Calvin, Copernicus and Jesus *

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This recording is intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire, Presbyterian Church family.  While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given.

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Acts 2:22-36
Colossians 1:15-23

Sometimes I think we believe we are the first generation to deal with issues of faith and science. In my life there has been a sort of love-hate relationship… as we battle over evolution… and now stem cells… and all sorts of scientific discoveries. Hot debates.  I’m here to tell you that we are not the first-not by a long shot-to have this conversation between faith and science. Calvin would be the first to tell you.  He was caught up in his own debate.

There was this fellow, Copernicus that had this scientific theory about how the earth revolved around the sun. The heliocentric theory. It was a new idea. The well established scientific model (Ptolemaic) for about 1500 years was that the sun revolved around the earth. It sort of made sense at the time. Every day I look at the Sun and it rises at one end and sets at the other end… and it “looks like” it revolves around us. It is visible evidence!  1500 years of common wisdom and practice. 1500 years.

I think we ought to be very humble before we just easily criticize 16th century people for not quickly giving up on a 1500 year old premise. How many premises do you work with that might be hard to change? … that a few hundred years from now people will look back on us and say, “that’s silly.”

Sharon and I went to visit a Country Doctor’s museum … where they displayed the instruments that doctors used. There were a lot of bloodletting instruments… if you were sick… they just bled you… That was a well known and common practice rooted in about 2000 years of tradition. Do you think that was hard to give up? Glad they did.

So I can understand if Luther and Calvin and the church and the culture might not quickly just jump to Copernicus’ defense when he was sharing his new theory with the world. It was so different from the way they had understood the world. A theory that would shake their world… change everything. If we have any humility and honesty about us, most of us would admit that we would not have jumped on that bandwagon either.

But Calvin, maybe unwittingly, helped pave the way for the Copernican theory to be accepted. Because first, you may be surprised to hear, Calvin was very friendly to scientific study. He embraced the sciences. He encouraged the study of nature… because the world was the theatre of God’s glory… and every part of the physical world and the human body testify to the wisdom and character of God. It was a means of discerning the wise hand of God in creation… Calvin would be glad to have the scientists among us at the Kirk.

But the major contribution Calvin made in supporting scientific enquiry was the way he understood how we are to interpret the Bible. He was not a fundamental literalist. He knew that Scripture language was limited language… and that God must use metaphors and other literary means by which to help us understand God. So when the Bible speaks of God having arms, a mouth and so on… Calvin knew it was a metaphor.

Calvin also knew that the subject matter of scripture was not the subject matter of the world. That the scriptures were never meant to be scientific texts. No, the purpose of the scriptures according to Calvin-both OT and NT– was to lead us to Jesus Christ.  The Bible, for Calvin was primarily concerned with knowledge of Jesus Christ… it was not meant to be an astronomical, geographical or biological textbook. It was about Jesus Christ… who he is… and how we learn something scientific texts can teach… how to live in a way that brings honor and glory to God.

I imagine Calvin could have used the texts I chose from today to make this point.  The texts from Acts is from Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. Did you notice that he basically traces the story of Israel… highlighting David … with the point being that this story ultimately leads to Jesus Christ. I also read from a hymn quoted in Colossians… called the hymn to the cosmic Christ. The hymn proclaims that Jesus is the image of the invisible God… the firstborn of all creation…the means by which God reconciles the world to himself. There are many things we can learn from Calvin about Christ for us, but let me focus on just a few of his lessons for us.

Jesus Christ, reveals who God is to us and for us. Jesus, the image of God, reveals the very character of God.

In the book, At home in Mitford, Father Tim comes to his Episcopal sanctuary one evening just after dark. He doesn’t expect to see anyone, but he realizes there’s a man sitting in one of the pews. He starts to offer the man some help but notices the man’s head is bowed; his prayers gradually become more audible, and finally he lifts his face toward the ceiling, his voice rising to a shrill scream: “If you’re up there, prove it!”  Father Tim slipped into the pew next to this stranger and said, “I think the question isn’t ‘Are you up there?” but rather, ‘ Are you down here?” 1.

When Calvin talked about Jesus Christ, he knew Christ was the answer, not to the question “Are you up there?” but rather, ‘Are you down here?”

As the Nicene creed phrases it”
We believe in one Lord, God of God, Light of Light, who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven.’

Jesus came down from heaven. We say he was and is God’s Son. This is not a statement about his anatomical makeup or his miracles… what it is, is a statement about his intimate relationship with God.

“Are you down here?” Christians are those who say yes. And he came down to meet us where we are for two reasons.

One was to reveal who God is for us. The nature of God.

While some ancient people longed for a savior (and some still do) who would swoop down to obliterate their enemies, make their gardens grow, and guarantee happiness and prosperity, a savior powerful, mighty, large, muscular and spectacular… a superhero savior… the God revealed in Jesus is different.

Martin Luther, someone Calvin admired, said that God became small for us in Christ; he showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won…God came down to us, not to outmuscle the world, but to coax us to being tender, loving, soft, even vulnerable.

Instead of crushing just one army (even if it had been the legions of Caesar), Jesus battled death itself, and at least seemed to have lost badly but of course, God had the final word.  Instead of building a gleaming temple for himself, he called people rich and poor, respected and despised, pious and unholy, to himself, to be what the temple was meant to me, the living presence of God on this earth. Instead of turning people’s nickels into dimes so they could get rich and prosper, he called that band of people to follow him, to leave everything behind, to risk everything, to be his people, the Body of Christ who would tell the world who God is… because they know who Jesus is… the loving self revelation of God. 2.

Christians are those who join Peter in proclaiming, “Thou are the Christ”… the one who speaks for God… the one who was God among us.

The other reason God came to us was to guide us… to lead us down the right paths, to quote a Psalm. To teach us the right way to live.

You know, over my life, I’ve learned a basic truth and I wonder if you have noticed it as well. Have you ever noticed that our lives are directed and shaped by the god we follow or believe in?

In religion, if you believe God is an angry God, and you are good and others are evil… and God wants you to rid the world of evil people… then it will affect your actions. A doctor was killed in his church a few weeks ago because someone believed that God wanted him dead. It matters what God you believe in.

But let’s talk about other gods that may not be so obvious to you. These are gods I struggle with myself.

If your god is the god of technology… believing it will save you and all of us… then that belief will shape your life…

If your god of capitalism or consumerism… the god of more… so that your life will be made secure and safe by good investments or by consuming more and more… then that belief will determine how you will live your life… you will spend endless energy and efforts on investing and spending… because that will save you. That believe will direct your actions and your days…

If your god is the god of ESPN- entertainment and sports… that you believe that sports and entertainment is the key to a long and happy life…Then you will give yourself to that god. I see people sacrifice quite a lot to that god.

If your god is the god of the self… the god of me… that I am my own savior and it is my life and and no one else’s… then your belief will affect your decisions… [By the way, Do you notice by the way how all of these gods are simply gifts that we give ultimate importance to?  Not bad in and of themselves, they make great gifts to be enjoyed but they are very poor gods]

But if you believe in the God revealed in Jesus…God who came to forgive… to bring peace… to offer love… that will affect your life.

I love a hymn we sometimes sing around here from Cameroon that expresses this belief well: “He came down that we may have love (peace, joy) Hallelujah forevermore.”

If you believe in that God… who in Jesus Christ seeks to bring love, peace and joy to us… that is, who saves us… then that will affect the way you live your life too. Or at least your desire to live in that way.

I thought John Baillie, an old Scottish Presbyterian theologian and minister, wrote a beautiful prayer that expressed this well. 3.  It is a prayer that expresses the desire to live in the way Christ taught us to live.

Today, I’d like to close with his prayer and ask you to join me. A part of the prayer has a response. O God, incline my heart to follow in this way. I will signal you when to say this, but it comes after something Jesus said.

O God, whose eternal presence is hid behind the veil of nature, informs the mind of humanity, and was made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord, I thank Thee that Jesus has left me an example that I should follow in His steps:
Jesus Christ said: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
Jesus Christ said, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
Jesus Christ said, “Do good and lend, hoping for nothing again”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
Jesus Christ said, “Love your enemies”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
Jesus Christ said, “Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
Jesus Christ said, “Fear not, only believe”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
Jesus Christ said, “Except you turn again and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
Jesus Christ said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”
O God, incline my heart to follow in this way.
In the name of our Lord, who taught us how to pray…Our Father…

1.  Story from p. 42, The Life We Claim, by James C. Howell

2.  Adapted from The Life We Claim by James Howell pp 42ff

3.  A Diary of Private Prayer