Bishop Stires is a Virginian, born in Norfolk in 1866; educated at the University of Virginia and in the Episcopal Theological Seminary of Virginia. Ordained to the priesthood in 1892, he began his ministry at West Point in his native State. After a short ministry in the Church of the Good Shepherd, Augusta, Georgia, he was called to Grace Church in Chicago; and thence to St. Thomas’s Church, New York City, in 1901.
After twenty-five years of fruitful and constructive labor, Dr. Stires was consecrated to the Episcopate in 1925, leaving as a monument of his ministry a stately and noble edifice; the old Church having been burned and the new one built during his rectorship. A tireless worker in many interests, civic, educational and philanthropic, as well as ecclesiastical, Dr. Stires made for himself a unique place in New York City, alike by his personal charm and his leadership of faith.
The sermon following was preached on Easter—a day not for arguments, but for anthems—and it states in a brief and vivid manner the basis of faith in the future life; finding the foundation of that august assurance in the nature of God and the personality of man.
Because I live, ye shall live also. John 14:19.
There is a certain kind of Easter joy which all the world feels but which is largely confined to this one day and is of no permanent value because it is not rooted in understanding. The day is of little significance unless it celebrates an event which brightens all the future, and gives to mankind a convincing and inspiring explanation of the whole purpose of human life.
If our joy is to be intelligent, let us give reasons for believing in the immortality of the human soul. There is but one way to begin, and that is with God. The evidence of a supreme power and intelligence is compelling. The proof of His goodness we find in ourselves, in that high faculty which we call conscience, and in the results which follow obedience to that voice. But beyond power and wisdom and goodness we must ascribe to God personality. Not a limited personality like ours, but unlimited and infinite—yet personality. And the reasoning is simple; human personality is the most wonderful thing known to us in all the universe; it alone inspires our love, our admiration, our imitation, and sometimes the sacrifice of our life. It is a creative force, using the earth as so much raw material to be fashioned into myriad forms of service and beauty. It emerges from the darkness of animalism, a thing of light and loveliness, woven of invisible forces, a revelation and a prophecy. Can man fail to see in human personality the creative power of the Creator? Has the Creator produced something more wonderful than Himself? If not, then God possesses personality—though in infinite degree. Nay, it is from the personal God, Father of all, that the personality of man is derived—since the source of morality must be moral and the light of the mind must be an Eternal Mind.
Whatever theory of evolution you may find more convincing, most men will agree upon this—that the human being is the highest attainment of creation; that since man’s arrival upon this planet nearly all development has been in the quality of his personality. A Father has been training and encouraging His children, not merely “to make the desert blossom as the rose,” and not merely that they may produce better children and attempt nobler tasks, but all the while He has planted in them the belief, the instinct, that this life is not the end. Indeed, as the intelligence of His children has increased, as they have been able better to understand Him, they have come to realize that no other conclusion is worthy of their faith in God, that there is no other solution of the problems of human life.
We are the Creator’s children, endowed with something of His creative power; under His care we have become personalities with great possibilities here, and greater, by far, elsewhere. No one can measure the meaning of the human soul, deathless as God its Father is deathless. We have something of His nature, and we cannot be destroyed. It is not essential that we know the details of our future life, it will be worthy of Him and therefore more wonderful than man can think. This foundation for our faith could in a little while be made tenfold stronger by continuing our study of God’s messages in nature’s book.
Now turn to God’s messages in another book. If we considered in those great writings of the Old Testament only the prophets, what should we discover? That their mighty declarations were not only the expression of the highest wisdom for the guidance of men and nations in their times, but they were like men speaking more wisely than they knew, setting forth principles eternally true, and applying them to conditions ever-recurring as history repeats itself. And we find something else in these prophets—the promise of a “fullness of time” in which there would be a more intimate revelation of God to His children. It is not strange that they could not fully understand what the nature and the rule of this anointed one, the Messiah, would be, for it was to be unique in human experience. But to increase their expectation, to kindle their interest, and to guard against their failure to know Him when He came, the prophets were enabled to foretell all the essential facts of His life and His work, and to add details which however small they may at first have seemed were afterward found to be profoundly significant. A king once asked his wisest counselor what he considered the most convincing proof of the deity of Christ and the statesman replied, “The Hebrew prophets, your majesty.” The life of our Lord as set forth in the Gospels not only fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies but added a new depth and dimension to their vision.
Human history is the story of the development of human personality; the only new element in that development is Christ. He was new, and yet His personality attracted men as though they had long waited for Him. His teaching if not new in the letter was completely new in spirit and practice, and yet men accepted it as the only answer for their innate beliefs and hopes. It was as though human personality had been developed to the point of intelligent need of Him, and as though His coming was God’s answer to that need—a Divine Amen to human aspiration and a prophecy of its fulfillment in personalities created and consecrated by Him.
We are hearing on all sides today, and in quarters where we never heard it before, that the teaching and example of Christ is the world’s most precious possession, the only hope for quieting and uniting mankind into a true human brotherhood. But that teaching and example would be unknown today but for Christ’s victory over death. Or, if known at all, it would be reckoned the most pitiful and forlorn defeat known among men. What was His influence on the first Good Friday night? When His body was taken down and placed in the tomb, the world was quick to write “failure” upon His cross. Christianity rose with Christ. It is Christ, and lives because He lives in it.
On that first Easter morning there took place an historic event of such power that it changed cowards into heroes, set aside a divinely appointed holy day for a new one, discontinued an ancient sacrament and substituted another in memory of the sacrifice and victory of Christ and in certainty of personal communion with the living Lord. Old things had passed away; all things had become new. This is suggested whenever we date a document. We are living in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred twenty-six; but we should not be starting this era with the birth of Christ as if He had not risen from the dead. We keep an Easter which goes back without a break to the first Easter. We celebrate a sacrament which would never have had a second celebration but for that mighty event which gave it power—making it not a memorial of a dead Christ, but a festival of His living Presence.
If our reasoning has been just and convincing, we should now be prepared for our Lord’s declaration, “Because I live, ye shall live also.” God took man’s mortality upon Him to fit man for immortality; He took man’s weakness for a while to teach man to be strong eternally. That is the one new fact in the development of human personality. Has it been effective? Seek the answer if you please from the most cautious and critical historians; you will find them confessing that the influence of the teaching and example of Christ has done more to control human passions, to inspire human sympathy, to develop the highest type of character, and to increase the sum of human happiness, than the combined efforts of all the statesmen and all the philosophers. The ideals of civilization are the ideals of Christ. However they may be neglected at times, the principles of Christ are and will remain the standards of human conduct and the fair goal toward which the noblest efforts of mankind will be forever directed. The new element of Christ in the development of human personality is the hope of the world.
But the question as to whether it is effective has not been fully answered. If the victories of Christianity could be recounted here they would amaze, overwhelm and convince the last honest doubter. But many are more disposed to point out the failure and weakness of the Church, declaring that its members practice a religion which is conventional and selfish, whereas the religion of Christ is reality and sacrifice and enthusiasm. They assert that the power of materialism today is the result of the failure of Christians to follow the teachings and the example of Christ at this critical hour in human history when high leadership is so desperately needed, and so sadly lacking. What shall we reply? That the Church is to blame for the general and excessive worldliness may be reasonably denied, but that we are guilty of not showing the spirit of our Lord in our religious life and in our secular contacts ought to be promptly admitted. While making this admission let an important limitation of the statement be made: there are in the Christian church today as true saints—men and women—as ever served Christ with sincerity, devotion and utter sacrifice, and their number is not so small as some are disposed to think.
But when that has been said, and we look out upon the vast potential strength of the Church—its members, its wealth and influence—and reflect upon the victories gained by consecrated little groups in the early days, we are ashamed, and not the less ashamed because we know the secret of our failure. We are following a cult instead of a Person, a philosophy instead of a fellowship. There is no permanent vitality in Christianity apart from the living Christ. He gave the warning, “I am the vine, ye are the branches; apart from Me ye can do nothing.” When they who believe in Christianity are ready to pledge their personal allegiance to a personal and present Christ, in that moment they pass from death unto life; they begin at once their true immortality; for them human life shines in the radiance of the light eternal; there is an immediate change of emphasis and value—the former luxurious necessity is forgotten, the former unnoticed detail becomes all-important; people become more interesting, more lovable, and the heart is full of faith in them and the desire to serve them. Our daily life is “Christed,” to use the great phrase of Bushnell, and foretells its own immortal future.
Living people can be raised from the dead—that is the continuing and confirming miracle of Christian history. That is how the Christian church became a vital force in the world, and that is how the Church can once again advance like a mighty, victorious army. But only under a personal, living Leader. When the human person accepts gratefully the eternal relationship with the divine Person all high achievements are possible. In that conscious and loyal bond are developed strength, wisdom, courage and noble desire. In that new loyalty mankind will become brothers; parents will love their children with a wisdom which wins respect; women—to whom God has given personality which can never entirely conceal its unique beauty and power—will lift themselves from the dust of common things and once again lead men in every noble path; men will attain to a new measure of manhood—“fine, eternal fellows”; and boys and girls will see a light and love in human faces answering the hope of every child’s heart.
Why not today? Oh, for the courage to win the eternal victory now; to rise from the deadly, clinging things of the jungle into the clear light of God; to see the far eternal hills of the greater world; to hear the “well-done” of dear ones and heroic souls; and to turn at last to our God-given tasks of earth with the true ambition of an immortal soul!