John 14:15-21 ‘2020 Commencement Address’
It’s spring. It’s a time for planting and blooming. It is a time of reemergence and beginnings. There are several rituals and traditions that take place in spring, but I think there is one that stands out. Graduation. Spring is a time for learners all around the world to celebrate an accomplishment. To receive recognition for achieving a tremendous goal. A time to finish one part of life and begin something new. From kindergarten graduations all the way to receiving a PhD – this time of year marks transitions. Celebrations. A new thing.
It has been one of our collective griefs that our graduates have not been able to celebrate in the way they expected. They are grieving a loss of a long-anticipated tradition. We are grieving a loss of celebrating with them. Of course, we see and celebrate the schools doing their best and families getting creative. There are signs in yards telling folks to honk in celebration of a graduate, Zoom parties, and videos of graduates walking across a make-shift stage in their living rooms to receive their diploma from a parent bursting with pride. Schools have stopped competing for the best commencement speaker and instead are sharing the words of public figures who have inspired generations, whose speeches are meant for all graduates – not just a select few.
I have long been a fan of commencement addresses. I listen eagerly to the funny, intellectual, inspirational, and emotional with equal enthusiasm. My sense has always been that those who have been chosen to address a group of graduates take seriously the responsibility that has been placed upon them. I can sense their desire for their words to matter, to encourage, to give hope and guidance all at the same time. And this year, this year that is so different, those who have been chosen to address the graduates of 2020 have an even bigger responsibility. They are speaking to a generation of people who are embarking on their next big thing in a world that is filled with uncertainty. They are speaking to a generation of people who are being asked to make sense of a world that doesn’t know how to make sense of itself. What a tremendous responsibility this is. Not just for the speakers, but for those whose task it now is to shape the future of our shared existence.
On a day earlier this week when I was feeling sad, listless, and exhausted from trying to be optimistic, I turned to commencement addresses. I wanted to hear words of hope and encouragement. I wanted to be inspired for the next thing. Commencement addresses are easier to listen to than ever before and especially this year – when public figures are recording from their homes and sending out their words to graduates all over the world. So, I settled into a morning of listening to one inspiring speech after another. I listened to people who I have admired for years, and those whom I am now just encountering, take over the responsibility of being optimistic for a while. And it helped. So, feeling a bit better about the world and life in general, I settled in to write today’s sermon. But, there was another reason that I spent some time listening to commencement addresses – it occurs to me that the scripture we have been studying for the last couple of weeks is in its own way a bit of a commencement address.
Last week and again today we are hearing from Jesus during what scholars have come to call his Last Discourse. It is his final time speaking to the disciples before the trials of arrest and crucifixion. It was the last time he could sit amongst them as one of them and teach. As I said last week, I don’t think the disciples were ready to be encouraged and comforted – they didn’t really understand that they needed to be encouraged and comforted – but that did not stop Jesus from taking the time to look his disciples in the eyes and give them a lesson – to encourage and inspire them. To say to them, it is time now for you to burst into the world and do something extraordinary.
It can be so easy to read these words from a distance. To place them squarely in their historical context and not place ourselves amongst the audience they are intended for. But, my Beloved Community, these words are meant for us. Remember, this was Jesus’ final lesson before his incarnation came to an end. As Christmas people, as people of incarnation, we draw comfort and assurance that God has taken on human flesh and felt the pains, joys, sorrows, and hope of humankind in and through the person of Jesus. But that incarnation was coming to an end. Jesus was leaving and trying to prepare the world – us – to carry on. Because, we are the incarnation now. We are the body of Christ in the world. We are the hands and feet of God now. We are the manifestation of the Good News. The incarnation, the belief that God is within and at work in the world, has not ended, nor will it. We are now that incarnation, and Jesus is speaking to us. It is our task now to continue, not just the disciples he was speaking to. It is our task now to take his lessons and make real the Kingdom of God. To hear these verses with a dispassionate ear is to abdicate our responsibility as builders of that Kingdom.
So, let us hear Jesus speaking to us – right here in 2020. Let us listen with the ears of a broad generation of people with the knowledge that we too are being asked to do our part to shape the world in a time such as this. It does not matter your age – if you are young or old. It does not matter if you are working or learning or retired. It does not matter what gender you identify with or the color of your skin. Jesus is speaking to all of us, because we are now the incarnation of God. Listen to what he says.
Jesus says to us, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35). We are now the incarnation of God and we must love one another. We must love in the way that God loves. We must look to our neighbor and see not the differences but the face of the Divine. We must act with love first, not fear, not prejudice. Love.
Jesus says to us, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12). We are now the incarnation of God and the miracles are done by us. The miracles, the mysteries, the signs of God in and at work in the world are not a thing of 2000 years ago they are happening right now and we are to bring them about. We are to do the work of God and as we do – miracles will happen.
Jesus says to us, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:18, 26-27). We are now the incarnation of God, but we are not alone. We have an Advocate, one who will stand with us in trial, one whom will give us courage to speak and act, one who will show us our value and worth and the value and worth of all humanity and creation. We have an Advocate who will ease our troubled hearts when we are afraid to build the Kingdom of God and we have an Advocate who will give us peace in order for us to carry on.
Jesus’ Last Discourse is meant for us. It is meant to inspire and give us hope. It is meant to propel us to the next thing in our lives. To give us the courage we need as we look to the world not as place to be feared but as a place to shaped by the love and presence of God. Jesus is speaking to us and my prayer is that we are listening. Because we are now the good news in the world. And it is a tremendous responsibility, but we are not doing this alone. Together, with our neighbors and strangers, bound together by the Holy Spirit, our Great Advocate, we will build a future that is not just our own but that belongs to everyone. We are now the incarnation of God so let us be known for our love, let us be the creators of miracles, and let us, bound together by the Holy Spirit, make real the Kingdom of God.
Let us pray:
It’s a tough thing for us to learn, God,
how you hide in the most unlikely places;
how you beckon us into life and compassion
by disguising yourself in broken humanity.
But, when our eyes are opened,
we discover that we are never far from your heart,
from your kingdom.
And so we ask you to show yourself to us again,
and lead us into prayerful action;
Help us to share your grief when lives are needlessly lost
simply because they have no money for food or shelter,
because they have no access to medicine and care,
because they have no choice but to live
where war and violence constantly threaten;
Help us to feel your offense when the least are exploited
by the lust of those who are physically stronger,
by the greed of those who are financially richer,
by the disregard of those who are politically more powerful.
Help us to know your pain when what you have created is destroyed
by the carelessness of expediency,
by the short-sightedness of progress at all costs,
by the sense of entitlement of proud humanity.
Teach us to welcome you, God,
by welcoming those in whom your image is hidden,
and by working, in our small worlds,
to make visible your kingdom where all are welcomed.
We pray all of this and so much more in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who taught us what it means to be your incarnation, and who taught us to pray together by saying…Our Father…