Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy Birthday John Calvin!

We celebrate this year the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. I was in Montreat on July 10, which is his actual birthday, for our church’s celebration of John Calvin. John Calvin, by the power of his mind, and his remarkable organizational skills set in motion a movement that truly changed the world and our lives. His thoughts about organizing the church have flowed through these centuries with great power and have been captured in our Book of Order, and in Reformed and Presbyterian Churches all around the world. It is no exaggeration to say that wherever in the world we witness the blossoming of the idea of democracy, we see the legacy of John Calvin. When we sit at our session tables, gather in the dignity of our presbytery meeting, and in congresses and federal courts all around the world, with our commitment to group decision making and shared authority, we feel the genius of John Calvin. From Geneva where Calvin first pondered and practiced these blessed ideas about church organization this influence has flowed. Like all brilliant ideas, these ideas have been claimed, revised, reworked and created again in different contexts and in different cultures. Like all brilliant ideas, these also have been misused and transformed into ugly patterns of ideology and idolatry. One thing I have learned in this year of remembering is that we must peel back all the layers and remember John Calvin himself, his work, his ministry and legacy; not Princeton Theology or the theology of James Thornwell, not Westminster Theology, and certainly not the theology of the Synod of Dort and it aberration of Calvin using the acronym TULIP, and not the Dutch Reformed Church and not even the heritage of the Church of Scotland. In other words we need to remember John Calvin and not simply Calvinism. The essential kernel of Calvin’s polity has flowed from Geneva to Scotland, from Scotland to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, to South Korea, Thailand and India, to Mexico and Brazil. These ideas have flowed to Kenya, Sudan, Egypt, Malawi and South Africa. And now in our world the essential ideas of Calvin’s polity are expressed in church meetings and church structures, and democratic constitutions by people who have never heard of John Calvin, and who do not know this heritage. But we know the heritage and we are grateful for the legacy.
For us today though, maybe it is the theological system of John Calvin, more than the polity, which is most astounding. It is this theology that needs to constantly be remembered and reclaimed, celebrated and breathed deep into the very soul of our prayer life. If Calvin’s church polity easily becomes confused in the interplay and interconnection of a number of different and vital themes, Calvin’s theology may be easily summarized and proclaimed in one, loud, glorious phrase: the sovereignty of God.

I want to try on with you a one paragraph summary of John Calvin’s theology: The world is filled with the dazzling beauty, majesty and magnificence of God. All around us, everywhere, in all of creation, in every creature, in the whirling of the planets, and the movements of the molecules God’s dazzling magnificence is everywhere. But we cannot see it. Why can we not see the beauty and majesty of God all around us? Our blindness cannot be God’s fault, it must be our fault. There is something wrong with us. We are sinful, totally depraved, creatures. This sin blinds us to the majesty and beauty of God all around us. We are blind. Our loving and gracious God comes to us in Word and Holy Spirit so that we might be able to see. We are by the gift of Word and Spirit assisted in seeing; we are chosen to see. Now with the new eyes blessed by the Word and the Spirit we can see all the majesty and beauty of God, and we spend our lives saying “Thank you.”

Maybe I can do even better. I can summarize the totality of Calvin’s ministry and purpose in one memorable phrase: “Lift up your hearts.” “Lift up your hearts.” This is the essential spiritual practice to which Calvin calls us. All the organizational work, and the careful themes of polity are in order to create churches, and church structures which are holy places devoted to the lifting up of our hearts. All of the carefully systemized theological reflection is intended to help us to orient our minds toward the lifting up of our hearts. Most importantly for Calvin, it is about our hearts. It is about God’s gift in Jesus Christ which fills us with a motivating passion and an ardent zeal. It is about the power of the Holy Spirit coming down into the very core of our being, not simply our minds, and not simply an act of intellectual belief, but a passionate and inspired lifting of our hearts. All the polity and all the theology of John Calvin is intended toward this one end, that the people of Jesus Christ will lift up our hearts to the Lord. Preachers, maybe at the top of every sermon as you sit down to craft and write each week you may write this: “The purpose of the sermon is to encourage us to lift up our hearts.” Elders, maybe we should print this at the top of every session meeting agenda or maybe above the door to our church buildings: “The purpose of this church is to help us lift up our hearts to the Lord.” And, maybe I pray, the purpose of our presbytery is to help us lift up our hearts to the Lord.

If you want to understand the theology of John Calvin, and, I would say, if you want to understand the purpose of the church today standing in the legacy of John Calvin, simply ponder this little phrase, “Lift up your hearts.” How does that happen? Where does it happen? What inspires and motivates it to happen? And finally what are the consequences and results when we come together with lifted hearts. This is the legacy and the invitation we have received from John Calvin. Lift up your hearts. Thanks be to God.