Fall 2020 Convocation Address: Grafted and Growing
Allow me to begin my address this morning by thanking The Rev. Dr. William J. Abraham for reading this riveting passage from Romans 11 and by thanking you for being here, whether physically or virtually, to mark the beginning of this most unusual academic year.
Romans 9-11 marks a transition in the Apostle Paul’s magisterial Epistle to the Romans. In these demonstrably difficult, oft-debated chapters of Scripture, Paul ponders the spiritual plight of Israel, the Apostle’s people “according to the flesh” (kata sarka). Having simultaneously affirmed in Romans 9-10 that God may choose whomever God wishes to be saved (e.g., Rom 9:19) and that “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13 quoting Joel 2:32), beginning in Romans 11:13 the Apostle to the Gentiles directly addresses Gentile recipients of the letter.
Then, in 11:17, where Dr. Abraham began reading, Paul likens Gentile Christ-followers to wild-olive shoots that have been grafted into the people or the Israel of God (see Galatians 6:16). As a result, Gentile believers now share in the nourishing sap of the olive root, granted and grown by God. As latterly grafted-in branches, however, the Apostle insists that they should not confuse themselves with the root. Neither should they—no less, we—in a sanctimonious, self-congratulatory spirit look down their spiritual noses at their Jewish predecessors and forebearers in the faith.
Begun in 1845 in Independence, Texas, August 1994 marked a new chapter in Baylor University’s storied history. It was then in the historic First Baptist Church of Waco that the George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University began to offer classes. A handful of gifted faculty and staff and 51 courageous students, coupled with strong institutional and ecclesial support, marked our school’s substantive, if mustard seed, beginnings. Over time, as way led to way and as strength gave way to strength, through God’s providential care and the hard work and sacrifice of so very many, Truett Seminary moved into our present facility on the Baylor campus in Waco in the spring of 2002. As it happens, I would come to Truett the following summer to begin serving as a non-tenured, Associate Professor of Christian Scriptures.
As we gather together this morning to mark the beginning of the 26th academic year for Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, we have much for which to be thankful. With now 1,525 or so alumni, this fall we will enroll some 335 students on two campuses seeking 11 degrees taught by roughly 35 seminary-related faculty, some of whom are adjunct, and served by some 25 staff.
Furthermore, this fall we are launching our Wesley House of Studies (welcome Dr. Abraham, Dr. Rusty Freeman, and Wesleyan students and friends), our Black Church Studies Program (welcome Mr. Malcolm Foley), and our Theology, Ecology, and Food Justice Initiative (welcome Dr. Jennifer “Jenny” Howell). Additionally, we will be laying plans this academic year to launch a San Antonio extension in the summer of 2021 to complement and supplement our Waco and Houston campuses.
All the while, even as we continue to double down on residential theological education and intentional Christian community in the context of a major research university right here on the banks of the Brazos, we will continue to strengthen virtual instruction and to explore other degree and programming options so that we might better serve the Lord, the Church, and others.
We will also continue to do all that we can to raise funds in order to scholarship students, support faculty and staff, serve congregations and institutions, and solidify our financial future. With an endowment of roughly $70m (book value) and some 280 endowed student scholarships that assist us in awarding approximately $5m in tuition assistance annually, we are on solid financial footing, but the needs of ministers-in-training are great even as the need for trained ministers is, perhaps greater than ever before. This is neither the time nor the place, therefore, to beat a retreat or to rest on self-fashioned laurels.
To be clear, I do not regard growth to be mono-dimensional or reduceable to that which is material and calculable. To be sure, the kingdom of God, which can grow secretly and mysteriously, is about much more than counting nickels and noses, funds and faces, money and members—you get the picture. Neither do I regard growth to be inevitable, not least in theological education. I do regard, however, spiritual growth to be vital, if not essential, if we are to become fully-devoted Christ-followers. Ephesians 4:15 envisions our growing up so that we might become in every respect the mature body of him who is head—even Christ. Our Lord himself grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and with others, according to Luke 2:52.
If I may, then, I would like for us to return to Romans 11 with this question in view: How can we as grafted-in Christ-followers and as a relatively new, embedded seminary grow in God-honoring ways, ways congruent with what Romans 12:1 describes as our logical or reasonable service of worship (ten logiken latreian hymon)?
We are to grow, the Apostle instructs, in humility. Paul calls Gentile believers in Rome, not to be proud but to tremble, to stand in awe (Romans 11:19). Whereas knowledge puffs up, love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1). Like our Lord, we are to clothe ourselves in humility (note Philippians 2:5; Colossians 3:12). Far from boasting in our own flesh and feats, we are to recognize that we have been blessed and are to be a blessing. Paul asks the all-too-quick-to-pat-themselves-on-the-back Corinthians the following questions. They are no less applicable to us. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor 4:7).
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most
I sacrifice them to his blood.
Even as we are to grow in humility, we are also, as those who have been grafted in, to acknowledge and to advance in God’s kindness and mercy. We are to persist in and not presume upon the Lord’s kindness. What is more, God’s kindness and mercy are meant to lead us to repentance and to holiness (see Rom 2:4; 12:1). Though we were formerly strangers to mercy, being disobedient and recalcitrant, hardened and headstrong, wayward and wondering, we are now recipients of it.
God’s mercy is not to be a spiritual commodity for a few, but a life-sustaining, everlasting covenant for all who will embrace his grace. In one of the most hope-filled verses in the whole of Scripture, the Apostle announces, “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on all of them” (11:32).
Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the day of our lives;
And we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever and ever (Psalm 23:6).
Even as humility is a gift to be received, mercy is a mystery to be embraced. The mystery of which Paul speaks in Romans 11:25-26 is that all of Israel who believe and are redeemed by the deliverer of whom Isaiah speaks will be saved. Elsewhere in Paul, mystery centers upon the person, proclamation, and indwelling of Christ. Far more than a literary genre, mystery imbues the divine and cannot help but shape those who would seek the Lord. For those who walk on the shoals of skepticism or on the shards of rationalism, a little bit of mystery can go a long way.
First Timothy 3:16 puts it this way:
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
Vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
Speaking of glory, Paul concludes his extended excursus regarding God and Israel in light of the coming of Christ and the gospel by declaring that all things (ta panta) are from and through and to God, for he is the creator, continuator, and consummator of all things (11:36). Instructively, as Paul concludes his praise of God, the Apostle does not ask if he can get an “Amen.” Rather, he simply declares, “It is so. So be it. Yes, Lord, yes.”
Romans 11:33 instructs that the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge are inexhaustible even as his judgments are unsearchable and his ways inscrutable. Riffing with Isaiah and Job reverberating in the background, Paul then pauses to ponder whether anyone has known God’s mind, offered God counsel, or given to God so as to make God a debtor. And we know the answer to the three questions Paul poses in vv. 34-35 as well as he. In Pauline parlance—me genoito! By no means! Are you kidding me?
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
Sometimes the most and the best that we can do to join the praise-filled chorus declaring:
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be;
World without end. Amen. Amen.
Grafted and growing. Not automatically, but intentionally, both individually and institutionally. Growing in humility, mindful of God’s mercy and mystery, culminating in doxology.
As we begin the 2020-2021 academic year in the context of COVID-19, then, let’s not allow the novel coronavirus to eclipse the One in whom there is no variation or shifting of shadow (James 1:17), the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), who is leading and guiding us. Even though our vision is far from perfect as we limp along through 2020, let’s strive to follow in Christ’s steps (1 Peter 2:21), step by step all the way. May ours, in the fortunate phrase of Eugene Peterson, be a “long obedience in the same direction,” striving to be faithful, longing to be fruitful, and yearning to be useful for God’s glory and others’ good. Amen.