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John Calvin’s theological imagery compelling for ecological concerns, care for Earth

Everyday God-talk explores the God who cares for Creation and abundant life

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Rafael Lemos Viana is pastor of worshiping communities On the Way and Igreja Casa Brasil. He’s featured in the final episode of the first season of Everyday God-talk. (Photo courtesy of On the Way)

LOUISVILLE — In our time when the effects of climate change threaten to wipe out endangered species and uproot and displace communities, the Rev. Dr. David Gambrell says Presbyterians have a special responsibility to prevent such disasters and protect the most vulnerable.

The associate for worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Theology & Worship draws insights from the fourth section of John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” for the final episode of season one of Everyday God-talk.

Directed and produced by Dr. So Jung Kim, PC(USA) associate for theology, this first season of Everyday God-talk is focused on environmental justice and the climate crisis. Each episode features three rooms providing theological reflection (Room 1), opportunities to join God’s work of caring for Creation (Room 2) and spiritual guidance for opening one’s heart to God’s healing in the world (Room 3).

In “Our Soul of God who cares,” Gambrell acknowledges that Calvin isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking about ecological theologians. Yet he finds theological language and images that are compelling for those who take seriously God’s call to be good stewards of the Earth.

As Calvin discusses the nature of the purpose of the church, the sacraments, and the relationship between church and civil government, Gambrell sees language — and images — that connect us to God and each other, as both members of the church and inhabitants of the Earth.

When Calvin describes the church as “Mother,” Gambrell is reminded of the common personification of “Mother Nature” or “Mother Earth.”


The Rev. Dr. David Gambrell is associate for worship in the Office of Theology & Worship. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Just as we draw our life and breath and nourishment from the gifts of God’s good Creation — water, air and soil — Christians depend on the church for things that pertain to eternal and abundant life in Christ,” he said, such as “faith, forgiveness and communion with God.”

When Calvin talks about the sacraments, he uses a paternal image of God as loving parent, which undergirds and infuses his understanding of baptism and the Lord’s supper as signs and seals of God’s providential care in the life of believers.

For Calvin the sacraments are a “physical embodiment of a spiritual reality,” he said, “God’s loving-kindness and liberating grace poured out in water, offered up in bread and wine.”

According to Gambrell, the theme of union with Christ is central to Calvin’s sacramental theology. Through the sacraments we are joined together as Christ’s holy body by the power of the Holy Spirit. These same sacramental signs, Gambrell said, unite us with Christ our Savior and with God’s Creation and other creatures that share this world. The water in baptism connects us, as Gambrell describes it, “with the oceans, lakes, and rivers of God’s good Creation.” Similarly, the grain and fruit of the Lord’s supper connect us to the soil from which God nourishes us.”

“The sacraments are signs of God’s care for us,” Gambrell said. “But they also point to our calling to care for each other and our Earth that is our home.”

As for the relationship between church and civil government, Calvin believed that civil governments are part of God’s intention to provide for the practice of faith and to help people live in peace with one another. Calvin maintained that civil governments have a responsibility to establish justice and equity among their citizens.

For Gambrell, this suggests that Christians, as members of the Church, are called to work together with civil governments to make sure that people have access to basic necessities of human life.

In our “Body for God who Cares,“ Andrew Kang Bartlett of the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP) introduces EGT viewers to food justice organizer Vivi Moreno of the Little Environmental Justice Organization. Moreno shares the story of how a neighborhood in an industrial area of Chicago turned a former brownfield site area that smelled of oil emanating from the ground into the “Seeds of Justice” community garden.

Andrew Kang Bartlett is associate for National Hunger Concerns in the Presbyterian Hunger Program. (Photo by Rich Copley)

PHP partners with people like Moreno who are doing grassroots work on the ground in marginalized communities. Kang Bartlett said that by supporting those organizing and building people movements based on strong relationships and solidarity, long-term solutions are found for identified problems.

In “Our Heart with God who Cares” the Rev. Rafael Lemos Viana gives a short meditation on John 5,  where Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to a religious festival. The people were partying, Viana said, but Jesus goes outside the gates to a pool of water, where there was no celebration, a place where the blind, sick, lame and paralyzed still believed in superstition — that if the waters in the pool moved, a cure might come from something supernatural.

Jesus focuses in on a man who hasn’t walked in 38 years, asking him if he wants to be well. At first the man didn’t understand the question. But later, when the religious leaders demand to know why he is carrying his bed on the sabbath, he realized the worlds of Jesus were meant to bring him deliverance.

“The man who healed me said ‘carry your bed,’ is what he told those worried that he was carrying his mat on the Sabbath,” Viana said. “These words of Jesus can deliver us too. For how easy it for us is to stay inside our gates, celebrating, singing our songs, closing our eyes and raising our hands, while living lives disconnected from those in need.”

The Rev. Rafael Lemos Viana is pastor of worshiping communities On the Way and Igreja Casa Brasil.

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