Earlier today twenty Bethel students received their degrees in History, Philosophy, Political Science, Digital Humanities, and related fields. And two of our professors spoke during the weekend’s events. First, here’s the opening reflection and prayer of invocation that political scientist Andy Bramsen shared at this morning’s first Commencement ceremony. It starts with a story from church history that should be familiar to all Bethel students…
Congratulations, class of 2022! You made it! Your presence here tells us that along with everything else you have learned in the past few years, you figured out how to adapt and you persevered through challenges you (and we) could not have imagined when you started your college career. It is truly a privilege to participate in honoring you and your achievements by offering a brief reflection and praying for you.
Rather than bringing something new before you today, I want to encourage and challenge you by reminding you of something you learned in either Christianity and Western Culture or Humanities 1: it’s the story of a man called Augustine.
Augustine had a strong Christian mom, but as a young man he turned away from the faith. Partly because he wanted to follow his sinful desires, partly because he did not think Christianity had answers for hard questions such as the problem of evil. He believed in a heresy called Manichaeism for a while, thinking the universe had a good god and a bad god that duked it out, but eventually he realized that Manichaeism did not have good answers. He found philosophy through Cicero and Plato and started asking better questions. Philosophy prepared his mind to return to Christianity and there he began to see Truth in the person of Jesus.
By the beginning of book VIII of his Confessions, Augustine says he no longer had doubts about the Christian faith, yet he still was not a believer. Why? Because to believe is not merely about head knowledge, it is about being willing to live by what you say is true. And Augustine did not want to let go of his sinful desires and let God define his life, yet he wanted to live his life by the best answers and those he found in Jesus Christ. So he was tormented.
Which brings us to that famous scene in the garden. There’s Augustine, weeping and wailing, torn by indecision, basically falling apart, and he hears a child’s voice. (how appropriate when Jesus said we need faith as a child) The child is singing, “Take up and read, take up and read.” So Augustine picks up his Bible and reads the end of Romans 13: “Clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires.”
Augustine believes. He clothes himself with the presence of Jesus. His story changes. History changes. Our stories change.
Augustine’s first reaction was to go be a monk, read the Bible, pray and just have a small community of brothers, but God quickly brought him into church leadership and he spent nearly four decades leading and teaching God’s people to enter more and more deeply into faith in Jesus and into his life in the body of Christ: the Church. And through works such as Confessions and City of God, he has continued to impact God’s people ever since.
Augustine’s story, his writings, and his passion for Jesus and the Church have inspired me. I hope they inspire you too and that you find other such companions to strengthen you in your walk. As Hebrews 12 tells us, “we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, [so] let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us… by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.”
So, graduates, I hope you go forth and do many great things. I am very confident you will. But the greatest thing I hope for you is that you will “Clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Please pray with me:
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are merciful and loving toward us. We thank you for the testimony of those who have gone before—for St. Augustine and for the people who for over a century and half have sought to bring people into a fuller awareness of what it means to be part of Beth-El: the House of God. Clothe us in the Lord Jesus, we pray.
We give thanks for these graduates. We thank you for the gift of life you have given them. We thank you for their intellectual and interpersonal gifts. We thank you for their diligence and perseverance in using those gifts well. You made them and you brought them to this point. We praise you, Lord, and we ask you to bless them.
Together, Father, we bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. In him we have the means of grace, and the hope of glory.
And so, Lord, we pray that you would give each of us here such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.
We pray all this today in and through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.