The Hand-Off (A Commencement Address)

It was my privilege to deliver this commencement address for the Graduating Class of Fall 2009 at Simpson University, January 23, 2010.

This Scripture Passage was read earlier in the program:

17 From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. 18 And when they had come to him, he said to them: “You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, 19 “serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; 20 “how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, 21 “testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 “And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, 23 “except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. 24 “But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:17-24, NKJV). 32 “So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32, NKJV).


President McKinney, members of the faculty and board, distinguished guests, parents, friends, family and Simpson University Class of Fall 2009, I am humbled by this opportunity to speak you.  Thank you.
I want to honor all of today’s graduates, while giving a special tip of the cap to our ASPIRE graduates. My own undergraduate degree was from a similar program in Chicago.
I crammed a four year college education into seven years.
Maybe you can relate to that.
So I offer my personal testimony to you, that the diploma you will receive in a few moments is real. Your studies at Simpson have prepared you well for a host of career choices, graduate education, and ministry.
Today is a special day: congratulations.


Tomorrow is a special day too. That’s because it’s the Championship round of the National Football League. Tomorrow’s games decide which teams go to the Superbowl.
I grew up in Chicago… I’m a lifetime fan of the Chicago Bears… who will NOT be playing tomorrow.
If you follow football at all, you’ve heard of the legendary running back, Walter Payton. The 1980’s were the Bears’ glory days. The memories are etched in my imagination: Jim McMahon takes the snap, hands off to Walter Payton, and the magic begins.
When Walter Payton had the football, something special happened. It isn’t always pretty. Sometimes he got tackled and picked himself up. Sometimes he fumbled, and ran off the field shaking his head. And sometimes he scored: 110 touchdowns in 13 seasons.
When Payton had the ball, it was special, and glorious.

The Arena

The Bible reveals a truth that you will find either incredibly wonderful or incredibly disturbing: it is the truth that all the world is an arena. And you, the Simpson University graduate… you are right now trotting onto the field of play.
Spring training is over. It’s game time.
The angels of heaven pack the arena. They look at you, says the Scripture, to see, through you “the manifold wisdom of God.” They watch you. The angels cheer and the forces of evil snarl.
It’s fourth and goal, and the play is to you.  The hand-off is to you. It’s your play to make or break. The pressure’s on.
Here’s the handoff, it’s your ball.
Throughout all your years at Simpson, your faculty and classmates have joined with parents, grandparents, pastors, and a great host of people who have loved you… in order to hand off to you the single most precious and indispensible commodity in the universe. What is that?
Today’s Scripture reading calls it the gospel of the grace of God.
St. Paul visited his dear friends. They were leaders of a thriving church.  Paul had coached them, equipped them, taught them, and prepared them.  They have toiled together, learned together, grown together, and bonded their hearts together.
But this is his farewell. He will not see them again. He is a prisoner and will soon be dead.
So he hands off the ball. He says, I kept back nothing that was useful. I proclaimed it to you night at day. My whole life has been a passionate testimony of the gospel of grace of God. Now it’s your turn. Today’s your commencement, he says.
Here’s the ball. Run with it. That is exactly what we are saying to you today.

I’ve brought this football with me… And I’m going to ask President McKinney to help me. He’ll be the Punky QB, and I’ll snap the ball to him. He’ll hand it off to our graduates. I’d like to ask our esteemed graduates to just pass it around among yourselves… whoever is last, would you kindly hold onto it, please.  Just as a symbol of today’s spiritual handoff.

Let that football represent your piece of God’s cosmic gospel project.

The Gospel

The Scripture summarizes that gospel in the simplest of terms.
It is the good news that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures. And that he was buried, and rose again, according to the Scriptures. (1Cor 15:3,4)
Christ died… that is historical fact.
For our sins… that is theological interpretation.
This is the gospel. The God-man whose sandals trod the dusty streets of Nazareth, that man who embraced lepers and welcomed sinners and reached out to us at our worst…
That man, Jesus, died, on an old, rugged Cross, on a hill called Mt Calvary.
And when he died, all your sin, and my sin, and the sin of the world was transfered to him.  He became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Christ not only carried our sins, he paid for our sins too. The Supreme Court of Heaven found Jesus guilty, and condemned him as if he had done what we had done, making eternal reconciliation with God free for the taking, and free for the believing.
The historical fact is that Christ died.
The theological intepretation is that he died as a substitute for our sins.
And the beautiful term that sums it up is “the gospel of grace.”

Liberal Arts

Odds are stong, however, that you have not majored in Bible, ministry, or theology, though many have. Perhaps you majored in business, education, music, history, mathematics, nursing, chemisty, psychology, or the arts.
I hope your time at Simpson has given you an inkling… that when you peer beneath the surface of business, education, music, history, mathematics, nursing, chemistry, psychology — or any other field of study — when you look deeply enough, you will find, looking back at you the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Because all truth is God’s truth.  All beauty is God’s beauty. If you contemplate it long enough, it will lead you to the foot of the Cross… and from there, to the Risen Savior, Jesus.
You don’t have to be a full-time pastor to be a lifelong minister of the gospel.
The Simpson University family is saying, “Here is truth; here is the fountain of all knowledge. Here is Jesus.  Here is the ground zero of all truth. Here is the gospel of grace. Here is the difference between hope and despair, life and death, heaven and hell. Here is the secret that the world around you desperately needs. You are passing through the gateway to world service.
Here is the gospel of grace. Here is the football.
We may not see you again, dear graduate, but if we do, we hope it to see you racing down the sidelines toward the goal, with the love of Jesus radiating in every direction… and the angels of heaven giving you a standing ovation.
Here is the gospel.
Run with it.


Walter Payton stood 5’10” and weighed 200 pounds. He could bench-press 390 pounds, leg-press 700 pounds, throw a football 60 yards, punt it 70 yards, kick 45-yard field goals, and walk the width of the field on his hands.
Everyday, he ran 20 laps up and down a steep hill.
He said, “I want to be remembered as the guy who gave his all whenever he was on the field.”
When he retired Payton left behind 26 Chicago Bears team records and numerous NFL records.
Walter Payton died young, of a rare cancer, at age 45.
And you should also know he was a committed Christian. He was not shy about his faith. He told his biographer to make sure his faith shined through… and to spell all the words right…
Pretty much what our faculty wishes for you.

Our Prayer

By the way, that football you’re passing around was personally autographed by Walter Payton before he died.

What you have received is precious.

If he dedicated himself so ferociously to carrying a football down the field…
How much more should we, who have been handed something far more precious and wonderful, dedicate ourselves with equal ferocity to carry the gospel to the world.
Run with it into a world groping in darkness.
Run with it into hospitals and schools and families and businesses and construction sites and banks and mission fields and subdivisions and shopping malls and big box retailers.
Run with this gospel into dark places.
You are delivering the antidote to death. You are delivering the elixir of everlasting life.
This is what you’ve been preparing for. Your journey won’t always be pretty… you might get tackled; you might fumble.  It won’t always be pretty, but it will always be glorious.
And when trials come to drive you to the turf and stop you cold… echo the words of St Paul:
“But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24, NKJV).
You’re not on your own. You have God’s own enablement. God’s own resources. God’s own storehouse of treasures.
You have God’s own perfect Word – the Bible – written, living, and powerful.  And through that word of grace, God himself will build you up, bulk you up, suit you up, for your very own Superbowl celebration.
If you can endure the long haul of a university education, you can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.


Today we celebrate your epic achievement: you have earned a degree. You should be proud of yourself. Congratulations. Thank you for your hard work. And, on behalf of the graduating class of Fall 2009, I want to thank you, moms, dads, husbands, wives, grandmothers and grandfathers, family, and friends, for standing with your graduate, and making his or her dreams come true.
Enjoy this day.
Beause tomorrow and all your tomorrows, it’s game day.

Can I have my football back?


6 thoughts on “The Hand-Off (A Commencement Address)

  1. Bill, excellent!!! Inspiring! Way to go! Yesterday, I had the privilege of preaching the gospel through Matt 20:1-16, the parable of the landowner who is generous with the laborers hired at the 11th hour. I’m grateful that I get to hold out the word of life to those who need to hear it.

  2. Brilliant, Bill.

    You also followed the dictum of one of Chicago’s great architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who once had said that “less is more.”


  3. You actually make football seem to be exciting! Wow!

    However, it sure does relate to our “game” here on earth. Thanks so much for letting us “graduate” with Simpson students.

  4. Really great Bill; I’d say you ‘hit it out of the park,’ but then we’d be mixing too many sports metaphors. As a Simpson alumnus, I’m extremely glad you had the opportunity to speak at such a pivotal occasion in these student’s lives. Thank you for passing on such a valuable graduation gift. I doubt they’ll forget it.


  5. That was a great message. Really great. Nice touch to pass around the football. They will always remember that.

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