The Witness of the Martyrs

by Rev. L. John Gable

The Witness of the Martyrs by Rev. L. John Gable
October 30, 2016

On this All Saints/Reformation Sunday, we mark and remember the movement within the Christian Church we have come to call the Protestant Reformation which began in 1517 under the leadership of the German monk, Martin Luther.  The movement was precipitated by his nailing of 95 theses- questions – concerns he had on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral, which would be the modern day equivalent of creating a website or starting a blog, to discuss the important issues of the day.  Luther’s intention was never to begin a new religious tradition, but rather to address and reform the abuses he saw in the Roman Catholic Church of his day.  As we have discussed during these past couple of weeks, the three-fold theological stool of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone being the authority for our faith), Sola Fide and Sola Christus (faith alone in Christ alone as the means by which we receive God’s grace and the gift of salvation) and the Biblical teaching of “the priesthood of all believers.”  Today perhaps we hear nothing shocking or controversial about these teachings, however in the 16th century, Luther’s actions touched off a firestorm of reform which spread throughout Europe and around the world, and not without great cost and a good measure of bloodshed, particularly in those early years.

Whenever we receive new members we ask them to publicly profess their (and our) faith, which they are glad to do.  However, I wonder if they, or we, would do so quite so readily if the stakes were higher, the cost of discipleship greater?  By no means am I intending to minimize the import of their or our commitment when we say “I am a Christian”; however, I find myself wondering if I would be quite so willing to make that confession if the cost were great, if the stakes were higher.  I can only pray I would.

We read just a portion of Hebrews 11, the so called “faith chapter”, and I will encourage you to read that chapter in its entirety today, because we did not do it justice; it is a sermon in and of itself.  After listing the heroes and heroines of our faith, beginning with Abraham on, in effect the author of the letter concludes by saying, “And what more should I say of the countless number of nameless men and women who suffered greatly, many of whom paid the ultimate price for the faith by the giving of their very lives?”  In that same vein, we are all familiar with the names of the great leaders of the Reformation, the likes of Luther, Calvin and Knox, and perhaps a few of us could come up with other names, such as Melanchthon, Zwingli and Bullinger, but as is so often the case in any great movement, the real heroes and heroines of the Reformation are those who lived and fought and even died for their faith and for their Protestant convictions, the vast majority of whom we will never be able to call by name.  Let me tell you the story of two such heroes I met in St. Andrews, Scotland, a number of years ago.

We all know St. Andrews today for it’s golfing legacy, but just up the hill from the first tee box on the Old Course, just a five iron away from the Royal and Ancient Academy building, on a beautiful point overlooking the North Sea, is a magnificent monument, not to those who died in any of the great wars protecting that land, but to five who died waging the battle of the Reformation among them Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart.

Patrick Hamilton was born in Glasgow in 1504, the son of a prominent family with direct lineage to Scottish royalty.  He began his preparation for the priesthood while still a teenager and was privileged to study in Paris, where as a young student, he encountered the writings of Martin Luther which were creating quite a stir of controversy.  Returning to Scotland he elected to continue his studies at the University of St. Andrews and there drew attention to himself by promoting many of the reformed doctrines he had taken hold of.  In early 1527 he drew the ire of the Archbishop of St. Andrews, one James Beaton, who ordered that the young priest should be formally tried for heresy.  Hamilton fled to Germany, where he had occasion to meet both Luther and Melanchthon, before enrolling in the newly formed University of Marburg where he met other young men also taken by the Reformation teachings.

Late in the summer of 1527 Patrick Hamilton returned to Scotland where he married a young woman of noble rank and began preaching frequently.  He was invited by the Archbishop to return to St. Andrews to attend a conference and defend his views.  Recognizing the great risk, but remaining true to his convictions, Hamilton accepted the invitation and for nearly a month was allowed to preach and dispute the tenets of the faith.  In retrospect, the invitation was nothing more than a ploy to provide adequate evidence against him.

At length, he was summoned before a council of bishops and priests, presided over by the Archbishop himself.  There were thirteen charges leveled against him, among them the cornerstone doctrine of justification by faith alone (Sola Fide), and on examination Hamilton maintained the truth of all of the charges brought against him.  On February 29, 1528, the council found him guilty of all charges and condemned him as a heretic.  He was seized and surrendered without incident on the assurance that he would be released to his friends without injury.  Yet that was not to be the case, the council ordered him to be burned at the stake that same day outside the Chapel at the old St. Andrew’s college.  To this day his initials, PH, are visible in the cobblestone on the very spot.  The courageous bearing of that 24 year old attracted more attention than ever to the doctrines for which he suffered, and his death greatly helped to spread the flame of the Reformation throughout Scotland.

Yet Patrick Hamilton was not alone in his sacrifice.  In 1544 another young man, George Wishart, gifted by God to preach the Gospel, took up his calling in the town of Montrose, Scotland.  He later moved to Dundee and attracted quite a following by preaching on the book of Romans.  The clergy in that community were distressed by the success of this young man, so much so that Cardinal David Beaton, the nephew of Archbishop James Beaton who had earlier condemned Patrick Hamilton, ordered Wishart to cease preaching. He moved on from Dundee, but found the pulpit closed to him in every city he entered, so he proceeded to preach in town squares and open markets with great success.

Eventually he made his way to the capital city of Edinburgh where he met and was befriended by a young preacher named John Knox.  He explained to Knox that he was tired of this world because he perceived that people were becoming weary of God.  Despite his dismay, he went out that afternoon and preached to a crowd in the town of Haddington.  That proved to be his last sermon.

Cardinal Beaton persuaded the governor to apprehend him following the service and he was taken immediately to St. Andrews.  On February 27, 1546 George Wishart was summoned to appear before a council to answer for his heretical views.  The court found him guilty as charged and sentenced him to be burned at the stake immediately to safeguard against any attempts at his rescue.

The following day, two soldiers escorted Wishart to the place of execution.  He addressed the crowd gathered there and told them he suffered with a glad heart.  One of his executioners even asked him for forgiveness, which he extended by drawing him close and kissing him on the cheek.  Today his initials, GW, remain on the pavement outside the ruins of the St. Andrew’s castle where he was executed.

Protestant tempers were running hot.  Three months later, in May of 1546, a handful of men attacked the castle of Cardinal Beaton in St. Andrews to avenge George Wishart’s death.  They murdered the Cardinal and seized control of the castle which they then held for two years.  When the French later attacked and occupied the castle they took those inside as galley slaves.  One of those present was John Knox, the young preacher who had earlier befriended Wishart, the same John Knox who, years later, would bring the Reformation in Scotland to its completion and become the father of American Presbyterianism.

Why, we may ask, is it important for us to hear these stories? Because, in much the same way the writer of the book of Hebrews intended, we are directly connected to those who have gone before us in one, continuous, centuries-long, chain of faith.  Their faith becomes our faith as it is passed down, one generation to another, joining us, one link at a time, to one another, as we are joined to Christ.

So today we give thanks for those who have gone before us in the faith, for their courage, their witness, their faithfulness in the face of suffering and the threat of death.  But friends, the chain of faith is not intended to extend to us and then be broken.  There are still others, our children and grandchildren, as well as countless others we may never know by name, coming after us, to whom we are charged to pass the faith through our courage and witness and faithfulness.  Using the imagery of athletes entering the arena at the end of the marathon, the author of Hebrews commends us in this way.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, (those who have gone before us, the likes of Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, as well as those who are standing with us today) let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of God.”

On this All Saints/Reformation Sunday, let us consider once again the cost of our discipleship and the price we are willing to pay in witness to the One who made the ultimate sacrifice, the One who was willing to die for us and for our salvation.  And let us give thanks for all those who have gone before us, who by their faith and courage and sacrifice have enabled us to join this great cloud of witnesses.  Amen.