Guest sermon by Dr. William Ellery Channing
We are immediately struck with this peculiarity in the Author of Christianity: that while all other men are formed in a measure by the spirit of the age, we can discover in Jesus no impression of the period in which he lived.
We know with considerable accuracy the state of society, the modes of thinking, the hopes and expectations of the country in which Jesus was born and grew up; and he is as free from them, and as exalted above them, as if he had lived in another world, or, with every sense closed to the objects around him.
His character has in it nothing local or temporary. It can be explained by nothing around him. His history shows him to us a solitary being, living for purposes which none but himself comprehended, and enjoying not so much as the sympathy of a single mind.
His apostles, his chosen companions, brought to him the spirit of the age; and nothing shows its strength more strikingly, than the slowness with which it yielded in these honest men to the instructions of Jesus.
Jesus came to a nation expecting a Messiah; and he claimed this character. But instead of conforming to the opinions which prevailed in regard to the Messiah, he resisted them completely and without reserve to a people anticipating a triumphant leader, under whom vengeance as well as ambition was to be glutted by the prostration of their oppressors, he came as a spiritual leader, teaching humility and peace.
This hostility to the hopes and prejudices of his nation; this deliberate exposure of himself to rejection and hatred, cannot easily be explained by the common principles of human nature, and excludes the possibility of selfish aims in the Author of Christianity.
One striking peculiarity in Jesus is the extent and the vastness of his views. While all around him looked for a Messiah to liberate God's ancient people, while to every other Jew, Judea was the exclusive object of pride and hope, Jesus came, declaring himself to be the deliverer and light of the world, and in his whole teaching and life, you see a consciousness – which never forsakes him – of a relation to the whole human race. This idea of blessing mankind, of spreading a universal religion, was the most magnificent which had ever entered man's mind.
Compare next these views of Jesus with his station in life. He was of humble birth and education, with nothing in his lot, with no extensive means, no rank, or wealth, or patronage, to infuse vast thoughts and extravagant plans.
The shop of a carpenter, the village of Nazareth, were not spots for ripening a plan more aspiring and extensive than had ever been formed. It is a principle of human nature, that except in case of insanity, some proportion is observed between the power of an individual, and his plans and hopes. The purpose to which Jesus devoted himself was as ill-suited to his condition as an attempt to change the seasons, or to make the sun rise in the west.
That a young man, in obscure life, belonging to an oppressed nation, should seriously think of subverting the time-hallowed and deep-rooted religions of the world, is a strange fact; but with this purpose we see the mind of Jesus thoroughly imbued; and, sublime as it is, he never falls below it in his language or conduct, but speaks and acts with a consciousness of superiority, with a dignity and authority, becoming this unparalleled destination.
The most striking trait in Jesus was, undoubtedly, benevolence; and although this virtue had existed before, yet it had not been manifested in the same form and extent. Jesus' benevolence was distinguished first by its expansiveness. At that age, an unconfined philanthropy, proposing and toiling to do good without distinction of country or rank, was unknown.
Love to men as men, love, comprehending the hated Samaritan and the despised publican, was a feature which separated Jesus from the best men of his nation and of the world. Another characteristic of the benevolence of Jesus was its gentleness and tenderness, forming a strong contrast with the hardness and ferocity of the spirit and manners which then prevailed, and with that sternness and inflexibility which the purest philosophy of Greece and Rome inculcated as the perfection of virtue.
The character of Jesus, then, was real. Its reality is the only explanation of the mighty revolution produced by his religion. And how can we account for it, but by that cause to which he always referred it, a mission from the Father.
- Written by Dr. William Ellery Channing, 1826, adapted from "Discourses on the Evidences of Revealed Religion" in Tracts of the American Unitarian Association, Vol. 1, 1827.