I have spoken at a number of graduations. But I have never had to ask myself, “Would it be better for the audience if I wear a mask?” I hope that in previous years the audience has not been wishing I would wear a mask. But these days I am thinking about safety, for you and me, so I am keeping the mask on.
When Jordan and Trisha asked me to speak briefly on something from the Bible, I thought of Jesus’ words from John 8:31:
If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
A disciple is a student. Jesus is speaking as a rabbi, a teacher, talking to his students. He is saying, “I am a teacher, and those who are truly my students will stick with my teaching, will hang in there with me. Those who do will come to know the truth, and it will make them free.”
There are several reasons why I thought this passage was very fitting for us today. As students at Gutenberg, Jordan and Trisha have talked a lot about truth. Can we know it? How can we live in it? Western culture has experienced a long, slow decline in confidence that truth can be known. And yet, here is Jesus saying that there is a truth, and it can be known. He, the teacher, can bring his students to an understanding of that truth.
The teachers at Gutenberg have talked a lot with Trisha and Jordan about truth, but we have tried to make it clear that we make no guarantees. We cannot claim that being our students will infallibly lead to truth. In one sense, we are teachers. But in a deeper sense we are students just as the Gutenberg students are. We have confidence, though, that our teacher, the Lord Jesus, does know the truth and can ultimately lead us to it. So on the one hand, what Jesus says here is incredibly comforting. Jesus, our teacher, knows the truth that leads to freedom, and he can make us know that truth as well.
On the other hand, what Jesus says here is also incredibly challenging. It all hinges on his opening phrase, “If you continue in my word…” Other translations have “abide” or “remain.” The reality is that many of Jesus’ disciples, students, did not continue in His teaching. They heard what he taught, and then they walked away.
That can be seen in this very passage. When Jesus said this, his Jewish listeners did not respond by saying, “That is fantastic! You can show us the truth! We can find freedom!” Instead, they thought, “Wait a minute. What do you mean ‘make us free?’ Are you implying we are some sort of slaves or something?” John tells us what they said to Jesus in John 8:33:
We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free”?
As potential students, they are already thinking, “Hey, we are not sure we buy this.” Jesus answered them:
Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
Now Jesus is getting very personal. The freedom that you need is freedom from your own evil. When Jesus speaks of freedom, that sounds great. But in fact it is only good news if we accept his diagnosis of our desperate condition. There is something wrong with us. We are slaves of sin. By ourselves we can never break free of our slavery to sin. And as Jesus makes clear, sin leads to judgment. And judgment leads to death.
To be a student of Jesus means persevering when Jesus confronts us with truths that we may not like, truths such as these: We need to change the way we relate to God. We need to change the way we relate to other people. We need to change our view of what is really valuable in this world. And we really need to change how we think about ourselves. Jesus is a hard teacher. Being students at Gutenberg is a piece of cake compared to being students of Jesus.
Today we are congratulating Jordan and Trisha for staying the course. They completed the curriculum at Gutenberg under difficult circumstances. We are very proud of their accomplishment. But even though they are done being Gutenberg students, they will never be done being students of Jesus. For them, as for all of us, there is the challenge of finishing the greatest and most challenging curriculum. The news Jesus brings is great. We are not left on our own to stumble toward truth. Ultimately, in the end, Jesus is a teacher who can and will lead us to that truth. And the result will be freedom and life. But as a teacher, Jesus makes great demands. We have to stick with the curriculum, even when it gets tough. We will never find freedom and life if we drop this class.
So I want to praise how Trisha and Jordan hung in there as Gutenberg students. Their perseverance is a model and reminder for us all. Because we all face the challenge of persevering in the school of Jesus.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.