Rebuilding the Pulpit

One of the abiding values of God’s Word is that we are privileged to see the true people of God being the people of God in a wide variety of situations.  We see them dancing on the shores of the Red Sea with tambourines in their hands… “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!”  God delivers His people!  We see them standing after three days of consecration in holy fear and breathtaking awe in the presence of God as smoke, thunder and lightning goes up from Mt. Sinai.  The earth itself trembled as God spoke the covenant.  God speaks to His people!  But, not just earthquakes on Mt. Sinai, or corporate celebrations, the Word of God also invites us into those intimate moments between Yahweh and his people.  Yahweh calls a young boy in the middle of the night,  Samuel, Samuel,  and he says, “here I am.”  God calls His people!  Who can forget that high and holy moment when the great prophet Isaiah sees the Lord, high and lifted up, his train filling the temple, the angels crying “holy, holy holy”  Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?  He says, “Here am I send me!” God calls His people!

We are also allowed to see the people of God in difficult times.   The people of God have to be the people of God not only in the mighty days of Moses, but also during the lean days of Eli when as I Sam. 3:1 says, “the word of the Lord was rare in those days.”    Every man or woman of God longs to minister in those times when the glory of the Lord fills the temple…. And visions of six winged seraphs fill our lives….and the certainty of God’s word reverberates around our very being… but some are chosen to live in a time when the ark of God had been captured by the Philistines,  and a woman names her child Ichabod, because the glory of the Lord has departed from Israel.  Some lived in the days of Solomon when the Temple was the splendor of the world, a wise King sat on the throne.   Some, like Jeremiah, were called to be faithful to God even as they sat and wept on a hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem being burned to the ground and crying out “O daughter of Jerusalem, your wound is as deep as the sea.”  We love to live in the exclamation marks of life, but sometimes we’re called to be faithful in the question marks of life.  The exclamation mark is sure and straight and the message is clear… a question mark is crooked and twisted and sometimes it’s hard to see around it.  Sometimes we don’t know how to interpret the times we are in.  We all know what it is like to look out on what we think are the promises of God, even as we hear some declare, “wow, milk and honey” and others, “oh, no look at those giants!”

My brothers and sisters, we must learn to recognize the times we live in.  We are living on one of the great seams of history – the seam between modernity and post-modernity;  The seam between Christendom and post-Christendom; The seam between a predominately western Christianity and the emergence of a post-western Christianity. As I said last night, we live in a post-communist, post-Christendom, post-denominational, post-western, post-Enlightenment and post-modern world.  We don’t even know what to call this new epoch we are entering, we just now we are “post” everything we have known.  We live in a time of uncertainty.

For many, many years seminaries across N. America prepared men and women for ministry in a society which was conceptualized as the modern day equivalent of the promised land, a land full of spiritual milk and honey.  A land where steepled towns rang their church bells and the faithful gathered to hear God’s word.  A society where Judeo-Christian ethics were normatively embraced by the society at large.  At some point, those of us who teach students, and preach in churches slowly began to realize that we were no longer in the promised land, but we were in Babylonian exile.   We had been preparing students to sing the songs of Zion and, instead, they were hanging their harps up and singing laments.   I’m actually not lamenting that we are in a time of lament. Lament is good – it’s like an extended season of Lent – it can be painful, but it is very beneficial.  Lament is good because lament is the mother of hope.  What we don’t want to do is to pretend that the landscape has not changed and we fail to recognize the signs of our times.

Don’t forget the last line of the Old Testament… “lest I come and smite the land with a curse!”  Wow – what an ending.  It is not the kind of message which we put on our billboard signs outside our churches or in promises boxes on our breakfast tables.  Malachi leaves us with an unresolved note – one that went unresolved for 400 years before we turn the page to Matthew chapter one and Gabriel showing up with some really good news.  What was it like to live in that “in-between” period?

Our text this morning reminds us that Nehemiah lived at a seam time, too,  didn’t he?  Nehemiah was post-exile, pre-Messiah.  The long night of exile was over, Jews were returning, but there was no still no messiah.  The walls of Jerusalem were torn down and its gates were burned w/ fire, recalling a day when things were better.  Hope seemed dim.  Most Jews believed that their best days were behind them.  We can only imagine the conversations that took place around the dinner table.   It was a time of rebuilding and seeking to rekindle hope. We don’t know what kind of books might have been published in Nehemiah’s day.

If on the eighth day God had said, “Let there be Zondervan” just think of the books that could have been published.  Moses could have been a best-selling author, “How to Pass Through Your Red Sea” by Moses.  Moses’ follow up book, “The Purpose-Driven Nation.”  Naturally, it would come with a study guide.   Moses has actually left us with five books.  Nehemiah has given us a book, too.  We just call it Nehemiah, but if it was sold as a separate book, it might appear under the title, “Living as a Jew in a post-Judaism world” or, “Life Admist the Rubble.”  Because in this book, Nehemiah helps us to understand what it means to be faithful to the call of God in a post-Jewish, post-covenant, post-Temple world… as well as our own post-Christendom, post-modern, post-everything world.

Nehemiah as much as any of our dear brothers and sisters of the earlier covenant would understand the world we inhabit.  We have our Sanballat and Tobiah’s they are just known by different names, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.  Nehemiah also lived in a world when even the people of God did not know their own Scriptures.  They had forgotten the mighty acts of God.  It is the Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman who once said that the chief function of a prophet is to call people to remember;  to remember the mighty acts of God. Nehemiah understood that.

We mainly remember Nehemiah as the one who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but chapter eight of our texts tells us about something else he rebuilt.  He rebuilt the pulpit.  The pulpit had also become part of the rubble, not just the Temple and the walls.  Nehemiah had a great pulpit built.  In Nehemiah 8 verse 4 we are told that “a high wooden platform was built for the occasion.”  The great priest of God, Ezra was called upon to deliver the word of God in uncertain times.  He opens the word of God and begins to read.  Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest appointed thirteen Levites to instruct the people in the Law while it was being read.  We don’t find a list of mega-stars, or any 5th C. BC. version of Christian celebrities.  These are not household names, then or now.  We find a list of Levites whose names you have never heard of:  Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub , Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan and Pelaiah.  These are Levites you’ve never heard of, but God put their names in the Bible.  Listen to verse 8 “they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.”

This is what we need today. Asbury Theological Seminary quietly producing Banis and Sherebiahs and Jamins and Hodiahs and Kelitas and Azariahs!!  This is the need of the hour. Men and women called to faithfully teach people the Word of God in the midst of the rubble.   If there ever was a time when the pulpit has crumbled into rubble it is today.  But, from Nehemiah we learn how they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.  They understood the times they lived in.  If you had gone around the broken walls of Jerusalem, every one of them would have preferred to live their lives with a tambourine in their hand, but instead they were called to live with a trowel and a sword.  A time of rebuilding, a time of remembering, a time of hope.   As John Hus was perishing in the flames of his martyrdom, he reportedly declares that in a hundred years God will raise up a man whose calls for reform could not be suppressed.  102 years later, a young monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel.  Most of us would long to have lived in the days of the Reformation, but what of those dear Christians who lived in the 100 years between Hus and Luther?

On of the most remarkable gifts of our own is that we live at a time of simultaneous advance and recession of the gospel based on where you are in the world.

Latin America is experiencing the Reformation – 500 years late, but it has finally come.  If you really would like to have lived in 16th century Europe, make your way to 21st century Brazil.

Africa is experiencing the sunrise of a new movement of God with healing and deliverances and rejoicing in the streets.  It is not unusual to see Nigerians or Kenyans dancing in the streets with a tambourine in their hands not far removed from the days of Miriam. In Africa, the Red Sea is parting, the dead are raised and good news is preached to the poor.  It’s  harvest time in Africa.

India is coming to the backside of a long night in the wilderness.  It is still long, hot tough days.  But there are days when you can capture a glimmer of hope on the faces of God’s people.  The the walls of Jericho are still surrounding the world of Hinduism.  They walls still look impregnable, but the people of God in India are already marching around them.  The great trumpet blast is not too many generations away, vindicating the tireless labors of the Seamond family, E. Stanely Jones, Wascom Pickett, Sam Kameleson and so many more.

Do you understand the signs of our times?  Never before have seminaries had to prepare young people for such radically different contexts than today.  In the next generation, we will send students out who need to know what to do when you have thousands and thousands of new believers pouring into the churches.  We also will send out others who need to know how to be a prophet and face a culture when thousands are leaving the church every day.   24,000 new believers in Africa just since yesterday morning…  9,000 fewer believers than yesterday in the western world….  1,600 new churches planted this week in Latin America…  5 new books on atheism published in the western world this week.  The immigrant churches of America exploding with growth – more people have come to Christ in Boston in that last thirty years than during the entire Great Awakening, but it is not widely known, because it is a movement among immigrants.  More people will worship Jesus Christ this Sunday in Cambridge Massachusetts in a language other than English than in English.  These are amazing times – living in the seam. Asbury is going to rise to the occasion and do the one thing which must be done in all of these varied situations:  rebuild the pulpit, remember the fundamentals, carefully instruct the people in the word of God.  Asbury must prepare men and women to adapt to new situations, to be faithful in difficult challenges, and to live into the anointing of God when the Spirit is moving.

It was 97 years ago that the Titanic Sunk – April 15, 1912.  There has been considerable speculation over the years among Titanic enthusiasts over what caused the mighty ship to sink on its maiden voyage.  Some have argued that the tragic accident was caused by a faulty rudder.  Other insisted that it was ultimately caused by poor communications, or the angle at which Captain Edward Smith hit the iceberg.  However, a recent study of scientists has concluded that the best explanation for the disaster was something far more mundane – second-rate rivets.

In a recent book, What Really Sank the Titanic:  New Forensic Discoveries, Jennifer McCarty and Timothy Foecke argue that the vessel’s manufacturer, Harland and Wolff, were under so much pressure to secure sufficient quantities of iron to make the rivets for the vessel that they made some crucial compromises.[1] The White Star Liner company which built the Titanic was under competition from another company named Cunard in an age when the construction of luxury ocean travel by Belfast shipyard workers translated into child labor, exhausting work schedules to meet deadlines and enormous pressure to cut corners.  McCarty and Foecke argue that in the rush to get the Titanic afloat first, they ended up with an impressive looking vessel, but one that was made with substandard materials.  At the time of the Titanic’s construction there was a shortage of quality iron.  According to records, managers turned a deaf ear to numerous objections about the potential hazard of using substandard rivets.  But everything was sacrificed to keep the Titanic on schedule.

Forty-nine rivets have now been recovered from the wreckage and a forensic analysis revealed that they, indeed, contained high levels of slag, making the iron brittle.  These tests reveal that the rivets used in constructing the Titanic were, in fact, substandard and did not meet the design specifications.  The Titanic could have struck an iceberg and stayed afloat even if as many as four of its sealed compartments were flooded.  Instead, so many rivets popped along the starboard side of the ship that five compartments ended up flooding, sending more than 1,500 people to their deaths.

This story is a powerful reminder of the importance of not forgetting the basic fundamentals when building a big project.  In the scale and grandeur of a project like the Titanic with hardwood dance floors, hanging chandeliers, and solid brass faucets, it was all too easy to not think about the importance of a lowly rivet.  In the midst of our building grand church structures with family life centers, entertainment areas, great technology, it is all too easy to neglect those fundamentals  which gives strength and integrity to the lifeblood of the church.

Seminary is about rivets:  The word of God, the power of prayer, the supremacy of Christ, and the compelling truth of the gospel.  It is not about techniques.  We intend to prepare students who are not afraid of preaching the gospel, calling people to repentance, preaching holiness and sanctification and knowing that gospel is still the good news even if you are standing in the rubble of what once was Solomon’s Temple.   The cross was still the cross, though jeering mockers stood at the foot of it.  There are many wonderful ways that the gospel can be effectively presented to this generation.  But, in the long run, the church is always built through rebuilding the pulpit, remembering the fundamentals, and keeping Christ at the center.   When a student walks across the stage and graduates from Asbury Theological Seminary, I want to make sure that they have plenty of good rivets!

*You can listen to this and other sermons on iTunes by clicking here.


[1] Jennifer McCarty and Timothy Foecke, What Really Sank the Titanic:  New Forensic Discoveries (Citadel, 2008).

For Such a Time as This

The following is the my Inauguration Address from Monday, November 9, 2009.  You can listen to the address on iTunes by clicking here.

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The ancient Greeks had two different words for time, chronos and kairos.  The first word, chronos, is where we get our word chronology from.  It refers to ordinary “clock time” which is measured in history and is marked when someone says, for example, that Asbury Theological Seminary was founded in 1923.  The other word for time is kairos which has a more qualitative, not merely quantitative, dimension to it.  It refers to a specially appointed time, an opportune moment, or the right “timing.”  Jesus, for example, calls us to recognize the “signs of the times” (Matt. 16:3).  When He announces the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, he says, “the time has come, the kingdom of God is at hand.”   In both of these examples, Jesus uses the word kairos, indicating that he is not merely referring to a point of chronology, but a decisive moment in the history of God’s purposes in the world.

The word kairos is an important word for formulating a Christian view of history and where we stand tonight in this great stream as members and friends of this wonderful community called Asbury Theological Seminary.  Kairos moments have “occurred again and again in the history of the church.”[1] Remember that day, that kairos moment, recorded in Acts 11, when some unnamed disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene preached the gospel to Gentiles for the first time?  Without that obedience we would not be here tonight.  What of that kairos moment when young 22 year old woman named Perpetua, still nursing a child, stood in the coliseum and was martyred by lions and the power of Rome?  God used her death to awaken the whole empire to the fact that the light of the gospel would not be so easy to put out.   I don’t know about you, but I would give almost anything to be there in the garden that day watching as Augustine saw in that chair in the garden, full of unbelief and immorality, and he heard the chant like voice of a child, “tolle, lege; tolle lege” – take up and read, take up and read.  Augustine took up the Word of God and opened it and Romans 13:14, 15 and in that moment we witness one of the great kairos moments in the history of the church.  That day when Gregory the Great walked through the marketplace and saw those blue-eyed, blond hair, Anglo-Saxon boys being sold as slaves and he declared, “non angli, sed angeli” – they are not Angles, but Angels – launching the Augustine of Canterbury mission to Britain – that was kairos moment apart from which we would not be sitting here tonight.  The church has known many such kairos moments:  The day that Alopen arrived in the Imperial courts of China and preached the gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time or the day Martin Luther nailed 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenburg church, or the day that William Carey boarded a ship for India or Gladys Alyward boarded a train for China.

There are, however, many competing moments in church history which falsely claim to be kairos moments.  This is why every kairos moment must be tested against the great kairos” of all time, namely, the incarnation of Jesus Christ.  All of history is a struggle between pseudo claims of kairos which lead to destruction, and the great kairos of Christ which, through the incarnation, has inaugurated the New Creation. 

Brothers and sisters, April of 1923 was a kairos moment for us.  The previous May, in 1922, Harry Emerson Fosdick had preached a sermon in NY which raised questions about the authority of Scripture and cast doubt upon the veracity of the Apostolic proclamation about the person and work of Jesus Christ.  The country was plunged into what became known as the modernist controversy when John D. Rockefeller used his resources to publish Fosdick’s sermon in a pamphlet form and mailed to every Protestant minister in the country.  On October 6,1930 Fosdick’s picture made the front cover of Time magazine.  The whole church – indeed, the whole nation -was caught up in this controversy.  According to the modernists, the gospel must be reconciled with the new insight that Christ was merely an ethical teacher, but not the Son of God.  The Bible was a collection of human wisdom, but certainly not the Word of God.  Christianity may be “a” way, but had to accept its place as just one of many paths to God.

However, whenever the church encounters these storms, whether it be Gnosticism, or Arianism, or Constantian triumphalism, or Protestant liberalism, or evangelical latitudinarianism, or post-modern relativism God raises up better readers of the Scriptures and new kairos moments emerge once more.  This is precisely what happened in our own history.  As seminaries across America were being influenced by this new modernist teaching Henry Clay Morrison, the President of Asbury College at the time, decided to cross the street and found Asbury Theological Seminary to stand against this tide.  One of the kairos moments in the history of the church was that day in April of 1923 when Henry Clay Morrison crossed the street to start Asbury Theological Seminary.

If you had been here on Lexington Ave. and watched Henry Clay Morrison cross the street from the college to start this seminary and you had stopped him and said, “wait a minute, brother Morrison, don’t you know that the whole tide of the church is going the other direction…”  Brother Morrison, didn’t you get the modernist memo?  Haven’t you read Fosdick’s sermon?   Morrison still would have crossed the street. It was a kairos moment.  If you had stopped him and said, but the country is on the brink of the worst economic depression in its history – this is not the time to start a new institution and build buildings and commit to having every student on a scholarship… go back…. He still would have crossed the street, because it was a kairos moment.  If you had stopped Morrison that day and reminded him that he was 66 years old, one of the best known preachers in America, the editor of the Pentecostal Herald… He didn’t need this.  It was time to retire and relax and play a round of golf.   He would have crossed the street… because it was a kairos moment. Morrison went on, by the way, to serve as President of Asbury Seminary for nearly twenty years after that day and died in office, preaching a revival service in Tennessee…. Died with his boots on.  Henry Clay Morrison, under the providence of God, crossed the street because it was a kairos moment.  It was time when the church had to rise and take its stand with the great kairos of God in Jesus Christ.

The story of Asbury Theological Seminary makes no sense apart from the even greater story we call the gospel and the unfolding drama which follows that great arc of God’s mighty acts of creation, redemption and  new creation.  It is a divine, unfolding drama which is rooted in the missio dei, the mission of God, who acts, who speaks, who has entrances and exoduses , finding its center in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  These are the great kairos moments of the world, to which our own history must conform.

I am honored tonight by the amazing providence of God and the gracious invitation of the Board of Trustees to serve as the eighth President of Asbury Theological Seminary.  I stand before you tonight fully committed to the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary.  My vision is to explore what that mission means for us today at this juncture in history.  I believe that, like Esther of long ago, for “such a time as this” God has brought us together to this place and this time and summoned us to new vistas of faithfulness to God’s Word, to the Apostolic faith and to the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary “to prepare theologically educated, sanctified, spirit-filled men and women to evangelize and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.”  That is the mission of Asbury and God has granted us a vision for what that means for us in our time.  Tonight, I have chosen four themes which I believe capture how the founding mission of Asbury Theological Seminary can best be expressed and extended in our day.

1. REFLECTING THE GLORY OF THE TRINUE GOD THROUGH WORSHIP

Asbury Theological Seminary is first and foremost a worshipping community.  We have never been a mere religious studies program.  We are a seminary.  Maxie Dunnam has reminded us over the years that a seminary means a “seed-bed” to prepare men and women for effective Christian ministry.  We are those who have been summoned by God into his Risen presence.  At it is expressed in our mission statement, we are a “called community.”  The subject is unstated because God is the great nominative of the universe – the great subject to which all must give an account.

If you open up the earliest annual of the seminary, you find these words written, just shortly after the death of H. C. Morrison, “Asbury Theological Seminary believes in and carries out a strong program based on the idea that deep and proper piety and the highest intellectual standard are not only capable of being harmonized but must be made inseparable in order to produce” an effective minister of the gospel.   As Wesley once declared in that hymn,

“unite the pair so long disjoined;

knowledge and vital piety;

learning and holiness combined;

and truth and love, let all men see!

Our mission has always been to theologically educate yes, but to also recognize that we must produce men and women who are “sanctified and Spirit filled.”   The church is the visual embodiment of the Triune God in the world – we reflect the incarnation in our sacrificial service to the world and as bearers of the love of God.

Every major building on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary has a chapel.  I don’t know of  seminary in America that can make that statement.  We have a chapel in every building… the Luce Prayer chapel, the J. Ellsworth Kalas Preaching Chapel, the Richard Allan Chapel, the Stanger Prayer Room in the Student Center, the Sacred Prayer Closet across from Royal Auditorium, AHOP in Larabee-Morris; McKenna Chapel, Fletcher Chapel and where we are now in Estes Chapel.  For us, it is a theological statement.  Knowledge and vital piety must be united in a nuptial embrace.  All of our learning must takes place in the presence of the Triune God, the Risen Christ and the empowering, sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit.

2.  RENEWING OUR VISION BY ENGAGING THE GLOBAL CHURCH

The most important development in the 20th century church has been the dramatic rise of the church outside the Western world.  As Protestants we have never known a church which was not predominantly white and western.  When William Carey, the father of the modern missionary movement when to India, only 1% of the entire world’s Christians lived outside the Western world.  Even by 1900 only 10% of the world’s Christians were not white and western.  However, today, in the early days of the 21st century, 67% of all Christians are non-white and live outside the western world.  The emergence of new centers of Christian vibrancy from Latin America to Africa to parts of Asia, including China, India and Korea is the most important kairos of our time.

Asbury must engage the world, remembering the words of Wesley when he said that the “world is our parish.”  Our mission statement calls us to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the world.”  We have a great task ahead of us to live in to that commitment.

Henry Clay Morrison went to China because of his long term support and encouragement of the missions organization, OMS.  He returned to New York harbor on the same ship as Teddy Roosevelt.  When they arrived in the harbor, there was big band playing to greet Roosevelt, some firecrackers were set off.  Morrison looked around and felt lonely because there was no one to meet him.  He thought to himself, why wasn’t there anyone here to meet me?  And the Lord spoke to his heart and said, “because you’re not home yet.”  That’s why Morrison never retired.  He knew that there was work to be done… a vision to be cast… a mission to be fulfilled… and it was global.  He brought back two ginko trees from China and planted here just outside what is today the H.C. Morrison administration building.  Today they have grown, as has the Seminary he planted, to be very large and very beautiful.  Those trees were to remind every student in the history of Asbury that the world is our parish and that we’ve been called “to spread Scriptural holiness throughout the world…” until the day he calls us home.

If you’re a student here at Asbury, don’t you waste five minutes of your ministry complaining about your parsonage, your salary, or your pension plan.  Don’t waste time trying to climb the denominational ladder.  All that will be sorted out later when you get home.  Don’t forget the words of that other famous Francis.. Francis Xavier who said, “give up your small ambitions and preach the gospel of Christ.”

2.  RESTORING HOPE THROUGH SPIRIT-FILLED EVANGELISM AND CHURCH PLANTING

My former colleague and dear friend and guest tonight Dr. Peter Kuzmic once commented that the most defining word of our time is the word “post”.  We live in a post-communist, post-Christendom, post-denominational, post-western, post-Enlightenment and post-modern world. The prominence of the word ‘post’ is yet another signal that we are living in this seam between two epochs of history.   We know we are beyond certain things so we use the word “post” because we don’t really know for sure what is ahead.  However, it is clear that the Western world is emerging as the fastest growing mission field in the world.  The mega-church movement with its attractive model is facing a mega-collapse, because any church planting model in history which separates generations – separating the old from the young – and does not emphasize discipleship has always collapsed in one generation.  But, we are also moving into one of the most dynamic phases of fresh church planting in our history.  Asbury must move to a post-Christendom, missionary model of training which emphasizes evangelism, discipleship and church planting in new and fresh ways.  We must train a whole new generation of Christians how to occupy the prophetic margins of culture.  We must train a whole new generation of students how to draw from the vibrancy of the emerging new ethnic communities in North America which represent, by the way, the fastest growing churches in America.  They do not occupy campuses in the suburbs, but they are in the storefronts of our inner cities and they are alive and well.   We also have to reclaim the ministry of Francis Asbury, i.e. life on the road as an evangelist and church planter, as well as pastors and teachers.  (Order of Asbury)

4.  REVITALIZING THE CHURCH THROUGH FAITHFULNESS TO GOD’S WORD!

Asbury has always been known as a place which produces great preachers of God’s word.   If you don’t have confidence in the word of God, then you will never preach it with power and unction and anointing and clarity.  William Jennings Bryan said of H. C. Morrison, “he was the greatest pulpit orator on the entire American continent.” Wow – what a commendation.  What a great treasure for us here at Asbury.   If you are in a United Methodist or Free Methodist or Wesleyan or Salvation Army or Nazarene, or C and MA or Pentecostal church and you receive an Asbury graduate, you better not get a pastor who gets behind a pulpit and dishes out bland moralizing, three stories and a joke.  You will get God’s Word faithfully proclaimed and applied to the issues of the day.  If you get the other, send them back for a refit.

H. C. Morrison had invitations from all across the country to preach. But frequently when presiding elders (now we call a DS) got wind that he was coming they would shut it down and not allow Morrison to preach.  Remember that it was John Wesley was, after having every pulpit in England closed to him declares, since I have no parish of my own, I have concluded that the world is my parish.”  Morrison had the same experience, but instead, though I don’t know that he ever said this, his life witness said, in effect, “since I’m closed out of the churches, I have concluded that the campmeeting is my parish.”  He preached in campmeetings all across America, never losing his confidence in the power of the gospel.  Often when the presiding elders shut him down, he would just go to campmeeting and keep on preaching.  On night, H. C. Morrison was in Baltimore, Maryland.  He was around 41 years old at the time.  He had a confirmed invitation to preach in some of the largest churches in Baltimore and only after he arrived did he find out that it had been shut down.  He was too enthusiastic for this modernistic wave which was sweeping the country.  Too much talk on holiness and sanctification.  But there were no campmeetings at that time of year in Maryland, so Morrison had no place to preach.  Until a young minister approached him and said, brother Morrison, I have just a small little church, but we would love to have you come and preach. The presiding elder can’t do anything to me because I’m already on the bottom rung.  So Morrison agreed and he preach to a handful of people in Baltimore that night.  When he had the altar call a young 14 year old boy came down to the altar.  Morrison went down and knelt down next to him and said, “young man, what’s your name?”  He said, E. Stanley Jones.  God always honors His Word!  Asbury still believes that greatest hope for the revitalization of the church of Jesus Christ is through faithfulness to God’s Word whether your preaching to 5 or 5000.

So, as the eighth President of Asbury Theological Seminary, I see myself not as the source of some new mission, or some odd new tangent.  Rather, I see myself as the recipient of a great mission and heritage to which I have been called to serve.  Brothers and sisters, don’t you just feel in every fiber of your being that Asbury’s greatest days are still before us?  We know that because, in the words of Adoniram Judson, that great American missionary, “the future is as bright as the promises of God.”  Amen.


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1963), 394.   For a fuller treatment of this theme, see Paul Tillich, Kairos:  Zur Geisteslage und Geisteswendung (Darmstadt:  Otto Reichl Verlag, 926).

The Church's Ultimate Identity

Andrew Walls tells the story about an imaginary scholarly, intergalactic time traveler who gets periodic grants to travel to planet Earth to study the Christian religion.[1] He studies Christianity in Jerusalem at 37 C.E., again at Nicea at 325 C.E., in Scotland in the 7th century, London in the 1840’s and, finally, in Nigeria in 1980.  In his 1st century trip to Earth these early Christians are all Jews.  In fact, they seem to be a “denomination” of Judaism with the particular belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the prior expectations of their own prophets.  They are eager to share this good news with others.

Later, when the intergalactic traveler returns to earth he is like a fly on the wall at the great Council of Nicea in 325.  The time traveling professor is surprised to see that, despite the diversity of this group, there are hardly any Jews there at all.  They now refer to Jesus as “Lord” and they are in a heated debate about the precise language used to describe the relationship of this Lord Jesus to God the Father.  It is clearly an important issue to resolve since these delegates will be going back to many new followers of Jesus in many different places.

On the third trip, the traveler lands on the rocky coast of Scotland to observe Celtic monks “standing in ice-cold water up to their necks, reciting the psalms.”[2] They are there in the Firth of Clyde calling the people to give up their worship of nature deities and find true joy in Jesus Christ.  They are an austere group and, interestingly, our observer notices that that these monks are using the formula for Christ which had been so hotly debated back in Nicea three hundred years earlier.

The spaceman’s fourth trip brings him to Exeter hall in London in the 1840’s.  He observes a large assembly hall of well dressed people enthusiastically proposing that missionaries be sent to Africa with Bibles and cotton seeds.  They are quoting verses from the Bible and calling on their government to stop the enslavement of a group of people known as Africans.  Our traveler is surprised to see that most of those who are present have their own copies of the sacred Scriptures.

Finally, on his last journey, our traveler, who is now a full professor of Comparative Inter-Planetary Religions, lands in Lagos, Nigeria.  He observes a group of Africans dancing in the streets on their way to church.  They are inviting everyone they see to come and experience the healing power of Jesus Christ.  One of the Africans claims to have seen a vision, another, that he has been healed.  All promise powerful preaching about Jesus Christ from this same sacred book which our traveler has observed.

The interesting point of this imaginary story is that even though these different groups might not even be able to fully recognize each other as Christians, they all share (from the long perspective of history) many profound similarities.  These diverse groups are all proclaiming the ultimate significance of Jesus Christ.  They all have a reverence for the Scriptures, which they regard as the Word of God.  Finally, they all seem to be committed in their own way to sharing the message of Jesus Christ with as many people as they can.  In other words, they are not merely Christians in some strict confessional sense; they are Christians whose very identity is linked to the ever-widening horizons of the church across new cultural boundaries.

This imaginary, long view of the church helps remind us that the church has its ultimate identity in the person and work of Jesus Christ and that our Lord has given us a missionary mandate.  The entire church, not just a select group of professionals within it, is characterized by mission.  It is fundamental to our very identity as Christians who proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.  To put it another way, missions is more the mother of theology than the step child of theology.  As Ben Meyer has commented, “Christianity has never been more itself, more consistent with Jesus and more evidently en route to its own future, than in the launching of the world mission.”[3]


[1] See, Andrew Walls, “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture” as found in The Missionary Movement in Christian History:  Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1996), 3-7.

[2] Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, 4.

[3] As quoted in David Bosch, Transforming Mission:  Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1991, 1995), 16.  See, Ben Meyer, The Early Christians:  Their World Mission and Self-Discovery (Wilmington:  Michael Glazier, Inc., 1986), 206, cf 18.  Likewise, E. P. Sanders describes “the overwhelming impression…that Jesus stated a movement which came to see the Gentile mission as a logical extension of itself.”  See, E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1985), 220 (italics in original).  Sanders points out that no Christian group objected to the Gentile mission, the debate was over the terms and conditions of their entry.