“The hour has come… I am coming to you.” (John 17:1. 11)
Every life is full of goodbyes in varying degrees – from saying “goodbye” to someone who has served us in a shop, to the pain of losing someone or something that has given meaning and value to our life. It could be saying goodbye to a loved one, a pet or a precious object, to familiar surroundings, or to our youth as we grow older.
One of the great sadnesses of these past few weeks as we have learned of people dying of the Coronavirus is that the bereaved have felt that their ability to say goodbye to their loved ones properly has been taken away. Numbers attending funeral services have been severely limited, in most cases to a maximum of ten mourners, though I have heard of worse situations. One funeral I took at Semington recently was that of an elderly lady who lived in Devizes. The family were grateful that they were able to attend as, just two weeks previously, another member of their family had died in York, where the crematorium forbade any mourners from attending, and they had to say goodbye to their loved one’s coffin at the door to the chapel.
Later, when we are allowed, we will be offering memorial services for the bereaved who have suffered so much during this period.
In today’s Gospel reading we find Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples. It is part of the Upper Room Discourse, which spans chapters thirteen to seventeen of John’s Gospel. This is an intense and intimate time that Jesus spends with his disciples, teaching about service, love, heaven and prayer. He spells out his impending departure and prepares them for life without him. Within the Upper Room Discourse, today’s passage forms part of what is known as the High Priestly Prayer – and indeed Jesus’ tone is reminiscent of a priest interceding for a congregation in their presence.
There is no prayer in the garden of Gethsemane in John’s account, so this is Jesus’ final prayer before his crucifixion. Afterwards, they will go to Gethsemane where he will be arrested and the events of the passion will quickly unfold. So this passage marks the transition between the Upper Room Discourse and Jesus’ passion.
It opens with a reference to “these words” which Jesus has just spoken. These are words addressed his disciples, ending with Jesus’ astonishing assertion: “Take courage; I have conquered the world!” Now, in chapter seventeen, he addresses God directly as “Father”, and prays for himself, asking God to glorify him, and then prays for the disciples.
How different is the goodbye that we heard in today’s reading from Acts. The resurrected Jesus’ last words before he ascends to be with his Father are full of hope and the promise of the Holy Spirit: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth”.
Saying goodbye is often melancholy, and sometimes the pain of separation is beyond words. We may feel as though we have been ripped, both emotionally and physically, from that which we love. We may feel as though the life has been drained from us. Yet, for all the heartbreak, each goodbye contains within it a new relationship with God. Jesus’ closing words today are all about unity: “protect them… so that they may be one, as we are one”. Similarly, Jesus’ ascension, although it is a separation, is a reunion with the Father.
The prophet Ezekiel knew the pain of separation and loss. He was one of those living in exile after Nebuchadnezzar exiled three thousand Jews from Judah, holding them in captivity in Babylon. For all the upheaval and turbulence he lived through, Ezekiel’s faith was strong enough for him to be able to write these inspiring words which are set as an alternative lectionary reading for today. This beautiful verse speaks of God’s eternal, unfaltering promise of new life and resurrection: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh”.
On the last Sunday of Easter our focus remains on resurrection and new life. As we look forward to the arrival of the Holy Spirit, blazing with fiery vitality, next week at Pentecost, it is fitting to meditate on saying goodbye, drawing from our scripture readings a deep understanding of God’s promise of life even in the midst of loss. Because, though goodbyes can be painful, we can rejoice that those we have loved and lost have been united with their heavenly Father, and joyfully anticipate our own reunion with God.