Jesus says his words shall never pass away. Yet at first sight nothing seems more fleeting than a word. It is an evanescent impulse of the most fickle element. It leaves no track where it went through the air. Yet to this, and this only, did Jesus entrust the truth for the salvation of the world.
He took no pains to perpetuate his thoughts; they were poured forth where occasion found him an audience - by the side of the lake, or a well; in a cottage, or the temple; in a fisher’s boat, or the synagogue of the Jews.
He did not even write his words in a book. With a noble confidence, the result of his abiding faith, he scattered them broadcast on the world, leaving the seed to its own vitality.
Looking at the Word of Jesus, at real Christianity, the pure religion he taught, nothing appears more fixed and certain. Its influence widens as light extends; it deepens as the nations grow wiser. But, looking at the history of what men call Christianity, nothing seems more uncertain and perishable.
In actual Christianity, there seem to have been, ever since the time of its earthly founder, two elements, the one transient, the other permanent. The one is the thought, the folly, the uncertain wisdom, the theological notions, the impiety of man; the other, the eternal truth of God.
Transient things form a great part of what is commonly taught as Religion. An undue place has often been assigned to forms and doctrines, while too little stress has been laid on the divine life of the soul, love to God, and love to man. Religious forms may be useful and beautiful. They are so, whenever they speak to the soul, and answer a want of it.
Anyone who traces the history of what is called Christianity, will see that nothing changes more from age to age than the doctrines taught as Christian, and insisted on as essential to Christianity and personal salvation. What is falsehood in one province passes for truth in another. The heresy of one age is the orthodox belief and “only infallible rule” of the next. Since these notions are so fleeting, why need we accept the commandment of men, as the doctrine of God?
Doubtless the time will come when men shall see Christ Jesus also as he is. Well might he still say: “Have I been so long with you, and yet hast thou not known me?” No! we have made him an idol, have bowed the knee before him, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews;” called him “Lord, Lord!” but done not the things which he said. Truth will triumph at the last, and then we shall see the Son of God as he is. Then will men understand the Word of Jesus, which shall not pass away.
Measure him by the best of men, how little and low they appear. Exalt him as much as we may, we shall yet, perhaps, come short of the mark. But still, was he not our brother; the son of man, like ourselves? His excellence, was it not human excellence? His wisdom, love, piety - sweet and celestial as they were - are they not what we also may attain?
But if, as some early Christians began to do, you take a heathen view, and make him a God, the Son of God in a peculiar and exclusive sense - much of the significance of his character is gone. His virtue has no merit; his love no feeling; his cross, no burden; his agony no pain. His death is an illusion; his resurrection but a show.
For if he were not a man, but a god, what are all these things; what his words, his life, his excellence of achievement? It is all nothing, weighed against the inimitable greatness of Him who created the worlds and fills up all time and space! Then his resignation is no lesson; his life no model – to we, who are not gods, but mortal men.
While one generation of opinions passes away, and another rises up; Christianity itself, that pure Religion, which exists eternal in the constitution of the soul and the mind or God, is always the same. This truth we owe to God; the revelation of it to Jesus, our elder brother, God’s chosen son.
Come to the plain words of Jesus of Nazareth, and Christianity is a simple thing; very simple. It is absolute, pure Morality; absolute, pure Religion; the love of man; the love of God acting without let or hindrance. The only creed it lays down is the great truth which springs up spontaneous in the holy heart: there is a God. Its watchword is, be perfect as your Father in Heaven.
Compare the simpleness of Christianity, as Jesus sets it forth on the Mount, with what is sometimes taught and accepted in that honored name; and what a difference! One is of God; one is of man. There is something in Christianity which sects have not reached; something that will not be won by theological battles, or the quarrels of pious men.
The Christianity of sects, of the pulpit, of society, is ephemeral - a transitory fly. It will pass off and be forgot. Some new form will take its place, suited to the aspect of the changing times.
That pure ideal Religion which Jesus saw on the mount of his vision, and lived out in the lowly life of a Galilean peasant; which transforms his cross into an emblem of all that is holiest on earth; which makes sacred the ground he trod, and is dearest to the best of men, most true to what is truest in them, cannot pass away.
His words and example passed into the world, and can no more perish than the stars be wiped out of the sky. The truths he taught; his doctrines respecting man and God; the relation between man and man, and man and God, with the duties that grow out of that relation, are always the same, and can never change till man ceases to be man, and creation vanishes into nothing.
(Adapted from “The Transient and Permanent In Christianity,” an 1841 sermon by Rev. Theodore Parker)