Carrying the Mat – Commencement Address

President Jul Medenblik delivered this address at Commencement 2017. 

This day is a historic one for you and for Calvin Theological Seminary.  Since 1876, for 141 years, God has used Calvin Seminary to form leaders for His church.  Today, we mark the largest class of students – 126 students – to ever graduate from Calvin Seminary.  Congratulations – Felicidades!

Today, we remember a journey that began with one course on Ephesians taught by Professor Mariano Avila that led to more courses and finally to this day of celebration as we graduate 26 students in the second ever class to complete a Certificate in Hispanic Ministry.  We also graduate 29 students who are the first group to ever graduate with a Certificate in Family Counseling.  There is also a student who was able to complete both certificates over the last two years.

Today, we also remember the journey that began in 2012 for another group of students.  In 2012, we enrolled our first students in a Distance M.DIV. Program where students could live, work and minister where they are and still receive a Calvin Seminary degree.  This program has grown and developed and today, we mark the completion of that journey for 8 students who primarily received their training and formation in this Distance Education format.

I earlier said that since 1876, for 141 years, God has used Calvin Seminary to form leaders for His church.  What is also clear is that Calvin Seminary forms leaders for a global church.

In our Hispanic Certificate Programs, we are blessed with students who have come to West Michigan from the following eight countries: Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and the United States.

There are 11 countries represented in the our Masters and PhD graduates:  Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, South Korea, Nepal, Nigeria and the USA.  18 different countries in total.  We give thanks to God for each and every one of you.

In just a few moments, one by one you – our 2017 Calvin Theological Seminary graduates – will walk across the platform and be congratulated for your academic achievement.  I know that any commencement address is to fulfill these two requirements – be uplifting, and of course, be short.  And yet, we all know that a Commencement Address is not always remembered.

Why then even have a Commencement Address?  Because in some ways, I have the opportunity on behalf of the Faculty, the Staff, the Board of Trustees and your fellow students at Calvin Theological Seminary to provide one last word of blessing and challenge to you.

We desire to join others in giving thanks to God for your gifts and accomplishments, but we also desire to frame this moment in the larger story of God and His unfolding Kingdom.  This moment is certainly not yours alone.  In a few more minutes, we will also give thanks for the family and friends who have prayed for, supported and encouraged you – step by step. This moment is also a step in the journey of fulfilling your calling.  A certificate, diploma or degree is a reflection of how you responded to that calling of God and developed your gifts in a season of study as preparation for even greater service in the Church of Jesus Christ.

To all of you graduates – I know that when your name is called that there will be a flood of memories.  You will remember your application to Calvin Seminary.  You will remember wondering if Calvin Seminary was going to be a good fit for you.  You wondered if you would find colleagues and you wondered how hard your classes would be.   Some of you even wondered if you were going to ever get through Calvin Seminary!  You will also remember the times when you prayed for God to provide and He answered your prayers.

There may be other things you remember – especially from this last academic year.  Since the last Calvin Seminary Commencement – we have seen the Inauguration of new Presidents or Prime Ministers in such countries as Great Britain, France, South Korea and the United States.  We have seen trouble around the world, but also seen trouble that comes from the hearts of people and is expressed in bitterness, fear, anger and even prejudice.

You know the brokenness of society and of persons.  Each one of you has stories of joy and sorrow.  As I prepared for this day, I could tell you that this was just a very unique year, but I do believe we live in an age of uncertainty and anxiety and you will teach and preach in this age of uncertainty and anxiety.  How will you do so?  What will center your ministry?

As many of you know, Rev. Howard Vanderwell had his year interrupted by the return of cancer.  He completed the fall semester and then tests revealed that the weakness and illness that he experienced was from cancer.  I remember reading the initial Care Pages of Pastor Howard Vanderwell and he referred to a Bible story that I would like to read and invite you to see as a ministry story that can encourage you today – and hopefully in the future.

It is a story from the ministry of Jesus that I turn to as one last word of blessing and challenge to you – the students – soon to be graduates of Calvin Theological Seminary.

From the Gospel of Luke 5:17-20:

One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. 18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. 19 When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’

In your seminary education, you have been challenged as to your formation for ministry.  You were challenged to do ministry out of your being.  In keeping with that challenge and also to help you and I remember this message – I would like to challenge you to center your ministry in keeping with this story.

This story from Luke 5 is a picture of ministry. 

We have already recounted some of the trouble in the world and there is trouble in the text.  Pharisees and teachers of the law will come to question and even condemn the teaching and person of Jesus.  But the other trouble is that there is a person in need – a need for healing and Jesus will also see a need for forgiveness of sins.  The person in need and their encounter – the person in need and their meeting Jesus is central to this ministry picture.

From this story, I want to give you this summary of ministry.

  1. In ministry, you are called to serve others and even carry their mat.
  2. In ministry, you will sometimes find yourself on the mat.
  3. In ministry, always keep moving toward Jesus.

In ministry, you will be called to serve others and even carry their mat.  In ministry, you will come across people who their greatest need will be for you to be beside them and carry them before Jesus.  As you carry them, don’t forget what else you carry.  You carry with you the good news that the grave and the coffin are not the end for those who are found in Christ Jesus.  You carry the good news that a bad medical report or being let go by an employer or a breakdown within the family are still under the watchful and caring eyes of God.   God cares for you and He cares about the people who you will meet and minister to.    What is key to this passage is that as Jesus looks at the person on the mat, he also looks to those who brought that person.  He looks at those who carried the mat and he sees – their faith.  In this world with its emphasis on the individual and the sovereignty of the individual – Jesus reminds us of the corporal – bodily – expression of faith.  Faith is something that is nurtured in community.  Faith is expressed in community.  Discipleship is by faith formation and that is not of ourselves, it is from God and it is worked out in community.  When you do ministry, don’t do it alone.  When you do ministry, remember the opportunity to serve others alongside of others.  Today, you will receive a tangible reminder of this call to serve. Even as we provide a diploma for you, we will also provide you with a serving towel that says – Calvin Theological Seminary – CTS – Called to Serve.  Thank you for taking up that calling to carry the mats of others.

In ministry, you will also sometimes find yourself on the mat.  I know that with your training, it is not natural at this moment to think about someone carrying you, but ministry is difficult and there will be days and maybe even seasons where you will find yourself on the mat.  At that time, you will need to be carried.  Before that happens, I implore you to find sisters and brothers in faith to carry you when that time comes.  At Calvin Seminary, we hope that the formation that has occurred in small groups, mentoring groups and even in learning cohorts will remind you again and again of the necessity and benefit of ministry as a community.  One key benefit is that when you do have trying times in ministry, you will be reminded of this truth – you are not alone.

In ministry, always keep moving toward Jesus.

The persons carrying the mat and the one on the mat have this in common, they are moving toward Jesus.  In these few verses we have a picture of persistence, but also invitation.  People in the way are not going to stop friends from moving toward Jesus.  A roof is not going to stop friends from moving toward Jesus.  And then when they are there, Jesus does not turn away from them.  He sees them.  He sees their faith.  He sees the need for healing and he sees even more – he sees a need for the forgiveness of sins.

Always keep moving toward Jesus – it is not always easy, but it is always necessary.   In ministry, there is a temptation to make the ministry about what you can do for others.  In ministry, you will be sustained by knowing it is what Jesus does for us and for you – again and again.  The story of ministry is really the story of grace – always!

Grace comes into our lives and grace works at the stains of sin in our lives and in this world.  Even though you are graduating from a seminary today, please keep this truth before you – God is not finished with you.  God desires to call you to a deeper trust – a deeper faith in Him.

You may have turned in a final paper and taken a final exam, but God is not finished with you.  You are at the edge of Commencement.  Every day, God desires to refine you, develop you, sustain you, and provide you with the gift of grace that comes from faith in Him.

On this day where we acknowledge your gifts and abilities, we are invited to see through and beyond your gifts and abilities to the God who has created you and who is still working on you and me.

Today can be a testament to achievement but may today also be a reminder of how you are instruments of His grace – as you serve.

May God encourage and direct you as you are Called to Serve Him.

Congratulations!  To God be the glory – now and always!

And God’s people say – Amen!