“When the day of Pentecost had come,
they were all together in one place.
And suddenly from heaven there came
a sound like the rush of a violent wind,
and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
As the voices sang the opening choral number, “The Call,” the words filled the sacredness of that space with the words, “Come, my way, my truth, my life; such a way as give us breath; such a truth as ends all strife; such a life as conquers death.” The beautiful stone walls seemed to lift up the unbridled hope present in the historic Princeton University Chapel. In a world framed by yet another senseless school shooting and the continued presence of violence and threats of war, I found myself clinging to that Pentecost moment as hundreds of seminarians received their degrees. It was a poignant reminder of how God continues to break into our mundane reality with a new generation of leaders – men and women eager to rise up and lead the present-future church of Jesus Christ at a time framed by financial scarcity, images of despair and surrender to the narrative of the “not possible.”
What was equally powerful was the presence of thousands more – witnessing to the accomplishments, the hopes and commitments of these men and women. Those witnesses struggled to restrain their applause until the end, as daughters, sons, nephews, nieces, mothers, fathers, and grandparents walked across the chancel to receive their degree. It was an extraordinary moment of energy and hope that could not be contained – not even by a culture that often exhausts us with discouragement.
The truth is, I should be used to this annual ritual by now. Over the past eight years, I have had the privilege of attending most of the commencements at Princeton Theological Seminary. I have heard the same songs sung that were sung at my commencement in 1994. I have processed with the trustees – leading the faculty and graduates. But that is simply not the case. Sitting in the chancel, looking at the throngs of people causes a deep stirring and joy in my soul. The joining together of voices in song and prayer was like the unleashing and rush of a mighty wind – blowing through that space. It was the Pentecost prelude to sending forth new leaders into the world to witness and serve in the name of Jesus. There were prospective scholars and professors, chaplains, small church pastors, associate pastors, big church pastors, bi-vocational pastors, church planters, church revitalizers, missionaries, prophets, and priests. They reflected the ministry of the body of Christ in its many forms. They were incarnate reminders of a Pentecost people who believe the Gospel has something to offer the world for a “time such as this.”
This commencement coincided with Pentecost Sunday, a day when many of our congregations celebrated the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the very first community of faith gathered in the upper room. Some of our church families celebrated their confirmands and young people. Others celebrated by offering and sharing the languages reflected in their communities. The lectionary New Testament story of Pentecost in Acts was tethered to the Old Testament story of dry bones in Ezekiel. I love these two moments in the story of the faithful. In Ezekiel we’re reminded that God’s powerful Spirit can breathe new life into bones that had become dry and lifeless – causing them to rise up. It is that same breath that brought new life into the upper room 2,000 years ago. It is the same holy breath of heaven that was poured out upon those present in the University Chapel this past week. It is a season that claims loudly that we are a Pentecost People – a people of new life, a people of the impossible; a people who rise up out of despair into the hope of the resurrection.
Many of you will be witnessing commencements over the next few weeks. Some of you will even be commencing – beginning new seasons of hope in many different ways. May you allow yourself to be awed by the hope that is being unleashed in those spaces. May that hope inspire you to remember “who you are because of whose you are.” May we rise up together – may we let that breath of heaven send us forth into the world as a people of Pentecost – with joy and love. And so I share the words of the final verse of “The Call” – Come, my joy, my love, my heart. Such a joy as none can move; such a love as none can part; such a heart as joys in love.”
*The Call: Poem by George Herbert (1633)