“You can’t be serious!”
Nicholas Cop’s quiet voice broke the heavy silence that had hung in the air for a prolonged moment. John Calvin shrugged and raised an eyebrow at his old friend “why not?” he shot back evenly. With a small click of his tongue, Nicholas rose to his feet and began to pace in front of the rich flames that were leaping and arcing inside the stone fireplace.
“In front of everyone? Just like that?” Cop shook his head as his mind continued to unpack Calvin’s audacious suggestion.
“Why not?” Calvin persisted.
“Well for one thing because it is the most ridiculous idea I have ever heard!” Cop shot back waving his hands in the air for emphasis “I mean it’s akin to provoking the beast while standing within snapping range of its teeth!”
“But think of the impact we could have on France Nicholas” Calvin said jumping out of his chair to join Cop beside the fireplace. “We may not live to see it” Cop interjected dryly.
“Nicholas” Calvin’s voice turned pleading, “don’t you want to win France for the gospel? Or is your own neck more valuable to you than the eternal salvation of so many?”
Cop’s shoulders slumped in defeat “No” he finally acquiesced quietly “it is not”.
“Then you will do it?” Calvin moved closer to study Cop’s face in the dim light.
“John, I don’t think I can write a speech that will do justice to the occasion. I am…” Cop faltered, at a loss for words.
“You are Rector of The Sorbonne” Calvin finished staring at him in disbelief “Nicholas, how can you not think yourself equal to the task?”
“John, be reasonable, you are asking me to use my inaugural address as the highest elected official of the most prestigious University in France to preach the gospel to the brightest minds in the entire country” Cop threw up his hands and shook his head. “Do you think I am able to pull that off without batting an eyelid? Besides” he continued “the majority of that audience will be staunchly Catholic, I mean The Sorbonne is the intellectual stronghold of the Roman Church. Like I said before, you are asking me to provoke the beast while standing right before its teeth!”
“I can write the speech for you” Calvin offered impulsively.
“What?” Cop turned to look at him.
“I will write the speech for you” Calvin repeated “and all you need to do is deliver it”
Cop stared at him for a long moment before finally looking down at the fire. His mind briefly wondered what the heat of the flames would feel like on his skin as he burned. He raised his eyes to look at Calvin and realized that he too clearly understood what was at stake.
“Alright” Cop finally agreed “let’s do it”
The silence in the small dorm room was maddening. John Calvin sat at his desk with his head in his hands for a long while before finally raising it and wearily rubbing his fingers across his eyes.
How do you compose a speech of this magnitude? He asked himself in frustration. How do you share the gospel with people who think they already know it but in fact are completely clueless about it? How do you move them as you have been moved by the beauty of Christ on the Cross?
Calvin threw down his pen and stood up. He felt like he was about to go stark raving mad.
He made his way over to the window and looked out at the cobbled street below while sifting through mental images in search of something that might spark an epiphany.
He dredged up the image of a cold winter’s day in the Place de Greve as he stood shivering among the gawking bystanders. The great bell of Notre Dame clanged loudly and rhythmically in the background, like an ill-timed funeral dirge summoning Parisians from every quarter of the city to witness the awful spectacle about to take place. And then he saw the prisoner.
Accursed heretic. Carrier of the vile and wretched disease that was infecting all of Europe with its foul stench. Protestant. Lutheran. Whatever it is they were called.
Calvin watched in stony silence as the man mounted the small wooden platform behind the executioner. He looked young, close to his own age.
Pavane. That was his name.
Calvin studied Pavane’s face for signs of terror or distress but there were none. Instead, he willingly allowed himself to be tied to the stake and stood there calmly, eyes averted to the sky. The executioner walked off the platform, lit the torch and touched the flames to the neatly piled wood that formed a pyre around the feet of the young man. With a soft whoosh, the wood caught alight and soon the flames were licking greedily at the young heretic.
Calvin’s blood froze as the stench of burning flesh seeped into his nostrils. His mind screamed in terror as he watched the young body slump forward and fall headlong into the raging inferno. He was still rooted to the spot long after the crowd had thinned and only a few stragglers remained. Pavane’s serene face was seared into his mind. How did he have such peace?
The next image his mind brought up was of a musty and dimly lit dorm room. He was seated on the floor, leaning against the door while his cousin Pierre paced agitatedly up and down the length of the small square space. They were debating religion. Pierre Olivetan was an obstinate Protestant and at the time Calvin was an equally obstinate Catholic. Neither of them was willing to give an inch. The argument was fierce.
Finally, Olivetan wheeled on him and jabbed a trembling finger in his direction. “There are only two religious systems in the world John” he ground out through clenched teeth “you either believe that you can save yourself by your own good works or you believe what the Bible plainly teaches” he paused to suck in a deep calming breath.
“And what exactly does the Bible teach?” Calvin broke in icily.
“That man is to look for salvation solely by the free grace of God” Pierre countered in a controlled voice. “John” he continued “don’t you see that?”
“Enough!” Calvin snarled leaping to his feet “ do you really think I have lived in such complete error all my life? Do you really think that the great Church of Rome is wrong?” without waiting for a reply he yanked open the door and angrily motioned for Olivetan to get out.
After he had left Calvin shut the door with a resounding thud and then sank down against it. His life had reached a crossroads. And the entire moment hinged on two simple words.
Calvin snapped out of his reverie as his mind clamped shut around those two words. The source of Pavane’s peace and Olivetan’s fire. Suddenly everything was crystal clear. He knew what needed to be said.
Nicholas Cop stood at the imposing podium and looked out over the sea of upturned faces. They were all focused intently on him. He looked down at the sheaf of papers that John Calvin had delivered to him the previous day and his eyes focused on the words he had read over and over again. It was time. Regardless of what happened now he knew that he would never forget this day for the rest of his life, however long or short that may be.
November 1st, 1553.
Taking a deep breath he looked up at the audience and opened his mouth to speak. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a small shallow face seated in an obscure corner of the hall. He knew that face well. Calvin nodded at him, almost imperceptibly.
There was no way out now.
“Most Noble Lords” Cop began in a clear ringing voice. “We are gathered here today…”
Calvin listened as Nicholas began his inaugural address. His eyes darted around the room calculating the space. He stomach clenched as he realized that there was only one entrance to the hall. If anything should happen now, there was no way out….
To Be Continued…