God is Still Working
I feel exceedingly honored to have been asked to share in this service of worship and thanksgiving to God at this historic moment in the life of this Seminary, indeed in the life of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt, in continuity with the Christian witness in this land since the day of Pentecost, and in present-day fellowship and communion with the worldwide Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in this context, I bring special greetings – as I have been asked – from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, and from the Common Global Ministries Board of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the USA.
I am particularly humbled on this special occasion to acknowledge personally the debt I owe to this school for the early years of my formation into what the Lord has called me, and led me, and taught me to be and to do.
For, literally, I was born into the arms and the bosom of this institution! I say literally, because my parents were students here at the time of my birth; I was often baby-sat by faculty wives, I took my first steps here, and learned my first words here. But it was also here that I heard more and learned to study the Word of God. Moreover, I was Calvinized, in the sense of systematically studying the doctrines of our faith, the history of our tradition, the tools of ministry and the missionary vocation of the church.
This week, we celebrate 150 years of this beloved institution, and for me it is a very personal moment because, again literally, it has been part of me, and in various ways I have been part of it for nearly half of its age. And the marvelous thing is that we are both still young! Yes, young because the Spirit of God still calls me and this seminary, and all of us who, in the closest or the remotest way, are connected – yes, the Spirit of God calls us, and equips us, for new visions of the Kingdom of Christ, and our place in it. Every new morning, and every chapter of my life, the Spirit teaches me that God is not finished with me yet! God is not finished with any of us yet! God is not finished with this Seminary yet. And, what is even more reassuring is that “the best is yet to be!”
And that is precisely the message that the Scripture teaches us today. When I was asked to speak at this morning’s chapel service, the first thought that came to my mind is what Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. The text has become a golden verse for my own life and ministry, and I believe it speaks to all of us here as individuals, to the churches to which we belong, to their institutions, to their mission boards and agencies, in these words:
“The One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
The first thing that this Scripture tells us is that it is GOD who began the good work in us.
Could Lydia, the first believer in Europe who had earlier heard Paul in Philippi and then spread the word of good news, have been present? I tried to imagine the Prison Guard who became the evangelist and perhaps the first pastor of the Philippian church, if he too were there to hear Paul’s letter being read! Today I muse on the probable and legitimate sense of pride if Andrew Watson were with us, meeting today’s seminary faculty and the new generation of pastors. I imagined him hearing
– all the uplifting stories of the new churches growing all over Egypt, in some of the most unexpected ways and places,
– or hearing about the new and innovating ministries of the various councils,
– the witness of the Evangelical church to our unity in Christ through ecumenical relations,
– the creative outreach programs of the Bible Society,
– the far-reaching dialogue encounters with Muslim neighbors,
– the regenerative programs of the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS)
– and the engagement of the church in global partnerships and international mission initiatives: as in the model of Sweilem Sidhom Hennein who went to the South Sudan in the early 1950s, or the many graduates of this Seminary who went as evangelists to Syria, Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf States, indeed to several countries in Europe, Australia and North America. I bear this mark in my own calling in that in 1966 I was ordained by the Delta Presbytery to be sent as a “minister in mission.”
Yes, these are things we celebrate today; but the Scripture teaches us that IT IS GOD WHO BEGINS all any and all good work in us. If we have any holy thought; God has given it to us; if we have any true desire, God has implanted it in us; and it is God who gives us the strength to implement it.
This is the profound teaching in St. Augustine’s and John Calvin’s doctrine of grace which they pressed so strongly as to seem at times almost to destroy the reality of free will: we could not seek God unless God already possessed us. The truth is that in every great work (whether it is the founding and the development of this seminary, or the Bustani-Van Dyck Arabic translation of the Scripture, or any other enduring ministry), every great work has 2 parts: a working in, and a working out. The working in is the divine part and it precedes the working out which is our human response. It is easy to work out an idea once you’ve got it; but the mystery is in the getting of it! The mystery is in the impulse, the inspiration. In the words of George Matheson, “I work what I will not; I compass what I conceive not; I seek – like Abraham – a foreign country, and I will find myself in the land of Canaan.”
The great religions of the world (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) lay all the stress on the human will and human striving. The keynote of those systems is “work out your own salvation.” “The power that saves you is of yourself; the chains that bind you are of your own forging; the virtue that delivers you is of your own merit.” We have no need to disparage this teaching for the sake of exalting our Christian religion. It is the noblest element in Eastern faith; and it is a truth too much neglected by ourselves. Will power in human nature is not so strong that we can afford to discourage its cultivation. But it is only one side of religious truth; it is not the whole truth. It certainly is not the Gospel truth. For it omits the good news of the God’s love, the good news of the Savior’s cross, the good news of the Holy Spirit that helps our infirmities.
It is GOD who initiates any good work in us; it is GOD who works in us BOTH TO WILL and TO WORK for God’s good pleasure.
But then we learn from this passage that it is the GRACE OF CHRIST THAT CONTINUES THIS WORK THROUGH US.
And that is where our free will comes in: For the very freest act of the human soul is that by which it gives itself under God’s grace to God’s self. Our willing and our doing is not compulsory action; we are influenced by grace, and by grace we can have the resolve and imagination to do what God asks us. The Apostle considers that both the beginning and the continuation of the work of the gospel through the church is the work of God’s grace; and that partnership is an evidence of the inheritance of the grace we share in Christ.
And so it follows that the One who began a good work in us will see it to completion. The work to which God has called each of us as individuals is not yet complete. The work that God has called each of our churches and each of our institutions is not yet complete. God is not finished with us yet. The GOD of all grace who has called us to eternal glory in Christ, will complete, restore, establish and strengthen us.
To God be the glory forever.
A sermon preached on 13 November 2014 by the Rev. Victor E. Makari at the Chapel of the Evangelical Theological Seminary at Cairo, Egypt, marking the opening of the Seminary’s celebrations of the 150th Anniversary of its founding in 1863. Note: the celebrations were scheduled to take place in November 2013, but were postponed because of prolonged political turbulence in Egypt at that time.
Rev. Victor Makari, a member of Highland Presbyterian Church (USA), Louisville, Kentucky, is jointly appointed with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) and serves with our Mission Partner, the Diyar Consortium (of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land as Regional Consultant for the Religion and State in the Middle East. His appointment is supported by Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.