On this day, 458 years ago, Nicholas Ridley, the deprived Bishop of London, and Hugh Latimer, the former Bishop of Worcester, were burned alive in Oxford, England, for adhering to the Protestant Heresy and opposing Queen Mary’s ascendancy upon the death of her brother Edward VI. As the story goes, Latimer died fairly quickly, but the wood that formed the pyre on which Ridley was placed was green, and it burned slowly. His trousers and legs caught on fire, but the flames didn’t reach above his waist. In agony, he cried out repeatedly, “Lord, have mercy upon me! I cannot burn…Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn!” Eventually, a bystander was moved with compassion and carried a torch over to Ridley and lit the wood pile from the top.
I cannot imagine being burned alive. I cannot imagine caring about something so deeply that I would choose such a horrendous death over recantation. I cannot imagine a world in which my faith—the Christian faith and Anglican tradition as I understand it—was so threatening that I might be killed for it.
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus said to his disciples, “They will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” He knew the end that his disciples would meet. He knew the terrible, painful, awful deaths that they would die. He knew that they would be rejected just as he would be. Yet he wanted them to remember that they would be hated by the world because of their love for him and for the Father.
Would you die for your faith? It’s a silly question, perhaps. I don’t know anyone in Alabama whose looking to burn people at the stake because they aren’t the right kind of Christian. And I have the luxury—the freedom—to profess my faith in a country where Christians aren’t killed simply for being Christians. But I wonder whether the heresy pyre is closer than we think.
I received an e-mail this morning—a forwarded e-mail—that mentioned a conservative Christian organization that is under attack from the “liberal media” and other “leftist groups” for being a “hate group.” I started to delete the e-mail without reading it, but something about it drew me in. I’ve got people in my parish who are proudly a part of those “leftist groups” who label certain conservative Christian organizations as “hate groups.” And I have people in my parish who use terms like “leftist groups” to describe those organization who disagree with their deeply held beliefs. Yet somehow we come to church together every Sunday and do so with a genuine respect and love for each other. Probably, that’s because we’re not forwarding everyone in the congregation all of the e-mails we receive. If we did, things might get a little bit hairy around here.
So back to Ridley and Latimer. Yes, they were killed for being Protestants. Yes, they were killed for supporting the movement to get Lady Jane Grey on the throne instead of Mary. Yes, many people were killed because they disagreed with whoever was in power about things like papal and regnal authority. And, no, no one is going around burning people at the stake for using grape juice instead of wine at Communion. But it’s right under the surface. We’re one step away from shunning people we think we love because their e-mail inbox is filled with e-mails from groups that our own groups have labeled as wrong, bad, terrorist, hateful, un-American, etc..
So what did Jesus say to his disciples? Grab a sword and a club and a torch and hunt down all of the people who disagree with you because we know that we’re right and that God is on our side? No. Instead, he said, “Remember the word that I said to you, `Servants are not greater than their master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also…I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.” Stay faithful. Yes, take a stand for what you believe in and perhaps even accept death for your convictions, but don’t be the one who lights the flame underneath someone who threatens you and what you believe in. The stand Jesus asks us to take is one of vulnerability. It’s one with palms open and arms extended—not with fists clinched and arms raised in battle. Stop persecuting other people—even if they’re wrong, even if they’re bad, even if they’re unchristian or un-American. Stay faithful. Let that be enough.