In the preface to Calvin’s Institutes, he writes to King Francis to answer his Roman critics. They accused Calvin of being opposed to the early Church Fathers. In particular, by simplifying the liturgy, he had opposed the ancient Church, its liturgy and traditions. (See it in context.) Calvin writes:
It is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety.
Among the Fathers there were two, the one of whom said, “Our God neither eats nor drinks, and therefore has no need of chalices and salvers;” and the other,<!–
//–> “Sacred rites do not require gold, and things which are not bought with gold, please not by gold.” They step beyond the boundary, therefore, when in sacred matters they are so much delighted with gold, driver, ivory, marble, gems, and silks, that unless everything is overlaid with costly show, or rather insane luxury, they think God is not duly worshipped.
He appeals to Ambrose of Milan, On the Duties of the Clergy ii.28 (De officiis clericorum). Here Ambrose defends himself for his selling church gold and silver vessels to redeem captives. He, in turn, appeals to the Scriptures and the ancient legend of St. Lawrence (see it in context):
It is a very great incentive to mercy to share in others’ misfortunes, to help the needs of others as far as our means allow, and sometimes even beyond them. For it is better for mercy’s sake to take up a case, or to suffer odium rather than to show hard feeling. So I once brought odium on myself because I broke up the sacred vessels to redeem captives—a fact that could displease the Arians. Not that it displeased them as an act, but as being a thing in which they could take hold of something for which to blame me. Who can be so hard, cruel, iron-hearted, as to be displeased because a man is redeemed from death, or a woman from barbarian impurities, things that are worse than death, or boys and girls and infants from the pollution of idols, whereby through fear of death they were defiled?
These, then, I preferred to hand over to you as free men, rather than to store up the gold. This crowd of captives, this company surely is more glorious than the sight of cups. The gold of the Redeemer ought to contribute to this work so as to redeem those in danger. I recognize the fact that the blood of Christ not only glows in cups of gold, but also by the office of redemption has impressed upon them the power of the divine operation.
Such gold the holy martyr Lawrence preserved for the Lord. For when the treasures of the Church were demanded from him, he promised that he would show them. On the following day he brought the poor together. When asked where the treasures were which he had promised, he pointed to the poor, saying: “These are the treasures of the Church.” And truly they were treasures, in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in Him. So, too, the Apostle says: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” What greater treasures has Christ than those in whom He says He Himself lives? For thus it is written: “I was hungry and ye gave Me to eat, I was thirsty and ye gave Me to drink, I was a stranger and ye took Me in.”<!–
//–> And again: “What thou didst to one of these, thou didst it unto Me.” What better treasures has Jesus than those in which He loves to be seen?
These treasures Lawrence pointed out, and prevailed, for the persecutors could not take them away.
The Archbishop of Canterbury just made similar appeal to the Lawrence story in his New Year Message:
A little before Christmas I visited a new academy in Scunthorpe named after St. Lawrence. Lawrence was a Christian minister in Rome in the days when you could be arrested and executed for being a Christian, nineteen hundred years ago or so.
When he was arrested, he was told to collect all the treasures of the Church to be given up to the courts. He got together all the homeless, the orphans and the hungry that the Church looked after in the city, and presented them to his judges, saying, ‘These are the Church’s treasures.’
Like any really good school, St. Lawrence’s treats its children as treasures. In the last few months we’ve had to think a lot about wealth and security and about where our ‘treasure’ is.
But it set me thinking – what would our life be like if we really believed that our wealth, our treasure, was our fellow-human beings? Religious faith points to a God who takes most seriously and values most extravagantly the people who often look least productive or successful- as if none of us could really be said to be doing well unless these people were secure.
So what about a New Year in which we try and ask consistently about our own personal decisions and about public polices, national and international, ‘Does this feel like something that looks after our real treasure, something that keeps our real wealth safe – the lives and welfare of the youngest and most vulnerable?’