Thoughts from the Presidential Inauguration Address, November 6, 2013
Have This Mind Among You
This is a moment. Certainly for me and for my family, this is a poignant moment of change and anticipation. For Fuller Theological Seminary, it is a moment of transition after the twenty faithful, engaging, and civilizing years of Richard Mouw’s exceptional presidency. This is a moment. Technological and economic tremblers also make this a moment of unprecedented change in higher education. Knowledge for many is no longer accessed through the privileged preserve of the academy but through a portal on a cell phone. This is a moment. Parallel to and distinctive within higher education in general, theological education faces its own academic and pedagogical shifts, played out in relation to the dramas of culture, church, religions, and nations. This reflects that it is also a moment in the life of the church where explosive growth and creativity in some contexts contrasts with precipitous decline, division, and redefinition in others. This is a moment. Meanwhile, all of this occurs within one of the most globally tumultuous moments of history. The suffering caused by tyrants through simple, daily acts of violence and oppression plagues millions. Poverty, war, and disease destroy lives as unique and treasured as yours and mine. Our fragile earth overheats and melts. Nation after nation faces economic and political crises, every responsible institution realizes it must reconsider its identity and mission, and every leader faces demands for urgency, accountability, and wisdom.
Here is what I would like to say today: If God is God, and if God has spoken in Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, then none of this personal or global reality lies beyond God’s arms. And if none of this lies beyond God’s arms, then God’s people are meant to make that embrace visible and tangible. And if that is the calling of God’s people, then educating Christ’s people for such ministry in the world is Fuller’s call. Now is a moment to acknowledge the world’s great need, but, even more importantly a moment to consider Fuller’s vocation in light of God’s great love.
An imagining of the Apostle Paul’s inspiration for writing the epistles of Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians during his imprisonment in Rome (ca. AD 60).
In such a time as this, Philippians 2:1–11 offers profound help. Here, at the heart of the letter to this young Philippian church, the Apostle Paul offers a word, in fact a song, for a critical moment, a word about the Word on which on everything else pivots. This is one of Paul’s letters and papers written from a Roman prison; it is written to a church just emerging amidst the Greco-Roman context with competing religious, spiritual, economic, and political visions. It is written at a time when there is rivalry and division in the church, when there are competitors for market share and for personal loyalty. The intimidation of the empire was at its height, and the vulnerability of those following Jesus was plain. It was written at a moment. And Paul says this:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
What instruction comes from a moment so long ago that we could receive as a word pertinent to a moment like ours? The apostle’s word to us starts here:
Remember What’s First.
The apostle is fully aware of how easily lives of nascent faith can be absorbed with rival forms of power. No voice in the New Testament is more conscious of and articulate about power and its manifestations than Paul’s. He knows a world of intimidating distraction. And his exhortation is this: let your mind, heart, soul, and strength be focused on the mind, heart, soul, and strength of God in Jesus Christ. This is the center of reality—God’s extravagant, self-giving love.
Paul may seem to be offering an offensive metanarrative, an engulfing theological blanket laid over everything. Rather, he is pointing to what is core to reality. He is saying that in a time of rival theories of authority, and of contests over power, when life and death are at stake, we could miss the key to the human drama. It is not finally what happens on the big stage of politics or economics or culture. It is not about the processing of big data nor about the presence of big names with bigger personalities with big ideas. It is not about a totalizing, homogenizing picture of culture or of experience.
Remember what’s first: “have this mind among you.” Have the mind among you of the One who is first and is love. Let your perceptions of God, and neighbor, of friend and of enemy be shaped just here at the center. Though we could be, and often are, endlessly distracted and falsely impressed, confused and anxious—absorbed in the past, or anxious about the present, or fretful about the future—let your mind and heart and soul and strength ground you in the One who is love and who is central. Let the One who is first be first.
The work of Christian education, and specifically evangelical, theological education and formation, turns on this pivot. This affirmation is no mere point of doctrine or tradition or habit. It is not a theological parochialism. This is the heart of God’s revelation, unveiled in its self-giving beauty for the salvation of you and me, and of the world. We see it through a glass darkly, but we see! All else in Christian theological education and formation turns on this. Without it, we would do better to shutter our doors and cease our speech. With it, we embrace nothing less than the enterprise critical to what God in Christ by the Spirit is doing to recreate the world.
At a time when higher education, seminary education, the church, and the world are full of a season of exceptional turmoil and disorder, reconsideration and prioritization, it matters that we remember and trust what we believe is of first importance.
In our time of agonizing budget decisions, and infrastructural realignments, and board quandaries, and failing financial models, and technological pyrotechnics, global uncertainties, ecclesiastical paroxysms, pedagogical perplexities, and religious rivalries, we might have everything in mind except the thing that is the most important thing of all.
The formation of Christian leaders and pastors for the twenty-first century holds challenges and uncertainties, just as does the spiritual formation of all Christians. The hope is not that we can discern the structures and forms of the future, but we can and must discern the One whose heart and mind is making us for the future. Whatever and wherever that future unfolds, we and our future need the One who holds all things together. For the God who holds the future is the One who has shown us in the past what the future that is today and tomorrow needs most: the God who emptied himself. This is first.
Make What’s First Primary.
It is one thing to profess the supremacy of Christ, but it is quite another to live it. What is first is meant to be what’s primary; what we profess is what we are to live. It is only evident that we build on rock rather than sand if what is first is what is primary.
To have the mind of Christ is not just to believe something but to do something. It is not Word over and against act, or Word apart from act, but Word as Act and Act as Word. The spiral descent of our Lord’s self-emptying love moves from equality with God to surrendering divine prerogatives, to taking on human flesh, to becoming a slave and becoming obedient—even unto death—even death on a cross. That unadorned descent of love is the culminating demonstration of God’s glory.
This is how we know we are on track: to have the mind of Christ is to display the love of Christ. To look into the mirror of God’s love is to transform into a reflection of God’s love. That is, “how can we claim to love our God unless we love our brother and our sister?”
If we make first things first, then what is first redefines what is primary. And what was primary for the first-century world is still primary in the twenty-first-century world: a people who love as we have been loved.
We live in a moment obsessed with the possibilities and hopes of technology. And for good reason. We live in a time overwhelmed with choices and fearful of decisions. And for good reason. We live in a time of global institutional breakdown and redefinition that produces both urgency and anxiety. And for good reason. We live in a time of ecological crisis and fear. And do so for good reason. We live at a time of staggering poverty and crushing violence, day in and day out, visible and invisible.
Paul gathers up the dramas of his imprisonment, the rivals and competitors within the Philippian church, his own mortality, his love and affection for the Philippians themselves, and here explains how all this—and much more besides—should be seen. When we wonder how we are to live, or within what context we are to see and understand ourselves most truly, Paul does not point to Rome or to Athens, to class or to ethnicity, to power or to powerlessness, to prisoner or prison-keeper, but instead he points to the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. The rhetorical shape of the opening verses of Philippians 2 gathers momentum as Paul stokes the confidence and strength of these disciples facing all the reasons for discouragement. “If there is any love . . .”: Paul longs for the Philippians to be love in a world of suffering, division, and scarcity rooted in this reality.
All the troubles of chapter 1 are recast by the vision of love in chapter 2. In a way that is not the least bit blind to division or to discouragement or to suffering or to costly discipleship, Paul builds his vision of hope from the unparalleled abundance of God’s love. In the midst of this moment when Fuller Seminary and all other such schools are involved in our own season of remaking ourselves for a new world and a new day, we must remember our primary devotion and calling: to grow in our love for God and for the world God so deeply loves.
The love of Jesus Christ opens a doorway onto the vividness of our humanity, making visible “what is otherwise invisible.” It is a love that “takes the world and all its neediness seriously.”
We live in a world desperate for tangible evidence of a righteous and just story of love. This is a love that never shrinks before the depth and range of problems. This is a love that enters and identifies with us in all our human weakness and vulnerability. This is a love that creates culture, nurtures life, seeks justice, and loves mercy. This is a love that meets us with personal and transformative sacrifice to save us from ourselves and from all sinful tragedy. This is a love that takes seriously the material world in all its vivid neediness. This is the mind and heart of God poured out in love in Jesus.
Whatever else an evangelical theological seminary may be, the formation of this must be the trajectory of our spiritual formation. In Fuller’s best moments, this has always been our center. When we have most fully lived up to the vision of our founders and the vision of our leaders, it is because we have lived further into what we affirm is the vision and love of our Savior. This is the clarion affirmation of Jesus Christ who is “in all and through all and with all” and whose life, death, and resurrection create and supply all that is necessary for us and for the salvation and recreation of the world.
This is not an act of theological reductionism by which we take all things and reduce them to Christ. Rather, it is the reverse: the affirmation that to see through a glass makes visible what is otherwise invisible: “seeing through a glass darkly” expresses that our sight is conditioned even as it underscores that sight or knowledge of God is actually possible! In other words, the love of Jesus Christ opens the horizon of reality. To be devoted to Christ does not limit our vision, it enlarges it.
Such truth claims as these form the core of a seminary education. Clearly, they are and always have been contested claims. The demise of Christendom only means that the deferential weight given to such affirmations has shifted and that the chief apologetic or defense of the faith that people seek is in love lived more than in merely words offered. It is not whether we can talk or write about them better, but whether the people of God can live and love the faith we profess and preach. The authentication of faith being sought today is the authentic life: the evidence of faith lived, of love demonstrated, of justice enacted.
Skepticism toward the church and the faith arises from many sources, but among them is the frequent absence of simply a “credible witness.” This is where the essential work of the seminary should best serve the work of the church: where faith and practice are shown to be inseparable from one another, but also where this link is itself rehearsed and nurtured in the formation of future leaders.
Make What’s Primary Pervasive.
This explains why the drama of the cross is to become the drama of our lives. What makes this text so poignant is the inextricable connection for Paul between the love of God for the world and the love that the people of God are meant to embody as a consequence. To be loved is to love. To be loved generously, extravagantly, self-sacrificially, wholly, personally is to receive the very gift that we are then meant to give away in kind. This is the theme for all our improvisations, the fugue upon which all our other harmonies are to sound; these are the notes that set off all the overtones that are to resound in the life of the world.
The resounding chord that has sounded through Christ is to establish the overtones of God’s people. It is a simple paradigm really, an elegant simplicity. It is an unadorned, straightforward, tangible reality. This is meant to be the thick, tangible reality of the church in the world. Ah, but we know in common and profound ways just how different and mangled and stuck such soundings can become.
Time to shake off the church’s slumber that abdicates love in the name of security, safety, homogeneity, stability, homeland security. The church, meant to be light, has opted for bushels of rationalization, policy, committees, and votes. So the crisis of the church in many ways is every bit as much a crisis of our own making as it is a crisis laid upon it from outside. We are the ones who have made the thick part thin by making the thin parts thick. So people suffering in the world, neighbors near and far, enemies real and imagined, people like us and not like us do not easily find the thick evidence of people who follow an enemy-loving God, who give themselves to ordinary acts of exceptionally genuine, self-giving love. What is often found instead is only thin evidence of a God of love and mercy and justice because often as God’s people, we have opted to offer only that. We represent a magnanimous God with our stingy hearts.
One way that this disjunction has become palpably apparent in recent months has been in the response of millions of people to the gestures of humility and simplicity, of love and grace that Pope Francis has shown. Why does it so obviously and immediately matter that Francis chooses, in apparently authentic acts, to lay down power and its trappings? Why does it seem so compelling—even to cynics and pundits? Because people live with an insatiable hunger for the real thing.
A seminary that takes all this seriously has to ask itself what work it is doing that enables the formation of pastors that, in turn, shapes communities of faith that become the evidence of God’s love—love that pierces cynicism. Or, to put it differently, trustworthy light, not just an advertisement for light. Or salt that intensifies thirst, not just slakes it.
Philippians 2 looks back at God’s love laid bare in the sacrificial love of Jesus, then turns to the future that is opened by the pronouncement of Jesus’ lordship, that is, by the affirmation that the power that reigns in this kingdom is the power that gives life through loving sacrifice. In that order, faith will be evident in love.
So here is our wake-up call: Reformed and evangelical sola gratia that affirms our salvation comes in, by, through, and with Christ alone, is never meant to be a dividing line by which faith is separated from action and prioritized over and against action. Busyness we can sometimes specialize in, but integrated faithful action that lays down our lives in love—even for enemies—this is not the kind of discipleship seminaries or churches typically encourage.
Philippians 2 calls us not only to faith that acts, but to faith that acts beyond self-interest. This is where the realism and idealism debates within the life of the church move us to hold up the most outlandish hope—that we can be set free to live beyond ourselves—and the most outlandish challenge: that we can be set free to live beyond ourselves. This is the place where we are to move visibly beyond the bounds of what Jesus said “even the Gentiles do,” to do what is meant to be the peculiar vocation of those who follow the One we call Lord. So where is the evidence of that love?
We could face this moment in seminary life thinking that the great crisis is about tuition, fees, funding, technology, or denominational decline, or culture wars, or global or economic tensions, or religious hostilities. All of those things matter. But according to Philippians 2, what matters is whether our love mirrors the One we claim to follow. That is what is first. Make what’s first primary. Make what’s primary pervasive.
Of course, it is little wonder we think more about tuition and fees and technology, and all the rest. The plainness of the call to self-sacrificing love naturally leads us to want to think of almost anything else. We can and must work on all kinds of other crises, issues, conundrums of this moment in seminary education. But what should be central is that we live and proclaim the Good News. This means the seminary academy has a crucial role to play in educating Christ’s church to walk in places of deep pain, to face and listen to and love enemies, to seek justice, to seek the prisoner, to heal the lame, to pay attention to the forgotten, to remember Sabbath, to live with freedom and joy.
At a moment when it might feel like the time to run toward doctrine, or toward institutional models, or toward constitutional reform, or towards other forms of power, the text of Philippians 2:1–11 takes us deeper. It holds the sum of Christian seminary education by naming the greatest and deepest of mysteries, and lifts before us the greatest and deepest of callings:
Remember what’s first.
Make what’s first primary.
Make what’s primary pervasive.
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2013, “Have This Mind Among You: Philippians 2:1–11.”