Francis Xavier

Francis Xavier, Missionary Extraordinaire (1506-1552)
Matthew 28:16-20, Joshua 1:1-9

500 years ago a set of events took place in Europe that sent shock waves around the world.   It has been called The Protestant Reformation. The most visible expression of that Reformation took place in Germany.  On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther drove a nail into the Wittenberg Door.  Attached by that nail was a sheaf of papers with 95 statements expressing his concern with the health of the church of his day.  The nail split the wood of Christendom, and the spark of the hammer hitting the nail created an explosion the sound of which still resonates today.   But it was not only Luther in Germany that created the furor, because all across Europe in the 1400’s and 1500’s there were other movements that were intent upon the renewal, reformation and revival of God’s church.

  • In England there were people like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley working at the quiet reform of the church.
  • In Czechoslovakia it was John Hus,
  • in Italy it was Savonarola.
  • In Geneva, it was John Calvin
  • In Holland, Huldrich Zwingli was working towards the reform of the Dutch church.
  • In Scotland it was John Knox,
  • In Switzerland it was Menno Simons.

Most of these reformers  switched from being Roman Catholic Christians to becoming Protestant Christians.  This, sadly, was due in part to the collision of hard-headed people on both sides of the great debates of the early 1500’s.

But it is also interesting to note that reform went on inside the parts of the church that did not become Protestant.  In Spain alone there arose people like Saint Teresa, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola, and Francis Xavier.  They too wanted renewal of faith and love. Not all good Christians bailed out of the Roman Catholic Church. Many stayed to renew the church from within

Let me introduce you to a name that has almost been forgotten in recent years.   Historians tell us that he was the greatest missionary of all time.  That missionary is named Francis.  He has been named after St. Francis of Assisi who had lived such a remarkable life 300 years earlier.   His full name is Francis Xavier.   The Australian writer, F. W. Boreham has told his story so well, so I want to tell the same story using much of his account.

The story of Francis Xavier is given to us in three snapshots.  They take place in three different parts of the world.  The first place is Spain.  The second place is Paris.  The Third place is the vast Orient.  Let us look at the first photograph.

His Days in Spain

It is the Golden Age of Spanish story.  Ferdinand and Isabella have created the greatest empire the world had ever seen.  Spain is the mistress of the seas.   Christopher Columbus has just added a new hemisphere to Spain’s vast holdings.  Everyone knows that memorable date: “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492”. The atmosphere of Europe is charged with excitement.

Francis was born in 1506, shortly after the discovery of the Americas.   His home was a splendid palace, situated on the sides of the snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains in Spain.  It is a home of glittering grandeur.   He is born into wealth and position and the years of childhood race by in the joys of an easy life.

As a young man, he has been entranced by the spirit of the age.  It is the Romantic period.   He flings himself into the revelries and chivalries of the day.   He is a dashing cavalier and life is a frolic for him.  He is the champion of every tussle for the trophies of the field.  He is first in every contest for the prizes born of competition.  In running, in fencing, in singing and in dancing, he is without rival.  The cup of life sparkles as he drinks it, and his mouth is filled with laughter as he drinks the intoxicating cup of life.   In camp, in castle, in court, none are more admired, or more applauded.   He is the center of society.  And amid scenes of splendor and gaiety, he is denied nothing that can please his vanity or his pleasure, and so 25 years whirl themselves merrily away.

His Conversion in Paris.

But there is a second snap shot of our friend.  He is now in Paris.  It is “Gay Paris” even in these days.  He is now 26.  His enthusiasm for fun has yielded somewhat to a thirst for knowledge.  He has an enlarged curiosity about his world and that has motivated him to learn in order to teach.  He has been educated in Law.   He is now a lecturer at the University of Paris.   And into his lecture hall there comes a strange, ungainly figure who has come to study.   The student is a man of fifty, but he looks much older than his years.   His name is Ignatius Loyola.   He is bent and broken.  He is pitifully lame.  But there is a fire of holy enthusiasm in his eyes.

At the close of one lecture, when all the other students have left the room, the young teacher and the older student meet in the doorway.  The older student offers congratulations on a well-delivered address, and then out of the blue, he asks the question, But what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” 

The question is stunning and disturbing.  They part that day, but in the days and weeks that follow there is something that propels them into each other’s company.  They become friends.  After each lecture, the old student and young teacher leave the lecture hall to continue the discussion.  But in every conversation the question returns.  Ignatius Loyola doesn’t ask it just once.  It is the same almost every day. The question punctuates their conversations over and over again. What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of knowledge, the whole world of wealth, the whole world of pleasure, but never finds himself?”

Ignatius Loyola the student, hangs out with the young teacher in the solitude of the study; he accompanies him in his evening walks along the banks of the Seine; they explore together the dense woodlands which later will become the suburbs of Paris.  But whether in springtime rambles among the hills, or on riverside strolls in autumn, or in the halls of feasting and music and pleasure, in the silent study halls of the stately academy, the strange student asks, and repeats and asks again one incessant. insistent question: But what shall it profit you if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul?”

A hundred times, as he painfully hobbles along beside his brilliant young teacher, the deformed pupil returns to his original question.  And at last the teacher capitulates to the relentless logic of the student with his immortal question.   There comes that great day when the lordly professor and the lowly pupil kneel side by side, and Francis Xavier dedicates all that is left of his life to the Saviour of mankind.  That day he became an intentional follower of Jesus Christ.

Missionary to the Orient

The third photograph is taken not in Spain or in Paris, but in the vast Orient.  A few years have now passed.   He has prepared himself for ministry.  He has become a monk.  His face is drawn with suffering.  His once pampered body shows the marks of a difficult life.  He has exchanged the comfort of the palace and the academy to homelessly wandering the world.

Since that strange encounter with his unusual student he has immersed himself in the story of the love of God as expressed in the Christ of the Cross.  The glory of that truth possesses him.  He is aware of so many people who sit in darkness and who have never experienced the light that shines from God.  He is aware of the new worlds, east and west, that have been opened up by the explorers and conquistadors.  He wants those worlds to encounter Christ as he has been encountered.

There are no planes, trains or automobiles.  He must travel as he can.  He begins the journey.  He is 36 years old as he heads out for India.  Upon reaching those shores he hurries from province to province, from town to town, from village to village, in each one telling the story of the love of God.

One day we find him standing in the middle of the dazzling splendour of an oriental palace, the next day he is visiting the filthy hovels of the untouchables.  And every day, and everywhere, in every way, he tells his strange and wonderful tale.  He is ridiculed, persecuted & opposed.  He presses tirelessly on.  He traverses that vast subcontinent until his limbs are swollen and his nerves are numb.

As he goes, he lifts up the cross with his right hand, and with a bell in his left hand, and summons people to attend to his words.   Converts are made for the Kingdom of God.  Churches are planted wherever he plants his feet.  But not an hour must be lost.  He hurries off to the next village to tell the story of God’s love in Christ.  He labours long hours.  He travels unbelievable miles.  In the course of those short years he learns 20 different languages so he can preach in the mother tongue of all he meets. But India is not big enough for his dream.  He must tell the story to the rest of Asia.

So we find him begging passage in a troopship to get to the next country.  On another day he is sailing with the pirates of the China Sea to get to his next destination.  He tumbles about the Indian Ocean in whatever floats.  And on the sea, just as on land, the passion to share good news consumes him.  He haunts the decks of those sea-going vessels, pleading with the soldiers, the sailors, the pirates, and the slaves that row the ships, and offers them the words of eternal life.

Then across burning sands, and over snow-filled ranges, he threads his fearless way.  The fierce blaze of the equatorial sun burns him.  The piercing cold of mountain glaciers freezes him.  But they fail to baffle him or deter him.

  • He throws himself into scenes of battle and carnage, ministering to those who have fallen.
  • He stands on the scene of natural disasters, telling the desperate people about God.
  • He visits leper colonies and cares for the hideous human wrecks who have been rejected by others.
  • He boards ships that have been quarantined because of contagious diseases, and kneels beside the dying to offer them comfort.
  • He comes like a ghost upon some wild inland tribes and tells the story.
  • He bursts into the villages of cannibalistic tribes and tells them of God.
  • He invades the secret lairs of bandits and drops in on the tents of the Bedouins.
  • He startles armies on the march, and intersects camel caravans, everywhere telling the story.

He travels back and forth across the face of Asia.  Now he is in India, then in China, then in the Philippines, back to Vietnam, up into Japan.  Single-handedly he is taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole of Asia.

After 10 years of prodigious travels his life come to an end.  He is worn out.  His body is emaciated.  He is an old man, and he is only 46.   He can go no further.  His wasted body collapses on the beach of Thailand, and Francis Xavier dies far from home.

Can I tell you what the books write about this man?

  • One source writes “It is truly a matter of wonder that one man in the short space of 10 years could have visited so many countries.”
  • Another source let us know that single-handedly he brought 700,000 people to God and into the Church during those short 10 years.
  • Others tell us that he was the greatest missionary of all time, bringing the gospel to more towns and villages than any man in history.

To this very day the presence of the Christian church throughout Asia stands on the foundations that Francis Xavier helped to build.

Francis Xavier was a man who found himself and gained the whole world!


Frank Boreham adds a footnote to his telling of the story.  He writes, the life of St. Francis Xavier “is the most stinging rebuke that history has ever administered to apathy.  His record is a stimulus to every church and a challenge to every age.”

Apathy.  It goes under another name.  SLOTH.   One of the 7 deadly sins.

Dorothy L. Sayers is eloquent as she describes this dark disposition.  What is sloth?

It is the sin which believes in nothing
cares for nothing
seeks to know nothing
interferes with nothing
enjoys nothing
loves nothing
hates nothing
finds purpose in nothing
lives for nothing
and only remains alive
because there is nothing it would die for.

Scott Peck, the Psychiatrist informs us that sloth/apathy has become the besetting sin of North America.  The wealth-laden West has lost its passion for life, its passion for God, its passion for people.  It has lost its compassion for hurting humanity.  Sloth has eaten away at our hearts!

Francis Xavier never succumbed to that deadly temptation. Thanks be to God!  He was driven by the conviction that the word he had heard as a young teacher was true to all people.  “What shall it profit us, if we gain the whole world and lose ourselves?”