God’s grace, peace and mercy be with you. ... My focus is the Gospel of John where we read, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. For their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in the truth.”
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, the psalmist wrote, “I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Now that our feet are within your gates, we rejoice to hear your Word. As we listen, may your Spirit enlighten our minds and move our hearts to love deeply as Jesus loved. This we pray to you, Most Holy Trinity. Amen.
Through 28 years of ministry, I spoke at various graduations – preschools, kindergartens, grade schools, high schools, technical schools, colleges and universities. Until now, I gave little thought to how those closing words in our Gospel relate to two words used in tonight’s activity: diploma and commencement.
We define diploma as a document that shows a person finished a course of study or graduated from a school. The English-speaking world used diploma in academics only since the 1680s. I earned my high school diploma by attending classes for four years. I earned four others by completing academic programs at college, seminary and universities.
Most sources tell us that the origin of diploma is from the Latin word meaning passport, or from the Greek word meaning folded paper or to double. However, today we are not issuing passports or folding sheepskins, but, like a passport, your diploma is a public document.
Competent authorities issue public documents that confer certain rights and privileges. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White issued me a Driver’s License that permits me to drive motor vehicles. Although I am one of four people who signed diplomas for Kelton, Jenna, Chase, Hayley and Bailey, “for having completed in a satisfactory manner the prescribed course of study for elementary education,” I do not know what rights, honors and privileges we confer through it; but a diploma is a signed public document conferring them. I think it means that if you hold your diploma in one hand and cash in the other, you possess the right, honor and privilege to purchase a Polar Pop at Circle K. …
Now, to be honest with you, I did not give much thought to the meaning of a diploma until recently when I came across this passage from a book written by Douglas Boin, Professor of Archeology at St. Louis University. Boin wrote Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire.
In one chapter, Boin describes Marcus. Marcus was Syrian by birth who served in the Roman navy at a station in Italy. After 25 years of service, the emperor awarded him an honorable discharge. “This decree was etched on a folded bronze plaque, the size of an iPad today, but it did more than vouch for Marcus’ 25 years of service. It granted him Roman citizenship. That was something no one could put a price on. Romans called this certificate a diploma.”
With his diploma, Marcus could live on his own terms. It gave him a sense of security and pride. With diploma in hand, Marcus possessed the same rights, honors and privileges of any free Roman citizen. This was a small victory for a man who could be mistaken for a runaway slave. Let me freeze Marcus for a moment and examine commencement.
When we use the word commencement, we mean the ceremony for conferring degrees or diplomas. The word, commencement, is a late 13th century French term that means beginning or start. In 1850, we started using the word to mean a school graduation ceremony.
Given that the word means beginning and you are receiving your diploma today, think of this day not as the end but as the beginning. Early Christians like Marcus, who received his diploma after 25 years of service in the navy, had the rest of his life to live as he pleased. You have the rest of your life to live as you please … with some restrictions, of course. Early Christians who lived freely as Roman citizens counted their freedom as a small victory. It would be another century before Emperor Constantine signed an edict permitting Christians and all others to worship as they wished. Considering that Christians comprised only 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, this was quite significant.
Our Gospel tells us that Jesus sent his disciples into the world. Today, He sends you into the world. As Christ’s disciples, what small victories will you count?
Unlike Rome’s early Christians, you will not have to worry about freedom, but you can become enslaved. Though freed by Christ, you can still be enslaved to Satan, the world and your sinful self if you are not vigilant. So, what small victories do high school students count?
Apart from victories in the classroom and on the court, among friends and on the field, where do young Christians count victories? Although some news sources like to trot out those students censured for their high school graduation speech or denied admission to college because they profess faith in Christ, it is probably not going to happen to you, at least not in Nashville, Illinois.
I encourage you to count as small victories in our culture those opportunities to profess and witness your faith to your high school classmates. Count as small victories those opportunities to invite a friend to Sunday’s Divine Service. Do not place them on the same plane as Christ’s victory. But perhaps your small victory would be to thank our Lord daily for His blessings.
On Sunday, I spoke of how Martin Luther taught people to pray. In essence, he said that God will grant us anything, but we must order our prayer according to how Jesus taught His disciples. Daily, begin your day with prayer, and know that Christ sends you into the world every day. On those days when the world is against you, know that He has sent others with you. So, rely upon Christ’s presence and rely upon your brothers and sisters sent with you. Pray daily as you were taught over these past 8 years. Ask God for guidance in all you do.
For this, pray in Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen. … May the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.
 John 17:18-19
 Psalm 122
 Douglas Boin, Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire. New York: Bloomsbury Press (2015), 57.
 John 17:18
 Philippians 4:7