I was honored to deliver this address to the graduates of Nazarene Theological College (South Africa) on April 23, 2016 and the graduates of Nazarene Theological College of Central Africa (Lilongwe, Malawi) on May 7, 2016.
WE ARE GATHERED TODAY in this place for a celebration. During these moments together, we pause to thank the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – for his grace upon the lives of these graduates. In one way, today marks an ending, the finish line for a race that these women and men have been running, some for as long as the past 3 years. Graduates, as you cross that finish line this morning, I add my voice to the chorus of voices and say: “Congratulations! Well-done.”
Yet if today is an ending, in another more important way, it is also a beginning, or – to use the traditional word for a graduation ceremony – a commencement. It is the start of the rest of your life as those who seek to be ordained ministers, leading the flock of God in one capacity or another. At such a high and holy moment, what would our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, be pleased for us to consider?
Because this is a graduation address and not a sermon, I will not take a single biblical text and expound it. That is an essential skill for a preacher and one that your teachers have taught you well. But like a preacher often does, allow me to give you a Trinity of ideas, 3 words of advice as you either launch out in ministry or else continue in that path:
1) Defend the flock fiercely;
2) Hold your position lightly;
3) Cling to Jesus tightly.
FIRST, DEFEND THE FLOCK FIERCELY.
We live in an age of specialization where jobs are sliced-and-diced so that each person can have a precise task to fulfill. Some years ago, Amy and I were living in one of Africa’s big cities. One day, we received a notice that someone in the U.S. had sent us a package, so we went downtown to the main Post Office to collect it. They sent us from desk to desk, and each station required one thing – a signature here, show your ID there, pay the customs across the street at the bank, turn in the receipt over there, inspect the contents of the package at the next desk, and on and on it went. When we finally left the Post Office 2 hours later, we had gone to 13 different stations to retrieve one small package. Each employee’s task was very specialized.
If I had to think of a calling that is just the opposite – a job not for a specialist but a generalist – ordained minister would qualify. It is our tradition in the Church of the Nazarene at ordination services to read down through the required qualifications of a vocational minister. Have you read that section of the Manual lately? The duties of a pastor are many; they are not specialized but wide-ranging: preaching, praying, giving the sacraments, visiting the sick, counseling the bereaved, discipling new converts, administering the church, and on-and-on the list goes. Yet if I had to come up with one phrase that encapsulates it all, it would be: DEFEND THE FLOCK OF GOD. By preaching, defend the flock of God. Through your prayers, defend the flock of God. By counseling the bereaved, defend the flock of God. Through administering the sacraments, defend the flock of God. Defend your flock fiercely.
Jesus is our example. In John 10:11, he says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” I find it interesting that the word “sheep” has no adjective. It does not say that the good shepherd lays down his life for the holy sheep or the worthy sheep or the beautiful sheep or the intelligent sheep or the loyal sheep or the tithe-paying sheep. It just says “sheep.” That’s important, because you will have sheep (if you don’t have them already) who don’t fit any of those adjectives, yet you are still called to be their shepherd.
We’ll call him Trevor (not his real name). “Trevor” was a young man in the church I pastored. He was one of the up-and-down sheep; you never knew from Sunday-to-Sunday which Trevor would show up at church. I got a phone call that Trevor had been arrested and was to appear before the judge the next day. I sat in the courtroom while Trevor waited his turn to see the judge. Finally, the judge called him up to the bench. I asked the judge if I could approach the bench, and he granted my request. He wanted to know who I was, and when I said that I was Trevor’s pastor, the judge seemed surprised. Because I was there to support Trevor – he said – he would give a lighter sentence since he knew that I would do all I could to make sure Trevor never showed up in the judge’s courtroom again.
Defend the flock fiercely. No, your sheep may not deserve it, but let’s be honest: Have we ourselves always deserved it? That’s what grace is all about, God’s unmerited favor toward us. Freely we have received; freely we give. And in this world we live in, it seems like sheep are under attack by wolves more than ever. The Evil One is pulling out all the stops to confuse the sheep, to scatter them, to devour them. Like David defended his flock with a slingshot, are you prepared to chase away the lions that attack? Defend the flock fiercely.
Some of the attacks are doctrinal. As pastor, it will be your responsibility to know what kind of Bible study material leaders in your church are using. It might look slick and professionally produced, but what is the teaching inside? Maybe that book is promoting things out-of-step with who we are as Nazarenes. Defend the flock fiercely.
Be very careful of who you invite to preach from your pulpit. What kind of doctrine will they be teaching? A sermon that is out-of-line with our understanding of Scripture can be like a match that quickly sets a dry forest on fire. It’s far better to prevent someone from striking that match in the first place than running after garden hoses and buckets once the blaze is burning up everything in its path. Defend the flock fiercely.
SECONDLY, HOLD YOUR POSITION LIGHTLY.
Status is a high value in most cultures of the world. For some who are born with the right last name, status is ascribed from the time of their birth. The last name of “Mandela” or “Clinton” or “Kenyatta” can be a key to unlock doors. We even have proverbs that acknowledge the “family factor”: “She’s a chip off the old block,” we might say, or: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Quickly in life, we find out that often it is not “what you know” but “who you know” that determines who gets the job and who doesn’t. But for many who are not high born, “getting ahead” – as it’s called – can be very difficult. Education may not always be a key to unlock the door but it can be a screwdriver to remove the hinges!
We’re not immune in the church to chasing after positions. I remember a leadership conference in 2009 in Nairobi. After one of the seminars, a pastor came up to me with a question. “Do I understand this correctly?” he asked. “In the Church of the Nazarene, is it like a pyramid? You have laypeople at the bottom, and above them you have pastors. Next, above them are district superintendents, and over them are the FSCs. Then you have the Regional Director, and at the very top is the General Superintendent.” That was an interesting conversation because that is too often how we visualize ministry in the church. What my brother in Nairobi was really asking was this: What is the highest calling? And the answer is this:
In God’s eyes, there are no levels of calling, only calling.
Serve where God tells you to serve and using the gifts and graces that God has given you. Whether others consider it “high” or “low” doesn’t matter. What matters is obedience. Just obey God.
After you have prayed together, is your D.S. sending you to pastor in a remote corner of the country? Obey the Lord. Imagine that you are short-listed to be the new District Superintendent but when you pray, you have no peace in your heart about it. Instead, for months now, you have sensed God asking you to begin a chaplaincy ministry in a nearby prison for inmates who have no shepherd. Forget about “high” or “low.” Those are only human labels. In God’s eyes, there are no levels of calling, only calling. Obey the Lord.
The eternal Christ knew the fellowship of direct communion with his Father in heaven. But the Father had another task for him to fulfill. Paul in Philippians 2 – the famous kenosis passage, meaning “emptying” – tells of one who forfeited his position in heaven and took on the form of a slave, becoming obedient to death on a cross, and he did it all for our salvation. The lesson from Jesus himself is clear: Hold your position lightly.
Some leaders in the church have a streak of King Herod in them. When he heard that another king had been born, he sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the newborns up to two years of age. What was wrong? Herod felt threatened, that this new king would rise and take his throne. And so Joseph and Mary fled with baby Jesus.
How often do we see this in the church? No, I’m not talking about literal death threats, but I wonder: How many rising leaders have fled because pastors feel threatened and do all they can to suffocate young leaders in the church rather than empower them? But there is a better way. Children born to a married couple become like a garland around a proud mother’s or father’s head. Children are a source of pride for a family. Is this not a better model for the church? Pastors, raise up leaders in your church as your spiritual children. Don’t discourage them; don’t chase them away. Don’t be childless in ministry. Be a spiritual mother; be a spiritual father. Hold your position lightly.
You are the pastor today; you are the district superintendent today, but someone else could be the pastor tomorrow. Someone else could be the D.S. tomorrow. The LORD hath given and the LORD hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD. Serve for all the time God requires you, not one day less and not one day more. Do not derive your sense of worth from your current position. Your sense of worth rather is in your standing as a child of God, justified, adopted, regenerated, sanctified wholly. The good news is this: There is no unemployment in the Kingdom of God. God will always have a task for you to do, and whatever that task is, obey. In God’s eyes, there are no levels of calling, only calling. Hold your position lightly.
We’ve seen that to discharge the duties of our ministry, we must first defend the sheep fiercely. God has entrusted a flock to our care; though our duties are general and many, the Lord will give us the grace we need to protect those under our watch. Secondly, our call is to hold our position lightly. Our calling is not to status but to obedience, to raise up other leaders without fear of being displaced and to serve for the time God has allotted.
FINALLY, CLING TO JESUS TIGHTLY.
In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. It was designed to be a way for young Americans to travel to developing parts of the world and – through exemplary service – to represent the ideals of freedom. I’ve always appreciated their recruiting slogan: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” But with due respect to the Peace Corps, may I suggest that the toughest job you’ll ever love is not 2 years volunteering overseas? Rather, the toughest job you’ll ever love is ordained ministry. There will be days as a pastor, a chaplain, a youth or children’s pastor, a missionary, an educator, a worship minister, a district superintendent, when you will say: “God, I cannot do this. Take this calling away from me.” And to you, God will say like he did to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). On days like that, cling to Jesus tightly.
The year was 155 AD. The city was Smyrna. The Bishop was Polycarp. The authorities tortured two young men from his household, forcing them to tell where Polycarp was hiding. Arrested, they marched Polycarp into the packed stadium. The ancient document, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, contains some fanciful elements, but the essential facts remain. Here’s what is says:
When the crowd heard that Polycarp had been captured, there was an uproar. The Proconsul asked him whether he was Polycarp. On hearing that he was, he tried to persuade him to apostatize, saying, ‘Have respect for your old age, swear by the fortune of Caesar. Repent, and say, “Down with the Atheists!” ‘ Polycarp looked grimly at the wicked heathen multitude in the stadium, and gesturing towards them, he said, ‘Down with the Atheists!’ ‘Swear,’ urged the Proconsul, ‘reproach Christ, and I will set you free.’ ’86 years have I have served him,’ Polycarp declared, ‘and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?’
That day, they burned the Bishop alive because of his faith, yet even in the flames, Polycarp knew how to cling to Jesus tightly.
In ministry, there will be many joys. Nothing is like the joy of watching one who has wandered in sin, who was enslaved to the devil but now makes the liberating and life-changing decision to follow Christ. All heaven rejoices and so will you! There is the joy of baptizing or dedicating a newborn baby, of marrying couples as they establish a Christian home, of praying for the sick and – in Jesus’ name – they are healed, and sometimes not, but committing them to God in
resurrection faith. Watching believers mature, fully committing themselves to God, moving on to sanctification, reaching out in love to the community – these are the moments when you celebrate the advance of the Kingdom and that you had a part in it, no matter how small.
Yet Satan knows that if he can strike down the shepherd, the sheep will be scattered. He knows that if he can distract you, derail you, discourage you, then he will defeat you. He knows that if he can destroy you now, then he will tear out the seedling before the tree of your ministry can grow and bear sweet fruit. When others hurt you and disappoint you, then you must forgive. Such is the word of Paul to us in 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, where Paul teaches that refusing to forgive gives room in our lives for the devil’s evil schemes. I say to you this morning: Forgive. In your lowest moments when you are hurting – and when that hurt has been inflicted by a sister or brother in Christ – there is only one thing to do: Cling to Jesus tightly. Know that he, too, was betrayed yet he forgave.
In your ministry, there may be storms of temptation. Opportunities for falling are all around us, yet we echo with the Apostle John: “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Like Paul, have you come to the place where you consider all else scubula – rubbish, dung – so that you may gain Christ (Php. 3:8)?
The year was 2002. It was election season in Benin, West Africa and politicians were a thick as the mosquitos over the swamps of Cotonou. They were looking desperately for votes, and desperate times called for desperate measures. Pastors Moses and Felix served our Midombo church, a fledgling city congregation of fifty. They lived off the meager Sunday offerings and what odd jobs they could find to do during the week. One day, a politician invited them to his headquarters. He talked about his campaign, then – dramatically – stepped over to a chest of drawers. Pulling it out, he showed the young pastors what was inside. The drawer was filled with money! “You’re welcome to fill your pockets,” he said. “There’s just one condition. Promise me that you’ll campaign for me from your pulpit.” I’m happy to say that our pastors left that day with no more money than they had when they came.
I saw both men last month in Côte d’Ivoire at our regional conference. Moses is now our district superintendent for the south of Benin and the north of Togo. Felix is the Coordinator for the Nazarene Theological Institute in Benin. We give God the praise that in a moment of temptation, by God’s grace, they stood the test. In their moment of temptation, they knew they had to cling to Jesus tightly.
No one may offer you riches in exchange for your integrity. Your temptation may be of another kind, but it will come. Don’t settle for rubbish, for dung when you already have the pearl of great price. Don’t trade your birthright for a bowl of cold soup. Like my father said to me once when I was a little boy and we were in a large crowd: “Greg, hold on to my hand and don’t let go.” When temptations crowd around you, don’t let them separate you from the Lord. Hold on to his hand and don’t let go. Cling to Jesus tightly!
Graduates, today, we thank God for you. We see in you the promise of great things in ordained ministry, whatever role you fill. Some of you are just setting out; others continue a ministry already begun but now made richer by your time at NTC. Wherever you are on the journey, never forget: Defend the flock fiercely, hold your position lightly, and cling to Jesus tightly. May our Lord one day smile upon each of us and say these words that we all long to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come and share your Master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:21).