I forgot that I had a blog. Truly. Slipped my mind completely for like a year. I was cleaning out some old files on my computer and came across this address I gave back in July 2013. As I love CTS and its faculty/administration, and as other graduation events are coming up such that this might serve someone’s reflections on that milestone, I post it here.
Your graduation from Colombo Theological Seminary is a milestone. We certainly deserve, and need, to celebrate this milestone. It has been reached only with great effort, investment, and commitment.
And this graduation is not just about you. I think of the extraordinary commitment shown to your formation, and investment made in your lives, by the faculty, administration, and staff of CTS. In so many ways they have poured themselves into you, and poured themselves out for you. And I know their ministry on your behalf is an acceptable libation poured over your own offering of yourselves to God during your time here. They have such love for you, such passion for equipping you, such responsiveness to God in doing what they do here to fulfill the mission of CTS.
But, of course, the seed they have sown would have come to nothing if you yourselves were not such fruitful soil, if you were not ready to embrace what your instructors have taught, to wrestle with them about its implications for your lives and ministries, and to wrestle with God in prayer as he used your time here to shape and equip you for his kingdom work. So tonight and, even more so this coming Saturday, you justifiably celebrate the foundation that the work you and your instructors have undertaken here together have given you for the remainder of the journey.
This is an important milestone, certainly, but not a finish line – and the Christian life is one of always looking ahead, and not looking behind. It is always about what God is doing in us and through us, not about what God has done, or what we have achieved that has brought us to this point. So I thought it would be good for us to think tonight about your successful completion of your program at CTS in light of Paul’s comments about his own orientation to the Christian journey: “I count everything a ‘loss’ in order that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings by conforming myself to the likeness of his death, if somehow I might attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not as if I had already taken hold of this or arrived at the goal, but I press on, if only I might grasp that for which Christ Jesus grasped me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have grasped this yet. One thing, though – forgetting the things that lie behind me and reaching forward to what lies in front of me, I press on unto the prize of the upward invitation that God extended in Christ Jesus. Let as many of us as have come to a mature mindset think in this way – and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal this to him or her as well. Only let us walk in line with whatever we have attained” (Philippians 3:8, 10-16).
Even while we celebrate the milestone, Paul would have us turn our minds to pressing on to the finish line. I do hope that the phrase “forgetting what lies behind” will not actually apply in this particular case. You and your instructors have put far too much into your experience at CTS for you to allow that to happen. But Paul’s approach reminds us that we are not done learning as of tonight, or as of Saturday. Paul himself continued to learn more and more of the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love shown in Christ; he continued to learn more and more of the connections between the revelation of God in Christ and the witness of the Scriptures; he continued to learn new missionary and pastoral strategies as he encountered new opportunities and new challenges in his ministry. So he would urge you to press on, learning throughout a lifetime.
As you have carved out significant time for your studies at CTS up to this point, continue to carve out time in the future for refreshment in learning, for going beyond even what you have attained to this point. As your equipping expands, so will your effectiveness in ministry. Your experience at CTS has also shaped you as a disciple, touching not just your mind but also your heart and your spirit.
Whatever intentionality your time at CTS has brought to your formation as a disciple, Paul would urge you to continue to show the same and even greater intentionality in your ongoing formational journey. Christ is taking shape in you; it is vitally important that this process not stop short of the goal – that we should indeed be transformed fully such that we can say, with Paul, “it is no longer me living, but Christ is living in me.”
The words that we heard from Paul were spoken in the midst of a fruitful ministry as well. If anyone had reason to sit on his laurels, it was Paul – first as an advanced disciple of the Torah before his conversion, then as one of the most successful missionaries the world has ever seen after his conversion. But even after he had planted churches from Syria to Asia Minor to Macedonia to Greece, he kept his eyes fixed on what God called him to do next, so that he might fully run his course. So Paul would urge you also to keep your eyes looking forward to the “good works” that God has yet prepared for each of you to walk in – running the course of your ministry, your service for the kingdom.
It seems appropriate to say a word about “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” and “the power of Christ’s resurrection.” First, notice how Paul actually lists the power of Christ’s resurrection first, setting the sufferings in the context of Christ’s triumph over the power of death and all that opposes God’s good purposes for God’s creation. Here in Sri Lanka, walking in line with God’s call may lead to the experience of hardship and hostility. It may take you into places of disappointment and discouragement. When this happens, remember whom you serve. Remember how he has triumphed and promises triumph to those who also know the fellowship of his sufferings. Let this embolden you just as it emboldened Paul to move forward in obedience to God, whether you enjoy favor with your neighbors and see your work bearing fruit, or whether the opposite is the case.
When writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul compared his own discipline in making progress in Christian formation to the discipline of athletes training for sporting competitions: “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath” – a wreath woven from the branches of certain trees – “but we an imperishable one” – the crown of eternal life.
We could easily adapt his analogy to our own training in preparation for ministry. You have put forth as much effort here as anyone in any academic program across the country. They do it to receive a paper diploma and worldly credentials. But we do it to be better equipped to serve our Lord, to be formed more fully after his likeness, to enjoy a far greater graduation dinner – the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, and to walk in a far greater “graduation” ceremony.
It is my prayer for every one of us gathered here that we will be able to say, at the end of our course, what Paul said: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” You have not invested yourself here only to be greeted by our principal with a warm smile and the right hand of fellowship and to receive a diploma. Rather, your work here is part of your training for the whole course you will run for the sake of being greeted by Christ’s smile of approval and warm embrace, and for the sake of hearing the words “Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into your Master’s joy.”
But we are not here only to look forward. We do need to return to celebrate what we have attained, which brings me to the final point in Paul’s words to us: “Only let us walk in line with what we have attained.” You’ve learned so much while you were here. What a shame to let any of it fail to take root in your lives! What a shame to let any of it be as seed that falls on the dry pathway or among the thorns and thistles! What you have learned, put into action; make it a part of yourselves. James warns against looking into the Law of God, as into a mirror, and failing to do it, becoming thus like a person who walks away forgetting what he or she looks like. Our Lord urges us to build our lives around the teachings we have received from him, since only that means building on a rock-solid foundation. What God has given you and shown you during your time at CTS, safeguard in your memory and put into action in your lives and ministries.
Your graduation is a time for thinking about how the program at CTS has been working its way into and through your own formation in Christ and the service you have been offering in his name. It has changed the way you encountered Scripture and thought about how to listen for God’s word to you through Scripture. It has broadened your vision for God’s work in the Church Universal and for ministry on this fair island. It has brought you into contact with Christians of other theological traditions whose positions have expanded your own sense of how God is at work in the world, and how rich and varied are the ways in which his Church has perceived him. It has deepened your own prayer life, your vision for the transformation God is working in us individually and as communities of faith. Only that it might do so more and more till the whole lump has been leavened!
Allow your education and experiences at CTS to act like leaven, spreading into and giving growth to every facet of your discipleship. Take time to reflect in the days, weeks, and months ahead on what you have attained through your program here, on what you have learned and in what directions it could continue to goad you and guide you. Your work and achievements here position you to enjoy such affirmation there, to the extent that you live in line with what you have attained and to the extent that you continue to press on from here in your formational and ministry-forming journey toward the prize.