Professor Wikipedia says, “The Baccalaureate ceremony is a service of worship in celebration of and thanksgiving for lives dedicated to learning and wisdom. Baccalaureate addresses can range in length from under half an hour to as long as four hours.” I personally think four hours would be a bit excessive, so I’m going to keep it under that. The Baccalaureate service is believed to have originated at the University of Oxford in 1432. At that occasion each graduate was required to deliver a sermon in Latin as a part of the academic requirements. Just one more reason to be thankful for the Reformation.
Graduations represent a time of major life change for individuals and families, especially high school graduation. There is great pride but also great trepidation at having to “let go” of so much as we launch these young people out into the larger world away from the nurturing cocoon of home. This is true of church families as well. Young people we have loved and nurtured and watched grow up are preparing to move in new directions. We are also proud and also a bit sad. Some young people come back to the same town and church after finishing school, but many do not.
The reading from the Gospel of John today seems very helpful for this occasion. It is a portion of a prayer that Jesus offered to God for his disciples. It was offered at a time of change, of commencement, if you will. Jesus knew his death was not far off, and he prayed for their continued nurture and care and protection when he was absent from them. This would be a graduation of sorts for them, a cutting of the apron strings. For three years they had been with Jesus and learned from him. They had walked together, eaten together, gone through good and bad experiences together. He was clearly the glue that kept them together and helped them make sense of the experiences. They would be in a fragile place when he was no longer physically present with them. So he prayed for them. Parents, families, and church family members, this is an example for us to follow with regard to these graduates and other young people we love who have moved to other places and tasks. We can pray for them.
I’d like to walk through the mechanics of the prayer Jesus offered. I think it has a lot to offer for us today, as well as helping prepare those whose children are younger and have time left with them before this day arrives. The prayer of Jesus for his disciples is filled with love and attachment, with hope and concern for their future well-being, and with confidence in the God to whom he entrusts their care.
In the prayer, Jesus reminds God of what he has done before moving on to ask God’s actions. I think it is okay for us to do this in our prayers – to say, in essence, “I have done these things to try to do my part, now things are moving out of my control and I need your help.” I want to point out four of these statements Jesus makes to God, then four petitions that form his prayer requests.
The first statement Jesus makes is, “I have made known your name to those you gave me.” Jesus is saying that about his disciples. I have taught them about you, and about what you are like and what you want. I have demonstrated your love in the way I have loved them and others. I have shared with them everything you have shared with me. What a wonderful thing for parents to be able to say to God about how they have parented their children, and for a church to be able to say about how it has nurtured its young people. I hope and pray that you can all say you have learned a lot about God from the teachings and the conduct of your parents and your church family.
Secondly, Jesus says to God, “Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.” I think he is talking about his teachings and his miraculous powers, but what a wonderful thing to be able to say about teaching our children and youth about stewardship. Can we communicate with our young people in such a way that they understand that we regard everything we have in this life to be a gift from God – not something that we have earned and deserve? That would be a wonderful gift to our young people, helping them not to place the value on accumulated possessions that so much of the world does, freeing them to give as generously as they have been given by setting that example in our own lives and attitudes. I hope that in your families and in your church family you have learned something about where true value lies. Conversely, I will say that you have frequently taught us lessons in this area.
Thirdly, Jesus tells God, “I have given them your word.” The Bible is not intended to just sit on the coffee table or the bookshelf collecting dust. It is the living and active word of God, still very much relevant to living the Christian life. One of the critical tasks of parents and church families is to teach the primary stories and themes of the Scripture to each generation.
If young people leave our homes and this church without the basic resources of John 3:16, Psalm 23, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the Bethlehem stable, Calvary’s cross, the empty tomb, then we have failed in a very important task. If they don’t have dignity and respect for all people, compassion for the least of these in whom we meet Jesus himself, and if they don’t understand the availability and power of grace and forgiveness, then we are sending them out without very important tools.
In the fourth statement I want to point out Jesus says to God, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name; I have guarded them; but now I am coming to you.” That is a painful sounding statement, and so true to life. We are only given a limited amount of time with our children living in our homes where we can have a sense that we are guarding, caring for, protecting them in every way we can. This is why it is so important during that time to be preparing them for the day when we will let go and they will fly off to explore the world on their own.
It is not easy to let go, to trust. This is what Jesus was preparing to do with his disciples as he faced his own death. He didn’t have a lot of reason to be confident about how well they would do, frankly. They never seemed to get it. What would happen to them? Would they have the faith to do the job, the wisdom to do the job? Would they work together or quibble with each other? So hard to let go and be optimistic.
And so, with Jesus, we turn to petitions in prayer, asking God to do what we cannot do and are not even sure is possible. First Jesus offers a simple, general prayer for the overall well-being of the disciples. He prays, “I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me.” There is a time and place for everything. Praying for the world and everyone and enemies is all well and good. But Jesus says right now he is praying for these specific people who mean a great deal to him and for whom he needs some specific help from God. After all, they are the ones “you gave me.” If Jesus prayed specifically for those he knew by name and loved, then by all means we should as well. Every day we should pray for our children and any specific needs they have that we are aware of. We would like to be able to fix them all, but better to turn to the one who can help them with all their needs.
Secondly Jesus prays, “Now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, that they may be one, even as we are one.” Again, the process of letting go. I will not be with them much longer. I need someone to look after them, Lord, and I am asking you to do just that. Keep them in your name and help them to love each other.
Thirdly, “I do not pray that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” I want them to live life fully, I want them to make a difference in this world, but I don’t want them to fall prey to the many ways in which Satan can get lives off track. I know that everyone needs help staying away from Satan’s temptations, and God I am asking you to especially help these ones that I love to say no to the evil one. It is not that we don’t want you to have fun and enjoy life – we do! We don’t want you to fall prey to powers and influences that can get your life totally off track and keep you from being the person God wants you to be and doing the things God wants you to do.
Finally Jesus prays, “Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.” In the statements Jesus had said, “I have given them thy word.” Now he asks God to confirm the word in them. Allow the old, old story to become their story rather than the story their teacher or parents embraced for them. Help them mature in faith. Help them to study the Scriptures for themselves and confirm it for them, that they may accept fully for themselves the faith I have tried to pass on to them.
We cannot pass the Christian faith on from one generation to the next like genes or wealth. But loving and faithful Christian parents and grandparents and church family can have a tremendous influence on the choices that a person will make as an adult and the faith that person will embrace. As Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure dwells in you… Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…”
Graduates, know that we are proud of you and grateful to God for you. You make a difference in this place. You will continue to be in our prayers as you move on to the next step in your life. May the roots you have received in your homes and your church give you wings to soar and change the world.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
May 17, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church