20th Weekend After Pentecost (B/RCL): “God’s Word: Just Do It!”
October 10-11, 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
The story goes that my Grandma Flossie Horton was visited by her parish priest one day back in the 50’s. She was pleased and proud to show him the Bible she had acquired, so she could add Scripture reading to her daily devotions. He was not pleased, but downright alarmed. He vehemently told her, “Mrs. Horton, please put that away. Reading it will only confuse you. You’ll learn all you need to know by listening at Mass.” My Grandma, a dear woman of deep faith, did as she was told. She continued to spend an hour in prayer each morning and a couple each afternoon, but she dropped the Bible from her reading list for good.
Our epistle from Hebrews (4:12) this weekend begins with these words:
“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword....”
But how was my grandma to know that? I’m sure she accepted it on faith. But it would have been hard for her to experience the Word’s power firsthand – because she was discouraged from reading it herself and until 1964 only heard Scripture read in Latin, not English, during worship.
600 years earlier someone realized that the Word would be better served and the people would understand the Gospel message a lot more clearly if they read or heard Scripture in their own language and not in a foreign tongue. John Wycliffe, an Englishman, translated the Bible from Greek into English in 1382. There were no printing presses, so it was all written out long-hand. It caused quite a stir. Within 20 years, it had become a matter of heresy (terrible denial of the true faith) to translate the Bible into English or even to read an English version of the Bible. Wycliffe died of a stroke in 1384, but 31 years later, in 1415, he was declared a heretic, his works were burned, and so was his body after they dug up his grave and exhumed it. Wycliffe’s cremains were then thrown into the river as part of his post-mortem punishment.
Jan Hus from Bohemia (present day Czechoslovakia) was born about 10 years before Wycliffe died. He grew up to admire and share Wycliffe’s love of Scripture and desire for reform within the Church. He was ordained, preached against current unsavory practices of the Church and ran afoul of the powers-that-be. He was ordered to take back what he’d said, to stop preaching and to burn all of Wycliffe’s writings that he had hand-copied. He refused. He and the whole city of Prague where he lived and ministered were excommunicated. He left the city so the people could receive the sacraments again.
In 1415 the Church authorities caught up with him. The same Council of Constance that had condemned John Wycliffe posthumously ordered Jan Hus imprisoned and tried for heresy. Much like Luther when he stood before the papal tribunal, Hus refused to retract his teachings or beliefs. He said, “I would not, for a chapel full of gold, recede from the truth.” 1 He was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. It is said that he died singing, “Christ, Thou Son of the Living God, have mercy upon me.”2
A hundred years later Martin Luther translated Scripture from the original languages into German. He survived the experience, though one of his English colleagues did not. Last Tuesday, Oct. 6, we remembered William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament and part of the Old into English. Since the time of John Wycliffe, that had been considered heretical. Henry VIII had Tyndale captured in Europe where he had fled from persecution and sought Luther’s aid. Tyndale was imprisoned and tried. The king’s court convicted him of heresy and treason, and ordered him strangled, then burned at the stake.
It is said that Tyndale’s last words were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”3 That prayer was answered just three years later when King Henry VIII reversed himself and ordered the preparation and printing of an English Bible -- based on Tyndale’s work.
1) Why was the translation of the Bible into everyday language so important to Wycliffe, Hus, Luther and Tyndale that they risked their lives to do it??
2) Why did the Church consider Bible translation a heresy??
The people who risked their lives to put the Bible into our hands in our own language believed with all their hearts, like the author of Hebrews, that “the word of God is living and active.” They believed that the written Word of God is God’s message to us – and that God is waiting for a response. For the Jewish people, a word was not just an inanimate object on a page. A word made things happen. It was a catalyst that set into motion a series of events. Remember what Isaiah heard the Lord say?
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I [intend] purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
This is the best explanation I found for what it means that God’s word is living and active:
When people take God seriously they immediately realize that his word is not only something to be studied, something to be read, something to be written about; it is something to be done.4
Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Tyndale, all believed that God sets out expectations and promises in God’s Word, and God expects us to respond. But how can we respond if we don’t understand the lingo and never get the Message? Those advocates of Scripture in a language we speak wanted to be sure we understand God’s expectations and the blessing we can expect if we hear and obey God, and the heartache we can anticipate if we don’t.
And that helps us begin to understand why the translation of Scripture was so threatening to the institutional Church:
· The prevailing thought was that no one could outdo Jerome who had translated the Hebrew Bible from the Greek Septuagint into Latin around 400 A.D. For the following 1,000 years Jerome was considered divinely inspired, and a saint. How can you improve upon perfection? The official Church figured that if someone wanted to translate on their own, they intended to make changes. They assumed those would-be translators had ulterior and subversive motives for changing the status quo. That was considered threatening, dangerous and not-to-be-tolerated. There was a lot of political, social, religious change going on at the time. The keepers of tradition were on high alert.
· Translating Scripture into the people’s language would also mean that clergy who knew Latin would no longer be needed as translators/intermediaries to interpret the Word to the uneducated.
· Scripture in the people’s own language would enable them to dip into and dwell in the Word themselves. Then they might decide that current Church practice wasn’t blessed by the Bible. Maybe they’d discern that current Church practice was rooted in human tradition rather than divine command.
People died in the process of bringing God’s Word to us, translating it into our language. We are able to read the Word, to worship, without fear of persecution, and certainly without fear of execution. Do we take advantage of that freedom? Do we believe that God’s word is living and active? In us? In our world? Only the Holy Spirit can convince us that the Word is not just words, but an event, a catalyst, an invitation to which God expects a response. If you don’t know how to begin engaging the Word, start by picking up Christ in Our Home, the daily prayer book in the pews. Also take home the Celebrate sheet, and look up the assigned Scripture reading for each day of the week, printed on the bottom of the last page. “Little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the mighty land.” You can even pop into our Small Catechism series, where we touch upon different Scriptures each week. Unlike the message my grandma got, I believe reading the Bible will delight and enlighten you, and not confuse you! Amen
1Ken Curtis, Ph.D. “John Hus: Faithful unto Death,” Christianity.com.
3”William Tyndale,” BBC History on-line.
4William Barclay, The Letter to the Hebrews (rev. ed., The Daily Study Bible Series, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), p. 39.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham