Spring 2009 Baccalaureate Message

Spring 2009 Baccalaureate Message - 05/10/09

Listen to the recorded version here:

In, Not Of

Northwest Nazarene University

Baccalaureate Message

May 10, 2009

President David Alexander


Good morning.  It is a privilege to address this assembled body of graduates, trustees, faculty, alumni, family and friends. 

We have gathered this morning, in this time of baccalaureate to worship.  Specifically, to worship God.  On purpose we gather to say to ourselves, and more importantly, to God "we worship You and You alone" only then, from that perspective and posture, is it appropriate to reflect upon your accomplishments, sacrifice and service.

This morning, God has a word for you, the Class of 2009, and in that word, a perspective, a plan and a call for this world and for you.

Our text this morning is a beautiful passage from the 17th Chapter of John's gospel.   But before we turn our attention to the intimate words of Jesus, let us turn our attention to words and perspectives from today's culture and times.

A Worldly Perspective

Recently I came across two issues of popular American news magazines, Newsweek and TIME that caught my attention.  I think the cover stories of these two issues merit our attention today.

First, the April 19, 2009 edition of Newsweek and the cover story entitled The Decline and Fall of Christian America, written by Jon Meacham.  As a person of faith, a disciple of Christ, I was intrigued.  What assessment did Mr. Meacham provide regarding the place, role and vitality of Christianity in America?  Allow me to provide you graduates the Cliff Notes version of the article.  The author cites several studies that track the importance and place of faith in general and Christian faith in particular in the United States.  Studies are referenced that illustrate the fact that in 1990, 8% of America claimed no religious affiliation; now, in 2009, 18 years later, 15% of Americans have no religious affiliation.

In fact, if agnostics and atheists were a movement they would now outnumber the Episcopalians 2:1.  Though I imagine it's hard to become a movement when you have nothing to believe in, and even if you do believe you just don't care.

The important point of the article is a macro-observation about the American landscape, "the so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis."  (Citing R. Albert Mohler)  The author goes on to note that fewer people regard the United States as a "Christian nation."  This is not the outside world looking in on America; this is the opinion of over two-thirds of the American population (68%) who says religion is "losing influence" in America.

As further evidence of the decline of religious influence in the life and mind of our society, I refer you to another popular news magazine, TIME; specifically, the May 11, 2009 issue, in which they share their list of The World's 100 Most Influential People.    I like lists, so I was intrigued.  Who, in the opinion of TIME's Deputy Managing Editor Josh Tyrangiel and his team of influence hounds, are the 100 people having the greatest influence on the world at this time?

I counted and sorted the list.  There are:

            30 Politicians, public servants and military leaders

            22 Business tycoons

            29 Entertainers, Sports figures, Artists

            11 Scientists and Economists

              6 Social Activists

              1 Drug Lord

              1 Pastor, Rick Warren

Consider this, those who make a living providing us, reporting for us, on matters of national and international importance have identified the 100 people around the globe who they think affect our world the most and there is only one religious figure on the whole list.  In this politically correct age there isn't even a Muslim cleric, a Hindu swami, or a new age guru. It's as if the list in TIME confirms the perspective of the Newsweek article.  The presence and influence of Christians and Christianity in America has declined to such a point that we now live, and you are about to graduate, into a culture that is effectively "post-Christian."  

You really must look at the list.  Certainly it's entertaining and meant to introduce the reader to new trends and the people behind them; but I have to ask, "where's the Pope?"  If we're compiling a list of the 100 Most Influential, shouldn't he show up somewhere?  Zac Efron made the cut, the two guys who invented Twitter are on the list, even the cast of The View is on the list.  Where's the Pope?

The point is, as young Christian graduates, you leave this learning community to enter a world filled with a smorgasbord of religious ideas, expressions, and self-crafted belief systems.  The luxury of living in a predominantly Christian society is evaporating at varying rates across our land, and being replaced by other religions or no religion.  Al Truesdale, in With Cords of Love: A Wesleyan Response to Religious Pluralism, cites the work of Diana Eck of the Harvard University Pluralism Project who reports that, "the world has never seen a nation as religiously diverse as the United States." (Truesdale, 12.)

This is our new reality, this is the world into which you venture, and for which we have sought to prepare you.  Our religious freedoms have made religion more popular, but also more varied.  We have no established state church; on the contrary, we have seen the establishment of a host of churches and synagogues, temples and mosques.  Our quest for freedom has taken expression in the form of a "radical individualism" that has promoted personal, rather than corporate, values and beliefs.  Today, you step out into a world where people craft their own personal belief systems.  The fancy word for this is "syncretism," choosing and selecting personally attractive traits from a variety of sources to craft one's own individual doctrines, beliefs and practices.

Furthermore, you are entering a world in which the West is no longer the center of culture, or the center of world history; you enter a world with many gods, or no gods at all, a world with preferences instead of pillars of truth, where meaning is self-selected and devoid of permanent foundation, direction or design.

And here's why I think this is so significant for you this day.  Sociologists tell us, that you, your generation, accepts this.  Religious pluralism and "designer faith" are part of the way you look at and accept life.  Unlike people my age, this doesn't seem foreign to you, you're not experiencing a sense of loss, you're not frightened by this, nor are you fleeing from this state; this pluralistic world is your reality. 

A Plan for the Ages

So, what is God's good news for you this day?  If these reports accurately reflect the time and the place in which we live, what Word does God speak to us on this, the day of your baccalaureate blessing?

The Word for the day is taken from one of the most intimate and revealing passages in all the gospels.  Jesus' priestly prayer to the Father.  In it He recounts His time on earth, intercedes for the disciples gathered around Him, as well as those who would one day become His followers by believing upon His word.

Jesus' prayer, captured in John 17, occurs within Holy Week, that time marked by Palm Sunday and Easter when Jesus enters Jerusalem to do the will of His Father, drink the cup and carry His cross to Calvary.  Throughout the course of this week we witness Jesus preparing His disciples for His departure, revisiting the fundamental principles and realities He's tried to impress upon His young Jewish followers, so steeped in the traditions of one way, struggling to learn Christ's new way.

Across the span of these few short days he washes their feet, gives a new commandment to love as He has loved, promises the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, who will lead His disciples into all truth, outlines the relationship of Father, Son and disciple via the metaphor of vine, branches and gardener, promises peace and joy and then, lifts His eyes to heaven and prays this grand, intimate prayer.  When the prayer is completed He gets up and makes His way across a ravine to the Garden of Gethsemane, to His betrayal, trial, death and resurrection.

I felt led to focus on this passage this day, because the state of the world in 2009 as referred to in TIME and Newsweek, is quite similar to the state of the world when Jesus prayed this prayer.  There are numerous parallels and points of comparison between the United States of America and the Roman Empire.  Consequently, His prayer for His disciples is not only tender and caring, it is relevant and telling.  The "final instructions" Jesus gave His disciples should be understood as a guide for living in and proclaiming the gospel in a world such as this, a world of religious pluralism.   Christ was preparing the early church for the challenges and opportunities in their pluralistic culture, much like we have sought to prepare you to know the way, the truth and the life, as you enter into this culture.

I say with confidence, Northwest Nazarene University exists because of, and for, the truth of this passage.  And I pray that you are emerging from NNU with an educational experience designed and driven by the realities outlined by Jesus, realities that are as vital now as they were 2,000 years ago.

As Jesus prayed He was mapping out fundamental things.  The way the world is, the way the world is intended to be and the relationships and conditions that will make all things new.  Soon after this prayer was prayed Jesus would find Himself in front of the rulers of the age, Pilate, and Herod, and by association Caesar.  The comments He makes reflect realities He had foreknown and planned "before the world was."  

In the days leading up to His crucifixion, Jesus was providing a glimpse of the manner in which He lived, resident in one world while being guided by another. He is speaking from the "incarnational reality" that is His life.  Played out in that week, in the starkest of contrasts, are the values and differences of two worlds, worlds in which He resided simultaneously.  Jesus speaks from an earthly experience all the while being guided by His heavenly reality.

But here is the "tipping point," where attention turns from Jesus to His disciples, He says, "you are not of the world."

Like Jesus, His disciples are to be part of this two-world paradigm.  This is not accidental; this is exactly what He has known and intended all along.

Listen, as He prays to the Father about Himself and His disciples.

Verse 16:  They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.

Verse 18:  As You sent Me into the world, I have sent them into the world.

In, not of.

In it, not of it.

This sounds like either a clever play on words or a question on a philosophy test doesn't it?  That's why I checked my logic with philosophy professor, Dr. Joseph Bankard.  Here are the options based upon what Christ says:      

Submitted:  Two worlds exist, world A and world B.

According to Jesus:

1.  We can live in A and live of A.

2.  We can live in B and live of B.

3.  We can live in A and live of B.

4.  We cannot live in B and live of A.

Jesus chose Option 3, he lived in world A while living of world B. 

Jesus is praying about the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the kingdom of this world.  B comes to A and transforms A into B.  Jesus lived His earthly life in this reality; He lived in the midst of His enemies.  And His prayer underscores the fact that He intends for His disciples, the citizens of world B, to be used by Him to transform world A.  He doesn't offer a life of escapism "run away, live in and of world B" instead, He calls us to live in A, while living of B.  Don't abandon this world, transform this world.   He prays, "I don't ask that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one."

If the disciples were anything like me, a couple of them had one eye open while He prayed, looking at each other, as if to say, "what difference does this make, is anything going to change?"  In one sense nothing had changed, world A was still world A; in another sense, everything had changed.  Jesus was praying to the Father to give His disciples heavenly perspective, passion and purpose.  They were being called to be a part of God's Kingdom, to participate in His plan for the ages.  In Jesus, the curtain rises on the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  And His young disciples, new citizens of world B, were being called to walk with Him in His salvation story and transform world A.

The Call

Jesus' prayer outlines His role in the Kingdom's arrival, the nature of the Kingdom and the transformation and provision that awaits those who answer the call, follow Him and reside in His Kingdom. 

As Jesus prayed this prayer, perhaps one of the disciples remembered the scene when the young carpenter from Nazareth, went into his hometown synagogue, opened the scroll of Isaiah and read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.  He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

Now, three years later, they had seen this Scripture fulfilled before their eyes; in the life and ministry of Jesus, their teacher, they had found Messiah.  They had witnessed the very essence of what it meant for the Kingdom of God to be present in Jesus.  Christ had walked about and literally transformed the culture in which He lived.  He was living in A but transforming A as a citizen of B

And now, Jesus is praying for them.  His prayer focuses on them and His provision for them.  He doesn't ask that they be taken out of the world, but that they be kept safe from the evil one.  In order for them to no longer to be of this world, He prays to the Father and asks that they be set apart, sanctified for God's purpose, aware of the truth of this new Kingdom reality.  In praying that they will know His word, His truth, Jesus is in effect praying that they will be able to understand, discern and live in the reality and tension of two worlds, two kingdoms.  And then, in a few short hours, He is gone.

But wait, He was not praying for them alone.  He said:

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me because of their testimony.

Jesus prays to the Father on behalf of all His disciples.  Not just those huddled in a room in Jerusalem, but all of us who have, and will, believe on Him.  Jesus calls us, prays for us, to live like Him.  Jesus, the Incarnate One, calls us to live in the manner He Himself has just lived in this world, but not of it.  This is not a metaphor for His prayer; it's a mandate for His Kingdom.  Christ is calling us, calling you, to live incarnationally, to live in Him, as you live in the truth of His Kingdom.  Hear these phrases from His prayer:

My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as You and I are one, Father, that just as You are in Me and I am in You, so they will be in Us, and the world will believe You sent Me.

Just as He called them, He calls you and me.  "Just as the Early Church found ways to tell and faithfully live the story of God in its pluralistic setting, so must [you].  And just as the Holy Spirit empowered and gave wisdom to the early Christians, so will He empower [you] today." (Truesdale, 28.)

Jesus Christ the Victor, has big plans for His creation.  And He wants you, He wants us, to be a part of the comprehensive salvation of the world.  He wants to hear you pray, "Thy Kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  

You may be thinking, when will the President just say "and in conclusion" and move on.  I just want to know where am I going to get a job, will this degree lead to a promotion, or when will my life return to "normal," now that the projects and assignments are complete.

I have news.  God has much bigger plans for you.  And so do we.   Remember the four NNU outcomes:  Christ-like Character, Academic Excellence, Creative Engagement and Social Responsiveness?  Those weren't mere slogans; we believe we have been doing Christ's work in emphasizing these outcomes.  In effect, we teach to these outcomes because we believe they embody the truth of His Kingdom.  We didn't labor over you to help you escape this life, we have labored with you to equip for life, the life of God's design, life in Him, life in His Kingdom.  Whether you really knew it or not, you were joining us in learning to live like Him and live in Him. 

So let me ask you, what story motivates you this day?  The day you commence?  As you consider the architecture of your life, what plans await?  Pause.  Listen.  Do you hear Jesus praying for you?  Do you realize He is constantly interceding for you on your behalf?  He doesn't want you to seek a privatized, cloistered life.  He wants to hear you pray "Thy Kingdom come."  He wants to hear you say, "here I am, use me, send me out into the world, with your truth, your joy, your love."

And if you pray this prayer, genuinely, passionately, honestly pray this prayer, then beware.  He will answer.  He will use a yielded life.

You see, the opinions and observations of Newsweek magazine don't really matter.  The establishment of God's Kingdom is not a political movement or cultural event.  Jesus said as much in front of Pilate when He said, "My Kingdom is not of this world." On His terms Jesus is turning the world on end and establishing His Kingdom among us.  He intends for us to live as citizens of His Kingdom. 

I don't even mind that the Pope didn't make the list.  The list was created by citizens of world A.  It merely reinforces what Jesus told the disciples, "If they had listened to Me, they would have listened to you." World A has always been confused and unable to see the presence and purpose of World B.

But I am optimistic this morning; for I know God and I know you. I believe God is doing a brand new thing among this generation.  He is giving you ears to hear and eyes to see in ways my generation has forgotten to look and listen.  I can't wait to hear reports about you, to hear from you, to marvel at the ways God in Christ is reconciling the world to Himself through you.

I have hope in God and I have hope in you.  I have witnessed your zeal and your courage, your dissatisfaction with the way things are, and your desire to set things right.  The fire of your passion burns for the Kingdom of God.  In ways large and small, dynamic and tender, may you go from here to walk with God, to live in such a way that Jesus' prayer to the Father will become reality, "that the world will know that You sent Me and will understand that You love them as much as You love Me."

Go; live in Him, live like Him.  Change the kingdom of this world, into the Kingdom of our Lord.

Bibliographic Resources

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1954.

Brueggemann, Walter.  The Prophetic Imagination.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

Daniels, Scott.  Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelation's Letters for Today's Church. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.

Meacham, Jon. "The Decline and Fall of Christian America," Newsweek (April 13,   2009).

Thomas L. Friedman. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-First Century.  New York:  Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Tyrangiel, Josh.  "The Time 100: The World's Most Influential People," TIME (May 11, 2009).

Truesdale, Al.  With Cords of Love: A Wesleyan Response to Religious Pluralism.   Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 2006.

Willard, Dallas.  The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God.  San Francisco: Harper, 1998.