A sermon by John Henry Newman, from volume 6 of Parochial and Plain sermons (on the topic of this sermon, see Douglas Farrow’s Ascension and Ecclesia):
“A little while, and ye shall not see Me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me, because I go to the Father.” John xvi. 16.
Very opposite lessons are drawn in different parts of Scripture from the doctrine of Christ’s leaving the world and returning to His Father; lessons so opposite the one to the other, that at first sight a reader might even find a difficulty in reconciling them together. In an earlier season of His ministry, our Lord intimates that when He was removed, His disciples should sorrow,—that then was to be the special time for humiliation. “Can the children of the Bride-chamber mourn,” He asks, “as long as the Bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.” [Matt. ix. 15.] Yet in the words following the text, spoken by Him when He was going away, He says; “I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” And He says shortly before it, “It is expedient for you that I go away.” And again: “I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth Me no more: but ye see Me.” Thus Christ’s going to the Father is at once a source of sorrow, because it involves His absence; and of joy, because it involves His presence. And out of the doctrine of His resurrection and ascension, spring those Christian paradoxes, often spoken of in Scripture, that we are sorrowing, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, yet possessing all things.
This, indeed, is our state at present; we have lost Christ and we have found Him; we see Him not, yet we discern Him. We embrace His feet, yet He says, “Touch Me not.” How is this? it is thus: we have lost the sensible and conscious perception of Him; we cannot look on Him, hear Him, converse with Him, follow Him from place to place; but we enjoy the spiritual, immaterial, inward, mental, real sight and possession of Him; a possession more real and more present than that which the Apostles had in the days of His flesh, because it is spiritual,because it is invisible. We know that the closer any object of this world comes to us, the less we can contemplate it and comprehend it. Christ has come so close to us in the Christian Church (if I may so speak), that we cannot gaze on Him or discern Him. He enters into us, He claims and takes possession of His purchased inheritance; He does not present Himself to us, but He takes us to Him. He makes us His members. Our faces are, as it were, turned from Him; we see Him not, and know not of His presence, except by faith, because He is over us and within us. And thus we may at the same time lament because we are not conscious of His presence, as the Apostles enjoyed it before His death; and may rejoice because we know we do possess it even more than they, according to the text, “whom having not seen (that is, with the bodily eyes) ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” [1 Pet. i. 8, 9.]
Concerning this great and mysterious gift, the presence of Christ, invisible to sense, apprehended by faith, which seems to be spoken of in the text, and is suggested by this season of the year, I purpose now to say some few words.
Now observe what the promise is, in the text and the verses following—a new era was to commence, or what is called in Scripture “a day of the Lord.” We know how much is said in Scripture about the awfulness and graciousness of a day of the Lord, which seems to be some special time of visitation, grace, judgment, restoration, righteousness, and glory. Much is said concerning days of the Lord in the Old Testament. In the beginning we read of those august days, seven in number, each perfect, perfect all together, in which all things were created, finished, blessed, acknowledged, approved by Almighty God. And all things will end with a day greater still, which will open with the coming of Christ from heaven, and the judgment; this is especially the Day of the Lord, and will introduce an eternity of blessedness in God’s presence for all believers. And another special day predicted and fulfilled, is that long season which precedes and prepares for the day of heaven, viz. the Day of the Christian Church, the Day of the gospel, the Day of grace. This is a day much spoken of in the Prophets, and it is the day of which our Saviour speaks in the passage before us. Observe how solemn, how high a day it is: this is His account of it, “I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; your joy no man taketh from you. And in that Day ye shall ask Me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My Name, He will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My name; ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full … At that Day ye shall ask in my Name, and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you, for the Father Himself loveth you, because ye have loved Me, and have believed that I came out from God. I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world; again I leave the world, and go to the Father.” The Day, then, that dawned upon the Church at the Resurrection, and beamed forth in full splendour at the Ascension, that Day which has no setting, which will be, not ended, but absorbed in Christ’s glorious appearance from heaven to destroy sin and death; that Day in which we now are, is described in these words of Christ as a state of special Divine manifestation, of special introduction into the presence of God. By Christ, says the Apostle, “we have the access by faith into this grace wherein we stand.” He “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” “Your life is hid with Christ in God.” “Our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And our Lord says; “I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him … We will come unto him, and make Our abode with him.” Thus we Christians stand in the courts of God Most High, and, in one sense, see His face; for He who once was on earth, has now departed from this visible scene of things in a mysterious, twofold way, both to His Father and into our hearts, thus making the Creator and His creatures one; according to His own words, “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth Me no more; but ye see Me: because I live, ye shall live also. At that Day ye shall know that I am in the Father, and ye in Me, and I in you.” [Rom. v. 2. Eph. ii. 6. Col. iii. 3. Phil. iii. 20. 2 Cor. iv. 6. Gal. iii. 27. John xiv. 21-23, 18-20.]
Now, in behalf of this mystery, I observe:—
First, that Christ really is with us now, whatever be the mode of it. This He says expressly Himself; “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” He even says, “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.” [Matt. xxviii. 20; xviii. 20.] And in a passage already quoted more than once, “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” Christ’s presence, then, is promised to us still, though He is on the right hand of the Father. You will say, “Yes; He is present as God.” Nay, I answer; more than this, He is the Christ, and the Christ is promised, and Christ is man as well as God. This surely is plain even from the words of the text. He said He was going away. Did He go away as God or as man? “A little while, and ye shall not see Me;” this was on His death. He went away as man, He died as man; if, then, He promises to come again, surely He must mean that He would return as man, in the only sense, that is, in which He could return. As God He is ever present, never was otherwise than present, never went away; when His body died on the Cross and was buried, when His soul departed to the place of spirits, still He was with His disciples in His Divine ubiquity. The separation of soul and body could not touch His impassible everlasting Godhead. When then He says He should go away, and come again and abide for ever, He is speaking, not merely of His omnipresent Divine nature, but of His human nature. As being Christ, He says that He, the Incarnate Mediator, shall be with His Church for ever.
But again: you may be led to explain His declaration thus; “He has come again, but in His Spirit; that is, His Spirit has come instead of Him; and when it is said that He is with us, this only means that His Spirit is with us.” No one, doubtless, can deny this most gracious and consolatory truth, that the Holy Ghost is come; but why has He come? to supply Christ’s absence, or to accomplish His presence? Surely to make Him present. Let us not for a moment suppose that God the Holy Ghost comes in such sense that God the Son remains away. No; He has not so come that Christ does not come, but rather He comes that Christ may come in His coming. Through the Holy Ghost we have communion with Father and Son. “In Christ we are builded together,” says St. Paul, “for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” “Ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you.” “Strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” The Holy Spirit causes, faith welcomes, the indwelling of Christ in the heart. Thus the Spirit does not take the place of Christ in the soul, but secures that place to Christ. St. Paul insists much on this presence of Christ in those who have His Spirit. “Know ye not,” he says, “that your bodies are the members of Christ?” “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one Body … ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” And St. John: “He that hath the Son, hath Life; and he that hath not the Son of God, hath not Life.” And our Lord Himself, “Abide in Me and I in you: I am the Vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in Me, and I in Him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” The Holy Spirit, then, vouchsafes to come to us, that by His coming Christ may come to us, not carnally or visibly, but may enter into us. And thus He is both present and absent; absent in that He has left the earth, present in that He has not left the faithful soul; or, as He says Himself, “The worldseeth Me no more, but ye see Me.” [Eph. ii. 22. 1 Cor. iii. 16. Eph. iii. 17. 1 Cor. vi. 15; xii. 13, 27. 2 Cor. xiii. 5. Col. i. 27. 1 John v. 12. John xv. 4, 5; xiv. 19.]
You will say, How can He be present to the Christian and in the Church, yet not be on earth, but on the right hand of God? I answer, that the Christian Church is made up of faithful souls, and how can any of us say where the soul is, simply and really? The soul indeed acts through the body, and perceives through the body; but where is it? or what has it to do with place? or why should it be a thing incredible that the power of the Spirit should so visit the soul as to open upon it a Divine manifestation, which yet it perceives not, because its present perceptions are only through the body? Who shall limit the power of the gracious Spirit of God? How know we, for instance, but that He makes Christ present with us, by making us present with Christ? As the earth goes round the sun, yet the sun is said to move, so our souls, in fact, may be taken up to Christ, when He is said to come to us. But no need to insist on one mode in which the mystery may be conceived, when ten thousand ways are possible with God, of which we know nothing. Scripture says enough to show us that influences may be exerted upon the soul so marvellous, that we cannot decide whether the soul remains in the body or not, while subjected to them. St. Paul, speaking of himself, says, “Whether in the body, I cannot tell, or whether out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth: … caught up to the third heaven.” And he repeats his statement: “I knew such a man,” meaning himself, “whether in the body I cannot tell, or out of the body I cannot tell, God knoweth: how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” St. Paul was brought into Paradise, yet his body remained where it was; and whether his soul was separated from it, was a question which he could not decide. How can we pretend to decide what the Holy Spirit may or may not do towards faithful souls now, and whether He does not manifest Christ to and in them, by bringing them to Christ? Again; consider Satan’s power in showing our Lord all the kingdoms of the world “ina moment of time;” may not the Almighty Spirit much more do with us, what the evil one did with our Lord? May He not in less than a moment bring our souls into God’s presence, while our bodies are on earth?
And again; while we know so little about our own souls, on the other hand, we are utterly ignorant of the state in which our Blessed Lord exists at present, and the relation of this visible world to Him; or whether it may not be possible for Him, in some mysterious way, to come to us, though He is set down on the right hand of God. Did He not, after His resurrection, come into a room, of which the doors were shut, yet suffer Himself to be handled, to prove that He was not a spirit? Certainly then, though He is clothed in our nature, and is perfect man, yet His glorified body is not confined by those laws under which our mortal bodies lie.
But further; whether it is difficult to conceive or no, Scripture actually gives us at least one instance of His appearing after His ascension, as if to satisfy us that his presence is possible, though it be mysterious. We all know that He has often vouchsafed to appear to His saints in visions. Thus He appeared to St. John, as related in the Book of Revelation; and to St. Paul, when he was at Corinth, at Jerusalem several times, and in the ship.These appearances were not an actual presence of Christ, as we may conjecture, but impressions divinely made, and shadows cast upon the mind. And in the same way we may explain His appearing to St. Stephen. When that blessed Martyr said, “Behold I see the heavens open, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God,” we may suppose he did not see this great sight really, but only had a vision of it. These, I repeat, may be visions; but what shall we say to Christ’s appearance to St. Paul on his conversion, while he was on the way to Damascus? For then the Lord Jesus plainly was seen and heard by him close at hand. “He fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? And he said, Who art Thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest.” [Acts ix. 4, 5.] How was this? We do not know. Can a body be in two places at once? I do not say so; I only say, Here is a mystery. By way of contrast with this real sight of the Lord, we are presently told that to Ananias the Lord appeared “in a vision.” And hence, moreover, when Ananias came to Saul, he said that God had chosen him that he should “see that Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth.” [Acts xxii. 14.] And hence, too, he says himself in his Epistle to the Corinthians, “Am I not an Apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” [1 Cor. ix. 1.] Would he have said this, if he had had but a vision of Him? Had he not many more visions of Him, not one only? And again, after mentioning our Lord’s appearance to St. Peter, the Eleven, and five hundred brethren at once, and St. James, he adds, “last of all, He was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.” [1 Cor. xv. 8.] That is, he speaks of his having been favoured with a sight of Christ in as real, true, and literal a sense, as that in which the other Apostles had seen Him. St. Paul then saw Him, and heard Him speak, who was on the right hand of God. And this literal sight seems to have been, for some unknown reason, necessary for the office of an Apostle; for, in accordance with St. Paul’s words, just now cited, St. Peter says, when an Apostle was to be chosen in the place of Judas, “Of these men which have companied with us … from the baptism of John unto that same day when He was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of His resurrection.” And again, to Cornelius, “Him God raised up the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us.” [Acts i. 21, 22; x. 40, 41.] If St. Paul saw only a vision of Christ, and not Christ “verily and indeed,” in that case he was not a witness of His resurrection. But if he did see Him, it is possible for Christ to be present with us also, as with him.
Once more: it may be said that “St. Paul was conscious of the presence of Christ on his conversion, and that he actually saw the sights and heard the sounds of Paradise, but that we see and hear nothing. We, then, are not in Christ’s presence, else we should be conscious of it.” Now, with a view of meeting this objection, let us turn to the account of His appearances to His disciples after the Resurrection, which are most important, first, as showing that such an unconscious communion with Christ is possible; next, that it is likely to be the sort of communion now granted to us, from the circumstance that in that period of forty days after the Resurrection, He began to be in that relation towards His Church, in which He is still, and probably intended to intimate to us thereby what His presence with us is now.
Now observe what was the nature of His presence in the Church after His Resurrection. It was this, that He came and went as He pleased; that material substances, such as the fastened doors, were no impediments to His coming; and that when He was present His disciples did not, as a matter of course, know Him. St. Mark says He appeared to the two disciples who were going into the country, to Emmaus, “in another form.” St. Luke, who gives the account more at length, says, that while He talked with them their heart burned within them. And it is worth remarking, that the two disciples do not seem to have been conscious of this at the time, but on looking back, they recollected that as having been, which did not strike them while it was. “Did not,” they say, “did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?” But at the time, their hearts seem to have been holden (if we may use the expression) as well as their eyes. They were receiving impressions, but could not realize to themselves that they were receiving them; afterwards, however, they became aware of what had been. Let us observe, too, when it was that their eyes were opened; here we are suddenly introduced to the highest and most solemn Ordinance of the Gospel, for it was when He consecrated and brake the Bread that their eyes were opened. There is evidently a stress laid on this, for presently St. Luke sums up his account of the gracious occurrence with an allusion to it in particular; “They told what things were done in the way, and how He was known of them in breaking of bread.” For so it was ordained, that Christ should not be both seen and known at once; first He was seen, then He was known. Only by faith is He known to be present; He is not recognized by sight. When He opened His disciples’ eyes, He at once vanished. He removed His visible presence, and left but a memorial of Himself. He vanished from sight that He might be present in a sacrament; and in order to connect His visible presence with His presence invisible, He for one instant manifested Himself to their open eyes; manifested Himself, if I may so speak, while He passed from His hiding-place of sight without knowledge, to that of knowledge without sight.
Or again: consider the account of His appearing to St. Mary Magdalene. While she stood at the sepulchre weeping He appeared, but she knew Him not. When He revealed Himself, He did not, indeed, at once vanish away, but He would not let her touch Him; as if, in another way, to show that His presence in His new kingdom was not to be one of sense. The two disciples were not allowed to see Him after recognizing Him, St. Mary Magdalene was not allowed to touch Him. But afterwards, St. Thomas was allowed both to see and touch; he had the full evidence of sense: but observe what our Lord says to him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Faith is better than sight or touch.
Let so much suffice, by way of suggesting thoughts upon this most Solemn and elevating subject. Christ has promised He will be with us to the end,—with us, not only as He is in the unity of the Father and the Son, not in the Omnipresence of the Divine Nature, but personally, as the Christ, as God and man; not present with us locally and sensibly, but still really, in our hearts and to our faith. And it is by the Holy Ghost that this gracious communion is effected. How He effects it we know not; in what precisely it consists we know not. We see Him not; but we are to believe that we possess Him,—that we have been brought under the virtue of His healing hand, of His life-giving breath, of the manna flowing from His lips, and of the blood issuing from His side. And hereafter, on looking back, we shall be conscious that we have been thus favoured. Such is the Day of the Lord in which we find ourselves, as if in fulfilment of the words of the prophet, “The Lord my God shall come, and all the saints with Thee. And it shall come to pass in that Day, that the light shall not be clear, nor dark: but it shall be one day which shall be known to the Lord, not day, nor night: but it shall come to pass, that at evening time it shall be light.” [Zech. xiv. 5-7.] Nay, even before the end comes, Christians, on looking back on years past, will feel, at least in a degree, that Christ has been with them, though they knew it not, only believed it, at the time. They will even recollect then the burning of their hearts. Nay, though they seemed not even to believe any thing at the time, yet afterwards, if they have come to Him in sincerity, they will experience a sort of heavenly fragrance and savour of immortality, when they least expect it, rising upon their minds, as if in token that God has been with them, and investing all that has taken place, which before seemed to them but earthly, with beams of glory. And this is true, in one sense, of all the rites and ordinances of the Church, of all providences that happen to us; that, on looking back on them, though they seemed without meaning at the time, elicited no strong feeling, or were even painful and distasteful, yet if we come to them and submit to them in faith, they are afterwards transfigured, and we feel that it has been good for us to be there; and we have a testimony, as a reward of our obedience, that Christ has fulfilled His promise, and, as He said, is here through the Spirit, though He be with the Father.
May He enable us to make full trial of His bounty, and to obtain a full measure of blessing. “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her and that right early … Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” [Ps. xlvi. 4, 5, 10, 11.]