Richard Baxter – All Saints’ 2010

 

 

I thought I might indulge myself this morning by using two of the hymns of Richard Baxter. One, “Ye holy angels bright”, is well-known and well-loved. With its enumeration of the angels in heaven, the “blessed souls at rest” – i.e. the faithful departed, and the “saints who toil below”, i.e. the present Church militant here in earth, it is admirably suited to All Saints’-tide, ending with that call to personal discipleship which is at the heart of sanctity – “Let all thy days, till life shall end, whate’er he send, be filled with praise”.  Baxter is serious about following Christ in the straight way of the Cross, but nonetheless delight and praise are found at all stages of the journey, an emphasis of his which gives the hymn much of its charm.

Richard Baxter was a minister of the Church of England during the troubled years of the 17th century. At the time there was a debate raging in the Church as to what form it should take – whether the Episcopal form with its bishops, Book of Common Prayer, moderate ceremonial, and relatively easy-going discipline; or the Puritan form tending to presbyterianism, free liturgy, no ceremonial and more demanding discipline. Baxter was Puritan, so ultimately he ended up a non-conformist outside the Established Church. At the same time, he didn’t like party labels – he said the only party he belonged to was catholic christianity. In a period of violently-held religious opinions and civil strife he won both admiration and detestation for his ability to see the good in all sorts, and for his reluctance to agree completely with one side or the other.  “I wish you were either hot or cold” – his opponents applied the biblical condemnation to him; yet lukewarm he certainly was not. He was a very sincere godly man, a strict and demanding yet loving pastor, with  a realistic assessment of his own virtues and God’s mercies. I suspect we might find him a tad uncomfortable as rector. People of clear integrity and uncompromising principle naturally make enemies, especially among the less than godly.

It’s against this background that I read his other hymn “He wants not friends that hath thy love”. It was in the previous edition of our hymnbook, set to a beautiful but unknown Scots melody, so it didn’t achieve its rightful place in the public affection.Nonetheless it is a fine reflection on the doctrine of the “Communion of Saints”. Baxter uses “saints” in its biblical sense to mean “God’s faithful people, called to be holy” – it includes all the godly on earth, whatever their denominational label, while also including “the blessed souls at rest”. For Baxter, to be a Christian is never to be alone.

He wants not friends that hath thy love,

And may converse and walk with thee,

And with thy saints, here and above,

With whom for ever I must be.

 Baxter found himself at odds with many of his contemporaries, and yet found strength and solace in the society of fellow-saints, not models of perfection, but humble serious followers of Christ. He makes no bones about the frailties to which all believers are prone, but indicates the help we give each other by our belonging together, our sharing of lessons learnt, and of loving prayer for each other.

In the communion of the saints

Is wisdom, safety, and delight,

And when my heart declines and faints

It’s raised by their heat and light.

He speaks movingly of the unseen connection which binds the saints to Christ as their head and to each other as fellow-members of the mystical Body. Though cut off from each other by the storms of life, we are not lost either to God or to our friends. I don’t know whether Baxter intended this to extend beyond the grave, but it certainly seems a natural and appropriate meaning to me.  So I read in him a Protestant expression of the same thought that causes the Orthodox to fill their churches with ikons of the saints: that when the Church gathers for worship, the saints on earth are united with the saints triumphant in the everlasting rest of heaven.

 Before thy throne we daily meet

As joint-petitioners to thee;

In spirit we each other greet

And shall again each other see.

 

In fairness to Baxter, one ought to say that, for him, it would not be true to equate “departed” with “in heaven”. When Baxter talks about saints, and about you and me as “called to be saints”, he is expecting to see evidence in our daily living that we are working at it, by God’s grace. He held no doctrinaire view about whether a conversion “experience” was necessary or not, recognising that “God does not break all hearts in the same way”. But however one comes to have faith, he expects to see it working out in sincere repentance and godly living. He came to a wsidom that could recognise the imperfections in godly people, and the surprising gleams of goodness in the ungodly – yet this did not lead him to suppose that godly and ungodly are the same. He believed firmly in heaven and hell, and that it lies in each of us to choose to respond to God’s gracious invitation or not. As he grew older, he felt more and more that the best incentive to growth in godliness was not to be always dwelling on our sins – important as self-examination is – but instead to dwell more on the love of God in Christ, the blessedness of the saints triumphant, and the delights that await us in God’s presence in heaven. All Saint’s-tide bids us do just that – to consider the unspeakable joys which God has in store for those who truly love him.

I will finish with a prayer of Richard Baxter’s that I like, one which we often use during Advent, that beautifully expresses what it means for him to be “called to be saints”, that shows the path to be followed to the delight and praise of heaven.

Keep us, O Lord, while we tarry on this earth,

in  a serious seeking after you,

and in an affectionate walking with you,

every day of our lives;

that when you come, we may be found

not hiding our talent

nor serving the flesh

nor yet asleep with our lamp unfurnished,

but waiting and longing for our Lord,

our glorious God for ever and ever.

 

 

 

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