CALLING OF THE CHURCH
Pastor – First Presbyterian Church
of Libertyville, Illinois
the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth. …
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.
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”
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.
calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them,
and the sheep follow him because
they know his voice.
will not follow a stranger.
- John 10:3-5
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.
OF THE SPIRIT
truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God
without being born of water and
- John 3:5
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
was a central emphasis of Calvin’s ministry in Geneva and has properly belonged at the heart
of Reformed witness ever since. Sanctification is the “newness of
life” attained through faith that is conferred by Christ. Christ “unites himself to us by
the Spirit alone”
and “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit.” 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.”
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.” 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.
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.
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." 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.
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
the work of the Holy Spirit. This training to hear may be called the
discipline of nurture in virtue – another true mark of the Church.
Holy Spirit calls us toward a common destiny. The Church nourishes our lives by this training
that is powered by the Holy Spirit. 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. 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. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that
calls, transforms, and sends the Church in proclamation.
The kingdom of heaven may be
compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
- Matthew 22:2
Gospels of Matthew and Luke share a parable of Jesus about a great banquet that
was prepared. 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.
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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!
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.
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 God
has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The kingdom of God
is near – the banquet is ready.
Repent and believe the good news – Calvin says this is what the
Christian endeavor is all about. The same Holy Spirit sends us.
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.
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.
John Calvin, Meditation on the Future Life
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.
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.
believers have “once lifted their heads above everything earthly,”
with mind intent upon heaven,
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
exhibit the kingdom of heaven in the Church because we expect the kingdom of
heaven at the last.
Christ “unites himself to us by the Spirit alone.” “Faith is the principal work of
the Holy Spirit.” The Church “belongs to the realm
and nourishes that faith with its being. “The proper object of faith is
and we begin to taste the sweetness of that goodness in the life of the Church.
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?
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?
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
“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.”
“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.” 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?
“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.”
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
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.”
banquet is ready. Let us come, be
refreshed, and announce good news to the world.