Occasionally, someone will ask me what makes Presbyterians different than - say - other Christian traditions or denominations. It is a difficult and daunting question to answer, but part of the answer lies in the life of a very bright French man who spent the first part of his life training to be a scholar, and briefly flirted with a career in law - primarily because his own father assured him that such a career has a way of attracting wealth and comfort. But, such a life was not destined for this man.
Ultimately, his life was altered by a new movement overtaking much of Europe at the time - the Reformation - as well as his own study of the scriptures. He came down on the side of this new message, and having come down in favor of reformation of the Church he was expelled from his home country - forced to take up residence in Geneva, where he entered its gates for the first time in the late 1530's and entered his name: M., J. Calvin. Or, to us: Minister, John Calvin.
That doesn't sound like such a bad fate to us today, but the Geneva of Calvin's day was not the place of peace and refreshment we imagine nestled into the Swiss Alps. Although it had in name become a "Reformed city," one would hardly know it walking up and down the streets. "It citizens remained as they had ever been;" writes Thomas Parker, "and it was here that the real issue lay as to whether the place was to be a Reformed city." Parker goes on: "There was certainly plenty of room for reformation. Sixteenth-century manners were generally rough and sixteenth-century morals loose. But Geneva seems to have been rather worse than most towns." And he goes on to list evidence of Geneva's rough nature: people brandishing weapons in church and getting into brawls after service; the fact that a whole quarter of the city was set up and run by the authority of a local queen of prostitutes; ongoing problems with disease and waste.
Calvin wasn't able to overcome all of these difficulties, but for twenty some odd years he labored and preached - seeking to fulfill that first part of the Lord's Prayer we say weekly: "Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." And considering how things were when he first began, Geneva came a long way. Besides preaching, teaching, writing and caring for his congregation, Calvin made sure that a system of justice was actually set up to establish law and order. He even helped establish a sewage system for Geneva. In other words, his life had significance.
But, what made John Calvin's life truly memorable was that he refused to take credit for any of this progress. He was insistent that in actuality only one name could be the cause and reason for such reformation: Jesus Christ. In fact, this is what all of the great reformers were trying to get the church to see once again. By focusing our attention on Christ first and foremost, we are coming back to the one who can give us hope and renewal in all other parts of our lives.
This is how John Calvin expressed it in his Commentary on Colossians, specifically in one of the many places where Paul is moved to praise and glorify Jesus:
"Again Paul returns to thanksgiving for Christ's work, that he may take this opportunity of enumerating the blessings which had been conferred upon them through Christ ... For this was the only remedy for fortifying the Colossians against all the snares by which the false apostles endeavored to entrap them - to understand accurately what Christ was. For how comes it that we are 'carried about with so many strange doctrines (Heb. 13.9), but because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us? For Christ alone makes all other things suddenly vanish ... This, therefore, is the means of retaining, as well as restoring, [our life]: to place Christ before the view such as He is with all His blessings, that His excellency may be truly perceived."
Sure, it's a quote you have to read a few times to truly understand. But, in his own eloquent way, Calvin is simply saying that in Jesus Christ is all the world's healing and help. And when we manage to keep Christ central - whether its in our personal lives, in our church or even for a whole medieval city - all the other difficulties and dangers of the day seem to be clarified, if not resolved.
This week we move further into our study and journey through Acts, and we will come to the story that John Calvin surely would have enjoyed and appreciated: the story of Peter and John healing a crippled beggar in Acts 3:1-10.
We have a lot going on in our church - so much of it good. We have, for instance, the great opportunity to shower gifts upon the Jedeles and Rhodes after worship this Sunday for the gift of new children. The work of SAWs continues again this Saturday. The Deacons will be meeting on Sunday as well. And this is to say nothing of your own schedules.
But, let us remember to keep our focus on the one who is central and foundational to all of life: Christ our Lord. I love Calvin's wording and encourage you to do the same: to enumerate the blessings we have received in Christ.
I look forward to worshipping with you again this Sunday, and to turn our attention to the name that forever altered John Calvin's life, the name that has time and again saved the Church from itself, and the name that continues to speak to us blessings and promise in a world that continues to remind us of troubles and woes: the beautiful name of Jesus.
Friends, may Christ shine within you and before you.