+J.B. Lightfoot Sermon :: The Constraining Love of Christ

May 9, 2016

“The love of Christ constraineth us.” 2 Corinthians V. 14.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 1876.

LightfootWHO is this Paul that writes these strange words? Who is this Christ to whom he ascribes such marvellous power? What had been their past connexion? What were their present relations? How can we explain this tyrannous influence, this complete absorption of self in another, to which the writer confesses? Is he speaking of some devoted parent, to whose fostering care and patient self-denial he feels that he owed everything? Or of some loved brother, with whom all his fondest memories of life— in infancy, in childhood, in youth, in manhood—are bound up? Or of some friend, who has been more to him than a brother, from whose large heart and commanding intellect he has learnt lessons that were more precious than life itself, in whose purity, in whose nobleness, in whose entire self-forgetfulness, he has seen a standing protest against all that was base and mean in himself? Nay; he was none of these. He was not a parent, not a brother, not a friend, as men count friendship. He was an entire stranger, whom Paul had probably never seen on earth, whom certainly he had never cared for, never loved. And he was dead too; had been dead now more than a quarter of a century. So that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in their human relationships to account for this strange, this extravagant, this passionate language.

And the more we examine the facts of their past history, the more hopelessly bewildering do we find them, as tested by the ordinary standard of human occurrences and human motives.

It is now the year 57 or 58 of our era, when S. Paul writes these words. Place yourself in imagination some twenty-five or thirty years earlier than this date. What do you see then? Here is a Jew of humble rank, a carpenter’s son, sentenced to suffer as a criminal, executed by a most ignominious death, put out of the world with the emphatic approval of all classes, the haughty Pharisees, the scornful Romans, the mocking soldiery, the hooting populace What was there to attract, to subdue, to dominate, in this most painful, most repulsive of all scenes? And yet this is the Christ—this humble peasant, this despised outcast, this hated criminal—whose constraining power the writer confesses to be absolute over all his thoughts and feelings and actions.

And next, what does past history tell us about the writer himself? Is there any key here which will unlock the secret? Place yourself again in imagination a few years later—some twenty years before the words were written. What do you find then? Why, just what the previous scene would lead you to expect. This Paul, the writer, is devoting all the energies of his sincere and passionate nature to the extermination of an infatuated sect that has gathered round the name of this dead man, this criminal whom all classes alike had agreed to execrate. He spares no pains; he shrinks from no severities. Men and women, young and old, falling into his hands, are treated alike. Imprisonment, torture, death—such is the fate that awaits his victims. No sincerity, no innocence, no patience or meekness in the sufferers touches his heart. Even the spotless purity and the transparent holiness of a Stephen only adds fuel to his indignation. The name of Christ is an abomination to him. The followers of Christ are outside the pale of our common humanity.

I have asked you to turn yourselves back in imagination some twenty-five years, and again some twenty years before these words were written. It is not a wide space of time for the memory to range over. About the same interval separates us from the Crimean War and from the Indian Mutiny. And yet it seems to us who were grown up at the time, as if these things had happened only the other day. How vividly do we picture to ourselves the struggles, the perils, the triumphs of Alma and of Inkerman! With what painful distinctness do we recall the horrors and the suspenses of Delhi and Lucknovv and Cawnpore! And can we suppose that S. Paul remembered less distinctly the incidents in his own personal career, so striking, so unique, so fraught with the most acute pain and the intensest ecstasy? Nay, we may be assured that each momentous crisis, each signal event, stood out in his recollection with a sharpness of outline and a fulness of detail, which would shame the average memory of the average man. For he was after all the same Paul, who had hounded oh the savage executioners to the stoning of Stephen; the same Paul who ‘breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of theLord;’ the same Paul who (it is his own metaphor) had harried and devastated the Church of God. His step is not quite so elastic; his face is not quite so free from furrows; his spirits are not quite so buoyant. But there is the same fire, the same zeal, the same intensity of passion and of action now as then.

The same, and yet how changed! ‘The love of Christ constraineth me.’ The love of Christ! What did he know then of the love of Christ? Had he not loathed and execrated the very name of Christ, hated it with all the hatred of which his intense nature was capable ?’ I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me.’ ‘All things through Christ’? Nay, surely, ‘in spite of Christ, against Christ.’ Had he not ‘thought that’ he ‘ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth’? And he had acted upon this conviction with a persecuting energy which has rarely been surpassed before or after. But now—he was changed, shall we say? Nay rather, let us use his own language; he was ‘born again,’ he was ‘created anew,’ he was called into being from not being. Hitherto he was not, and now he is. In Jesus Christ he is a new creature, a new creation. In Jesus Christ old things have passed away—for ever away. All things, yes, all things have become new. In Jesus Christ the prophetic anticipation is already realised. There is a new heaven overhead; there is a new earth beneath his feet. All things human and divine are changed to him now. The objects, on which his eye rests, though still the same, are not the same. They are invested with a new power and meaning. The external world has undergone a change corresponding to the inward man. His thoughts are new; his associations are new; his hopes and aspirations are new; his motive is new.

Yes, his motive is new. This is the grand central fact, the prime secret of the change. There is a new mainspring to the machinery of his moral and spiritual being. Hitherto he had acted from various considerations and impulses. He had been influenced by self-assertion or self-indulgence; he had been led by party spirit; he had been the slave of convention or of habit; he had been impelled by a desire of popularity or of fame; he had been stimulated by rivalry; he had been driven forward by fear, or held back by shame; he had been moved by higher motives than these, though not by the highest, by a spirit of patriotism, by a fire of orthodoxy, by an enthusiasm of religion, a zeal of God, though not according to knowledge. But now all these lower motives were neutralised, were crushed, were transformed, were absorbed, were glorified, in the one transcendent, overwhelming, all-pervading thought of the constraining love of Christ .

The love of Christ. The Apostle does not mean, as at a first glance we might suppose, his own affection for Christ, his own devotion to Christ. This affection, this devotion, was indeed a constraining power. But it was only second in the chain of causes and consequences. It was not the source and origin of his energy. The source must be sought farther back than this. The source must be sought outside himself. The source must be found in God, not in man. Not his love for Christ, but Christ’s love for him, for others, for all mankind, for a world steeped in ignorance and sin and misery—this was the prime cause of all his moral activity, the paramount motive which started and directed all the energies of this most magnificent of all magnificent lives. His own love for Christ was only the response, only the sequel—as he himself would have confessed, the necessary, the inevitable sequel—to Christ’s love for him once impressed upon his being. Christ first loved him, and he (how could he help himself?) was fain to love Christ. It was not he, Paul, that lived any longer; it was Christ that lived in him. It was not he, Paul, that planned, that felt, that toiled, that suffered for Christ, that traversed the world with his life in his hand for Christ, that was instant in season and out of season for Christ, that died daily for Christ; but it was Christ’s own love, fermenting like leaven in his inmost being, stirring and animating his sluggishness. This unspeakable love rises up before him, as the one great fact, which will not be thrust aside, the one clear voice which will not be silenced. It haunts him sleeping and waking. It occupies the whole background of his thoughts. Forget it? How can he forget it? Others may forget, but he can never forget.

For what had this love of Christ been to him, Paul, individually? Could he forget that he had been the chief of sinners, because the chief of rebels; that his ingratitude had far exceeded the ingratitude of that excited Jewish mob, of that flippant Roman soldiery, because he had persecuted intelligently, deliberately, persistently; giving his whole mind, as well as his whole heart, to the work? And yet Christ singled out him of all men; rebuked him, caressed him, subdued him, won him; held him up to an astonished world as a signal token of God’s long-suffering and mercy. Can we wonder that in his own emphatic language it ‘constrained’ him, that is, held him tight in its grip; that it bound him hand and foot; carried him whither it would and stayed him when it would; that it fettered all his movements and forced all his actions? Aye, he was more than a conqueror through Christ, but he was less than a captive through Christ. He was Christ’s freedman, but he was Christ’s very slave also. It was this love of Christ, this stern, imperious, relentless master, which dragged him from city to city; which exposed him to heat and cold, to famine and nakedness, to perils on all sides; which drove him to prison and to death.

Read it all.