This is the text of the 2023 Academic Year Convocation address given by Western Theological Seminary President Felix Theonugraha on August 28, 2023. To view the whole convocation service, visit our YouTube Channel here.
Why are you here? To the learning community of Western Theological Community, from the Board of Trustees to the faculty, from the staff to the donors, from the returning students to the new students, from the students here in Holland to those watching via livestream, why are you here?
After all, it seems that everything about the Church is trending in the wrong direction. Statistic tells us that the Church in North America is in decline. Church membership is decreasing. Trust in religious leaders is at an all-time low. The number of students attending seminaries continues to decline. It is easy to be discouraged about pursuing ministry.
Yet today, on the 60th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech,” we are once again confronted with the depth of hatred that human beings can have toward another when this past weekend in Jacksonville, a white man committed racially motivated attack full of hatred and killed three Black people who were just innocently going about their day.
Students, you need to know that in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the Board of Trustees adopted a Statement on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, in which it says that as a Seminary, “we affirm that all human beings are created in the image of God, and we uphold the full dignity and worth of all people of all racial and ethnic identities. Therefore, we reject any direct or indirect discrimination against, and devaluing or dishonoring of, any person on the grounds of race or ethnicity.” Words and actions that violate the image of God in a person have no place here at Western Theological Seminary.
For the purposes of today, the events of this weekend reminds us that, no matter how discouraging the statistic about the Church maybe, we live in a world that is desperately in need of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We live in world that is crying out for the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ that has been accomplished once and for all on the cross. We live in a restless world that is craving hope, peace, and belonging, and this world will remain restless until it finds its rest in God and God alone. And so, I ask again, why are you here today?
In 2009, author Simon Sinek gave a TED talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” In what has become the third most watched TED talks of all time, Sinek pointed to the stories of Martin Luther King, the Wright Brothers and Apple and argued that while most people focus on the what of their work, people who inspire others to action focus on the why of what they do. He said, “Every single person, every single organization on the planet knows what they do. 100%. But very, very few people or organizations know why they do what they do. What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”
As we begin this new academic year, I want to begin with a plea and a prayer. Here’s my plea. Know why you are here.
The text that was read for today, Colossians 1.15-23 was actually the same text that was preached at my New Student Orientation back in the Fall of 2002 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I had just moved from San Francisco, California having never visited the campus. I arrived early with my dad so he could help me find a car and settle into my dorm room. I had just graduated from Cal Berkeley, spent four years in the newest residence hall at the school, equipped with a T1 LAN line that was the fastest data connectivity network available at the time.
I arrived at TEDS and moved into a residence hall that was built in the 1970s with just barely just enough room for a bed, a desk, a dresser, and a place to hang your clothes. The windows were poorly sealed, the building was poorly insulated, and worse of all, it was only equipped with a dial up connection. For a young 22-year-old moving half way across the country to a land that I did not know, leaving my friends, family, and everything that was familiar to me behind, this was too much to bear. Unbeknownst to me at the time, My dad, upon returning home, told my mom that he had never seen me so depressed.
But there I was, sitting in the Opening Chapel of New Student Orientation, wondering what I had gotten myself into, when the president of the school, Dr. Greg Waybright, stood up and preached from this text. And it was at that Chapel where I sensed the still small voice of God saying to me, “this is exactly where I want you to be.”
Scholars are nearly unanimous in recognizing Colossians 1:15-20 as a hymn that exalts the supremacy of Jesus Christ. The hymn begins by declaring Christ’s supremacy over all of creation. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. The preeminent Christ is eternally in the very likeness of God and the visible incarnate representation of the invisible God from eternity past to eternity future.
The phrase “firstborn” does not imply that Jesus Christ was the first to be created, but rather that Jesus Christ was before all of creation. For in Jesus Christ, all things were created. All things, whether in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. Thrones, powers, rulers, or authorities. All things, everything was created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. Jesus Christ is supreme and is sovereign over all of Creation. Friends, this Jesus is the one who we worship. This Jesus is the one who we love. This Jesus is the one who calls us to follow him.
But the text does not stop there. From this high, mighty, exalted, astounding, amazing description of the Supremacy of Christ over all creation, Paul goes on to argue why Christ’s supremacy matters to us, the Church. Just as Jesus Christ is supreme over the cosmos, he is also sovereign over the Church. He is the head of the body and of the Church. Not only are all things created in Him and through Him, all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, are also reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, who made peace through His blood that was shed on the cross. Reconciliation with God, being restored into a harmonious relationship with God is possible only and because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and through his shed blood.
And in case the Church in Colossae was not paying attention, Paul brings this message home in verses 21-22. Oh, by the way, I’m talking about you. You see, you were alienated from God and were enemies of God because of your evil behavior. But now, Jesus has reconciled you with God and restored you to God through his body and as a result of Christ’s work on the cross, you are now holy in God’s sight, without blemish and without accusation, as you persevere in your faith. You are the recipient of God’s grace and mercy. You are the object of the reconciling work of Christ. This transcendent God has drawn us near to Him, so that by the grace of God, in Christ, we may be declared righteous before God!
And this Gospel, Paul goes on to say—this good news of of Jesus Christ reconciling us through his death to present us holy in God’s sight is the reason why Paul have become a servant of God. Paul has become a servant of this Gospel message. This is Paul’s why.
In that same vein, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that being a servant of this Gospel message should also be our why.
As 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 reminds us, God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. What is this ministry? That God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal to us.”
Friends, this too is our why. This is the ministry that has been entrusted to us. And it is a weighty one, an important one, a crucial one. Our God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, the one who reigns supreme over all of creation, the one in whom and through whom all things were made, the head of the Church, has chosen to entrust the message of reconciliation to us, so that by the power of the Spirit, we may implore the world on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.
Friends, let me say it again. This is my plea to you this morning. This is our why: we are here so that we may be formed and equipped as ambassadors of God, so that we may appeal to the world, be reconciled to God, your Creator, your Savior, your Redeemer. We are ambassadors of this message of reconciliation–Be reconciled to God.
And so, in light of this, here is my prayer for the Western Theological Seminary learning community this year. Every year, I have the privilege of selecting a theme verse for us, and this year, I have selected Romans 12:2 to be our theme verse. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world. But be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
Romans 12:2 provides a contrast between two agendas. The pattern of this world, and the will of God. The pattern of this age is one of sin and death, whereas the will of God for us is to live as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. Paul commands us to not conform to the pattern of this world, but instead to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. We are instructed to readjust or to reprogram the way that we think so that we may understand, agree, and live into the will of God for our lives.
So friends, my prayer for us as a community is this—that your time here would be a time of transformation. That we may more and more, grow and mature into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the head of the Church.
One more concluding point before I take my seat. Often, the thrust that is pulled out from Romans 12:2 is the phrase “renewing of your mind.” It is used to encourage us to discern truth from error, right from wrong, and to be confident in what we believe. And friends, I pray that for us. In fact, it is appropriate for a Seminary, as an institution of theological education and a learning community, to put a high emphasis on the renewing of our minds. After all, the pattern of this world and the will of God are not complementary agendas. You cannot seek and approve the will of God while also living in conformity with the pattern of this world. Seek God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will!
But I also cannot help but note that beginning in Romans 12:3 through the end of Romans 12, the focus of the chapter is actually not on individual transformation but on communal transformation. It is as if Paul is saying that the evidence of our transformation can be most clearly observed in the way that we interact with one another in community.
- In v. 3, he encourages us to be humble. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”
- In v. 10, “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
- In v. 13, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
- In v. 14, “Bless those who persecute you.”
- In v. 15 “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
- In v. 16. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.” I
- n v.17 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in front of everyone.”
- In v. 18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
It is as if Paul is saying that the fruit of a transformed life is most evident in the context of community. Now, I don’t know if that’s right. Dr. Wesley Hill and Dr. Madison Pierce are our New Testament scholars, and so I submit my interpretation to their evaluation, and friends, they are excellent. But assuming that I am not entirely off base, this is my prayer for us this year.
My fellow ambassadors of Christ, ministers of the Gospel of reconciliation: May this year be a year of transformation for us and may the fruit of this transformation be evident in the way that we interact with one another.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.