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Christ's Last Commission.
THE prominent passages from the instructions of Jesus, are distinguished for the sweep and comprehensiveness of their meaning. The focal points of his revelation do not serve so much to shed a single truth vividly upon the mind, as to throw light into a new district of truth, whose spaces had not before been pierced, thus offering large room for all those peculiarities of position, sight, and study in which the various personalities of intellect are so richly manifest.
Who can tell the precise meaning of the parable of the mustard-seed, or of the leaven? Both together fill but three verses in the record of Christ's instructions; and yet they sketch the great truths of the immense development of the Christian religion from a seemingly insignifi cant origin, and the laws of the process by which it is to attain its victory. Just in proportion to the richness of the mind that studies them in historic learning and imagi native sympathy, will circle beyond circle, and deep under deep, of meaning be uncovered in their simple imagery. The mustard-tree will stand at last, perhaps, for the solid and organic fibres of the church, springing up from the vital thought of Christ, spreading out into various sects, rooted in the earth and arching over every kingdom, justifying every branch which it puts forth by the blossoms it bears, and the flocks of peculiar birds that find shelter in it against the chills, heats, and storms of the world. And the leaven, it may be, will become the sign of the slow and subtle interfusion of life by which the spirit of Christianity is to mingle itself with the thought and the public sentiment of mankind, losing its distinctive character as an aggressive force by intermixing with the element it is to vivify, until the glorious era shall dawn, when the world shall be the church, and the whole life of man an organism of the Holy Ghost.
There is kindred splendor and vastness of suggestion in the Lord's prayer, which opens to us the directions of
the pious spirit; in the parable of the good Samaritan,— that magnificent transparency through which the abstract light of human brotherhood falls at once upon the imagination, the conscience, and the heart; in the phrase, laden with light, "God is a spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth," of which modern astronomy seems the only proper commentary; and in such a passage as that which stands, I sometimes think, at the summit of Christianity: "If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father in heaven give good things to them that ask him,"-a passage which casts the purest elements of our nature out upon God, and bids us conceive of him as the infinite enlargement and expression of the best qualities ever exhibited by man.
The creed-spirit which would compress the beams of light within as narrow a compass as possible, is just the opposite of the disposition of Jesus' mind, which shot its suggestions over the widest space possible, and offered free leave for all intellects to follow them on their kindling journey, and to study whatever they found interpreted by them within the sweep of their day. So foreign are the tendencies of thought and the laws of narrow analytic expression, which belong to creeds, from the broad methods and habits of the soul of Jesus, that it would be impossible,-I believe we may say this with the most sober literalness, it would be impossible to state the doctrines of any of the long creeds of modern Christendom in the language which Jesus used, even if we should break up the verses of the four Gospels into words, and have free use of them, as a vocabulary, to put into any collocation that our ingenuity could devise. Used as a dictionary, we could not arrange from them, into a piece of verbal mosaic-work, those formulas which councils and synods have voted into authority, as the epitome of his religion, the tests of discipleship, and the masters of our thought.
So much by way of introduction to some thoughts on the last commission which Christ gave to his disciples. What symbolic propriety that the religion, announced by a chant of peace for the whole earth and good will to all men, and inaugurated by offerings of sages from distant
lands, and the simple homage of shepherds-the extremes of humanity, lowly Jews, and cultivated Gentiles, bending before the new born babe,-should close its earthly biography, in the person of its founder, by a benediction upon all nations, a catholic outlook over that world which the great teacher was soon to see in its round beauty, blessed by the common light, as he ascended from it into the peace of God! The disciples stood facing nearly every known kingdom of the world as he gave them that command, ready with missionary staff and zeal to bear the quickening words of Jesus into every clime, and to robe them in every tongue. We should expect, therefore, that the comprehensiveness of the thought of Jesus, characteristic of the prominent doctrines which he proclaimed in the midst of his ministry, would be especially manifest in the great commission with which it closedthat he would gather up the prominent forces of his faith, and sketch its vast scheme of relations to humanity, by the formula with which his delegates were to visit the nations. I believe that the terms of this final message of Christ do present the outline of the Christian religion, and that we have not studied that phrase as we should, by a spiritualized imagination, as presenting three large symbolic centres from which the peculiarities of Christianity radiate, and without all of which, neither its truth, its symmetry, or its power, can be complete.
Generally, we know, this last charge which the record ascribes to Jesus, is interpreted simply as a dogmatic statement of the Trinity, and the authoritative form to be used in every baptism of individual converts-the affirmation of the one great mystery of his religion forever beyond the reach of reason. But it is quite a singular fact that, in no instance of baptism by any apostle, recorded in the book of Acts, was this formula used. The phraseology of that service was "into Christ" alone; into the name and faith of Christ. And that it could not have been uttered by Jesus as a Trinitarian formula, the summing up of his doctrine concerning the divine nature into a final creed, is evident from the fact that he had never taught them a word of the personality of the Holy Spirit, or associated it in any way as a mystery with the unity and personality of God. Neither could the primitive
church have gathered such a meaning from this formula; since, by the general confession of the students of Christian antiquity, the personality of the Holy Ghost was not distinctly conceived till some generations after the apostles.
From the wide and intricate complications which this phrase has suffered with the Trinitarian scheme, many Unitarian believers have been reluctant to use it, feeling that some mental insincerity is involved now in its repetition. But we cannot afford to lose it; we ought not to yield it; we ought not to feel any mental perplexity in uttering it as the comprehensive formula of faith; and so there is a peculiar call upon us to examine it, and see, if, instead of a dogmatic statement of the composition of the divine nature, it is not rather a triplicate symbol of the ideas, forces, and privileges, which Christianity has communicated to the human race.
"Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father." So far this formula of baptism expresses the great contribution of Christianity to the world's knowledge of God. There is no science of the divine nature in the four Gospels, no definition of the relations which the Divine Spirit holds to the universe, no settlement, because no discussion, of those questions of creation, or development, plastic, unconscious intellect, or theism, which inquisitive philosophers have raised for the torment of faith in modern days. Indeed, there is no deliberate and official announcement of the divine paternity itself in the Gospel, as though Christ consciously brought it as a momentous secret, which he was to shed for the first time upon the astonished darkness of nature. It leaped out in his instructions as a truth that could not but be seen. It was a light so clear upon his spirit that he alluded to it as an unquestionable, self-evident, granted fact-the luminous vesture which all eyes must see wrapping the dark substance of the Divinity. It is quite remarkable that, in no passage of his instruction, did Jesus place it in any critical opposition to the severer countenance of Deity which Judaism had portrayed, or to the starry darkness of the pagan mind; but talked to the Galilean peasants and the more cultivated listeners of Jerusalem, as though it were a part of their unconscious faith, which he would kindle into more luminous power.
We believe that there is hardly an instance in the records of Christ's instructions, where this statement concerning God is made antagonistically, or, even in the direct sense, affirmatively. In almost, if not quite, every instance it is published obliquely,-used to endorse a duty or inspire a sentiment, as in the passages: 66 Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect; "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven;""That thine alms may be in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee; "When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask him;" "But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, &c., that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he mak eth his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." The parable of the prodigal son will also occur to the reader, as the crowning instance of the custom of Jesus to assume the paternity of the Infinite, and reason from it to all the needs and sins of the human heart; instead of to state it and develop it as a truth consciously peculiar to his own mind, which was to undulate from him over the darkness of the race.
Let no one think that this exposition of the method in which Christ unfolded the character of God, is a point of mere speculative interest. It shows us how the whole character of Christianity is involved with the spread of that conception; how its power and its honor are suspended upon the clearness with which it is held, the eloquence with which it is preached, and the force with which it is felt. Is not a new force given to it when we find that the royal soul that once stood upon this globe,seer and speaker of the laws and mysteries of the spiritual universe, did not utter that truth, sublimest of all that can be conceived by human reason, as though it was a beam straying miraculously from the sky, and reflected from a supernatural intellect upon the world, but as one that seemed to rush in upon his vision from all quarters of nature,―shed from the sunlight which wrote it by magical photography upon his brain,-sprinkled by the show