To the End of the Earth
I am honored to be here today. It is always both a pleasure and a privilege for me to return to this campus. I could never adequately describe how much I owe to Calvin College for what it has meant in my life. My understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ has been profoundly influenced by my experiences in this community, and the topic of my address here this morning—the multicultural, multinational, and multiracial character of the kingdom of Jesus Christ—is one that I learned much about during my time here.
It might be helpful quickly to review the context in which I, and many others in the Calvin community during the years that I spent on this campus, struggled to learn those lessons. That context will be for many of you ancient history, but it is important history—and it is good to remember it at the beginning of this Black History Month.
I joined the Calvin faculty in 1968, arriving in Grand Rapids in a summer that was characterized—in this city as in so many others — by the race riots that erupted after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. President Byker was right in his address at the opening convocation for this academic year to point to Dr. King as a model for the kind of intellectual courage we should all emulate. Many of us who joined the faculty in the 1960s and ‘70s were inspired by Dr. King’s courageous leadership.
It was becoming clear to many of us at Calvin in those years, though, that the civil struggle could not be engaged in adequately without also paying careful attention to the spiritual and theological dimensions of the racial crisis. Our task as Calvinists was complicated by the fact that in paying attention to the issues of racism, the world was not only looking at the American struggle, it was also focusing on the apartheid system in South Africa. And, in many minds, the racial segregation in South Africa was intimately linked to Calvinism—more particularly to the Dutch Reformed brand of Calvinism.
The South African situation, then, loomed large for many of us here. One particular discussion of apartheid in the 1970s stands out for me as an important spiritual experience. Calvin College was hosting a conference of educators from various Reformed institutions of higher education around the world, including both black and white delegates from South Africa. A decision had been made to devote one evening of the conference to a debate about apartheid. The Gezon Auditorium was full that evening, and the discussion was very heated.
At one point, late in the proceedings, the president of a white South African university was trying to defend his school’s racial policies. He told us that he hoped that apartheid would soon come to an end, but in the meantime his university was going along with the racial practices of the larger society. It was difficult to convince the majority of the white Dutch Reformed constituency that change must take place, he said. And then he added, with obvious pain in his voice, “We cannot get too far ahead of our people.”
At this point a black South African theologian stood up. Addressing the white leader by his first name, he said, “You keep talking about your people. You have to educate your people. You cannot get too far ahead of your people. Well, I want to say as a black African that I too love my people. But I also have to say this: as difficult as it would be, I would forsake my people in order to be obedient to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that is because belonging to Jesus is more important to me than my racial identity. So I want to ask you, my friend: Are you willing to forsake your people if the gospel demands it of you?” Sadly, the white leader never directly answered his question.
This was an important moment in my spiritual and theological journey. The black African’s testimony brought home to me in a powerful way the demands of the gospel with regard to issues of racial, cultural and national identity. If I genuinely believe what I am saying when I confess that I am not my own but belong to my faithful savior Jesus Christ, then this has profound meaning for my understanding of who I am and what God calls me to do.
As I continued to wrestle with the theological issues at stake, I was very helped by an observation made by the 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, on the subject of the image of God. Bavinck suggested that, in addition to the ways in which each human individual is created in the image of God, there is also a “collective” possession of the divine image. The Lord distributes different aspects of the divine likeness to different cultural groups. Each group receives, as it were, a different assignment for developing some aspect of the image of God. Only in the heavenly gathering-in of the peoples of the earth—when many tribes and tongues and nations will be displayed in their “honor and glory” (Rev. 21:26) in the New Jerusalem—only then will we see the many-splendored image of God in its fullness.
On this view, the sinful experiment at the Tower of Babel led to a distortion of an original and good multiculturalism that was built into God’s original creating design for the human race, and God found it necessary to respond to human sinfulness by instituting the kinds of remedial patterns of cultural diversity that were not in accordance with his original creating designs. Within the framework of that diversity, which resulted from the disobedience at Babel, God chose to accomplish his redemptive purposes by singling out a specific ethnic-cultural group, the Hebrew nation, as the special recipient of his covenant mercies.
This ethnocentric redemptive economy of the old covenant, however, was never viewed as the final arrangement. Isaiah makes this clear in many places. Here is one of my favorites, from Isaiah 25: 6-7: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things … . And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” I like that one because it seems to promise that someday we will be invited by God to take part in a risk-free high-cholesterol binge!
The ancient promise of redemption for all peoples was fulfilled in the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit revealed in a dramatic way a new Babel-reversing pattern of multiculturalism: “In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2: 11). The post-Pentecost church is called to show forth a new kind of social reality, in which older ethnic identities are subordinated to the new cultural patterns that come with life in the Spirit. The Christian community in its present life and witness should point forward to the multiculturalism that will someday be ushered in with the fullness of the reign of Lamb of God, who alone is “worthy… to take the scroll and open its seals, for [he was] slain, and by his blood [he has] ransomed men and women for God from every tribe and tongue and nation and [he has] made us”—We Calvinists know that here, too, is something that would never happen if we were left to rely on our own power—he has “made us a kingdom and priests unto our God. (Rev. 5: 9). In a time, then, when “multiculturalism” is a divisive topic in North America, and where ethnic and tribal warfare is waged in many other parts of the world, we have a mandate to bear witness to the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A sensitivity to the multicultural realities of the Body of Christ ought to have a clear impact on the way we conduct our primary academic activities: teaching, learning and research. A biblically shaped perspective on these matters will necessarily run counter to many prevailing views about, and strategies for cultivating, multicultural diversity in academic life. In Christian higher education we can display a different kind of diversity by exploring, with all of the intellectual resources, sensitivities and insights that are available to us, the complexities of the Kingdom realities that are the real context in which we conduct our academic business.
The mandate to do this is clearly stated in the text that was read earlier from Isaiah 49, verse 6: “It is too light a thing,” simply to conduct business as usual, says the Lord to the people of Israel as they return from their time of exile. You need to do more, he says, than merely to maintain the status quo: “I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
“It is too light a thing.” This is an important word for Calvin College today. Indeed it is a word that the Lord has spoken many times to this school.” It is too light a thing for you only to train preachers and Christian school teachers,” the Lord said to this college in the early days of its existence. “I want you to show my glory by being an excellent center for the study of the full range of the liberal arts.” “It is too light a thing,” said the Lord to Calvin College in the second half of the twentieth century—“it is too light a thing for you to concentrate almost exclusively on educating students from ethnic Christian Reformed environs; I want you to show my glory by also showing hospitality to students and faculty from the broader evangelical world.” In many other situations in the past, the Lord has presented challenges to this academic community, with that message, to this campus: “It is too light a thing…” And at this time in history, when the human race is experiencing new tribalisms and new programs in ethnic cleansing, and the threat of new genocidal campaigns—and in an academic environment where the confusion of Babel often seems so much more powerful than the harmonies of Pentecost—we must hear his word anew: “It is too light a thing for you to go about business as usual. I have raised you up to demonstrate how an academic community can honor the multicultural, multiracial, multinational designs of my creating and redeeming purposes.”
This word also comes to us as individuals. Are we tempted to see our studies, our teaching, our research programs, primarily as means to making a living, or gaining a reputation, or positioning ourselves to extend our spheres of personal influence? “That is too light a thing,” says the Lord of Hosts. Are we as students tempted simply to get by in our studies with the minimum of intellectual effort, treating our time on this campus as an experiment in exploring new ways to enjoy ourselves. “That is too light a thing,” says the Lord of Hosts. Do we see Calvin College as a fortress against the world, a place for preserving and reinforcing what the great Henry Stob liked to call, disapprovingly, “the mind of safety”? “That also is too light a thing,” says the Lord of hosts.
To be sure, we are indeed called to be faithful to the best of what we have received from the past. Mere experimentation, an inordinate love of new things, an anything-goes approach to Christian teaching and learning—all of these things also are too light a thing. We are not our own. We belong to the Lord, and we pursue our callings in a world that belongs to him. This means that we must continually seek his will—praying for the discernment to know what he is calling us to do—so that we can find our own place in his wonderful program of bringing his salvation to the end of the earth. To do anything less—well, that would be too light a thing. May God give you strength to do his will in the semester that lies ahead of you. Amen.
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