Bishop Hughes is a West Virginian, a son of the parsonage, born in 1866; educated at Ohio Wesleyan and Boston Universities; and ordained to the Methodist ministry in 1892. After two pastorates in New England, he became President of De Pauw University in 1903. As an educator he exercised an influence far beyond his own University, as a member of the Indiana State Board of Education, and as President of the State Teachers’ Association. Five years later he was elected Bishop, and now presides over the metropolitan area of Chicago.
My first contact with Bishop Hughes was through his book, The Teaching of Citizenship, issued in 1909; and the years have brought me nothing better on that vital subject. Later it was a joy to read The Bible and Life; but the book that clings to my memory, and ought to be read as a kind of biography of the present sermon, is A Boy’s Religion—to read which is to know a great preacher who has kept the child-heart, despite the tramp of heavy years; and why he would call us back from our cynical sophistication to the simplicities of the Gospel:
“When Jesus comes to His disciples in their most reverent mood, He sets the child in the midst of them; and when the child comes to us in our most reverent mood he sets Christ in our midst.”
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them. Matthew 18:2.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Matthew 18:20.
You will note that the first of these texts is the acted beginning of the discourse of Christ, while the second is the spoken ending of the same message. He starts by placing a little child “in the midst” of the disciples; He closes by promising that He himself will be “in the midst.” The phrase “in the midst” is precisely the same in each case. Moreover the words of Christ, after He introduces the child, continue without interruption until they climax in the wonderful promise of his own presence.
That promise about Christ’s being in the midst of two or three gathered in his name is not often discussed, though it is often quoted. We have all heard it many scores of times—from lips that have gone back to dust and from voices that have trailed off into the silences. Yet who ever heard a sermon based upon the words? They are frequently used in prayer, in exclamation, in ecstasy. But they have not found their way often into argument or consecutive treatment. Perhaps their very vastness restrains us—much as if we should hesitate to seize a mountain with one slender hand. Yet our hesitancy will be somewhat overcome if we allow the beginning to interpret the ending and so make the discovery that the little child leads us into the presence of Christ.
Some weeks ago a study was made of the holy Gospels with a view of finding the most distinct promise of the Saviour’s presence with his disciples. Many such assurances were found. Indeed they were sprinkled liberally in the blessed records. But mind and heart were finally compelled to settle upon one promise that seemed most comprehensive and definite, this word of Christ, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” One rather rejoices that it is found in Matthew’s Gospel. Had it been found only in John, some scholarly hand might more readily wave it off into symbolism.
In a way it is rather an abrupt word. You wonder why it comes just there, and what relation it bears to the previous speech of Christ. When you go back to the beginning you find Christ with the child; and, as you follow the discourse through, the child appears, and reappears, and reappears again. It makes us think of the way in which our own children pass from the room, only soon to rush back eagerly—keeping up that “in and out” process that is at once so dear and so puzzling. Thus does the child come and go in this discourse of Christ.
It all begins with the question of the greatness of the Kingdom. The answer of Christ is “a little child.” Those of us who are parents must often try to imagine the scene, the child with wondering eyes, now looking on Christ, and now on the disciples, but mostly on Christ, returning for a cure of bashfulness to the face, and perhaps to the arms, of the Lord. Then that anonymous child—with all other children—finds lasting place in the proclamation of the Master. What amazing things He says!
“Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
“Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
“Whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.”
“Whoso shall cause one of these little ones that believe in me to stumble, it were profitable for him that a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea.”
“See that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my father.”
“Even so it is not the will of your father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
These words are the great prelude to the promise of Christ’s presence. He ends it all by saying, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.” It sounds much like a description of a Sunday School class. When we think of it in this light, we catch the vision of hundreds of thousands of faithful men and women in all the world, each sitting “in the midst” of the children. Then in each group we see “the form of the fourth”; and we feel, too, that we have the authority of the Master for giving a special interpretation to his promise.
Citizens of Boston in recent months have engaged in a debate concerning two statues of Phillips Brooks. One statue is a plain representation of the great preacher, standing alone on a vast pedestal. The other statue, designed by St. Gaudens, is located by Trinity Church in Copley Square, where it has stood for a period of years. It presents Phillips Brooks, clad in clerical robes, and standing in his pulpit. Behind him is the figure of Christ, as if indeed the Master had insisted on coming to the sacred desk with his mighty servant. Many artistic critics have preferred the later and simpler statue to the St. Gaudens’ representation, and the discussion has not always been without warmth. But, whatever the final result of the debate, we may well hope that the spiritual meaning of the older statue may not be lost: The man who teaches the truth of Christ can be at his best only in the presence of Christ.
For, after all, in our holy faith there has ever been a strange identification of Christ with the Gospel of Christ. It is not wrong to say that He is his own gospel. The Mohammedan does not say, “I live, yet not I; but Mohammed liveth in me.” Yet millions of Christians say that wonderful speech about their Lord. In a poor plagiarism of our Christian hymns Buddhists have been trying to sing—
Buddha, Lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly.
It is safe to say that this weak copying of our singing faith will not long feel at home with the religion of the Buddhists, while Christians will continue to chant the gospel of a present Lord.
We are warranted, likewise, in saying that his presence is promised in a peculiar way to those who teach His truth. The faith that Christ enters the teaching desk with his own delegated teachers is older than St. Gaudens’ statue of Brooks; and that same faith will outlast all stone and bronze. When Jesus said on the Bethany Hill, “Go and teach all nations,” He said also, “I am with you.” The presence of Christ was to be with the truth of Christ. One of the poets of America has said that he never understood some of Tennyson’s poems until he heard Tennyson himself read them. Then the poet laureate of England transferred the accent of his heart to the rhythm of his lines and made their meaning plain. This word is a feeble parable for our gospel. The presented faith has a present Lord.
But if this blessed article of our Christian creed has meaning for all sincere teaching of the truth of Christ, it must have special meaning when the truth of Christ is brought to its most hopeful and fertile field—that of childhood and youth. When we were little people we often sang a hymn whose first two verses were these—
I think, when I read that sweet story of old,
How, when Jesus was here among men,
He called little children like lambs to his fold,
I should like to have been with Him then.
I wish that his hands had been placed on my head,
That his arms had been thrown about me,
That I might have seen his kind look when He said,
Let the little ones come unto me.
The longing of that hymn is a natural one. If, as we are older, we become more religious, we do not recover from our childhood’s desire. It does not depart; it is simply changed into a more spiritual prayer. There is no need of a journey back over the centuries to Judea. We say with Whittier—
Faith has still its Olivet,
And love its Galilee.
But it is significant that this longing for Christ’s nearer presence brings us into the presence of childhood. Somehow the child leads us into the presence of Christ; and somehow Christ leads us into the presence of the child. The point, then, is that Christ is present in a special sense when eyes of spiritual love are turned toward the child in the midst. Nor is this merely a theory gained by a forced exegesis of the gospels. It is a theory—and an experience.
This is not the time to give the emphasis its wider social application; and it is certainly not the time to make any attack upon the Supreme Court of the United States for its decision with reference to Child Labor laws. But it is a good time to say to all our parties and people that when we shut the child in mill or factory or mine, we also in some real way shut Christ out of our American life. We need not unduly amplify passion with regard to this gentle crusade. Yet let it be said with ardor unrestrained that when the United States secures fully the love and conscience of Christ, any mill-owner or any mill-manager who dares to hire little children in order that by paying them cheap wages he may secure larger dividends for greedy stockholders will be absolutely denied membership in any branch of the Christian Church in America. Speaking industrially Jesus sets the child in our midst, and his word about what happens to those who make the little ones to stumble has its economic bearing.
But the lesson is likewise an individual one. Many of us can get it from our memories. Tom Hood wrote it in his best-known poem:
I remember, I remember, the house where I was born,
The little window where the sun came peeping in at morn.
I remember, I remember, the fir trees dark and high,
I used to think their slender tops were close against the sky.
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heaven
Than when I was a boy.
Somehow when we return to the presence of our own childhood, we seem to return to the presence of Christ. Many of the soldier boys overseas confessed that in the furious danger-times they came back to the prayers of childhood; while one Lieutenant, not a church member or a professing Christian, declared that, as he went over the perilous top, he found himself repeating the hymn,
In the hour of trial,
Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial
I dishonor Thee.
For many of us a journey back to the simple faith of childhood equals a return to the presence of Christ.
In wider life Christmas gives us the like lesson. Ere long the crowds will throng our stores. In our cities there will arise the annual debate as to the necessity of widening streets. Even our Jewish friends will prepare larger stocks of goods—because they well know that tiny hands will open our hearts and make us generous. The Babe of Bethlehem brings us into the presence of every child. For one day we live in a strange and fine spirit of love. It is our lesson, fixed in the customs of those people who become acquainted, even superficially, with our Lord.
Nor does the rule fail on the intellectual side. Dealing with childhood compels us to use “the simplicity that is in Christ.” We are not always fair to the little people. We arrange our church services for adults, and then complain because the children do not come! A Massachusetts clergyman began to preach a seven-minute sermon to children on each Sunday. The brief sermon led him to put away all big vocabularies and all complicated theological formulas—with the result that his older hearers made request that he preach to children all the time! When he did that, he preached to that child-like spirit that is everywhere a mark of the kingdom of Christ.
This brings the matter forward to a question of character. We have all had given to us many tests for judging people. We have been told that a squinted eye means a squint in the moral nature, and we have found that this is not so! We have been told that the person whose eyes wander when he speaks with you, and who does not look into your face steadily and frankly, is fickle in his loyalties; and we have found that this is not so. All of these superficial tests fail. But there is one test that does not fail: When you find any man or any woman, in good and normal health, who does not love children, you will discover in due season that this man and this woman are mean, and selfish, and contemptible! Such persons are far removed from both the spirit and the presence of Christ.
The examples of this reaction, on the good and positive side, are many. The people who have given themselves grandly to the spiritual service of childhood and youth grow beautifully like our Lord. Arnold in England, and Hopkins in America, become as renowned for character as they do for instruction. They who meet with Christ in the presence of the child, and with the child in the presence of Christ, grow in the graces of our faith. We usually find a character like this in each of our colleges—a man who comes down from the mountain of God, not knowing that his face shines—men like Andrew Preston Peabody, at Harvard; Frederick Merrick, of Ohio Wesleyan; and Hillary Gobin, of De Pauw.
And in every town we find men and women who are canonized by all the people, because indeed such teachers, dwelling with the child, dwell also in the presence of Christ. For, after all, we must not forget that when God would redeem our world, He came not through the broken dome of the sky, but rather through the cradle of a little child. Our gospel cannot get on without a Bethlehem. One of its thrones will always be the manger wherein a Jewish mother laid her first-born as the redeeming Son of God.
Some of the more mature experiences of life recover this note for us. Our own children grow tall, and they no longer say their prayers at our knees. Then directly our grandchildren come and their lisping prayers carry us back to the childlike spirit. They end the words—“Now I lay me down to sleep,” with the words of their own fresh and dewy faith. They put to shame our formalities. Soon we find ourselves more consciously in the Saviour’s presence because a child’s hand leads us there; and we have our advance share of the millennium of peace.
A clerical friend was on a Pullman Car a few months ago. He found himself with men who were returning from the races. Their language was shockingly irreverent. Their conversation showed that nearly all of them had been gambling. When the time for retiring came a little boy was made ready for his berth. The tiny fellow stood in the aisle of the sleeper, clad in his wee pajamas. Sometimes we must all think that the night-clothes of the little people are more attractive than their party clothes! Ere he climbed into his bed the child looked doubtfully about, as if he were hesitating. Then he overcame his timidity, knelt at the side of the berth, folded his hands, and began to pray in a childish treble, heard all over the car, “Now I lay me down to sleep.” You will all know that for a time profanity ceased; that all talk of bets won or lost died into silence! The eyes of hardened men grew moist with tears. One rough fellow pointed to the kneeling child and said, “I would like to know what that little chap has that I have lost.” For a few moments those “lewd fellows of the baser sort” found themselves in the presence of Christ because they were in the presence of a child’s heart.
Sometimes we must all think that God gives us three chances at this wonderful interpretation of life. The first is in our own childhood when undoubting eyes are turned toward the Lord. The second is when our own children come to play about our knees, and to pray there, too; and to give us examples of their amazing faith. The third comes when perhaps life is hardening into a fixity, and we are ready to lose the spirit of youth. In mercy God sends our grandchildren that we may hear their simple prayers and find that they are commissioned to guide us once again into the Saviour’s presence.
So we come back to where we started. When Jesus comes to his disciples in their more reverent mood, He sets the child in the midst of them; and when the little child comes to us in our more reverent mood he sets Christ in our midst. It is precisely this double fact that is the hope of our world.