Summer 2012 Baccalaureate Message - May 5th

Baccalaureate Message

May 5, 2012

The Emperor & The King,

The Citizen & The Servant 

Good morning all.  University Trustees, Distinguished Guests, Esteemed Faculty, University Colleagues, proud family and friends, and most importantly, members of the Class of 2012, I greet you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  And I welcome you to the 2012 Northwest Nazarene University Baccalaureate Service.


This is indeed a day to remember, a day of thanksgiving, a day in which to give praise.  This afternoon we will confer upon you, members of the Class of 2012, the degrees and honors you have earned.  Then you will commence the next chapter of your life.


This morning we pause to reflect upon the road just traveled; to remember the cornerstone, the sign posts and landmarks that guided our time together.  Like any good professor, as the semester draws to a close, I want to take a moment to review and perhaps provide a glimpse of what lies ahead. 


First, see if any of these words sound familiar:


The NNU Motto

            Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God


The NNU Mission

            The mission of Northwest Nazarene University is the transformation of the whole person.  Centered in Jesus Christ the NNU education instills habits of heart, soul, mind and strength to enable each student to become God's creative and redemptive agent in the world.


The NNU Vision

            Guided by a vision of the Kingdom of God Northwest Nazarene University seeks a more excellent way, to express the love of Jesus by forming scholars, nurturing disciples, serving the church, shaping the culture, redeeming the world.


These words serve NNU as coordinates on a map, guiding our work, our lessons and the experiences we have sought to provide you, our students.  Consider these phrases:

            Seek the Kingdom of God

            Be centered in Jesus Christ

            Become God's creative and redemptive agents

            Be guided by a vision of the Kingdom of God

            Be both scholar and disciple

            Be someone who seeks a more excellent way


Notice a common thread?  We have attempted to provide learning experiences for you shaped by a particular view of life, the world and reality itself.  We are people of a kingdom, a particular kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  



We are aware that in addition to our particular view of the world, across the arc of history there have been many earthly kingdoms, empires made by man.  Much of the history of the world can be traced on the maps of worldly empires:

            Babylonian Empire  

            Assyrian Empire                      

            Persian Empire

            Greek Empire                                      

            Roman Empire 

            To the east the Yuan Dynasty  

            To the west the Spanish Empire 

            British Empire  

            Napoleonic Empire  

            The list goes on to this day,


Empire after empire.  Emperor after emperor.  Each in their own way displaying their political power, military might, and plundered wealth.   This morning, let us focus on one empire in particular, the Roman Empire.  Led into prominence by Julius Caesar, the ruler who allowed his people to think him a god, followed by his adopted son, Caesar Augustus, son of god, they were the supreme rulers of Rome, the most powerful empire in the world.  They were providers of the pax romana, the peace of Rome.


Against the backdrop of this powerful empire, let us also consider a Jewish carpenter who rose to modest prominence amongst His people until, after three years of public exposure, He was deemed a threat by the Hebrew establishment and turned over to Caesar's representatives for execution.


Caesar, the emperor, knows nothing of this man named Jesus who is being dragged before Pilate, Caesar's representative in Jerusalem, nor of the false accusations that Jesus sought to establish Himself as the King of the Jews.



And yet, the stage is set for one of the most poignant and telling exchanges in all of human history, Jesus before Pilate, the Emperor and the King, consider the irony of their exchange:

            Pilate,  Are you the King of the Jews?

            Jesus replies,  Is this your question or did others tell you about me?

            Pilate scoffs,  Am I a Jew?  Your own people brought you here? Why? What have you done?

            Jesus states, I am not an earthly king.  If I were, my followers would have fought when I was arrested by the Jewish leaders.  But my Kingdom is not of this world.

            Pilate,  You are a king then?

            Jesus,  You say that I am a king, and you are right, I was born for that purpose.  And I came to bring truth to the world.  All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.

            Pilate scoffs,  What is truth?


            Then Pilate went back to the Jewish leaders and said,  I find no fault in him.

            The Jewish leaders counter,  By our laws he ought to die because he called himself the Son of God.

            Pilate heard this and was frightened.

            He returned to Jesus saying,  Don't you realize that I have the power to release you or to crucify you?

            Jesus said, You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.  

            Then Pilate tried to release Jesus, but the Jewish leaders said,  If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar.  Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar.

            When they said this, Pilate brought Jesus out and said, Here is your king!

            The Jewish leaders shouted, We have no king but Caesar!

            Then Pilate gave Jesus to them to be crucified.


In that scene all the empires and rulers of the world are symbolically assembled, each claiming to be the most powerful force over the people, each marching toward their version of utopia.  Each working to fashion a society where the government brings about on-going improvement, peace and prosperity, yet each empire finally failing and falling, victims of their own greed, pride and lust for power.  


And there stands Jesus, the answer to Pilate's question, "What is truth?"  (Beechner)


You see, maps of worldly empires aren't the only version of reality.  Jesus had been walking the dusty trails of Judea and Samaria, all the while mapping out a new reality through his actions and teaching.  And now, as his earthly life draws to a close he prays the prayer recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17 that is the text of today's message, this is His prayer for us, His disciples, prayed on our behalf to God the Father.  Listen to these phrases:

            I have told them many things while I was with them, so they would be filled with my joy

            I have given them your word

            The world hates them because they do not belong to the world

            Don't take them out of the world, keep them safe

            They are not a part of the world any more than I am

            Make them pure and holy by your words of truth

            Like you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world

            May they be one as we are one, so the world will believe you sent me and you love them as much as you love me


This is His prayer for us, prayed as He prepares for His death, resurrection and departure.  In the last few weeks and days of His life on earth, Jesus is drawing a map for the disciples that outlines a different domain, not an earthly empire, rather a kingdom, the kingdom, the Kingdom of God.  



It is not a Kingdom marked by conquests and boundaries, it is instead a kingdom embodied in the reality of the Son of God living incarnate among us, light dispelling darkness.  This final prayer emerges from Jesus' own "review time" with the disciples, recorded in John Chapters 12-16.  Within these passages Jesus outlines the spirit of this new, coming Kingdom.  Pay attention to the reality sketched by His life and commandments.  Notice how he portrays the light of life in His Kingdom with occasional contrasts to the dark powers of this world.


John 12 records the resurrection of Lazarus, thus confirming Jesus' power over death.  Then, in John 13 Jesus gathers His disciples together to observe the Passover.  It is on that night, when He knew his hour had come, that He takes a towel and stoops to wash the disciples' feet, and then asks them if they understand what He has done.  The Lord has washed the feet of His followers.  He has given them an example to follow.  (Ironically, it is then that Judas leaves to betray Him, knowing that Jesus chooses not the path of earthly power.)   Then, with their feet still damp, Jesus commands His disciples to love each other as He has loved them.  Only then will the world know they are His disciples.


The days and the hours go by in John 14, then Jesus no longer speaks in parables, plainly telling His inner circle He is the way, the truth and the life.  God the Father is made accessible through Jesus the Son.  He then tells His followers to expect to do things greater than He has done, so that He and His followers can bring glory to the Father.  As a seal of His pledge He promises the arrival of the Holy Spirit, who will come and lead His followers into all truth.  Though He warns of His impending departure He offers words of comfort:  "Be at peace, I have overcome the prince of this world."  


In John 15, Jesus instructs His disciples to live life as one grafted into His life:  "Like a vine and its branches, dwell in live-giving relationship with me.  Though the world will hate you, abide in me and you will bear much fruit.  Abide in me and live in my love.  Abide in Me and love each other the same way I love you, see I'm laying down my life, my power and authority, for you and your good."  Then in John 16, the startling announcement:  "Soon I will go away, and the world will rejoice while you weep.  But you will see me again, so take courage, though you will experience trials in this world, I have overcome the world!"


What did Jesus mean?  How has He overcome anything?  Why, with His crucifixion looming large, did Jesus take so much time to re-teach and retell?  He knew the reality of what was about to take place would be so opposite their worldly expectations, so easily eclipsed by the exercise of the power of Rome, that for them to remember and understand, He had to underscore the fact that He was instituting a new way, a new covenant, a new kingdom.


Then, two things happened.


First, the empire's power is unleashed on Jesus and He breathes his last breath and is alive no more.


And yet,


On Easter morn, every map of every empire and the biography of every emperor fades in significance, for Jesus, the King, is alive.  Christ is risen!



A new kingdom and a new culture have been unveiled.  N.T. Wright speaks of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ this way:

It is the story of God's kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus' followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice. (Wright, Surprised by Joy, 204)


At NNU we believe the resurrection is the most significant event in history.  It shapes why we teach, what we teach and how we teach.  It is exceedingly important to remember this on the day of your baccalaureate.  Jesus was at work announcing and initiating a new way, building a new Kingdom.  Today, I am here to proclaim that Easter draws a new map, and that map involves you and the way you live out your life.  "In the kingdom of God a new kind of life and a new kind of culture becomes possible, not by abandoning the old but by transforming it."  (Crouch, Culture Making, 146)


This morning's message is about understanding and living in two domains, the kingdom of God and the empires of the earth.  Remember, Jesus doesn't pray for us to be taken out of the world, rather He offers a prayer of protection and then sends us into the world.  We are called, we are sent into the world's cultures.


Here I draw upon the work of Andy Crouch in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.  Crouch reminds us that God is the original author of culture, the Garden of Eden was a culture of God's design.  Yet across the ages, the cultures and empires of the world have become a massive attempt to declare our independence from God. (Crouch, Culture, 117)  But what if God intends for us to use our gifts, skills, time and talents to make the world, and its cultures, less like an earthly empire and more like the Kingdom of God?  Maybe that's why Jesus taught us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come".  In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the powerful fantasy of human sovereignty, of being the master of one's own fate and the captain of one's own soul, of humans organizing the world as through they were responsible to nobody but themselves, is put to rest.  (Wright, Simply Jesus, 141)  He is Lord and we are not.


Take heart, there is a place for you on God's map of reality.  God has created us in God's image.  God has given us special abilities and special responsibilities.   "God ordered His world in such a way that his own work within [the] world takes place not least through one of His creatures. . . the human beings who reflect His image.  That. . . is the central notion of being made in God's image." (Wright, Surprised by Hope, 207)  God intends for His wise, creative, loving, relational presence to be reflected, imaged, into His Kingdom through us, His disciples.



As Christians and as graduates you will soon be faced with a myriad of choices, paths and opportunities.  As you explore life's possibilities, keep in mind which map and which compass guide you.  There's a reason Jesus prayed for us to live in the world, while not being of the world.  He expects us to become shapers of culture.  As Crouch points out in Culture Making, too often Christians have spent their energies:

            Condemning Culture

            Critiquing Culture

            Copying Culture

            Consuming Culture

When in reality, Christ wants us, calls us to transform worldly cultures with Kingdom attributes.   


As you explore the possibilities and callings of life as both a college graduate and a disciple of Christ you must live a bilingual life.  You must learn the language of the empire of which you are a part, and you must know the language of the Kingdom of God.   You must be both a translator and a filter.  One Kingdom, many empires.  Kenda Creasy Dean says it this way, ""Bilingualism" lies at the heart of God's mission in the Incarnation. . . . translating the divine self into human form, sending Jesus to become like us so we could become like Him."  (Dean, Lost in Transition, 112)  In order for you to be a creative and redemptive agent, you must be both empire citizen and kingdom servant.


At present the world has 196 countries.  196 empire maps and one Kingdom of God.


We hope and pray we have properly equipped you to know and discern the spirit and tone of the Kingdom and how it contrasts, both subtly and starkly with earthly empires.  Here is reality.  Each of us is a citizen in an empire. Each of us lives in a culture.  Each of us is affected by the power and policies of our empire's version of Caesar.  Yet as Christians, we are called to live within these cultures not only as citizens, but as servants, seeking to make our world, our cultural space better, more like the kingdom and less like the brutish forces of the empire.


So as you pursue your hopes and dreams, your vocational calling and aspirations, think about, pray about, seek out, the success that comes by doing Kingdom culture work.  As a bilingual citizen/servant ask questions like this:

        What is God doing in culture?

        What is His vision for the horizons of the possible and the impossible?

        Who are the poor who are having good news preached to them?

        Who are the powerful who are called to spend their power alongside the relatively powerless?

        Where is the impossible becoming possible?

(Crouch, Culture Making)


So let's review.  We believe God wants you to be transformed.  We have staked our professional positions on that proposition.  Second, we believe that God then wants you and us to serve as His agents of transformation.  Third, we believe this can only be accomplished with and in the person of Jesus Christ.  And fourth, we are to become one with Him as He is with the Father, then we are to become one with each other, in order to work out His transformation in our corner of His Kingdom.


You see God's map is different than empire maps.  God will not craft a kingdom map by forcefully taking one country after another, we made that mistake in the past, when the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire.  


No, what God has in mind is not the amassing of territory; rather He intends loving transformation through the cultural influence of his servant-citizens.  You.



You are on God's kingdom map.  You are called to be light transforming the dark corner of your world.  The power of Christ in your life and influence is real; it is God's subversive plan to change the entire world.  Through your loving acts and your tender servant's heart you are being sent to live lives that make the person and presence of Jesus Christ real, tangible.  As the light of Jesus emanates from your life the culture of your classroom will change as you serve, the treatment of others within the culture of your office will improve as you share, the spirit of the culture of your neighborhood will blossom as you love.  (You get the idea, make your own list.)


The love of God will show up as you lay down your life. As you do, the dark effects of pride and lust and selfish ambition will be replaced by love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control, against such things the empire has no control.


So go, take out your kingdom map; with Christ at its center, keep it ever before you as you travel the empires of this world.  May you remember the culture of NNU, where here, in a season of your life, you joined a group of people who sought to serve God by living out their lives as God intended.  Go, seek the kingdom, change the culture, light up your world with the love of God. 



Recommended Reading:

Crouch, Andy.  Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.  Downers Grove, NY: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

Willard, Dallas.  Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, HarperOne: New York, 2009.

Wright, N.T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.  HarperCollins: New York, 2012.

Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church.  HarperCollins: New York. 2008.