Rev. Dr. Mark Brighton ’81 preached for Concordia’s 40th anniversary service on September 25, 2016. The following is an excerpt of his sermon from that day.
Today marks the fortieth anniversary of classroom instruction at this institution. Christ College opened its doors for the first time to about thirty students in 1976. I first saw the college myself two years later in the spring of ’78. What I saw was one building housing about sixty people in the middle of a field of weeds, rattlesnakes, and coyotes. “So this is Christ College,” I thought. “Well, this place certainly appears to have an inflated self-concept.” I distinctly remember thinking at the time that this would be the last place I would ever go. There were so many other more credible places to apply, I thought. Places with more than one building, for example.
Appearances, of course, can be deceiving. No one would have thought that Abraham and Sarah in their nineties had a chance at having a family, much less at becoming a great nation. Samuel did not anticipate that the youngest son of Jesse would be the future king of Israel. Bethlehem itself was no going concern in first century Judea or in ancient Israel, yet it was the birthplace for the Messiah. “The LORD sees not as man sees: a man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
There is a challenge and a promise to these words, spoken by God to Samuel as he watched all the elder sons of Jesse parade before him. The challenge is to not place our confidence upon things that have no lasting significance. The promise is that God can and does mighty things through all of us.
On this day when we celebrate and give thanks to God for the forty years of Christ College, also known as Concordia University, the reading from Joshua encourages us to never lose sight of our identity as the Great Commission University.
So what is the Great Commission? The phrase is attached to a final commission given by Jesus to his followers. “Go and make disciples of all nations.” But what does that mean? First, let me tell you what it is not.
It is not a process of indoctrination. This implies the imposition of a system of beliefs with no corresponding exploration of the questions.
But knowing all the right answers is not the final goal. How to apply knowledge and live accordingly — this is the goal in liberal arts education. This is wisdom. The Bible states that a wise person does not merely know things about God, but finally and necessarily enters into a life-giving relationship with God. So we at this Great Commission University encourage, even demand, our students to ask questions and examine evidence with the intent of cultivating wisdom.
The Great Commission is also not a program of compulsory behavior, either for individuals or society at large. Too often, the Christian agenda is popularly understood as merely the amending of human behavior and the imposition of a social agenda. The problem with this emphasis is that compulsory obedience is no sign of a healthy relationship. This is true for children, for spouses, and for us in our life with our creator. In Jesus’s day, some who made a great outward show of compulsory obedience moved among the Pharisees. And these people definitely had a social agenda. You don’t mix with unclean people like tax collectors and sinners. Jesus likened them to whitewashed tombs and called his disciples to higher standards.
No, the Great Commission is not about indoctrination or compulsory morality. It is dedicating ourselves to God’s plan of re-creation in Jesus Christ. Because finally, that is what we need. Many religions and philosophies can tell us how to be more ethical people. They all have their own recommendations on how to form a more just society. But the Bible also adds this unique message: humans are broken people. We fight amongst ourselves and can find no lasting peace, we cannot escape death, and we have contradictory and distorted ideas and attitudes about our creator. The entire Bible focuses upon God’s intent to re-create human lives to reflect His glory. This re-creation happens only through the God-man, Jesus Christ. The Great Commission is all about dedicating ourselves to this plan of re-creation.
Forty years ago Christ College was founded with this focus. It was to inform all our studies.
The reading from Joshua encourages us this day not to lose sight of our identity and integrity:
Just be strong and very courageous in covenant. Be careful to live according to the Torah that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.
Dear brothers and sisters, this is our challenge and our promise today. Forty years ago this institution was founded with a particular identity. The first generation of leaders is now gone, but we can still hear their voices. President Manske and his relentlessly positive attitude for building a Great Commission college, who now rests from his labors with his Savior. Shang Ik Moon, the guru of policy and social theory. Robert Holst and his passion for having us experience the Gospel in different cultural contexts. Marty Schramm, college recruiter and English professor par excellence, with an impossibly unchanging polished appearance. And Dale Hartmann, with his vitamin-infused polyester energy in building a library and leading students in evangelism.
Concordia was much different back then. None of these men would want us to return to the past. But they would all pass on their vision.
They passed it on to me. True, I had first thought that Christ College was merely a joke. But that was looking only at appearances. Somehow I had forgotten my first impressions about Christ College, because when Dr. Moon passed through St. Louis, where I lived, I decided to apply. Did I mention that Prof. Schramm was a great recruiter? My life changed here. I met my future wife. I sat at the feet of dedicated and wise professors. I learned about the center of this university, of my life, and of my faith. Finally, it’s all about Jesus, his love for us and his power to save.
The challenge for this institution, as well as for all of us individually, is not to lose focus upon that which finally alone matters. Jesus put it this way: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits his own self?” Our adversary would always have us compromise our integrity — our faith, our devotion to God’s plan of recreation — for some other perceived gain. Yes, the enemies of life are real. But Christ gives his victory to his followers. His sacrifice on the cross brings forgiveness to all with shattered integrity. From there God speaks to us words of love and grace rather than recrimination. His victory over death and promise to raise his followers to new life now brings us the freedom to sacrifice all in return.
For when we experience loss for our integrity, our devotion to Christ and his re-creation, we are victorious where it counts. In the words of one reformer that some of you may have heard about, “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, (or university), though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!”
Will this university be here forty years from now? Maybe! Maybe not! Our creator alone knows our future. What we know is that in Christ our future is glorious. So as long as we have breath, as long as we have the privilege of working here, let us remain faithful to God’s larger purpose for us in Christ. “Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” Amen!