by Aaron Alford
A good preacher can preach a sermon right off the top of his head. A great preacher can preach a sermon with the top of his head right off.
I would like to introduce you to just such a preacher: Saint Denis. This Bearded Gospel Man would hardly let something as inconsequential as decapitation keep him from preaching a message of repentance. (John the Baptist. What an amateur!)
Born in Italy some time in the third century AD, Denis was a missionary bishop. He was sent along with two companions (one a priest and the other a deacon) to evangelize Gaul (modern France), then part of the Roman Empire. The gospel had taken root there, and the Church of Gaul had even enjoyed a level of comfort and privilege for a time. But times changed with the rise of Emperor Decius. Decius saw himself as a reformer of the glorious Roman religion and its political system, and sought to completely exterminate Christianity from the Roman Empire. He wanted citizens faithful to gods and country. A Christian’s loyalties, however, were first and foremost to one God and his Kingdom. This was simply incompatible with Decius’s ideal of patriotism.
While the average Christian was given an opportunity to renounce their religion, priests and bishops were simply executed. This persecution, preceded as it was with a time of relative ease, took a great toll on the Church, and many recanted. The Church of Gaul was dwindling and suffering.
Along with his missionary brothers, Denis bravely went forth, eventually arriving in Paris. These friends powerfully communicated the Gospel in word and deed, and many came to believe in the Christ whom Denis preached. The love and fearlessness these friends displayed was bringing new life to the Church of Gaul.
But these conversions did not sit well with the local pagan priests, and soon Denis and his friends found themselves in the clutches of the Roman authorities. By some accounts the three were scourged, racked, and thrown to wild animals. Surviving these ordeals, still true to their King and his Kingdom, Denis and his friends at last faced the Roman sword.
One can only imagine what was going through Denis’s mind as he watched his friends meet their death. True as he was to the Kingdom he preached, he may well have been praying for the repentance and salvation of his executioners. Perhaps he was thinking, “This would be a perfect time for a sermon!” Odds are this was exactly what he was thinking, for it seems that mere decapitation could not keep him from preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Legend says that when the soldier’s blade separated his head from his body, Denis calmly picked up his head and started preaching. He then walked down from the hill of his execution, proclaiming a message of repentance to everyone who would listen. Needless to say, getting people’s attention was not a problem. Finally, after about a six-mile sermon, Denis set down his head and died.
Regardless of how historically precise this account of his martyrdom may be, there is no doubt Denis was a passionate preacher with a deep and abiding love for Christ. At a crucial time when the Church had suffered the double blows of comfort and persecution, Denis revived and reinvigorated the Church through his faithful proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom. So here’s to Saint Denis, a Bearded Gospel Man who stands heads above the rest.