John Calvin’s Sermons on the Letter to the Ephesians
Sermon preached by Lord Alderdice to Shelswell Benefice on Sunday 22nd November 2020, The Festival of Christ the King.
Reading: Ephesians 1:15 to the end of the chapter, together with Matthew 25: 31 to the end of the chapter.
The letter to the Ephesians is addressed from the Apostle Paul, and we know from the Acts of the Apostles that Paul spent some time with the Ephesians. On one occasion he stayed for three years, so we can assume that he knew them well. In those days Ephesus was a busy port and the site of the great temple of the goddess Diana – a huge classical building with more than 100 columns and some 65 feet high. It was a place of pilgrimage, for in its sanctuary was a meteorite – a stone which had fallen from the sky – said to be in the form of a woman – hence the temple to the goddess, Diana.
The letter sent to the circle of churches around Ephesus was not of course drawing their attention to Diana, but was an eloquent testimony to the mystery and wonder which bind Christians together and to Christ. Indeed the translators of the New English Bible inserted a sub-title to describe the content of the whole epistle – The glory of Christ in the Church – and so it is appropriate that we should focus on part of the letter today which is the Festival of Christ the King.
Given my Presbyterian background you may not be entirely surprised that in preparing to preach from Ephesians today I went back to a series of sermons preached on Ephesians by the Swiss reformer, John Calvin. At the Cathedral Church of St Peter in Geneva he preached 48 sermons on the six chapters of this epistle on Sundays between 1st May 1558 and March 1559. He would customarily preach on various themes some ten times a fortnight, and his printed sermons were widely read throughout Europe, from Scotland to Poland. They were also published on a massive scale here in Elizabethan England and this series on Ephesians was translated by Arthur Golding and published in English in 1577. Calvin was perhaps the first of the great modern preachers, but I will not follow him in the detail in which he explored the texts. Today’s passage from verse 15 to the end of the chapter, occupied him for three full sermons in that series. They were originally published in 1562 in French, the language in which they were preached, and when John Knox, the leader of Scottish Presbyterianism, lay dying in Edinburgh in 1572, it was the French edition of Calvin’s sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians that he kept beside his bed and from which his wife read to him.
Knox had been a religious refugee sheltering in Geneva during 1558 and would have heard many of these sermons on Ephesians being preached. The Bodleian Library in Oxford was founded by Thomas Bodley who was a also a religious refugee in Geneva along with John Knox and it is likely that that the manuscript volumes of some of Calvin’s work, that are in the Bodleian Library and the Library of Lambeth Palace, were brought back by him from Geneva when they all returned after the accession of Queen Elizabeth 1 in November 1558. It was during the time that Calvin was preaching these sermons on Ephesians that Queen Elizabeth re-established the Church of England’s independence from Rome and re-introduced the Book of Common Prayer. Her successor, James VI of Scotland and I of England commissioned the English translation of the Bible that we call the Authorized Version and I asked for our passage from Ephesians today to be read from the Authorized Version to help us think about how the Gospel message was understood in those days. Throughout the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and her successor, King James, Calvinism was the predominant theology within the Church of England and Calvin’s sermons had a wide circulation in this country right through the 17th century, so it seems likely that the Rev John Bayly, the Presbyterian minister who was Rector of the Church of St Michael and All Angels in Fringford during the 17th century, would have been familiar with Calvin’s sermons, including perhaps the series on Ephesians.
You may wonder why I have spent some time referring to these long past religious and political events. Well, in the time when the epistle to the Ephesians was written the world was in a state of upheaval. Paul was confined in Rome and it seems likely that he was martyred, as many Christians were, on the orders of the Roman emperor Nero following the great fire in Rome in 64 AD. In 70 AD the holy city of Jerusalem was besieged and sacked by the Romans, and the Jewish Temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt. It was the end of the world, or at least the end of that era of the Jewish world, and I am reminded of the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well – “…a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…. but true worshippers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21) Jesus was speaking of a new spiritual dispensation where the Temple was neither necessary nor indeed available for worship.
In Calvin’s time too there was great upheaval. The new disruptive technology of printing meant that the Bible could be made available much more widely to people, and in their own language. At the same time there was deep disenchantment with the establishment because of its pervasive corruption. However, despite the scientific advancement that was leaving many leaders intellectually stranded by the speed of the new discoveries and inventions, they had no cure for the pandemics of plague that would sweep through the population. During the ministry of the Rev John Bayly of Fringford, to whom I have referred, England experienced the Great Plague of 1665 and Parliament had to move from London to Oxford.
In our day we have an explosion of disruptive technologies, an almost overwhelming sense of corruption in politics and public life, and in the financial world. Even the Christian church has not escaped public censure. It is also difficult to keep up with the advancements in science and technology and to understand them, though in our own time of pandemic we can at least give thanks that modern scientific medicine is producing vaccines that promise protection from the infection. These are nevertheless fearful and troubling times, but perhaps if we can try to understand how the message of the Gospel brought new light and assurance to the Ephesians during the upheavals of the first century, and later in our own country in the 16th and 17th centuries of revolution and reform, perhaps we will find a message for today with all its instability and uncertainty.
Calvin pointed out that the two key and laudable features that Paul identifies in the Christians in Ephesus were their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love towards all God’s people. Paul prays for the spiritual wisdom and vision that will enable them to know God and that their inward eyes would be illuminated by the light of hope and resources of His power. He was saying that truly understanding the fullness of the nature of the Gospel was not something that came easily to everyone, not even to all Christians. We can recall the frustration that Jesus expressed about his disciples failure to understand him, for example in John 14:9 when he said, “Have I been so long time with you and still you do not know me.” The disciples were good people, chosen personally by Jesus, and Paul tells us that the Ephesian Christians were good people too, but like Jesus he felt the need to pray for their enlightenment. So, says Calvin, we need to be praying that God will bring enlightenment to us. That the power of God and His transcendent resources will become available to us. Paul comprehends the whole perfection of Christians in the two words he uses in verse 15 – faith and love. “The first tablet of the Mosaic law directs us that we should worship and cling to the one God and the second that we should live together with our neighbours in equity and uprightness.” This was precisely how Jesus himself summed up the whole of the law and the prophets in his two great commandments – love God and love your neighbour. Jesus, the one who is described in this letter as the supreme head of the church, the one above all to whom we are to listen and give heed, tells us that we ought to practice love to all men without exception. God makes his sun to shine on both good and bad, and if we are to be children of God, we must strive to do the same.
This is not just hard to do. It is hard to understand. If God is a God of justice, why does he not consistently reward those who do what is right and punish the wrongdoers. Calvin’s answer was that if we were to think that we achieved God’s favour and reward by our own doing, we would become proud and haughty, when we should instead bow before the Almighty One who is so far above us. He also points out the limits of our human understanding and language about God. When the writer to the Ephesians says that the Father enthroned Christ at his right hand, this is, says Calvin, a similitude or a figure of speech, for God has neither a right hand nor a left hand; he is infinite and fills the heaven and the earth; he has no body but is Spirit. We must realize, he says, that if there is any good in us it comes from Him. This was the basis for the reformed view that it was the grace of God – his ‘unmerited favour’ – that saved us, not the works of man, and it was a profound reaction against the corrupt practices of the time, such that of selling indulgences. This was where people were told that they could achieve salvation for themselves and even their dead relatives by religious exercises, including giving money to the church. Famously the friar Johan Tetzel told ordinary people, “When a penny in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”
However, in many ways the reformed reaction went to the other extreme and the view developed amongst some people that it was right belief rather than right living that brought salvation. Martin Luther had contributed to this perspective, not only by emphasising faith alone – sola fide – but describing the Letter of James as “a real strawy epistle” because of the writer’s insistence that “faith, if it hath not works, is dead,” (James 2:14-26 KJV) or as the New English Bible translates it “faith, if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing.” So when Paul was praying that the Ephesians might have the spiritual powers of wisdom and vision to come to a better and fuller knowledge of God he was pointing to a truth about all of us, not just Ephesians, but even those who claimed to be followers of Paul or his brother evangelist, Apollos, more than of Jesus (1 Cor 3:4). We often misunderstand what the Gospel is about and must constantly allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit of God and have our inner eyes enlightened by Him.
The Gospel is this remarkable combination of simplicity and complexity. The simple message is “love God and love your neighbour” but when the lawyer asked Jesus to clarify “who is my neighbour”, Jesus did not give him a definition; he told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Loving God and our neighbour is not a matter of constructing or understanding complicated rules, rituals or doctrines, important and valuable though these may be. It is about deepening our relationships with God and other people. Today’s Gospel reading makes that abundantly clear. The “righteous”, as they are called in the passage in Matthew 25, are puzzled when they are commended for their service to the Father when He was hungry, thirsty, alone, or in need of clothes, shelter, health care, and visitation in prison. They were puzzled because, they thought, “The Almighty has no need of any of these things, and we certainly did not provide them to Him.” The important point was not only that they had done these things as an expression of love and care for other people who needed them, and that in doing so they had done them unto God, but also that they were not doing these good works with the expectation of reward.
Surely this was part of the spiritual insight which Paul prayed would be granted to the Ephesians. The Gospel of Christ and his Kingdom is a message of faith and love. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The Gospel Jesus preached is at its heart, a Gospel of Love. Amen.