When you have to say goodbye, what do you say? It depends on the situation, of course; if you are the one leaving or the one left behind; if this is forever or just a temporary separation; if the time is right, if it will ever be the right time, or the time came too soon.
We also work up to saying goodbye; steeling ourselves up for the grief that is to come; actively practicing denial; mapping out steps that hopefully will help us accept the inevitable. And part of how we say goodbye represents how we choose to live, who we were in the relationship that is now changed or is no longer, or how ready we are to let go.
So, as I write this, I am thinking of a lot of goodbyes said lately and that will soon be said. I remembered that a while back, my mother shared with my sisters and me her funeral service plans. “I know you don’t like that hymn,” she said, “but I do (emphasis on the ‘I’).” She is staggering her goodbyes. I am thinking of my students who are graduating in May. Leaving seminary is a major departure, on so many levels. I am thinking about the family of Jordan Edwards – yet another death that should never have happened. How do you say goodbye? I am thinking of my former student’s son whom I mentioned last week, whose body has now been found. How do you say goodbye?
We can’t call these words of Jesus the “Farewell Discourse” or preach on these words without recognizing fully what it means to say goodbye, both for Jesus and for the disciples. This is a rare pastoral exchange, friends. We see Jesus as pastor, as friend. We need to put this passage in the context of the five chapters dedicated to Jesus’ last night with his disciples. Five chapters. Jesus needs his disciples to remember these words, all of these words, after John 19. This is Jesus at his most tender, most compassionate, because he knows just what is to come — for him and for them.
We can’t remove or dilute the pathos of this moment with theories and theologies that predict what heaven will look like or anticipate who will end up being our mansion neighbors. To do so is to take these words away from the disciples that they needed to hear — and maybe you do as well.
We should remember that these words of Jesus according to John never anticipated being Scripture, being canonized, being a book in this thing we call the Bible. They are first and foremost words of comfort and hope. Words of grief and valedictions. Words meant to remind and affirm. Yes, things will never be the same after they leave this meal together and cross the Kidron Valley to the garden. Yet goodbyes do not erase the past. In fact, goodbyes call to mind the past so that a future is possible. I think that’s one thing that Jesus emphasizes in these parting words to his disciples.
A sermon on this text might start with the words you need to hear, Dear Working Preachers, or the words Jesus might help you say to someone else. Of course, opening words mean everything — “believe in God and in me.” Trust in God and in me. In other words, hold on to the relationship we had because my leaving does not change what was. For the disciples, it will mean everything to remember what was because that is exactly what Jesus promises for their future — abiding with him, with God — intimate, at the bosom of both. Wow.
Jesus says goodbye with tenderness and truthfulness. Not every goodbye is like this, I know, but we need to hear these words for what they are. They are not answers to everything that the disciples will face. They don’t explain away what will happen. They don’t suggest that any of this will be easy. They don’t rationalize what is to come. And, there is no reprimand on Jesus’ part when Thomas and Peter ask their questions, “How can we know the way?” and “Show us the Father,” because these are questions born out of the pain of confusion and give voice to the unsettledness of the heart.
So maybe this sermon is about saying goodbyes, hearing goodbyes, contemplating goodbyes. But not only that, maybe it’s a sermon that preaches how Jesus’ goodbye also gives the disciples permission to live; even a commission to love.
That’s the thing about goodbyes. They are never really goodbyes — how you then live into the future has been changed forever because of the person who has left. Some goodbyes will have more of an effect on what lies before you than others, that’s true. But often, those who say goodbye, those whom we let go, leave us with a charge to live differently.
This is at the heart of Jesus’ last words to his disciples. What will you do now? What will this mean now? What will you remember? What will carry you forward? Each of us needs to answer these questions on the other side of Easter.