All the Saints Adore Thee 01: Saint Boniface

"All the Saints Adore Thee 01: Saint Boniface"

by Tim Suttle


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2016.10.30 – All the Saints Adore Thee 01
St. Boniface & Healthy Conflict – Romans 12:9-21

Welcome to students & why we want them with us on 5th Sundays.
We’re starting a new series today: The Communion of Saints
Which has become a tradition for us in 4 wks leading up to xmas.
We take time to study the saints who have gone before us.
And part of the reason we do this, is that we know: We’re not the 1st ones to ever try this... try & follow Jesus & not the culture.
There are many saints who walked before us who were very wise.
We want to learn the lessons they have taught us, and allow them to influence the way we live out our faith today. 
So each year we pick a few of them & let them teach us.
This year we’re kicking off w/St. Boniface… how many heard of him?

(675-754) The name Boniface means “doer of good.” He was actually born Winfred (which I think is a step up), originally meant “friend of peace.”
Question for our elementary age kids: have you heard of St. Patrick? 
Ok, what country is he associated with? (Ireland).
Boniface was the St. Patrick of Germany. 
He was largely responsible for the spread of xianity in Germany during the Middle Ages.
Before Boniface most of Germany was pagan… after = Christian.
He was born to a family of free, Land owning Anglo-Saxon peasants who lived & farmed near Devonshire, England.
By peasants, I don’t mean poor—just mean they weren’t nobility.
We know that they had some wealth because young Winfred was educated at the best monasteries in that area.
(They didn’t have public schools… the church ran the schools).

At school young Winfred fell in love with learning & the monastic way of life.
He wanted to become a monk… & his father was not happy about this.
He was setting young Winfred up to become a nobleman.
But, Winfred decided to stay among the monks & he was given the name Boniface… 
And it turns out Boniface was super-smart.
He became a well known scholar.
His first job was a schoolmaster teaching Latin… anybody study Latin?
Boniface wrote the first Latin Grammar textbook produced in England. 
He wrote poetry & studied the Bible like crazy.
When he was 30 years old he became a priest in the Catholic Church.

Now, Boniface had lots of friends & was well respected…had connections that could’ve given him great power in the English Church.
The king once appointed him envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
…big deal… it was like being called up to the big leagues in MLB.
But he couldn’t see himself settling for that kind of life.
His dream was to become a missionary.
He didn’t want to live cloistered away in a monastery.
Or climbing the ladder of success.
Or staying around England preaching to the converted.
He wanted to go someplace in which there were very few Christians and tell them all about Jesus.

So he went to Rome & got permission to move to Germany & start churches.
And he spent most of his life trying to reach unreached people.
What he found was that many of the people there worshipped Jesus right alongside Thor & Loki & the other pagan gods.
Bonifice tried to bring them a little farther along in their discipleship.

Often when you see St. Boniface pictured there are these 2 symbols that are associated with his life… PIC.
The Axe and the Oak Tree… you can see them here.
And this comes from the most famous event in Boniface’s life.
To get what happened you need a little background.

So, the Germanic people that Boniface went to try to tell about Jesus, were profoundly violent people. 
In fact scholars believe the Germanic women, by virtue of their diet & where they lived, often suffered from Rickets (a vitamin D deficiency).
For this reason women very often died in child-birth.
So you ended up w/this population that was heavy w/adult males.
And so they became raiders… always fighting wars… thin the herd…
So this culture was testosterone heavy… and rooted in violence. 

I kept thinking this week as I read… about the TV show the Vikings… this?
Picture… the ripped barbarian looking guys.
You got the king, priest, warrior guys, maidens, bloody & violent.
That’s me on the right… w/the bare chest & the axe… photo-shopped…
This is the culture of the barbarians (only far fewer teeth & smelled…)

Anybody watch the movie Gladiator w/Russell Crowe? Remember the opening scene where the Roman army is on a campaign? = Germanic lands…

The people they fight are these Germanic barbarians (PIC).
The same people Boniface was called to as a missionary.
Russell Crowe (Maximus) was sent to help secure Rome against these war-loving, Germanic raiders.
The Romans sent a messenger to w/terms of surrender to barbarians.
The barbarians sent the messenger back w/out his head.
Russell Crowe says, “I guess that means no!”
He says, “At my signal… unleash hell.”
And that’s what they do… it’s a very entertaining movie.

These are the kind of people that Boniface felt called to reach – just a really violent culture that only respected power & force… in fact…
Revenge was part of their daily lives... it was an eye for an eye world.
Boniface hoped to reach this culture for Christ… problem was:
But they already had a religion… & they had for 1000s of years.
They were part of something called the pagan religion.
They worshipped a whole bunch of gods who, for the most part, were connected to the forces & powers of nature…for these folks that meant a deep connection to the forest … which is where they lived.

And nature isn’t exactly what you’d call safe, is it? And so these God’s weren’t safe either. The forces of nature were powerful and uncontrollable.
So their gods were powerful and uncontrollable, too.
You wouldn’t want to really love these gods.
You would mostly fear them & try to keep them happy.
They were moody & vindictive… 
They were always fighting each other & changing their minds.
You never quite knew where you stood with them.
You had to butter them up to keep them happy.
Pagan religion involved constant sacrifices offered to try to keep the gods happy so they’d send rain, or protect you from storms.

I mentioned the forest earlier. This part of Germany was a rich, dense forest. 
Explorers once set out to find it’s edge, and they travelled for 2 months before turning back… they had never escaped the forest.
It was so massive that it had a grip on the imagination of the people.
In fact an Ash Tree, served as the model for their cosmology.
Whereas our ancestors saw the earth & spheres for the moon & stars, the Germanic ppl saw a tree whose roots formed the foundation of the universe, and whose branches reached out to the heavens.


The chief among their holy trees were Oak trees, the tallest & strongest tree.
And they had what were sometimes called sacred groves of oak trees.
These groves were said to hold special powers because the Oak was dedicated to the strongest god: Thor, god of thunder.
Thor sent the rain, the wind, the weather, and grew the crops.
Since the Oak was the tallest tree in the forest, it was most often struck by lightning.
(Thor was the god of thunder… so it just sort of made sense).
The roll of thunder was Thor’s voice.
The lightning was Thor visiting the earth & his favorite tree.

And when Thor struck the tree, he would leave a token of his presence.
So an Oak Tree struck by lightning was considered to be a holy relic.
Often it would become a shrine where sacrifices were made to Thor.
The penalties for destroying an oak tree were severe.
Can I read this to you from a history book? 
It’s nasty… this was the penalty for messing w/an oak tree:
“The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk.”

PT: What’s for lunch? What warm & lovely people! Boniface was horrified by this because he believed all human life had inherent dignity, bearing God’s image. And he could see how this belief in revenge, life for life, shaped the people.

And as Boniface lived among them for a few years & got to know them, he also earned their deep respect.
It began to really bother him that they were so marked by the worship of Thor – who was the most violent of all the gods.
So they created a violent culture … sort of in Thor’s image.
They only knew how to return evil for evil.
They didn’t even really understand concepts like peace or grace.

So, Boniface came to believe that if they were ever going to learn how to follow Jesus… they were going to have to let that old mythology go.
They needed to get past the pagan sacrifices & all the fear & superstition & violence that went along with their religion.
And begin to learn  …and embody… the virtues of the kingdom.
So, Boniface became convinced he had counteract their old narrative.
But instead of the Roman tack… of unleashing hell… 
Boniface faced the same hordes, and tried to unleash heaven.

Instead of facing off army against army, Boniface decided to challenge the god Thor to single combat… a duel…
There was a famous tree, called the Thor’s Oak in the forest of Geismar.
It was a holy place… it was a shrine.
Boniface announced to everyone that he was going to chop it down.
And if Thor was powerful like they thought, he’d strike Boniface dead.
This great crowd gathered because they were just sure that Boniface was about to be toast… literally.
They admired his pluck, but mostly they wanted to see him get fried.
So, here’s this lone missionary, stepping into a sacred forest, going up to Thor’s Oak w/an axe… he’s surrounded by violent pagans, saying… 
“I’m going to chop down the most sacred thing in your world.”
There are different accounts of how it went… some say:
1 blow & it fell into 4 pieces…  wind came up… but when it was over…

Nothing happened… no thunder bolts… no lightning… no retribution.
Just the symbol of power in their world… falling to the ground.
And it was tremendously disorienting.
It completely disrupted their view of reality.
Maybe Thor wasn’t as powerful as they thought.
Maybe they should listen to this guy Boniface.
And if they did this it would mean a complete transformation of their cultural identity… which is sort of what happened.

And Boniface taught them that Jesus had this connection to a tree as well, because he hung powerless on a tree as he was killed… unjustly…
But death didn’t rule over Jesus—Jesus ruled over death.
And Jesus didn’t seek revenge upon his killers… he forgave them.
Boniface taught them about how to love their enemies.
And this undermined their story of violence and war and revenge.
It was like Moses confronting Pharaoh & the gods of Egypt
It was like Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal at the altar.
The violent Germanic culture began to be underminded by Christianity.

They took the wood from Thor’s Oak & built a chapel. They stopped wearing charms shaped like Thor’s hammer & started wearing crosses instead.
These became symbols of their recognition of the authority of Christ. 
And the virtues of the kingdom began to flourish among the people.
Boniface’s life serves as an example of the contrast between the way of the world & the way of the kingdom.
His life exemplifies a passage in Romans 12 that shows us how to live the teachings of Jesus in a culture that is often violent… it says this:
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 

13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. 

Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: 

“It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

You know the irony of Boniface’s life is that the most famous moment is this big confrontation with the rival gods of the culture.
But it’s not a holy war… which was how things were done back then.
It’s just this priest, w/an axe in his hand… completely vulnerable.
Seeking to confront the false gods of the culture in this symbolic duel.
Not by the means of the culture, but by the means of the kingdom.

And I want this story of Boniface to help seed OUR imagination around this idea of how we do confrontation in our lives…
Because I don’t think we have any idea how to do conflict or confrontation in our culture… without just trying to kill each other.
Just look at our election process… almost traumatic to watch it.
You don’t even have to participate to bear its scars…
We don’t really know how to do healthy confrontation in our culture.

Boniface serves as a model for the better way to confront the culture/other.
V.14 “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” 
He took to heart v 19: “Do not take revenge… ” or v. 18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace w/everyone” 

PT: Paul envisions a completely different way of doing conflict that doesn’t set out to destroy your enemies, but to restore your enemies to peace. I think that if we ever took this call seriously we might see results like Boniface saw.

One of the interesting parts of this story is Boniface didn’t attack a person, he attacked the symbol of this false power… Thor’s Oak…
It’s like JS turning over the tables of the money-changers in the temple.
They didn’t attack people, they attack the religious symbols that held their imaginations captive…

PT: I think the life of Boniface can teach us a few things about what healthy confrontation is and what it isn’t.

Confrontation isn’t about Winning.
It’s not about proving you’re right, or defeating your opponent.
Out-arguing someone, or forcing them to capitulate.
That’s war… not healthy confrontation… which means, btw:
If your personality has a bent toward argument & you love to win.
You are probably not called to confrontation.
You are going to have to be very careful when you confront others.
Because it’s not about winning… being right.
…or scoring points… or defeating an enemy.

When Boniface laid axe to Thor’s Oak, it wasn’t an act of bravado.
He loved these people. 
He wasn’t trying to incite them or pick a fight.
He was trying to disabuse them of a powerful illusion …
He didn’t win by destroying the enemy.
He won by winning their friendship and trust by unmasking the false powers & narratives that were holding them captive.
Confrontation isn’t about winning… it’s about restoring & growing…

Confrontation isn’t about Blaming an enemy & then trying to destroy them.
Confrontation gets really ugly when we scapegoat someone.
…blame them for all our problems… then destroy them.
We’ve got real problems in our lives & in our culture, right? 
Problems in our: politics, education, healthcare, immigration, our financial system… injustice… violence… poverty…
And then there are problems in here… in the human heart: we live with so much anger, fear, & shame.
If all we do is find someone to blame & declare war on them.
We’ll never be healed… because that’s not the way of peace.
You got problems w/ injustice, try this, Paul says: Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality… Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.

Somebody wrongs you… try this: Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath… I mean, almost any problem we face Paul’s teaching in Romans 12 will give us good instruction.

PT: When Boniface took down the tree, he wasn’t laying blame anywhere. He wasn’t trying to scare the people or make them feel guilty. He was trying to set them free from what was killing them & controlling their imagination.

Now, Confrontation also isn’t about just going along to get along.
That’s the avoidance of confrontation.
It’s like the difference between being nice & being kind…
Being nice is fake; pretending nothing’s wrong… it’s false by definition.
Being kind sometimes means confronting something that’s hurting us.
You know: some beliefs are worth fighting for.
We need more conviction in our world… not less.
And if that means confrontation from time to time… so be it.
But how we go about that…that’s what Paul’s trying to shape in Ro12.
 “never be lacking in zeal” he says. “keep your spiritual fervor” for sure.
But, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

PT: Boniface wasn’t just playing it safe & being nice. He instigated a pretty serious confrontation… but he was overcoming evil with good.

2 more quick things confrontation isn’t: Confrontation is never Hit and Run.
Hit and run is cruel… never settles anything, it just creates more scars.
I hate when this happens in the church.
People lob hand-grenades on their way out the door.
…it can do so much damage.
The reason is: hit & run isn’t really confrontation… it’s revenge.
You hurt me, so I’m going to hurt you on my way out.
Boniface didn’t do hit and run… he lived among the people for 3 years before he ever made a move on Thor’s Oak.
And after that he spent the rest of his life with them.
It wasn’t a hit and run job… last one…

Confrontation is the exception not the rule. Confrontation is not the main way God works w/his people.
Paul says, If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. …Paul says: 
If you will be devoted to one another in love.
If you will live in harmony with one another.
If you don’t repay evil for evil.
Most of the time, confrontation will be avoided thru brotherly love.
Boniface didn’t run around all over Germany cutting down Oak trees.
In his long career this was his one big symbolic confrontation.
The rest of the time what he did was friendship & patient leadership.

So those are the things that confrontation is NOT:
It’s not about winning, or blaming.
Not wimpy… go along to get along.
It’s never hit & run, & it’s the exception not the rule.
So that’s unhealthy… what’s healthy confrontation?

Healthy confrontation is Kind.
…an act of kindness that refuses to accept the status quo even though it may be painful.
It’s about making the enemy a friend.
Boniface didn’t want to just ruin their faith in Thor.
He wanted to help free them from superstition & fear & violence.
He knew this would be disorienting… but he loved them… went thru…

Healthy confrontation is Vulnerable.
It’s hard to do conflict well when you hold all the cards… all the power.
Tim Keel: “If you’re not the most vulnerable person in the confrontation, then you are doing it wrong.”
Think about Boniface in the forest, surrounded by a sea of pagans!
They could have rushed him & it would’ve been all over.
He made himself completely vulnerable to them that day.
That’s the posture a Christian takes when they do confrontation.

Confrontation is thoughtful & measured.
Before you try to remove the speck of dust from your friend’s eye.
You confess the big ‘ole plank in your own eye.
Healthy confrontation says: I do NOT have the upper hand here.
I need grace & mercy just like you do…
But I see this thing that’s killing you/us & I don’t want you to die!


One of the most interesting things I’ve come to notice about people who are confrontational is how much projection is going on.
We most despise in others … the things we despise in ourselves.
It’s “If you can spot it, you probably got it, too.”
This is why healthy confrontation requires humility.
We have to confront with the attitude that, “I’m just one beggar telling another beggar where the food is.”

Confrontation is Embodied.
It holds a mirror up to the false story, while at the same time offering your own life as an example of something different.
Miserable people make lousy confronters.
You have to be able to embody a better way before you call others to it.
Our lives have to be compelling enough to offer people some kind of genuine hope once the tree has fallen.

I wasn’t there, so I don’t really know. But my guess is that if Boniface was a real jack-wagon, angry, violent, and vindictive…
They would have rushed him the moment he put an axe to that tree.
He would’ve never made it out alive.
But something had to have been going on in his life… compelling…
He had embodied the virtues of the kingdom of God for them & it was enticing… They knew he was onto something.

PT: Healthy confrontation is kind, vulnerable, and measured. It requires a person who embodies peace in their own lives.

It can be instructive, I think, to let Boniface’s life to speak to us & our culture.
Because we live w/these hero-shaped holes in our life & our culture. 
And when we don’t tell the stories of faithful saints, then we’ll find another story to tell.
So we end up knowing much more about Clark Kent than Boniface.
Or more about Wonder Woman than Teresa of Avila. 
The stories we tell shape our imagination for what’s possible in the world & in our lives… so…
If we want our lives to look like Christ, we need to tell better stories.

Our culture needs a better story to live as well.
Stories like consumerism, nationalism, & individualism promise the good life, but only lead to human suffering.
NT Wright says you can be sure there is an idol wherever human lives are being sacrificed. 
There are scores altars to false gods in our culture where humans lives are sacrificed or diminished & this always results in suffering.
So how, then, can we as the church, confront our own culture?
Can we do this with kindness, in our vulnerability, thoughtfully, while embodying through our own sacrifice a better way to live?

The story of St. Boniface ends with another dramatic event.
Over the course of the years Boniface was given the title of Bishop, then arch-bishop; and at the age of 73 people thought it was about time for him to retire
Instead, Boniface asked to go back to the mission field.
So that’s what he did… travelled around teaching & preaching.
Once he was travelling with 53 new converts who were setting up a place where they could all be baptized.
They were attacked by violent men who suspected they had money.
Some of those who were with Boniface wanted to fight back, but he wouldn’t let them… 
So they all perished by the sword that day… 54 of them.
It’s said that he died holding out a bible to protect himself, and when he was stabbed it went thru the bible & into his heart.
Often Boniface is pictured there’s a sword thru a bible.
And so to the title of monk, scholar, priest, missionary, bishop, & archbishop, he added the title of martyr & saint.

My hope is that his story will inspire all of us to seek peace above all else. 
To think carefully about how we enter into conflict & so become agents of God’s peace in the world… 

What are the oak trees in your life that need to fall?
What are the oak trees in the culture that need to fall?
What is the confrontation you’re avoiding w/someone in your life?
Does your life embody a peace you want to extend to others… does the peace you experience call into question the way others live?
What needs to change in order for that to happen?



1. Tim spoke of confrontations that Boniface had with others, particularly one with Thor’s oak tree which gave him credibility with the local people and one which led to his death.  The verses in the public reading (Romans 12:9-21) describe the life of Jesus, including the way he confronted different people.  Think of confrontations which you have had, or are now facing, which these examples illuminate.

2.  How were you taught to address confrontation growing up? How has the church guided you in the past on how to address conflict? 

3.  In contrast to the violent culture of his time, St. Boniface "unleashed heaven" on his community.  He did it by disorienting them -- chopping down a tree with no repercussions.  How can we disorient those in our circle of influence?  How can we unleash heaven on them?

4. Tim concluded by saying that our culture needs to live a better story.  Otherwise, we become entangled in nationalism, consumerism, individualism, etc.  For you personally, what would it look like to embody a better way of living?