The Best Seminary Commencement Speech I’ve Ever Heard
Over the years the commencement speeches given on the campuses of our two seminaries have been, often, abominations of desolation. They often remind me of what my former circuit counselor, Rev. Gary Arp, once told our circuit, “I was on vacation and when to church on Sunday at one of our LCMS congregations where I was. After the service, when I shook the pastor’s hand, I complimented him. I told him, “Pastor, you did not confuse or mix Law and Gospel, but unfortunately that was because there was no proper Law or Gospel in your sermon!” Ouch! Well, I was delighted to hear Pastor Matthew Harrison’s speech given at Concordia Theological Seminary at their commencement last Friday night. My mom received her Master of Arts in Deaconess Studies degree and I was watching the live stream of the proceedings over the Internet. Here is the speech that the graduating class heard.
Commencement Speech by the Rev. Matthew Harrison, D.D.
President of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
I want to share with you—especially with the faculty of this august institution—the same words I just shared with the faculty of the St. Louis Seminary: you are the greatest Lutheran faculty on earth. And I want there to be absolutely no doubt that when I say that to one of the two faculties, I really mean it.
The Lord loves a commencement, make no mistake about it. A very long time ago the Lord ceased his eternal contemplation, put on his doctor’s cap, and commenced it all! Bereshith bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets. New Revised Harrison Translation: “At the commencement God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In fact, the Bible is packed with teaching about commencements!
There is a “commencement Christology”: “At the commencement was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Or, “He [Christ] was at the commencement with God” (John 1:2).
Mark’s commencement Christology begins, like Elert’s Structure of Lutheranism, with the evangelische Ansatz: “The commencement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
Now, being a Synod bureaucrat, I could elaborate interminably on this commencement theology, but I am fully aware that Luther’s advice for preaching is even more applicable to a commencement address.
- Stand up!
- Speak up!
- Shut up!
And this address will be judged by number three, which Luther said was the most difficult. One verse from Scripture, however, does give me a bit of concern over this honorary doctorate: “An inheritance gained hastily in the commencement will not be blessed in the end” (Proverbs 20:21).
The most profound thing I’ve ever read on seminary education was written by a rather obscure, nineteenth-century, German Lutheran, August Vilmar:
Theology serves real life in this world and in eternity. Every glimpse the theologian pays past real life is false, an offense of the eye, a squint. Every step theology takes past real life is a misstep leading to falling and in the end infallibly to shattering in pieces when repeated. Theology shares what it has, totally and unabridged . . . All this because its content is for those who receive it, the breath of life, an indispensable nourishment, no different from air, and sunlight and bread, since none on earth can live who does not receive what proceeds from theology . . .
The need to receive, however consists in hunger and thirst for the Word of God, for the certainty of eternal life, of salvation. In theology should be given and received the Word of God, the certainty, the undoubted, unimpeachable certainty of eternal life, of salvation. [Christ!] Theology . . . instructs the coming generation toward becoming a generation of true shepherds, able and ready to gather the sheep, to go after, to seek and find them. It must educate shepherds for whom this never ending and arduous labor of shepherding, pasturing and seeking the sheep has become second nature, so that their hearts are grieved when they do not tend the entire flock . . . and this care is extinguished only with the last breath of life. [Vilmar, Theology of Facts Versus a Theology of Rhetoric]
Vilmar’s Theology of Facts is now commencing—now coming full circle in your lives.
The nearest thing to a commencement address I could find in Luther’s writings was a sermon on Matthew 28:19, preached at the occasion of the first ordination of a large number of candidates in Wittenberg.
Luther makes a point, which is the most powerful and comforting thing that could possibly be spoken to people just like you this day: “So that there would be no doubt that our Lord and Head is with us, He thus spoke a potent blessing over them and said, ‘Behold, I am with you’” (Referring to Mt. 28). And Luther goes on to describe precisely what the Lord’s promised presence blesses—the doling out of divine gold! Luther preached:
Preaching salvation to men does not stem from our power . . . We are merely an instrument and means, through which Christ is speaking . . . [This is] like a lord [who] places a gold coin in the hand of [his] servant so that [he give it] to a needy person. It does not belong to the servant, who is merely the hand that passes it on . . . He is the lord’s spoon, [his] hand.
We are the spoon; He gives drink through us; the food and drink are the Lord’s . . . Hence we conclude and say: Even if a parson is neither pious nor worthy to [be called] God’s son and servant—so too the servant, even if his hand is decrepit and scabby—nevertheless the golden coin, which the Lord is giving by means of his hand, is good, because it is the Lord’s own. This coin rightfully belongs to the Lord, [although] He gives by means of a scoundrel. . . .
For this reason [then] look to the gift and to [its] true giver, and not to the organ through which it is given, unless [the gift is given] by such a man who would not be giving what God has mandated, but would [instead] give you a penny in the place of a gold coin . . . [WA 41:454-459, translated by J. Mumme].
You, my dear graduates, have had a gold coin dropped into your scabby hands—Ph.D.s, S.T.M.s, M.Div.s, M.A.R.s, pastors and deaconesses1 You’ve been given the gold! Don’t dole out pennies! The gold?
Law: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:28ff). Go for the gold! Not limp noodle preaching of an anemic word of pseudo law! Be a gold hammer, striking a gold anvil, producing a gold coin. Preach like the apostles! Speak the Law like the apostles: “You killed the Author of life . . .” (Acts 3:15).
Gospel: Christ’s conception, birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension! All of it yours through a blessed and happy exchange! Baptism (“Baptism now saves you”; 1 Peter 3:21)! Word of God (“living and active”; Heb. 4:12)! “Whosoever sins you forgive, they are forgiven . . .” (John 20:23); “He upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3)! Lord’s Supper (“Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”)! Gold!
Theology for witness, mercy, and life together! Gold for preaching (“The Word does not return void”; Is. 55:11)! Gold for mercy (“And he had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd”; Mark 6:34). Gold for life together! And as you commence this new chapter in your lives, you will find that those whom you serve will dish up this gold for you too . . . And without it, you will die.
Here’s a passage that is a particular admonishment to you this evening: “Let what you heard at the commencement abide in you. If what you heard at the commencement abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24).
The Lord is commencing something with you today. You’ve got gold in your hand! And you also have what Luther called “a potent promise”—“And lo I am with you always . . .” (Mt. 28:20).
So let the commencement commence! “And I am sure of this, that he who commenced a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:3–6).
Matthew C. Harrison
May 20, 2011