For seminary graduates, summer is a time of transition, whether as a layperson in the marketplace, a fledgling academic, or a minister of the church. After all of the hard years of study, the impossibly short academic deadlines, and the brain twisting reading assignments that, God help you, you hope you never have to do again, you have finally acquired a new title: You are masters.
And you have learned the names of so many things along the way. You now know the difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian, and you know that the latter are not to be confused with the good people of Armenia, who live just north of Iran.
You’ve got Perichoresis in your back pocket. You’ve got the Great Schism on the tip of your tongue. You’ve got the Rule of Faith in one hand and a Rule of Life in the other. You’ve got mad exegesis powers and you know that homiletics is just a really fancy word for the art of preaching. You also know that only Germans whose last name starts with the letter “B” get to be read in seminary: like Barth, Brunner, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer.
You’ve not only learned the names of so many things, you’ve also acquired massive naming powers, which are a bit like Jedi powers. Like Adam and Eve before you, you can name the details of the world in a way that escapes most of us, and when you name people and things, you exercise power over them.
This is what God has in fact called and equipped you to do by going to seminary: to name the world faithfully so that the world might know and love God truly. And because all of you belong to a local congregation of one sort or another, God invites you to exercise your naming powers not just faithfully but also graciously.
The local church, of course, is the one place where you might be tempted, like Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars, to misuse your Jedi powers. You might be tempted to trot out the names of Arius or Athanasius with a knowing look in your eyes. You may wish, like I did in my first sermon after seminary, to drop all manner of fancy Greek words into your sermons. You may wish to ramble on about the historical-critical method in your Sunday School class in a way that makes it harder rather than easier for people to love the good words of God’s Good Word.
And because the people of God are all over the place in their spiritual lives, you may also be tempted to call them theologically ignorant philistines. You may find yourself becoming fed up with them as a stiff-necked people who can’t keep theodicy or theocracy straight. You’ll look out over the congregation and think: There goes the progressive; there goes the fundamentalist. That’s the Bible fanatic; that’s the liberationist. She’s the semi-Pelagian; he’s the brain-on-a-stick.
But you’re not alone in the naming business. God is in the naming business, too.
The psalms tell us that God calls the stars by name. In Luke 1, God calls Elizabeth the “fruitful one” to replace the nickname that people had given her, the “sterile one.” In Luke 7, Jesus calls “beautiful” a woman whom others called “sinner.” In Revelation 2, he gives all of us a white stone with a new name written on it. And the Holy Spirit repeatedly bears witness to our true name as well, as children of God.
The upshot of all of this? Be like God and name the people of God not just faithfully and graciously but also in care-filled and responsible ways.
Remind them also of their baptismal name. Which is what? It is the same name, I suggest to you, that the Father gives to Jesus at his own baptism: beloved. In all three accounts of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Father’s voice from heaven is heard audibly. And all three accounts include the same basic statement: You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I well pleased.
Think for a moment how astonishing this is. The Father presumably could have made his voice heard countless times throughout Jesus’ ministry. But he speaks out loud only three times, and two out of the three times—including at Jesus’ transfiguration—the eternal, infinite, supreme God repeats himself.
The Father knows all the words in the world. He knows all the words that could be and yet shall be, world without end, and he could have said a million things about the Son. But instead, he says one thing: You are my Son, the beloved.
The people name Jesus: They call him Messiah, Lord, Rabbi, King of the Jews. Jesus also names himself: Bread, Door, Light, Shepherd. But none of these names, I offer, is more definitive than the name that the Father gives to Jesus before the Son has even accomplished anything in his public ministry: beloved.
And when you and I are baptized in Jesus’ name, we, too, hear the Father name us this way: beloved. We, too, receive the gift of the Spirit, who confirms in our hearts our truest name: beloved. And when we look around at the people of God, we, too, should see their truest name: the beloved.
Each of you is officially a “master.” That is your new name. A master of ministry. A master of theology. A master of divinity. But more important than this new name is your truest name: a beloved of God.
Some of you are pastors, some teachers, others evangelists or administrators. All of you are leaders. But your truest name is beloved. Some of you have the gift of healing; others of you have the gift of mercy. All of you are called to be servants. But your truest name is beloved. Some of you are academically gifted. Others are gifted counselors or gifted in works of justice. All of you are ministers of one sort or another. But your truest name is beloved.
So when you struggle to find your place in the world, remember your truest name. Beloved. When you doubt your calling, what’s your truest name? Beloved. When you feel exhausted by the demands of ministry, what’s your truest name? Beloved. When you feel discouraged by the lack of evident fruit in your labors, what’s your truest name? Beloved.
When you feel irked by specific people in your community, what’s their truest name? Beloved. When people do not appreciate the sacrifices that you have made to serve God, what’s their truest name? Beloved. When your worship leader plays a song with dodgy eschatology, what’s their truest name? Beloved. And when you feel overwhelmed by the neediness of all the people in your community—the extroverts and the introverts, the single and the married with a quiver of children, the old and lonely and the young and the restless, the theologically fussy and the theologically negligent—what’s their truest name? Beloved.
Remember their name.
When I was a child growing up in Guatemala, my friends called me “Canche” because I had white skin. In high school, my friends called me “Bean,” which was quite the opposite of what my parents called me when I was a baby, which was “Chunk.” In college I was David the Doubter. In seminary I was David the Rabble-Rouser. In my thirties, as a pastor, I was David the High Achiever With Impossibly High Standards For Himself And Everybody Else. In time, I acquired new names: husband, daddy, uncle, professor, priest, chronically fatigued, guy who sorta knows Bono.
But none of these names define me as truly, deeply, or utterly wonderfully as the name that my Father in heaven gives me in the name of his Son and the power of his Spirit: I am the beloved one.
And that is how I would name you, masters students, as well: the beloved of God.
So as you exercise your Jedi powers of naming the world faithfully and responsibly, carefully and graciously, remind the beloved people of God of their truest name, too. There’s scarcely a better way to love them.
W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts is due out with Eerdmans in 2019. Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life is due out with Thomas Nelson in 2020. He tweets at @wdavidotaylor.
This article was adapted from a recent commencement address given at Fuller Theological Seminary in Houston, Texas.