May 26, 2015

A Tale of Two Commencements

The May 11th commencement address at Candler School of Theology at Emory University and the May 22nd commencement address at United Theological Seminary differed significantly in their identification of the goals of theological study and in their charges to the students. Candler, which celebrated its centennial, focused on the work of the institution and its graduates in various social justice endeavors and called for its students to follow that path. United Theological Seminary focused on the Christian’s call to spread the Gospel and reminded the students of the centrality of a genuine, lively faith in Jesus Christ.

The Reverend Sue Johnston, District Superintendent of the UMC Florida Conference’s North Central District and Chair of the Candler Alumni Board gave the commencement address at Candler. Her text was Acts 17:1-9 where non-believers accuse St. Paul and others of “turning the world upside down.” Johnston encouraged the graduates to turn the world upside down for Jesus, embracing the phrase used not by the Apostles, but by their detractors. She gave a history of Candler’s involvement in social justice over its hundred years of existence. From its founding a month after the beginning of World War I, to the anti-atomic weapons protests of a Japanese graduate whose church was destroyed in Hiroshima, through the rise of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, to its involvement in the civil rights movement, to today where “in some ways, not so much has changed,” Johnston said it was and is a splendid time to be a seminary.

She asked the students what they would do to witness to the reign of God in their communities, and commended them on their past work, which included organized music, a “Committee on Racial Equality” formed to protest the shooting in Ferguson, organizing a “die-in” to protest the death of Eric Garner, protesting the execution of a murderer who converted to Christianity and studied theology, and growing a community garden. The class of 2015 had also raised $9000 as a class gift and several students had “given stirring sermons.” Johnston praised the graduates saying, “We send you out with degree in hand, in hopes that you too will witness boldly in your time and place to the love, grace, and saving power of Jesus Christ to turn the world upside down in Jesus name.” She warned that,

You may find yourself bringing the good news of open, constructive, civil, and community building dialogue to those who only know how to shout and scream at each other across deeply held differences. You may provide a fervent, authentic, evangelical witness to the saving power of Jesus Christ to the increasing number in people who have no religious affiliations, some of whom have abandoned churches because they believe they are too concerned with money and power and too concerned with rules.

She closed with the charge, “You stand in a long line of leaders educated at this school – 100 years’ worth of leaders – who turned the world upside down in Jesus’ name.” Overall the tone was one of enlightened graduates going out to fix the problems of the unenlightened by teaching them to love and respect others’ differences.

Bishop Mark Webb of the Upper New York Episcopal Area of the UMC’s Northeast Jurisdiction delivered a message that focused on the Gospel rather than on social action. He spoke from I Timothy 1, where St. Paul counsels St. Timothy to remember “the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice,” to “stir up the gift of God, which is in thee,” and not to be “ashamed of the testimony of our Lord.” Webb said that St. Paul knew that times of persecution were coming, so he counseled St. Timothy that those were the three main things he needed to know. Webb soberly counseled the graduates not to be fooled by their credentials, their robes, or their stoles. Their power came not from them, but from their genuine faith and vibrant, living relationship with Jesus Christ. Only that faith could enable them to use their skills when they were tested. In faith they had to seek for the gifts of God and allow God to stir up those gifts in their lives. He emphasized the importance of boldness in their witness; his greatest fear, he said, was that the Church was becoming ashamed of the gospel.

Webb focused his remarks on reminding the United’s graduates to keep the Gospel central to their life and ministry. His charge called the graduates to be humble and recognize that they needed to continually measure themselves and their faith against Scripture. Johnston’s remarks focused instead on celebrating the social work the students had already accomplished and calling them to continue. Her charge implied that the main difficulty they would face would be that the unenlightened masses would not be appreciative or supportive of their desire to “turn the world upside down” through social change.


One Response to A Tale of Two Commencements

  1. Namyriah says:

    United was a seminary of the Evangelical United Brethren before that denomination merged with the Methodists in 1968 to form the United Methodists – one of the more bizarre mergers in American religious history, because it involved a pretty conservative denomination getting absorbed (as in “sucked in”) by a denomination that was growing more aggressively liberal by the day. Church bureaucrats love these types of mergers, but plenty of EUB pastors and laity were not pleased (picture Franklin Graham becoming the junior partner of Bishop Spong, that’s sorta what the EUB/Methodist merger was like). It’s good to see United harking back to its Christian roots. On the other hand, the devout Warren and Asa Candler are spinning in their graves over how Candler, once a Christian seminary, has turned into a secularized social justice academy.

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