There was no singing “Happy Birthday, dear John.” No party guests bringing gifts to the birthday boy. No cake with 500 candles.
Instead, we sang “Sant-Eprit, visite-nous!” and Psalm 8: “O Lord, how glorious is your name.” We brought offerings to God as the honoree. For refreshment, we shared the Lord’s Supper, bread and cup.
John Calvin would have loved it.
On Pentecost Sunday, an overflow crowd of around 1,400 Reformed Christians representing 35 countries gathered from around the world at Saint-Pierre Cathedral in Geneva. (The DVD is available online.)
I was there as part of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ (WARC) “Calvin Jubilee Tour.” Although the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth is July 10, 2009, this event was scheduled to coincide with the joint executive committee meetings of WARC and the Reformed Evangelical Churches.
Calvin would be pleased that they are in the process of uniting, an event to be consummated next June in Grand Rapids, MI. Calvin’s passion for the unity of the church speaks still.
In addition to worship (and touring the Reformation Museum), our primary purpose was to listen to the witness of other “offspring” of Calvin’s theology and piety. Some testimony was amusingly familiar: a representative from Indonesia reported how they now have to have three different worship services to accommodate different generations’ taste in music. Ah, worship wars gone global. Or Calvin’s emphasis on the vernacular strikes again?
Other witness was stirring. Members of the Africa Inland Church in Sudan told of their courageous outreach to the Muslim community in the North. After years of war, Christians’ outreach with medical aid and basic support is met with profound skepticism and distrust. Yet their steady message of God’s love is not daunted. Calvin’s call for responsibility for the neighbor and care for the lost emerges in modern civil strife.
Still other testimony was simply encouraging. Salome Ntobea, a young woman from Ghana, reminded us that Calvin was only 27 years old when he wrote — and, though she put it more delicately than this, she assured us that the future of the church does not depend on hand-wringing old people. Calvin’s Semper Reformanda lives on.
The Providence of God was affirmed. From the church in Cuba, Edelberto Juan Valdes testified to the living Spirit among us: “We are a charismatic church,” he said. Not a “jumping church or a chatting church but one that nonetheless has gifts of the Spirit to share.” Calvin’s trust in the Holy Spirit revives our souls today.
The point of the gathering was not to glorify john Calvin. Setri Nyomi, WARC’s general secretary, reminded us frequently that John Calvin “had no tolerance for placing a human being on a pedestal for reverence. I commemoration of the 500th anniversary of his birth done in a manner that simply glorifies one human being, John Calvin, would be against his principles, and if he were alive, he would be … against it.”
But in the midst of our intra-denominational skirmishes, it is helpful to remember how much we hold in common as Christians who share something of Calvin’s DNA.
The primary authority of Scripture as God’s Word in the world. Care for the poor and oppressed, not only through charity but as a part of civil governance. The stewardship of power and resources for the common good. Equipping the saints through education, not as a nicety but as an essential element of upbuilding the body.
I came away neither wistful for the past, nor prideful about the present, nor confident about some grand Protestant future. Instead, I left humbled. It is, after all, not human will but the Sovereignty of God that is in charge of Christ’s church. John Calvin, like any person, is not an end in himself, but simply a means of grace, a carrier of the “esse” and sometimes “bene esse” into the future, for generations still to come.
The wisdom of Ecclesiastes comes to mind: I know that whatever God does endures forever … so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by (Eccl. 3:14-15). That is worth celebrating.
The Rev. Christine Chakoian is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Lake Forest, IL.