I originally composed a draft of this devotion for the final meeting of Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture course last Friday, but what I shared as a benediction to a group of first-year students — from a text I first prayed over students ten years ago, at the end of my first semester at Bethel, teaching a 300-level European history course — seemed all the more fitting as a final good word to our graduates.
I don’t often focus on how Paul’s epistles begin and end; I’m too quick to dive into the theological meat of those letters, looking for the right proof-text to prop up my soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc. I think that’s because the first and last verses of, say, Philippians can seem at once too specific and too generic.
Too specific… But as a historian, I should appreciate how those verses remind me to read such “books” of the Bible as they were originally written: letters from Paul (and, in the case of Philippians, Timothy) to a specific group of Christians in a particular time and place: some torn apart by conflict, others worried and anxious, yet all faithful and generous to a man who had known scarcity and distress.
Too generic… At the same time, sentiments that were originally meant for a small audience in a particular circumstance have achieved universality through centuries of liturgical and devotional usage: I wish people “grace and peace” at the end of e-mails and I pray for a peace that “surpasses all understanding” with all the unthinking ease of habit.
So permit me to take Paul’s words from Philippians 1:3-11 for my own, and to share the particular meaning that they have for me in the context of a 21st century Christian university:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phi 1:3-6, NIV)
First, the most important idea in this section: as much as Timothy, or Euodia and Syntyche, or Clement and “the rest of [Paul’s] co-workers” in the first century, you and I are the apostle’s partners in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We each of us proclaim this good news wherever we’re placed with whatever gifts we’ve been given; as another of Paul’s co-workers wrote: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet 4:10). But whatever else we’ve done for you at Bethel for the past three or four years, I pray that we’ve been equipping you for the work of ministry and mission, whatever form it takes.
Second, we say goodbye confident that this is, indeed, just a commencement. The end of this chapter is the beginning of another, as “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” It’s the joy and frustration of our labor as college professors: we till soil and plant seeds in hope and expectation, with no assurance that we’ll see the harvest. But we can trust that whatever good work we’ve been able to do for you has been made possible not by our efforts, but by the same mighty God who will continue to work in and through you for the rest of your lives.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Phi 1:7-8)
For in the end, grace binds us. With Paul and all those who confess Jesus as Christ at all times and in all places, we share the same love, the same mercy, the same salvation, and the same hope. So as we stand on the verge of years and miles that will inevitably separate us and stretch affection into longing, I pray that your education will continue:
…that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Phi 1:9-11)
Cross-posted at AC 2nd.