Mr. Johns is the first colored preacher to appear in Best Sermons, and it is both an honor and a joy to bid him welcome, alike for his race and his genius. Born in Virginia in 1892, educated at Union University, Oberlin College, and Virginia Seminary, with later studies in the University of Chicago, he was ordained to the Baptist ministry in 1918. After teaching homiletics and New Testament interpretation in the Virginia Theological Seminary for one year, in 1920 he became pastor of the Court Street Church of Lynchburg—one of the old colored Churches of the South, organized many years before the Civil War.
Aside from his labor as minister of a great church, Mr. Johns finds time to preach and lecture in many colleges and at various religious and educational conferences. The following sermon, as rich in thought as it is noble in form, makes one look forward to his forthcoming book, entitled Human Possibilities. The sermon lifts us into a higher air, above the fogs of passion and prejudice, where the ages answer, antiphonally, telling us of the brotherhood of man in the life of God in Christ.
Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Matthew 17:4.
Peter, James and John, who had already gone with the Master to the death bed in the house of Jairus, and would very soon come closer to his agony in Gethsemane than the other disciples, were now with him in “a place apart,” somewhere on the slopes of Hermon. Strange things were happening there: things difficult for people to believe until they have felt the unfathomed mystery of life, and learned that “there are more things in heaven and earth than we have dreamed of in our philosophy.” As the Divine man prayed that night, on the snow-capped mountain, with the weight of humanity’s sin and humanity’s hope upon his heart, his disciples beheld his body suddenly overcast with an unfamiliar luster. His pure soul had overflowed and clothed his figure with a wonderful radiance. His face shone as the sun, and his garments became glistening white such “as no fuller on earth could white them”: the glory of Jesus, already attested by a few fine and sensitive souls, was now apparent to the very eyes of men. And Moses and Elijah, venerable pioneers of law and prophecy, had come through the intervening mystery which separates the living from the dead, and were talking with Jesus, within sight and hearing of the disciples. Then a voice broke forth from a luminous cloud: “This is my beloved son: hear ye him!”
Any one acquainted with Simon Peter will not be surprised if he speaks now. He is the type of man who can be depended on to say what others must need think and feel, but dare not utter. He was a valuable man to Jesus: a Rock, Foundation Man, for this very reason that he revealed his thoughts and made it possible for Jesus to give them direction. Bishop McConnell says that Peter asked many foolish questions, but those questions brought from Jesus very wise answers. It would be difficult for us to sojourn with Simon and dodge sensitive questions: covering up grave issues that so nearly concern us, and trying to hide them from ourselves as though they did not exist. The blundering genius for expression, which was the virtue of Simon Peter, would save us from the folly of applying ostrich wisdom to vital problems. If we had the courage to talk frankly concerning our problems, there would be less occasion to fight about them. In grave moral and social situations where the spokesmen of Jesus, so called, keep dependably mute, Simon Peter would certainly have something to say or at least ask some embarrassing questions. Peter was a true disciple of the one who came to earth “That thoughts out of many hearts might be revealed.”
So on the Mount of Transfiguration, while experience was rife, James reflected deeply, John thrilled with awe, and Peter spoke! Peter felt the tides running high in his soul: and he said so; “Lord it is good for us to be here.” When Peter has a weighty idea or a generous impulse, it is likely to get expression. No matter what celebrities are present, no matter how delicate the situation, no matter if he breaks down short of the goal which he sets for himself: at least his Master may count on him to give honest expression to the best that he knows and feels. This is the man whom Jesus commissions to feed his sheep and lambs. This is the foundation man, on whose God-inspired utterance the Kingdom will be built against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. One of the biographers of Jesus felt it necessary to apologize for Peter’s speech during the Transfiguration. “He knew not what to say, for he was sore afraid.” There are always disciples, more cautious, but less valuable than Peter, who guard their words very zealously in tense situations, and for fear that they may say something indiscreet will almost certainly be silent. They talk most when there is but little need to say anything, and the topic of their conversation is not likely to be material which will spread fire in the earth or set a father against his son, or make a man’s enemies those of his own household. There are things “that Babbitt will not talk about.” No apology was really needed for what Peter said. Who can doubt that it was good to be there, high upon Hermon, in those Transfigured Moments! The experience was so rich and lasting that it went to record, many years later, in three of the Gospels and one New Testament epistle: and the glory which shone that night, in “a mountain place apart,” lingers after two thousand years on every continent and over every sea.
It is good to be the possessor of some mountain-top experience. Not to know life on the heights, is to suffer an impoverishing incompleteness. To be sure, there is better opportunity for practical pursuits in the valley regions, and life is easier and safer there: but views are possible from the mountain top which are not to be had in the vale. A missionary in the Balkans once took a small boy, who lived at the base of a mountain, on a journey up its side. When they gained the summit, the little climber looked this way and that, and then said with astonishment: “My! What a wonderful world! I never dreamed it was so large.” Horizons broaden when we stand on the heights. There is always the danger that we will make of life too much of a dead-level existence: that we will make of life a slavish following of the water courses; a monotonous tread of beaten paths; a matter of absorbing, spiritless, deadening routine. There is the danger that we will drop our lives into the passing current to be kept steadily going, we hardly know where or why. Crowded in the throngs that traverse the common ways, we proceed through life with much motion and little vision. The late President Wilson, in a wonderful essay, speaks of the man who allows his duties to rise about him like a flood. Such a man goes on through the years “swimming with sturdy stroke, his eyes level with the surface, never seeing any clouds or any passing ships.” We can pay such regular tribute to Motion that all valid sense of Direction is lost; so that all our hurrying activities may prove but the rush to ruin. In view of this, it is good for us, occasionally at least, to clamber up from the levels of our set habits of thought, our artificial actions and our settled prejudices to some loftier plane, which affords a more commanding view than we have from the crowded thoroughfares, the low familiar ways. From some mountain eminence let us have occasionally a quiet look upon life, to reflect what it means and whither it is carrying us. The luminaries of humanity were familiar with elevated ground. Moses, Elijah, Mohammed and Jesus all had mountain traditions. It is said by a well-known Old Testament interpreter that the religious history of the Hebrew people is inseparable from the topography of their country. The mountains round about Jerusalem are tied up with the vision of God and the vision of life, which Israel gave to mankind.
Who of all the contemporaries of Jesus, busy in market place, fields and thoroughfares, dreamed that the next great strides of history would take their direction from the vision of one who was praying in the midst of three unheralded fishermen, far above sea level and the level of life! So it was. So may it ever be. How many people in high and lofty moments, when they have taken the time and pains to climb above the dingy, foggy levels of incorporated thinking and living, have struck out for themselves and others new and better courses! “I thought on my ways, and I turned my feet.…” “I will turn aside and see.…” “When he came to himself he said…” “And he taketh them up into an exceeding high mountain.” These passages belong to the experience of epoch makers. On the heights is the location for moral discovery. It is a slower process and requires stouter gear to do the mountain roads than to run along the shining speedways of the valley. But woe to the world when there are no visitors on the heights!
It is good to be present when the ordinary is transformed; when the dull plain garments of a peasant become shining white, and the obscure “mountain place, apart,” comes into the gaze of centuries. It is good to see the commonplace illumined and the glory of the common people revealed. On the Mount of Transfiguration there is no representative of wealth, social rank or official position. The place could boast in the way of population only four poor men, members of a despised race, and of the remnant of a subjected and broken nation. But it is here, instead of Jerusalem or Rome, that the voice of God is heard. It is here, instead of Mount Moriah, where the mighty temple stands, that the cloud of glory hovers. Out there where a carpenter and three fishermen kept vigil with the promise of a new day, God is a Living Reality and life is charged with meaning and radiance. Out there in a deserted place, the meek and lowly is enhaloed.
There is no recounting the instances where the things that are excellent have blossomed in unexpected places. “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might He increaseth strength.” A man who is not prophet, neither a prophet’s son, is called by the Lord from following the sheep, to prophesy to the House of Israel. In the heyday of Egyptian civilization, God visits the wilderness of Midian and commissions a shepherd for the most significant work of the age. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judæa, and Herod tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene; in the highpriesthood of Annas and Caiphas, the word of the Lord came to John the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.” “Who is this man that is answering Douglass in your state?” wrote a prominent statesman of the East, to the editor of a Chicago paper, concerning the unheralded Lincoln. “Do you realize that his knowledge of the most important question before the American people is complete and profound; that his logic is unanswerable and his style inimitable?” It is the illumination of the commonplace, the transfiguring of the ordinary, the glistening radiance of a peasant’s seamless robe!
There are two ways in which this transfiguring of the ordinary is specially needed. The lowly ones of earth need to experience this transformation. The great majority of our lives must be lived apart from any elaborate or jeweled settings; must plod along without any spectacular achievements. We ordinary people, then, must learn how to set the scraggy bushes of the wilderness ablaze with glory and make the paths that we tread, under the pressure of duty, like Holy ground! In the humblest routine, we must discover our task as a part of the transforming enterprise of the Heavenly Father. The laborer that toils on a country road must know himself as the builder of a highway to a Christian civilization. The cobbler may be a mere cobbler, or he may transform his occupation and be a foundation man in the Kingdom of Christ. Make tents if we must, but we will illumine the old task with a radiant new heart, and, with our tent making, make a shining new earth. If toil be confined to the same old fields, keep a land of promise shining in the distance and call down angels to sing until the drab turns golden. “My garden is very small,” said an old German, “but it’s wondrous high.” Let us light up the commonplace and make the ordinary radiant. Let us make seamless peasant garments shine like the sun.
Again, those who think themselves the favored ones of earth need a transforming vision of life among the lowly. There is no warrant in the theory and practice of Jesus for dull and frigid doctrines of “lesser breeds without the law.” If the life of Jesus means anything, it means implicit faith in the universal capacity of man for the highest character and worth. To this end, the doors to the kingdom of the Best are to be thrown open to all the points of the compass that men may “come from the North and the South, the East and the West to sit down with Abraham and Isaac, in the Kingdom of God.” A low theory, a despicable view of a given group must usually be thrown ahead like a barrage before we can follow with the outrage and mistreatment of that group. We make them hydra-headed in theory so that we may be inhuman in our practices toward them. The validity of such judgment crops out unawares at times, as when masters avow their slaves’ inability to learn and at the same time penalize them if caught with a book. Humanity that has climbed to places of social and economic authority must learn how to trace the rainbow tint over the life of the lowly, and to interpret the swelling and ferment at the bottom of society as a healthy and beautiful essay of one’s fellow men in the direction of fuller life. It is a heart strangely unchristlike that cannot thrill with Joy when the least of the children of men begin to pull in the direction of the stars.
It is good to be in the presence of persons who can kindle us for fine, heroic living. The population on the Mount of Transfiguration was very small, but it was tremendously significant. Jesus, Moses and Elijah! In the presence of personality like this, men can kindle their torches and go forth in life as bearers of light and heat. Humanity needs the contagion of lofty spirits. Humanity needs contact with persons who are aglow with the good life. All too frequently our righteousness is sufficiently meager to go to waste: it is not vital enough to communicate itself. Mr. Roosevelt’s criticism of his Progressive party was that it meant well, but meant it feebly. That is often the trouble with our righteousness. It lacks intensity. It does not make itself felt. We are trying to grind great mills with a quart of water; we would set great masses of cold and slimy material aglow with a wet match. We have our hands full of halfway measures. We scrap a part of our navies. We enthrone Justice in places where there is no serious objection to it. We practice brotherhood within carefully restricted areas. We forgive other people’s enemies. We carry a Bible but not a cross. Instead of the Second Mile, we go a few yards of the first and then wonder that Christian goals are not realized. “O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” When we lift ourselves, at last, from the ruin and entanglements of our diluted and piecemeal righteousness, it will be under the leadership of persons for whom righteousness was a consuming and holy fire, instead of a mere luke-warm and foggy something. It is such leadership, such righteous dynamics as this that we find in the presence of Jesus and Moses and Elijah. “We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. And of his fulness we have all received.” You can kindle at a flame like that! It is the full receptacle that overflows, spreading its content to neighboring borders. It is a flame vital enough not to be extinguished by a slight jostle at which men can kindle. “I have come to set a fire in the earth.”
We need power for renunciation. In the service of social progress, justice and brotherhood there are views and possessions of which one must have power to let go. Nothing short of Power will work the transformation. But we are apt to hang on to our self-love, our vantage points, our place with the strong, our purpose of self-advancement. And we get no strength for the demands laid on us from the weaklings on our level. But here on the mountain top is personality in which the power of renunciation rises to white heat! “By faith, Moses when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasure of Egypt.” When this ancient Hero exchanged a princely existence at court for exile in Midian, and defied the oppressor in the interest of the oppressed, he lighted a flame at which humanity through thousands of years has kindled power for heroic renunciation. It is good to sit in the presence of Moses if one is to live the life of heroic self-denial.
And there is a power on the Mount of Transfiguration which kindles tongues and sends them forth in evil times for the service of justice. Ahab the king has lifted his bloody hand against a weak subject. He has killed Naboth and taken his patch of land to fill out a nook in one of the royal estates. It is a dastardly act, but Naboth is weak and Ahab mighty, so the voices of justice are not heard. Tyranny broods restfully over the face of the nation. Murder and robbery issue from the very seat of law; and all is well. Thank God, here comes a loud, clear note of discord in the evil harmony! Ahab has gone down to his ill-gotten vineyard and Elijah meets him there. No one can stand with Elijah in that garden without feeling the thrill of manhood: it is a fine place to kindle holy courage. Mighty is Ahab in Israel, but mighty also is Elijah in the service of truth. The Tisbite, in his camel’s hair, rubs against the purple of a king mighty in war and peace. He does not wait for royal permission. One listening to that conversation, without seeing the participants, would have mistaken peasant for king and king for peasant. “Hast thou killed and also taken possession?” “Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?” “And Elijah answered, I have found thee; and thus saith the Lord, in the spot where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, shall dogs lick thy blood.” The courage of Elijah is a glowing flame at which humanity has kindled power to shake the foundations of a thousand despotisms! And how Jesus could kindle people for courageous, loving and lofty living! Here is Zacchæus hovering at zero! His malady is not emotional, passionate weakness, but cold-blooded guile. He is a professional trader in the political misfortunes of his own nation. His business is to sell the helplessness of his own race to the Roman overlord, and he has made the business pay. With Zacchæus, “business is business.” The trouble with Zacchæus is, that he has never been shown a pattern of Selflessness as large as his own selfishness. There have been little sputters of righteousness here and there, but nothing dramatic in that line. Zacchæus feels some serious lack in connection with his own life and method, but he has never seen character the opposite of his own that was sufficiently large or radiant to be attractive. In the flaming proximity of Jesus the lost son of Israel finds himself. His frigidity thaws up: a new-found sense of justice and generosity blazes out: “Half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have wronged any man by false accusation, I will restore unto him fourfold.” At the flaming soul of Jesus, the frigid soul of Zacchæus is set aglow.
Here is a woman who is the victim of a great primal emotion. Her name has dishonorable associations; her self-respect is buried deep beneath the ashes of excess. Each day finds her more shameless and deeper lost; each person passing throws a few more ashes upon the tiny spark of virtue left amid the embers. A lustful suggestion from this man, a contemptuous look from that woman, and the dim lingering vision of something wholesome and pure fades rapidly toward extinction. But Jesus comes along! In the atmosphere about him every slumbering impulse of love and purity begins to quicken. He discovers the faint spark in the ashes and embers and warms it to life. He is so pure himself that this poor woman, sunk to the depths, feels the contagion of his character pulling her toward the stars. A touch of shame mounts the throne in her cheek where a calloused indifference had sat: it turns to penitence and then to hope. “Can I become a worthy person in spite of all that is?” her heart is asking the Master. And the Master, who understands the language of hearts and listens for it, answers: “Verily, I say unto you, wherever this gospel is preached in all the earth, your name and character shall attend it like the fragrance of precious ointment.” Again, the strength of a Personality, radiant with truth and love, had lifted a life from shame to sainthood.
Jesus kindled the consciousness of human brotherhood in the most self-conscious and provincial of all races. His character was so dramatically free from all class and national and racial hatreds and prejudices that no follower could long mistake him. To mistake him would have been to cease following! “There is no difference between Jew and Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free, but all are one in Christ Jesus.” “I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation they that fear God and work righteousness are acceptable with him.” “Out of one blood hath God created all nations to dwell upon the face of the earth.” This is the language of men who had kindled their lives at the feet of Jesus for the wise and noble adventure in human brotherhood.
It is good to be present when the great, distant peaks of history join hands to point the way of life: when seers, standing in different ages and places, one on Sinai another on Carmel and another on Olivet come together to speak to us out of the wisdom of the ages concerning the way and the meaning of life. All this is the privilege of those who frequent the heights! Up there we can read history with our eyes instead of our prejudices. Up there we do not hear the clamor of time-servers and self-servers: and as we look down from the heights, it is too far to descry the hue of faces or the peculiarity of skulls, all we can see is the forms of men, toiling or contending in the valleys: swayed by the same hopes and fears, the same joys and sorrows. The whole creation groaning in travail and pain together and waiting for deliverance; one in need, one in destiny. “If drunk with sight of Power” we incline to boastings and vauntings, the seers on the heights say to us out of the wealth of the ages: “Not by might; not by power; but by My Spirit saith the Lord.” And they have wide inductions from the débris of many civilizations as warrant for the utterance. On the heights, too, there is hope for the world! Too often, history strikes us as a medley of blind and futile ramblings. “A tale told by an idiot amid great sound and fury, signifying nothing.” “The drift of the Maker is dark.”
Into this Universe and why not knowing;
Nor whence, like water willy-nilly flowing
And out of it, like wind along the waste
I go, I know not whither! willy-nilly blowing.
But on the mountain top, perspective is possible; above the confusion of the plains, the visitant beholds Moses in one age, Elijah in another, Jesus, Luther and Lincoln, each in another; all joining hands across the Ages and moving humanity in the direction of that “one far off, divine event to which the whole creation moves.” “It is good for us to be here.”