This is the sermon largely as preached at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church this morning. Most of the changes that I made from the prepared text are reflected below in this text, but not all of them.
I spoke a couple weeks ago about a study of youth and religion which found that most American teens and young adults walk away from their faith when suffering happens to them because their faith didn’t mean as much to them as their happiness and success. Most of these young people, especially those who grew up in Catholic and Protestant homes, believe that if you are a good person then you will go to heaven, God is only needed when you have a problem, and the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good. A faith with such beliefs is by definition not more important than preserving your own life. If your goal in life is to be happy and feel good then you will lay aside your faith in God rather than lay down your life. If you believe that good people go to heaven when they die and that you are a good person then you have no reason to profess Christ when your life is on the line. Genuine Christianity, on the other hand, is a faith that matters more than this life to those who believe in Jesus. It is not a faith that inspires us to take the lives of others or ourselves. But it is a faith that inspires us to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. It is a faith that gives us the conviction and courage to lay down our lives in order to witness to the one who is the way, the truth and the life whose name is Jesus. The long line of those who have witnessed to Jesus Christ through their deaths, the word martyr coming from the Greek for witness, began with Stephen in Acts 7 after he shared the gospel:
- Before you too quickly think that you could follow Stephen and die for what you believe, listen to the story of Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer:
- Cranmer had been the Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI, and now Queen Mary I, whom you may know as Bloody Mary because she had so many Protestant believers in Jesus put to death. Mary was a Roman Catholic and she wanted to discredit and shame the Reformation in the eyes of the English people–she wanted to reverse the Reformation represented by such leaders as Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer. Ridley and Latimer held lower offices than Cranmer and the news of their excommunication by the Pope in Rome came first. They were given a chance to “repent,” which they refused and thus guaranteed they would be executed by being burnt at the stake. As Ridley and Latimer were waiting for the fire to be set they were praying and then Ridley’s brother-in-law stopped them to give them each a bag of gunpowder to tie around their necks and thereby shorten the great suffering that was coming. They accepted the gift as a sign of God’s mercy toward them. Then when the executioner went to light the fire, Latimer said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Latimer died from smoke inhalation quickly as he was old and frail. But what happened to Ridley shocked everyone watching. (If you know anything about having a fire then you know that it won’t burn well if it is packed too tightly–the fire needs to breathe.) The wood had been packed too tightly so only the lower half caught fire, which meant that his legs burned off while his upper body was fine. Then someone loosened those logs after Ridley called out for God’s mercy and finally the flame shot high and caught the gunpowder to put an end to his great misery. Ridley’s death was horrific and though Latimer and Ridley didn’t know it, the prisoner named Cranmer had been forced to watch the whole thing. Latimer and Ridley had conviction and courage to lay down their lives as a witness for Christ. (What remained to be seen was what Cranmer would do. One of them had smuggled a note to Cranmer saying that their options were to turn or burn.)
- Cranmer decided that he was going to do whatever he could so that he didn’t turn nor burn. But over the next few months they wore him down using solitary confinement and psychological abuse. And Cranmer made a mistake — he made friends with the jailer. The jailor became Cranmer’s only emotional support. This jailer would visit Cranmer and try to get him to recant and rejoin the Roman Catholic church but Cranmer said that he would never recant. So the jailer stopped visiting and Cranmer was all alone. This was too much for Cranmer so he asked for a visit from the jailer who told him that if Cranmer would never repent then he had no reason to waste his time being his friend. So Cranmer promised that if he would visit with him then he would offer proof of repentance after supper. When the time came, Cranmer was still unable to deny his faith and the jailer got mad and left. And Cranmer fainted from it all. When he awoke in the middle of the night he called for the jailer and wrote his first recantation. Over the next two months he would write six more and submit to the Roman Catholic church and the pope. Denying his faith on paper did mean he would have many more people visit him because Roman Catholics would come to see him and treat him like he was one of them. But Bloody Mary decided to go ahead with burning him anyway. Now children of those who are executed aren’t allowed to inherit, so when he discovered that he was still going to burn he asked for an exception for his son. But it too was rejected. Then the eve before his scheduled execution he wrote a transcript of the speech that he was going to give at the ceremony before he burned. It was one approved by the Roman Catholics overseeing the ceremony. But during the night he woke up and secretly wrote a different ending to his speech. At the ceremony there was a sermon given to justify why an apparently repentant man like Cranmer was being executed, an awkward sell if there ever was one, and then Cranmer was allowed to make his speech and to everyone’s surprise at the end of the speech Cranmer was recanting his recantations and said that because his hand had written those earlier recantations contrary to his heart that he would put it in the fire first. Cranmer at the end had decided to die as a martyr to Jesus – to die as a believer in genuine Christianity. At the end, Cranmer had decided that his only comfort was to throw himself on the mercy of God and trust that God would forgive Him and receive Him. And as the flames began to go up he stayed true to his word and stuck his hand in the flames to burn first and then as the flames consumed him he said, “I see Heaven open and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.” (Such a story may give you pause and cause you to wonder if you could really die for your faith — to ask, “Does my faith really matter more to me than my life?”)
- We each must examine our hearts to see if we have a faith that matters more than our life.
- You belong to a great tradition of believers whose faith mattered more to them than their lives. They were slain for the word of God and for the witness that they had borne, as the passage from Revelation says. Often their faith was considered blasphemous by those who killed them as Stephen’s vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God was considered blasphemous by those who stoned him. It is no accident that Cranmer paraphrased Stephen’s vision (v.56) as he burned alive, “I see Heaven open and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.” (He also said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” quoting Stephen in v.59). Those three friends who lived in sixteenth century England were also considered blasphemers by those who wanted their deaths. Saul, also known as Paul, was there at the stoning of Stephen, and he approved of it. Stephen’s prayer that his death not be held against those persecuting him not only imitated Christ but it was answered when Paul saw the heavens opened and saw the Son of Man on the road to Damascus and changed his life. The deaths of the three friends in England, known as the Oxford martyrs, also served to inspire the people of England for years to come. The rest, as they say, is history or His story. The deaths of believers like Stephen as well as Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer ironically advanced the kingdom of God instead of stopping its spread.
- You too may be asked to lay down your life as a witness to Jesus Christ. As we heard told to the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6, the number of their fellow servants and their brothers and sisters who were to be killed as they themselves had been is not yet complete. More will die as witnesses to Jesus Christ. Their souls are pictured in Revelation as under the heavenly altar because their souls are under God’s protection. Just as Christ sacrificed Himself on God’s heavenly altar as He was crucified on the cross and God protected His soul, they have sacrificed themselves on God’s heavenly altar and God shelters them. Like Stephen, who imitated Jesus when he asked for his spirit to be received into heaven, their souls have been received into heaven. So God’s protection did not keep them from physically dying just as it may not prevent you from being executed for your faith in Jesus. (Example of the girl at the Columbine school shooting.) Thus it may be tempting to deny your faith and try to save your life, which might work or, as Cranmer discovered, it might not. But at the end it is important to remember that other people may be able to kill our bodies but they cannot kill our souls. And as we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in life and in death we witness to Jesus Christ and no one will be able to put out the fire. Hallelujah. Amen.