Our Saviour’s Atonement Lutheran Church
Reverend John Zachary Flack
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
I remember the first time I understood how great Shakespeare is. I was alone in my basement. I guess my mom and dad were doing the boring things adults do somewhere, and my sister was probably singing along with Mariah Carey upstairs. I, however, saw a VHS tape that said, “Henry V” on it. And I stuck it in the tape player, and Kenneth Branagh in all his early nineties glory started something so awesome, I could barely contain myself. It was Henry V, and I loved it. I especially loved the Crispin’s Day speech. You know that speech right? The wee English force was massed at Agincourt, and all the lords were pretty sure they were going to get crushed by the French army. Westmoreland says,
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work today.
What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland?
No, my fair cousin.
If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honor. God’s will,
I pray thee wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honor,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, ’faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace, I would not lose so great an honor
As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
For the best hope I have.
O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand o’ tiptoe when this day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day.
Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day
What a speech! It’s been almost 500 years, and Shakespeare is still good. Makes you want to strap on a sword and buckler and fight some Frenchman, doesn’t it? I love the part about the old veterans, on the Eve of St. Crispin, rolling up their sleeves and baring their scars and telling the story of how they were with Harry the King at Agincourt, brave men outnumbered, while those that scoffed sink down into their cups in shame. As far as call to battles go, I’ve never heard a better one, save one.
And that’s the call Jesus issues today. Make no mistake about it. Jesus today speaks as a king before battle. It’s almost exactly like Henry V—the enemy comes to mock Jesus just as the French mocked Harry, to tell him his plans were folly. And just as Harry does, Jesus summons his troops to him. Our translation says Jesus calls the crowd with his disciples, but in Greek, the word means summoning, as generals or emperors summon their soldiers. And as Henry tells his soldiers that any without a stomach for a fight can leave—their passport will be made—so Jesus leaves a door open for any of his followers. And like Harry, Jesus tells his followers the consequences of fear. For the Englishmen, it’s everlasting shame, that they were not brave enough to follow their king to war. And for crowd and the disciples, the consequence of fear is life that turns to death.
And this isn’t the only comparison. We have several extant speeches of generals, contemporaneous, roughly, with Jesus. For instance, Xenophon (???) says to his soldiers before a battle, to strengthen hearts before battle, “Whoever is desirous of saving his life, let him strive for victory; for it is the victors that slay and the defeated that are slain.” In other words, win and live; lose and die. Just like Henry V: win, and be remembered for the rest of your lives for honor and glory and England.
But here’s the thing. This is King Jesus speaking today, our King speaking to his followers, yes, and speaking to us. But there is a fundamental difference between this king and the others. This king does not promise glory and honor and the admiration of generations to come. Instead, Christ promises death, certain death, and indeed, necessary death. If you want to save your life, he says, you will lose it. But if you lose your life, or some people says Jesus means if you want to destroy your life for his sake, and for the sake of the good news of God—then you will save it. Either way, death comes, either at the end or the beginning.
You may know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German martyr and patron saint of sermon illustrations. As time goes on, and we look back at the twentieth century, a lot of the thinkers that held sway seem more and more dated. Bonhoeffer keeps growing stronger, partially because he was an exemplary disciple of Jesus. He knew what it meant: he said, depending which translation you choose, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” or, better yet in my opinion, “Every call of Christ leads into death.” That’s discipleship, and it means death. Welcome to church, this morning, everybody—you’re all gonna die.
But I think he was right to do that. I think that we cannot do better than tell you what Christ tells everyone who wishes to be his disciple: that if you want to follow Christ, you need to up your cross and follow him. And a cross means shame. A cross means that your will is removed and the will of another put on you. A cross is ugly, horrid, shunned, and feared. A cross means suffering. A cross means, above all, abandonment, helplessness, and finally, death. Every call of Christ leads into death.
I love Henry V. I love a good speech. But the battle-cry of Christ is the opposite of the battlecries of earthly kings, of earthly governments. Instead of glory, Jesus offers humble service; instead of fame, Jesus offers ignominy. Instead of war and conquest, Jesus invites strangers and other nations to join freely under his cross. Instead of gain of territory and land, Jesus promises us that we gain salvation and eternal life with God —but perhaps at the expense success.
This morning we sang a hymn called “The Call.” We sang it because today wec commemorate the author of that hymn, George Herbert. He was a promising young nobleman, elected to parliament, and he could have, if he had wished, lived a life of glory, of give and take in the public sphere. But instead, he felt a call. And he spent his last years as a priest in a poor, no account parish called Bemberton. He wrote poetry and book on pastoral care, still very much worth reading, and spoke about how Christlike it was to serve and welcome all people, no matter what their station or situation. He gave up glory for humility and God.
The earthly powers will ask us to die for glory, for country, for honor, and these are all good things. But Christ asks us to die to sin, to die to things that take us away from God, to die to fear, so that we can be raised. That’s why in baptism, we are promised death, just as we are promised eternal life. And that, my friends, is good news, because it means that our selves are made new by the Holy Spirit through Christ our Lord.
When the Xenophon’s or Harry’s soldiers gathered on the battlefield, they didn’t have much cause for hope—although, at least in the case of the English, they had something the French didn’t know how to handle, which was the longbow and soldiers that knew how to use it. But at some point, the soldiers had to grit their teeth and do battle. They had to trust their commanders, their training, their purpose.
Faith. This call of Christ demands complete faith. Like those soldiers, we don’t know how things will work out. We don’t know exactly, from moment to moment, what it means to die to self and to the world. We have to grit our teeth and trust God. But we grow stronger the more we give in to faith, when we do not waver in trust of the promise of God. One thing we must do—keep trust in the one who went to the cross for our sake, who blazed our path, who takes our weakness and gives us life. We have faith to strengthen us—through faith we receive grace, and by faith we become disciples and take up our crosses to follow Jesus.
I think, to die first means to give up all things that demand our faith besides Christ. It means to say to the summoning Jesus, “Yes. I will follow you. I will take up my cross. I will die, and you will give me life.” Amen.