LIVING EPISTLES

This entry is part of 21 in the series article 27

"Ye are our epistle, . . . known and read of all men." II. 
CORINTHIANS iii. 2. 

"To be is more than to seem," so runs the sub- 
stance of many maxims which are faithfully taught 
to the young as they go forth into life, and with 
which we both rebuke ourselves and console our- 
selves as need requires. No doubt the substance of 
such maxims is absolutely true. No doubt it is de- 
sirable that they should be constantly repeated. 
The condition of a nature, not the impression which 
the nature makes on other people, is the thing of 
primary importance, the thing on which attention 
must be fastened. 

And yet such maxims do not tell all the truth. 
Always subordinate to our Being, our Seeming has 
its true importance. What we are in ourselves 
comes first ; then what we are in relation to, in 
influence upon, our fellow-creatures demands its 
measure of regard. The outward movement, the 
expression of that which is essential, is too universal 
not to require our thought. The shining of the 
sun, the flowing of the river, the singing of the 
birds, fill the whole natural world with utterance. 

In ordinary human life action stands waiting at the 
gates of every thought and of every spiritual con- 
dition, to make proclamation of it and to carry it 
forth in visible result. 

When we come to the Supreme Being, it is truest 
there. God is and God speaks. Creation was His 
utterance. "I Am," He calls Himself in His divine 
content. And yet, "Hear, O Israel," He cries; 
"His goings forth have been of old, from everlast- 
ing." Never a time in all the past eternity when 
that which supremely Is has not spoken and sent 
Himself abroad. 

All this comes up to us when we hear St. Paul 
talking about his epistles. He is so absolutely 
healthy, so absolutely true, that the necessity of 
utterance is immediate and strong in him. As soon 
as he believes he speaks. He is incapable of the 
selfishness or the affectation which would shut his 
thought up in himself. So he tells it, with a human 
impulse ; and to Corinth and Ephesus and Philippi 
and Rome his letters go abroad. The letter was 
not then what it is now. To write a letter then was 
a more serious thing than it has since become. Let- 
ters were then more rare and stately. But the im- 
pulse which sent them was the same. The thousand 
million letters which in a single year go flying 
through our post-offices, what are they but the ut- 
terance of man's necessity of expression. It is in 
man's nature. Because it is in his nature it has 
embodied itself in his habits the necessity of 
utterance. 

Sometimes we wonder whether the cheap postage 
and the hourly mails are good. We let ourselves 
imagine the enormous frivolity, the enormous sor- 
didness, the enormous vice, which run in the chan- 
nels of the post-offices through the land ; and then 
we shudder and draw to ourselves pictures of a life of 
self-control and self-containment, developing its own 
thoughts and growing in the quiet richness of itself. 
But we know that we are wrong. Better too much 
utterance than too much repression. The thing you 
consciously refuse to tell lies like a burden on your 
life. Withheld knowledge is a dull, heavy weight. 
It lies in the doorway out of which it ought to pass, 
and hinders the natural exits and entrances. And 
so the cheap postage and the multitude of post- 
offices are good, in spite of the foolishness and 
viciousness to which they offer easy circulation. 

Everything which is true and vital was in Christ 
and in the beginnings of His Gospel and this epistle. 
Impulse unmistakably is there. He wrote, indeed, 
no letters. There is no sign that what now occupies 
so large a part of the lives of many men, the putting 
of pen to paper, ever came into His life at all. But 
He was always seeking utterance. From the time 
He bursts from the home-life at Nazareth until He 
leaves His last message in the ears of His apostles 
on the Mount of Olives, He is always sending forth 
that Self of His which was not for Itself but for the 
world. "Go ye and teach all nations," so at the 
last He gave His own spirit, His own conception of 
what the work of life under the Gospel was, to His 
disciples. 

How those disciples took it up we know full 
well. They never for an instant had the idea that 
any truth they learned or any achievement which 
they made was for themselves alone. All the sel- 
fish luxury of spiritual life they never dreamed of. 
The spring poured out its streams immediately. The 
star was radiant on the instant that it caught the sun. 

We cannot doubt, indeed, that in the lives of the 
apostles there were some deep, rich moments in 
which their souls dwelt in contented wonder and 
rapture on the love and greatness of their Lord. 
Between the hurried journeys, or when the crowd of 
suppliants for help had ceased for a few moments, 
or when the prison gates were shut at night, there 
must have come moments when they sat, as it were, 
hand in hand with Jesus, and dwelt in pure delight 
upon the friendship which was between their souls 
and His. 

And yet, even then, the Christ whom they com- 
muned with was the whole world's Christ. The 
walls within which they sat and which grew bright 
with the assurance of His presence, grew also, with 
that brightness, transparent, and let them see the 
waiting humanity outside. And so, out of the 
chambers of their rapture came the rich letters which 
have been the treasure of the Christian world. It is 
not evident of even one of those letters that it looked 
beyond the occasion for which it first was written. 
St. Paul had his word to say to Rome or Corinth, 
and he sat in his cell or in his inn and wrote it with 
all its loving messages, with all its personal touches ; 
and some traveller who happened to be going that 
way put it in his satchel ; and by and by it was read 
in some upper chamber where the little company of 
the disciples met. It was kept sacred. It was held 
close to the disciples hearts. Every word in it was 
weighed and studied ; and by and by when St. Paul 
was gone, and they could see his face no longer, it 
and the other Epistles which he had written to other 
churches were brought together and became his per- 
petual utterance to all the Christian ages, a true 
part of the Bible, the world s Book. It was his ut- 
tered faith. In it, he tells you and me to-day, as 
he told them, about his Saviour, his conversion, his 
faith, his heaven. 

There is no evidence, I say, that St. Paul antici- 
pated this. If he should come back here to-day, 
and go to that Book and turn its pages, and read 
his Epistles in this modern language of a world of 
whose existence he was ignorant, he might be sur- 
prised. "Here is what I wrote from my dungeon in 
Rome to the Ephesians, " he would say; or, "I re- 
member when I wrote from Athens, after I came 
back from Mars Hill, these words to my good friends 
at Thessalonica. " They would come back to him as 
a man remembers what he has sent out from him 
self, and what so truly is himself that it never ceases 
to be his ; and he recognizes it and claims it when 
he sees it again. Paul s Epistles," he would see 
them called, and he would gladly own them; but 
they would almost seem to be claiming and borrow- 
ing the title from other utterances of his to which he 
had himself long ago given that name. 

For here, in our text, St. Paul uses a word with 
which the world has been long familiar, but uses it 
of something different from that to which it has 
been commonly applied. "Paul's Epistles," we 
say ; and instantly we think of these well-known let- 
ters which are in the Bible. But they are not what 
St. Paul himself had in his mind, at least not in 
these words. His epistles, as he thinks of them, 
are men. "Ye are our epistles," he declares. It 
was not upon paper but upon souls, on characters 
and not upon waxen tablets, that he meant to 
inscribe the messages he had to give. 

Let us see what this striking idea of St. Paul in- 
volves. In the first place it is certainly suggestive 
with regard to the nature of the message with which 
his Epistles were entrusted; for the character of a 
communication must always dictate and decree the 
nature of the medium through which it shall be 
communicated. 

This law is universal, and its applications and de- 
velopments are full of interest. In literature it is 
the source of all that we call "style." The com- 
mon thought must clothe itself in plain and homely 
and familiar words. The grander and loftier con- 
ception creates for itself a worthy vesture and moves 
in the glory of some picturesque and stately phrase. 
Some things can be fitly told only in verse, others 
only in prose, and by and by you pass beyond what 
language has the power to express at all. 

What is the meaning of music and of art? There 
is that which the instrument can tell which, after the 
instrument has ceased, you know has been said to 
you, of which you are sure that while you sat and 
listened it was becoming your possession, yet which 
you are powerless to give an account of in any words 
that are any way adequate or fit. 

Other messages come to you through the marble 
or the canvas, and others still through nature, which 
is God s Art His great orchestral multitudinous 
unity of voices which speak, to ears attuned to listen, 
things which they alone can hear. And within the 
region of each special art there are adaptations. 
The drum and bugle may give out the wild and stir- 
ring summons to the battle. The stately organ and 
subtle violin or harp must lend their voices for the 
richer and more pathetic stories which the soul can 
hear. There is that which you must carve in ivory 
and that which you must hew in granite. Wax can 
not bring the revelation which can shine forth from 
marble. The true artist is he in whom the feeling 
of the fitness of message and medium for one an- 
other is perfect. For the message is dumb without 
its true medium of expression, and the medium 
without its worthy message is insignificant and weak. 
Therein in those two truths lies the secret of the 
failure of all that tries to be art and is not, the secret 
of the success of all that is finally and truly art. 

We can well see where such a principle will make 
its highest exhibition. The highest and finest ele- 
ment in the world s life is human nature. There- 
fore it will be through the medium of human natures 
that the loftiest and completest revelations will be 
given. That which could not be spoken in words, 
nor breathed through music, nor intimated in the 
subtle harmonies of nature, nor painted on canvas, 
nor cast in bronze, will be told, where only it can be 
told, in man. A human life will be God's voice to 
utter His divinest truth. This is what made the 
Incarnation. "God, who, at sundry times and in 
divers manners, spake in time past unto the fathers 
by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto 
us by His Son" : so speaks the opening verse of the 
Epistle to the Hebrews. The highest humanity 
must bring the highest message of Divinity. 

When people talk, as they sometimes do, about 
not needing Christ, about the gospel of nature being 
enough for them, about the woods and the ocean 
and the stars bringing them all the truth their souls 
require, here is their fallacy. The tidings which 
the stars and trees bring are good and inspiring. 
They soothe us in our tumult; sometimes, though 
not so often, they inspire us in our sluggishness ; but, 
because of the essential limitations of their own na- 
ture, there are truths they cannot tell, there are in- 
spirations which they cannot bring. Let me sit in 
the coolness of the woods and listen to all that the 
winds can say ; and when they have said everything 
that they can, they leave the centre of my soul 
a-hungered. Then there must come some finer 
medium, able to transmit a finer music. Come, 
then, O Christ ! with Thy humanity, able to tell of 
my dignity, my sin, my hope, my sonship ; able to 
say to me as Thou hast said to such multitudes of 
Thy Father's children : "He that hath seen me hath 
seen the Father." Here is the perpetual necessity 
of Jesus Christ, whom no nature-gospel can super- 
sede or make unnecessary. 

The Incarnation, then, is the supreme assertion 
that only through the highest medium, which is hu- 
manity, can the highest messages be given to man- 
kind. The same assertion is always being made in 
smaller ways. One of the most subtle of communi- 
cations which ever demands to be made, is the es- 
sential nature of a period or of an institution. What 
was the spirit of the fifteenth century? What was 
the intrinsic quality of its life? How shall I know? 
I read its books, and my mind gets some sort of 
hard, cold picture. I gather up its events, and some 
sort of lifeless map unfolds before me. I watch its 
art, I listen to its music, I see its implements of liv- 
ing, and I catch something of the movement and 
aroma of its life. But if, out of its millions of graves, 
some one characteristic man should shake off the 
dust of death and come among us, all vital with the 
vitality of four hundred years ago, should we not 
have something which no page of Dante, no canvas 
of Raphael, no marble of Michael Angelo could tell? 
All the lost standards of life the prejudices, the 
hopes, the fears, the sense of honor and disgrace, 
the aspirations, the fallacies, the good and bad, the 
virtues and the sins of the dead past would live in 
him. Through him the heart of the departed cen- 
tury would speak yet to all the ages till the end of 
time if he could live so long. 

Perhaps that makes the argument too grand and 
distant. Think how to-day, and in the commonest 
life, messages are flying back and forth from life to 
life, keeping the whole of the world of men tremu- 
lous and quivering with endless communication. 
How did you know what courage was? Who told 
you what it was to value truth, and how did the 
message come from him to you? Where did the 
sunrise get its freshness and the sunset its glory? 
Ask yourself, and you will see that it is through hu- 
manity; through what men have made of them and 
they have made of men ; through the utterances by 
which humanity has given an expression of them 
that even the most external facts of the material 
world may be said to have attained their truest 
manifestation and to have gained by them their 
deepest influence. And all which comes from behind 
nature, all which comes from God as everything 
does finally must come through man if it would 
come at its best. For then it comes through like to 
like. No foreign element intrudes or intervenes. It 
is like welding gold to gold with gold, when God 
sends messages to man through man. For God and 
man belong together, and all else in the wide world 
is foreign to the unity they make. 

And now, are we not ready to come to St. Paul s 
idea about his Corinthians? The principle, which I 
have taken so long to define and illustrate, never 
found a more perfect illustration than in him and 
them. "Ye are my Epistle," he declares. He had 
something to give the people of Corinth what was 
it? His Christ, the power of the living and dying 
and eternal life of his divine Master. He wanted to 
give that to Corinth how should he do it? Should 
he write it in a book and send it there? I can im- 
agine him writing and writing, and then, just about 
to send it, stopping and reading what he had written 
and saying to himself, "No! It is not there. I 
have not put it, I cannot put it, in the page. It is 
too fine. It is too subtle. It is too divine." He 
realizes that he might go or send a man to write on 
every wall in Corinth in golden letters, "The Cross 
is powerful"; yet he has not written the Power of 
the Cross. That is unwritable in letters. 

What then? He takes a Corinthian, a true man 
of Corinth ; he unwraps all the unreality in which he 
is enveloped and gets at his heart ; he takes off cir- 
cumstance after circumstance till he comes to the 
real man ; and then he writes the tidings which he 
has to tell on that. Right on that living, quivering 
humanity, right on that human heart all tremulous 
and sensitive with hopes and fears, he writes the 
story of the Cross. Into its horror and its exulta- 
tion he inscribes the fearful glory of that tragedy 
which saved the world. And, when he has made it 
part of the man s very life, so that, living at his 
heart, it shines in his eyes and trembles in his voice 
and throbs out of him in every movement that he 
makes; then Paul says to him, "Now go! You 
are my epistle." 

And the man goes, with the writing of Paul throb- 
bing, burning in him. He travels eagerly with his 
burning heart until he comes to the great city. He 
goes up and down in Corinth. He turns from the 
great streets into the little alleys. He stops at the 
doors of houses. He sits down in people's rooms. 
He does the business of a Corinth man. And every- 
where, with every movement, there beats out from 
him this with which his heart is full and fiery the 
Power of the Cross. He may say almost nothing; 
but you cannot look at him without seeing in him 
the struggle to subdue himself and sacrifice himself 
for his brethren, for the love of Christ, the Crucified. 
Now, is not the work done, or at least begun? 
What the page or the painted wall could not tell, 
what no voice or trumpet could have uttered, be- 
hold ! here it is written into a man so that other 
men, seeing it, must understand. "You are my 
epistle, known and read of all men ! " 

As such a picture grows clear before us, does it 
not impress us with the lofty privilege of the man 
to whom it was thus given not merely to carry but 
to be the Letter of the great Apostle? He was not 
simply to find his way to some official of the little 
church at Corinth, and deliver his missive and then 
go his way. He was the missive. Every deed he 
did was a new letter on the page. It was not some- 
thing which men could rob him of, or that he could 
lose. He could lose it only when he lost himself. 
He could cease to be an epistle of St. Paul only 
when that heart on which, into which the truth of 
Paul was written, ceased to beat. And just then, 
even when it ceased to beat, it might with its last 
quiver utter its message more powerfully than ever, 
even under the torturing knife. As the English 
Queen bade her people know that when they opened 
her heart they would find there her lost fortress, so 
might St. Paul s "epistle" bid his tormentors un- 
derstand that he would never be such an utterance 
of the truth just as when they were killing him for 
the truth's sake. 

O my dear friends, have you any conception of a 
life like that? Is there any great Gospel of which 
you are an epistle? If men cut deep into your 
heart, would any truth burst out from it like a foun- 
tain? If not, you do not know what it is to live. 
If not, there is something preposterous in your go- 
ing about lamenting the monotony and uninterest- 
ingness of life. What do you know of life? Life 
does not begin with a man till he is filled with the 
truth which it is the necessity and joy of his exis- 
tence to utter on every side. It is life indeed when 
that has come. Then, what you are proclaims the 
truth which you believe. Men catch the voice the 
loud voice of your silent being as you go along 
the street. Yours is the glorious privilege to make 
the truth seem more true, to make the lie seem 
more false, by the way you live. That is to be an 
epistle of God ! 

Again : the essential character of the religion of 
Christ is involved, I think, in these words of St. 
Paul and the truth which they express. The Chris 
tian faith is evidently something which must find its 
expression and utterance in men. It is a power 
whose manifestation must be in personal life. It is 
not something you can write out fully in a book. It 
is something which must be lived out in a life. Its 
Bible is, what? Not a system of doctrines, not a 
system of laws, but a clear glass through which is seen 
a Person. You must judge whether you have really 
appropriated the Religion of Christ and the Religion 
of the Bible by this test. What is it that you think 
of when you think of spreading your faith? Is it 
the promulgation of ideas, such as may be written 
on paper and proved by argument? or is it the 
awakening of new spiritual life by the touch of the 
power which has entered into and become your self? 
The first is the notion of carrying an epistle. The 
second is the notion of being an epistle. The first 
has but reached the form of our divine faith; the 
second is dealing with its soul. Every word of 
Christ breathes with the spirit of the second. 

Again : here is the real truth about the Christian 
Church. We are told that the Church came before 
the Bible. Of course it did. Not merely it came, 
but it must have come, before the Bible. It was 
not merely an historical event ; it was a philosophi- 
cal necessity. It must be so in every soul. We 
must remember what the Church really is : a group 
and a succession of living souls. Through them 
first the new religion must have gone abroad. You 
cannot picture Christ sitting down and sending 
abroad tracts which with cold written words should 
make the world discern in Him its Master. Rather, 
we see how He must stand, as He does stand, there 
on the Mount of Olives, just ready Himself to re- 
ascend into the heavens, and fling out of His lifted 
hand live lives of living men into the air like birds, 
which flying east and west and north and south 
should carry Him abroad throughout the ages and 
the world. You are my epistles," we can hear 
Him say. The Church was then and there im- 
mediately. It was there in that group of believers, 
eager to spread abroad the power of their faith. 
The Bible only came by and by, as an attempt to 
perpetuate the personal testimony of those believers 
when they should be no more on earth, and to ex- 
tend it into regions where their feet and faces could 
not go. Still and forever the Church is the great 
Christian power, and the epistles of the Lord are 
human hearts. 

I do not plead that you should always be looking 
outward and thinking what is to be the effect of 
your life on other lives. The greatest power often 
comes by forgetting power, and doing the present 
task, and being the present character; often by the 
immediate sacrifice of power which other men are 
seeking. But the two do not really come into con- 
flict with each other. To be our best for the great 
general good, that is the union of the two ; that is 
the true solution of their seeming discord. 

All this seems to me to be necessarily involved 
in the metaphor to which our study of this morn- 
ing has been given. St. Paul s epistles the living 
men whom he filled with his truth must have had 
two consciousnesses: one of his finger writing upon 
them, the other of the great world for which the 
message was written, to which it must be carried. 
The graving finger and the waiting world together 
enriched and solemnized their life. They were not 
two influences, but one. 

We are all Christ s epistles, and we also must have 
two consciousnesses. Now, it is He, our Master, 
writing upon us; in at the very depth of our hearts 
we feel His graving finger. He presses His standards 
and His love into the very substance of our souls. 
He writes Himself on us. And then, when we are 
all possessed with the great richness of this experi- 
ence, then, hark ! a voice is in our ears. The world 
is calling to us: "O Soul, O Christian, that is not 
for you alone. It is for us as well. Come, O epistle 
of the Lord, and tell us what He has told you ! " 

There is no conflict, no struggle. We are what 
God has made us for the world of God. The hearts 
on which He has written His truth and love are too 
sacred for their own sole possession. Let who will 
come and read them. O brethren, may God make 
us such that it may be nothing but good for men to 
read us, what we are, down to the very depths !
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