Born in London in 1478, Thomas More studied classics and then the law, being called to the Bar at twenty-three years old. His clear honesty and integrity impressed Henry VIII and he appointed Thomas as his Chancellor. He supported the king in his efforts to reform the clergy but disagreed over Henry’s disputes with the papacy, caused by the king’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and to find another queen who might provide him with a male heir. Henry could stand no such act of defiance and imprisoned his chancellor in the hope that he would renege. Thomas refused to take the Oath on the Act of Succession, which declared the king to be the only protector and supreme head of the Church in England, and was executed for treason in July 1535, declaring that he died the king’s good servant but God’s first.
John Fisher was Thomas More’s close friend and ally. A brilliant academic, he had substantially reformed the life of the University of Cambridge, through the wealth and influence of his patron, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. He was made Bishop of Rochester and proved himself to be a good pastor to his small diocese. As with Thomas, Henry VIII much admired him at first, but when he opposed the king their relationship deteriorated. Aged sixty-six and in indifferent health, he nevertheless endured the trauma of imprisonment in the Tower of London. He was executed just two weeks before Thomas in July 1535.
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture — ‘I believed, and so I spoke’ — we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
It must have been lonely for More and Fisher as they defended their scholarly understanding and principles of their faith against a powerful king who had decided to go his own way, make his own rules and look after his own interests. Yet they resolutely stood against Henry – and paid the ultimate price.
Sometimes it might feel like that for churches struggling to bring new disciples to Christ. What price will we pay?
21st century culture can seem self-centred, and perhaps some people (like Henry 500 years earlier) go their own way, make their own rules and look after their own interests. It’s that ‘because I’m worth it’ culture. Can we live in 21st century consumerist Western world and still share Christ’s message of love?
Paul pulled no punches as he wrote his second letter to the Christians in Corinth when they were facing similar conflicts of interest. He pointed out that God chose to trust the powerful and life-giving gospel message to people who were like common ‘clay jars’ (used for everyday storage, and probably chipped or cracked – not for guests).
It’s an important lesson for today: God still trusts that powerful and life-giving gospel message to ordinary people, who can expect to be ‘afflicted in every way, but not crushed…’.
It’s God’s message, not ours, and it’s up to us – the ordinary people – to share it from within the culture of our time. With confidence we need to challenge what is wrong, and speak out for what is right, knowing our actions and words are true, because like More and Fisher, we’ve grasped opportunities to learn.
As our friends and companions begin to understand why we do what we do and say what we say, we embark on the path that will eventually bring new disciples to Christ.
Lord, We know that you call us to make new disciples, and know that no-one said it will be easy. Help us to be confident in talking about our faith. Help us to work within our own culture. Help us to accept that this is your message. Help us to feel that you are with us at all times. Give us strength when we feel afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down. Amen
Linda Rayner. URC Co-ordinator for Fresh Expressions