167th Convocation Address – Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentin
The following is the address delivered by Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentin at the 167th Convocation of Knox College on Wednesday, May 11, 2011.
Principal, Director, Vice-Provost, honoured guests, members of convocation, families, friends of Knox. Dear graduating class,
I would like to thank the Board of Directors, the Faculty and the Principal, Dr. Dorcas Gordon, for honouring me with the degree of Doctor in Divinity, honoris causa. It is such an honour to be here at this prestigious institution, Knox College, whose name reaffirms our reformed and Presbyterian identity. I accept this acknowledgement humbly, considering it not only a personal honor but also an honor to the institution I am representing, the Evangelical Seminary of Theology of Matanzas. Our two schools have a long history of sharing the task of theological and pastoral training in our respective churches and countries.
I also want to thank Dr. Gordon and the Faculty for the invitation to address you, the graduating class on such a significant evening in your lives and for this school. I must confess that Principal Gordon, whom I not only consider a colleague but also a good friend, caused me great distress when she asked me to make this graduation speech. First, because my graduation addresses in Matanzas are well known for their length. In my opinion, an unjust claim and there are some people here that can testify they are really not so long. Probably, because your Principal had heard about such undeserved fame she told me to be brief. And as a good professor she made sure that I really understood the meaning of being brief in Knox College. So she added; “no longer than 20 or 25 minutes.” I hope I will keep my word so that you do not begin to feel uncomfortable in your chairs.
The second big challenge I met, and the most important one, is that when I was preparing this address, I asked myself and asked God in my prayers, what I could say to you in this significant moment of your lives. What message can I bring you, a graduating class that lives and preaches the Gospel that announces the reign of God in a context that although familiar to me, is different from mine in many ways? What can I say that may help you in the journey you are just beginning, so that your acts do not become mere contemplation removed from the world where you are living and preaching? I am very fond of the New Testament references to the first Christians; “the people of the way”. Because Christian life is a journey following the steps of Jesus and you are beginning today a new stage of that journey.
Hence our dialogue should begin with what we have definitely in common. We are part of the same church of Jesus Christ and we have been called to bear witness and to proclaim his Word on the basis of our faith. We all share in common the certainty of having been called by God in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit to be his disciples; that is, to proclaim his liberating message and the Good News of the Gospel to the poor, to the sick, to all who are needed, and to this World, so that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear,::: Luke 7:22 NIV. In other words, our common mission is to proclaim Gods Word and to work for Life, Justice and Peace not only for human beings but for all Creation. I believe, it means to work for the Reign of God.
We have also in common, besides having a big and powerful neighbour, that we are also living in an era in which globalization effects everyone and therefore is contextual in every way. In our times the need to remain and search for what is “contextual” in one place is now more than ever related to globalization. Global becomes local, and vice verse. There is not a single point on the planet, no matter how isolated it is, that can be disconnected from what is happening in another part. The decisions made by the powerful of our times, on economic, political, and military or even in the religious spheres bring about consequences for all of us, no matter where we are. The denial of God, which is the denial of Life, and that is unquestionably expressed by violence, wars, and personal and structural injustice constitutes a current global phenomenon with very concrete local expressions all over the world, including my country in the south and your country, in spite of its being part of the developed countries of the so-called Global North.
Likewise, what is happening in any country or region in the world has global repercussions. Just to give an example, let us examine what has been happening in Japan after the devastating earthquakes and Tsunamis. The consequences of these events are having an impact all over the Planet; the destruction of the nuclear power plants is threatening the planet because its real consequences can not be foretold. The same applies to the wars and conflicts in the countries of North Africa and the Near East.
This is so much so that at present, although the statement that all theological work responds to its historical, political, social and cultural context, globalization informs this context. I think that it is precisely at this point where we should see the importance of the dialogue of Christian men and women; the shared reflection about our realities, the united thinking about our mission as the church of Jesús Christ in our own contexts, and consequently, in the World.
There is a tendency, in our times, towards introspection, gazing inward; this tendency raises walls that can isolate us from the World and the ´World from us. There is like a fear of contamination; there is fear of churches being destroyed or disappearing. It´s like having a lack of confidence in God, that this is his Church. In many places the reaction to having less members in the churches causes actions that in the end alienate the Church from the reality around us. Probably, we have a greater concern for the size of the congregation than for the content of the mission. Sometimes it looks like, we don´t have enough Faith. Our call is to proclaim the Gospel, the Lord our God, “adds to the church daily such as should be saved” (Act 2:47).
Unfortunately that leads to the promotion and development of a theology and a vision of mission that has to do with the enclosed space of the buildings, with our denominations, and in some cases with very limited geographical areas.
These are theological and missiological Walls. These walls together with the physical walls often prevent us from announcing the Good News of the Gospel. They can paralyze and withhold us form the Word of God that according to a popular song in our milieu is a verb rather than noun. This means that the Word of God is transforming action rather than passive stagnation.
At the same time there is a growing trend that promotes individualistic faith, faith enclosed in it that neglects the second great commandment taught by Jesus. This false belief promotes the idea that the first commandment is enough. However, loving God is inseparable from loving our neighbour. Jesus himself emphasized it by joining them in only one statement. And this love is not love in name only, nor love for the sake of charity that gives to the needy what goes spare. It is transforming love that tries to do away with the causes of poverty and marginalization; with the causes of violence, wars and suffering.
Unquestionably, living our faith as individuals and as communities, reading and reflecting on the word of God as a source of authority and inspiration, praying as Church and personally, community worshiping and the proclamation of the Word are an essential part of our live as Christians. But we cannot separate this congregational commitment from our lives outside of the sanctuary and church spaces. There must be an essential relationship between what we believe, what we preach and how we live. These actions will affirm our Christian beliefs as we relate to our communities, the world and our natural surroundings.
Dear graduating sisters and brothers, this evening I come to you humbly, but with a firm conviction, to make an invitation. Just as the disciples of Jesus did not stay within the Walls of Jerusalem but went out to Emmaus without any certainty of what they would find on the way, without knowing that they would see the risen Lord. I am now inviting you on your graduation day; let us break out of the walls that prevents us from having that encounter with Jesus.
This is for you and for us, for all of us: Let us set off on our journey to meet Jesus. Let us be the disciples of the Way. Let us break out of the walls that we have built throughout history and that unfortunately we continue building today. Walls that isolate us and stop us from being faithful disciples in a world where Jesus is always present. A diverse world, it is true, and unquestionably a complex world full of all sort of conflicts and dangers, but the same world that can be the recipient of God’s love, that belongs to him and where he has placed us with the task of collaborating in its reconstruction, in all the things that we have sinfully twisted and diverted from its original purpose. I am calling you this evening to get out of the walls that stop us from meeting Jesus on the way.
There are many walls, but tonight I will mention only three. Let us first get out of the walls that make us believe that we are the owners of absolute truth, owners of God and Christ. It is not a question of taking him where we want to go. Walls that make us think we can judge and say the last word as well as decide what is right and what is what is wrong. Walls that make us forget that God and only God is the sole owner of everything and he has called us to serve. Let us get out of that higher wall that makes us look at the world and judge it from the balcony of history, rather than going down and walking together with the God of history, collaborating in its reconstruction throw serving others.
At this moment it is important for us to remember that God’s sovereignty does not lie on the arbitrary imposition of his absolute will. God’s sovereignty, as expressed by Karl Barth, lies on his freedom to reveal himself as he (She) wants (unfortunately Barth didn’t identify God as She), where he (she) wants, and through whom he (She) wants. In any case, our task is to find where God is in the world, to discover the God that is apparently hidden from us, whereas the truth is that we do not know where to find Him. God is the God of Life, the God of love, as stated in the Scriptures. Consequently, God is working wherever the Spirit is alive and wherever there is some done to preserve Life, wherever people work with love, not so much in words as in deeds. The God we believe in is not enclosed in the sanctuary, or in a place in the Santu Santuorum. God is in the world, in his world; the world he (She) created. All of creation belongs to him (her). God lives in his (her) creation. Creation is Yahweh’s Shechina. That is where God is and where his Church should be, collaborating with his liberating and reconciling program.
Everything denying Life, everything going against Life, is also a denial of God. God’s church should also be there denouncing it and doing everything possible to help God transform it into a space for reproducing Life, full Life, life with justice. We can always find God wherever people work for justice; all kinds of justice: economic, political, social, and racial; we find God where there is work for equality of gender; where there is work for ecological justice. In these places we will always find God. Many times we say that is doing politics and the Church should not be political. Oh, my friend, to be non political is another, very bad way of being political. It is the theology of the Ostrich. We cannot avoid the World. We are part of the World. We could do like Jonas, and we all remember what happen to him. But my friends, the Church cannot turn its back to Gods world. We should follow the way to Jesus by unconditionally loving and engaging with God’s work in his World. I would say that the work of God’s communities is chiefly to give without asking for anything. Because the Church is often enclosed within the walls of the “status Quo” and forgets that its true commitment is with Jesus Christ and his salvific project. Sometimes we as church hide behind these walls for fear of losing its place in society, for fear of losing privileges, for fear of losing donors and members. Or simply, for avoiding the consequences of this act. To be Church is to be in constant risk, in the same way Jesus was. And Jesus is constantly asking us again and again: “Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith” (Mathew 8: 26). Because he has promise to be with us always. We can never, never forget that, God is with us always. What shall we then say to these things? If God for us, who against us? (Rom. 8:31).
I am also inviting you graduating sisters and brothers, to go beyond a second wall that separate us, that is the Wall of prejudice, that separates us as human beings for reasons of race, culture, religion, gender and sexual identity. Let us overcome the differences among us as we are convinced that we have been created in God’s image, that we are all brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same Mother and Father of all, and we all have that elder Brother who is Jesus, the Christ. To emphasise what unites us and to accept our differences. Our differences should be the motivation for dialog and not reason for conflict.
Let us overcome the divisions separating us from other Christians and other religions that are also trying to live their faith in obedience to God. We many forget that when we receive the apostolic blessings and we speak about the “communion of the Holy Spirit” we are precisely referring to unity, to the bonds among us, to the communion that can only be achieved through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the source of unity among the human beings and between us and the rest of Creation. Unfortunately there is an ever-growing trend of stressing denominational differences and the walls are getting higher and higher.
We as churches, many times, are enclosed within ourselves, just as the disciples before the experience with the risen Jesus, without even attempting to look beyond our physical walls. My dear friends, we are called to live in the Spirit. This not only means to live in happiness, and to work with our own gifts for the ring of God, but also, to live in unity, to live in communion.
And one more wall to cross, the last but not the least. I am inviting you, graduating class to break throw the walls that conceive the human being as the centre of Creation. The walls that have made us forget that the human being is not the goal of Creation, but the Sabbath, the celebration of God the creator. The moment when the Creator looks at all the good things he has created. The walls that have made us forget his purpose and our commission, which is being the stewards and caretakers of his work. Our indifference and indolence before the constant deterioration of Nature is undoubtedly an impediment for us to go to the encounter of God in his Creation.
Dear graduating class, dear Friends, let us set off on our journey if we are still within the walls. Let us walk to the encounter with Jesus. I can assure you that Jesus is showing us the way and walking together with us. Easter reminds us that it is in the journey where we can find him and that his Word opens our discernment to the mission that has been conceived for us as his followers: to transmit the hope and happiness of knowing that the Lord has risen to kindle the flame of his Spirit and to give us the energy and strength needed for the journey. May the God that defeated death help us bring down, fly over, and build bridges across all these walls that prevent us from meeting him in our pilgrimage along his history.
May God bless us on this journey…