Ephesians 3 tells us that in God is all fullness. God fills all in all and in God is no deficiency, but rather the fullness of grace and blessing. Moreover, God has promised us that God will fill us with all God's fullness.
2Kings 4 records the story of selling oil to pay debts. It tells us that the amount of oil available to the widow depended on how many empty vessels she had. The flow of oil halted when there were no more empty vessels. In these two texts, God shows us how "fullness" and "emptiness" are related.
Nanjing Union Theological Seminary has come fifty years on its journey, and today we gather to celebrate that half-century. It is a day worth celebrating, for during these fifty years we have not only seen, but experienced, God's abundant grace for us. These fifty years have brought suffering and hardship, but that God who is all fullness has been present with the faculty and students of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary through it all. These fifty years have been years of the fullness of grace and of blessing, years of great achievements in theological education and of identifying ourselves with the people of our nation and progressing together with them. More than simply celebrating these fifty years, we should raise our thanks and praise to God for them.
These years have brought their ups and downs. Yet our God has realized in us the promise to fill us with God's fullness that is all in all. Why should this be, and how shall we live to remain in God's fullness?
These are questions all of us at this seminary must ponder and find answers to, for they bear on whether the seminary can continue to flourish and grow into a vessel useful to God, a partner in doing God's will.
As we consider our past and look to the future, there are several points I would like to share with you this morning:
Hold yourself "empty"
Luke 1:53 says, "he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." The fullness of God has been prepared for the hungry. Those who feel that they are satisfied will not taste the "fullness" of God, but will be sent away empty-handed. Matthew 5:6 tells us "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Only those who are in a constant state of hunger and thirst will feel the motivation and have the strength to pursue their goals. Only they thirst for God's righteousness, and they will be filled.
We at Nanjing Seminary have, over the last fifty years, always felt that we have fallen far short of what God requires of us, that we have done little, far too little, of what God has entrusted to us, of our mission. Whether it be in our teaching—experience and achievement—or in guidance for our students' spiritual lives, morals and intellectual attainments, there is always a great gap; that is to say, over the last fifty years, we have always reminded ourselves that we are hungry and thirsty, and this has kept us constantly aware that we must strive to do God's work. This compels us to continually seek to improve our teaching standards and methods, to seek where God is leading us day to day, to follow in the footsteps of the Holy Spirit, and thus be able to move ahead with the times. And so we taste the eternal fullness of God and this keeps us ever ready to receive God's fullness.
There are a few ill-intentioned people who attack Nanjing Seminary for this or that fault. We oppose these attacks and intend to ignore them. Yet at the same time, we have never denied that our work still falls short of what God requires, what the church needs and where the Holy Spirit leads. Only by knowing our shortcomings, emptiness and poverty can we gain the abundant grace and blessing of God, only then can we improve, progress and carry on the work of God.
How shall we view "yesterday's" experience, yesterday's grace, yesterday's achievements; in short, how shall we view the past?
No matter how good our experience, how abundant the grace we have received, or how great our achievements, we must admit that they all belong to yesterday: they are the past. And the past cannot take the place of today or of tomorrow. The past can be a reference; it cannot be a substitute; otherwise we will find ourselves unable to move forward. God wants us always to live in the present, to keep our vision fresh—whether in the midst of our ministries, or in the midst of every kind of grace—we must maintain a sense of newness; for to become mired in the past can only lead to failure. Victory in Jericho cannot win Ai. Old experiences cannot help us with new challenges; old visions and outdated views are not appropriate for new circumstances and new work. Never forget that "yesterday" is now history, and new challenges must be met with new abilities; new situations and new opportunities require new light. God is always leading us into the new—new realms, new circumstances, new challenges. God's goal is to create within us a new desire, a new hunger and a new thirst, a new sense of call, to draw us into a new light, new revelation, new inspiration and a new world, that we may keep pace with the ever-unfolding inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
If we remain mired in our past successes, if we have no idea how to meet the challenges of the present, we can never move forward. God does not want us to feed on yesterday's manna; God wants us to eat today's manna, new manna. Past victories cannot become present strength. We need to see that if the cross is not continually at work in us, we can never be filled. If the Holy Spirit is not continually leading and working within us, we cannot succeed. The "constant" action of God and the "continuing" response of humanity: the key lies in these two working in concert. And only this brings about a state in which we are filled with the abundant grace of God.
What shall we imitate?
The concept of "imitation" is found in Hebrews 6:12, where we are told how to view the achievements of our forebears, famous persons and elders. It is a question of what to imitate: their deeds or their faith? The two are quite different matters. A living faith never need imitate the deeds of others. There are people in the seminary who, whether in their own spiritual lives or as part of the community, imitate the deeds, rather than the faith, of others. Some people, reading that the disciples preached and prayed in tongues, want to imitate this; others read (Acts 5:19; 9: 12) that the sick were healed by the disciple's shadow, handkerchief or apron and this moved them to pursue the power to heal and cast our demons; and they went further, using this power as a standard for judging whether others were spiritual or filled by the Spirit. In so doing, they were not imitating others' faith, but merely their deeds. This is a completely mistaken path, a wrong leading and teaching. Our God does not want us to imitate others' actions, even when these are undertaken in faith, for this would be a dead end. If we are able to discern whether we are imitating the faith or the actions of others, we are on the road to healthy spiritual growth. We will live in the fullness of God and we will make steady progress in our ministries.
"Be transformed by the renewing of your minds"
Romans 12 tells us "be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." In order to be filled with the fullness of God, we must first walk in his will. Thus, whether we are continuously being transformed by the renewing of our minds is the foundation and key to receiving the fullness of God. Why is it that some people, some work units, though they are dedicated and hardworking, find themselves living outside the fullness of God and do not enjoy God's grace? The fundamental reason is that their wills, their views, are stale and unyielding. We must transform our thinking and wills by the renewing of our minds, in step with the Holy Spirit and changing with the times.
These four points demonstrate the most important ways in which we keep ourselves "empty" before God and continue to live in God's fullness. I believe that if we uphold the light and inspiration we have received in these four areas here at Nanjing Seminary, we will be filled even more with the fullness of God, our understanding of the truth will grow deeper and we will make steady upward progress in running our seminary. This is the inspiration and light God has given me. Through our sharing here today, may God bless God's living word and may God's will be done.
Ji Jianhong is Chairperson of the TSPM. He preached this sermon in a chapel service for the 50th anniversary celebrations at Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, October 31- November 1, 2002.
Text available in Nanjing Theological Review, 4(2002):35-36.