I want to share with you—especially with the faculty of this august institution—the same words I just shared with the faculty of the St. Louis Seminary: you are the greatest Lutheran faculty on earth. And I want there to be absolutely no doubt that when I say that to one of the two faculties, I really mean it.
The Lord loves a commencement, make no mistake about it. A very long time ago the Lord ceased his eternal contemplation, put on his doctor's cap, and commenced it all! Bereshith bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets. New Revised Harrison Translation: "At the commencement God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). In fact, the Bible is packed with teaching about commencements!
There is a "commencement Christology": "At the commencement was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Or, "He [Christ] was at the commencement with God" (John 1:2).
Mark's commencement Christology begins, like Elert's Structure of Lutheranism, with the evangelische Ansatz: "The commencement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1).
Now, I could elaborate interminably on this commencement theology, but I am fully aware that Luther's advice for preaching is even more applicable to a commencement address.
And this address will be judged by number three, which Luther said was the most difficult. One verse from Scripture, however, does give me a bit of concern over this honorary doctorate: "An inheritance gained hastily in the commencement will not be blessed in the end" (Proverbs 20:21).
The most profound thing I've ever read on seminary education was written by a rather obscure, nineteenth-century, German Lutheran, August Vilmar:
Vilmar's Theology of Facts is now commencing—now coming full circle in your lives.
The nearest thing to a commencement address I could find in Luther's writings was a sermon on Matthew 28:19, preached at the occasion of the first ordination of a large number of candidates in Wittenberg.
Luther makes a point, which is the most powerful and comforting thing that could possibly be spoken to people just like you this day: "So that there would be no doubt that our Lord and Head is with us, He thus spoke a potent blessing over them and said, 'Behold, I am with you'" (Referring to Mt. 28). And Luther goes on to describe precisely what the Lord's promised presence blesses—the doling out of divine gold! Luther preached:
You, my dear graduates, have had a gold coin dropped into your scabby hands—Ph.D.s, S.T.M.s, M.Div.s, M.A.R.s, pastors and deaconesses1 You've been given the gold! Don't dole out pennies! The gold?
Law: "Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces" (Jeremiah 23:28ff). Go for the gold! Not limp noodle preaching of an anemic word of pseudo law! Be a gold hammer, striking a gold anvil, producing a gold coin. Preach like the apostles! Speak the Law like the apostles: "You killed the Author of life . . ." (Acts 3:15).
Gospel: Christ's conception, birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension! All of it yours through a blessed and happy exchange! Baptism ("Baptism now saves you"; 1 Peter 3:21)! Word of God ("living and active"; Heb. 4:12)! "Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven . . ." (John 20:23); "He upholds the universe by the word of his power" (Hebrews 1:3)! Lord's Supper ("Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins")! Gold!
Theology for witness, mercy, and life together! Gold for preaching ("The Word does not return void"; Is. 55:11)! Gold for mercy ("And he had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd"; Mark 6:34). Gold for life together! And as you commence this new chapter in your lives, you will find that those whom you serve will dish up this gold for you too . . . And without it, you will die.
Here's a passage that is a particular admonishment to you this evening: "Let what you heard at the commencement abide in you. If what you heard at the commencement abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father" (1 John 2:24).
The Lord is commencing something with you today. You've got gold in your hand! And you also have what Luther called "a potent promise"—"And lo I am with you always . . ." (Mt. 28:20).
So let the commencement commence! "And I am sure of this, that he who commenced a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:3–6).
Matthew C. Harrison