Your commencement exercises take place in the week prior to the Holy Week, when we recall the suffering and death of our Lord, and its meaning for our lives.
The Gospel for today contemplates Jesus locked in conflict with the Jews. The Jews here presented themselves as close to God, but they were not. They touted themselves as teachers of truth and life. But they were not. They were teachers of darkness and death. In this darkness they presented a false God, a depersonalized, legalistic, unfeeling, vindictive God, fully boxed-in in the petty concepts of the Jews and manipulated by their pettiness and scheming. These Jews did not lead people to the God of compassion, light and life. They led them to hatred, darkness and death.
That is why Jesus battled these Jews of darkness. He was the light. He was the Life. He was the Word – the Word of Love of the living Father. “Whoever keeps my Word,” Jesus said, “will never die” (Jn 8:51). His was a message of life, everlasting life.
Jesus’ statement shocked the Jews. What was he talking about? Abraham was the father of the Jews; he was the heroic figure revered in the consciousness of the Jews. It was he with whom Yahweh had forged an everlasting covenant, “I am making you the father of a host of nations. I will render you exceedingly fertile; I will make nations of you; kings shall stem from you. I will maintain my covenant with you and your descendants after you throughout the ages as an everlasting pact, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land in which you are now staying, the whole land of Canaan, as a permanent possession;… I will be their God.” Abraham was the father of the everlasting covenant, yet he died. How could Jesus be promising eternal life if the great Abraham had died? Jesus’ reply was in effect totally shocking. Abraham was the father of the Jews. But he had not heard Jesus’ message: “Whoever keeps my Word will never die.”
These words must be understood, first, in the context of the Prologue of John’s Gospel and, second, in the light of his other public teachings.
In the Prologue it is stated, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God. Nothing was made without him. … And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (cf. Jn 1: 1-14a). The Prologue introduces Jesus as the Eternal Divine Word that enters this world manifesting the Father’s special love. When Jesus says, “Whoever keeps my Word will never die,” he first means whoever accepts him as the eternal, divine Word incarnated into this world to express the Father’s Love, he shall never die.
But he also means all who accept his words, his public discourses, all he had revealed in teaching and healing the people he served. Among these words were:
“I have come to bring life, life in abundance, life to the full” (John 10:10).
“A new command I give you: Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6).
“Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and dies, it remains but a seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life will lose it. But whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:24).
Jesus meant all of his teachings, all of his words, when he said, “Whoever keeps my Word will never die.” Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, was offering whomsoever accepts him and heeds his teaching everlasting life.
It is the same promise the Lord makes to you as you move on from Junior High School to the rest of your life: “Whoever keeps my word will never die.” Whoever accepts Jesus and his words will have life, everlasting life.
While Jesus comes to bring the fullness of life, the enemies of Jesus propose a truncated life, a life lacking in human sensitivity, human love, human responsibility for others and the common good.
While Jesus teaches, “Love one another as I have loved you,” the enemies of Jesus teach: exploit one another, hate one another, kill one another. Reduce the other person to your purposes. Convince him, cajole him, bribe him. Fool him, use him, laugh at his weakness as you subject him to your power.
While Jesus teaches of truth and life and returning to God, the enemies of Jesus speak alternative truths and alternative facts. They cause confusion intentionally, destroying others’ lives and reputations. They thrive on wounding and killing, on violent conflict and carnage in war. They manipulate the concept of God to serve their purposes, making God an inexorable Force of deception. violence and death.
We know, not only the enemies of Jesus but even many of his disciples rejected him and his words. When he said, “I am the living bread come down from heaven … He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” many of his disciples walked away from him.
So in your Baccalaureate Mass, God speaks directly to you: “Whoever keeps my word will never die.” Do you accept Jesus as the Divine Word? Do you accept his teachings? Do you accept Eternal life?
Your answer defines your faith, shapes your convictions, and determines what you make of your life. In skepticism and scorn, you can take perpetual issue with his words, and choose to put Jesus to death in your life. Or, with great humility, reverence and love you can open yourself to the Divine Word crucified on a Cross communicating with you. Your answer is your choice.
What God proclaims in the book of Deuteronomy may help: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying his voice, and by holding fast to him” (Deut. 30:19-20).
As you move on from Junior High School, my dear graduates, in all choose life.