United Theological College Commencement Service

United Theological College Commencement Service

March 1, 2019
Rev Peter Walker, Principal UTC

Exodus 34: 29-35, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9: 28-36

When I was 20 years old, I heard Nelson Mandela speak at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. This was not long after his release from many years of imprisonment. It was one of the most moving experiences that I can recall. Mr Mandela spoke of how so many Christian ministers had been courageous in standing at the front of the movement to end apartheid. Through their courage, he said, and willingness to place the integrity of their faith and the reputation of their churches on the line, they became a powerful force in bringing that system and its suffering to an end – and to a new beginning for South Africa.

While I didn’t hear any voices from on high, nor did the heavens open, something special happened for me in that moment. As I listened to Mr Mandela’s speech, and heard the voices of the choir, listened to the words of scripture proclaimed, shared in the prayers of the people sitting around me, and saw the image of the cross, I was offered what I’ve come to understand as a vision, in its own way, that there can be ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, and that the church and its ministers and leaders can be a foretaste of that new life.

The biblical witness is tantalizingly open about whether or not a vision of God in this life is possible and, if such a thing as a vision is possible, how it might come to us. Those texts which tell of such visions are those in which language is trying to convey an experience that words simply cannot contain. The truth of these passages is found by entering prayerfully into the author’s attempt to find words to convey their vision, rather than in believing that the words alone achieve that truth.

Near the end of the ever-intriguing book of Job, Job says to the Lord, ‘I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me …  I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you’ (Job 42:5).  Jacob wrestled with God at the River Jabbok and is heard to say, ‘I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ (Genesis 32: 30).  Paul seems to have spoken of his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) as experience in which a light from heaven flashed around him; a light through which he encountered the Lord. And, most beautifully, Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus promising to those who are pure in heart something which they must have thought to be impossible: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matthew 5: 8). 

And so we also come to this week’s readings, each of which, in its own way, speaks of one of these experiences or visions – experiences that are transforming and yet words cannot capture them. Peter, James, and John see Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah and, through that vision, they hear these words spoken to them: ‘This is my son, my chosen. Listen to him’ (Luke 9: 35). In Exodus chapter 34, Moses comes down from Sinai with a face that shines like one who has seen God face-to-face, and because of that vision he becomes the bearer of the tablets of the Covenant. Last but not least we read in Second Corinthians, ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Cor 3: 18).

I shared my story about listening to Nelson Mandela in St Mary’s Cathedral, and so perhaps you are also able to bring to mind a time (or times) when you have felt moved and transformed by such a moment? We are all different, and so each of our stories is different. I want to say to our candidates for ministry, in particular, yet also to all of you: We rejoice that you are here because you have had such a transcendent moment, and we give thanks to God for that vision in your life. It may have been a time of joy; it might have been a time of suffering. It may have brought you here confident in your sense of call; it may have brought you here uncertain. Whether or not you are confident of the road ahead, please be assured that this College, and this Centre for Ministry, is a community in which we are all being formed for ministry. Whether you have an elegant title or no title is beside the point. We are all disciples of Jesus Christ. We all hold to a vision that we are called to serve God.

And so that leads me to offer what I think are two important things to remember while you are here, and beyond. Just as Jesus sat with Moses and Elijah – those who went before him and in whose tradition he stepped into ministry – among the gifts which I hope this College can provide for you is an opportunity to sit with the vast and enriching tradition of our faith, and allow that tradition to inform your vision. Our calling as a College is to bring your vision and the Christian tradition, which sits all around you here – in teachers, in our superb library, in your mentors, and in your fellow students – into an even deeper engagement. An engagement through which, we hope, you will find greater understanding, deeper joy, and an abiding strength for the ministry that God holds in store for you.

Secondly may I also say this. This place is not about you. The reason this College exists is also the reason this Centre for Ministry exists, and is also the reason Uniting Mission and Education exists, which is also the reason the Church exists. The purpose which constitutes the Church, the reason all of this activity exists, is the maintenance of a message. That message informs all that we are, and all that we do. We call that message ‘the gospel’.  

Around the year 30, a small number of the followers of a Jewish rabbi, men and women who had followed him to a cross, encountered him somehow alive among them after his execution. And the manner in which they encountered him – undoubtedly actually him and yet also indescribably different – led them to believe that, not only was he no longer subject to death, but that he would never leave them again. Given Israel’s grasp of life and death, and of the One in whose hands they believed these two realities to be held, this experience led those first followers of Jesus of Nazareth to believe that they were not only in the presence of their resurrected rabbi – they were also in the presence of the Lord of heaven and earth.

Your formation, my formation, our formation is so that that we can, in our wonderfully diverse ways, bear witness to that message in fresh words and deeds. Sometimes traditionally, sometimes creatively, but always knowledgeably and authentically bear witness to the gospel. It is not easy to shape words and actions to carry a 2000-year-old message forward, yet I’m sure you will do well if you remember that all authentic sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ begins with wonder and prayer.  And, secondly, you need to dwell deeply in the experience, the moment, the vision, that has brought you here today. Understand it, broaden it, cherish it.

A word to finish from our epistle reading today, ‘Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart’ (2 Cor 4:1).