurred when the Saviour cried, |It is finished,| so in our case, also, we may, with the same faith which we see in Him who is the Author and Perfecter of ours, regard that which we have still to meet as included in what has already taken place. And just in the same way, when we come to our last look at the life we have spent, our thoughts may rest with heartfelt thankfulness to God, on what has been done, not certainly through our own merit, for that is the Lord's alone, nor by our work exclusively, for our out ward position and a great deal that does not depend on us has always some part in it; but still, on what has been brought, through our presence, our agency, our indirect influence in many and divers ways, to its sole completion; or has, at least, gone on from being a wish and anticipation to the beginning of fulfilment. And we are to regard all this taken together, and indeed estimate it, as that which our natural characteristics, as well as the circumstances in which God has placed us, indicated from the first as our work; and in our last look at life we shall praise God with equal humility and gratitude that what He apportioned to us, according to His wisdom, as our day's work, is actually accomplished. We shall acknowledge humbly how much we have found it needful to avail ourselves of from without, in order to accomplish even the little that we have actually done; how many obstacles there were that could only have been removed through favourable circumstances or by the help of others; so that we may seek in vain anywhere for work that is exclusively our own. But if God will, we shall then also have to acknowledge thankfully how even in us, though it may be but in small measure, the beautiful word of Scripture has been fulfilled, that all the gifts of the Spirit in the Church are manifested for the common good; and that as the Scripture sets before us the fruits of the Spirit in the delightful group of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, purity; some of those fruits, though not perhaps perfectly ripened, nor of the choicest beauty, have grown up in the garden of our heart. It was no doubt Christ alone in whom everything belonging to the image of God in this human nature developed ever increasingly and without interruption, in the fairest symmetry; and the time at which He appeared, the circum stances amidst which He lived, contributed nothing to this; they only helped to make it possible for this glory of the only-begotten Son to take effect in the way and measure which the divine wisdom had determined from all eternity. And it was just that divine decree that He counted as accomplished, when, while He was yet on the cross, this glory appeared to Him in its full splendour. With us the case is certainly very different; for none of us will be able to look back on his life without becoming aware of the fluctuating and unsteady progress of his soul. Falls and risings again; the hand bravely laid on the plough and then dubiously withdrawn; the work of God eagerly entered on, and then again the hands hanging feebly down; this and no other is the manner of our spiritual life, only taking different forms in its early bloom and in its gradual coming to maturity; and different also in each according to his natural disposition and his outward circumstances. But however saddening this may be, yet, in another aspect, if at the end of our life we, like Christ, look less at what we ourselves have done, and rather at what, according to God's gracious counsel and foreknowledge has been done in and through us; then wo shall be like Him, even in this, that everything at the close of our life will still harmonize in a joyful, |It is finished.| For if once the Word of God has been held up before us as the pure mirror of the truth, in which each of us may recognise himself, and we have really looked into it; then we shall feel constrained to testify that though we have once and often forgotten what manner of men we were, yet we have been always drawn to return and look into that mirror anew; and that even our vacillations and falls, our negligence and our evil desires, have served to give us a deeper and clearer self-knowledge, which is one of the greatest possessions that can be granted to us with which to depart hence. If we have once turned away from the universal restlessness of the human race to the true Shepherd and Overseer of our souls, and have experienced that in Him we find rest and refreshing; if then we have at any time, through the cowardice of the human heart, sought, when something painful threatened us, some other shelter that seemed to lie nearer to us; -- or if, in the self-will of our heart, we have ventured alone into seductive pastures; yet our Shepherd has followed and sought us in various ways: and through these changes in our experience we have become the more firmly convinced that protection and safety, as well as comfort and refreshing, are only to be found in union with Him. Have we often, it may be, under the pressure of the world and amidst its obstinate opposition, admitted the thought that the Lord, whose pound, entrusted to us, we are to put out to usury, is a hard Master, who wishes to reap where He has not sown? yet we have been hindered, sometimes in one way, sometimes in another, from utterly burying it, and shall have something, little as it may be, to show, that has been gained by it. Now if through the gracious over-ruling of God, who glorifies him whom He has justified, even our weaknesses and mistakes have not only tended to confirm our own character, but have also been useful to our brethren in the way of doctrine, and warning, and instruction in righteousness, -- as indeed we have often ourselves experienced this effect from the weaknesses of others, -- then we shall be constrained to acknowledge that true as that other word of Scripture remains, which we shall each of us separately apply to himself, regarding the praise that we ought to have with God; yet to each individual member of the Church of Christ, as well as to the body in which we are united as a whole, that word is also fulfilled, and will always go on being fulfilled, as to our whole life, sufferings and work, that to those who love God, all things must work for good. If we thus some day look back on the life we have spent, when we have reached its close, we shall thankfully and gladly acknowledge that it has been the eternally wise kindness and the compassionate love of the heavenly Father towards all who are called His children, which, through errors and weakness, through joys and sufferings, has bound us ever more closely and at last inseparably to Him, whom indeed we cannot let go if the Scripture is to be fulfilled in us, and in fellow ship with whom, and comforted as He himself was, we shall be able to cry, |It is finished.| Amen.

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