So we could talk today about any follower of Jesus, past or present, as a saint. I could talk about any of the faithful departed from this congregation, and I know that names and faces will immediately come to mind – anyone who entered into their eternal rest hearing the words of Jesus, Well done, you good and faithful servant. I could talk about any of my relations who are now gone, who carved out lives for themselves and their families and descendants in the rough bush country of the Saint John River Valley in New Brunswick. For some reason the other day I was thinking of my relative Mary Johnson, who emigrated from Sweden to the United States when she was 16, in 1875, and married my great great uncle Burrell Hatfield when he was working in Massachusetts. She was active in the Advent Christian Church in Woodstock, New Brunswick.When anyone would visit her she would tell them, “Well, you’re looking good, but then again I don’t see so good.”
A Song of Faith of The United Church of Canada says:
Our ancestors in faith bequeath to us experiences of their faithful living; upon their lives are lives are built. Our living of the gospel makes us part of this communion of saints, experiencing the fulfillment of God’s reign even as we actively anticipate a new heaven and a new earth.I’ve been quoting other words from a Song of Faith, that “Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word passed on from generation to generation to guide and inspire.” So part of the legacy of faithful living the saints have given to us is guidance and inspiration through Scripture. As this is the third sermon of our three-part series on Scripture, I want to talk today about saints and the Bible – not just the saints we find in the Bible, Matthew and Mark and Peter and Paul and Andrew and Mary Magdalene and the others, but those who wrote the Bible and worked so that Scripture can be passed on from generation to generation.
I was given a little book when I was in Sunday School: How We Got Our Bible, by Lucy Diamond, telling the story of how the Bible came to Britain and was passed on from Roman times to the publication of the King James Bible in English. One of the chapters is titled A Scholar of the Cotswolds, and it tells the story of one saint, William Tyndale. He was born in Gloucestershire about the time of the voyages of Columbus to the New World. I spent a week in this part of England, called the Cotswolds, this summer.
When Tyndale went to university he was drawn to the new ideas coming out of Europe, where, as we talked about last week, Martin Luther had kicked off the Protestant Reformation. Ordained as a priest, Tyndale often won debates with his fellow clergy because of his knowledge of Scripture. I mentioned last Sunday that this was a time when few people, including clergy, actually read the Bible. The Bible then was only in Latin, and Tyndale declared that he would translate it into English, telling a priest opposing him that “if God spares my life, I will see that a boy who drives a plough shall know more of the Scriptures than you do.”
I remember reading in this book how Tyndale’s life was “toil and privation, suffering and restless exile. For twelve years he lived as a wanderer, harried and driven from place to place.” When he finally finished translating the New Testament from Greek, a crowd burned the print shop and Tyndale only managed to snatch the pages from the press before he escaped. This English-language New Testament was then smuggled into England under the eyes of the King’s men, hidden in bales, sacks, and barrels, or landed from fishing boats. 15,000 printed New Testaments were read eagerly, to the horror of the bishops and King Henry, who burned any copies they could find, and burned several of Tyndale’s friends too. The campaign of suppression was so thorough that there are only three copies of Tyndale’s New Testament still in existence.
Tyndale then began translating the Old Testament from Hebrew. He got as far as Chronicles before he was betrayed by a friend to the men of the Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled much of Europe and had been asked by Henry VIII to arrest this man who had defied the King and bishops. Tyndale was imprisoned in what is now Belgium, tortured, tried, and condemned. In 1536, at the age of 41, William Tyndale, who consecrated his life to making God’s Word available to the people of England in their own language, was strangled and his body burned at the stake. His last words were, “O Lord, open the eyes of the King of England.”
Well, those eyes were opened, and Henry actually allowed publication of the Bible in English, and only three years after Tyndale’s martyrdom the King and bishops ordered that there be an English Bible in every church for anyone to read.
There are monuments to Tyndale, in Westminster Abbey and in the Cotswolds. But his real monument is in words, a legacy enshrined in the English language and in the English Bibles that followed his. Because of Tyndale we have phrases like “a man after his own heart,” “the living God,” “sick to death,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “the apple of his eye,” “a stranger in a strange land,” and the word “beautiful.” And to him above all others we owe the English Bible as our song for the journey, the living word passed from generation to generation. Those who drive the plough do indeed know the Scriptures better than the clergy of Tyndale’s time.
Brothers and sisters, we may not know anyone translating the Bible, although that work continues today – in fact, I’ve met the translators into Mohawk. We may not know any martyrs for the faith, although Christians are suffering as Tyndale did in places like Pakistan and Syria, Nigeria and Iraq: places where, as Jesus said, his followers are hated, excluded, reviled and defamed on his account, and we must pray as Tyndale did, “O Lord, open the eyes of the rulers of the world.”
We may not know anyone like that. But we do know followers of Jesus who went before us, those we have known and loved, who have spoken to our hearts and touched us with God’s Spirit: parents and grandparents, spouses, children, relatives, friends, ancestors. They may not have been saints with a capital S, enshrined in statues and plaques and stained glass windows. But they have been saints, with a small S, who left us a legacy of simple, little actions every day that add up to a lifetime of faith, and who inspire us to live faithfully. Thanks be to God.