CITIES OF ANGELS
John 1: 43-51
My text for today is from the mouth of the Lord Jesus himself: “Truly, truly I say unto you: you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
The Father of Presbyterianism, John Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. While at the University of Paris he began to study law, the area which his father demanded he pursue. He was a brilliant student, but upon his father’s death in 1531, Calvin felt free to pursue interests of his own, which included ancient languages and literature. By age 23 he had completed his Doctor of Laws degree and published his first book. Two years later, he helped to draft a sermon for a friend of his, who delivered the sermon at the university. It accused current theologians of heresy (wrong belief) and set off such a storm that the two had to flee the city. It was after that experience that John Calvin had a conversion experience- not just in his head, for he was already a believer- no, it was an encounter with God that changed his life. From that time forth, according to former Stetson Chaplain Clyde Fant, “he was fully committed to a ministry of proclaiming the Word of God and purifying the life of the church.” It was Calvin who turned the hearts and the government of Geneva Switzerland to Christ, making it a theocracy of church and government, not separate, but together, intertwined in word and action. He demanded right preaching, free education, clean government, and righteous living. He wanted God to be central in the lives of the citizens. Geneva is our first city of angels today. We remember it as Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, was present in people’s actions and words, sending their prayers up to Heaven and conveying God’s guidance through the prayerful hearts of preachers. Thanks be to God for John Calvin.
But Geneva wasn’t the first city of angels. The Apostle Paul, as recorded in the New Testament of God’s Word, had his own conversion experience on the road to Damascus, moving from a persecutor of Christians to an evangelist for Christ after one blinding encounter with the Savior. The last half of the Bible is filled with cities he influenced or visited: Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonika, and Athens among them. It was in Athens that his sermon to the philosophers was preached; those joining me on our Holy Land travels in March will visit that site. Paul’s words of Christian influence are recorded in rock there, and in word in Acts 17. His preaching convicted some of his listeners so that they said to him “We want to hear you speak again about the one who rose from the dead.” One man, the Apostle Paul, preaching Christ, did not turn the entire aforementioned cities into cities of angels, but conclaves of Christians became a light for their darkness in each city. Jesus began sending their prayers up to heaven and conveying God’s guidance to the people through Paul. Thanks be to God for him.
A student of John Calvin took his understanding of Christ back to his homeland of bonnie Scotland. Born near his beloved Edinburgh, John Knox had his spiritual enlightenment in 1543. He and his associate George Wishart were fiery challengers of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and later of her Catholic queen. For his preaching Wishart– an ancestor of our own former church member, Ron Taylor, who now lives in Michigan- was burned at the stake. Burned at the stake as a Christian by so-called Christians; it was a crisis time for the faith. Ironically, it was with the assistance of Catholic Frenchmen that Knox was captured and imprisoned for his Christian work. He was placed on a French warship as a galley slave, chained down, and forced to pull the oars. It was grueling work. Upon his release from prison two years later, he first went to England as a successful minister. He then went to Frankfurt, Germany and ultimately to Geneva where his Christianity was reinforced by John Calvin, and a way to run a city dawned on him as a way to run a country. He brought the doctrines and polity (governmental plans) back to his homeland of Scotland. His battles with the Scottish Queen Mary became legendary. He ultimately won, and Mary lost the throne and her life. Knox made sure Edinburgh became yet another city of angels. He called for right preaching and administering of the sacraments, and honest government. Jesus became present in people’s words and actions, as he sent their prayers up to heaven, and conveyed God’s guidance through faithful ministers. Thanks be to God for John Knox.
It was Frances Makemie who was called the Father of American Presbyterianism. Ironically, he was born and ordained in Ireland, a country not generally noted for its Presbyterian roots. It was while in Scotland, enrolled in the University of Glasgow in 1676, that he witnessed the extensive Presbyterian persecution that rose in Ulster and Scotland. His conversion experience convinced him to begin studying for the ministry. He was ordained in Northern Ireland by the Presbytery of Laggan so he could accept a call to become a missionary to America, establishing or preaching in congregations in Maryland, Virginia, New England, and Philadelphia. He established the Presbytery of Philadelphia and became its first Moderator, thus starting the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1706. Many cities of angels were established by his preaching, as he lifted up the message of Christ wherever he went. Jesus became present in the people’s actions and words, at least for a time. But like those who had gone before them and those who would come after them, they would slip back into sinful actions, needing weekly reminders from pulpits, including the condemnation of vice and the encouragement of virtue. Jesus sent their prayers up to heaven and sent down guidance through American pulpits. Thanks be to God for Frances Makemie, who received a call from God and traveled far for Jesus.
It would be another Scotsman who would bring Christ to Washington D.C. in the middle part of this century. Peter Marshall was born in Coatbridge, Scotland in 1902. At age 14 he joined the Royal Navy, but when they discovered how young he was, they sent him home. He studied Mechanical Engineering at the local Technical School. But what brought him to Christ? According to one source, a number of events. “He had several narrow escapes from death, convincing him that the Lord had significant plans for him. His own home had been deeply religious. But it was a missionary from China who ended up bringing the word to his receptive ears. At that service he publicly announced his plans to enter the ministry.” [Fant] Though he started seminary in Glasgow, a Scotsman friend urged him to move with him to America. The First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Alabama helped support Peter as he entered Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. His first call to ministry was in Covington, Alabama and his second in Atlanta where he married Catherine, who would later write his biography, calling it “A MAN CALLED PETER.” His final two calls were the most influential: the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., and finally to become Chaplain of the U.S Senate. By 1938 he had become a naturalized citizen of the U.S. Peter Marshall, made cities of angels wherever he preached. He is credited with instituting the “Kirkin’ O’ the Tartans” service. When he was at Westminster Presbyterian in Atlanta, a newspaper columnist wrote: “Peter Marshall has everything; he was called to an empty church on Ponce de Leon Avenue and shortly thereafter had it overcrowded. If you would like to see a heartening and amazing sight, go and listen to this boy preach, but go early.” (Catherine Marshall) Appropriate for today, his wife also wrote these words about her husband: “As Peter stood in the pulpit, people always seemed to be seeing him against a backdrop comprised of Edinburgh Castle, John Knox, bagpipes, and the Fifty-first Division, with a touch of heather thrown in.” In Covington, Atlanta, and Washington D.C., Peter Marshall brought an unflinching message of Christ for the masses, leaving them with a picture of their Savior with rugged carpenter hands, fiery eyes towards sin and kind ones toward the poor, and a conviction to make a difference in the world.
Thanks be to God for Peter Marshall.
Today as our eyes look toward our nation’s Capitol this week, we again want Washington D.C. to become a city of angels; a city on a hill; a place where Jesus is present in people’s words and actions; a place where prayers are offered to Jesus so that they might be received favorably by his Father; a place that will be guided by the Savior’s own Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus described what a Kingdom city …indeed a Kingdom country, should be like. We pray also that from this pulpit and others in our city, and from your lives and actions, those whom we meet will be transformed … converted … unto Christ, and that this congregation, this community, and this nation will honor Him. Today let us give all glory and praise to the Lord Jesus Christ, who shows us the way to honor God for all the ages.
Jeffrey Sumner January 18, 2009