‘For he that soweth in his flesh, of the flesh he shall reap corruption;
but he that soweth in the Spirit, of the Spirit he shall reap everlasting life.’
(Epistle to the Ephesians 6:8 Wycliffe-Purvey Translation .)
Standing over his family’s grave, Tom took his knife from his belt and grimly slit the length of his hand until blood flowed.
‘By my blood, and that of my father, mother and sister, I swear again mine oath of vengeance!’ he declared defiantly to the surrounding trees. ‘I will relent never, neither will I rest until the blood of my foes flows freely as did my family’s! God and the Devil be my witness!’
Suddenly, as he stood upon the ashes of his past world, his earthly vision became cloudy and misty, and he was looking into the world of spirits.
To his horror, he saw a black, shadowy chain had wrapped itself around his hands, feet and chest, drawing tighter.
Then, before his horrified gaze, a large and menacing figure seemed to arise out the earth, shadowy and shrouded in a cloak as black as the darkest night. Its face was partly hidden by the hood, but Tom could distinguish the bony jaw of a skull peeping out from under it. In its skeletal hand was a large and sharp scythe.
It was the Grim Reaper!
The apparition pointed towards him with a bony finger and gave a ghostly, echoing cackle of glee. Immediately, other horrible apparitions arose out of the ground.
Frozen with terror, Tom could tell, without asking, that these were demons of Violence, Hatred and Pestilence (surrounded by demonic, flea-ridden rats).
He discovered that the ghostly chain wrapped around him was attached to a loosened length of chain, and Hatred grasped the end of it. Somehow he knew the chain represented his oath, sealed with his blood.
The horrible apparitions leered at him for a moment, and the Grim Reaper spoke in glee with a harsh, rasping voice.
‘Ha! Out of his own mouth is he ensnared. He reapeth what he soweth. Now we have him.’
Tom realised what he had done. In his folly, he had allowed bitterness to poison his soul and had fallen into the trap of his true enemies, the minions of Satan.
Then Violence came forward and was about to take a hold of him.
Somehow, Tom knew he had a choice to make: to give in to the hatred that would possess him, living a destructive life of violence, or repent of his oath and relinquish his mission of vengeance.
His father’s words, even those the Grim Reaper had uttered, came back to him. He fell on his knees in terror, crying for God’s mercy.
Immediately, like a bolt of lightning from heaven, the shining figure of a huge heavenly warrior appeared, casting the demons to the ground.
The Grim Reaper slunk away, knowing his time was not yet, while the others fled in fear.
The light faded to reveal the great Warrior more clearly. He wore the gear of a great Saxon Thane fully armed for battle, but his face was noble and kind. In his right hand he bore a two-edged sword.
St Paul on the road to Damascus, Tom cried out,
‘Oh messenger from heaven! I have sinned! What must I do to atone?’
In a voice that echoed with thunder, the shining messenger said, ‘Fear not, Thomas Plowman. I am thy guardian and messenger. God hath chosen thee for a far greater destiny than a life of bloodshed. God hath permitted judgement to be executed upon Baldrick by thine hand, but vengeance belongeth to the Lord, and he will repay with far greater justice than thou canst do. Neither is it thine to atone for thy sins, for all thy works of righteousness are as filthy rags. There is a better way.
‘Think not that doom hath come upon thee for thy past sins. God hath seen thine hunger and thy pain. He would fill up thine hunger with Himself, the Bread of Heaven, and would heal thy pain, for He is the Great Physician, and hath suffered greater than any man. Thus shalt thou find thy destiny, if thou wilt turn unto Him in repentance and seek His healing.’
Then the warrior himself fell to his knees and bowed to the ground, as Tom became aware of a warming light behind him. It was as though rays of unconditional love were shining on him, beckoning him to turn around.
He did so and also fell on his face, trembling.
For before him, he saw the Lamb of God, suffering on the cross.
The vision faded as the Lord of the Harvest Himself appeared, shining in splendour. He held out his nail-scarred hands to show the suffering He had been through to secure Tom’s salvation. None of Tom’s own pain could compare to it. Who was he to sit in judgement on his enemies and to presume to execute judgement upon them? Had not his mother told him what the Saviour had said before He died: ‘Father, forgive them! For they know not what they do.’?
Tom wept tears of repentance.
‘Now arise, Thomas. Thou art My Plowman, My Sower and Reaper. I have need of thee.’
The voice above him was as gentle as the breeze, yet more powerful than a thunderstorm.
In a daze, wondering why he was given the privilege of speaking face to face to the Lord of the Harvest, he timidly looked up and found that He had gone. In his place, a new messenger stood before him.
This messenger was clothed as a great Earl of the time of Harold. A glow and air of authority surrounded him, and in his hands he held a two-edged sword, a great shield and a sickle. He also spoke with a voice of rolling thunder.
‘Thy chain is loosed. But not all.’
Tom looked down and saw that the chain had broken and was lying at his feet. There were still remnants of those chains on his wrists, but his deliverance was almost complete. Tom closed his eyes and breathed a prayer of thanks.
How could the Lord of the universe have need of him -- a profligate sinner? What was the meaning of those gracious words?
Answering his unspoken questions, the messenger said, ‘It is because He hath chosen thee as a chief labourer in the harvest that is to come to this land. Thou’rt called as a harvester of souls, a sower of the seed of the Word of God. But first thou must plough and sow into thine own life.’
The messenger brought forth the implements he bore.
‘Behold! I bear the sword that thou shalt wield in great power to defend the defenceless and to strike down the enemy of men’s souls. But thou must be exercised in the use thereof ere I give it thee.
‘Behold! I bear a shield for thy protection. Thou shalt learn to lift the shield of faith to quench the fiery darts of the wicked one. It shall be thine anon. Bear it well.’
He held the shield out to Thomas, but when he received it, with a trembling hand, it seemed to melt into his being and disappear. Yet he felt a new sense of confidence, and that he could face anything that life, or the enemy, could throw at him.
The messenger continued.
‘Behold! I bear the sickle -- thine authority to go forth and preach the gospel, making disciples of many in this land. It shall be thine when thou’rt skilled to fight with the sword and the shield.
‘Now arise, Thomas Plowman! Go thou north unto Oxenford. There thou shalt find thy chosen yokefellow by the name of William Shephard, a worthy man of God. He and others of God’s servants shall instruct thee in the use of the sword and shield. Go forth! For God is with thee.’
And with that, the messenger was gone.
Shaking and wondering if it were all a dream, Tom stood looking around.
Then he noticed it. The pile of ashes of his home was gone. There was nothing but green growth where once there was death.
He knew his family was safe in the arms of their redeemer. None would disturb their sweet memory. But he had learned his lesson now. He had an awesome call on his life to fulfil.
‘…God aiding me!’ he cried.
Shouldering the last of the worldly possessions he had in his sack, he set off north, on the long road to
Tom’s journey to
seemed rather uneventful after the glorious visitation he had just experienced,
but he was enjoying himself hugely.
He had never felt so free, now that the guilt and shame of his past life had been washed away, without the need to do penance or buy indulgences.
He had never felt so alive. He felt as though he was born anew, and an exciting new life had begun. A sense of purpose and destiny had taken hold of him.
He had never felt so loved, by a love so powerful that the One who loved him would shed His blood for him and ask for nothing in return for the gift of salvation.
The religion he was taught by
was pale and
pathetic compared to this. Holy
His old joie-de-vivre returned with a vengeance, and the smile that now lit his face came from a powerful fire deep in his heart.
As he travelled, Tom sang snatches of old songs that suited his elated mood, but often reverted to the Song of the Harvest, for he knew that the Harvest of Souls was his calling.
‘Sing Hey for the sickle! Sing Ho for the scythe!
For the heart of the reaper be merry and blithe.
With joy shall we labour through rain or hot sun,
Giving thanks to the Lord when the harvest be done.’
He had a fine, strong, lusty voice, and those who heard him would stop to listen. In taverns along the way, the local men applauded loudly and bought him ale in return for another song.
At other times in his journey, he would meditate deeply upon the things that had been said to him, both in the visitation and also by his parents over the years. He was largely recovering from the grief he felt for his family, gone forever, but an ache would sometimes surface in his heart. This made him feel more for the sufferings of the people he passed.
However, his buoyant spirit could never be submersed for long, and it was not long before he burst into song again. His meditations comforted and cheered him, meaning so much more than they ever had before.
This was the second experience of the shield that the Messenger had given him.
His money lasted him for most of the journey, but such was the exalted state he was in, together with his new-found compassion, that he gave freely to those in need.
To supplement his dwindling resources, Tom hired himself out to farmers, and such was the volume of work he did that many asked him to stay.
Although he enjoyed the roving life, his heart was restless to see what awaited him at
and to meet this mysterious man, William Shephard, of whom the Messenger spoke.
At first, a little unwisely, he spoke about his visitation to fellow travellers or in taverns along the way. He was naturally gregarious and fell easily into conversation with strangers.
Many of the simple folk were awed at his experiences, and there was certainly a glow about him that could only come from meeting the Lord of life Himself.
But some mocked and laughed. They had some cause to do so, for there was so much superstition around, and preposterous, conflicting tales were told, often fostered by the wandering friars.
Tall tales sometimes generated an extra coin over and above the usual benefice that friars received. Many had long lost their credibility, for times had changed from when the friars first appeared as humble men, fired with zeal and true to their vows of poverty and a simple lifestyle.
Tom had a lot of easygoing tolerance, but if the mocker went too far, that gentry found himself head-down in the nearest horse-trough or miller’s pond. Tom still had a few things to learn.
Finally, he crossed the Cherwell and found himself outside the Bull and Book tavern in
Entering, he discovered a much more congenial atmosphere than William had found
a number of years before.
Much reconciliation had occurred since the riots at
. Merton College
Many students, mainly Wycliffeites, had approached the townsfolk and addressed their grievances. Friendships had been made, and now the tavern was nearly full with townsmen drinking the health of the masters and students, and vice versa, much to the delight of the tavern-keeper whose business was thriving again.
One man stood up and called for a toast for ‘Doctor Evangelicus, Champion of the poor’.
Nearly everyone drank and applauded loudly.
Another, rather reprehensibly, toasted, ‘Confusion to Courtenay!’ which produced loud, ribald laughter. Tom learned later that Courtenay, Bishop of London, was a fierce opponent of Wycliffe and forbade him to preach in his churches.
One group of students, farmers and labourers, mellowed with good ale, hailed him genially, liking him on sight. They invited him to join them, and one bought him a drink.
The one who did this shook his hand warmly and said, ‘I call myself Benjamin Abyngdon, master. A student of
am I. It seemeth that thou’st journeyed long and sore, and a great journey’s
tale hangeth upon thy brow. Wherewithal can one be of service unto thee?’ Merton College
‘Thou’rt abundant kind to a stranger, Master Abyngdon.’ responded Tom, touched and grateful. ‘Thomas Plowman is my name, and I seek one William Shephard, a man of God. Dost thou ken of such an one?’
‘Few that ken him not at Oxenford, Master Plowman. A busy man is Father William, but hath ever occasion to speak to any that hath need of his wise rede. I met him hither as a stranger in this very place, whence he rendered me kindness in return for the churlishness of myself and my companions. A more godlier man have I not found, and his fellowship do I value above all. Haply we will find him anon.’
So it was that the Shepherd and the Reaper finally reached their divinely-appointed rendezvous.
Standing before him, Tom saw a tall, bearded man, with a grave and kindly face, and latent laughter in his grey eyes.