During the Summer of 2013, God’s people in Crafton Heights will be spending time talking with and listening to some of the members of the Christian Family whose stories and lives remind us about what it means to live faithfully. As described below, I’m calling this series “Faces at the Reunion” because I believe that as our family claims its heritage and gets to know each other, we’ll be stronger for it. On August 4, we explored the impact that John Calvin had on our church family, and particularly, his emphasis on God’s people being fully attentive to God’s Word. The Scriptures we shared were Matthew 23:16-24 and II Timothy 3:10-17.
I would like for you to use your imagination for a few moments. I want you to put yourself in another time and place…let’s say that you are in Europe, and it’s 600 years ago. You have been born into a “Christian” culture, which means that by and large, the law of the Church is the law of the land.
The Church is, in many respects, a political machine. It has become the path to career success for the wealthy elite or the refuge for the very poor. The leadership lives in luxury whilst common people struggle. All across Europe you have seen unholy alliances between the Church and the State: the Church teaches a doctrine called “the Divine Right of Kings”, which says that the King is the King because God made him the King, and so the Church backs the King. In return, the Church receives favorable land grants and tax status from the person who is currently King. In many countries, infants must be baptized in order to claim their citizenship.
You don’t know how to read or write, but you can do your work on the farm, or in the bakery, or around the house just fine without that. In fact, the pastor is the only person you know who can actually read and write.
You’re told that you should go to church, but you find that to be difficult because the entire service is conducted in Latin…a language that hardly anyone actually speaks and few understand. You have recently discovered that your pastor, in spite of leading all of the worship services in Latin, does not actually know that language – he simply sounds out the words from the papers that the Church sends to him.
You are required to go to confession at least once a year so that you can take communion once a year. You need to do that so that when you die, you can get into heaven. If you do not follow all the rules of the church, then of course you won’t make it to heaven. If you’re lucky, you can get to Purgatory, where your soul will be in torment until you’ve been punished enough for your sin…or until a rich relative makes a donation to the church and buys your entrance into heaven through what is called an “indulgence”.
And this is not just your life. This is the life of everyone you know, and most people on the continent… Does this sound like a situation that has the makings of a vibrant faith life? Does this sound like an expression of Jesus’ intentions when he said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly!”, or “I am gentle and humble of heart. You will find rest for your souls, for my burden is light and my yoke is easy…”?
Of course it doesn’t. The situation we’ve just imagined was real for most folks living in Europe in the 13th – 16th centuries. It’s not a living faith, it’s a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo designed to keep you in your place (and the King and church leaders in their places!). Just as Jesus said to the religious leaders of his day, the Church was full of people who claimed to be guides, but who were in fact blind.
Fortunately, the Church was addressed by a host of different leaders who protested some of these practices. Men like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and Jan Hus all stood up to the power structures and sought to correct some of the abuses. This movement is known as the “Reformation” because the church, and much of the world, was re-formed as a result of their teaching, preaching, and influence. There were two main rallying cries of the Reformation. The first was sola fides, or “by faith alone”. It was repeated as a warning to people not to think that there was anything we could do to earn God’s love or our own salvation – it is only through faith that we come to know who God is and who we are. The second cry is sola scriptura, which translates as “by the Bible alone”. The church had accumulated a big pile of tradition and scholarship, and there were some in the Church who believed that the teachings of the church leaders in the tenth century were as important as the writings of the Bible. The Reformers were insistent on the fact that in all things, we look first to God’s word, and then to our own.
As we continue to meet some of the faces at our “Family Reunion” of the faith, I want to introduce you to John Calvin, who was born on July 10, 1509 in France. Although his father originally wanted him to be a priest, he was sent to school to be a lawyer after his father and the bishop had an argument. When he graduated from the University, where he learned Latin and Greek, he became associated with a man who was seeking reform within the church. The Church denounced Calvin along with that man, and he fled to Switzerland. Christians there begged him to help reform the Church in Geneva, but he was reluctant. Eventually, he agreed to stay, only to be driven out by the town council a couple of years later (you know how churches love change!).
Several years after that, he was invited to return to Geneva, where he remained the rest of his life. Calvin was first and foremost a scholar. In fact, the black robe that I am wearing today is called a “Geneva Gown” in recognition of the fact that Calvin thought that all men of learning should be distinguished by their attire.
Calvin founded the church government that we call the Presbyterian system. As he looked at the abuses of the church, he was sure that many of them were caused by putting too much power in the hands of too few people, and so he said that rather than being run by a hierarchical system of clergy, the church ought to be led by a number of elders. The Greek word for “elder” is “presbuteros”. The pastor is a “teaching elder”, and others are “ruling elders”, and together they were called to administrate the church’s life.
We could talk for weeks and weeks about Calvin’s legacy and his impact on the church, but this morning I’d like to highlight his commitment to making sure that people had access to the Word of God. Remember, when he was young, the Bible was only read in a foreign language to people who could not understand it. There were those who thought it was, in fact, a magical book. Do you know the “magic words” – “Hocus Pocus”? They come from the Latin translation of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: Hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”). When the pastor stood in front of the congregation reciting a language that nobody understood, Hoc est corpus became hocus pocus. I don’t think we have any appreciation for how the Bible was misused at that time. Calvin helped us to see that, just as Paul wrote to Timothy, the Word of God is necessary to growing in faith and useful in our daily lives.
In that time, not unlike our own, there was considerable disagreement as to which church was the “true” church. Change was sweeping the globe, and there were so many teachings. Calvin said that the first mark of the “true” church was that the Word of God was rightly preached and understood. Let me say that again: the first mark of the true church is when the Word of God is rightly preached and understood. I think that we need to unpack that, because for Calvin, the “Word of God” had multiple meanings.
First, he would want us to know that the Word of God refers to the eternal second person of the Trinity, the One who was with God at the beginning of the universe. We understand God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; Father, Son, and Spirit. The Gospel of John says that the second person in that Trinity is the “Logos” – the “Word”. So everything that the church does should point to that Word of God.
Secondly, the Word of God refers to Jesus the Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh – Jesus of Nazareth, who showed us everything we know about grace, peace, mercy and truth. Again, Calvin’s thinking comes from the Gospel of John, which tells us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”
The third way that Calvin understood the Word of God was when he referred to the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Calvin called this “the inscripturated” word – that is, that through the power of God’s Spirit, God’s people can know the intentions and presence of God as recorded for us in the Bible.
And lastly, we know the Word of God through the faithful proclamation and hearing of the Scripture. Right before we read the Bible in worship, there’s a brief prayer: the prayer for inspiration. That is a legacy of John Calvin. The Holy Spirit inspired the writing of the Bible, but it is meaningless unless we can hear it properly. Calvin reminded us that we need to pray for the same Holy Spirit to help us understand it now.
In fact, at one point in his life, Calvin received a letter from a group of people in France who wanted to quit their church and join his group. They listed a lot of things that they didn’t like about the way that their church was run and the things that their pastor was doing. Calvin wrote back and asked them, “Does your pastor read the Bible in French? Does he preach in French?” When they said that yes, he did, Calvin’s response was, essentially, “as long as the Word of God is being read and preached in a language that the people can understand, then we have no business talking about the church dividing.” The Bible being read – and heard – is crucial to our worship. That’s why I insist that the lay people read the Bible during our worship services – because while I think that the sermon is important, we need to understand that God speaks his Word through voices like yours.
John Calvin left a tremendous legacy to the church. He wrote (and re-wrote and re-re-wrote) a monumental work of Systematic Theology called The Institutes of the Christian Religion. He authored commentaries and translations on nearly every book of the Bible; many of his sermons are published, and even though he preached and taught in either French or Latin, English speakers owe him a huge debt as well. In the 1550s he invited a prominent group of scholars to Geneva to work on the first major English version of the Bible. The resultant Geneva Bible was the one used by Shakespeare and the one carried to these shores by the Pilgrims. It served as a model for the King James Version and was the first English bible to use the current system of versification.
The church owes our brother John Calvin a debt because he helped us to see the importance of the Bible for everyone at a time when we were content to leave it to the “professionals”. He connected his worship and his daily life in a deep and profound way. Was he perfect? Far from it – and trust me, many of his followers (the “Calvinists”) were a pretty severe lot. But we don’t judge Jesus by the way some Christians act, and we can be grateful for the good John Calvin inspired and the fruit of his life.
How do we respond to the challenge that he put forward to consider the importance of scripture? One of my favorite images from Calvin is that of a pair of eyeglasses. He wrote,
For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. (John Calvin, Institutes, I.VI.I)
That is to say, the Bible gives us a frame through which we see the world and the Creator. Everything that we understand, we understand through a certain filter, a certain manner of processing the reality of our days. Make no mistake – everyone has a frame. You can’t look at me, using the Bible, and say, “Well, I prefer to take my reality unfiltered and just as it is.” Because each of us begins and ends every day with a certain set of presuppositions and “truths” on which we base our actions. Each act is an act of faith – it may be faith in God, or in myself, or in science, or in the power of reason – but everyone looks through a frame. How do we ensure that we are able to get the best use of the Biblical frames that Calvin recommended?
We need to get to know what the Bible says. You don’t need to take Greek or Hebrew, but you ought to make sure that you read it for yourself. Don’t trust me or anyone else to tell you what’s there – read it. Come to know it and to love it.
Following the example of John Calvin, ask God to give you the guidance of his Spirit to understand what it means. Again, don’t just trust someone like me to tell you what it means. Is it possible that the same passage might mean different things to different people?
Going even deeper, look for ways to engage other people in testing the meaning of God’s word. Engage other people. Listen to the sermons, of course…but then talk about them. Join a small group or a Faith Builder’s class and allow the ancient writings to breathe new life into your heart.
And after you hear it, study it, pray over it, and talk about it…then do what Paul suggested to Timothy: allow the words of the Bible to affect your life. Trust that God has a word for you – and live into it. John Calvin’s personal motto was, “My heart I offer to you Lord, promptly and sincerely.” His personal crest included a hand, lifting a heart to the heavens. Read the Bible with an open heart and trust that God will use those words to bring you guidance.
The Word of God – Jesus, the second person of the Trinity – is perfect and complete. The Church is filled with broken people. John Calvin lent his voice to remind us that we, the broken church, need to be constantly aware of and alert to the living Word. May we grow in that, and live. Thanks be to God. Amen.