He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.

—Colossians 1:18

St. Andrews, Scotland, is famous for at least two things—its golf course and its university.

This year is the 29th time The Old Course at St. Andrews has hosted the British Open, more than any other golf course, but still that only happens about every five years, often in years that end with a five or a zero, like 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015.

I conceived of this Cloister Walk sermon series over a year ago, so I want you to notice the meticulous and intricate planning it took me to schedule this sermon about St. Andrews the same day they’re playing the British Open at St. Andrews.

Actually, I’m lying; that was a complete accident, but I just want you to know that if you live a righteous life, God will take care of you in small ways like that.

Games where grown men in short pants use sticks to hit balls at targets are probably almost as old as the human race, but golf as we know it was probably first played in Scotland and possibly at St. Andrews, so if the Old Course where they’re playing right now is not the birthplace of golf, it is at least the home of golf.

They’ve been playing golf at St. Andrews since the early fifteenth century, and from the beginning Scotsmen were so obsessed with the game that in 1457, King James II banned golf because his soldiers were playing so much of it that they’d abandoned their archery practice; James’ soldiers could hit a goose-feather ball 300 yards with a stick, but they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with an arrow from 15 feet.

Thankfully, in 1502, James IV, an avid golfer, reinstated the game, and it’s been with the Scots ever since. I’m going somewhere with this, by the way. Not very far, but somewhere.

As you’ve been noticing this weekend, the Old Course at St. Andrews is known for hurricane-force winds, sideways rain, merciless rough, and inescapable bunkers. The thirteenth hole has bunkers aptly named —The Coffins— because they are placed in the middle of the fairway just where you want your drive to land but if your ball lands there, you are dead.

That’s hole #13. On 14, you come to —Hell— bunker, another aptly named hazard: you die in —The Coffins— on 13 and then go to —Hell— on the 14th.

In the 2000 British Open, Jack Nicklaus—who, by the way, was good enough to win 18 majors—went to —Hell— bunker and ended up with a quintuple bogey; since the 14th is a par 5, that means that Jack Nicklaus once penciled a 10 into his British Open scorecard; take heart all you duffers out there. Can you tell golf was a game invented by Presbyterians? Coffins, Hell, doomsday, damnation, and brimstone.

But St. Andrews also has a university, established in 1410 and thus the third oldest college in the English-speaking world; you can probably guess which two are older.

Famous alumni include Benjamin Franklin; John Witherspoon, Presbyterian preacher, President of Princeton University, and signer of the Declaration of Independence; and William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

But when it comes to the shaping of American Protestantism, by far the most important St. Andrews alumnus, if not the sexiest or most famous, is John Knox.

After Martin Luther, the beer-drinking German; Henry VIII, the mead-quaffing Tudor; and John Calvin, the wine-sipping Frenchman; John Knox, the whiskey-swilling Scot, was probably the most important figure in the Protestant Reformation.

Man, that guy had a mouth on him! His reservoir of vituperations was vast and bottomless. Here’s an example of one of his more pointed sermon titles: First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the monstrous women being, of course, not the entire feminine race but the female French royals, among them Mary Queen of Scots, who tried to turn his manly, macho homeland of Scottish lairds in kilts, plaids, and war-paint into a French-speaking, burgundy-sipping, escargot-eating, knee-sox- and brocade-wearing, Roman Catholic province of the king at Versailles.

He was a gloomy, difficult, unyielding, sharp-tongued man, and yet he almost single-handed­ly converted his homeland into what would eventually become known as Presbyterian­ism, and it was his disciples who carried this new-fangled ecclesiology across the Atlantic in tiny, leaky boats and dropped it first on the eastern shore of Maryland, where it planted stubborn roots in deep soil, and spread like kudzu south to the Carolinas and north to Pennsylvania, and eventually sowed the seeds of bitter discontent with King George’s taxation without representation, which is why in London the American Revolution was known as the Presbyterian Rebellion. More than one-half of the soldiers in Washington’s army were Pr­esbyterians. When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, every colonel in the Colonial Army but one was a Presbyterian elder.

That’s the legacy of John Knox. That’s the Presbyterian contribution to politics, philosophy, and theology: this towering distrust of centralized authority, this suspicion of kings and queens, this intense egalitarianism that finally leads to the thought —that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.—

Okay, sure, Jefferson was an Episcopalian, but he was thinking like a Presbyterian when he wrote those words, and this is how we got from Medici Pope Leo X in Rome to the Declaration of Independence: Step 1: Luther in Wittenberg; Step 2: Calvin in Geneva; Step 3: Knox in Edinburgh, and Step 4: Jefferson in Philadelphia.

John Knox was born early in the sixteenth century, sixteen miles from Edinburgh, to a farmer and his wife. Did you know that John Knox was once a Roman Catholic priest? But of course: what else could a clergyman be in the first half of the sixteenth century but a Catholic priest? It was the only option.

But early in his life he was such a vitriolic and violent Protestant that he was sentenced to a slave-galley ship where he spent nineteen months pulling eighteen-foot oars through the water and then spent years in exile on the Continent because it was not safe for him to return to his homeland. He spent time in France and in Germany and finally ended up in Calvin’s Geneva, where he was just enchanted with Calvin’s ecclesiastical and political innovations. John Knox called Calvin’s Geneva —the most perfect school of Christianity the world had ever seen.—

When it is finally safe for him to return home in 1559, he takes Calvin’s innovations with him and plants a second Geneva in Edinburgh, where it gets a Scottish brogue.

In Edinburgh, the Gloomy Scot commences a long, loud war of words with loyal Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. John Knox referred to Mary as —Satan’s Sister.— The Queen of Scotland: Satan’s Sister! Diplomacy was not his best thing.

John Knox might have been one of the few males in the British Isles who was not utterly smitten with Mary, Queen of Scots. She was bright. She was witty. She was drop-dead gorgeous. Fair-haired, light-complected, slender, tall, 5’11”, and a killer body. They should cast Nicole Kidman to play her when they make the movie.

Five times Knox marches over to Mary’s Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh to tell her, brazenly, what exactly she’s doing wrong. One time Mary looks out her window to see the Gloomy Scot marching up the royal road to Holyrood and she says, —Oh my God, I would rather see a full battalion of enemy soldiers marching upon me than that crotchety Scot.—

Several times he reduces her to tears. He apologizes. Sort of. He says —I pray God, Madam, that you may be blessed within the commonwealth of Scotland, but if you overreach your authority, I will become your sworn arch-enemy. As a prophet of God, it is my solemn vow to point out idolatry when I see it.—

Knox comes up with a representative form of church government, a republican form of church government. As a country might have city, county, state, and federal governments, so the Church of Scotland will have sessions, presbyteries, synods, and General Assemblies.

No bishops. Not ever. Presbyterians make their decisions together with a flat flow-chart, intense egalitarianism, a voice for all, elected representatives, the priesthood of all believers, in the conviction that decisions made together are always, always, always better than decisions passed down from on high by bishops, popes, kings, and queens. Do you hear the first faint whispers, early hints and guesses, intimations and foreshadows, of American democracy, 200 years before it was born?

When he dies at the age of 55 in 1572 a friend at his grave said, —Here lieth one who in his life never feared the face of man.— That’s an epitaph anyone can be proud of.

The Crotchety Scot. As near as I can tell, the Scots are known for five things, primarily: Whiskey, Golf, Bagpipes, Haggis, and Presbyterians. It is a dubious legacy indeed. Luther drank good German beer, and Calvin a smooth French burgundy, but only the Scots would give us a muscular brew that burns all the way down.

And can you believe that some people play golf for fun? It’ll drive you crazy. Someone once defined golf as —a plague invented by the Calvinist Scots as a punishment for our sins.— Either you get it or you don’t, right? I just never got it. My son, on the other hand was among Calvin’s predestined chosen people when it comes to golf.

When he was about four years old I took him out in the golf cart with me when I played a round on Jay and Sallie Stanley’s Course in Michigan, and he was just mesmerized by what I was doing, even if I was not doing it terribly well.

When he was about five, he watches me pack my golf clubs in the car, and he knows I’m going out to play golf, and he says, —Dad, can I be your caddy?— I look him up and down, and I say, —Michael, you’re, like, 3 feet, 9 inches tall; I don’t think you can carry my bag.— He says, —We’ll take a cart.— I say, —Well, yeah, but you’ll have to keep track of my scorecard.— He says, —I can do that.— I look at him skeptically, and I say, —Okay, how much is nine plus six plus seven?— And he squints his forehead and thinks for a minute and finally says, —Five!— And I say, —Okay, let’s go!—[1]

So, whiskey, golf, haggis, bagpipes, and Presbyterians. Still, there is something beautiful about the legacy of John Knox:   —Here lieth one who in his life never feared the face of man.— You see, when Christ is King in your life, all fear vanishes, subordinate loyalties are dethroned, and all earthly powers are put in their proper place.

John Knox would have loved that passage from Colossians I read a few moments ago. Did you notice the multiple and extravagant acclamations Paul piles up trying to capture a tiny fraction of the glory of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Head of the Church, and Lord of the Universe?

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all
things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether
thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through
him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold
together. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (vs. 15-17; 19)

He is the firstborn of all creation; he is the reason all things exist, things visible and invisible, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers. In him all things hold together, and in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

John Knox would have lived by those acclamations, preaching his biting sermons among the towering kings and queens of Europe: Mary in Scotland, Elizabeth in England, Charles in France, Philip in Spain, William of Orange in Holland. John Knox would have remembered that Paul acclaimed this rustic carpenter from Nazareth with such grandio­sities within earshot of Emperor Nero, the most powerful man in the world. When Christ is King in your life, you can no longer kneel before puny princes, pygmy principalities, or paltry powers. When Christ is King in your life, all thrones, all dominions, all principalities, all powers are unseated. When Christ is King in your life, you no longer need fear the face of man.

That’s a good way to live. And we learned it from that Crotchety Scot.


[1]Perhaps you guessed that this never happened. I borrowed this story from Miriam Sleiman in Reader’s Digest, May, 2004.