The Living Legacy– a Graduation Message for Boston Baptist College

( the following commencement address was delivered in Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston on May 23rd, 2012).

Me at Faneuil Hall preparing to give this address.

THE LIVING LEGACY

Graduations are always rites of passage of one sort or another. For some students a college degree is only the stepping stone or pre-requisite to a higher degree or degrees. I remember the advice of my Grandmother who only graduated from the 8th grade, as I was going on to seminary and PhD work. She gave two pieces of wisdom: 1) don’t become an educated fool, and 2) when you are reading all that stuff, don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out. I am hoping I successfully avoided those two outcomes, but you’d need to ask my wife about that.

Lots of graduation speakers stand up and simply offer a piece of epideictic rhetoric, lauding the graduates and urging them on to greater glory thereafter. Obviously you are to be commended for what you have thus far accomplished, but for the Christian there is never a point in which he or she ceases to be a learner, never a point where he or she ceases to be a disciple, and by the way, ‘learner’ is the literal meaning of the word we usually translate as ‘disciple’. If you plan to be a disciple of Christ for the rest of your life you have committed yourself to further education. It is thus appropriate at the outset of this address to urge you strongly– commit yourselves now to life long learning and above all life long studying and learning of God’s Word. There are a plethora of reasons to do so.

In the first place, we live in a Jesus haunted culture that is Biblical illiterate. Almost anything can pass for knowledge of Jesus nowadays in America. I once did a book tour for my Gospel Code book (a critique of the Da Vinci Code) and was amazed at how little even committed Christians knew about the New Testament, early Christian history, or theology. When I told them there were over 150 historical mistakes in the Da Vinci Code, some of them were like— ‘really, really???’ They had mistaken hysterical fiction for historical fiction. I thought about writing up my encounters with such folks and calling it Gullible’s Travels. People who are not well grounded in God’s Word will fall for most anything that is winsome or interesting or peeks their curiosity. Or again, as my grand parents used to say ‘people who don’t stand for the right things, will fall for most anything’.

In a world of Biblically illiterate people, if you commit yourself to life long study of God’s Word, you will very quickly stand out from most of your peers especially as our culture becomes increasingly more post-modern and post-Christian in character. But here is the good news about that— you will have a chance to be salt and light in a world of increasing darkness, no matter what profession you take up.

Take for example Donald Miller, the author of the best-selling book Blue like Jazz, recently made into a movie. Little did he know when he went off to college to try and escape his conservative Christian past that he would end up being led to a more profoundly Christian life by a girl he admired, Penny, and indeed he even became father confessor to the various secular students on the campus of uber-liberal Reed College. The young man who sought to run away from God, ran smack dab into God, disguised in post-modern clothing.

No matter where you go, and what you do, God will have gone there before you, and can meet you there, and enable you to serve him well, even if, like Jonah, you might be tempted and attempting to run away from his calling on your life. There are of course many Biblical precedents of people trying to escape God’s call on their lives, surprisingly even by major Biblical figures. Remember the story of Moses at the burning bush, where he keeps telling God— ‘pick somebody else please!’ I call this an example of trying to practice ‘call-forwarding’. ‘Here I am Lord, take my brother’, said Moses. It just never works very well when you do that. You end up perpetually frustrated. One of the reasons it doesn’t work is because God has hard-wired you for serving him, or as Paul puts it— ‘you have been created in Christ Jesus for good works’. But what does that look like?

Somehow, some way, in Evangelical circles the word ‘works’ has become a dirty word. Now work can be dirty, to be sure, but what I mean is that ‘works’ are assumed to be the opposite of grace, and works are assumed to have nothing to do with working out your salvation with fear and trembling. Frankly, this is not true at all. As James says ‘faith without works is dead’. It follows from this that as one goes out to make one’s way in the world, that Christians especially should have a positive and clear perspective on work and works. Let me say something about the goodness of work, from a Biblical perspective.

Work is neither the curse nor the cure of our existence. It is neither the meaning nor the sole purpose of our existence or of our being. But it is definitely true that we have ben created in Christ Jesus for good works. Work itself is not a result of the Fall, and our attitudes about work should not be negative, nor should it be merely seen as a means to some material end. Any job worth doing, any job that can be done to the glory of God and the help of others, that you may undertake, is a job worth doing well, not least because it is your ministry for Christ.

The story is told about two men who died and went to heaven. When they got to the entrance gate and St. Peter’s desk, the first man, a cab driver from Boston named Carl came up to the desk and St. Peter gave him a golden staff and a gold silk robe, and he went into heaven beaming. The man right behind him was a minister named Frank from Dedham. He was given a burlap bag robe and a wooden staff. The minister protested ‘What about all those sermons I preached for the Lord?’ Peter replied: “Up here we go on performance—whenever that cab driver drove, people prayed, but whenever you preached people fell asleep.” Works matter to the Lord, and how we work matters to the Lord. Was it not Jesus who reminded his disciples that inasmuch as they had visited the imprisoned, fed the starving, and clothed the naked, it was as though they had done these things for Jesus himself? Whenever and whatever you do in service for the Lord is in fact service to the Lord. Think about that.

You do not need to have a job in a church to be a minister and witness for Christ. You can do this as a carpenter, an engineer, a computer programmer, a banker, a lawyer, and so on. But the goals of Christians as they go out into the world and assume jobs of various sorts, should necessarily be different from the goals of other people, not least because a Christian should take a more longitudinal, a more eternal perspective on their work. They neither merely work to live or to make a living, they work to please God and edify others.

Christians work hard not primarily to be a success in the world’s eyes, but to be pleasing to God in both the type and quality of work they do. Christians are never merely job seekers, they are called to seek the Lord, and when they do that, all the other things necessary will be added to them— doors will be opened, opportunities will arise, possibilities will become apparent. More important than your CV on Craig’s list is your trust in God. I would like to share with you some sage advice from my own spiritual mentor John Wesley. Listen to what he once told his young disciples and preachers.

‘Commit your selves to Christ as his servants. Give yourselves to him, that you may belong to him. Christ has many services to be done. Some are more easy and honorable; others are more difficult and disgraceful. Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests, others are contrary to both. In some we may please Christ and please ourselves. But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.’ Be satisfied that Christ shall give you your place and work. YOU SHOULD
PRAY AS FOLLOWS: ‘Lord, make me what you will. I put myself fully into your hands: put me to doing, put me to suffering,
let me be used by you, or laid aside for you, let me be full, let me be empty,
I freely and with a willing heart give it all to your pleasure and disposal.’

It is important that I stress to you that God indeed can make a way where there seems to be no way, when it comes to helping you find your calling in life, find your first job, enabling you to pursue tasks worthy of serving Christ. Even in a difficult economy, you have so many opportunities to do the Lord’s work, and you should do it with joy and gladness. Some of the tasks you may assume after this graduation may seem to you demeaning, or trivial, or beneath your dignity. The first job I ever had was getting up at 5 in the morning, riding my bike down town in High Point N.C. rolling newspapers and putting rubber bands around them, and then delivering them before breakfast and school. I made about $10.00 a week doing this, or about $1 dollar an hour. But I also met a lot of interesting people and learned a lot about human personality that served me well later when I became a pastor.

If you feel you are now or will be soon doing menial work or meaningless work if you have a job at all, I would remind you of what Paul said in Philippians 2 about the example of Christ—-
have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Notice that Paul says Christ himself, who was both fully divine and fully human, took on the form and the tasks of a slave, and indeed, died a slave’s death—on a cross. Notice it says that he is the model of humility. But if Christ is the model of humility, and there was no good task beneath his dignity, we certainly have no right to think a certain kind of job is beneath our dignity. Humility is the posture of a strong person stepping down and serving others, and Jesus said he came into this world not to be served but to serve.

Have you asked yourself the question how you can best serve others? Notice that humility is an action word in this passage, it’s not about feelings of low self-worth or feelings of inadequacy. Indeed, humility is the posture of a strong and brave person like Jesus, who knew exactly who he was, stepping down to serve, and even give his life for many. We are to have the same mindset as we go out into the world, asking questions like— how can I best serve, not ‘where can I go to make the most money’.

Consider the example of Jim Elliott (tell about Elizabeth Elliott Leach—‘he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’). If a Christian is a truth seeker throughout their lives, job seeking becomes much easier, because there are so many more options, so many more opportunities. Employment looks differently in the kingdom of God compared to in the mundane realm. God believes in full employment, whether this makes you a material success or not….. and probably not. God believes in the priesthood of all believers, every believer in ministry.

Dear friends I do not know what the future holds for each one of you, but what I do know is who holds the future in his hands— our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Because of this fact, because God can work all things together for good for those who love him, I can say to you without the slightest hesitation—‘the future is as bright as the promises of God’ if you will but trust him, and entrust him with your future. AMEN

  • Luke

    Hi Dr. Witherington,

    I’ve been listening to the New Testament introduction available at biblicaltraining.org (http://www.biblicaltraining.org/new-testament-introduction/ben-witherington – for those who are interested) and I’d just like to thank you for excellent analysis. I’m 6 talks in (out of 17) and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each and every one. You make a compelling case for Lazarus being the Beloved Disciple.

    Thank you.

    Luke

  • Luke

    One other thing, Dr Witherington, would you ever consider going on a radio programme called Unbelievable? (http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable) to discuss a topic relating to the NT with non-Christians or other Christians? It has been a source of inspiration for me in my often stumbling and faltering walk with Christ.

    I’m not actually associated with the programme. But I happen to think that people should engage with the strongest arguments for and against a certain position. To my mind this show does just that and does it in a respectful manner.

    After listening to part of the series I mentioned above, I think that you would have a great deal to offer the listeners (most of whom are Europe based).

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Luke: Thanks for the kudos. I believe I have been on the show before, but in any case the answer is yes. BW3

  • mickey

    Thanks Ben for this, very encouraging

  • mickey

    thanks Ben, very encouraging

  • Daryl Mangeri

    Thank you for sharing what God has placed on your heart.


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