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The text of Dean Ervin Stutzman's convocation sermon
Based on Acts 19:1-10
I regret that I was not able to be with you last Thursday to share in worship and hear stories of the way God was moving among us during the summer break. Yet Bonnie and I felt it was our first priority to be with the family during this time of loss of her brother James Haldeman. Thank you for the love and prayers that many of you expressed in our behalf.
The fall convocation is a special time at the seminary. It is a time to renew acquaintances, savor the beginning of a new academic year, and remind ourselves of the mission to which we are called. At EMS, we have a clear statement of purpose. It goes like this:
Eastern Mennonite Seminary equips men and women to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, prepared to lead the church in mission with passion and integrity. We are humbled by God’s call, formed in Christ, transformed by the Holy Spirit, and empowered to serve with knowledge, wisdom and grace.
It’s closely related to the simple vision statement adopted by Mennonite Church USA, the denomination which sponsors our seminary. That statement goes like this:
God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy, and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve been discussing God’s call for the seminary to engage in God’s mission in the world, to prepare leaders for the missional church. Last year, we had some exciting discussions here that included students, faculty, staff, trustees, local pastors, and persons from mission agencies. This year, I sense that God is calling us to both widen and deepen that conversation. More specifically, I believe that God is calling us toward transformation – both as individuals and as a community -- by the power of the Holy Spirit. Note that both the seminary purpose statement and the denominational vision statement mention the crucial role of the Spirit.
The scripture text that was read from the book of Acts is perhaps the best example of how this might happen in an educational context. So I invite you to look again at Acts 19:1-10.
You will note that when Paul came into Ephesus, he specifically asked the believers if they had received the Holy Spirit. Since these believers had come to believe in Jesus through John the Baptist’s ministry, Paul knew they might believe in Jesus Christ without fully experiencing the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Paul was eager for all believers to experience the transforming and empowering work of the Spirit.
What really catches my attention in this passage is v. 10. It makes an astonishing claim: “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” How was this possible without the benefit of postal service, telegraph, telephone, radio, TV, video-teleconferencing, email, internet or text messaging? It must have happened by people simply talking to people about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Of course there was more to it than that. Let’s look again at verses 8-9. We learn that Paul “took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus.” There are some ancient authorities which include the times of the day in which this activity took place – 11 am to 4 pm -- likely because it was the hottest time of the day. Rent was cheap. Only committed disciples chose to bear the heat.
I believe we have something to learn as a seminary through a creative study of Acts 19:1-10. I submit that this is closest thing that we have to a seminary in the New Testament. Let’s look at some of the elements:
An apostle/ Disciples
The power and presence of the Holy Spirit
Focus on the kingdom of God
A local church
A lecture hall
There’s no doubt in my mind that this little school had a huge impact on its surroundings. It seems to be the peak of Paul’s ministry. It is likely the time when the seven churches of Asia were formed. These are named in the book of Revelation. It was likely here that Paul’s fellow-worker Epaphras was converted, who worked among Asian churches at Colossae, Hieropolis, and Laodicea.
So we do well to ask: “What happened in that setting which could inform the way we go about training for the missional task? Since I want you to engage that question throughout this year, I won’t attempt to do a complete exegesis here. But I’ll exercise my imagination and offer a few hints as to what might have happened. (And I invite our New Testament scholars, Dorothy Jean Weaver and George R. Brunk to comment on my exegesis to assure that my imagination is not carrying me out of the realm of faithfulness to scripture).
I imagine that the disciples (the twelve men mentioned in verse 7) were joined by many other students in this seminary over a two year period.
I imagine that Paul taught many of the same things in this seminary that he wrote in his letters to the churches. So I believe that the teaching was both deeply theological and intensely practical.
I imagine that Paul taught in a variety of forms – public lectures, persuasive argumentation, small group conversation, and action-reflection.
I imagine that Paul sent out students in teams -- two by two or in groups -- so that they could practice Christian community. Just as Paul himself often traveled with companions in ministry, he most likely invited others to be companions in the missional task.
In my mind’s eye, I see students coming and going from internships and other assignments. Remember, there was no way to take the message of the kingdom of God throughout the region of Asia except through people – probably Paul’s students.
I imagine that the theological discussions in the lecture hall were enlivened and informed by the stories from the field work that students were doing.
I won’t go any further in my imagination, although there is much we could learn from the verses following this passage. God performed miracles through the hand of Paul. But I hope this brief reflection is enough to get the discussion started about the ways that we can be faithful to God’s mission in our own context.
It is clear from this passage that it is important to consider not only what we teach, but how we teach. Over the next two years, the faculty will discuss both of these. This year, we will focus on pedagogy. Through the generosity of a grant from the Wabash Center on teaching and learning, we will have several master teachers engage us in conversation about pedagogy. Next year, we will turn to a discussion of the curriculum, with a view to revise it in keeping with new commitments to equipping for the missional task of the church.
How can we as a seminary effectively engage in the missional task given to us by Jesus Christ? That is the question I want us to explore deeply as a seminary community over the next few years.
Our seminary will not be alone in this exploration. In the providence of God, we have been invited to join 20 other seminaries and theological schools who are engaged in a similar quest. This group of schools is engaged in a joint venture called the Allelon Missional Schools project. Several of the visionaries behind this new venture have taught on our campus. They are Brian McLaren, Alan Roxburgh and Patrick Keifert. Some of you will recognize them as featured speakers here at EMS in our School for Leadership Training within the last several years.
You might ask, where does this word Allelon come from? It comes from the Greek New Testament, where it is used more than seventy times. It is translated in many English Bibles as “each other” or “one another.” When the Apostle Paul said, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you” (Eph. 5:32), he employed the word allelon twice. Many times in the New Testament it is used in an exhortation, not simply a description. The writers were seeking to stimulate Christians to a greater depth of “one-anothering” in the Christian community. When you look at all of the exhortations, you get a sense of the many ways that Christians are called to interact with each other.
The purpose of the Allelon network, then, is to increase the “one-anothering” index among people concerned about God’s mission. In the process, we will engage in conversations with local churches who are on the cutting edge of Christian mission. I should note that the Allelon project is strongly committed to the centrality of the local church in the task of theological education. I quote Patrick Keifert: “Our overarching assumption in this project is that a missional theology for developing missional leadership formation within theological education must be developed in, with, beside, among, under and at times, against, the local church.”
So over the next year, we will seek to develop key partnerships with a number of congregations on the growing edge with the hope of developing an interactive learning system. We hope to come alongside congregations who are functioning effectively as teaching churches. We hope to complement their work in the task of theological education for mission. I believe that we can achieve something together that we can not achieve separately.
I believe that we are on the cusp of some exciting changes in the way that we educate for mission. If we follow the wind of the Spirit, it will transform who we are. Our seminary slogan goes like this: “Formed in Christ, transformed to lead.” Perhaps at first glance, it appears that we are speaking about students. We hope they come to seminary to be formed in Christ and end up being transformed to lead. But I hope that the transformation will be broader than that, embracing our entire community – faculty, staff, and students. I pray that our whole way of being and doing as a seminary may be transformed over the next few years.
That, in fact, is what Daniel Aleshire, President of the Association of Theological Schools is predicting. I quote from his recent address to the biennial meeting:
“I think we are going to see patterns of fundamental transformation in theological education over the next twenty-five years. The problem with transformational change is that you can’t predict what form it will take; that’s the nature of transformation. But, I think the transformation is going to be deep and lasting.”
I pray that Dan Aleshire’s prediction comes true, not only for us but for others.
So I invite us all to join in the conversation about our missional task, to be open to God’s transforming work, and to seek the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.
Patrick Keifert, Allelon Missional Schools Project propsal, August, 2006
Daniel Aleshire, Thinking out loud about the unknowable, ATS biennial meeting, June_ 2006.