Ajith Fernando’s 2019 CTS Graduation Address
I am grateful to the Principal, Council and Administration of Colombo Theological Seminary for giving me this great honour of speaking today. I wish to congratulate the graduates and pay tribute to their friends and family for the sacrifices they made to enable these brothers and sisters to complete their programmes.
When we started CTS twenty-five years ago, the vision I had was that we would help nurture Spirit-filled servants of Christ whose thinking, life and ministry springs from the Bible. By Spirit-filled I mean people whose holy life exhibits the purity and love of God and whose ministry is powerful because it comes directly from an anointing by the Spirit. There is a dual emphasis on the Word and the Spirit.
As time went on, I realised that we had another great need. We needed wise Christians who can respond to the challenges to faith that keep people from yielding to the claims of Christ. There is a shortage in Sri Lanka of people who are able to engage effectively the intellectuals of Sri Lanka .
Stephen is an excellent example of such ministry, and I want to challenge all here, especially the graduates, to follow his example.
FULL OF THE SPIRIT AND POWER
Each of the seven chosen for administrative work in the first church needed to be people full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3). But when the list of the seven chosen is given only Stephen is described as “a man full of… the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). He must have stood out. Acts 6:8 says, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” The power of God was expressed in his ministry. All our ministry must emerge from the power of God. Sri Lanka will be impressed by Jesus when they see him answer prayers through signs and wonders. We pray as the first Christians prayed when they experienced their first bout of persecution, “stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Act 4:30).
The fullness of the Holy Spirit has another side to it. Stephen was described as “full of grace.” Scholars tell us that if power was the external manifestation of the Spirit in his life, grace was the internal manifestation. Stephen was a gracious person. This was best expressed in the way he acted during his trial and death. We are told his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). What that exactly means we may not know, but his face must have shone with the glory of God like Moses’ did. And then when he was being killed, he is described as being “full of the Spirit” (Acts 7:55). This fulness results in him speaking like Jesus as he is killed, even asking God that his executors would not be held responsible for his death (7:60).
The ministry of some apologists who defend the faith and creative radicals with a prophetic ministry has come to disrepute because they do not act in grace. Stephen was a radical whose teaching opened the church to become free from Jerusalem and Judaism. He was a fearless debater. But he was also a gracious servant of Christ.
Spirituality is often associated primarily with power in South Asia. People are admired for the trappings of power they enjoy, like miracle working power. There is not much emphasis their moral purity. No one seems to care much if a custodian of a shrine or an astrologer is living an immoral life. They go to him to receive a favour from the god he represents. And these gods are generally amoral—not concerned with what we describe as moral purity. Spirituality is power.
This over emphasis on power and position at the cost of purity has trickled into the church also. We are hearing stories of powerful Christian leaders who lie, who illtreat their spouses, who use dishonest means to get what they want, who take revenge against people who hurt them, and who use their power and position to get sexual favours from people. These problems are tolerated because their ministries exhibit power. Those people are in serious trouble. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Among those to whom Jesus said, “I never knew you” are those who prophesied, cast out demons and did mighty works in Christ’s name. If we love the church and these Christian leaders who are behaving sinfully, we must confront them. We do so in love to protect the honour of the church and in the hope that they will repent before they die and escape God’s terrifying wrath at the judgement.
SPEAKING WITH WISDOM AND THE SPIRIT
Luke says that those who came to dispute Stephen “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10). This was knowledge on fire ignited by the Holy Spirit. Stephen spoke in a language that the people understood, and he used material that they were familiar with, in this case, the Old Testament scriptures. He was so successful in communicating his message that his opponents understood the radical nature of what he was proposing. They killed him as a result. He was a master contextualiser. He became a model for the later apologists who dominated Christian history during the first three centuries.
This model is very relevant to us in Sri Lanka today. There is a lot of welcome conversation these days on the need for inter-religious harmony. Indeed, we must ensure that people of all faiths have the freedom to practice their religion and we must look at adherents of other faiths as beloved fellow Sri Lankans. But the gospel of Christ has an absolute uniqueness to it which makes it necessary for us to proclaim it so that people would accept Christ as their only Lord, forsaking all other lords. This seems to go against the current stream of the thinking of many on inter-religious harmony. And if we hold to this, like Stephen did, and devote ourselves to evangelism, we too will face opposition.
Paul said, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). Some will accept the gospel and receive salvation. Others will reject it and even oppose it. I think in Sri Lanka we have not been able to win an audience for the gospel from intellectuals of other faiths. This is an urgent need, and may CTS produce such thoughtful Christians who will study the mind of people outside the faith and present the gospel in a way that is understandable and convincing.
SATURATED IN SCRIPTURE
Like the other speeches in Acts, Stephen’s speech was saturated in Scripture. Even Paul’s speech in Athens, which had no scripture quotations, was steeped in Scripture. All our thinking and ministry must spring from the Word of God. This comes out of an attitude of humble submission of our minds to the Word of God. Isaiah 66:2 says, “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” He is talking about an attitude of sitting under subjection to the scriptures in order to learn how to think and act.
There is an alarming trend today among Christians, to look at the Bible primarily as a book of inspiration. This harmonises well with the postmodern attitude of suspicion about being captive to truths given in prior times, such as we find in the Bible. So postmodern hermeneutics is reader centred. The readers perspective is more important than the authors intention. The focus is more on “How does this make me feel?” and not upon “What does the author want me to learn and do?”
However, the Christian attitude to the Bible is not one of dry orthodoxy. When we approach scripture we are handling “the word of God [which] is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The word comes alive and ministers to our deepest needs. This is why the psalmists often talk about delighting in the law. May we do all we can to reorient Christians to looking at the Bible not only as a sourcebook for inspiration but also as a powerful and inspiring textbook for living.
We ourselves can also lose that childlike learner’s attitude after spending so much time in seminary studying the Bible for exams. Now that we have finished our studies, we can think we are qualified theologians. We can lose the childlike learner’s attitude as we approach the scriptures. Martin Luther was a brilliant biblical scholar and theologian. In a comment on how profound the wisdom of the Bible is, he said, “We must ever remain scholars [or students] here; we cannot sound the depth of one single verse in Scripture; as we get hold but of the A B C, and that imperfectly.” I want to wish our graduates a thrilling lifetime of study and meditation of the word. The Bible is a thrilling book. Even the hard work that goes into preparing biblical sermons is a thrilling exercise which leaves us fresh and edified. Don’t let the contemporary mood of devaluing truth cause you to miss the thrill of sitting at the feet of God’s word.
HOW TO ACQUIRE SUCH INSPIRED WISDOM
How can we acquire inspired wisdom like Stephen? How can we become spirit-filled contextualisers? This applies not only to preachers but also to leaders, counsellors, evangelists, personal witnesses and all those serving God.
First, we must know the scriptures. We have already talked about this. Few people did as much to promote biblical contextualisation in the evangelical movement as much as JohnStott. I was at a conference in 1978 where there was an opportunity to ask him questions. Someone asked him how we can become good contextualisers? His first response was, “A contextualiser must know the Scriptures.” That is the grounding of all ministry, especially the ministry of proclamation. We believe that the Bible is relevant to the needs of people and we teach it with the confidence that it can change lives.
Second, we must know the people whom we minister to. We do this by being with people. There is no substitute for hanging around with people (Christian and non-Christian) and chatting with them informally. We are also always observing people’s behaviour on the streets, in buses, in our neighbourhoods, and as reported in the media. We are students of culture. We study the advertisements that come over TV to see the way the people are motivated to behave. We read what they have written and attempt to understand their thinking.
John Wesley was walking on the road with one of his young workers, Sammy, when they passed two ladies who were quarrelling. It was a colourful event! Sammy wanted to quietly move away from this unpleasant scene, but Wesley told him, “Stay, Sammy stay; and learn to preach.” Observing the way people behave helps us preach relevantly.
The best way to get to know our audience is through personal work. There is an alarming neglect of this in the church. Leaders are not visiting the homes of believers and unbelievers as much as they did before. Our activist lifestyles are leaving us with little time for discipling and mentoring. Lay Christians and Christian workers are not being personally cared for. Such caring is time-consuming, and frustrating, and it sometimes results in failure. But we learn so much from our failures as we grapple with why this happened. Did we do something wrong? Did we not understand the problem accurately? What made him disobey God? What made her so lethargic? We learn by thinking seriously about these things. And that influences our ministry of proclamation.
Third, we use our knowledge of the scriptures and of people to apply truth penetratively to our audience. There is exegesis, when we draw teaching from the Bible; and there is application, when we use our knowledge of people to present a relevant message to them. This is a task which calls for serious thinking. We also must find the best ways to communicate the truth. Carefully chosen stories help the truth to penetrate the heart. We usually think of truth travelling from the mind to the heart; from belief to feeling. That is a very good way for it to happen. But sometimes it travels from the heart to the mind. We sense the reality through a story and then believe its truth. Always the truth of the Bible is basic. We desperately want our people to accept and apply biblical truth. But the way people internalise those truths may differ.
Fourth, we ensure that there are no hindrances to the fullness of the Spirit in our lives. Paul said that those who want to be vessels fit for the Master’s use must purify themselves from what is dishonourable by fleeing youthful passions and following after righteousness (2 Tim. 2:20-22). Jay Kesler was a well-known preacher in the USA. I once listened to an interview on how he prepares to preach. He said, that often before he gets out of the car at the parking lot in his church, he apologises to his wife for some wrong thing he had done. He dared not go to preach with the burden of unconfessed sin. Paul said, “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (Acts 24:16). We are all flawed people. We fail God often. But thank God he forgives us. So when we minister, by walking in the light with God and people, we make sure that we have been purified of all sin by the blood of Christ (1 John 1:7)
Fifth, we make sure that we are in tune with the mind of the Spirit. We want to have something of the anointing of the prophets of the Old Testament who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21). W. E. Sangster talks of unction, which we now generally refer to as anointing. He compares the preacher to a boat and says that unction comes when we turn our sails to catch the wind of the Spirit. In addition to spending time with the Word, the best way to get in tune with God’s mind is to linger in his presence in prayer. When the disciples asked why they could not cast out a demon from a boy, he answered, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29).
Martyn Lloyd Jones tells of a preacher at a convention in a little town in Wales who had not come to the hall though the congregation was there. They sent a girl to ask him to come. She came back and said, “I did not want to disturb him because he was talking to someone.” The organisers said, “That is not possible because the whole town is here.” They sent her again. And again she came back and said that he was indeed talking to someone. She said he was saying, “I will not go and preach to these people unless you come with me.” They said, “In that case, we will wait!”
The preaching event, the leading of a meeting, and the counselling appointment from preparation to delivery, is steeped in prayer.
Sixth, we go to minister in an attitude of helpless dependence on God. We acknowledge our weakness. Paul said, “…having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor 4:1). Mercy is an even stronger word than grace. It shows that we are utterly helpless people. All through the preparation, the preaching, the counselling and the leading we are pleading with God, “O God, help me! Help me!!” It is said that when the great preacher Charles Spurgeon went up to the pulpit to preach, with every step he took he would say to himself, “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit of God can fill empty vessels that yearn for God. May that be your attitude in whatever ministry you do.
I pray that this set of graduates will be part of the force God is raising up in Sri Lanka of wise, biblical, and spirit-filled servants of Christ.