Reverend Christopher I. Thoma
The Festival of the Reformation – Transferred – 30 October A.D. 2011
Text: John 8:31-36
Theme: The Heritage of the Reformation – I Am Ready to Die Today
I. In the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus said, “If you abide in my Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
II. It’s the 6th of July A.D. 1415. And though it is a luminous summer day, it is dark. He’s been in prison for nearly a year, and in these passing days, he has been accused of breaking his vow, of being divisive, of spurring venomous hatred. He has been called a liar. Portrait images depicting a goose being roasted in fire have been posted at every corner, on every bare wall. His surname means “goose.” He has been viciously tried several times, particularly within the last month, and in each trial he has been maligned and harassed and abused before the councils, at one point even being dressed in royal garbs and given a scepter, eerily similar to that of his beloved Lord, Jesus.
He is only here in these chains right now because he was deceived, and yet he is here in these chains also because he is faithful. Sigismund of Hungary, the brother of King Wenceslas, invited him to the city of Constance to discuss his theology, to give him a chance to debate in order to win favor for his position. Perhaps the invitation was an indication of willingness. Perhaps this will be an opportunity for a listening ear. Sigismund gave his word that no harm would befall him. But what this humble priest and agreeable traveler did not know is that a good word of safe passage will never be honored for an accused heretic.
Over the past few years, he has studied the Word and made a discovery, even marking a mantle of his home with the words, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In light of this, he has called sin a sin. He has spoken and written against the sale of indulgences. He has urged that no pope or council has the right to take up the sword for the Church. He has pleaded for repentance among the brother priests and criticized the moral emptiness of the clergy who wantonly engage in prostitution, fathering children out of wedlock and serving their bellies through theft, all easily swept aside within a corrupt economy of penance. He has cried out for the Word to stand as the voice of the true God in His church, not the pope, not the king. And yet, all along, he has proclaimed the Gospel. He has pleaded that God is merciful. He has never stopped offering that man is saved by repentant faith in Jesus Christ, by grace, apart from the works of the Law.
But all of this mortal, and yet even supernatural, toil within the Church Militant, it ends for him today. He is alone. He prays the Psalms as he is taunted, whispering to himself what only his guards are close enough to hear, “I am ready to die today, my dear Jesus. I am ready to die today.” The brothers back home in Prague who gave him support in the University, they are not here. They are far away. But it doesn’t matter anymore. As time has unwound, so also have they. Not long ago, while this dear friend lay bound in prison, they received word that three other brothers had been beheaded for supporting his positions. Fear brings their silence.
He will no longer find solace in the confines of his cell. He now stands at the foot of the chancel steps in the Cathedral at Constance. The Bishop of Lodi has delivered a stinging word against him. The prelate announces his judgment and sentence. He is guilty of heresy and is to be burned at the stake before the setting of the sun. The prisoner speaks up and pleads for the Word of God to be heard, to consider the Word of God, to be convinced by the words of Jesus. His accusers call for his silence. A paper hat is placed on his head which reads in the Czech language “Hieirsiercha”, which means, “a heretic leader.” He is led outside to the courtyard where a sturdy post has already been firmly planted in the earth, towering above a waiting and ruckus crowd. It waits with fitted chains and is surrounded by stacks of kindling wood. He falls to his knees at the post, embraces it as though he loves it, and prays the Psalms again: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore I will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea. Though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains swell at its trembling.”
As he prays, the executioners lift him to his feet. Someone shouts from the crowd that he should be given a confessor. Pappenheim, the imperial marshal charged with carrying out the execution, he calls back that a heretic is undeserving of a confessor. They strip him of his clothing. They turn him to face the crowd and bind his hands behind the post. They pull his head back by fastening a chain around his neck. They fasten an additional chain between his legs and around his waist and secure it to the post to keep him upright and visible in the fire for as long as possible. The guards begin to take wood from the bundles and stack them until only his head is visible. Members of the crowd assist, even a little old woman carries over a few tinder sticks, to which the prisoner can only sigh, “Sancta simplicitas”, “holy simplicity.” Pappenheim drives the people back and calls for the crowd’s silence. He turns to the condemned and asks, “Will you not now recant and save your own life?” Wearied, he answers, “God is my witness. It is the truth of His Gospel that I have written and taught and preached.”
Pappenheim motions and the torches are brought forward. And as the executioners perform their duty, as the crackling fire builds and the smoke and cinders begin their upward drifting spirals into a bright blue sky above Constance which now holds a blackened plume of unearthly sacrifice, the church reporters scribble with their pens that this man, a man whose name many of us have never even heard, John Huss, has called out something more from the flames, just before the blaze overtook him. It was something very strange. It was something that has been discussed for centuries. And whether he meant by his cries the region in which his Biblical discoveries begun had seized a significant footing or that he somehow knew something we didn’t, either way, the record holds that the words were spoken, and they are something to which we Lutherans can reverently and humbly nod as we celebrate the Reformation. John Huss’ scream from the pyre was this: “Today you are roasting a goose, but a swan will rise in Germany which you will not be able to crush!” Sixty-eight years later, a man who would be called the Swan of Germany, Martin Luther, is born. And the Lord Jesus Christ will use this man, giving him courage in the face of the same fires, the same swords and wrath, the same popes and councils and kingdoms arising. Not all will survive the Reformation with their lives, but Luther will live and preach and teach and write of an unstoppable Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for all who believe in the Son, a Gospel that sets man free, a Gospel against which the gates of hell will never prevail.
III. We are not here to preach of Huss. We are not even here to preach of Luther. And even in the story told, you will recognize this. Throughout, you heard of the certainty of the object of one man’s faith. This object sits before you. This is the Gospel fundamental of this pulpit and its preaching. Yes, you built the pulpit, but the Gospel upon which it stands is the eternal Gospel of God. That’s why we are gathered here, 500 years later, sitting in Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church; this is our heritage. We are recipients of this Reformation. We are brothers and sisters in Christ with those who have gone before us and with those who are yet to come, born of an eternal Gospel that sets man free from the bonds of the Law; a Gospel that opens the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers, born of the Lord Jesus Christ who declares to you this day as He has done through the centuries: “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Hear that you are free. Hear that it is this Lord Jesus Christ who has set you free. He has shattered the chains that pin and prop you against posts and fires of the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh. You have nothing to fear. He has given Himself to the cross that you would perish. He has given to you by faith, the fullest measure of His eternal merits against God’s wrath. He has poured them upon you with great bounty in your Baptism. He has instilled them within you by His Holy Supper. He has declared this so with the same power and might that raises the dead and calms the storms in the preaching of the Gospel. And he has made you certain as He, the Son, holds you in your darkest hours and tells you kindly, “My beloved, you are forgiven. You have nothing to fear. Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. I am with you. I, the God of Jacob, am your fortress. In me, you have the Kingdom of Heaven.” It is this Gospel that strengthens you for all things in this temporal and passing life, giving to you what is needed at all times, against all fears, against all trials of the flesh, against all persecutions, against all diseases, against all weapons, against all heights and depths and angels and demons…you, a simple and humble believer, through faith in Christ Jesus, you can say softly with the indwelling voice of the Holy Spirit that shakes this sinful world to its core, given in your Baptism, yes, you can say each day: “I am forgiven. I am ready to die today, my dear Jesus. I am ready to die today.”
In the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.