Brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ, my charge to the 2016 graduating class centers around two Greek words which appear together as a sacred pair—a technical coupling—in the writings of St. Paul. These two words are parelabon and paredoka. They are translated “received” and “passed on” and go back even further to the same sacred pair in the Hebrew tradition (qibbel and masar). This sacred pair comes to us in the NT, for example, in I Corinthians 11 and 15 in reference to the Eucharist and to the gospel itself.
In 1 Corinthians 11:23, Paul says, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you; namely, that the Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying ‘this is my body which is broken for you.’” It is the sacred mystery of the Eucharist which is “received,” and it is “passed on.” In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul says, “for what I received I passed on to you, as of first importance that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures.” This sacred linguistic yoke of “receiving” and “passing on” is absolutely crucial for how your entire ministry is to be framed. We receive and we pass on; that is the basic rhythm of the gospel: Revelation and response; God’s prevenient grace and our response to that grace; God’s divine in-breaking and our response to that in-breaking. What you have “heard in the presence of witnesses,” “faithfully entrust to others” we hear in 2 Tim. 2:2.
These are important technical terms which highlight an aspect of the gospel which seems to be increasingly forgotten in the contemporary church. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not ours to re-write. We have no charge to peddle a domesticated gospel and publicly pretend as if it is the real thing. Brothers and sisters, we are not the originators of the gospel; we are its recipients. We are not the authors of the gospel; we are its commissioned ambassadors. We have no permission to re-make the gospel into our own liking. We pass on what we have first received. Receiving and passing on—that is the sacred rhythm. The Eucharistic mystery reminds us of the embodiment of the gospel in real flesh and blood—betrayal, scourge, crucifixion, blood—these are not metaphors; they are the embodied signs and seals of the very gospel itself. The gospel mystery is centered on the work of Jesus Christ: his death, crucifixion, burial and resurrection. We must bear these marks in our enfleshed ministries. We receive historically embedded mysteries, and we pass them on through our own embodied ministries.
Graduates of the 2016 class, you are entering a church which has been drinking deeply from the poisoned wells of a market driven, consumeristic, commodified church. We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are, at best, careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally. Indeed, it seems that the contemporary church’s equivalent of the prime directive seems to be “always adapt to culture.” It trades on the unspoken, defining question of the modern church: “What is the least one has to do to become a Christian?” Pastors are often pressed to become the miserly masters of theological and soteriological minimalism, probably best exemplified by the pitiful admonition which sometimes comes to preachers to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” But, that is ecclesiastical light years from Wesley’s admonitions to his preachers.
2016 graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary, never forget that the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t need you to help it become “relevant.” The gospel is always relevant! It is we who need to be made relevant to the gospel. Let me charge you by way of sacred remembrance, that you are not being called to be the professionally religious, middle management technocrats in some bureaucratic denominational machinery. Rather, you have been called to be sacred vessels for the faithful transmission of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. May you go forth into the world to faithfully pass on that which you have received. Thanks be to God. Amen.