St Paul’s Memorial Church does not have a University Ministry.
St Paul’s Memorial Church is a University Ministry.
Today is our Baccalaureate Sunday – the Sunday that we, as a parish community, acknowledge and bless those students who have spent four years with us as they pursued their education and are now preparing to travel hence, ending their days as undergraduates and moving to a new phase in their lives. By their presence with us, these students have provided us with many gifts – some intentional and obvious, others less noticeable or even accidental. But before they leave us, these students bequeath to us one last gift – namely, this Sunday on which we remember who were are and turn our thoughts back toward the mission that first brought this community into being.
I think it’s fortuitous that the lectionary for this Baccalaureate Sunday includes the Gospel reading from John that we’ve just heard. In an age of increasing Biblical Illiteracy, the story of Doubting Thomas is still a story that many people know or at least have a passing acquaintance with. You don’t even need to be a UVA Grad to have heard the story of Doubting Thomas. And though the story of Doubting Thomas did not make it into Mr Jefferson’s personally edited version of the Gospel, I believe that there is an affinity between the two Thomases. So, I’d like to use today’s Gospel lesson about Doubting Thomas to help us in our task of remembering our mission to the students of the other Thomas’ institution of higher learning.
At the heart of this Gospel passage is the search for Truth. Doubting Thomas does not doubt because he has been reared on an hermeneutic of suspicion. He does not doubt because he is the product of a skeptical age. Neither does Doubting Thomas doubt because he is unsure if there is even such a thing as “the Truth.” He is not us. And although tempting, we shouldn’t project our own concerns back onto Doubting Thomas. Good ol’ Doubting Thomas was not plagued by Mr Jefferson’s Enlightenment empiricism or burdened by Mr Rorty’s postmodern relativism. No, Doubting Thomas was not worried about finding a theory of truth; Doubting Thomas was searching for an encounter with Truth.
And while I have met many students struggling with the ideas of empiricism, relativism, and theories of truth since I came here last year, it has become clear to me that every student I’ve met is like Doubting Thomas. Every student I’ve met here is ultimately searching for an encounter with Truth. They’re looking for an encounter with Truth in science and nature, in philosophy and religious studies, in theatre and poetry, in history and anthropology. They’re looking for an encounter with Truth in friendships and in mentors. They’re looking for an encounter with Truth at Para Coffee and at Bodo’s Bagels. They’re looking for an encounter with Truth even if they’re not sure what the word means or if there is such a thing. Like Doubting Thomas, these students are looking for an encounter with Truth. Buried beneath a myriad of other reasons, that is why they are here. Like so many of us before them, these students have been drawn away from home and kin by that inward drive to encounter the Truth.
Doubting Thomas, too, had been called from home and kin to follow that deep desire for Truth. He had been called into a new community, a new family, brought together by the desire to encounter the Truth. Like Doubting Thomas’ entrance into the community of disciples, the students here have been drawn together into the community of the University. Despite Mr Jefferson’s Enlightenment focus on the individual, he designed his Academical Village to foster the communal bonds of those brought together at his University. Virtues, like the desire to encounter Truth, and the language to enable that encounter, can only be learned and formed in community.
But the Truth is larger than a single community. And those of us like Doubting Thomas, who desire encounters with Truth require broader and deeper language than the jargon of our academic disciplines. The parish congregation of St Paul’s Memorial Church is just such a community that can provide the broader and deeper language that so many students need. In fact, we are a community created for this purpose. We are a community created by and for those seekers of Truth at the University of Virginia – whether they be students, faculty, or staff. As the local embodiment of the Church (in the Anglican-Episcopal tradition), we are uniquely poised to offer the language and formation necessary for those who seek an encounter with Truth. We are uniquely poised to be an encounter with Truth. We are able to be an encounter with Truth because Jesus Christ is the Truth, and we are the Body of Christ.
Of course, this is not unique to us. The Body of Christ is present in every church and university ministry and even in groups we might not expect. There are many members of the one Body, as St Paul says. But I would like to remind us here this morning of the special role that we play in the one, risen Body of our Lord. You see, some of the students who seek that encounter with Truth run into resistance. Often the resistance comes from one or more their communities – whether the community be a study group, a sports team, a frat or sorority, or even a university ministry. An invaluable tool in the quest for an encounter with Truth is the question. But there are communities that seek to silence questions with pre-packaged answers. There are communities that trade the slow struggle with the ambiguities of faith for the comfort of easy certainty. And there are communities that close off the opportunity for an encounter with Truth for some students. (I know this is true because I have met students who have told me this very story).
Over this past year, I have seen that St Paul’s and our Canterbury Fellowship resolutely refuse to be those kinds of communities. Instead, we have strived to be a place that invites and encourages questions. We have strived to be a community that is willing to struggle with the ambiguities of faith. We have strived to be a community that welcomes and offers support to those who have not received welcome or support elsewhere. In these ways, we have strived to be a community of Truth. And we have been such a community for a wonderful group of students this year – a group of students who are scientists, historians, poets, actors, and theologians. Our Canterbury group includes students discerning calls to the ministry and students trying to discern if any of this Christianity-stuff is real. Some of our students are Episcopalian, others aren’t. Heck, one of our most committed student leaders is Baptist – (but we don’t hold that against him)!
But even as great as our Canterbury group is, St Paul’s cannot become idle or detached from this important work of University Ministry. In fact, we need to work harder to bring together the parish ministry of St Paul’s with the University ministry. The students are hungry for more interaction with the parish – they’ve told me so. And many of you are hungry for more interaction with the students – you’ve told me so. Next year, the students are planning to change the night they meet each week so that they can start coming to Wednesday Community Nights. And they are brainstorming other ways to be more involved with St Paul’s. Now it’s our turn. So, try coming to the 5:30 Sunday evening Eucharist once or twice a semester and stay for dinner with the students. Adopt a student and invite them to dinner from time to time; you’ll have their undying gratitude, I promise. (They can’t stand the food from the Dining Hall)! Get to know what the students are studying; you might be the mentor that one of them needs. Share your faith with the students. Share your questions with the students. Let them share their faith and questions with you. Let their longing to encounter the Truth reawaken your own desire for it.
St Paul’s Memorial Church does not have a University Ministry; St Paul’s Memorial Church is a University Ministry.
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Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 May 2011 13:13