By Dr. Diane Leclerc
The mission of Northwest Nazarene University is the transformation of the whole person. Centered in Jesus Christ, the NNU education instills habits of heart, soul, mind and strength to enable each student to become God’s creative and redemptive agent in the world.
I have loved my twenty-four years at NNU and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Our mission and values matter deeply to me. On topic for today is the question, “what does it mean that Northwest Nazarene University is ‘centered in Jesus Christ’?” In some ways, we know the answer to this intuitively or experientially. We can truly sense the difference in a Christian university contrasted with a secular one. This includes everything from our sense of community to our course requirements. But sometimes it is good to think through and be specific about why we are here and what sets us apart. In order to answer the question of what “centered in Jesus Christ” means, two other questions press in upon it. First, who is this Jesus? Again, we intuit this, but it is valuable to be really specific. Secondly, what does it mean to be “centered” in him as an institution? We will begin by taking a close look at who Jesus is and what he has done for us.
1. Who is Jesus Christ?
Jesus Christ as the Revelation of God
As all of us have been appropriately taught, if we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus. Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God. God’s revelation bursts forth in the incarnation and life of Jesus. The logos of God became flesh and dwelt among us. The Church is clear. The incarnated Jesus was not just like God in characteristics but was fully God (in essence) and thus fully able to reveal God to us. We could offer a long list of revealed “Christlike” dispositions and actions based on Christ’s ministry portrayed for us in the gospels. May it suffice to say that the very heart of Christ reveals God as holy love. As this full revelation of God, we at NNU affirm the Truth as it is in Jesus; and we, then, seek truth about all of God’s creation through our education, for Jesus is the Truth, and all truth is God’s truth. We are a community of dedicated seekers after truth.
Jesus Christ as the “Recapitulation” of Humanity
Jesus not only reveals God to us, he also reveals true humanity to us, as we are meant to be. In Jesus, we see our potentiality. In Christ, we see who we are created to be as human beings. Through Christ, we can be restored and renewed in this humanity and be like Christ. Unlike other traditions, Wesleyan theology is thoroughly optimistic about such a restoration; indeed, transformation of human life, of the whole person. It is this transformation that is at the heart of our understanding of sanctification. The Fall distorted the image of God in humanity; Christ’s obedience (even to death on a cross) enables the re-creation of that same image in us. And what is the imago Dei in Wesleyan theology? It is the capacity to love and be loved in divine and human relationships, as well as loving the creation through stewardship. We were created for this purpose. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandments were, his answer was love. First, we are to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strength. At NNU, we believe that “education instills habits of heart, soul, mind and strength,” habits toward love. It is appropriate to claim that the sanctified life is a transformed life, where the ability to love God with our whole being is a real possibility. Second, Jesus says the second greatest command is to love others as we love ourselves. Through God’s grace, students can be renewed in the image of God to love God and others, move toward their true humanity by doing so and come to understand their purpose in the world.
Jesus Christ as Teacher and Model
Deep within the Christian tradition is the view that Christ is our teacher. Not only does Jesus Christ reveal God to us, not only does he personify humanity as it was originally created, he also teaches us how to live our lives in God day after day. Often, Jesus counters the world’s order of things. In many respects, he turns it upside down. He taught specifically through his sermons, his parables and his illustrations. We hear from him that the first will be last and the last will be first; that if we want to find life, we must lose it; that discipleship is about denying oneself and carrying crosses; that the Kingdom of heaven cannot be found where we might be tempted to look; that the Messiah will not lead an earthly rebellion, but will suffer and die. Jesus remains our teacher as we seek to learn.
Beyond his verbal teaching, Jesus Christ shows his disciples a life of full obedience to God and of the fullest expression of love to others. He taught the life of holiness through example. It is not a call that only Jesus is to fulfill. Through his lips we hear the words, “be holy as God is holy” directed at the disciples, the church; and we take it as a directive to NNU as well. To love as Christ loved. To show the full extent of love; we know also that he took a towel and wrapped it around his waist, took water from an ordinary basin and washed his disciples’ feet. As our teacher and model, he revealed that life in God is about servanthood. One might say that servanthood is the ethic of God’s love. We seek to teach our students at NNU to live servant lives for the sake of others; to become God’s creative and redemptive agents in the world, even as we seek to model it as well.
Jesus Christ as Resurrected Savior of the World
While in a sense Christ’s incarnation, recapitulating work and teaching model are crucial to our understanding of who he is, it is most explicitly his cross that reveals his true nature and God’s true nature in turn. The act of servanthood in washing his disciples’ feet in the upper room quickly turns to the day of his crucifixion, also out of a heart of servanthood. The cross is the greatest expression of God’s self-giving, self-sacrificing, indeed self-emptying love. We proclaim that we are broken and lost without his death. But because of his death, we are saved. All grace, saving and sanctifying grace, and all the grace in between, comes to us because Jesus was willing to die. This is the gospel. We will fail our mission at NNU if our students do not hear the gospel.
Just as important as Christ’s death, Paul asserts strongly that Christ would have failed if he was not also resurrected. God raised him from the dead. Christian hope has as its foundation the message that God is able. God is able to save and redeem because Christ has died and been resurrected. Open wounds can be made redeemed scars. Dis-ease can be healed. Brokenness can be mended. All because we live in a world where God is the God of the cross and the resurrection. The resurrection of Christ then, and the final resurrection and restoration that we hope for in the eschaton, break into life in the here and now. There is new life now. This does not mean that our lives are never again touched by pain, suffering and loss. But to be Christian, in faith we must proclaim that our suffering is not all there is. The potential of resurrection life is real, and it touches us holistically. Every part of our being can experience resurrection life and strength. At NNU, we do not just see the death and resurrection of Jesus as a historical event but as the source of the power we have to live as new creations. We seek to be conduits of the healing ministry of Christ as we receive students who are often very broken. We seek to be a means of life-giving grace to them—another crucial component of what we do here.
2. What does it mean to be centered in this Jesus?
As Jesus is the revelation of God, we seek truth. As Jesus embodies the image of God, we seek to be transformed into whole persons enabled to love. As Jesus teaches and models for us the holy life, we seek to live lives of service. And all of this is possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As faculty, staff and students, we all individually seek to live our lives in God and for God, for the sake of our community and the world. In other words, we each seek to be centered in Jesus Christ. This is what we would expect, or at least hope for, in a Christian environment. While we may all be seeking these things individually, and in our relationships with each other in community, the question confronts us: what does it mean to be centered in Jesus Christ as an institution?
To be perfectly honest, this is where we are most vulnerable to fail because “the institution” is more than the sum of all of the parts. Theologians talk about something called “systemic evil.” It is different from personal sin, although personal sin can certainly contribute. It is a recognition that systems are fallen because we live in a fallen world. There is no perfect economic system; in every one, people are oppressed. Unless we are extremely careful, we can’t buy clothes, sugar or coffee without the suffering of others. There is no perfect form of government, even in the one that seems most Christian (“communism” is the one that theoretically looks most like the church in Acts). There is horrible corruption, with leaders immune from guilt who oppress their people and seek domination even through acts of war. There is a fallenness in every form of government. The same can be said of institutions, as good as we might wish to believe they are. Institutions have systems—long-range strategies, structures and hierarchies, the distribution of income—that can all have negative impact. Institutions can lack an all-encompassing perspective, appropriate mutuality and crucial accountability. Institutions participate in systemic evil even when there is no deliberate sin or ill intent involved. Completely without premeditated or calculated planning, people in an institution can still suffer from necessary decisions, momentary lack of judgment or wisdom and fluctuating morale. And, of course, people do sin against one another. And so, we do not put our faith and trust in institutions. We put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ.
The institution of Northwest Nazarene University is more than the sum of all of its parts—precisely because we are centered in Jesus, who sends his Spirit to enable us to be like Christ, we can be more than just a fallen place (albeit, confessing our failures and foibles); we can be holy. If we look to Scripture, we see that God uses all sorts of broken people for his purposes. For example, we know the church at Corinth had all sorts of problems that caused Paul great consternation. And yet, at the very beginning of the first letter, Paul addresses them as those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints. Despite all their failures, Paul does not forget what Christ can do in and through them. He points them to their God-enabled potential. In a sense, Paul tells them: “You are holy. Now become who you are.”
What does it mean to be centered in Jesus Christ? It means that as we participate in him, he makes us holy. Our role? To be intentional in all the ways we can, to become more and more of what God created NNU to be—to love as God first loved us. If we truly seek Christ first, all the rest will be added unto us. To be centered in Jesus Christ is not just a phrase in our mission statement. It is at the heart of all we are and do here; it is the longing of our hearts; it is our deepest hope; it is our calling. May God help us to truly become who we are.
Dr. Diane Leclerc is professor of Historical Theology at NNU, where she has served for more than 20 years. She has published many articles and seven books, including Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan Holiness Theology and Backside of the Cross, and is a much sought after speaker and preacher. She is ordained in the Church of the Nazarene and has served as President of the Wesleyan Theological Society, was a member of the North American Nazarene Women Clergy Council and is on the Articles of Faith Theology Committee in the Church of the Nazarene.
NNU’s College of Theology & Christian Ministries offers a diverse set of undergraduate, graduate and certificate programs. Students can study Christian Ministry, Youth Ministry, Intercultural Studies (Missions), Worship Arts, Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy. Graduates are well prepared for their careers in ministry because of the academic rigor, hands-on experience and highly-qualified, caring professors that are central to each of these programs. With appropriate choice of minors, students can graduate also having fulfilled all requirements necessary for ordination with the Church of the Nazarene.