John 17:11, 13-21
This is graduation season.
The time of the year we hear lots of cliches and platitudes.
Which is perfectly fine.
We don’t always have to be profound and original.
After all, they aren’t the first grads.
They are like millions of graduates before them—
they’ve reached a big milestone,
they’ve worked hard and deserve our well-wishes,
and the future stretches long and wide before them,
longer and wider than the academic world they leave behind.
Even though they already know it, it’s okay to tell them,
that today is the first day of the rest of their lives,
and that they should follow their passion,
and be true to themselves,
and remember who they are.
In fact, maybe it should be our goal to state the obvious,
because behind all those platitudes, lies a bigger truth.
It’s a truth they need to hear, and we need to hear again and again:
Our identity matters.
A lot of those cliches are truer than we think.
They point toward our most basic human pursuit—
figuring out who we are in relationship to the world around us.
Our mother was right,
and our commencement speaker was right,
when they said, “Remember who you are.”
Only thing—it’s more complicated than Mom realized,
and harder than our commencement speaker admitted,
because remembering something
implies we knew it to begin with.
Sorry to break the news to you, Ella, Chloe, and Asha,
but that question, “Who are you?”
is one you will live with after you graduate from high school,
and that you will still be working on
if you graduate from college or grad school,
and are able to say “I am . . .
an engineer, a doctor, a teacher, a biologist, or . . .
I am a pastor. And I am many other things.
But I am still working on parts of my identity.
Who am I, in relation to the neighbors that live on my street?
Who am I, in relation to my immigrant neighbors in town,
with and without documents,
who help grow my food, package my poultry, repair my car?
Who am I, in relation to my political polar opposites,
in the divided and fearful social climate we live in?
Who am I, as a global citizen,
when my country acts unwisely or unjustly or violently
in this world God created and loves?
Who am I, as one who tries to follow Jesus Christ,
in a world that doesn’t?
Yet, this is the world we have to live in,
that we are called to live in.
This is the world that God is invested in,
and expects us, likewise, to invest in.
There are many ways to figure out our Christian identity in this world.
In the Mennonite church I grew up in 50 years ago,
and in many parts of our Mennonite family today,
this world is looked on with great suspicion,
and—as much as possible—avoidance.
We can, and did, find our identity by setting ourselves
apart from the world in just about every way,
and living to ourselves, in our own safe communities.
I respect, and even admire, Mennonite communities
that are so intentional about their different identity in the world,
that they build social structures to support that difference.
Their identity is clear, and tangible,
and the fact they can maintain that identity is admirable.
I’ve devoted some time trying to understand,
and build relationships with,
the conservative and Old Order branches
of our Mennonite family in this community.
I’ll be talking to the Shalom class this morning about them.
I’ve come to respect their way of answering the question
“Who are we?”
I don’t own it, but I respect it.
But for those of us more fully embedded
in a diverse and broken and beautiful world,
we need to keep asking this complicated question,
“Who am I, and how do I live in a way
that is true to who I am?”
So to you graduating seniors—
from high school, and college, and otherwise—
and to all of us here today, I pose again this challenging question,
“How do we go about ‘being Christian’
while being resident in, invested in, committed to,
and loving toward this world—
a world that God first loved, and invested in,
and is working to reconcile to Godself?”
The apostle Paul once wrote a letter to a group of Christians
living in a worldly cultural crossroads of the Roman Empire,
in the city of Colossae.
This was his advice:
“Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth.”
“Seek the things that are above,” he wrote.
“Put to death . . . whatever in you is earthly.”
These words are familiar to us.
“Set your mind on things above.”
Look toward heaven.
Look away from the earth.
Common Christian wisdom.
The stuff of gospel songs.
“This world is not my home, I’m only passing through.”
and, “I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
But . . . we object, and rightly so . . .
if we aren’t invested in this world as much as God is,
then we are not aligned with God.
God is “all in” with this world.
God loves this world—so much so
that God gave up everything to reconcile and restore it.
So Christian faith and identity cannot be an escape from the world.
We reject being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.
So what did Paul mean when he wrote,
“Set your mind on things above”?
He meant for us to pay attention to how we are oriented,
to always know which way is up.
We have a resurrection identity.
Our life is subsumed in the life of the risen Christ.
In Paul’s words, “it’s hidden with Christ in God.”
Christ is our life, our identity.
Paul did not urge the church to forsake the world.
Rather, he urged us to know, and remember,
our resurrection identity and orientation.
We must live fully and participate fully in this earthly life,
while . . . we orient our life around Christ and the kingdom of God.
We don’t have one foot on earth and the other foot in heaven.
We have both feet planted firmly on this earth,
and both feet in the kingdom of God.
And we have our eyes open to the horizon,
so we don’t forget which way is up.
I’ve learned, from going out on a sailboat a few times
with John Fairfield and others,
that the best way to keep from getting dizzy, or seasick,
is to stand up and fix your gaze on the horizon.
To get over being seasick,
stand at the wheel, and steer.
Your brain and your body can be in sync that way,
because you know which way is up.
When you’re being tossed around by the waves,
the worst thing to do is curl up
and look down at the bottom of the boat,
and try to shut out the churning world out there.
I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for walking through life
in a world in constant flux,
seemingly spinning out of control.
How to do walk safely on a spinning earth?
We keep our eyes on the horizon.
We remember the big picture.
We remember our orientation in Christ,
our resurrection identity.
Chloe and Asha and Ella,
you—and we—are in the same boat.
We have all chosen, as God’s people in Christ,
to fix our eyes on the horizon.
We begin with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And we construct a common life and shared values
out of that communal orientation to Christ.
Sometimes the ways of the world line up.
There is a lot of goodness and beauty
and love and compassion in the world.
We can celebrate that, and participate fully in it.
But sometimes the world spins in a different direction,
and we need each other,
to find the horizon again,
and remember who we are.
That’s what Jesus was so concerned about
when he prayed to his father for his disciples in John 17 . . .
15 “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world
but that you protect them from the evil one.
16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.
17 Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.
18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.
So you high school seniors—
when we send you out into the world,
as we have before and we will again,
we want to remind you, even as we remind ourselves,
to remember who we are—
children of God with a resurrection identity,
whose very life is wrapped up in Christ.
We have chosen to bind our hearts and lives,
to the Galilean’s side.
Let’s sing! "I bind my heart this tide"
—Phil Kniss, May 13, 2018
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