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Harding Commencement Address (Part 1)

Renew founder and board member, David Young, gave the 2019 commencement address to the graduating class at Harding School of Theology. The topic will interest Renew readers as it underlines our conviction that “Jesus’ final command must be our first priority.”

Students, family members, faculty, staff: Thank you for the privilege of offering a few words at this time-honored ceremony observing graduation. Graduates, I join with others here in congratulating you for the completion of your degree at the Harding School of Theology.

As time goes by, I believe that many of you will come to regard your time at Harding as the most enjoyable educational experience of your life. I can certainly say that my time here was the high point of my education. I enjoyed my HST experience immensely, and my studies here helped to build a spiritual and theological foundation from which I have never departed.

And this is true, even if Harding has changed—and it has changed.

Last year one of our ministers at North Boulevard, Renee Sproles, published a book on Gender. To write the book, she consulted heavily with none other than Professor Rick Oster. Now thirty-two years ago, I completed a degree here under Professor Oster, taking him for numerous classes and writing a 287 page thesis for him. Dr. Oster completely reshaped my theological life, but sometimes my experience under him was not totally unlike that of a gladiator choking on the words “we who are about to die salute you.”

And yet when I asked Renee how her time working with Dr. Oster had gone, she replied, and I’m not making this up, “Dr. Oster is such a sweet man.”

So, yeah, Harding School of Theology has changed.

Dr. Black asked me to speak on the subject of discipleship. He needn’t have, as this is the subject I would have chosen anyway. I have committed my life to making disciples of King Jesus. So talking about disciple-making is what I naturally do. It’s an honor to do it here.

There’s a wonderful phenomenon that occurs when musicians get it exactly right.

It’s called a “ringing chord.”

It works better with voices than with instruments, so simply put, the ringing chord occurs when the harmonics of several voices combine with each other to create a new frequency that literally sounds like additional voices. The ringing chord requires the right notes, and the overtones must be fairly strong. Above all, every voice must be pitch perfect, and the whole must be in seamless harmony. It is fairly easy to explain mathematically, but that does not diminish its beauty. And, if done well, the ringing chord is truly beautiful: it can make four voices sound like a room full of musicians. It will send shivers down your spine.

Of course we’ve all experienced similar phenomena—things that equal far more than the sum of their parts. There is nothing in oxygen or hydrogen that would predict that, when combined, they would create ocean waves, waterfalls, and coffee. There is certainly no way to look at the lump of matter we call a brain and predict that it would produce the human mind—complete with its ethical, aesthetic, rational and speculative capacities.

In the same way, every element of the Gospel has its beauty; but when all the elements of the Gospel are combined just right, the universe rings out in full chorus. “The sun lifts up his glorious voice, and moon and stars reply; all in one concert sweet, one lofty strain combine!”

On this far-reaching day, I want to challenge you to aim for the fullness of the Kingdom of God—regardless of what your major has been. Theology is delicious, but don’t settle for merely telling people what the Kingdom of God is like, when you can actually empower them to experience it. Building up a church matters, but why study Greek if you are merely going to spend the rest of your life in one long committee meeting? Preaching and counseling and social activism—they all have important places in the Kingdom of God. But they are mere riffs and half-tones. They do not make up the full concert that is God’s Kingdom.

No, when Jesus came announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand, Matthew four tells us, the very next thing he did was to call a group of disciples. The grammar of the text here is important. Matthew says that Jesus “began” to announce the Kingdom and the next thing we read he is calling disciples. This means that disciple-making is, grammatically, the first act of announcing the Kingdom.

If you want the full symphony of the Kingdom of God—both in your life and in the world—make disciples of Jesus Christ. This will bring together theology, textual studies, counseling, history, ministry, activism—all the voices—into one grand concert. Jesus made disciples. And so should we.

This is worth pondering for a moment. Jesus could have advanced his Kingdom anyway he wanted. He is, after all, King of the Universe. He could have commandeered the spacious theater in Caesarea (which still holds 25,000 people), called in his friend Billy Graham, and preached the world’s first crusade. He could have hopped across the continents on the wings of an angel speaking to far-flung tribes in their very own fricatives and plosives. He could literally have snapped his fingers and changed the hearts of the world.

He didn’t.

Instead, Jesus made disciples. He lovingly entered into the lives of twelve ordinary men and cultivated their hearts and minds until they became like He is. He lived with them. He met them at their work. He joined them for dinner. He called them his family. He empowered them to preach, to heal, and to drive out demons. He led them to do ministry. He connected them to one another in loving relationships. He privately explained to them the meaning of his public preaching. In short, he shared life with them. Then he sent them out to do the same among all the nations. And by doing this, Jesus changed the world. So much so that the names of Jesus’ disciples are inscribed, the book of Revelation tells us, on the very foundations of New Jerusalem.

If you want your time here at Harding to ring out in the greatest chorus ever sung in the Kingdom, apply your training to making disciples. It is, after all, Jesus’ final command: “Go make disciples of all nations.” And Jesus’ final command must be our first priority.

We make disciples. Or we’re only singing half-tones. It really is that simple.

For Part 2, click here

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