Read John 17:1-11
It’s graduation time. The band plays Pomp and Circumstance. Students walk across the stage to get their diploma. Caps get tossed in the air and a loud cheer goes up. Many of these young men and women will be leaving home. They’ll be on their way to other things, some might even say bigger and better things. There’s a script for growing up and leaving home that’s written into the fabric of our culture. I bet you know what it is. See if you can fill in the blanks. It goes like this:
You have to study hard in your classes so you can get good … (grades). You have to get good grades so you can get into a good … (college). You have to get into a good college so you can get a good … (job). You have to get a good job so you can make a lot of … (money). And if everything goes well, you’ll fall in love, get married, have 1.8 children and a dog, and live happily ever … (after).
You know this script. So, is it working? Is it working for our graduates?
To our graduates: I want to encourage you to take a deeper look at life. There is a twofold reflection at a time of graduation that can help us to do this. The first part is called “remember,” and the second part is called “make ready.”
And so first, remember. Remember that your life is a gift – It is God who gave you life.
About 7 years ago, Genetics pioneer J. Craig Venter announced that he and his team created artificial life for the first time. What he said, in an interview with CNN, was fascinating. He said, “We created a new cell. It’s alive. But we didn’t create life from scratch. We created, as all life on this planet is, out of a living cell.” (1) We can create life from a living cell, but we can’t create life from scratch. Where did that life originate to start with? I can tell you this, that the Jewish faith, the Christian faith, and the Islamic faith all agree that our lives are a gift from God.
And, since our lives are a gift from God, it makes sense to ask, “How have we sensed God’s movement in our lives?” Graduation is a time to ask questions like. “How has God gifted me with talents, abilities, knowledge? How has God used even missteps and mistakes in my life to teach me and help me to grow? How has God cared for me, especially through the difficult, painful times of my life?
Graduation is a time to pause, and to say “thank-you” to parents, to teachers, to friends … to anyone through whom you sensed the hand of God in your life. So let’s try this tonight. Your parents and teachers are going to applaud for you at the graduation ceremony. How about tonight, you applaud for your parents and teachers? Graduates, could you stand and give them a round of applause? Thank you. Have a seat. …
Remember. And then, second, make ready. This is the bigger part of our refection tonight. How will you take the gift that God has given you, your life, your very selves – take that into the world and make a difference? And that’s a great question, and the Bible has some things to say about that.
The setting for our reading from the 17th chapter of John’s gospel is a little like a graduation. Jesus has just finished three years of teaching with twelve of his closest students. They’ve got names like Peter and Andrew, James and John. The classes Jesus taught were pass-fail. Unfortunately, there were times when these students failed miserably. But, out of his deep love for them, out of his mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, Jesus kept giving them another chance. Anyone ever have a teacher, or a parent, or a friend who gave you another chance when you messed up? Well, multiply that by a million, and you have a picture of Jesus.
Now, as graduation day draws near, what do you suppose these students want to do with the rest of their lives? The answer is really pretty simple: they want to stay with their teacher. They’ll soon find out, however, that it won’t be possible. This graduation is different. Instead of the students packing up and leaving home, it’s the teacher who’s going to be leaving.
He’s not moving on to a new school. He’s not heading into retirement. He’s leaving them in order to lay down his life on a cross.
But before Jesus says goodbye, he stops to pray. His words are directed to heaven, but he speaks just loud enough so everyone in the room can hear them. His prayer goes something like this: “Father, it’s time. The cross is just around the corner. I’ve done everything you asked me to do. I’ve taught my followers about you. Now I pray that they may continue to know you and have life in you. That’s why I came, so I could point people to your love. Father, as I prepare to return to you, bless them. Take good care of them. Keep them close to you and close to each other.”
What’s interesting to me about this prayer is how different it feels from our typical script. There’s nothing about good grades, or college, or well-paying jobs, or about following our dreams.
It’s not that these things are bad it’s just that sometimes—if we don’t watch out—they can become all consuming.
In contrast, Jesus’ concern for his graduates boils down to just three things: First, that they find life in him…Second, that they continue the work he started…and third, that they find some other people to do it with, because—let’s be honest—the work of Jesus is a lot more fun when we’re doing it together.
I would call this an upside down graduation. The teacher is leaving. The students are staying. They’re not heading off to something bigger and better. Instead, they’re being called, summoned, to give away their lives for others.
I wonder if it feels like it’s enough for them.
A few years ago, columnist David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times. It had the title, “It’s not about you.”
Brooks was responding to several graduation speeches he had heard. He noted that in these speeches, graduates are being sent into the world with talk of limitless possibilities. Graduates are being told, “Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams.” Says Brooks: “this is the litany of excessive individualism, which is the dominant note of our culture.” (2)
In response, Brooks argues that life’s callings don’t work that way. We don’t look inside and then plan a life. It’s much better if we look outside of ourselves and find a problem. That problem, in turn, will summon a life out of us. A small town in northern Minnesota is having trouble finding teachers, and someone feels moved to apply. A local water supply is polluted, and someone feels compelled to organize an effort to get it cleaned up. The stories to listen for, to google, are examples of a life lived, not first for ourselves, but for others.
I liked Brooks’ article, because it sounds a little like something Jesus would say. Graduation is not meant to be all about us. If you want to make a mark in this world, it’s about looking outside of yourself and finding a problem, and then seeing if you feel called to do something about it. There’s nothing wrong with good grades, good colleges, good jobs, and making a decent living. It’s just that, at the end of the day, you might want to ask yourself: Is it enough? Will it be enough for the way God has made me?
A verse we heard from the 12th chapter of the book of Romans says it this way: “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.” That verse is talking about living our lives for God and using our gifts to serve.
It’s an upside down graduation. Somewhere along the line, the script has gotten changed. Jesus did it. It’s not all about us. It’s about a cross, and a teacher who was willing to lay down his life for others, and who calls us to do likewise.
The teacher is praying for us right now: that we may find true life in him and that we may continue the work he started, and that we may find some others to do it with.
So, what do you say, are you open to suggestions? Want to make a difference in this world? If so, get ready to serve. And get ready for your life to be changed.