Our Moral Imperative

Civility is more than being kind. It is the currency of a healthy society and a moral guardian for our character.

Civility is more than being kind. It is the currency of a healthy society and a moral guardian for our character. After a week of mass shootings, I speak as one holding responsibility for the character of a community and as a witness for moral wisdom sustained across generations. The deepened recent coarsening of public discourse obligates my conscience to speak. I do not want my kindness and discretion to hide the sense of moral peril that I believe our nation is enduring.

We have grown tragically accustomed to mass shootings in our communities. Some of these events are now being fueled by attitudes and rhetoric that has been normalized by our president and embraced by a growing number in American communities. Leadership for a society requires moral rectitude.

Pejorative and stigmatizing speech may be allowable in a free society. But moral restraint and character are required for a free society to be sustained. The rebellion against political correctness has evolved into affirmations by many in our society for the acceptability of “saying it like it is” – even if there are many and various perceptions in our community about the “way it is.”

Civility creates space for differences of opinion to be aired and weighed with both conviction and care. It is wrong and morally reprehensible to demean or dehumanize a person who holds a different point of view on matters of reasonable public debate. For example:

  • It is reasonable to disagree about the most appropriate immigration policy for our nation. It is morally wrong to speak about immigrants as inhuman animals [1] or to foster governmental practices that challenge international norms for human rights.[2]
  • It is reasonable to disagree about the best means to assure public safety and allow for constitutionally acceptable uses of firearms. It is morally wrong to promote using the second amendment as a means to “do” something about people with whom you disagree. [3]
  • It is reasonable to disagree about current consequences and remedies for our legacy of slavery and racial division as a nation. It is morally wrong to refer to those who rally, chanting “Blood and soil,” “You will not replace us,” “Hail Trump,” and “We will be back,” as somehow being “good people” on an ethical par with those who advocate a tolerant society. [4] Likewise it is morally reprehensible to broadly refer to majority African American urban centers in a manner that infers sub-human status on communities “infested” with “rodents.” [5]

As in all things, this is a matter worthy of our prayer. I support the effort affirmed by our president in his August 5 statement, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. … Hate has no place in America.  Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.” [6]  Indeed, my prayers are for our president and all elected leaders so they might sustain their energies in support of this affirmation.

Love counters hate and is a bulwark that creates space for dialogue. I live in such a space working as Pastor for a spiritual community that is comprised of faithful citizens who hold a wide variety of perspectives about the most effective ways to live together as a society. In this daily work, I invest in spiritual practices of Christian love which create generous space for people to live responsibly and prayerfully with one another. Such space for civility allows us to share differences and disagreements in a way that helps us learn from each other while working to build a better community and society.

Like many pastors trained in my generation, I was schooled in the lessons that church leaders acquired from two significant world events impacting humanity in profound ways: The rise and fall of European fascism; and the divisions and progress of the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s. Furthermore we began our ministries confronting the ills of apartheid in South Africa, and seeing a spiritual revolution for human dignity in formerly communist lands. As a consequence of my lessons and experience, I ask my friends not to be surprised that ethical alarm bells are chiming in my conscience. Please do not confuse what I see as a civic moral peril with what is often dismissed as a pastor merging religion and politics.

I believe it is a moral imperative for responsible citizens – especially we who claim a spiritual core – to speak reasonably and with conviction to counter demeaning, dehumanizing, or hateful speech in conversations with family, friends, and co-workers. It is not a virtue to uncap the lid on inner voices fueled by hurtful resentments or uninformed presumptions. Even more, it is faithful in this age to assemble, speak, and write our elected representatives in support of leadership that confronts any coarsening of public discourse in a way that demeans or dehumanizes people of varied perspectives.

Jesus sent his disciples into the world charging them (Luke 10:5) to proclaim peace wherever they went. I encourage all whose conscience calls for civility to join me in seeking practical ways to listen and learn from one another as we seek peace and the promotion of the common good. I believe this is a moral imperative for us today.

______

Postscript:

My hope is that this personal witness will be received in a spirit of prayer with an opportunity for sincere conversation. I have turned off comments because I would prefer any conversation on this issue to be face to face. As many of you are aware, social media often becomes a platform for shouting at one another instead of serving as a vehicle for genuine sharing and listening. It grieves my spirit whenever I hear of alienation among our congregation caused by aggressive social media comments. We are not immune to the tone of shunning and exclusion that currently afflicts the American body politic.  I always hope we can do and be better in our witness.

It is my hope that you read my comments and understand I strongly respect a historic Presbyterian conviction that people of good conscience differ. Such a principle is inherent within the moral imperative to which I am bearing witness. Thank you for your prayerful and thoughtful attention.

______

Endnotes:

[1] – New York Times, May 16, 2018. “Trump Calls Some Unauthorized Immigrants Animals in Rant” by Julie Hirschfield Davis. – And – New York Times, August 5, 2019. “How the Trump Campaign Used Facebook Ads to Amplify His ‘Invasion’ Claim” by Thomas Kaplan.

[2] – The Guardian, January 4, 2019. “US halts cooperation with UN on potential human rights violations” by Ed Pilkington.

[3] – New York Times, August 9, 2016. “Donald Trump Suggests ‘Second Amendment People’ Could Act Against Hillary Clinton” by Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman.

[4] – Southern Poverty Law Center, October 10, 2017. “When White Nationalists Chant their Weird Slogans What do They Mean?” by David Neiwert.

[5] – Associated Press, July 28, 2019. “Trump attacks majority black district represented by critic” by Zeke Miller.

[6] – Transcript from WhiteHouse.gov – August 5, 2019, 10:08 A.M. EDT Diplomatic Reception Room “Remarks by President Trump on the Mass Shootings in Texas and Ohio.”

Post Image – “Conversation Abstract” by Siddesh Rane

 

“In Our Time” – A statement on relations between the Presbytery of Chicago and the Jewish community in metropolitan Chicago

This post carries a link below to a pdf document that was approved by the Presbytery of Chicago. It serves as a theological and relational framework for the Presbytery of Chicago to pursue an engaged and constructive relationship with the Jewish community in metropolitan Chicago (city of Chicago and suburbs). At a time of growing anti-Semitism in our society, and in week that has witnessed deadly violence in a Pittsburgh synagogue, I offer this tool for reflection and conversation.

“In Our Time” – A statement on relations between the Presbytery of Chicago and the Jewish community in metropolitan Chicago

Marc Chagall - America Window
One panel of Marc Chagall’s “America Window” that can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Report from the 2015 Waldensian Synod

The 2015 Synod of the Waldensian Methodist Church of Italy was filled with challenge, possibility, and joy. It was a privilege to observe both the Synod and the preceding gathering of the Corpo Pastorale (Pastoral Body). Every Synod gathers to address important matters of the day, but it also serves as a powerful reunion of sisters and brothers in faith from across Italy with ecumenical visitors from around the globe.

Revs. Tomassone, Tenclay, and Natoli lead the walk to worship.

Opening worship this year offered a challenging word on Luke 11:29-32 from Pastor Erika Tomassone about the signs of this generation. Eleonora Natoli was ordained into pastoral ministry after a long journey to faith and a new chapter for her life in a “second career.” In many ways, Eleonora represents a vision of hope for the church as new members come to faith through the Waldensian/Methodist church. Rev. Tim TenClay was received as a pastor from the Reformed Church in America to serve in mission at Palermo, Trapani, and Marsala in Sicily. Tim is married to J.J. TenClay who also will be in mission working in social service with Pellegrino della Terra serving immigrant women in Sicily that are making a new start in life. The worship concluded with a moving benediction in song whose lyrics were penned by the beloved Pastor Caterina Dupre, immediate past director of the Agape Ecumenical Center, who died much too young due to cancer this year.


Rev. Eric Noffke, Ph.D., Rev. Cristina Arcidiacono and Rev. Daniela diCarlo  

The Corpo Pastorale preceded all of the Synod’s opening activities. The pastoral leaders received some in-service boundary training, reflected on the impact of the resurrection on practical ministry and heard a report on the pastoral formation opportunity in America (“EFFE”) supported by the American Waldensian Society. They also considered a new liturgy being developed for blessings of same sex unions. As the weekend activities transpired, there clearly was great emphasis on the refugee and immigration crisis – including an open air presentation on the street in front of the Foresteria in Torre Pellice. This presentation covered the subject of ministry to immigrants who found themselves incarcerated. It was an emotional beginning to the gathering of Synod.

Mediterranean Hope was the subject of a moving evening presentation early in the week of Synod before a packed house at the Waldensian Church of Torre Pellice. Paolo Naso moderated the presentation that featured several speakers on the situation of refugees and immigrants as Mediterranean Hope opens new avenues for compassion and service. The speakers were Marta Bernardini, who directs the observation post of Mediterranean Hope on the island of Lampedusa; Yvan Sagnet, an organizer and recent immigrant from Cameroon; and Mario Marazziti, former director of the parliamentary commission on human rights, who also is a member of the Roman Catholic Mediterranean Hope partner, Communità di Sant’Egidio. Each told a moving story with a challenge for insight, companionship and solidarity. This emotional challenge resonated throughout the entire week in conversations and decisions. Also, the valley town of Villar Pellice became home to 60 new immigrants in a structure converted for hospitality by the diaconal work of the Waldensian Church. A local town hall kind of gathering in Villar Pellice engaged the issue in practical terms as they received the challenge of the gospel from Moderator Eugenio Bernardini and other leaders.

Moderator Bernardini and Elder Sergio Velluto present a historic Bible to Pope Francis 
Ecumenism took center stage throughout the gathering. The Synod responded to greetings from Pope Francis and considered a response to his request, on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, for forgiveness – relating to past church actions that most consider, in the words of the pope, un-Christian or even inhuman. The Synod after much debate responded graciously with a desire to begin a new chapter of reconciliation and dialogue in relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Also of great ecumenical significance was the 40th anniversary of the federation of the Waldensian and Methodist churches in Italy. To mark the occasion, there was a wide range of Methodist ecumenical guests from around the world who joined in their greetings throughout the Synod and at the annual ecumenical dinner.
Dr. Paola Schellenbaum (left, re: “Family”) and Rev. Mirella Manocchio (right, re: Liturgy)
Liturgy and Family took center stage both at the Corpo Pastorale and during the Synod as the leadership worked to inaugurate material for use in worship in response to the prior Synod’s affirmation of options for blessing same-sex unions. There will be one more year of study and reflection before the liturgy is formally adopted. These conversations at the Corpo Pastorale and during the Synod included a very thorough review of the changing family realities of Italy. A commission had extensively studied the ways in which the church can walk beside the varied expressions of family in our modern world in a way that is faithful and helpful. The commission’s findings were carefully reviewed by Synod.
Casa Cares at Regello, Tuscany, was approved for a dramatic renovation and expanded focus for ministry. The diaconal leadership of the church was given oversight and responsibility for the center. The goal of this oversight will be to identify an expanded clientele in renovated facilities with new leadership to be found upon the retirement of Paul Krieg at the beginning of 2016. Both Paul and his wife, Antoinette, were commended warmly for their devoted length of tenure and valuable service of Christian love. In addition, the other diaconal centers were reviewed carefully as is common practice. The opening of a new museum and reinvigorated ministry at Riesi, Sicily, were celebrated as well.

Kevin Frederick (left) and Brian Paulson (right) being interviewed by Radio Beckwith
It was a joy to share observations with the Presbyterian Church (USA) ecumenical delegate – Valdese, North Carolina’s own Pastor Kevin Frederick of the Waldensian Presbyterian Church. I had to depart just prior to closing sessions because of the length of my stay for the Corpo Pastorale. However, Kevin was privileged to observe the Synod engagement with leadership of the Roman Catholic Church as a continuation of the ecumenical discussions earlier in the week. Kevin reported being particularly well impressed by the length and warmth of applause afforded to the Roman Catholic ecumenical delegate’s remarks to the assembly.

Rev. Davide Ollearo (with his new Cubs hat after worship in Pramollo) with Brian Paulson. 

As anyone who has attended these gatherings will attest, there is so much more to express that simply will not fit into a brief report. The days began early and ended very late every day of my attendance. Friendships were renewed and projects prepared. My congregation was able to plan a youth service initiative with a congregation in Milan next summer. Leadership of the EFFE project was able to discuss hopes for next year’s project. I find myself joyfully exhausted after it all. I hope this report gives all of you a sense of the Synod. I am always happy to talk about further details with any of you individually in the days ahead.

Report on the General Synod meeting of the Reformed Church in America – June, 2015

It was a privilege to serve as the ecumenical representative of the Presbyterian Church, (USA) at the gathering of the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America as they met from June 11-16 on the campus of Trinity Christian College outside of Chicago, Illinois.  What follows is a summary of the actions I observed and some of the dynamics I perceived from the meeting.



Human sexuality and in particular issues related to homosexuality took center stage in primary actions and hallway conversations of the delegates.  There was a recommendation from the President of the Synod to create a special council that would propose a constitutional way forward on many of the issues of concern and disagreement amongst members of their communion.  The special council was approved after debate that demonstrated two opposing perspectives: one perspective was eager to define an unambiguous set of boundaries regarding human sexuality; another perspective was concerned to allow sufficient time for deep discernment and consensus without a rush to action.  Hallway conversation perceived the special council as a means by which more timely definition would be accomplished with many pleased and many concerned about that prospect.



Transformed and transforming leadership was the goal and theme of much of the Synod gathering.  There were many examples of ways that the leadership of the RCA was building initiatives that would change patterns and practices of Christian witness that would more effectively engage the society in which we minister. One action of particular note was the acknowledgement of “Missional Impact Partners.”  Many compelling stories were shared of ways that ministry was entering communities that have been otherwise neglected to be reached through new patterns of innovation.  One fascinating story described a ministry in Benton Harbor set in a neighborhood rife with drug dealing.  So much activity was going in and out of the Pastor’s home that the police came knocking with false assumptions, not knowing that there was a lively and active bible study taking place each day with ex-convicts, dealers, and others from the neighborhood.

Judicial actions of the Reformed Church of America do find their way to the floor of the General Synod.  As such, there were some decisions undertaken with regard to homosexuality that elicited much heartfelt debate.  The frustrations shared during debate reflected some of the eagerness involved with the choices made for the special council on constitutional action.



An ecumenical panel was center stage on an evening in which I joined other ecumenical partners for a valuable dinner of sharing and prayer.  The ecumenical panel included representatives of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal traditions that were widely well received by delegates to the Synod.  This panel was unique for the RCA in the sense that its focus was not upon the formula of common agreement partners such as the PCUSA, UCC, and ELCA (all of whom were represented along with a representative of the CRC).   Also, during the Synod plenary meeting, an inter-religious task force was established for the first time to explore relations between Christians and people and groups of other religions.



Chiapas and a few other regions of the world were given special focus and recognition.  The ministry in Chiapas was a thorough and historic effort by the RCA.  That mission was acknowledged as having established a robust indigenous ministry and thus the RCA missionary effort was completed and celebrated.  The commitment and imagination of these retiring missionaries was remarkable and impacting.



Armenian genocide was acknowledged and lamented by special action affirming solidarity with the Armenian people both victims and survivors.  This action paralleled the efforts of the PCUSA and other ecumenical partners.

Presbyterian links to the RCA were underscored in many sincere hallway conversations.  Our ties were formally acknowledged on the rostrum during the ecumenical report.  The formula of agreement remains a continuing and viable form of exchange for ministry and witness.  While the stance of the RCA on matters of homosexuality now differs from the PCUSA and other formula of agreement partners, those differences were not cuase for any diminuition of formal ties and ministry.  Of course, during floor debate on some contested issues, there were broadly generalized characterizations of choices and consequences in our denomination and other partners. However, none of those comments appeared to sway the very positive spirit of cooperation and mutual appreciation that was facilitated by RCA staff and delegates.


Faithfully,


Brian R. Paulson


Pastor, First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, Presbytery of Chicago


(Brian was appointed by the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA, Gradye Parsons, as the Ecumenical representative to the General Synod 2015 our partner communion, the RCA.)

Justice Done on Somebody Else

The news from Kenya spiked another deep sorrow in me this Good Friday.  I say “another” because I find myself overwhelmed by the way religions have been co-opted by those who bring violent harm during the course of my adult years and ministry.

When my son was in his first year, my wife took a photo of the two of us as I lying on the floor holding him aloft in my arms.  It was one of those parental pure joy moments.  But what we didn’t consider is that the television news was on behind the scene of the tow of us.  Onscreen was a photo of Sadaam Hussein during the runup of a middle eastern war.  It was a kind of foreshadowing of the transition from conflict of ideologies in the Cold War that framed my youth to the conflict of religions and worldviews that predominates today.

There is a middle verse in a hymn by Ebeneezer Elliot from a time just prior to the founding of my congregation in the mid-nineteenth century.  That hymn was written into Godspell some years ago.  Here is that verse:

“Shall crime bring crime for ever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
That man shall toil for wrong?
‘No,’ say thy mountains; ‘No,’ thy skies;
Man’s clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs;
God save the people!”

If only we could be saved from ourselves and our killing impulses.  Friends introduced me to the rolling lyrics of Canadian, Bruce Cockburn some years ago.  His song, “Justice,” seems to capture the instinct of our age – “Everybody wants to see justice done on somebody else.”  


He wrote the song during the ideological battles surrounding the Central American conflicts.  However, in this broadcast he sings from Canada along with the world grieving following the tragedy of 9/11.  

On Good Friday, I find myself reflecting on so many dimensions of the cross.  In many ways I find the cross to be a mirror of humanity and a mirror of my own soul.  I have to confront the truth and reality that I too have placed “one who knew no sin” upon the cross.  I always want to see justice done … on somebody else.

In humility, we see a path toward salvation.  It begins when we stop the “pointing of the finger” as Isaiah framed it. Good Friday is a mirror.  Perhaps that is why so many painters would paint their faces in the crowd of those looking upon the cross (or sometimes even into the face of Christ).  The cross is a convicting mirror.  

Will it change us?

Paul Gaugin – “The Yellow Christ”

A Convicting Mirror from Auden for Holy Week

“Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worth while asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.” W. H. Auden, in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

Some Auden for Eastertide

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness,
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life!
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

– W. H. Auden (from his Christmas Oratorio 🙂 )

PCUSA Moderator’s Conference on Unity with Difference (Reflection 1)

At the meetings of the governing board of our church, “the Session,” a candle is lit and burns at the center of our circle (I suppose it is really a square of tables).  We are intentional with one another regarding the candle.  It reminds us that our speech must pass through the refining fire of God’s Holy Spirit as we discern with each other.  Likewise, we remember that the presence of Jesus Christ is at the center of our shared life.  Even more, we remember that believers of every place and time are joining us around the tables as a “great cloud of witnesses.”  We discern God’s leading within a covenant community of belonging.  This practice encourages us to remember the wider circle of the Church as we undertake a wide range of decisions.

Within my own family, there are days when we wonder, “do I belong to THIS family?”  Some days, we say, “yes!” aren’t we fortunate.  Other days, we say, “really?”  

I am reflecting with a conversation being streamed online from Princeton Theological Seminary that is sponsored by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the PCUSA.  The title of the colloquium is “Unity with Difference.”  Currently the conversation is centered upon the question posed by Martha Moore Keish about how we Belong, Behave, and Believe.

I have been thinking about my family table and the table of our Session because I am reflecting upon the concept of belonging.  How do we belong with difference?  Well, I wonder if the notion of these tables identifies the reality of our behavior.  – At times, we are perplexed in families – “why did they do that?”  At times, we repeat the phrase that Will Willimon’s mother used to put to him, “remember who you are.”  
Well, at the table, hopefully, we have a conversation.  Then, the confessions (the witness of prior generations) and confessions of other Reformed families (the current witness of our cousins) enriches the conversation when we find ourselves at wits end with each other.  The light of Christ at the center of our conversation serves as a kind of magnet that continues to draw us back and together.  It reminds us that God is committed to us (while we were  yet sinners, Christ died for us) so perhaps we could try a little harder at being committed to each other.

One of the greatest challenges we face is an age old challenge of religion.  It is present also in the scriptures – How can we be more welcoming?  How can we be more fully transformed into God’s calling to us?  

The confessions serve as a model for addressing that challenge.  It is as if we can hear people of faith throughout the ages saying, “yes, but” after each assertion.  – By the grace of God, we find ourselves moving closer and closer to a deeper sense of belonging because we have become more known to each other, disclosed in conversation – personal.

Current questions of debate surround LGBTIQ issues related to our relationships and how we belong to each other.  Issues of strong disagreement are coming to the next General Assembly of the PCUSA.  

If our commitment to each other is “a priori,” then we can move to a place where our choices (specifically in this case covenanted relationships – marriage is the debate before us) are part of a personal conversation.  Moreover in the church, it is a pastoral conversation.  The call to pastors is to know our people.  (We work at that.  Knowing our flock better some days than on other days.) 

Here is what I ponder – can we articulate a “center” in Christ that draws us together, even in the midst of difference.  A strong enough center – that allows pastoral conversation to shape relationships that are based upon personal knowing (the outcome of sincere and committed conversation).

I found conversation about both Baptism and Eucharist in a prior discussion to be helpful.  Belonging in call and belonging in brokenness.

These are unformed thoughts at this point – written while observing this conference.  (From a distance, this is my “hallway conversation.”)  I am glad that we are praying/talking/learning these questions together.


The Calling of the Church – (An Offering in Ecclesiology)

The Calling of the Church

THE CALLING OF THE CHURCH

Brian R. Paulson, Pastor – First Presbyterian Church of Libertyville, Illinois

May, 2009

INTRODUCTION

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
   and all their host by the breath of his mouth. …

Let all the earth fear the Lord;
   let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
   he commanded, and it stood firm.  

                                                                  – Psalm 33:6-9 sel.

            There are an abundance of spiritual voices in the world today.  Societies are increasingly plural in speech about God.  However the abundance of possibility being voiced has yet to satisfy an evident spiritual hunger among the peoples.  The church “is in, with, against, and for”[1]this plural world in multiple ways all at once.  The church catalyzes the world in varied forms according to the divergence of settings in which it is found.  Yet regardless of its circumstance, the church always exists in response to the call of God.

He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,

    and the sheep follow him because

    they know his voice.

They will not follow a stranger.                                   

                                                                   – John 10:3-5

            Here is the starting point for my understanding the Church.  It is God’s creation.  It is not simply another spiritual manifestation in the world.  The Church belongs to Jesus Christ and is God’s creation by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calls to us, seeks us out, and satisfies our spiritual hunger in pastures green with spiritual nourishment.

BORN OF THE SPIRIT

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God

 without being born of water and Spirit.”                              

                                                                   – John 3:5

            The origin for an understanding of the Church is found in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is both the origin and the sustaining force of the church.  Consequently a proper understanding of the Church requires a grounded understanding of sanctification.  (Further on, I will offer some original biblical meditation upon the calling of the church.  However, since this paper is written in the Jubilee year of John Calvin for the benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA), my primary source for foundational Reformed perspectives will be Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.)

            Sanctification was a central emphasis of Calvin’s ministry in Geneva and has properly belonged at the heart of Reformed witness ever since.[2]  Sanctification is the “newness of life” attained through faith that is conferred by Christ.[3]  Christ “unites himself to us by the Spirit alone”[4]and “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit.”[5]  This work of the Holy Spirit is nourished and guided through the Church in God’s children “until they mature and at the last reach the goal of faith.”[6]

            The power of God manifest in the Holy Spirit is what shapes the Church.  Vague and generalized talk about the movement of the spirit does not identify the Church.  Christians are not called by inchoate spiritual winds.  “Take away the Word and no faith will then remain.”[7]  The Church is born of the “ruach” – the “wind” of God’s breath.  That breath, “the Word”, is established.  It calls for response and blows in the world with the force of God as Holy Spirit.

            The sanctifying work of God offers a framework for understanding the calling of the Church.  God calls the Church into being and sustains the Church in mission.  The call of God gathers us and the power of God sends us.  The mission of the Church and the nature of the Church are united in its calling from God.

            The Reformed heritage of the Christian faith has emphasized the sanctifying work of God always reforming our life together.  As Harold Nebelsick wrote, “We are the recipients of the activity of the Holy Spirit which reforms the church in accordance with the Word of God.”[8]  This transforming work of reformation is recognized: in clear proclamation of the Word; and as the sacraments are shared in accord with the grace of God.[9]

            We understand that a calling from God does not exist in solitude.  The Holy Spirit came upon the gathered disciples on the day of Pentecost.  Today the community lends its confirmation to every genuine call because each true call sustains an echo in faithful response that is audible for those whose ears are trained to hear[10]the work of the Holy Spirit.[11]  This training to hear may be called the discipline of nurture in virtue – another true mark of the Church.[12]

            The Holy Spirit calls us toward a common destiny.[13]  The Church nourishes our lives by this training that is powered by the Holy Spirit.[14]  Sanctification is described by Calvin as the life changing work of repentance.  This work of the Holy Spirit is regeneration by faith.  Such transformation takes place in the Church as a kind of lifelong school of discipleship.[15]  The power of the Holy Spirit strengthens and sends the Church to teach and preach the Gospel in every place.  This is not the work of a day, but of a lifetime.[16]  It is the work of the Holy Spirit that calls, transforms, and sends the Church in proclamation.

THE GREAT BANQUET

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.

– Matthew 22:2

            The Gospels of Matthew and Luke share a parable of Jesus about a great banquet that was prepared.[17]  Invitations had been sent out to guests so that they were able to prepare for the occasion.  On the day of the banquet, servants were sent out to inform the guests that all was ready.  Yet the invited guests did not arrive in timely fashion.  So the servants were sent out again.  Only this time the servants were sent to gather people from the roads and hedgerows so the extravagance of the banquet could be shared.

            Since the gathered Church is a foretaste or exhibition of the kingdom of heaven, allow me to use the contours of this parable to reflect upon the calling of the Church.

Called to Celebrate

            In our wired and highly interconnected world, there are barely a few places in the globe that have yet to hear about the Christian faith in some way, shape, or form.  Even if the faith is understood as but a caricature laced with misunderstandings or apprehensions, most of the world has heard of Jesus and people who call themselves Christian.  Just as most of the world has spent some time discussing heaven and what may await them after death.  So also, most of the world knows that Christians live with an expectation of heavenly reward.

            Every time we gather for the Lord’s Supper in our congregation, we anticipate the great heavenly banquet.  Our lives are oriented toward this heavenly reward of communion with God and with the beloved whom God has called.  The world knows that we anticipate this banquet – just as the villagers in Jesus’ parable must all have been aware that a banquet had been planned.

            The rub of the parable begins when servants are sent out to announce the banquet was ready.  Yet despite the fact that everyone knew the banquet had been planned no one deemed it worthy of their time to come.  Could this tell us something about the Church and the world?

            I realize that the parable at this point is addressing a different context and that tensions between Gentile and Jewish Christians can be seen in its exposition.  But I would like to consider it in light of our own situation.

            Could it be that the world knows of an invitation but, after watching the Church through the centuries, considers our banquet to be a tasteless meal?  Or could it be that the Church has grown so familiar with its routine that it has forgotten to celebrate the life we have been given?  I believe we are called to celebrate.

            In my household the call goes out most every evening for dinner.  Everyone hears the call and understands that there is an expectation involved in the call.  My wife and I respond to each other’s call because we know that all is ready and we love the person who calls us.  The call and the table define our lives in relationship to each other.  The call sets our lives in motion to be gathered and nourished.

            Like the call to dinner at home, God’s call brings us to the table and sets our lives in motion.  Like at home, some days are more ordinary than others.  Yet the call to every Christian is a call to celebrate.  We are called to celebrate a meal that tastes like heaven.  I believe the Holy Spirit gives us power to celebrate the life we share as Church.


Called to Change

            Those who respond to the call of God come as they are, drawn by the power of grace.  Just as billions of people around the world come to the Lord’s Table for communion every week, so the banquet hall in Jesus’ parable was filled with guests.  The celebration began even without those who defined their lives by their excuses.

            Yet even as the hall is filled in Jesus’ parable, a jarring note is sounded.  Luke suggests that none who were invited would taste the meal, then Jesus, in Luke, goes on to tell us we cannot be his disciple if we do not take up the cross.  Matthew tells the story with even more jarring impact.  The king noticed that one of the guests was not wearing a wedding robe.  When the man was speechless without excuse, he was bound and thrown into the outer darkness.

            In our family, when we gather at table, there is an expectation of manners.  This extends not only to the particulars of Emily Post, but also to the quality of the conversation we share.  We are expected to be honest about our daily lives.  We also are expected to encourage one another in our challenges as well as our successes.  These and other expectations are rarely explicit except when they are noticeably neglected.  The manners of Holy Spirit that we expect at table are as integral to our meals as our clothes are to our being.  They are noticed in their absence.

            How could the King expect a guest pulled from the hedgerows to have found a wedding robe in short order to wear?  Likewise, how can the grace of God call us as we are and yet expect such dramatic change in our lives?

            We are expected to change because the Holy Spirit has called us to “put on Christ.”  Our baptismal gown is a wedding robe that engrafts us in Holy Communion with Christ.  We are changed when we come to the table – not because of our accomplishments – but because the power of the Holy Spirit has made us part of the Body of Christ.  The sanctifying power of God is a call to change.


Called to Announce

            “Don’t shoot the messenger,” goes the familiar expression.  Yet the poor messengers of Matthew’s parable seem to gain nothing but trouble.    They are ignored, scoffed at, shamed, and even killed.  In Luke, the messengers are met with nothing but excuses.  Yet still the master sends them out to announce, invite, and even compel by word and deed.  Why does the master keep sending them out from the banquet hall? 

            From the window of my dining room, I look out upon the birds of the air – as I try to gain the wisdom Jesus commends me to notice.  Yet for all the beauty and the joy I gain by watching these birds, I have noticed a primary avian fixation – they are all about the food.  The birds out my window are on an insatiable quest to eat every last seed from our bird feeders.  The feast is prepared and they know it right well.  Even ducks, with no pond in sight, come waddling up to the seeds that smaller birds carelessly toss overboard to the ground.  At least the birds can appreciate a banquet – for them, it’s all about the food!

            But in Jesus’ parable it is not all about the food.  In many ways the banquet seems to be all about the invitation.  Were we to arrive at this banquet, I believe the most important element would not be the dishes or decorations.  It would be the place card prepared with our name upon it.  The invitation – a place at the king’s table – that is what the banquet is all about.  There is a place prepared for us all – family, friends, poor, blind, and crippled.

            Since the banquet is all about the invitation, the servants are sent time and again to announce that all is prepared.  Just as the disciples had gathered in one place for prayer, the wind of Pentecost sent them with power into the streets for proclamation.  In the gospel of Mark, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and he was immediately sent into the wilderness and his first spoken words were these, “the kingdom of Godhas come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[18]  The kingdom of Godis near – the banquet is ready.  Repent and believe the good news – Calvin says this is what the Christian endeavor is all about.[19]  The same Holy Spirit sends us.

            Presbyterians acknowledge two sacraments because they are the actions Jesus commanded us to do.  We come to the banquet table as Jesus commanded us in remembrance of him.  We then are sent to announce a newness of life and reconciling grace as we baptize in the name of the Triune God.  A calling from God sets our lives in rhythmic motion to and from the table where we are nourished and changed by the grace of God.

DESTINED FOR GLORY

“We begin in the present life, through various benefits, to taste the sweetness of the divine generosity in order to whet our hope and desire to seek after the full revelation of” the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom.[20] 

– John Calvin, Meditation on the Future Life

            Every meal at our table begins with prayer.  While we have taught our children how to “pray in all circumstances,” the first posture of prayer has been to bow our heads.  Then, as each prayer finishes with an “Amen” our heads are lifted.

            The head of a believer is lifted.  The Holy Spirit elevates our vision from the ordinary to the extraordinary.  The “epiclesis” – the bidding of the Holy Spirit – in our prayers of thanksgiving welcomes this vision into our sacraments.

            When believers have “once lifted their heads above everything earthly,” with mind intent upon heaven,

“before their eyes will be that day when the Lord will receive his faithful people into the peace of his Kingdom, ‘will wipe away every tear from their eyes’, will clothe them with ‘a robe of glory … and rejoicing’, will feed them with the unspeakable sweetness of his delights, will elevate them to his sublime fellowship – in sum, will deign to make them sharers in his happiness.”[21]

We exhibit the kingdom of heaven in the Church because we expect the kingdom of heaven at the last.

            Jesus Christ “unites himself to us by the Spirit alone.”[22]  “Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit.”[23]  The Church “belongs to the realm of faith”[24]and nourishes that faith with its being.[25]  “The proper object of faith is God’s goodness”[26]and we begin to taste the sweetness of that goodness in the life of the Church.

            At least, that is God’s intention.  Yet all too often, our life together in the Church breeds contention and discord.  We do not eat together.  We do not invite others to our tables.  We do not change our behavior toward one another.  Have we neglected our calling?

            When I learn I will have to sit beside someone at dinner, I become more thoughtful about my behavior.  How might our behavior as Church change if we would not only acknowledge our common baptism but also embrace our common destiny at the heavenly banquet?

            Presbyterians are regularly dragged into conversation about predestination.  Then, our speech often devolves into discussions of who is in and who is out.  Yet would it not be more profitable to consider our common destiny?  If the “pre” of every Christian is being born of water and the Spirit, is not the “destination” of our lives the great banquet feast where we are to glorify and enjoy God forever?

“Yet, to embrace the unity of the church in this way, we need not see the church with the eyes or touch it with the hands. … For here we are not bidden to distinguish between reprobate and elect – that is for God alone, not for us, to do – but to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession; and that when we are of their number we share that great grace.”[27]

            Since, “even the best and most excellent plan of the present life is only a progression, we shall arrive at that goal” (of being spotless and blameless before God) “only when, having put off this sinful flesh, we cleave wholly to the Lord.”[28]  This is our destination by the power of the Holy Spirit – to be sharers in the happiness of God.  Shall we not embrace the union we share in Christ and encourage our daily progressions with heads that are lifted and vision that is fixed on our glorious shared destiny?

CONCLUSION

“Let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses … What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.”[29]

            The calling of the Church is born of the Holy Spirit and establishes a glorious destiny.  Our senses are often dulled to the vitality of faithful life in the Holy Spirit.  Yet still the call of the God is gathering us, renewing us, and sending us to flavor the world with hope.  We dare not become salt that has lost its taste.

“The faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of sanctification – to this end we are justified – that afterwards we might worship God in holiness of life.”[30]

            The banquet is ready.  Let us come, be refreshed, and announce good news to the world.

 

 

 


                [1]Douglas F. Ottati, Reforming Protestantism: Christian Commitment in Today’s World  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 93-116.

[2] Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe(New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 372ff.; referenced in John H. Leith, Basic Christian doctrine(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993),  p. 187, n. 4.

[3]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles  (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1960),  3.1.1, 537-538.

[4] Ibid., 3.3.1, 592.

[5] Ibid., 3.1.4, 541.

[6] Ibid., 4.1.1, 1012.

[7] Ibid., 3.2.6, 549.

[8]Harold Nebelsick, “Ecclesia Reformata Semper Reformanda,” Reformed Liturgy and Music (Spring 1984); quoted in Anna Case-Winters, “Our Misused Motto,” Presbyterians Today, May 2004.

[9] Ibid., 4.1.9, 1023.

[10] Ibid., 3.2.6, 548-49.

[11] Ibid., 3.1.4, 541.

[12]  The Scots Confession, in The Book of Confessions, Part I of The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Copyright © 2004 by the Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 3.18.

[13] Calvin., 3.9.3, 714-15.

[14] Ibid., 4.1.6, 1020-21;  Gal. 3:2

                [15]Ibid., 4.1.4, 1016.

                [16]Calvin’s New Testament Commentary Series. ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. John W. Frasier and J.G.W. McDonald, vol. 6, Acts of the Apostles 1-13 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965),  32.

                [17]Matt. 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24.

                [18]Mark 1:15

                [19]Calvin, 3.3.1, 592.

                [20]Ibid. 3.9.3, 715.

                [21]Ibid., 3.9.6, 718.

                [22]Ibid., 3.1.3, 541.

                [23]Ibid., 3.1.4, 541.

                [24]Ibid., 4.1.3, 1015.

                [25]Ibid., 4.1.1, 1012.

                [26]Ibid. 3.3.19, 614.

                [27]Ibid., 4.1.3, 1015-16.

                [28]Ibid., 3.17.15, 820.

                [29]Ibid., 4.17.10, 1370.

                [30]Corpus Reformatorum, vol. 7, Antidote to the Acts of the Synod of Trent, 448.; noted in John H. Leith, Basic Christian doctrine (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993),  p. 188, n. 9.