A Reformation Sunday Sermon (continued…)
November 5, 2017
You must imagine the setting. Two men in a dim Swiss inn, located in the city of Geneva. The first man, on the one hand, was a weary traveller, fleeing from France for his life. He had taken his supper and was ready for a night’s rest when a knock was heard at his door. The other man was an older, but forceful preacher, another Frenchman, pleading with the first to remain in Geneva and assist in pastoring the church and reforming the city.
The weary traveller, on the one hand, was John Calvin. He was just 27 years old at the time and had been a convert to Christianity for only about 3 years. During those three years he had written a little handbook for the Christian entitled, The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” This little book had caused him to attract attention as a reformer in his native Roman Catholic France, which put him in jeopardy.
France had issued the Edict of Councy, which stated that all Reformers had 6 months to reconcile with Rome or be arrested and tried as a heretic. So, recognizing that he was not going to be able to have a productive ministry in France, he chose to flee toward the free city of Strasburg in the hopes of a life of continued study and teaching.
Yet, the French Army was on maneuvers, making the straight path between Paris and Strasburg impossible. Had he been captured by the army he would likely be arrested and executed forthright. So, Calvin took the round-about path, which landed him in Geneva, Switzerland…in that particular inn for the night.
William Farel, on the other hand, was the other, more forceful man. He was 20 years older than Calvin and a seasoned preacher, having originally been commissioned to preach under the Catholic church. He too had come to the Reformed faith and had found himself in Geneva ahead of Calvin, laboring to bring Reformation to the church in his adopted city. Farel had the fire in his belly for the task, but he did not have the intellectual skill or precision that it would take to make the Reformation stick.
Farel had read Calvin’s little book, and when he heard that Calvin was in Geneva, he knew that he had convince his fellow Frenchman to stay. Yet, Calvin felt that quiet study was his calling, not that of a pastor or of a Reformer. And so the tension arose between these men. When Farel realized that he could not persuade Calvin, he resorted to a curse…
Calvin writes of this encounter in his journals with these words:
“Then Farel, who was working with incredible zeal to promote the Gospel, bent all his efforts to keep me in the city. When he realized that I was determined to study in privacy and in some obscure place, and saw that he was gaining no ground with his plea, he descended to cursing, and said that God would surely curse my peace if I held back at a time of such great need. Terrified by his words, and conscious of my own timidity and cowardice, I gave up my journey and attempted to supply whatever gift I had in defense of my faith.”
So, Calvin stayed…
You know, as Americans, we are often taught history by learning lists of names and dates…and I fear that is one of the reasons that many youth don’t get excited about the subject — I sure didn’t when I was younger. We forget that these were real people that were not all that different than you or me…the technology around us has changed, but the human condition is still very much the same.
We have also forgotten that while we might memorize those dates, events do not happen at single points in time, they are more of a process.
At the point in time where we find these two men in the inn, it was the year 1536. If you remember our discussion last week, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg in 1517 (19 years earlier) and he would then go to the Diet of Worms in 1521, four years later. In the meantime, 15 years had passed since the Diet of Worms, Luther had been laboring during that time to establish the church in Germany, but his health had begun to fail and he was in the last decade of his life.
So, though the Reformation had begun in Europe, it would be more than 100 years before it became an established presence. Wrap your heads around that. In today’s age, we want things done yesterday and if something does not happen quickly, we think it is time to scrub that idea and do something different. We don’t think with the kind of vision that looks ahead a decade or two decades or even a hundred years…we just don’t think in those terms, but God does.
Now, I am not suggesting that here, at age 27, while standing before this red-headed preacher, that Calvin had a clear view of what would happen. He couldn’t have. Yet, he was willing to be used in God’s plan to establish a church that would not only exist in Geneva and in Switzerland, but one that would be sustained across the globe to the glory of God.
So, Calvin stayed…though three years later, due to pressure from influential families in the city who did not like the Reforms being made, Calvin and Farel were both kicked out…and so, Calvin resumed his trip to Strasburg.
Yet, in God’s providence, something happened that would redefine Calvin’s relationship to Geneva, and in fact, to the whole of the Reformation. You see, about a year after Calvin was removed, the Roman Catholic Church commissioned Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto to convince the city to return to Rome. The Cardinal sent a letter to the city council telling them of the errors that they had been hearing.
Now, the Council was in a predicament. They knew that they would not return to Rome, but they could not answer Sadoleto’s arguments. At first, they appealed to Pierre Viret, a friend of Calvin who was ministering in the city of Lausanne, just across Lake Geneva, but Viret basically told them that they had made their bed by removing Calvin, it was time they slept in it.
So, they swallowed their pride and contacted Calvin, asking him to defend their position. Calvin’s response was eloquent, pastoral, and theologically precise. He defended the Reformed faith and demonstrated Rome and Sadoleto’s errors on the basis of Scripture, the Early Church Fathers, and from logic. And Calvin did this without bitterness, contempt, or animosity toward the Genevans for kicking him out a year earlier.
He considered the defense of the faith and of Christian souls to far outweigh any personal insult or slight he had received at the hands of Geneva.
And, before long, the Council invited Calvin to return to the city as their pastor.
An interesting tidbit about Calvin’s return. He was in the practice (as is typical now of Reformed preachers) of preaching through books of the Bible, verse by verse. So, in 1541, when he returned to Geneva, Calvin picked up exactly where he had left off, without missing a beat. And he would minister in Geneva until his death in 1564, at the ripe, young age of 55.
So, here we are about 450 years later. Why all the full and why do we, as Germans, look back to Calvin (a Frenchman) more than we do to Luther (a German). Or maybe I can ask the question this way, why do we call ourselves Calvinists and not Lutherans? Is that a distinction that is worth making anymore?
Well, yes it is. Remember, when Calvin comes onto the scene, Luther is beginning to wane, plus the Reformation church is still struggling to establish itself, especially outside of the German states. And, in many ways, Luther’s Reformation was in danger of becoming an isolated sect like the Waldensians or the Moravian Hussites.
Thus, Calvin, moreso than any other 16th Century Theologian, provided the theological Blueprint for the Reformation churches — a system of thinking about the Bible that shaped the way people lived — a Biblical worldview as we might say today.
Luther was a preacher first and a theologian second. Calvin, though one of the finest preachers of his day, was a theologian first…and Luther needed that.
Second, while Luther and Calvin did disagree on some important issues, the essential Five Solas of the Reformation were agreed upon by both men. We are saved by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, and thus Salvation was entirely the work of Christ alone. And our understanding of this and of all of life comes from the Scriptures alone…and all is done for the Glory of God Alone.
And, while Luther’s focus was on his native Germany, Calvin had a missionary vision, believing we are called to take the Gospel to every corner of the globe. His influence would touch the protestants of France, called Huguenots as well as those of the Dutch, the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Polish, the British, the Scottish, the Irish, and he even sent missionaries as far as Brazil. And, his influence extended into Germany, particularly through Strasburg and Heidelberg.
And those of you, whose ancestors lived in Betschdorf, while they certainly had Lutheran influences in that region, there were German Calvinists to their south and east and French Huguenots to their west…and, Mr. Burry, from whom we get out nick-name, was Swiss, which was dominantly Calvinistic as well. Further, Pastor Winter was ordained in the German Reformed Church…meaning that it is through these avenues that Calvin’s teachings arrived here in New Sewickley Township.
Yet, all of that history is of no value if it does not illustrate the text we read this morning:
“Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell.”
Calvin’s intention was never to be a public figure but he had a brilliant mind and an incredible grasp of the Scriptures at a time in history when there was a need for clarity and order of thought in the church. The Truth of God was being suppressed and attacked at every quarter; false teachings were masquerading as the Truth, and so, God took this fugitive Frenchman and made him the heart of the Reformation.
And in all of this, Calvin feared Farel’s threat of what God would do to him were he to be disobedient to God’s clear calling.
Will we do the same?
There will come a time when it will cost us dearly to take a stand for the Bible and God’s Truth. I’ve been saying this for 20 years now, that it is a matter of “when” not “if.”
Will you be ready to defend your faith when the time comes?
Will you be skilled enough to defend God’s word when you face challenges?
Yes, Jesus says, don’t worry about what you will say because the Holy Spirit will give you the words, but the way the Holy Spirit works is that the words we get come from deep down within…the word of God we have stored up in our hearts…thus, Paul writes that we are to study to show ourselves approved workmen, rightly handling the Word of Truth.
My fear is that the average person in our church is not ready for such a time of testing and defending the faith as this.
Let me offer two points to put this into perspective:
First, when I teach in Ukraine, not all of our students are pastors or will be pastors. Some are leaders in their churches and others are Sunday School teachers to children — both groups desiring to be able to understand the Word of God deeply and accurately so as to teach others correctly.
Second, similarly, I serve on the Advisory Board for the North American Reformed Seminary and as part of my task, I read every student application that comes through the Registrar’s desk. We offer everything from an online Associates Degree in Biblical Studies to a Doctorate in Theology. And I am finding many of our Associates Degree students are taking this degree specifically because they desire to know God’s Word better to be able to guide children in the faith.
In the long run, one of my goals is and has been to engender that kind of hunger here. We aren’t there yet, but in time, my desire is to see this congregation thoroughly equipped in the Word and in Theology so that we can stand in the presence of the challenges that we will face.
For Calvin, one of the first things that he did in Geneva was to establish an academy that would grow into a university. About 200 years later, Thomas Jefferson, wanting a university in the United States, offered to buy Geneva Academy and move it to the newly formed United States. That did not happen, but it gives us an indication of its worldwide renown. Calvin believed that a change in culture must begin with the Bible and that meant teaching it and faithfully applying it to life.
The real question is whether we will commit ourselves to the task of thoroughly learning to think and act as a Christian. Calvin’s response is captured within his motto:
“My heart I offer to you, O Lord, Promptly and Sincerely”
May we do the same.