John W. Sayers served as the chaplain for Camp Geary at Gettysburg in 1883 and delivered sermons as the Pennsylvania “post” chaplain of the Grand Army of the Republic (an organization of Union veterans) from 1894-1899. He also was the pastor of the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Chester, PA from 1902-1910. The following is one of his many Memorial Day sermons, published in the book The More Excellent Sacrifice: Memorial Day Sermons by John W. Sayers (Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham, 1905).
This is the language of a wholly consecrated man – one who had devoted his life to the service of his Master and who glorified in the evidences that he had suffered for his Master’s sake. Forms and ceremonies, outward professions, and meaningless rites were no part of the apostle’s religion. His Master had established a religious creed broad enough for all, capable of universal application. It was simple; it was effective. It commended itself to enlightened men and was fully adapted to human needs. Christ summed it up in a few words, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself.” To this Master, Paul had bound himself; and to His religion he had consecrated his life. It needed no outward demonstration to convince the Master of the fidelity of His servant. The figure in the text doubtless refers to the ancient custom of branding slaves, not only that their subjection might be recognized by the multitude but that their ownership might be proved by a glance at the stigmata or mark of servitude that had been pricked or burned upon the body.
Slavery always meant subjection but did not always indicate degradation. Under the ancient system, prisoners of war were sold into slavery. Many of them were of refined, educated, and high born families. Aesop, whose fables have for ages charmed and instructed the race, was a slave. Epictetus, whose pure system of practical morality so largely influenced the philosophy of his time, was a slave. And others who have rendered great service to the world were once bondsmen to masters who had acquired ownership through the exigencies [demands] of war. Paul was not a slave in any sense of that word. He was a servant, it is true, but his servitude consisted of spiritual subjection to the will of the living God. By natural endowment he was one of nature’s noblemen: by birth a Jew, by adoption a Roman citizen, by religious faith a Pharisee. Tarsus, his native city, was celebrated for its learning and it was probably here that he became versed in Greek literature and imbued with the faith of the Pharisees. The Jews were largely divided into two principal religious sects, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, differing widely in their doctrines. The Sadducees followed a negative and speculative faith. They accepted the books of Moses but denied the traditions; they believed in God but denied the resurrection of the body and the existence of a future state. They believed in loving obedience to God but taught that man had been endowed with absolute control over his own actions. They were a sect of religious aristocrats, gathering around their altars the wealthy, the indolent, and the easygoing timeservers of the Hebrew faith.
The Pharisees, upon the other hand, were spiritual aristocrats, arrogating to themselves the only true worship. They were remarkable for their zealous support of the traditions of the elders. They believed in the resurrection of the dead, in spirits and angels, and in a future state of rewards and punishments. They called to their communion the more humble classes and through the adaptation of their faith to the common thought, they easily led the popular belief. Politically they were intensely patriotic, respecting authority, upholding the law, and loyally believing in Jewish infallibility. The foundation of their religion (as well as their national creed) was derived from the words of the Talmud [a commentary by leading Rabbis on Jewish law, ethics, customs and history], “The good Pharisee is he who obeys the law because he loves the Lord.” God was with them, as with us – the “All Father.” Between them and their brethren of the faith, the great equity of living was, “Do unto others as you would be done by.” They were essentially the representatives of all that was good in the Hebrew faith. Christ called them hypocrites [Matthew 15:7, Matthew 22:18, Matthew 23:13] not because of what they believed but because their practices were so greatly at variance with their teachings. They were acknowledged interpreters of the law, and though not forming a separate political party, were among the most powerful civil leaders of their times.
It was to this latter sect that Paul belonged. He styled himself, “a Pharisee, son of a Pharisee” [Acts 23:6]. Paul studied law at Jerusalem, under the preceptorship of Gamaliel, a learned jurist and eminent Jewish rabbi. From the High Priest he obtained a commission, and thus armed with an acquaintance with the law and with authority from the civil powers, he went forth to detect and punish the disciples of the new faith.
The importance of his mission, his prominence as a rising man, the authority with which he was clothed, made him widely known and feared throughout the land. In all this, God was preparing him for his great mission to the Gentile world and was laying, through him, the foundation for a faith that for eighteen centuries was to march triumphantly to the conquest of men’s hearts – a faith that should grow stronger through fiery opposition, appeal more effectively to men’s lives through its wounds and scars, and eventually carry its triumphant banner to the uttermost parts of the earth, for
“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun Does his successive journeys run.”
[Quoting from Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “Jesus Shall Reign,” published in The Psalms of David (1719).]
Paul unconsciously received his first lesson upon the living and surviving power of honorable wounds – typical, indeed, of the marks which were to speak from his own body – when the clothes of Stephen were laid at his feet while he witnessed the cruel mob with stones inflict the death wounds – wounds which to the present hour throw a halo around all martyrdom for the truth’s sake. Paul could not see behind the shadow of the future, but God was there “keeping watch above His own” [quoting from James Russell Lowell’s The Present Crisis (1844)] Stephen’s life was in His keeping, and God was holding it for the instruction of future generations. “He being dead, yet speaketh” [Hebrews 11:4]. Honorable wounds – glorious scars – indelible marks which tell the story of devotion and heroism as no written history can tell it. Surrounded by danger and persecution, facing an excited and threatening multitude, defiant before the maddened onslaught of hatred and wickedness, the heroic disciple raised the standard of eternal truth and stood ready to die for the Master’s sake and sealed that devotion with his blood – with every opening wound speaking eloquently for the future triumphs of the Gospel, with his life blood gushing in crimson streams which tinged the cloudlets of the closing day with their reflected brightness, giving earnest for a brighter dawning on the morrow, he passed to his reward, crying with his expiring breath, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” [Acts 7:60].
Centuries have come and gone, but those marks of the Lord Jesus are not forgotten, and many a victim of persecution has passed through the fire, gathering strength and courage from the wounds and blood of the first martyr. The standard, which was not lowered with the fall of its bearer, still floats aloft with millions of brave hands ever ready to hold it up.
I am speaking to men today who can appreciate this beautiful figure – men who have followed their country’s flag upon the march and who, in the midst of privation and discouragement, have been cheered and animated by its emblematic beauty as it waved its graceful folds under the skies about the camp ground – men who have followed that banner into the battlefield and have rallied round it at many a point in the midst of the fight where Death was swinging his scythe with awful carnage, and who have defiantly flaunted it in the enemy’s face, turning back the impetuous charge and carrying signal defeat into their overconfident ranks. Many an armless sleeve – many a missing leg – many a sightless eye – many a crutch – and many a scar attest your love for that old flag and your devotion to your country’s cause. You are here today upon this peaceful camping ground because you were here when the tumult of war wakened the echoes and shook the earth in that terrible strife [Sayers is here referring to the Civil War and is speaking to veterans of that conflict] which laid low the sleeping thousands in these peaceful graves: because you were upon other battlefields which drove back the tide of rebellion against a righteous government – because you stood upon the blue field of constitutional fidelity, under the brightest stars of heaven’s glorious promise of liberty, in defense of the emblematic stripes of Union, against inauspicious stars of evil omen and symbolic bars of human bondage – because through your loyalty, that liberty which was once proclaimed throughout all the land still survived.
From brave and loyal men whose bodies bear such honorable scars, I am sure that it is not too much to ask that you rally round the banner of the cross of Christ as loyally as you have rallied around the glorious banner of you country. During the war, the state military agent at Nashville, passing by the Post Hospital, stopped to hear a voice from within singing the familiar words,
“Rally round the flag, boys.”
[From George F. Root’s Battle Cry of Freedom (1862).]
The agent remarked to a nurse standing in the doorway, “That patient is quite merry. He must be recovering.” “You are mistaken, sir,” was the reply, “he is dying. I am his nurse and the scene so affected me that I was obliged to leave the room.” Stepping into the ward, he found the singer just struggling with death. As his voice grew more feeble, he poured forth from his patriotic soul the words that had so often cheered him on the march and in the fight, “rally once again” and, as he sank back into his death slumber, his last words, which came incoherently were, “The flag, boys.” As he passed with his colors into the ranks upon the other side of the river, a score of voices from his sick and wounded comrades joined in that grand old hymn,
“Am I a soldier of the cross?”
[Quoting from Isaac Watts’ famous hymn “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” (1721).]
The harmony of the singing was mingled with sympathetic sobs and tears from a hundred bystanders who never forgot the loyal singer or his wounds. Over that death scene, loyalty to the Union was again and again pledged and strengthened. Paul was loyal to his religion, as, in his interpretation, it became to him the will of his Master. His conversion was unexpected by him and was as remarkable as it was sudden. Convinced of the miraculous power which laid him prostrate upon the earth, and realizing that God had spoken in the voice that came to him, he once inquired the Divine will and turned obediently to do as God had directed. Henceforth worldly honor was to be cast behind him. His learning, his religious zeal, his natural force of character, his great genius, were all passports for him to the highest social and political positions among his countrymen. His birth and citizenship, his profession as a lawyer, entitled him to privileges with which but few of his people were favored. Now the world had suddenly changed to him – another field, in which the harvest was plenteous but the laborers few [Matthew 9:37, Luke 10:2], a mission of much work but of little worldly profit. In place of honor, he was to find contempt. Instead of reward, he was to receive persecution and stripes. In lieu of a master, he was to be a servant. In place of being an influential lawyer, he was to be the advocate of an unpopular cause. His life was to be of little value to himself, but it was to be of immense importance to others. His servitude was not of dishonor. The marks of that servitude – the scars of his scourging, the wounds of his maltreatment – were to become a record from which the world was to compile the most remarkable of all its cherished histories, a record from which was to be taught the great object lesson of the centuries through which men were to be lifted nearer to God. Henceforth, faith was to have a deeper significance. Fidelity and loyalty were to receive a higher meaning. The foundation principles of human justice, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” [Matthew 7:12], was to have a Divine rather than an human interpretation. It was to be equitable; it was to be reciprocal; and it was to be fraternal and Godlike.
The path of duty once clearly opened before him, Paul was never to turn back. No matter what barrier were raised against him by his personal enemies or the foes of his cause, he was to be steadfast and immovable. He had given himself to Christ without reserve and his powers were consecrated to the cross of the Redeemer. The language of the text is that of a glorious retrospect of one who gloried in the honorable marks of an important and successful campaign – one who had fought a good fight and for whom the reward was already prepared. Paul, from the experience of his former antipathies, had doubtless anticipated some suffering for his Master’s cause but its fearful extent had not been revealed to him. He had been converted and entered upon his warfare like one who had had not only raised his colors but had nailed them to the mast – one with whom the issue must be victory or death. “I live for Christ; if need be I die for Him.”
The mark which the master branded upon the slave was ineffaceable. It must be carried with him to the end of life as a badge of servitude. Paul had entered the Divine service and at once clearly displayed the willingness of his submission in his speech and upon his character and in his daily walk, but thenceforth he was to bear the marks of that submission upon his body. He carried his colors into the face of danger but he was not to escape from the conflict without scars. Once he was ambitious of worldly distinction. He had doubtless looked up from his seat at the feet of Gamaliel in proud anticipation of the honors of an exalted professional life. He possibly imagined a future where he should command and others should obey – when everywhere he would be welcomed as among the great ones of the earth. In these flattering dreams, so common to early manhood, he had not fancied the real future through which he was destined to journey. He could not foresee that at Iconium he would be persecuted [Acts 14:1-5], or that at Lystra the fickle crowd would offer him Divine honors and afterward stone him nearly to death [Acts 14:8-19], that at Philippi they would beat him [Acts 16:22], or that at Melita he should be shipwrecked [Acts 27:42- 28:1], and that at Rome he should be imprisoned, and perhaps martyred [Acts 28:17-20].
In God’s plan for reclaiming of the world this had all been written, and although hidden from Paul, was being gradually fulfilled. After many of these things had been realized in Paul’s experience – when wounded and scarred – he had become a prisoner at Rome, and when some of the Churches for which he had faithfully labored had forgotten his teachings and become recreant [unfaithful] to their trust, he calls them to account for their unfaithfulness. To the Galatians, he writes a reproachful letter because they had departed from the Gospel doctrine of justification by faith in Christ – a doctrine for which he had fought and suffered for his Master and for which he now “bore in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus” [Galatians 6:17].
Let us turn for a few moments to this question of suffering. We cannot comprehend its import; we suffer and we complain and murmur. The wisdom of it is not always manifest to us. Its distress and painfulness are abundantly realized by us, but its utility is clouded with uncertainty. The problem of evil and the mystery of suffering have always been puzzling to human faith. Their attempted solution has sometimes led to distrust and doubt. We are told that suffering is the result of sin – sin against God’s laws, sin against natural laws, sin against our own bodies and spirits. We do not easily understand why sin of any kind is permitted to abound and flourish, even against the strenuous efforts of good men to exterminate it. We cannot comprehend why the just should suffer because of the sins of the unjust.
I am not here to answer these eager questionings of the human heart. They appear to be a part of God’s great plan for wise and holy purposes. “God moves in a mysterious way” [from William Cowper’s (1731-1800), God Moves in Mysterious Ways] and our times are in His hands. The way to glory seems to be through suffering, even as the Captain of our salvation was made perfect through suffering [Hebrews 2:10]. The whole creation groaneth, waiting its deliverance from the bondage sin [Romans 8:18-22]. The very earth on which we live has been rendered habitable for man by terrible convulsions, and by centuries of slow processes – by tearing apart and bringing together under new conditions. Disintegration and restoration; ground up, and consolidated, and ground up again. The rocky crust of the earth has been bruised and broken until its surface became a fitting place for vegetation, over which seed time, when the elements shall again melt with fervent heat. Look up those hillsides and down these valleys. Go to the Western Sierras, whose tall peaks reach the heavens. Go to our great Northern and Southern plateaus, those thousands of square miles of land which have lifted bodily hundreds of feet above the old surface; and wherever the eye wanders, the scars of the old earth, in its conflict with the early elemental forces, are everywhere visible. How they tell the story of creation, just as the finger of the Creator has written it! How they exalt our minds and draw our lives closer to Him whose fiat, “Let there be light” [Genesis 1:3], revealed all this grandeur to us! When the Creator saw that His work was good, He crowned it with man, and said to him, “Subdue the earth and have dominion over it” [Genesis 1:28].
Man stood in Eden in sinless simplicity and grandeur. He was a monarch in a realm as pure and holy as the heavens prepared for the future abode of the righteous. The beasts of the earth, the fowls of the air, were given him as a heritage. His abode was paradise – a place so beautiful and lovely as to be typical of heaven. In the midst of the garden stood a tree that was good to look upon, its fruit was good for food. Ah, it was more. God had said of it, “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat” [Genesis 2:17]. Why not? Here was a test of man’s fidelity. “In the day thou eatest therof thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 2:17]. But what is death? It had not come into the world. Here was the problem. It was a tree to be desired to make one wise. The tempter came and said, “Ye shall not surely die; eat. Your eyes shall be opened; ye shall be as God, knowing good from evil” [Genesis 3:4-5]. The tempter triumphed and man fell. Man sought to obtain by disobedience what by obedience might freely have been his own. He received a curse in place of a blessing. In consequence of his sin he must now struggle for his bread and eat it in sorrow all the days of his life. Thorns and thistles came forth to wound his hands as he tilled the earth. He began to bear not the honorable wounds of righteous warfare, but the marks of ingratitude and disobedience.
Paul’s marks were the scars of an honorable conflict. He could exhibit them without shame. He could refer to them with pride; he could contemplate them with satisfaction. They were the marks that the Master would recognize when he came to call together His own.
Let us not forget this lesson in our individual lives. There are marks of honor and marks of dishonor – scars that will commend us and scars that will condemn. We battle for the right and our scars are our glory. We contend for the wrong and its marks become our disgrace. In all the mythologies and theologies of the world, this problem of evil has been prominent. Night has struggled against the day; darkness has opposed the light; evil has sought to vanquish the good. Satan has contended against the Almighty. We have fallen from a high state. How low we have fallen we cannot, in our present condition, fully realize. The descent was easy and rapid. How shall he ascend again? Not so easily as he fell. He must toil up the ascent. He must fight his way back. He must suffer. He must receive wounds and scars. The marks of the fire are upon him, but he shall come from the furnace purified from the dross of baser self and more perfect.
We rise also by mental suffering. Losses over which we sometimes grieve often strengthen our determination and courage and broaden our sympathies for the distress of others. Sorrows that so often multiply about us soften our lives and bring us into comforting fellowship with others. Human life is exalted and men are made better and rise higher through their afflictions. When analyzed under the searching test of Gospel chemistry, sufferings are not unmixed evils. They may sometimes leave upon our bodies the undesirable marks of our folly, yet in all essentials which advance men toward God they unify the race. Human government, the child of aggressive and advancing civilization, has come to its present condition through conflict and sufferings. Enlightened men of all ages have ever seen brighter light ahead. But the governments grow slowly. Society advances by painful steps and against fearful opposition from the powers of darkness. Men must fight if they would be free. The wounds and scars received in such a warfare are the highest insignia of honor. No sacrifice is too great for man to make his fellows as he lifts the world toward truth.
“He is a free man whom the truth makes free” [from William Cowper’s The Task (1785), Book V, “The Winter Morning Walk.”], and that which exalts truth is an undoubted instrument of God. The soul that bears the marks of suffering for truth’s sake is accepted of God. Such marks were Paul’s passports to glory…
The history of our own country is replete with incidents. Every one of these periods has been marked with blood from the earliest Colonial strife down to the great war which forever settled the perplexing question under our Constitution – a war that not only broke the cords of human bondage but which gave true manhood to the slave. These times of strife and blood have each accomplished a higher and more permanent purpose than could have been reached by any other means. They have all commenced new periods of more rapid advancement. The actors in the last great struggle alone survive. Other generations have died and passed away. History records what they did. We know the wounds they received. History exhibits what they did. We know the wounds they received. History exhibits to us the scars and the body politic retains the marks as honorable exhibits for our instruction and profit. We know by these marks what they did for us.
I have not attempted to solve the problem of evil or to explain the mystery of suffering; I refer to these historical incidents and facts to show you that in the order of God’s providence, they exist for good and wise purposes which, in His own time, He will make known to us. He is using theses scourgings for our benefit and through them He is lifting us up toward Him. They are the lights upon our earthy path which show us the way to higher attainments. Do you want a better proof of these facts than your own agency in the preservation and perpetuation of our own government and the strengthening of its principles and broadening of its policy? Your own lives have marked an epoch in history such as the world has never experienced within the same limit of years. Prior to the war in which you were actors, the Union was in danger – the country was in a state of transition. The most perplexing question under our Constitution was to be definitely settled, and that settlement was to be definitely settled, and that settlement meant either a Union dissolved or a Union strengthened. Long years of discussion had not settled it. Legislation, wise and unwise, only aggravated it. Compromise scarcely afforded temporary quiet. Slavery and liberty were opposites that would never coalesce. Blood only could wipe out the natural stain. From Sumter to Appomattox, how the whole land groaned! How the earth drank the blood of loved ones from ten thousand peaceful homes! How bravely young and old offered their lives in defense of that Union, symbolized by the old flag which so peacefully floats today! The sacrifice was terrible but the object was beyond price. It was life for life; it was life for freedom; it was life for one inseparable union of States; it was life for one flag and one country. The thunders of the battles which rent the air during those years of conflict shook the nations, and thrones and kingdoms trembled under the reverberations. Human government the world over learned a lesson and gained an experience in those four years that no century of events had ever imparted before. Look today at our working millions, paying homage to the Stars and Stripes and saying to the nations with whom we have entered into honest rivalry with our industries, “There is not strife between us. We have neither jealousies nor envies. Come under our flag, and its stripes shall represent the union that dwells among us.”
See again the visiting thousands who come from afar as they mingle with our people and observe their prosperity today. Follow them as they return to their homes, carrying with them new impressions of our country and of our people – a clearer knowledge of the extent and greatness of our country and of our people – a profound admiration for the peaceful, well furnished and comfortable Christian homes of our working classes. Listen to their report of what a free and united government can do for the masses who created the governing power, and you will say that this year will be America’s benediction to the world. The blessings which are ours today have not come through a long reign of peace, for you, my comrades, bear in your bodies today the marks of the strife which preserved this nation in its integrity and unity. They are honorable marks of a glorious warfare for the right. Napoleon honored his brave soldiers with badges of distinction. England bestowed medals upon those who contributed to her victories, and these were proudly worn as evidences that in the day of trial they were not found wanting.
You wear the badge of an honored brotherhood whose organization was the most remarkable victory of peace in all history. But that badge is more. It is an evidence that you served your country under patriotic enlistment and an honorable discharge at the termination of your service. It is a mark of distinction that your country not only honors but loves. But to some who wear the badge are added honors in the wounds they bear, in the speaking scars that tell of conflict, of loyalty, of glorious victory – glorious and honorable marks and scars.
During the war a soldier lay upon his cot in one of our hospitals, just reviving from the sleep of chloroform which and been administered to remove his right arm. He missed it, and lifting the blood stained sheet, requested that the missing member be show him. His request was granted and reaching out his left hand he grasped the cold hand of the right and shaking it cordially, said, “Good-bye, old arm. We have been a long time together, but we must part now. You will never again write a letter to mother or sister, never fire another carbine, nor swing another saber for the government, but I don’t begrudge you. You have been torn from my body that not a single state should be torn from our Union.” Glorious marks:
“They tell of courage never quelled, Of duty noble done, Of that dark, awful, lonely death, Of everlasting glory won, And dearer still, a nation’s love.”
[From William Ross Wallace’s, “In Memory of the Heroic Captain Herndon,” in The United States Democratic Review, (New York: Conrad Swackhamer, 1857), Vol. XI, p. 458.]
Paul gloried in the marks of his devotion to the cause of Christ. No sacrifice was too great for him to make. He had formerly persecuted the followers of his present Master under devotion to the old faith, which, from the days of Abraham, had descended along the Hebrew line, with many changes and through many conflicts, down to the days of the Messiah. Christ came to introduce a reign of peace – to lay the foundation of a faith which, when universally adopted, would solve the problems of suffering and evil. He came not to destroy but to fulfill [Matthew 5:17] and bring men back to their true relationship with their Maker. That faith was sealed with Christ’s blood. The faith was for you. Under it, for nearly nineteen hundred years, the world has been growing better. Mankind has been growing more fraternal, government more humane, and faith more pure. Paul bore in his body the marks of this faith for his Maker’s sake. It was because of this faith that you made the sacrifice which bears testimony to your loyalty – for it you bear honored marks today. He says, “As you have been true to your country, so be true to Me. You are Mine. I have bought you with a price. [1 Corinthians 6:20] That price as My blood. I was wounded for your transgressions and by My stripes ye are healed” [Isaiah 53:5].
I appeal to you as brave men whose courage none can doubt – men who answered their country’s first trumpet call to battle, and throughout fire and smoke and danger fought till the war was over and victory won.
Another trumpet calls – another banner waves, blood stained and glorious with victory. An army gathers under it and gives true allegiance to the great Captain – the Lord Jesus. As you answered your country’s call and fought for her safety, answer now the call of the Lord Jesus, and under her banner, following His leadership, fight and win and save your souls. Find for sin and death an Appomattox that will open the gates of the New Jerusalem through which you will pass to a reward greater and grander than any yet won on earthly field and where the heroes and martyrs of all the ages and all the fields of honor will give glad welcome to him, who having fought the fight and kept the faith, shall bear in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus.