Dr. Timothy Tennent: Charge to the Graduates
The Latin word caputium refers to what we today call an academic hood. The term dates back to the 13th century and originally had no connection whatsoever to academic achievements. It was, quite simply, a hood which came down your back and was used to keep warm. There were few articles of clothing more practical and useful than a caputium– a hood – even lined with fur – to keep your head warm in the cold weather or inside the cool stone structures which dominated medieval Europe. It is in the 15th century that the hood was gradually taken over by the university and became increasingly identified with academic achievements, specific degree levels, etc. Suddenly the quality of the fur, the color of the lining, and the length of the hood all helped to determine how high you had climbed in the academic world.
Academic hoods worn at graduation remind the institution of the purpose of all academic pursuits within the context of a seminary: namely, to serve the Church and to strengthen the practice of ministry as we proclaim Christ to the world.
In 2 Cor. 4:8-10, the Apostle Paul writes, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”
Paul profoundly understood that the death of Jesus is not merely an isolated event in human history, but is an event which draws the whole human race into it. We cannot participate in his resurrection unless we have passed through the cross. In Daniel 3 when God delivered Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego from Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, they exclaimed, “no other god is able to rescue in this way” meaning not just that God delivered his children from the fire, but that the God of biblical revelation walked into the fire and stood among them. This is the real power of union with Christ in both his death and his resurrection.
Every voice will cry out for you to measure your success by worldly standards. How big is your ministry? How much money do you get paid? How nice is your parsonage? What kind of pension plan do you have? Are you popular? Regard such questions as distracting arrows from the pit of hell. These are all some variations of “How long and furry is your academic hood?”
If the cross of Jesus Christ teaches us anything, it is that God sometimes does his greatest work under a cloak of failure. That’s the paradox of the Christian life. To carry around the death of Jesus means that your focus is not so much on being successful, as it is on being faithful. For some of you, this may lead to charges with great responsibility over thousands of church members. For others, faithfulness means feeding a small flock or teaching in a small school, or defending a relatively remote outpost of the Kingdom.
We have been pushed to the point that we find ourselves at every turn effectively asking the question, “What is the least one has to do to become a Christian?” That impulse must be opposed at every turn. We must resist Christian minimalism. We must resist those who want to boil the entire glorious gospel down to a single phrase, a simple emotive transaction, or some silly slogan. It is time for you, a new generation of Christians, graduates of this Seminary, to envision a more robust apostolic faith, and to declare this minimalistic, reductionistic Christianity a failed project! It is wrong to try to get as many people as possible, to acknowledge as superficially as allowable, a gospel which is theologically unsustainable. We need to be reminded of the words of Søren Kierkegaard, in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”
The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, wrote theologically-laden hymns for the church, and more. You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel. If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us. As Patrick Reardon has put it, “the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history” – with implications profoundly personal, as well as societal.
Brothers and sisters, my charge for you is to capture a fresh vision for this more biblical, robust faith. The gospel is not about allowing God to play a small role in our drama. No, the gospel is becoming swept up into His great drama. It is about our dying to self, taking up the cross, and being swept up into this great unfolding story. We are all moving towards and being summoned by Christ himself to that great day when the strong man is finally disarmed for good, the lepers are cleansed, all lost sons have come home, the great debt is wiped out, the door of the Father’s house is flung open wide, the lost sheep are all found, the poor and the beggars are seated at the great Banquet, the disenfranchised workers have been paid their full wages, the lost coin has been found, the pearl of great price has been unearthed, and the Church, the bride of Christ, has been made spotless. The acceptable year of God’s favor has finally come! This is the restorative vision to which Christ summons us – nothing less than the full recovery of biblical Christianity. Amen.
 Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkegaard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.