On Sunday, May 22, at Unity Presbyterian Church we will celebrate our high school and college graduates. While we hope our graduates will return from time to time on breaks from college, military service or other endeavors, there is always the weight to share a parting word of wisdom with them on Graduates Sunday. This year, it hits closer to home for me as one of my own children will be sitting in the pew preparing for life after high school. What words do we share in these moments of transition with our congregation members?
This week the lectionary brings us a text from Jesus’ final discourse in the Gospel of John. It may seem to be an odd text for the season of Easter in which we are celebrating our post-resurrection life together as the church. And yet we need to be reminded of what Jesus promised would sustain his disciples in his absence, especially in those moments when they would be on their own. Throughout this discourse, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples that he is going away. It is going to be a new day, a graduation of sorts for them. However, as renowned preacher Fred Craddock said:
His followers are confused. They are children playing on the floor only to look up and see Mom and Dad putting on their coats. The children have three questions, always three questions: Where are you going? Can we come? Then who will stay with us? Jesus responds, “I am going to my Father and your Father. You cannot come now; you can come later. But I will not leave you orphans. I will send another friend, another helper who will never leave, but who will stay with you forever.”
This seems to be a fitting word for this class of graduates that knows better than most the dangers of isolation and being left alone. A recent study from the University of Maine tells us something many of us parents, teachers, neighbors and mentors already know: “For adolescents especially, the loneliness accompanied by pandemic-related school closures and the like has led to an increase in mental health issues like depression and self-destructive behavior.” Despite the joys and expectations that graduation brings, the fear and anxiety of leaving home, friends, churches, and established support systems is also very real.
Because they love him, the disciples should rejoice that Jesus is going to the Father. As he leaves Jesus promises his disciples that as they too graduate into a future that has not yet been charted, they will not be left alone. The Advocate is on the way. Yes, they will not be orphaned for the Holy Spirit will bring not just presence but two essential gifts.
First, memory. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit … will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Lord knows we need that reminder when we take our first steps into the world to share the love of Christ with so many who are hurting. It is not easy work. There will be times of uncertainty and fear because the divisions, despair, and distrust in the world today threaten to overwhelm us, to make us forget all that Jesus has said and done, and to think that we cannot make a difference. But it is simply not true. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit will remind us and lead us into all truth.
Second, peace. The world into which we send our graduates, the world in which we ourselves seek to be disciples of Jesus Christ, is troubled. The mental health challenges within mirror the violence, war, and threats to basic human rights without. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit brings peace. Not peace as the world gives, but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in a 1934 speech in Fano, Denmark:
Peace must be dared, it is itself a great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.
Perhaps our graduates will remember a word that we will share this Sunday. More importantly, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, will remind them of Jesus’ word and the peace that passes all understanding. May we dare to join our graduates in following him. For we are not alone.
- Do you remember a word or theme shared or spoken at your own graduation? What would you say is the most important word to share with this year’s graduates?
- How can the church respond to the challenges of isolation and the mental health crisis so many adolescents have experienced throughout the pandemic?
- What does it mean that Jesus gives us peace “as the world gives”? What would it look like in your church for peace to be dared?
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