Nearly 300 students received degrees ranging from undergraduate and graduate certificates to associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees when New Orleans Seminary held its spring commencement in Leavell Chapel May 18 and Leavell College held its commencement the previous day.
Kelley began his charge to the seminary graduates with a word from the apostle Paul.
"He's very special to us here at NOBTS, because we have conclusive evidence that he was one of our earliest students," Kelley joked.
Kelley pointed to the fact that Paul often refers to himself as the apostle to the Gentiles.
"And who are 'Gentiles'?" Kelley asked. "Clearly, people who live on Gentilly! So there's a very intimate connection there."
New Orleans Seminary's street address is 3939 Gentilly Blvd.
Kelley spoke from 2 Timothy, Paul's last known epistle, addressed to Timothy, who he referred to as "my true son in the faith." When he wrote 2 Timothy, Paul is believed to have been in prison and under guard.
"I wonder if the chains jangled every time he moved," Kelley said. "He wrote over half the New Testament, honeycombed the entire Roman Empire with churches, now on death row in a Roman prison."
Kelley asked the graduates what emotions they might experience if they were writing a "last will and testament" from prison, awaiting execution.
"When you read this letter, what would you expect to find from death row? Anger? Defiance? Discouragement? Frustration?" Kelley asked. "What you find is something quite different."
Kelley then read 2 Timothy 1:8-11: "Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher."
"Not words of defiance," Kelley said. "Not words of anger or discouragement or depression. Not words of defeat. But a quiet, a calm, a certain confidence. This is the word of a man who knows his mission will be complete. He knows how the story will end. He knows that Jesus will prevail.
"That wonderful legacy of Paul the apostle is a legacy we claim here at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and it's the legacy we want you to leave with as you go out from this place to live your life and do your ministry," he said.
Kelley outlined how much of the legacy and history of New Orleans Seminary has grown out of challenge and hardship -- even from the school's founding in 1917.
"Baptists realized that the rest of America did not look like and was not going to look like the small southern cities and towns where most Baptists lived," he said. "They knew somebody had to do the work of getting people ready, because the non-Baptist world out there was going to get bigger and more strong and influential in our nation.
"They needed somebody to hit the beach first," Kelley continued, using the metaphor of troops storming a beachfront. "That somebody was us at New Orleans because, after all, we are NOBTS and hitting the beach first is what we do."
New Orleans is not an easy place to live, Kelley admitted, but "we are here because this is where God wants us to be."
"We have learned that you never have to have perfect in order to be productive. We have learned it doesn't have to be ideal in order to be fruitful for the Kingdom of God," he said.
Kelley pointed to the experience of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as evidence of the seminary's determination to thrive despite hardship. The seminary lost access to its campus and classrooms for nearly a year, but professors and administrators found ways to continue classes both online and in remote locations.
"We knew that, through the power of God, Katrina could not blow the sugar off our beignets," Kelley said, later adding, "Our security is in our Savior and not our circumstance. Our focus is on our mission and not our problems. We know the end of the story: Jesus wins."
Just as NOBTS has a mission, Kelley reminded graduates that they too have a mission.
"That mission may be a church new or a church old. That mission may be a college campus. That mission may be a land far away. That mission may be a military unit deployed in harm's way," he said. "Wherever that mission takes you, it will take you face-to-face with reasons to quit. ... But we don't quit. We are NOBTS."
That legacy of obedience and determination is modeled after Paul who, through shipwrecks, beatings, persecution, prison and church fights, stayed faithful to his calling as an apostle of Christ.
"I love Paul's closing words to Timothy: 'And the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work and will preserve me into his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and forever,'" Kelley said, quoting 2 Timothy 4:18.
"It's your turn to take up the mantel of obedience. It's your turn to realize you're no longer a student preparing. You are a frontline soldier of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You have a mission, and what you do with that mission is obey.
"We are NOBTS. It's what we do," Kelley said to graduates. "You are NOBTS. It's what you do too."
Frank Michael McCormack is assistant director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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