Jesus’ Commencement Prayer


A sermon preached on May 24th, 2009 based upon John 17:13 – 18, on the occasion of the baptism of Tyler Eric Mortensen, entitled, “Jesus’ Commencement Prayer.”

These words we just heard are parting words from Jesus.

Maybe it is just because of the trip I’ve just made which involved attending the graduations of my two older children, Kate and Andrew, but Jesus’ words sound to my ear a bit like a commencement address, or perhaps a benediction at a graduation, since the words are a prayer on behalf of those of us who would come after him.

Kate graduated from a little Quaker college in Indiana called Earlham College, the same school I graduated from 32 years earlier. I love that little school, which had a big hand in shaping the ideals and values of my life, and in turn, I think after 20 years here, the ideals and values of this little church.

I loved the “commencement address” given at Kate’s graduation, offered up by a man named Chuck Yates, a history professor. He entitled his speech, “Chuck’s Top Ten Secrets to Long, Happy, Useful, Productive and Meaningful Life.”

Though its well worth reading, I won’t be reading you the whole thing this morning — just a bit from the end of his address, when he got down to the number one secret. That’ll come later.

“Commencement” is a funny word, because it implies simultaneously an ending, and a beginning. The words we heard from Jesus this morning are a kind of a commencement address, and as such they seem to fit nicely with a baptism as well — in this case, Tyler’s baptism.

I’m not going to give you my ten secrets this morning, just a couple that I believe are part of what Jesus was saying to his disciples in his farewell prayer — things worth remembering as we raise up our children — raise up one another.

First off, Jesus said that what he had spoken to his disciples was so that his “joy might be made complete within them.”

We often use the words “happiness” and “joy” interchangeably. I think, however, that what the world leads us to understand “happiness” to be all about, and what Jesus meant by “joy”, are often quite different.

“Happiness” tends to imply merely such things as comfort, pleasure, having plenty of money, a nice home, good health — absence of conflict and suffering.

Joy is something much deeper. It may show up where people have what is commonly referred to as happiness, but it may be strangely absent in such conditions as well. There are plenty of rich, healthy, comfortable people in this world who experience a great emptiness in the midst of all the abundance of their lives.

Sometimes joy can show up in situations that are typically viewed as distinctly unhappy — in the midst of illness, poverty, conflict.

Joy comes about when we are living in harmony with God’s will for our lives. It involves doing what God has called and “gifted” us to do. It involves living passionately, purposefully in this world in partnership with the holy spirit. It means being abundantly alive.

Here in the community of Jesus, it is important to remind ourselves that it is joy more than happiness that we want for our children, and for ourselves.

Second, contained in Jesus’ words this morning is a prayer for protection. He prays to God, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” More often than not, when we think of being protected from evil, we thing of making sure nothing bad ever happens to us. Protection means things like strong locks that won’t let evil people in to harm us, reliable cars with good brakes, money in the bank, and a well-financed police departments and military to protect us from violent people intent on harming us.

And though there is place for this kind of protection, it is clear that this isn’t the protection that Jesus is praying for us to have. The initial followers of Jesus had many bad things happen to them; they too were arrested, mocked and beaten. They had their possessions taken from them. They imprisoned and killed. When such things happened to them, they didn’t feel as though Jesus’ prayers had failed them, rather, they considered these difficult situations to be opportunities for them to live in communion with Jesus, who had also suffered such things.

The prayer that Jesus is praying is for God to protect us from becoming evil ourselves.

So there is a big question here that must be addressed: What does it mean “to become evil?” Often we get confused between the difference in what it means to “be evil” and what it means to be a “sinner.”

In all likelihood, all of us will be, until the day we die, “sinners.” There will be parts of ourselves that think and act destructively, to others, to ourselves. There will be parts of ourselves that push God away.

God’s not finished with us yet.

The thing is, we are also “saints” — people through whom God blesses the world — even as we are sinners. We are, everyone of us, a mixture of darkness and light, sin and grace.

We have this unfortunate habit of dividing the human race into sinners and saints, and then we either become anxious and guilt-ridden by the thought that we are one of the sinners, or we become determined to see ourselves as one of the saints which means denying the sin — the darkness — that yet lives within us.

When our hearts harden and we lose the capacity to acknowledge the darkness that yet lives within us — that is when we are in danger of becoming evil ourselves. As such, evil often is found in religious people who are determined to be counted among the holy.

Here at Tyler’s baptism we acknowledge that there is no way to protect him from having bad things happen to him in the course of his life. He will suffer — to be a human being is to know suffering — and one day he will die.

It is, however, to go through life without succumbing to evil — that is becoming evil. This is our prayer and hope for him.

In this ritual of baptism, we remind ourselves that it is our faith that beyond death there is resurrection — that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God.

Third, Jesus says in this passage that he has given us God’s word, and that this word is truth. What is implicit here, and requires familiarity with the rest of the Gospels, is that this word and this truth is always one of love. (When this is missed religion becomes something evil.) Elsewhere in John’s Gospel we hear that the whole reason God sent Jesus came was that God loved the world so. The one and only law that Jesus gives his disciples in John’s Gospel is this: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

Referring back to our second point, it isn’t really possible to love others — to feel compassion for them — if we aren’t aware of the darkness that continues to dwell within ourselves. We’re all in this thing called life together.

So the part I want to read you from Chuck’s graduation speech at Earlham was what he had to say when he reached his number one secret. He began by referring to the chapter from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he says that love is the only thing that never ends.

“We’re here to take care of each other, and love is the energy that makes it possible for us to do that. So here I am, telling you to love. Love yourselves. Love each other. Love this magical mysterious heart-breaker of a world we live in. Love it for what it can become. But love it for what it is too.

“If you choose love,” Chuck went on to say, “you create a center of gravity for yourself that will help you stay balanced no matter what happens. (I think this is Chuck’s way of saying you won’t become evil.) You create a sacred place at the core of your being, a place where there will always be holiness…

“The ability to choose love is what sets us apart from all the other critters. Sure, it matters that we walk upright, that we have these amazing opposable thumbs, this really cool stereoscopic vision, this massive brain. And we can talk, and write, and sing, and even deliver (commencement) messages.

“But what really matters is that we have the ability to choose love…”

Having begun with the apostle Paul, Chuck ended up by quoting the Beatles: “All you need is love. All you need is love. All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.”

At the end of this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus prays that we will be “sanctified in the truth,” which means that over time, we will become more consciously loving. We will stumble and fall, time and again, but each time, we are invited to get back up and try and again, and over time, and if we do keep getting back up, our love will deepen.

God gave life to Tyler, that he might be loved, and that he in turn, might learn how to love. He loves already, but a fully conscious love is what God has in mind for him.

That’s the way we mirror God, is by consciously choosing love.

Our Gospel reading concludes with Jesus declaring,

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them (which means us) into the world.” We are here for a purpose, and this purpose involves finding our own unique way to love in this world, and in finding this purpose we will find joy. Let us continually remind Tyler, and one another, that it is for this that we have been sent into this world.

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