Moravian Church Memorial Day: The Martyrdom of Jan Hus
(This is the text of a short sermon preached at Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast on Sunday 5th July 2015)
Let us reflect on that timeless phrase written in Ecclesiasticus 44:1 – ‘Let us now sing the praises of famous men.’
And that is indeed what we gather here to do: to commemorate Jan Hus, or John Huss, an ecclesiastical reformer and martyr, who as I am sure you will know, is sometimes referred to as the ‘pre-reformation reformer’. Hus was famous, but not because he had any desire to be; in fact he had no desire to be anything other than faithful to the message of Christ; it was that fidelity that would eventually earn him the moniker of martyr.
Born in Southern Bohemia in 1369, Hus studied theology in Prague, trained as a priest and was ordained in 1400. After a relatively short, but tumultuous period, he was excommunicated by the Church in 1411 and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415 following his trial (of sorts) and public condemnation as a heretic at the Council of Constance.
Millions of Christians worldwide, across the denominations, but particularly Moravians, hold Jan Hus in very high regard, and rightly so. His tenacious and steadfast denouncement of what he regarded as erroneous practices and belief, and his defence of the primacy of conscience in the vein of Martin Luther, convinced many in Moravia and beyond that radical and urgent ecclesiastical reform was required. It was Hus who coherently and articulately railed against a medieval Church that was elitist, corrupt and wayward, exploiting the people it had a duty to protect. Indeed he once wrote these very powerful words: “The church shines in its walls, but starves in its poor saints; it clothes its stones with gold, but leaves its children naked.” (http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/JohnHusThePreReformer.htm).
Hus was broadly a proponent of John Wycliffe’s philosophy and theology, which was incendiary at the time. He emphasized personal piety, the centrality and authority of the scriptures and the place of Christ as the only head of the Church. Although he was eventually permitted a public hearing before the Council of Constance, he was not given permission to either present or defend his own views; rather he would only be permitted to answer spurious charges formulated by those who had a pre-ordained agenda to see him convicted. The facts, which Hus was confident he could present and defend, were not to be debated in any meaningful way. He was willing to be corrected and retract, only if his pronouncements were found to be contrary to Scripture, but he was never given that opportunity (New International Dictionary of the Christian Church: HUS, JAN (1373-1415).
On the 6th July, the final thirty articles were read to the general congregation of the council in the cathedral; none of these articles was a fair reflection of Hus’s teachings. He refused to recant views which he did not hold and was declared an ‘obstinate heretic’ and sentenced to the ultimate punishment – death.
He was burnt at the stake in what was a barbaric, cruel and unimaginably painful punishment; Joan of Arc followed him not long thereafter.
In Hus’ own words: “What fear shall part us from God, or what death? What shall we lose if for His sake we forfeit wealth, friends, the world’s honours and our poor life? It is better to die well than to live badly. We dare not sin to avoid the punishment of death. To end in grace the present life is to be banished from misery. Truth is the last conqueror. He wins who is slain, for no adversity `hurts him if no iniquity has dominion over him.” (http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/JohnHusThePreReformer.htm).
Luther later condemned the burning of Hus and wrote of him, “If such a man is to be regarded as a heretic, then no person under the sun can be looked upon as a true Christian.” (http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/JohnHusThePreReformer.htm).
That list of true Christians, particularly those who like Hus died as martyrs, is a long one, starting with James, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, and Stephen. Our New Testament reading this morning recounts Stephen experience. Stephen’s ‘defence’ in front of the Sanhedrin court was hardly that: it was more of a proclamation of the Christian message. He spoke eloquently and systematically in relation to the issues he viewed as pertinent and of relevance to his audience. At the time he spoke – before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 – , the three main strands of the Jewish faith people were focused on related to the land, the law, and the temple (Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary). And it is to these concerns that Stephen directs his energy and polemic…..a process that would lead inexorably to his death by stoning. We read of Stephen’s enduring faith as his body is tortured and his life ebbs away: Ac 7:59 ‘While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Ac 7:60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep’.
And so today we give thanks for those who have stood up for what is right; we give thanks especially on this memorial day for Jan Hus, a man who was so devoted to the Gospel he espoused and the people he served, that it lead to his death. He could have easily stepped back and stepped down; he could have easily recanted and opted for a much easier life. But he did not; to do so would have been anathema to his principles and all he held dear. The words of our hymn ‘O God, thou faithful God’ seem particularly apt, especially the second verse, as we reflect on Hus’ life and discipleship:
‘If dangers gather round,
Still keep us calm and fearless;
Help us to bear the cross
When life is dark and cheerless;
To overcome our foe
With words and actions kind;
When counsel we would know,
Good counsel let us find.’
Hus bore his cross with dignity and he steadfastly continued on the path God had chosen for him. His rationale for his perspective was crystal clear; Indeed he once said: ‘I hope, by God’s grace, that I am truly a Christian, not deviating from the faith, and that I would rather suffer the penalty of a terrible death than wish to affirm anything outside of the faith or transgress the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ’.
And in taking this stance, Hus, and indeed Saint Stephen in the early church, followed on in the way of sacrifice exemplified by the Christ they adored. It surely makes us reflect on our own lives of faith and service; we will likely never be asked to literally give our lives for our faith, but we remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:25
‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it’.
As we look ahead, let us consider that a life of discipleship, whoever we are, is never easy. There are difficulties along the way that we may not even predict or foresee. Following Christ, as Hus knew, is not easy; it demands sacrifice and going against the ways of the world. It may mean standing up to ridicule, misunderstanding and persecution, but so be it. That is the call that we all accept when we become Christians – to follow the Nazarene on a journey of sacrifice and love.
Now in a few moments of silence, let us contemplate on our own lives of discipleship; let us bring ourselves before God in quiet reflection. Let us come before God as servants, seeking His will in our lives.