The City of Geneva – home to the Frenchman Jean Calvin until his death in 1564


Text of broadcast service in honour of Jean Calvin – BBC Radio 4 Long Wave – 10th July 2009

BBC Radio 4

Morning Service – 10th July 2009



Today marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin, the French reformer and theologian who is so associated with the city of Geneva. As a minister of the Church of Scotland, our tradition is much influenced by Calvin’s ideas and in Greyfriars churchyard where I am minister in the heart of Edinburgh, is the burial place of George Buchanan, a great Scots thinker to whom Calvin meant a great deal. On hearing of his death in 1564, Buchanan wrote these affectionate words:


You are beyond the stars; you nudge

God; you enjoy the one your mind adored.

You see pure light within pure light; you drink

Divinity poured brimming into you.

Your life has become an everlasting thing,

Unanxious, impervious to empty-headed joys

Or devastating fears or the hammer of grief

Or the cancer of disease creeping from body to soul.

As for me, I call that morning which released you

From bitterest cares a very birthday; snatched

To the stars, you re-entered your old homeland. 

Purity of worship and devotion, uncluttered by the preoccupations and temptations of institutional life is what Calvin craved and in this hymn, Blessing and honour and glory and power, by another great Reformed Scot, Horatius Bonar, we hear echoes of that longing for purity and joy of worship.

Let us pray:

Infinite creator, you hold all things in being and your love is broad, beyond our imagining: Like the long strand of a Hebridean beach, your love is as wide as the sky, as free as the surging sea.

It is your love that draws us to worship, it speaks home to our hearts and we are glad to come before you and lay our burdens at your feet.

For you, Lord, accept us in us what we can scarce acknowledge in ourselves, you are prepared to name what we cannot bear to speak of. You bear our shame and give us hope that we can be renewed.

So, now, in these moments, hold our minds steady, still our restlessness and bear with us as we plumb the very depths of our being to try to recover our spiritual poise. May your spirit help us to discriminate in our lives between that which presses for our attention and that which we truly need for our wholeness and well-being.

We ask this in the name of the risen Christ. Amen.

A Reading from the Gospel of John chapter 8: 1-11

This episode of the woman taken in adultery had little to do with the sin in question or the well being of the woman. It was an elaborate set up to catch out Jesus. It was a political manoeuvre to shut this upstart up, an ecclesiastical stunt, to gain the upper hand over one who was advocating a simple message of forgiveness.

These were the problems John Calvin was wrestling with in his day. He wanted a purer, simpler church, a church with less distracting clutter, where people use the institution for dubious purposes.

Calvin would have grown up hearing the story of Giovanni De Medici’s elevation to the papacy. He’d have heard about his lavish, decadent lifestyle and the fact that he kept a pet elephant, called Hanno and expensively adapted his apartments to fit the elephant in. He’d have heard how he spent the people’s money on throwing parties to repay those who had got him the top job and how he’d pursued and harried Martin Luther, the German reformer.

It wasn’t Calvin who said this, but it might have been, ‘It is no surprise that the symbol of a Bishop is a crook and that of an archbishop is a double cross’. Just as the ecclesiastical powers humiliated this woman for their own ends so Calvin saw the same thing happening in the church of his day. ‘those who live by the altar must also serve it’ wrote William Elphinstone a great pre – Reformation Scottish Bishop. But not all lived that way. There was money and advantage to be made by selling salvation. Around the time there was a rhyme, ‘place your penny on the drum, the pearly gates open and in walks mum’, in other words, pay us your money and the church will buy you salvation. For Calvin, salvation was a wholly divine initiative, an act of grace and free acceptance, not a thing to buy with money.

The problem with wonderful, pure, idealistic people is that those who come after them invariably don’t live up to the message. Many ‘out – Calvined’ Calvin and Calvinism has got a bit of a bad press for being austere and unforgiving, not least here is Scotland.

The Orcadian poet, Edwin Muir lamented the way the Calvinist church overlooked people’s natural desire for colour, celebration and ceremony.

The word made flesh here is made word again,

A word in flourish and arrogant crook.

See there KingCalvin with his iron pen,

And God three angry letters in a book.

But this is the fault of Calvinists, rather than Calvin himself. Neither the imperial experiment of the Holy Roman Empire, nor the Calvinist idea of the godly nation ever succeeded in delivering the Kingdom of God on earth.

Jesus’ response to those who usurp institutions for their own ends is to doodle absentmindedly on the ground. He waits till all the fuss dies down and pays no attention. Then, when the ecclesiastical hotheads have left the room, he says to this woman, ‘is there no one here to condemn you? Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more’.

It is grace like this that is the work of the Spirit in the life of the church. So wherever our loyalties lie, within Catholicism, Anglicanism or the Calvinist Presbyterian church, what we should love most of all about the church is the surprising truth that often in spite of ourselves, the light of Christ’s grace can shine through and make lives new.                                                                          

We look to the church for help, or in the words of the psalmist, we look to the hills, but our help comes only from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth. Let’s hear the words of that familiar psalm from the Scottish metrical psalter, one of the Scottish Reformation’s gifts to the church’s worship.

Let us pray.

Glorious God, your thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor are your ways our ways. You look at the ugliest soul and see, still unstirred, the wings of an angel. We scan our neighbours, anxious to find their tiniest flaws.

You see our lives in the context of eternity and make a time for waiting, for yearning and for putting all things in proportion. We demand instant results and look for tomorrow before savouring today.

Not to have our worst confirmed but to have our best liberated is our prayer for this day. Hear us as we pray for those who live in shame for things that have gone wrong. Hear us for those who have been wrongly exposed and humiliated by the unscrupulous. Hear us for those who are the victims of sharp practice. Hear our prayers for peace today throughout this troubled world and our prayers for the whole church in all its names and in all its places. We pray for a deepening sense of spiritual unity within the body of Christ.

Nourish us now with better food than we could ever purchase, your word, your love and your interest, your daily bread for our life’s journey in the company of Christ Jesus our Lord.

This prayer was paraphrased and adapted for corporate use from a prayer by John Calvin

Almighty God, you have chosen in your mercy to gather us together into your Church, and have guarded our faith and practices by giving us your Holy Word, which protects us from lies and idols.
May we be contented to trust in your Word alone.
We know that Satan may attempt to draw us away, and though our flesh may be inclined to evil, we ask that you would forgive our weakness and keep us by faith bonded to you.
May we constantly abide under the protection of your Word, and in doing so, cling tightly to Christ, your son, who has joined us forever to himself.
May we never, by any means, turn aside from you Lord, but remain near you by faith in the Gospel until Christ should receive us into his Kingdom. Amen.

Our closing hymn is another psalm that speaks of the longing of the people of Israel for the pure worship of the Temple at Jerusalem, the place where God’s spirit dwells

The Blessing

Open your eyes to the world around you. Do good. Be rich in good works, generous and ready to serve, but slow to judge. Live at peace with all and the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you, now and always.