The Bookends of the Gospel (A Sermon Especially for Our Graduating Seniors)

I’d like to talk with you about how the Gospel begins, as well as how the Gospel ends. There’s a lot to be learned here, on the two extreme edges of the Gospel. There’s a lot to be learned about God’s love for us, as well as his plans for our role in the world. These bookends of the Gospel say something to all of us, but I think they say something especially to those of us about to begin a new phase of our lives.

So where does it begin? Each and every Gospel begins with the announcement that a man named Jesus came into the world. Every Gospel also explains why this man came into the world, but none puts it more succinctly than John who says: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3.16). Jesus is walking, talking, evidence that the world is loved by the highest authority. God loves this world and the people in it. That’s a big deal, but why?

I’m not sure if you’ve been watching The Last Dance, ESPN’s documentary about Michael Jordan and the last year of the Bull’s dynasty. I haven’t missed an episode. In a world without sports, re-runs from yesteryear are a welcome sight. There was a pretty telling scene in the first episode, where James (Michael’s father) was fixing a car with Michael’s older brother Ronnie. James asked for a 9/16 wrench. Michael replied “what’s that?” James dismissed Michael, telling him to “go back inside with the women.” The narrator explains that Michael was jealous of the time his brother got to spend with his dad, and that a big part of Michael’s motivation on the basketball court was to prove to his dad that he was worth his attention.

When you don’t know if you’re “worth it” to someone, and you try to prove your worth through achievement, everything you do becomes an opportunity for you to argue your case. I won that game, see, I’m worth it. I aced that test, see, I’m worth it. I got that degree, see, I’m worth it. I won that award, see, I’m worth it No doubt this pressure to prove your worth can drive people to do great things. Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, all have two things in common. They are all champions many times over in their respective sports. They also all had absent or emotionally distant fathers. The drive to prove your worth it can drive you to do great things. But it creates problems as well.

Once you get into the habit of proving your worth, life gets reduced to a series of opportunities for you to make your case. Let me give you an example. In 2009 Michael Jordan was inducted in the NBA Hall of Fame. His acceptance speech was bewildering. He brought up being cut from his high school basketball team. He also brought up the player who got the spot, Leroy Smith. Jordan’s point was clear. Leroy Smith is a nobody. But look at me. I’m worth it. Jordan even invited Smith to the ceremony, just so he could see for himself that Jordan was better. Jordan brought up the names of coaches he felt overlooked him, players who received better press than he did, and even former staff members that he felt slighted him. Even though his trophy case is full, he was still making his argument to an invisible jury, see, I’m worth it. If you can’t feel a sense of self worth having achieved as much as this man achieved will you ever be able to achieve enough to quit making your argument? When will it be enough?

I bring this up for a pretty important reason. I’ve read all the news articles that call this generation of young adults “snow-flakes.” I’ve read how their bookshelves are full of participation trophies. I’ve read how they’re entitled. But then I met them. I haven’t worked with college students that long, only three years now, but I’ve worked with them long enough to tell you they are tough, competitive, hard working, and scarily smart. Their appetite for achievement is also insatiable. And when you put those character traits next to the stat that 8 in 10 young adults have a general sense that they aren’t “good enough,” it all makes sense. Through double majors, triple minors, seven internships, myriad awards, selective internships, etc., this is a generation making their case see, I’m worth it to an invisible jury of peers and parents.

Now the Gospel of Jesus puts a stop to this argument. It doesn’t put a stop to the argument by saying “Ah, you’ve done enough. You’ve accomplished enough. You’ve been good enough. You’re worth it now!” Rather, the Gospel says, “God so loved the world, he sent his only Son.” The presence of Jesus on earth is proof that the Highest Authority thinks your worth it. That can free you to live your life without the nagging pressure to prove yourself, and free you for an unburdened life of living into God’s call as best as you’re able.

I’ve learned that communicating this takes time. It’s not a silver bullet. You don’t just hear it once and then suddenly gain a strong sense of self worth. You don’t just hear this once and then suddenly stop chasing achievements. What I’ve learned at St. Alban’s is that it takes a community of people to communicate worth to others, through acts of acceptance, service and love. If this is done long enough, when the preacher says “God so loved the world,” it begins to make sense, because you’re experiencing that kind of love in the midst of God’s people. And that’s when the change really begins to take place. That’s when you really begin to say “see, look at Jesus, I really am worth it.” And that’s when the healing begins. That’s when you can begin to become a whole person.

That’s the beginning of the Gospel. So what’s the end? Just as all of the Gospels begin with an announcement about Jesus, all of the Gospels end with a commissioning. One of these commissioning goes like this:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28.18-20).

Here’s how I’d like you to think about this. God so loved the world, he sent his Son. God still loves the world, so the Son sends you. Jesus is a walking, talking sign to the world that God loves it. And that is what you are meant to be. For those of you graduating, this can be happy, exciting, scary time all at once. Some of you have jobs. Others are going to graduate school. Some of you have no idea what you want to do or should do. But God has a plan for each of you, and that plan begins with a commitment to send you to the world as proof that God loves it.

In a world that only understands competition and achievement, those of you who understand God’s unconditional, sacrificial love are rebels, even insurgents. We send you out to continue the insurgency in the world. We send you out to take seriously the things you have learned in this Chapel and be ambassadors for a different way of living life, according to a different set of rules, and a different kind of Kingdom. You have experienced the power of this through others. Now is the time for others to experience the power of this through you. You are entering the world in strange times. Whether the world knows it or not, it needs people like you, who have learned what you have learned from your family at St. Alban’s. I’m sure you would have preferred to really begin your adult life under different circumstances. But the world will be glad that you have begun your life under these circumstances, because the world needs people like you, right now. And God, because he still loves this world, is only all to pleased to send you into it