Readings: Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 145, 1 John 3:18-24, John 15:1-8
My dear graduates, you are gathered here for the last time as a class. This has been your home away from home for the last nine or ten years, you have known each other and grown together, you have formed relationships that have seen you through good times and bad. And so, as we come together for graduation this evening, I know that this is a bittersweet occasion for you, as it is for your teachers and all of us who have been privileged to be part of your life these past years. You are certainly excited to graduate and move on with the rest of your life, but you are probably also sad to leave behind so many close friends as you go to different schools in the year ahead.
But however we all feel about you moving on, move on you must. That is what life is all about: growing and learning and becoming and going forward. We all want that for you, and hopefully that is what you want for yourselves. And so, on this occasion, I have been trying to figure out what words I would want you to hear on this day. As I have prayed about this homily over the last few weeks, the Spirit seems to be wanting me to talk to you about success. Success is that pot of gold that we all want for ourselves, and many people have written about it.
Dale Carnegie wrote, “The person who gets the farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare. The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.” Woody Allen once said, “Seventy percent of success in life is showing up.” Johann Sebastian Bach wrote, “I was made to work. If you are equally industrious, you will be equally successful.” I could go on and on quoting all sorts of famous people who have given their opinion on how to be successful, but I thought I might stop there and instead reflect on what is the focus of this particular school, reflect on what Jesus teaches us about success.
And what Jesus has to say about success might sound counter-intuitive. During his life, people often heard him speak and thought he was crazy. They may have laughed and written him off, or maybe they got angry and walked away. Some even were so angry that they eventually had him arrested and put to death. But we know, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, with eyes filled with grace and formed by the Church, that Jesus’ words are words to live by. So let’s listen to some of the radical things he had to say about success.
First, he said that one can be successful in the humblest of circumstances. To be fair, he didn’t really say that out loud, he actually just said it by who he was. When he came to earth, he could have done that in so many ways. Because he is God, he could have come with great fanfare, with a mighty army and amazing signs like a solar eclipse and a great earthquake. But he didn’t. He came as a little baby, with no more than a quiet cry in the night, laying in a manger, born in the poorest of circumstances. But he made those circumstances the beginning of salvation for the whole world. So it’s not what you start with, instead it’s what you let God do in you that counts. If you want to be successful, don’t be dragged down by the pains of yesterday, don’t be bitter about where life started for you; instead, reach out to tomorrow with all the grace God gives you.
The second thing Jesus might tell us is that if you want to be successful, do some things you don’t have to do. Before Jesus began his work, St. John the Baptist was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus came to John for baptism. He didn’t have to, because he had no sin. But he did it anyway, to identify with sinners – that’s you and me – and to make the waters of baptism holy by his being in them. By doing something he didn’t have to do, he made real forgiveness possible for all of us. By doing something you don’t have to, maybe you can make life better for others in some way too.
Jesus might also tell us that to be successful, we need to repent. A lot of people think they don’t need to repent, but the truth is, we all do. All of us fall down in our devotion to and friendship with God at some point or another, and that can cause our lives to spin out of control. Or, if we are real followers of Jesus, we can use the opportunity to turn back, ask forgiveness, and move forward. God can use those occasions when we mess up to give us grace that moves us beyond our imaginings. He did that for the disciples, and he wants to do it for us disciples too. All we have to do is repent, turn back, open the door to mercy.
Jesus would also tell us that being successful means laying down our lives. He sure did it – up there on that cross. We too will have to lay down our lives for what we believe in, and lay down our lives for others. Because our belief in Jesus may come at odds with what others think, or what they are doing. We will then have to decide to go along with others or lay down our lives for Jesus. We will have to lay down our lives for others, too. We may have to give up our own selfish interests so that the important people in our lives can know that we care for them. Jesus told us quite clearly: there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And he modeled it in the most radical way possible by giving his life for us.
And finally, I think Jesus would tell us, as he does in the Gospel tonight, that we have to remain in him if we want to be truly successful. Listen to what he says again: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” Nothing. Nothing really good will happen apart from our life in Christ. And so it’s important that you continue to do what you’ve learned here at Notre Dame: pray every day, go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation and even during the week when you can, receive the Holy Eucharist and go to Confession often. Stay connected to Christ, remain in Christ, and you will be truly successful in life.
Take a look at the Cross. That’s what success looks like for us believers in Christ. It looks like love beyond our wildest dreams. It looks like giving everything, trusting all the while that God will give us what we need in return. That’s how Jesus loves us, and that’s how we’re supposed to love one another too. We are probably not going to get nailed to a cross, but we are definitely called upon to give of ourselves, to lay down our lives for each other.
For all these years, you’ve been hearing how to be successful. We’ve given you the tools as best we can. If you remember these things and use them and grow in them, you will be successful, happy and blessed. The goal of all our lives is to get to heaven one day, and for the time you’ve been in our Catholic school, we have done our best to give you what you need to get there, because getting to heaven is the ultimate badge of success. Be reasonably happy in this life, but we want you to be eternally happy with Christ in heaven one day. May God bless you in every moment of your lives. And don’t ever forget where your spiritual home is: right here at Notre Dame.