FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–As a new wave of students began their journey through the halls of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, President Kenneth S. Hemphill called on them to remember the need in today’s world and today’s church for encouragement, compassion, sympathy and fellowship.
New and returning students, faculty and staff heard Hemphill’s message in the first chapel of the semester Aug. 22. The new arrivals were commissioned as “Southwesterners” by William Tolar, distinguished professor of biblical backgrounds, following a tradition established by former Southwestern President Robert Naylor.
In his sermon, Hemphill said that for the church today to have the vitality and growth of the community of faith of Acts 2, Christians need to remember Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 2:1-11.
Hemphill noted a fourfold need expressed in the first verse: “If therefore there is any encouragement, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion … .”
“I like the translation ‘If there is’ because I believe that it echoes the longing and the questioning of our day,” Hemphill said. “Do these things exist? In the critical environment in which we live, we hear more criticism than we do encouragement.”
Not only is the world asking this question of the church, but so are Christians, Hemphill said.
“I believe that we’re tired of doing church as usual and tired of the philosophy that bigger is necessarily better,” Hemphill said of the prevalent critical spirit in the church. “I think people are looking for an authentic community, affection, compassion and fellowship of the Spirit.”
There is a need in today’s body of believers for encouragement, for “this consolation of love,” he added. “When we receive agape, we return it.”
This kind of love that expresses itself in Christian fellowship was seen by Barnabas, who was sent by the Jerusalem church to investigate the community of believers in Antioch, Hemphill recounted. This eminent Jew saw the grace of God when he saw Jews and Gentiles eating together at the table of God, overcoming theological, economic, political and cultural barriers.
Students will face a number of walls and barriers at seminary, Hemphill said, but the Spirit of God will bring them down as the wall between Jews and Gentiles came down in Ephesians 2.
Just as there is a fourfold need, so there is a fourfold solution, Hemphill continued. The apostle’s words stress that believers need to have the same mind, to maintain the same love, to be in unity and to be intent on one purpose. In short, Christians are to keep their focus on heavenly things.
“You know what? I find when I trip up is when I get my mind on things below,” Hemphill said.
Followers of Christ need to follow Jesus’ command of Matthew 6 and set their minds first on the kingdom of God and his righteousness, to focus on the mind of Christ, Hemphill said.
And they need to follow Jesus’ command to love one another, just as Jesus proved his love to the 12 disciples by washing their feet. “If we love Jesus, we will express this to one another,” Hemphill said.
The president reminded his audience of the single purpose that the faculty and staff of Southwestern share, the purpose that all Christians should share — seeking to fulfill the Great Commission.
“We have one purpose, and that purpose is not to impress people with the credentials we have, not to impress them with the size of the churches we can grow, not to impress people with our ability, but to impress them with our Jesus,” Hemphill said.
And in doing so, Christians are not to look out for their own interests first but to subordinate their needs to the needs of others. Drawing upon verses 4 and 5 of the passage, Hemphill reminded his audience that the sacrifice of Christ was consummated upon the cross, but really took place at the moment of incarnation when Jesus gave up all the prerogatives of deity and became human flesh.
“This sort of love is costly, but it’s redemptive,” Hemphill said. And for the seminarians, it will be “costly every day,” as they lay down prerogatives now and after seminary.
But the need for Christians to lay aside their rights just as Jesus did is real.
“The servant life is in great demand today, but in short supply,” Hemphill said.