May 29th 2011
(Guest Preaching at Holy Cross, Racine)
Saying goodbye can be a difficult thing. Whether its a recent graduate heading off to college. A good friend who retires and moves to somewhere that actually has a summertime. Or putting that child on the school bus for the very first time. These kinds partings are such sweet sorrow, a mixture of emotions. Even though you'll miss your loved one, there is a joy for their new venture, or phase of life.
Then there are those goodbyes that are not bittersweet, but simply bitter. Getting fired from a job you love. The couple who divorces after years of marriage. Or perhaps worst, death itself. And worst among those, an untimely death. A soldier who goes off to war, and dies, leaving behind a wife and family. A teenager who dies in a car accident the week before prom. Some of the most difficult goodbyes are those we don't expect, and out of which no good seems to come.
Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. He is preparing them, by his words, for his departure. He spoke of that departure on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. He spoke openly about it with his disciples, telling them just what was to come. “The Son of Man is going up to Jerusalem, and he will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he will be crucified...” The Gospels say he spoke plainly about this. Jesus was going away.
But what sort of departure will this be? Will it be a hopeless goodbye? A senseless tragedy? Or will there be, behind the sorrow, a cause for hope, even joy?
Jesus' words hold out a promise. “I will not leave you as orphans”. What's a worse goodbye than seeing your parents die and leave you behind? What's more hopeless than an Orphan? Perhaps you remember Little Orphan Annie, and her “hard knock life” in the orphanage. No family. No tenderness and concern. No one to tuck her in bed or buy her Christmas gifts. But then the story turns when she is adopted by the wealth Daddy Warbucks, and her whole life goes from rags to riches.
In a way, we've always been orphans. But cut off from our Father by the sin of our own choosing. What a bitter departure it must have been for Adam and Eve to leave the garden. Not just because it was a beautiful paradise, but it meant leaving the place where they walked with God. Since then, we've all been on the outside, looking in. Our sinfulness estranges us from our Lord, and in it, we are dead to him. And every time you, personally, sin, it's as if you say to God, “drop dead, Dad.” We need repentance. We need forgiveness.
But Jesus takes us from our orphanage of sin, our hard-knock life of suffering and death, and brings us to the mansions of heaven where he has prepared a place for us. He comforts us, even now, with that promise, and with his constant word. His Spirit helps us to remember, and to believe in all he has said. And by his grace alone do we live as children of God here in the world.
So no, they won't remain orphans, though now their Lord would be going away for a while. He promises them that even in this departure there would be hope and blessing. He promises them the Holy Spirit. The Helper. The Spirit of Truth. He would help the disciples to remain in the truth, and remember all his commands and promises. And Jesus himself would give them life – because of his life. For even though he was about to die, he would soon rise to life forever. And his resurrection means our resurrection. So there is hope.
And in this departure that is quickly coming, the world will see him no longer, but he promises, “you will see me”. And this is the paradox wrapped in an enigma. Jesus is going, but he is staying. He won't be seen, but he will be seen. He is dying, but he will live and so will his disciples. He is going to the Father, but he will be with you always, even to the end of the age.
This Thursday, the Christian church marks the Ascension of our Lord. He would rise to the heavens in the sight of his apostles. But this wasn't the end either. Now seated in his rightful glory at the throne of God, and the Father's right hand, Jesus rules all things for the good of his people, the church. But even this isn't the end.
He will return, and take us to be with him. Whether that return happens when you pass through the gate of death – or should we all live to see the last day when he comes again in glory – Jesus will not leave us forever. And yet even though he's gone, he is here, among us, in his word, by his Spirit. In our baptism, and at our altars.
There are times when we feel orphaned. Alone in the world. Like even God can't understand our suffering. Maybe especially when we have to say the bitter goodbyes. But for the Christian, there is hope and even joy in such goodbyes.
Or to put it another way: with Christ, there is no goodbye, only a “see you later.” For Christians, there is the same. We look forward to the grand reunion of eternity with all the saints in heaven. And especially with our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. God will not forsake us. He has already forsaken Christ on the cross. Our sins won't make him hate us, he's already poured out his wrath on Jesus. For us, adopted children of the heavenly Father, there is only love and comfort and peace. There is an eternal home. There are loving arms of embrace. Now and ever, in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.