Last summer, shortly after I arrived in Orlando, I had a very important meeting with Dr. Ric Cannada, the Chancellor of RTS. He was my new boss. We had an unhurried dinner at an Italian restaurant. This was one of those boss-meets-employee meetings. In it I asked Ric—“So what is your agenda for me?” I expected him to share a list of bullet points. It would touch on building community, perhaps working with faculty, or interacting with area churches. Maybe it would include increasing enrollment or development goals. His answer surprised me. Instead of talking about any of these things, this is what he said. He said, “Don, my agenda for you is….. be faithful.”
“That’s it????” I asked. “Yes, that’s it,” he replied. “I want you to faithful to the Lord and the call that he has given you.”
I was rather stunned.
His answer was both liberating and sobering. It was liberating because it got to the heart of everything. It was sobering, because I knew I had a big job ahead of me.
I’ve thought about that conversation many times, and believe his words to me are perfectly appropriate for you on this your commencement.
And so, my charge tonight to the graduating class of 2011, as you leave RTS, is…. be faithful.
Why is this so important?
First, it’s important because the work you are going to be doing is vitally important. You have been entrusted with the treasure of the gospel. You will be leaders in the great missionary plan of God fulfilling his great commission in this generation. Whatever your particular work in the kingdom, you will be his ambassadors in a hope-starved world. The need for faithful Christian leaders is more important than ever.
Second, the charge to “be faithful” is important because ministry is difficult work. I can safely predict this. If the Lord does not return tomorrow (as Harold Camping says he will) then you will enter all kinds of ministries and face all kinds of hardships.
Let me be frank. After 22 years of pastoring, I can tell you that ministry is no cakewalk. Church is not easy. Sometimes as leaders you have to suffer as much from the church as you suffer for the church.
It’s hard because you will keep feeling the relentless pressures of the spirit of the age. In a culture that is often called “post Christian,” evangelism is now sometimes viewed as hate speech. Missions is viewed by some as the height of arrogance. Godly counsel will not always be welcome. The gospel is thought to be foolish. People are offended if you tell them they are lost. Many will press you to change your message. At times you will be directly challenging the power structures and even the religious structures of a community. They will oppose you. Some of you will face persecution for doing the right thing.
Not only that. Ministry is hard because of the very make up of our human nature.
Due to our own sinfulness, we will probably mess things up more than we ever thought possible!
Furthermore, we will have to contend with the inevitable declension that takes place in the human soul. All of us are prone to wander. We naturally seem to drift from our spiritual commitments and fervor.
That things run down is a broadly observed principle of the universe. Stars die. Mountains crumble. Ground dries out. Fires die out. Cars break down. Organizations lose their way. Heart affection grows cold. Churches drift. That’s the kind of world you will be called to lead in. And people will expect you to make a difference. This is not easy.
On top of the pressures of our age, and the flaws of our human nature, we have the subtle but real opposition of the enemy—the unholy Spirit. His craft and power are great. He is diaballo. He literally throws himself against the cause of Christ and seeks to disrupt every valid kingdom enterprise. You may encounter vexing spirits and demonic strong holds. They will make war against the lamb right to the end.
Yet in Revelation 17.14, we read, “but the lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of Kings.” Then it adds, “and with him will be his called, chosen and FAITHFUL followers.”
Make no mistake about it……ministry will not be easy. But hopefully your time at RTS has strengthened your mind and your heart. Hopefully you are more convinced of the truth of the gospel and the preciousness of God’s Word. Hopefully, you have made friends who will be allies and encouragers for the rest of your life. Hopefully, you have become more enamoured with Christ and have seen his glory. Hopefully, you are more prone to call upon the Holy Spirit to fill and strengthen you. Hopefully, you will not be surprised at the hardships and the struggles of ministry because you have studied church history and know that you are not the only one. Hopefully, when you fall down, you will not forget God’s astoundingly abundant grace. And hopefully, you will often recall what Luther wrote about in his great hymn, that “the right man is on our side.” He is the Lord of the armies of heaven whose kingdom is forever!
The tests and challenges of life at RTS are now officially over. Your transcripts are complete. But don’t for a minute think that all your tests and challenges are over. They have just begun.
Perhaps that’s another reason why it is fitting to call today “commencement day.” It’s not finale. It’s not encore…..but commencement. And thankfully we commence with our eyes fixed upon the faithful one himself—the author and perfector of our faith.
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There are no more fitting words I can leave with you tonight than these. While living in Oxford, England, I once heard a charge given in an old Anglican church at a reaffirmation of baptism service. I’d never been to a service like this, but I’ve never forgotten the words that the pastor gave to each adult believer.
He said, “I sign you with the sign of the cross—the sign of Christ. Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ, against sin, the world and the Devil. And continue as his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.”
In one sense, these are words appropriate to every Christian. In another sense, they are especially appropriate to our graduates on Commencement Day.
And so students—my charge to you on this 20th commencement at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, is this same charge. It is the one that Ric Cannada gave to me when I arrived at RTS. Be faithful!
For the glory of his name, the good of the church, and the blessing of the nations—be faithful! Amen.