10.29.2017 Preaching Text: “‘I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’” (Deuteronomy 34:4)
I used to have a closely guarded secret in elementary school. No one but no one was to find out my middle name. Of course, once it did get out, I had no choice but to face the inevitable ribbing.
So what’s my middle name? Calvin. I can still remember my classmates making sport of it. Of course today I’m happy to tell anyone who wants to know.
The reason is that I’m named after my great-grandfather, The Reverend Thomas Calvin Leinbach, who was the 4th generation of pastors in his family (my grandfather became the 5th).
And because he came from a family where ordained ministry was the “family business,” his middle name (and mine) is an intentional nod to the great Protestant Reformer, John Calvin.
Today, as you know, is Reformation Sunday, the Sunday closest to October 31st. It’s on this day in 1517 (exactly 500 years ago) that Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany. This was to become the de facto start of the Protestant Reformation, though, in truth, it had been brewing for many decades.
These “theses” listed Luther’s objections to the Catholic Church. His intent, however, as a Catholic priest, was not to break away from the church but to reform it.
Unfortunately, cooler heads did not prevail. In what could have been a moment of needed change, both sides hardened their positions, eventually leading to a break and thus the formation of a whole new Christian movement, Protestantism.
But while Luther is generally credited with being the most prominent figure within this new movement, there were others, the most notable of whom was John Calvin, a French theologian forced to flee to Switzerland because of his Protestant beliefs.
He eventually headed up the city government in Geneva, where for a time the city functioned as a theocracy, meaning that church and state were one.
He is perhaps best known for his doctrine of double predestination, but also for insisting on God’s absolute sovereignty. The latter especially was seen as a necessary corrective to the perceived worldliness of the Catholic Church.
For Calvin, and the other Reformers, the church had become too focused on human agency. The intent, therefore, was to reassert the basic biblical idea that God is not only Other, but wholly independent from all earthly powers.
It’s also worth noting that Calvin, despite the way he’s often caricatured, was an exceedingly learned man. His Institutes of the Christian Religion, originally published in 1536, is a tour de force, a highly sophisticated, landmark document outlining his Protestant beliefs.
Though Calvin came on the scene a little later (1530) than Luther, he ended up as the head of one of Protestantism’s two main streams.
The Lutheran strain eventually became, not surprisingly, the Lutheran Church. The Calvinist strain, on the other hand, became the Reformed Church. The Congregationalists, be it noted, were rooted in the second, the Reformed tradition.
Several hundred years later, in 1957, the United Church of Christ was formed, which effectively combined four different Protestant denominations, all with predominantly Calvinist origins.
Of the four, the German Reformed Church was the one within which my ancestors served as pastors. For some 25 years, in fact, my grandfather was Senior Editor of the Messenger, the flagship publication of the German Reformed Church.
He also was named in a little history book published by the U.C.C. a few years back as one of the seminal figures leading to the merger of the German Reformed Church and the German Evangelical Church in 1934. In 1957, this “E & R” Church merged with the “C & C” Church (itself the result of 1937 merger of the Congregational Church and the Christian Church) to form the United Church of Christ (of which we are a part).
So as you can see, our spiritual forebears, at least in terms of the Protestant Reformation, came from the Reformed side. Our spiritual ancestry, in other words, goes back to Calvin, not Luther.
That said, I was struck by our reading this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth of the five books of the Jewish Torah. Here we encounter the death of Israel’s great leader, Moses.
When first discussed in Bible Study this past week, several of us protested the apparent injustice of the story. After all, it was Moses who at great risk had faithfully led the people out of slavery and through its many lean years in the wilderness. Now, as Israel stands poised to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Moses is preventing from entering.
Another way of seeing this, however, is to reconsider the whole idea of leadership, as did the Reformers. Is God’s Promise of salvation to Israel, and us, wholly dependent on any one human being? Indeed not. God’s plan, we understand, shall go forward with or without Moses, or any other earthly leader.
This reflects perhaps the most prominent theme of the Reformation, what Luther famously called “the priesthood of all believers.” Indeed, if you look today at the listing for Church Staff in your bulletin, you will see that the “Members of the Congregation” are listed as “Ministers.”
The office of pastor is a specific, designated position in the church. But the church’s ministry as a whole is carried out and effected by all its members, not just its pastor or priest. The Reformers were more than insistent on this.
If you’ve ever been to Prague, in the Czech Republic, you will see in front of the large cathedral in the central city square a statue of Jan Hus, who was deemed a heretic in 1415 and burned at the stake.
As leader of the “Bohemian Reformation,” Hus is generally considered the very first Reformer, a century before Luther! Hus’ crime, among others, was that he had translated the Bible from Latin into Czech, just as John Wycliffe, years earlier, in 1382, had translated it into English. Both were condemned as heretics for their efforts. Hus was martyred.
The point is that for the Reformers it was not just the priests who should have access to the Bible, but all people. More broadly, this reflects the Reformers’ belief that each and every church member is properly called to active ministry. And that includes you!
Sometimes we forget that. Yet perhaps at this time of an impending leadership change at First Church, we are able to embrace this truth anew.
For our Sovereign God calls each of us in every age to serve Christ anew amid the sure knowledge that God’s eternal Promise cannot and shall not be invalidated. Amen.