This is because by its very definition, a graduation serves both as a rite of completion and that of setting forth; an ending and a beginning. Right now, all over the country there are young men and women who are joyfully focused on their “endgame” – that is, getting done with high school, finishing college or technical school – while at the same time confronted with a burgeoning future that is at that very moment catapulting them into the unknown. That’s what makes graduation such a powerful yet unsettling time, since every graduate, perhaps not immediately, but sooner or later comes to the realization that his or her life is no longer a dress rehearsal for what’s to come, but has now begun in earnest. Not that such realization is a bad thing; in fact, I’ve come to believe that any commencement speaker worth his or her salt ought to include some sort of reminder that the moment these graduates take hold of that diploma that they’ve worked so hard to earn is also the moment that the learning truly begins! After all, whatever their plans may or may not yet be for the months and years ahead, there’s work to be done now, both literally and figuratively; so it’s understandable – truthfully, it just makes sense in the face of such a thing (!) – for said graduate to cast an eye heavenward and wonder aloud, “So now what do I do?”
Actually, it’s always seemed an interesting coincidence to me that each year as “graduation season” gets underway, in the church we are making the transition between the “Great Fifty Days of Easter” and the season of Pentecost; a coincidence made all the more intriguing when you consider that one of the biblical stories that bridge the two is that of Christ’s ascension into heaven as recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Acts. In many ways, the story presents the perfect graduation scenario: on the one hand, as they watched Jesus being “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51) his disciples all knew that this was an ending of sorts; the end of a long journey that had brought them from the shores of Galilee to the empty tomb and beyond. And yet, as Jesus passed from their sight, there was also a profound awareness that this journey was only just beginning; they were, as we like to remind all graduates, “at the crossroads of their destiny,” and the prospect of that was… terrifying!
And why wouldn’t it be? As we read it in Acts, Jesus had just said to them, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He’d given them both a mission and a future – neither of which was for the faint of heart – and the sheer enormity of the task before them had already begun to weigh upon them. It’s no wonder that that it took two figures in white robes to jar them out of their awe-struck yet slack-jawed reverie: Men of Galilee,” they asked, “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” In truth, it’s probably because at that particular moment none of them had a clue as to what to do next!
The good news is that by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, they figured it out., and in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, “With nothing but a promise and a prayer, those eleven people consented to become the church and nothing was ever the same again, beginning with them… the disciples became apostles, witnesses of the risen Lord, [and] surprising things began to happen. They began to say things that sounded like [Jesus], and they began to do things they had never seen anyone but [Jesus] do before. They became brave and capable and wise.” They, in fact, became the church, that gathered community of people bound by a common mission and a shared calling to witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It’s still an apt job description for the church, and the answer to a question that we in the church today would do well to ask ourselves: When is the church really the church? When are we the people Christ has called us together to be? If we hear what Jesus is saying, then the answer has to go beyond merely congregating on a given Sunday morning. It has to be that we’re the church Christ has intended when we’re attending to the business of fulfilling his mission: being witnesses of the risen Christ by word and in action, within and around our own communities and outward from there; perchance, even to the ends of the earth.
It’s still a daunting assignment, no doubt; and how the mission will all work out as the future unfolds is actually no different for us than it was for that first group of disciples, in that the journey ahead will certainly be uncertain at best! But it’s our calling today as surely as it was theirs; and like that rather motley group of followers we will, the Spirit leading, also become “brave and capable and wise,” not to mention living a life that’s filled with God’s grace.
So let us “commence.”
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry