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John Donne, Sermon CXLVI

PREACHED AT WHITEHALL, FEBRUARY 29, 1627.

Genesis 28.10-19; Acts 6.8-15; 7.51-60

 

Acts vii. 60: And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Is there any man, that in his chamber hears a bell toll for another man, and does not kneel down to pray for that dying man? and then, does he not also reflect upon himself? We begin to hear Christ's bell toll now, and we must say as [Stephen] said, Into thy hands O Lord I commend my Spirit. You would not say to yourselves, ‘We shall have warnings enough, many more sermons before it come to that, it is too soon yet;’ you are not sure you shall have more; not sure you shall be affected with any.  I take Christ's earliest witness, his proto-martyr, St. Stephen, and that which especially Made him our example is his death, what he did, what he said, so far as is knit up in those words, When he had said this, he fell asleep. From which example, I humbly offer two considerations; first, every man is bound to do something before he die; and then, to that man who hath done those things which the duties of his calling bind him to, death is but a sleep. Every man is bound to be something, to take some calling upon him. The better to perform those duties, every man shall do well to propose to himself some pattern, some example whom he will follow and imitate in that calling. We shall see that to them that do not settle their consciences so, death is a bloody conflict, and no victory at last, a tempestuous sea, and no harbour at last, a slippery height, and no footing, a desperate fall and no bottom. First, then we begin with our beginning, our birth; Man is born to trouble.  How honourable soever his station be, he must do his day's labour. How far is he from doing so, that never so much as considers why he was sent into this world! But God might have shut thee up in the prison of a bare being and no more, without life or sense, as he hath done earth and stones; or if he would have given thee life and sense, he might have left thee a toad, without the comeliness of shape, without that reasonable and immortal soul, which makes thee a man. Thou passest through this world as a flash, as a lightning of which no man knows the beginning or the ending; and thou passest out of the world, as a hand passes out of a bason, or a body out of a bath, where the water may be the fouler for thy having washed in it, [even though] the water retains no impression of thy hand or body, so the world may be the worse for thy having lived in it, [even though] the world retains no marks of thy having been there.  God made every thing something, and thou makest the best of things, man, nothing.  God's own name is ‘I am’: ‘Being,’ is God's name, and nothing is so contrary to God as to be nothing. Be something, or else thou canst do nothing; thou canst not sleep Stephen's sleep, not die in peace. Determine thyself upon something, be, profess something; then, do seriously, do sedulously, do sincerely the duties of that calling.  Be something: then, be somebody, be like somebody, propose some good example to imitate. It was the counsel of that philosopher Epictetus to consider what a Socrates, or a Plato; what a good and a wise man would do, and to do conformably to that. One great orator proposed to himself Cicero for his example, and Cicero propounded Demosthenes, and he Pericles, and Pericles Pisistratus.  In every calling, a man may find some exemplar to follow. Men of the best faculties, the best education, owe themselves to God by most obligations. Him that dies to-day, God shall ask, Where is that soul? Is it as clean as I made it at first?  or is it as clean as I washed it in baptism? or is it as clean as I left it when we met last at the sacrament? God shall not only ask for that soul and that body, but also, Where is that wit, that learning, those arts, those languages which by so good education I afforded thee? Thou art yet to learn thy first letters, if thou know not that Christ Jesus is Alpha and Omega: thou hast studied thyself into a dark and damnable ignorance, if thou have laboured for much learning only to dispute against the person of Christ Jesus. Propose to thine imitation Stephen, who applied himself early to Christ as a disciple, and as a deacon, a lower degree in the service of Christ, which very name signifies service, and ministration. Christ Jesus himself calls himself, by that name, The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister; there is this word ‘ministration’, the name of ‘deacon’ imprinted upon Christ himself. And let us accept the name and office of deacon, of ministration, upon ourselves: for as every man is a world in himself, so every man is a church in himself too: But the height of Stephen's exemplariness, is not so much in his active as in his passive part; not so much in that he did, as in that he suffered. God exalts and improves every good thing, every blessing that was in me before, and makes even my creation glorious, and my redemption precious; and puts a farther value upon things inestimable before, that I shall fulfil the sufferings of Christ. In [the] words of our Saviour, the suffering of crosses in our life entitles us to the reward of martyrdom. All martyrdom is not a Smithfield martyrdom, to burn for religion. To suffer injuries, and not to revenge those injuries, is [also] martyrdom. All fighting of the Lord's battles, all victory over the Lord's enemies, all cheerful bearing of God's crosses, and all watchful crossing of our own immoderate desires is a martyrdom acceptable to God, and a true copy of our pattern Stephen.  And we shall pass now to [the] part which we must all play, and play in earnest, that conclusion in which we shall but begin our everlasting state, our death, When he had said this he fell asleep.  Here I shall present to you two pictures, of dying men; and every man is like one of these, and may know himself by it; he that dies in the bath of a peaceable, and he that dies upon the wreck of a distracted conscience. When the devil imprints in a man, the sadness of his soul shall aggravate the sickness of his body. His physician ministers, and wonders it works not; he imputes that to phlegm, and ministers against that, and wonders again that it works not: he goes over all the humours, and all his medicines, and nothing works, for there lies at his patient's heart a damp that hinders the intention of the physician, the virtue of the physic. To see Christ crucified, and not crucified for thee, but crucified by thee; this is his picture that hath been nothing, that hath done nothing.  Now of this dying man, that dies in Christ, that dies the death of the righteous, that embraces death as a sleep, must we give you a picture too. There is not a minute left to do it; Is there a minute's patience? remember that those pictures which are delivered in a minute, from a print upon a paper, had many days', weeks', months' time for the graving of those pictures in the copper; so this picture of that dying man, that dies in Christ, that dies the death of the righteous, that embraces death as a sleep, was graving all his life; all his public actions were the lights, and all his private the shadows of this picture. And when this picture comes to the press, this man to the straits and agonies of death, thus he understands God's purpose upon him, and he would not have God's purpose any other way; he sees God will dissolve him, and he would fain be dissolved, to be with Christ.  And his soul shall go forth, not as one that gave over his house, but as one that travelled to see and learn better architecture: and as those thoughts which possess us most awake, meet us again when we are asleep; so [too {do}] his holy thoughts, all his life, when he is fallen asleep in death, all his dreams in that blessed sleep, all his devotions in heaven.  So then, the death of the righteous is a sleep. Those that sleep in Jesus Christ will God fetch out of the dust, but declare that they have been in his hands ever since they departed out of this world. They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, and into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but an equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity. Keep us Lord so awake in the duties of our callings, that we may thus sleep in thy peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here, to an actual and undeterminable possession of that kingdom which thy Son our Saviour Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.