Saturday, July 12, 2014

Summer of Saints: Becket and More

When I was growing up, we attended the First Baptist Church in Shreveport, LA. My father worked in the sound booth at the back of the balcony in church. So I’d often get to go up with him for the service.

On the back wall, above the sound booth are two large flags—American and Christian. And there is something unique about that American flag in that church. It’s the current configuration of the stars and stripes, but it is not red, white, and blue. It’s red, white and purple.

The flag looks like it’s made of silk, so maybe that has something to do with the reason for the odd color. And I’m not sure, but I think the blue field on the Xn flag is purple too. Seeing those stars on that blueish purple field left an impression on me. Since the only red, white, and purple American flag I’ve ever seen is in a church, it reminds me that America should look different from a Christian perspective. As a people with dual citizenship—in our country and in God’s kingdom—we can transcend the merely secular point of view.

With that in mind, I wanted to talk about two English saints today. That might seem like a strange choice so close to our own Independence Day. But these are two martyrs who became martyrs because they stood up for the liberties of God’s people against the tyranny of the crown—Sir Thomas More and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.

More’s memory has (of course) been celebrated by Roman Catholics in England since Reformation times. He was officially canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and he has been recognized on the Church of England’s calendar since 1980. His Anglican feast day is actually today, July 6th.

Opposition to Lutheran ideas spreading through Europe was one of the things that More shared with King Henry VIII. Some have even suggested that More helped Henry write his book denouncing Luther that won him the papal title Defender of the Faith. But then it was religious opinions that drove them apart.

Henry became convinced that he was cursed and that his marriage to his sister-in-law Catherine of Aragon was invalid. The King sought a judgment of annulment from the pope, who just happened to be a prisoner of Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V. So the pope kept putting off a response to the king’s request.

A papal legate had heard the case in England, but been recalled before giving judgment. The king asked why he even had to appeal the matter to a foreign bishop at all. There were plenty of bishops in England who could decide the matter. This led to a series of parliamentary bills which renounced all papal jurisdiction in England and let the annulment be granted locally.

As chancellor, More was the only one of the King’s advisers to oppose both the quest for an annulment and the King’s new title Supreme Head of the Church of England. He hoped to resign and retire quietly, but his hand was forced. As a former high official he had to take the Oath of Supremacy which included the title that More felt not only trampled upon the rights of the church to govern its own affairs, but also intruded upon the law of Christ.

His refusal along with only one bishop (John Fisher of Rochester) was considered treason. Both were beheaded in 1535 for standing up for the church’s rights. More’s last words were, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Another Thomas (Becket) had lost his life in the king’s service for similar reasons. 400 years earlier, Thomas Becket and King Henry II became close friends. Becket was a nobleman and a politician who was also a deacon. Seeing his administrative skills, the king appointed him chancellor. And because he had proved so capable and such a loyal friend, King Henry secured Becket’s election as Archbishop of Canterbury.

The King thought the move would help consolidate his power over church and state. But God began to work on Thomas’s heart after his consecration. His pastoral responsibilities changed him. Becket loved his flock. Instead of being the king’s puppet, he became his bitter rival as Becket vigorously defended the rights of the church.

The feud became so contentious that Becket lived in exile in France for 6 years. He returned to England through a fragile truce which didn’t last long. After grumbling about Thomas, some knights did the king a favor and went to the cathedral to rid him of the troublesome archbishop. Before he was beheaded, Becket said, “Willingly I die for the name of Jesus, and in the defense of the Church.” The king did public penance after the slaughter.

The event helped solidify the Charter of Liberties, and later the Magna Carta, whose first clause is “the Church of England shall be free,” and which enshrined those rights of the church (that two Thomas’ died defending) into England’s developing constitution.

Both Thomases were basically politicians, both chancellors of England, both devoted public servants, both loyal to a King Henry as a personal friend, both had the experience of a growing faith and devotion to God which became stronger and stronger as pressure on them grew, and both, in the end, decided to follow their consciences by being obedient to God rather than to men.

As I’ve said before, it will become more and more difficult in the coming years to be a faithful Christian in our changing culture that is leaving its heritage. Some may even argue that an American that sees red, white, purple on the flag and had pledged to follow God first might love his country less.

I believe that the love of God helps a Christian love his country more, not less. We are people who recognize that all of us are created equal—in the same image of the same God, who gave us the rights we enjoy. Like Thomas Becket and Thomas More, we will not stand idly by and let mere men try to take away what God has given. We are America’s good servants, but God’s first.

I believe that this nation is the greatest on earth. I think America might be the greatest country that ever has been. And if God will give us saints like Becket and More, then God will have truly blessed America.

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