William Tyndale and the passionate vocation

A homily for the Thursday morning Eucharist at Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary, October 4, 2012

William Tyndale was a man with a passion, a man with a mission, with a calling so strong it drove him crazy. How else to explain the risks he took for the sake of his work, for the sake of a few words, for the sake of his vocation?

We talk a lot these days about passion – on the Food Network, every chef and aspiring next food network star is passionate about his or her culinary point of view; on American Idol, or the X-Factor, passion is the mot du jour to express a longing to sing, a vocation that cannot be denied. It may even be genuine, but through overuse, it is losing some of its cachet; its currency is getting seriously devalued.

William Tyndale, who knew very well the value of words, their weight and heft, was so impassioned by his discerned vocation – to translate the Bible so that the humblest ploughboy could know its meaning – that he allowed himself to be exiled, gave up the comfort of a rich mans employ, headed overseas, and was, in the end, betrayed by a friend, given up to the gallows.

That last part might just ring a bell.

We talk a lot about passion these days, and mostly we are talking about lust, about libido, about drive and desire, ambition and envy. We talk about what we want, and what we want to do. But when we think of those men betrayed by their friends and led to the gallows, when we talk of their passion, we mean something a little different.

It isn’t all about suffering, except in the sense of “suffer the little children,” of allowing to come to pass that which will. On the other hand, it isn’t all about being passive. The drive to do something well is not a bad thing. There is much hard work to be done at seminary, lots to be completed and achieved and simply got through. William Tyndale worked hard, by God, but not for ambition, not even the good kind; according to C.S. Lewis, who has written about his theology, Tyndale considered that good works for profit, whether profit in this world or the next, came from an equally corrupt motivation. Passion is dispassionate about its reward; it simply lets come into being that which already is; something which cannot be willed or driven, but only let in.

It’s about grace, the grace of the cross, the grace of a vocation which fills us with passion, with a longing for God.

That longing, that passion for the wisdom of God, the knowledge of God’s grace is better than the silver and gold that the world lusts after, the Proverbs tell us, and a good thing too, we might reply. Only Wisdom, the knowledge of God, marks out the true leader of the free world, the truly just ruler, the real seat of power. That might be worth keeping in mind for the next month or so, if not longer.

What feeds such a passion? If it isn’t ambition, or the will to succeed or to be good enough for earthly or heavenly reward?

Perhaps, these moments, these moments of Eucharist, of thanksgiving, when we revisit the passion of those who have gone before us – the One, especially, whose Passion ignited all of ours. These moments are vital in keeping our own flames alive and lively, not only now, slogging through classes and early mornings and CPE and process interviews; but later, much later, too. They will sustain us when friends fall away, or employment falls through, or we are far from home. They are the promise of God to be with us in the dank darkness of the garden as well as in the soft and celebratory candlelight; to be sufficient when our own reserves of faithfulness and sheer perseverance are depleted; to renew our resolve, reignite our passion.

Even the words, plain words, simply spoken, in these moments can be the difference between life and death, light and darkness. Tyndale knew the value of plain – or plain-ish – English; the Wisdom behind the words of Jesus that he translated; the Word that spoke the words; the grace, the life. He saw it and rendered it and proclaimed it, because it sustained him, because it mattered.

And that, in the life of Tyndale, is what passion is all about. Passion, the passionate vocation, is to be overwhelmed by God, to be swept along with God, to be swept up in the wonder of it all, that God would use our work for God’s glorious purpose, even when the work itself looks plain or inglorious.

Actually, I think that some of Tyndale’s work was quite glorious: Lewis claims that he not only coined such phrases as “filthy lucre,” “peacemaker,” and “long-suffering,” but was also “among the first who used the word beautiful.”**

Beautiful. It’s not a bad legacy for an exiled translator, a betrayed friend, a condemned criminal and supposedly hardened heretic.

But then, it’s always quite astonishing what God can do with a little bit of passion.


*C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixeenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1954), 188
** Lewis, 207

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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