A commencement ceremony seems absolutely right and profoundly necessary. The hard work of education cries out for ceremonial recognition. The commencement traditions of higher education have developed by formality and ritual in order that this business of teaching and learning would be marked by milestones and memories.
Arrayed before us today is an assemblage of scholars decked out in all their glory. The regalia and ceremonial symbols will be recognizable throughout the world of scholarship and higher education. The completion of degree programs and courses of study deserves recognition. The investment of time — even blood, sweat, toil, and tears — is worthy of celebration. Furthermore, there is the very real sense that this institution of learning is setting loose a new generation to go out into the world. The least we can do is to organize an orderly launch.
Of course, there is actually far more here than meets the eye. Even as the regalia and ceremony will be recognizable throughout the world of education, this is no mere commencement ceremony. Then again, this institution is no mere school. This ceremony is a service of Christian worship and this institution serves no less than the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our calling is to educate and prepare a new generation of Christian pastors, missionaries, evangelists, and ministers in order that the church may be faithfully fed and competently led.
The process of education is more than the transmission of knowledge from one mind to another. This is especially true in a Christian institution, where teachers and students are learners together, where committed teachers invest not only their minds but their hearts in the inculcation of Christian conviction and knowledge, and where bonds of friendship and affection inevitably arise. In other words, we have come to love these students and it is no easy thing to let them go.
At such a moment, it seems appropriate that we consider this commencement event in light of Christian wisdom drawn from the Word of God — a wisdom that is, more often than not, counter-intuitive and distinctively different from that wisdom shaped by secular presuppositions. Indeed, a correct understanding of the Christian ministry will often require us to reject what the world is absolutely certain is true. And this applies even to the wisdom gained from the most trustworthy of human sources — even our grandmothers.
As a boy, I recall hearing my maternal grandmother’s admonishment that I should always be certain to finish whatever I start. In most dimensions of life, this remains good advice; the kind of advice a good and godly grandmother would pass along to her grandson. It is the sort of wisdom that passes the test of conventional acceptance. We should not be satisfied to leave our work unfinished.
In some cases, an unfinished project is a matter of mild embarrassment. Projects begin with great energy and intentionality — to trace a genealogy, restore a vintage automobile, renovate a room, write the Great American novel, or simply clean the attic. Nevertheless, so many of these aims are never accomplished.
In other cases, an unfinished project appears more tragic than embarrassing. Mozart did not live to complete his famed Requiem. Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not live to see final victory in World War II. The landscape of Europe is dotted with both castles and cathedrals begun but not finished. Each of these has become a monument to the frailty of humankind and the fragility of human plans.
Nevertheless, the biblical conception of the Christian ministry is, as we should not be surprised to find, radically at odds with worldly wisdom. According to the New Testament, one of the most important insights about the Christian ministry is this: We will not finish what we begin. This is not to say that we will never set goals and reach them or that we will never complete plans and programs. It does mean that the Christian ministry must be seen in the context of faithfulness extended from generation to generation until Christ returns to claim his Bride.
This truth is made clear in this well-known passage from First Corinthians, chapter 3:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
The background of this passage is Paul’s utter frustration brought about by the fact that the Corinthian church was so deeply divided into factions. Repeatedly, Paul expresses his grief, frustration, and heartbreaking concern over the tendency of the Corinthians to insult the Gospel and to divide the church by factionalism and a party spirit. As this passage begins, Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their spiritual immaturity. Spiritually, they are satisfied to be nursing infants rather than to grow into the fullness of Christ. They should be eating meat, but they must be fed with milk. When one claims to follow Paul and the other to follow Apollos, they demonstrate their mutual immaturity and fleshly ambitions.
The exasperated apostle sets the record straight by making clear that both he and Apollos are merely servants of Christ who have been assigned by the Lord to be agents of bringing the Gospel and feeding the flock of the Church at Corinth. Using an agricultural metaphor, Paul simply states: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” Paul was commissioned to bring the gospel to Corinth and he planted the good seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was followed by Apollos, a man of eloquence, who taught the Word of God and watered what Paul had planted.
Shifting to an architectural metaphor, Paul speaks of his role, by the grace of God, to act as a skilled master builder laying a foundation. He understands that others will come to build on that foundation. Ultimately the true foundation of the Church is none other than Jesus Christ.
In framing his admonitions, Paul reminded the Corinthians that “he who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” Ministers of the Gospel are “God’s fellow workers.” The congregation is God’s field and God’s building. Every minister must take care to build faithfully upon the foundation. The one who plants and the one who waters are nothing in themselves. The agent of all true Gospel ministry is God himself. As the remainder of chapter three makes clear, the worthiness of our work will be fully disclosed on the day of judgment and tested by fire.
A commencement ceremony takes a quick view backward in order to aim at the long view of the future. This day is far more about beginnings than endings. The completion of these monumentally important programs of study is appropriately marked and celebrated, but our hearts are drawn to the future as we imagine what God will do by his grace and for his glory in these graduates arrayed before us. And so our focus is on the start of new ministries, missionary journeys, and opportunities to serve the church for whom Christ died.
But, in light of Paul’s words to the Corinthians, it seems necessary for us to set loose these graduates with the exhortation that they must start what they will themselves never finish. As a matter of fact, we really do not start what is altogether new. We will all build on the foundation someone else has laid. Even as the Lord grants opportunity to sow seed, we will spend much of our lives and ministries watering. The Christian ministry is not a career. It is a calling that originates in the sovereign majesty of God and is concluded only by the coming of the kingdom of the Lord, and of his Christ.
In the church age, ministry is handed from generation to generation. Our humble determination and our heart’s desire must be to receive this charge and to serve faithfully — planting and watering in the fields of ministry and taking care how we build upon the foundation laid before us.
The Lord God spoke through his prophet Joel to promise that older men will dream dreams and young men shall see visions. Powerful, faithful, and compelling dreams and visions animate these graduates. They were brought here to this seminary as they were called to ministry, these visions and dreams have kept them here through years of dedicated study, and these dreams and visions propel them onward as they go out into a world of ministry and mission.
But as they go, they join a line of faithfulness that reaches back to Moses and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, John the Baptist and John the evangelist, Peter and Philip, Paul and Apollos. It extends through generations punctuated by names such as Athanasius and Augustine, Luther and Calvin, Whitfield and Wesley, Owens and Edwards, Spurgeon and Moody . . . and so it goes.
Graduates of the Southern Seminary class of December 2009, if you aim to finish what you start in ministry, you will aim too low or finish what is not Christ’s. Go out to plant, but also to water. Sow the good seed of the Gospel, even as you cultivate and irrigate. Build faithfully upon the foundation laid by Christ and the apostles. Receive the stewardship of ministry that is passed on to you and give your all to this calling so long as you live. Then, pass this ministry to a generation yet unseen and unborn to continue this ministry and extend the reach of the Gospel until Jesus comes.
Start something you cannot finish and give yourself to it for the length of your days, with the strength of your life, to the glory of God. Dream dreams and see visions, and take up this calling as you plant and water in the fields of Christ. Build carefully upon the foundation laid for you. The hopes and prayers of God’s faithful people go with you.
This is a commencement address and charge to graduates of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered December 11, 2009 by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President.