Isaiah 55:6-11 (OT page 685)
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 For 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,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
If you don’t speak Latin, and if you were able to hear and understand the words of the scripture passage we just read, you have one person to thank more than any other: John Wycliffe.
John Wycliffe was not a Presbyterian, and he lived almost 150 years before the start of the 16th century Reformation that gave birth to the Protestant movement, but he is often called the “Morning Star” of the Reformation.
The planet Venus is the original “morning star,” and it shines most brightly in the night sky just a few hours before dawn. It has long been a signal to sailors, travelers, and astronomers that the darkness is almost over, and a new day is about to begin.
In the same way, Wycliffe was a lone beacon of light in a dark time for the Christian church (the end of the medieval period). He was also a harbinger, a precursor to several new converging eras of social, political, artistic, cultural, scientific and religious renewal: The Renaissance, the Reformation, and ultimately the Enlightenment.
Of course, Wycliffe alone was not responsible for all these movements. In his own lifetime, his key ideas were rejected and condemned by the church, by his peers, and by his country. But in the centuries that followed, these same ideas found widespread acceptance by religious leaders, academics, philosophers, and political theorists.
When Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, spoke of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” he was quoting John Wycliffe.
So who was this man that was so ahead of his time? I can’t possibly do justice to all his contributions in the remaining 15 minutes of this sermon, but I want to give a quick sketch of his life, and then focus on just two of his ideas that are still very much a part of our church DNA today.
John Wycliffe was born on a sheep farm in Northern England sometime around the year 1320. He left home to attend Oxford University, where he remained for the rest of his life, serving there as a pastor and professor. As a young man, he was profoundly impacted by the Black Plague, which decimated the population of Europe, and was responsible for the death of many of his friends and peers. At Oxford, Wycliffe studied mathematics and the natural sciences, and eventually gravitated to philosophy and theology. By the time he earned his doctorate, he was widely considered Oxford’s leading scholar.
This was during the time of the “Western Schism” when the medieval Catholic church split in two, and there were two popes, each one claiming to be the “real pope” and demanding that England (already in poverty and debt as a result of the plague and several wars) pay tribute to its faction and not the other. Wycliffe advised his country’s leaders to pay neither party. He believed that the church should not have authority over the state, and that a wealthy church in Rome was too far removed from the example of Christ and his disciples, who wandered from place to place without acquiring any great wealth.
This didn’t sit well with church authorities, who charged him with heresy, for the first of many times throughout his life. Wycliff gained a substantial following among the poor people of his country (as well as several members of the nobility), and he was clever enough to stay just out of reach of church authorities, though he was eventually removed (by the church) from his teaching post at Oxford. He continued to write, to preach, and to argue for church reform right up until he died of a stroke at the age of 64.
30 years after his death, the Catholic church was finally able to declare him a heretic, and had his bones dug up, burned, and thrown into the Avon river. One of his biographers noted that Wycliffe’s bones were much easier to dispose of than his teachings, saying “Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocdean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”
One of Wycliffe’s key ideas–the one that really drove church leaders in his time crazy–was that the Bible (and not the policies of church leaders) should be the primary authoritative rule in people’s spiritual lives. And for that to be possible, people needed to be able to read it…in their own language. This was, at the time, prohibited by the church, which felt that the Bible was too complicated for the average person to understand without the proper education, in Latin, and in acceptable church teachings.
Wycliffe put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. He translated all of the gospels into English, and most of the New Testament. He enlisted the help of other friends and scholars to translate the Old Testament, and so his Bible, known as the Wycliffe Bible, became the first complete Bible translated into the English language. It had a profound effect on the language at the time, and helped to standardize English across several dialects.
In arguing for his translation, Wycliffe is known to have said, “Englishmen learn Christ’s law best in English. Moses heard God’s law in his own tongue; so did Christ’s apostles.” We take it for granted today that anyone who can read, can pick up a Bible and understand what it has to say. But throughout Christianity–in Protestant and Catholic traditions alike–we owe this to John Wycliffe, and his belief that if the seed of God’s Word is allowed to go out and spread among God’s people, it shall not be returned empty.
The second idea of Wycliffe’s that I want to highlight comes from his approach to Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. There was a practice in the medieval church where everyone got to eat the bread, but only the priest could drink from the cup. Everyone else had to just look at it, in the hopes that it would affect them in some positive way.
Wycliffe believed that everyone should have access to all the elements of communion whenever it was served. His training in science and philosophy also put him in opposition to the medieval doctrine called “transubstantiation”–the belief that when the priest said the words of institution and rang the bell, that the bread was literally transformed into the flesh of Jesus, and the wine was literally transformed into his blood.
Wycliffe didn’t buy that. He believed that Christ was present in a real, tangible way when the sacrament took place, but that the bread remained bread, and the wine remained wine. Why is this so important? Once again, the medieval church used the doctrine of transubstantiation as a form of power–only the priest can make the elements transform into Christ’s body and blood, and if they don’t say their magic words (or if you don’t have an authorized priest) then it isn’t real, it isn’t effective. Wycliffe believed that the Lord’s table, and the practice of the Lord’s supper, was a gift for everyone, not something to be given as a reward, and withheld as a punishment.
This is a belief that we here at First Presbyterian Church embrace passionately. And we are thankful to reformers like Wycliffe, who long ago stood up for that belief and helped people to understand its importance.
We are thankful to those who came after him, who took up the torch and kept passing it down to others, who kept translating the scriptures, reading them and teaching them to others, right down to the present day.
And we are thankful for those who continue, in this era, to advocate for change and reform in the church where it is needed, and also where it is needed, for a return to the most simple and to the very best in our ancient practices and beliefs.
May we remember them, may we honor them, and may we hear them when they speak God’s word to us today.