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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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A First Person Sermon – In celebration of John Calvin’s 500th Birthday.
Bonjour! Thank you for being here to celebrate my birthday. 500 years old. You know the old 500 is really the new 400! You shouldn’t have gone through all of the trouble… really. You shouldn’t have. Because you see, it is not about me… it has never been all about me… that’s why I asked to be buried in an unmarked, common grave… I just knew that if there was a marker or a monument… people would make pilgrimages to see my marker. Before you know it…it would get out of hand! And that would go against everything I have stood for… because at the end of the day… I don’t want you to honor me… I want you to love and honor God.
Still, maybe God will forgive me if I take a once in 500 year opportunity to re-introduce myself to you… I’m afraid that over 500 years – I’ve been listening… people have been talking about me… in ways that I’m not sure tells the whole story… Sometimes people have made a stereotype of me… portraying me as cold, harsh, legalistic… oh, I know… I know… the pictures of me don’t help… I’m never smiling… but no one ever smiled in a picture back then. Also, most of them were taken at the end of my life when I was tired…and sick… sick and tired… do you know what I had to deal with? Insomnia (2 hours of sleep a night), asthma, arthritis, fevers, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, gout… with tuberculosis being the illness that would kill me. Would you be smiling for a picture?
One thing I’ve noticed, is that people seem to have a love-hate relationship with me… based on what they THINK they understand about me as told by others. Sometimes I don’t think I’d like the person my opponents describe either. Have you ever had that experience… someone sort of defines you in a way that takes the life out of you?
All people seem to know about me is that I taught the doctrine of Predestination. Really. I never have understood why that doctrine seemed to be hung only on me. I learned it from an ancient Catholic theologian Augustine. It was never mine to begin with. I only devoted a few paragraphs to the doctrine in my two volume work about life, faith and the church. So why do you insist on summing up a 55 year old life with that one idea among many ideas and teachings I shared? It is not fair. Would you like your whole life to be defined by one moment in your life… one idea you had?
So if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you about myself… and how I would like you to know me and how I’d like you to remember me. I’d like to tell you, “the rest of the story” to quote one of the people from your time.
I was one of six children from the town of Noyon in France. I bet you didn’t know I was raised in a good Catholic family. Baptized in the cathedral. My mother, Jeanne, was a faithful, practicing Catholic. My father, served as the secretary of the bishop… a sort of church administrator. My older brother Charles was a Catholic priest… until the day they excommunicated him… they said he was following the Lutheran heresy too closely. My Dad was later excommunicated as well. These were tense times in the Catholic church.
So much of what Luther was doing was happening when I was very young. I was only 8 years old when he nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. I was only 10 when Zwingli started the Swiss Reformation. The world was in religious and political chaos. Towns and nation-states serving as battle grounds for religious and ethnic hatred and tensions. I hear the same thing is happening in your world.
Growing up… well… my dad, at first wanted me to study for the priesthood. I went to college in Paris when I was 14 years old. I studied Latin and French… I met a great Biblical scholar who taught me how to study the Bible… looking to the intent of scripture as they were originally written. I received what you would call today a good, liberal arts education. I studied long and hard… 12 hours a day.
But when the church excommunicated my Dad and brother… I was about 20 years old… my Dad urged me to switch from my study of theology to law. He wanted to be a lawyer… (it pays better money) which is what I became… I studied under the best legal mind in France…
My decision to leave the Catholic church was not an easy one. I had been thinking about it and learning more about the Protestant movement… but it wasn’t until-I was 24 years old at the time… it wasn’t until I was watching a Protestant procession which caused quite an uproar in my hometown… that led me to make a decision… I would leave the Catholic church and join the Reformed movement.
My heart was finally moved by God to devote myself to God in this new expression of the faith… and I offered myself to God with what became my personal motto… my life’s prayer:
Here, I offer you my heart Lord… promptly and sincerely…
And from there… life took on rapid changes and looking back, it is clear I was not in control of the events that would shape my life. God was.
When persecution broke out against Protestants in France, I decided that I would join the safe haven along with many other refugees in Strasbourg, France. But I got detoured on the way and had planned to stay one night in Geneva, Switzerland… another haven for religious refugees from all over the world. I understand you have refugees from other parts of the world. I think they would know what was happening to me.
A local reformer, William Farel compelled me… actually threatened to have God curse me if I didn’t stay. I was only 27 years old… so I stayed and became a pastor to the young reformed Christians in Geneva.
Back then, the church and the state were closely tied together with the state having power over the church. The town council decided who could serve and they had to approve me… a non-citizen… a French immigrant to serve the local church. They approved communion and how it would be administered. Imagine that your minister could not be called to serve you without the Town of Cary approving… or that you couldn’t have communion without their approval.
Even in that dark moment when Michael Servetus was burned for heresy… something people try to pin on me… even that sentence was given by the town council. Truth be told, I tried to have Servetus recant… and when that didn’t work, I DID try to find a more humane way for the execution to be carried out.
That may give you a sense of what I dealt with most of my ministry as we dealt with the council. It is why Farel and I were thrown out of Geneva on Easter day when I was 29 years old. They didn’t like what I was teaching and preaching and how we were enforcing the rules o
f the faith… they wanted us to loosen our standards with communion and we refused. Yes, I guess I could be stubborn. I had standards! In fact, we refused to hold communion on Easter. It was the last straw… but it was the best thing that ever happened to me… because I then finally got to go to Strasbourg for three of the happiest years of my life.
It was there I met my mentor and friend, Martin Bucer… who invited me to be a minister to French refugees in the church. I was in a place where I could preach… teach in the local college… and had time to write and expand on my book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a best seller. I learned from Bucer how to be a better pastor and church leader and community leader. I learned about worship… much of what I learned about worship, I learned from him. I wrote hymns… made sure the congregation was the one who sang.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gotten rid of the choir… but I thought the whole congregation was the choir. God would love to hear them sing. So I wrote hymns for them based on the Psalms. You are singing one of my hymns today… “I Greet thee who my sure redeemer Art”
I learned to write in Latin… Latin, not English was the international language of our day. I used the great tools of my age to get out my message and the faith. We had this great technology that was fairly new… called the printing press. Man, could we get out the word… Oh, it threatened some people this technology… especially people in authority-who were used to controlling information. All sorts of ideas could now flow in the world. It was a tool that I used well. I understand you have something called the internet…and facebook. I’d be using them too. Anything to get the word out.
The best part of my time in Strasbourg was meeting my wife, Idelette. She was the widow of a dear friend. I had told my friend Farel what kind of wife I was hoping to marry. I told him, “I am not one of those insane lovers…smitten at first sight with a fine figure. The only sort of beauty that attracts me is someone who is chaste, not too nice or fastidious, economical, patient and someone who will… be concerned with my health.”
Well, God gave me Idelette. We married and she was a good wife… the love of my life. I treated her children from her first marriage as my own and we tried to have our own children. She gave birth to three children of our own. … and every one died as an infant. One of our children, I baptized. The others I could not. Still, I knew God cared for all of them and they were in good hands with God. Still, a very painful time. A fellow minister even suggested that our childlessness was God’s curse upon me. I told him, I have thousands of spiritual children in many lands! How stupid. Ever heard anyone say anything like that? What a pig!
Most painful was when Idelette died. We were married for only nine years. I promised her that I would take care of her children… and I did. I was glad to.
We were back in Geneva when all that happened. We had returned when new elections were held and the new town council begged me to return. Things had fallen apart. I came back reluctantly because life was so good… but I came back on my own terms insisting on a salary of 500 florins. I needed it because while in Strasbourg I almost lost everything. I even had to sell most of my personal library to make ends meet. I came back and was ready to take what I had learned in Strasbourg and apply it to Geneva. I came back a wiser pastor and leader. I had been given another chance. And I would stay there for the rest of my life.
My goal: to glorify God… to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength… to build the church on the foundation of preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper in the right way. That’s all you need for a church you know… the Word and the Sacraments. I tried to have the Lord’s Supper celebrated every week-but the town council refused. Said it was too much. We agreed on a compromise. Quarterly communion would be celebrated and rotated among three churches. That way we’d at least have communion celebrated monthly somewhere in Geneva!
I also wanted to transform the community of Geneva and urge policies and practices that would honor God and care for God’s people. In your language, I wanted the church and the faith to make a difference in the lives of people… especially the poor and the refugees.
So in addition to reforming the church, I sought to reform the community. I wanted the laws of Geneva to come into greater conformity with the laws of God. I began to advise the city council. I advised them to forbid gambling… No lotteries in my community… because God intended us to cultivate the earth through work.
I hear you have had all sorts of financial problems lately. So did we.
Bankers were charging way too much interest so I had the council pass a law that had two rules regarding interest:
– those who were using loans to make money or for business-we’d charge a modest rate of interest.
— to the poor we would loan money at little or no interest at all… sort of like your Habitat for Humanity or microloans. Good stuff!
I sought tighter laws for business. I made sure that business people who short changed others or took advantage of others were punished and prosecuted. Too many people get hurt. You can’t have people cheating in business… taking short cuts, can you? We had our Bernie Madoffs too.
I pursued other plans and policies for the good of the community. I supported good hospitals. I had sewers installed to combat disease… Dentists were tested and licensed to pull teeth. For safety’s sake, chimneys were to be installed in homes with fireplaces and railings were to be fitted to balconies, to protect small children from falling off.
All of these were ways you could say that we were caring for our neighbors who lived among us… and for the poor. I always said that love of neighbor was one of the tests of whether or not you knew if you were one of the elect… if you are a person of faith.
I put a great deal of energy into developing the Geneva Academy. God gave us a mind to use and develop. A mind, as someone in your time has said, is a terrible thing to waste… especially because it is God’s gift. At my academy we studied everything… we a faculty of languages and a faculty of theology.. we also had a faculty of law and medicine. God cares about all of it! All of it.
So do you see?… honoring and glorifying God is not just about going to church… or Sunday school or believe certain things… it is about transforming your life… and the community and the world you live in so that God is pleased… working for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
As I look at your church… I see you trying hard in some ways… doing great things… but one thing surprises me. I’m surprised that the church let itself stay on the sidelines when it comes to politics and community involvement. If I were your pastor, I wonder- would you throw me out because I became too involved in the Cary politics? … trying to advise and bother them to create a more just community?
Well, you’ve been very patient with me… this old man. Thank you. Perhaps I should finish by telling you how I closed my life in the world. I died when I was 54 but God blessed me with an opportunity to say goodbye to fellow pastors and friends.
I remember the last weeks of my life…. I gave my last lecture and last sermon three months before I died. (I was so sick) Just over a month before my death, I went to worship one last time… my friends had to carry me to church in a stretcher… to receive the Lord’s supper, one last tim
e… and I sang in church one more time… sang my very own hymn composed based on the Song of Simeon. I understand you will sing your own version of that today.
Maybe the best way to close is to share with you my final words I shared with my dear friends before I died.I told them: “You have had to tolerate many shortcomings in me. Even everything I have ever done, is of no value… I tell you once more-nothing of all I have done was of any value. For I am a miserable creature. Yet I can say that I have wanted to do good, and that my vices have always grieved me, and that the root of the fear of God was in my heart. And you can say that my intentions were good; and I urge you to forgive me, whenever I have been wrong.”
Thank you for listening… May God bless you as you seek to be faithful in your time… and as always, to God be the glory. Amen.
Notes on the sermon: Most of the information is drawn from Alister McGrath’s biography on John Calvin. Other information comes from various sources and readings.