A Graduation Message: Expect Trouble
This is the season for all sorts of transitional rites and rituals — graduations, confirmations, retirements as well as year-end assemblies, recitals, performances, annual school and church picnics. And the wedding season is upon us. All the flowers of the spring make me think of the floral feasts of weddings.
Back in a pre-pandemic era, and when we had kids at home, May and June seemed like one of these events after another, with Mothers Day and a few birthdays thrown in lest we have a Saturday or Sunday off.
Last year was different. And even though pandemic conditions seem to be easing, this year will be different too. Last weekend we attended the high school graduation of our eldest grandson, Diego, on line.
Nevertheless, given the season I thought we might look briefly at Jesus’ commencement address, a part of which is the gospel reading for this Sunday.
Jesus gave a commencement address? Did he wear one of those funny hats? Well, no, not exactly. But he did give us what we’ve come to know as the “Farewell Discourse,” found in the Gospel of John, chapters 13 – 17. This “discourse” is unique to the Fourth Gospel. The church’s gospel readings during Eastertide mostly come from the Farewell Discourse.
On this the last Sunday of the seven-week season of Eastertide (next week is Pentecost) Jesus wraps up his commencement address to his disciples as they head into life without him — at least in the way they had known him up to this point.
His message is a bit of contrast to the usual graduation fare. Often that seems to boil down to a couple of basic themes. “You, graduates of the class of ______ are unique and amazing and you are all going to do incredible things.” Or, maybe, “Hold onto your dreams . . . and don’t stop believing in yourselves. You can do whatever you want to do, be whoever you want to be.”
Occasionally, some wistful alumni may say something less sanguine. “Well, kids, these were the best years of your life . . . too bad it’s over.”
Jesus? He doesn’t yammer on about the graduates great potential. Essentially, what he tells the disciples is, “Expect trouble.” Or as he says a little earlier in the discourse, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16: 33)
As noted, the gospel text this week is from the Farewell Discourse, specifically John 17: 6 – 19. At this point Jesus is praying to God for his followers. He prays, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.” Translation: the way of the world and the way of Christ are at cross purposes (pun intended). It will be tough out there. Be prepared.
He continues, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”
He doesn’t ask that they have an easy life, or one that is safe from the world’s troubles, trials and irritations. No, “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world.” In the world is where Christians are to be.
But he does ask God’s protection. And what does that mean? That those who follow him will never be hurt or suffer or die? Nope. “Protection” means that, come what may, you are and will be connected to God. Because I, said Jesus, am connected to God and you are connected to me. We’re in this together. “Abide in me, as I abide in you,” as Jesus says elsewhere in the Farewell Discourse.
Connection is the point. Connection, not safety. Lots of talk these days about safety. Connection to God, to truth, to grace may be more important than staying safe.
So, Jesus says to the graduates of discipleship school, “Expect trouble.” Sounds to me more realistic — and more interesting — than most commencement addresses. Just imagine. “Your graduation from this institution means that you will be at odds with a frequently unjust and self-serving world your entire life! Have fun!”
He also says, “Stay in touch,” which doesn’t mean “send regular donations to the alumni fund.” It means, “I have taken hold of you and I will never let you go. No matter what happens, you belong to me. Remember that, trust that.”