By an imaginative grace in the mind of a Presbyterian minister, we were invited to spend part of a seminary year in Geneva, Switzerland, underneath the shadow the great mountains, the Alps, of that region. The minister was the Rev. George Todd, a founder two decades earlier of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, a still exemplary incarnation of community engagement against poverty, against racism, against bigotry, against xenophobia, against sexism, against the notion that the ‘poor you have always with you’. Apparently, given the rhetoric and revelations of this political season in the United States, we still have a great deal of work to do. Would somebody please shut the windows of heaven, that the saints need not hear our current discourse, language lastingly insulting to Mexicans, to Muslims, to women, by coarse extension to others who are other, and with the capacity for lasting hurt, especially in the ears of our children. Shut the windows of heaven. George and Kathy Todd, with others, raised a generation of ministers and missioners, now the subject of a fine, new study, in a dissertation just completed here at Boston University, by a friend of Marsh Chapel, Ada Focer.
George corralled us, and a few others, to work for him at the World Council of Churches, whence he had recently gone, to provide, as he growled, ‘heat, light, and running water’. Jan, you can still overhear, in those months, accompanied by piano the World Council mid-week worship service, with Emilio Castro or Philip Potter preaching. To think back upon George Todd’s influence, now decades past, is to scale up a great high peak, and to look out upon the vast beauty and need of a human race, longing, in such odd ways, for the presence of Christ. As we complete this decade’s reflection at Marsh Chapel, in dialogue with Calvin for Lent, George and others like him stand up and stand out as signs of hope for the future.
One summer Saturday that year we left Geneva, John Calvin’s city, and we drove an old car, a ‘deux chevaux’, a ‘two horse’, to find our way into the mountains. After a while we transferred to a train, going higher still, and then later from Zermatt to Gornergratt, along old railroad lines. As the sun came to a noonday brilliance, a cable car took us thence to the top of a great mountain, snow in July, and the powerful height, the pristine beauty of the creation, a hint of the power and majesty of Calvin’s view of the Creator. Calvin is seen best from the pinnacle of the Matterhorn. For this theological height, for this reverence for the divine freedom, for this austere, awesome vista, in his work, we are lastingly thankful, notwithstanding all and many profound disagreements along the railway up and forward.
John Calvin’s theology has traditionally, perhaps over-simply, but at a first approximation accurately, been summarized by the so-called TULIP formula: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance of the Saints. A sober if not an entirely cheery, happy creed.
Yet, in the New Testament as a whole, the full gospel, at a first order of approximation, the opposite is expressed. In the Gospel, Jesus loves people. These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been totally depraved. In the Gospel, as today, Jesus recognizes the choices that inevitably make us who we are. Choice is relational and conditional, and makes us inspect what condition our condition is in. These people, and we too, must have not been unconditionally elected. In the Gospel, Jesus gathers everybody, all, and addresses all with the invitation, as today, to repent. These people, and we too, we could discern then, must not have been limited to the very narrow, tiny minority of the pre-destined elect. In the Gospel, Jesus faces, heartsick, the brutal truth, that people, and we ourselves, can and do resist the invitations of love. They must not have been powerless. Jesus’ grace was resisted, steadily and effectively, to the path of the cross. Speaking of the cross, here Jesus himself does not persevere, not at least in Jerusalem, or in the spiritual culture of our time, nor does his cause, at least not in this passage. Persecution not perseverance awaits this holy one, our work of memory in Lent.
In this decade, come Lent, we have pondered and wondered about Calvin, and conjured something like this: A real celebration of the Gospel will depend upon another TULIP: T. Something temporal. A heart for the heart of the city—a longing to heal the spiritual culture of the land. U. Something universal. An interreligious setting. L. Something lasting of love in mind. A developed expression of contrition. I. Something imaginative. A keen sense of imagination. P. Some real power. An openness to power and presence.
A Biblical Chorus Line
Hear again the gospel in John 12. The main trouble a preacher faces, with regularity, is how to understand, and so interpret, a passage from 2,000 years ago. Every gospel passage, like this one from John 12, is like a hymn, or an anthem. There is soprano line (the lead, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth). There is an alto line (the most important voice, that just below the surface of the text, the voice of the early church, in its preaching of the gospel, its remembering, hearing and speaking. For the early church Jesus meant freedom, and his cross and resurrection meant one thing—the preaching of good news, that we may face the world free from the world). There is the tenor line (what we read from the pulpit, the gospel writer, in this case John). And there is the baritone, basso profundo (the way the line reverberates throughout the rest of scripture, and down through nineteen hundred years of experience to us today, as John gives way to 1 John, and 1 John to Irenaeus, and Irenaeus to Calvin, Calvin to Wesley, and Wesley to March 13, 2016.)
Calvin on John 12
Calvin’s reading of John 12 emphasizes the overarching divine freedom, and a determinism at work in human affairs. He writes:
It is surprising that Christ should have chosen as treasurer a man whom He knew to be a thief. For what was it but giving him a rope to hang himself with. Mortal man’s only reply can be that the judgments of God are a profound abyss.
Here is the inheritance of determinism, along with the view of Scripture addressed two weeks ago, the second lastingly great trouble for us, coming out of Calvinism. Calvin:
God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation…We ought to contemplate providence not as curious and fickle persons are wont to do but as a ground of confidence and excitement to prayer.
So let us take stock of our Gospel today. It includes one of the most infamous lines in Scripture, ‘the poor you have always with you’. John here is making a Christological point, another sermon for another day, but in much regular memory of the Bible, especially when colored by a kind of Calvinism, the verse has not been a way of recognizing the overwhelmingly gracious presence of Christ, overshadowing all other concerns, but rather a tragic support to careless disregard for those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadow of life. Be careful about your theological inheritance.
K Tanner, in recent essay: “More specifically, a religiously inspired psychological sanction for hard work in the pursuit of profit reaches its height, Weber thinks, among religious people of a Calvinist stripe who believe in double predestination—that God predestines from all eternity some to salvation and some to damnation—and where the only effective way, it’s also believed, of stilling anxiety about whether one is to be saved or damned is the outwardly disciplined character of one’s everyday behavior without regard for material enjoyment. If one is graced by God, among the elect, one’s actions in ordinary pursuits will be of this character: coolly self-disciplined, restrained, non-hedonistic. And in that way amenable to capitalism’s requirements.”
The poor always with us? Nonsense. On a daily basis, we have as many poor among us as we choose to have poor among us. There is no divine determinism about how many 12 year olds across this land, let alone those younger, are stripped of layers of human dignity, and saddled with the lastingly crippling effects of childhood poverty. The poor we have are the number we choose to have, as a society. The number of children and others without full education, effective health care, protective communal services that we have is a direct consequence, not of some pre-ordained, divinely determined formula, but of human choice, of human freedom. It is a result of our choices in election and selection. It is a result of our choices, in tithing and generosity. It is a result of just how many poor we want to have with us, or how many we can somehow justify having with us. There need not be any. There need not be any. It is a matter of human not divine freedom. Diane Ravitch (NYRB 3/16): As a society we should be ashamed that so many children are immersed in poverty and violence every day of their lives.
Presence For Lent
Jesus Christ may enter your life, at this point, along this night road crowded with terror. This house is filled with the fragrance of perfume covering him by grace. So utterly gracious is He that you may not notice without at least a homiletical whisper of introduction. To the question of the poor, He makes no philosophical response. To Plato he leaves the Thought that, really, suffering is illusory, unreal. To Aeschylus he leaves the proposition that suffering produces wisdom. To Boethius he leaves the idea that suffering is instructive, since we need truth more than we need comfort. To Freud he leaves the deep insight that all life, all creativity springs forth from some birth-pangs of suffering. He makes no philosophical response. His response is personal, and divine.
Rather, he prepares for his crucifixion, his burial, and his lasting resurrection presence. Jesus meets us inside our suffering. He meets us when we ask to withstand even when we cannot understand. He is with us. Search the Scripture. We find Jesus in the longsuffering of our people.
In the Old Testament teaching about the utter patience—passion–of divine love—in Jacob who worked for 7 years for Leah and another 7 for Rachel, throughout the exodus (Exodus 34), in the heart of the wilderness (Numbers 14), in psalms of lament (Psalm 86), in prophetic pain (Jeremiah 15). Can’t you hear Jeremiah crying out: “O Lord, thou knowest: remember me and visit me and take vengeance upon my persecutors. In thy patience, take me not away, now that for thy sake I bear reproach.”? Here he comes, prefigured in Job. In Hosea, patient with adultery. In Isaiah, awaiting resurrection. In John the Baptist, patient before death. In Paul, and Peter, and John of Patmos.
Sometimes, when we miss Jesus amid all our activity, we may find him again, or rather be found again by him, entering the poverty and hurt of his people…standing with the ill, ministering with the aging, incarnate to the lonely, showering himself on the pains of this life, present as the charismatic fullness of real life. Jesus Christ empowers us to withstand suffering, even when, honestly, we have no way to understand it. Here is Jesus Christ, publicly portrayed for you as crucified, who, unlike any merely religious representation of God, who, come Lent, invades the depth, the troubled dark night of life, to claim that darkness is as light for Him and for his own.
One day, in the fullness of time, compassion will reign.
One day there will emerge a people fully filled with a passion for compassion.
One day, as the Old Testament says, in the heart of difficulty with Job we will “sing songs in the night”. And, “they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.”
One day, as the New Testament says, the “long-suffering” grace of God will prevail. Suffering will produce patience, and patience endurance, and endurance hope, and hope shall not disappoint us, because of the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.
One day…and why not start here, and why not begin now?…there will be a real community setting a patient, passionate, compassionate beat, a cadence of quiet endurance.
One day, in the fullness of time, His presence will reign.
O Day of God draw nigh
In beauty and in power
Come with thy timeless judgments now
To match our present hour.
Bring to our troubled minds
Uncertain and afraid
The quiet of a steadfast faith
Calm of a call obeyed.
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