Master of God, Beloved of God: My Commencement Speech at Fuller Theological Seminary
The following is the text of the speech that I delivered to the students graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary, in Houston, Texas, on June 15, 2019. It was both a privilege and a joy to offer a few words of encouragement to them as they transitioned into a new season of life, post seminary.
Masters of God, Beloved of God
Good morning and congratulations, graduates. You did it. You graduated from seminary!
After all these years of hard work and the impossibly short deadlines on your final papers, you made it. After all of the long nights and the brain twisting reading assignments and the tedious forum posts that, God help you, you hope you never have to do again, you have finally acquired a new title. You are Masters.
And you have learned the names of so many things along the way. You now know the difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian, and you know that the latter are not to be confused with the good people of Armenia, who live just north of Iran. You know the names of popular heresies, like Apollinarianism, even if you can’t quite recall what it is. You know what the Economic Trinity is and you know that it doesn’t have anything to do with divine budgets or godly bargains.
You’ve got Perichoresis in your back pocket. You’ve got the Great Schism on the tip of your tongue. You’ve got the Rule of Faith in one hand and a Rule of Life in the other. You’ve got mad exegesis powers and you know that homiletics is just a really fancy word for the art of preaching. You also know that only Germans whose last name starts with the letter “B” get to be read in seminary: like Barth, Brunner, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer.
What I would like to offer to you today, then, as a last bit of instruction that you will ever get from a seminary professor, is a general word and a specific word.
The general word is this. Because you have gone to seminary, you have acquired massive naming powers, which is a little bit like Jedi powers. Like Adam and Eve before you, you can name the details of the world in a way that escapes most of us, and when you name people and things, you exercise power over them.
You can name the difference between a truly Reformed person and a mostly Reformed one. You can name the consequences of an egalitarian and a complementarian position on marriage. You can spot the Docetist in your congregation. You can detect a dodgy eschatology when it shows up in a worship song. And you can pinpoint a prayer life that makes too much or too little of the Holy Spirit.
This is what God has in fact called and equipped you to do by going to seminary: to name the world both responsibly and faithfully, so that the world might know and love God truly. And because all of you belong to a local congregation of one sort or another, God invites you to exercise your naming powers not just responsibly and faithfully, but also carefully and graciously.
A word of caution, then, if I may: the local church is the one place where you will be tempted, like Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode III, to misuse your Jedi powers.
You might be tempted to trot out the names of Arius or Athanasius with a knowing look in your eyes. You may wish, like I did in my first sermon after my first year of seminary, to drop all manner of fancy Greek words into your sermons. You may wish to ramble on about the historical-critical method in your Sunday School class in a way that makes it harder rather than easier for people to love the good words of God’s Good Word.
And because the people of God are all over the place in their spiritual life, you also may be tempted to call them theologically ignorant philistines. You may find yourself becoming fed up with them as a stiff-necked people who can’t keep theodicy or theocracy straight. You’ll look out over the congregation and think:
There goes the progressive; there goes the fundamentalist.
That’s the Bible fanatic; that’s the liberationist.
She’s the semi-Pelagian; he’s the brain-on-a-stick.
But you’re not alone in the naming business. God is in the naming business, too.
The psalms tell us that God calls the stars by name. In Luke 1, God calls Elizabeth the “fruitful one” to replace the nickname that people had given her, the “sterile one.” In Luke 7, he calls “beautiful” a woman whom others called “sinner.” In Revelation 2, he gives all of us a white stone with a new name written on it. And the Holy Spirit bears witness of our true name as well, as children of God.
This then is my general word to you: be like God and name the people of God not just faithfully and responsibly, but also in care-filled and gracious ways.
Which leads me to my specific word to you. Of all the ways that you could name the people of God, remind them of their baptismal name. What is their baptismal name? It is the same name, I suggest to you, that Father gives to Jesus at his own baptism: beloved. In all three accounts of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Father’s voice from heaven is heard audibly. And all three accounts include the same basic statement:
You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I well pleased.
Think for a moment how astonishing this is. The Father presumably could have made his voice heard countless times throughout Jesus’ ministry. But he speaks out loud only three times, and two out of the three times, including at Jesus’ transfiguration, the God who exists eternally, infinitely, supremely in the abundance of his ontological life, repeats himself.
The Father knows all the words in the world. He knows all the words that could be, and yet shall be, world without end. And he could have said a million things—a trillion different things, in fact—about the Son. But instead, he says one thing: You are my Son, the beloved.
The people name Jesus, too. They call him Messiah, Lord, Rabbi, King of the Jews. Jesus names himself as well: Bread, Door, Light, Shepherd.
But none of these names, I offer to you, is more definitive than the name that the Father gives to Jesus, before the Son has accomplished any one thing in his public ministry, and which the Spirit confirms in the hearing of the people: beloved.
And when you and I are baptized, in Jesus’ name, we too hear the Father name us this way: beloved. We too receive the gift of the Spirit who confirms in our hearts our truest name: beloved. And when we look around at the people of God, we too would see their truest name: the beloved.
Each of you here is officially a “master.” That is your new name. A master of art. A master of theology. A master of divinity.
But more important than this new name is your truest name: a beloved of God.
Some of you are pastors, some are teachers, others evangelists or administrators. All of you are leaders. But your truest name is beloved.
Some of you have the gift of healing; others of you have the gift of mercy. All of you are called to be servants. But your truest name is beloved.
Some of you are academically gifted. Others of you are gifted counselors or gifted in works of justice. All of you are ministers of one sort or another. But your truest name is beloved.
So when you struggle to find your place in the world, remember your truest name. Beloved.
And when you doubt your calling, what’s your truest name? Beloved.
When you feel exhausted by the demands of ministry, what’s your truest name? Beloved.
When you feel discouraged by the lack of evident fruit in your labors, what’s your truest name? Beloved.
When you feel irked by specific people in your community, what’s their truest name? Beloved.
When people do not appreciate the sacrifices that you have made to serve God, what’s their truest name? Beloved.
When Christians do stupid things in public and embarrass themselves on social media, what’s their truest name? Beloved.
When your worship leader plays a song with dodgy eschatology, what’s their truest name? Beloved.
And when you feel overwhelmed by the neediness of all the people in your community—of the extroverts and the introverts, of the single and the married with a quiver of children, of the old and lonely and the young and the restless, of the theologically fussy and the theologically negligent—what’s their truest name? Beloved.
And when you can’t remember somebody’s names, what do you call them? You call them brother. “Good to see you, brother! How’s it going, brother? Praying for you, brother! It’s all good, brother!” And that brother—and that sister too—is the beloved.
When I was a child growing up in Guatemala, my friends called me “canche” because I had white skin. My not-friends called me “amoeba,” because amoebas are also white and nobody likes them.
In high school, my friends called me “Bean,” which was quite the opposite of what my parents called me when I was a baby, which was “Chunk.”
In college I was David the Doubter. In seminary I was David the Rabble-Rouser. In my thirties, as a pastor, I was David the High Achiever With Impossibly High Standards For Himself And Everybody Else.
In time, I acquired new names: husband, daddy, uncle, professor, priest, chronically fatigued, guy who sorta knows Bono.
But none of these names define me as truly or as deeply, or as utterly wonderfully, as the name that my Father in heaven gives me in the name of his Son and the power of his Spirit: I am the beloved one.
And that’s how I, too, would name you masters students today in the presence of your family and friends on this marvelous occasion: the beloved of God.
And so, beloved, remember your true name and, as you exercise your Jedi powers of naming the world faithfully and responsibly, carefully and graciously, remind the people of God of their true name, too: the beloved.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.