On June 20th the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) will convene its biannual meeting in San Jose. For the following nine days something like five thousand Presbyterians will be in my hometown, working, arguing, worshiping, and partying.
When the General Assembly meets this year I’ll have a front row seat because I have the odd distinction of being the Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament who lives closest to the convention. This is not an accomplishment that makes me eligible for any kind of recognition or honor. I’m not even going to get a tee shirt, let alone fifteen minutes in a pulpit at one of the Assembly’s several worship services, but if my proximity awarded me the opportunity to address the General Assembly of the PC(USA) I’d remind those gathered to be inspired by our Calvinist tradition and set aside any talk of schism.
Like the Episcopalians and just about every other mainline Protestant group, we Presbyterians are freaking out over sex. Some of us want to welcome Gay and Lesbian Christians into the life and leadership of our denomination. Other Presbyterians have a hard time using the words “Gay and Lesbian” in the same sentence as “Christian,” and would rather leave the denomination than keep fellowship with a church that ordains gays and lesbians to positions of leadership and which confers the blessings of God Almighty upon their connubial relationships.
It already is the case that no person may be denied membership in a Presbyterian Church because of sexual orientation; in time I suspect that Presbyterian churches will come to ordain gays and lesbians and will bless same-sex marriages. I say this not out of any particular insights about the current state of our denomination but because the arc of Presbyterian history bends toward inclusion. Those who are familiar with the trajectory of the denomination’s historical arc—and dislike the eventual destination—are choosing to leave the denomination. Large quantities of individuals are walking away from the faith communities in which they were baptized; whole congregations are finding new denominational affiliations.
There’s an interesting twist in all of this: many of the folks who are leaving the Presbyterian church do so appealing to history and to tradition, and yet John Calvin, the very grandfather of the Presbyterian Tradition, would have been horrified by the divisions, and in Presbyterian circles you don’t get much more traditional than John Calvin.
On a recent trip to Geneva, I read one of John Calvin’s sermons while sitting at the foot of the pulpit from whence it was preached. I was astonished to find that this four-hundred-and-fifty-year-old sermon could have—and probably should have—been preached to contemporary American Presbyterians.
In the sermon, Calvin looks at 2 Timothy 2:20-21, in which St. Paul compares the members of the church to the dishes in a great house. In a great house, Paul points out, there are the good dishes and the bad dishes. In the great house that is my condominium in East San Jose, we call them the every-day dishes and the “wedding dishes that you may not use for your breakfast cereal, even if you are very careful and promise not to drop them.”
You probably have those dishes too.
Calvin points out that while St. Paul suggests that everyone of us should strive to be one of those honorable vessels, nowhere is it suggested that the good dishes should walk out of the house just because there are everyday dishes in the cupboard; even if the dish runs away with the spoon and they want their love to be recognized by the rest of the plates, cups, bowls, and flatware, (who are horrified and are working to amend the state’s constitution to forbid such sport) the dishes belong to the master of the house. They don’t get to leave.
If there be wicked men and hypocrites in the church of God, who continue among us for a season and are highly esteemed, it must not trouble us, for the house of God is great…Although we might wish for nothing but purity in the church of God, for nothing that could be found fault with, yet notwithstanding, we must expect to see stumbling blocks. And why so? Because God assembleth together a great variety of vessels. (The Mystery of Godliness And Other Selected Sermons by John Calvin. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950. p. 144)
It gets better. Later in the sermon Calvin notes,
St. Paul meant to show us here that although the wicked endeavor to bring the name of God into reproach and dishonor, they cease not to serve his glory… We must not think that because we see these disorders in the church of God that it is utterly destroyed, that our Lord Jesus Christ is able to do no more; but rather consider that although the wicked disfigure the beauty of the church, although they defile and pollute it, yet notwithstanding, God will be glorified. (The Mystery of Godliness And Other Selected Sermons, p. 147)
There is, of course, a rich irony here: John Calvin was perfectly happy to lead one of the biggest religious schisms in the history of the world when he left the Roman Catholic Church, and he was converted to the idea that the wicked don’t destroy the church only after he was the leader of a great movement. Nonetheless, he makes a very good point.
In the Bible there is no suggestion that it is OK for people intentionally to break communion with their communities of faith. There is plenty discussion about kicking people out, but there is none that suggests that breaking fellowship with one’s community is a righteous option. Disagreements about doctrine and theology aren’t enough to excuse the kind of leave-taking that’s happening in some corners of our denomination. At least not according to John Calvin and St. Paul.
And I take comfort in this because many of the Presbyterians who are leaving our denomination are doing so because of people like me, people who want very much to include gays and lesbians in the life and leadership of the church. And there’s always the possibility that they’re right, that the convictions I hold make me something like the chipped, worn and stained dishes my family uses for our everyday meals, while the righteous rest safely in the sideboard.
What draws me to the sermon by John Calvin which I first read in the Cathedral de Sainte Pierre in Geneva is this: even if I get it wrong, God still will be glorified.
And that’s a good way to end the thoughts I wish I could preach to the gathered General Assembly: God will be glorified. Even if our denomination gets a few things wrong over the course of the General Assembly’s meeting, even if we make a mess of things, still God will be glorified, and there will be no reason for any Presbyterian to leave our denomination, because the Presbyterian Church is but one small part of the house of God, and the house of God is great.