Most of you will know by now that we suddenly lost our son, Stuart, last week. We still expect him to walk in through the back door and tell us to put the kettle on. Tea two or coffee one. And in return we’d tell him that if he’s going to smoke that filthy cigarette, then sit on the back step and do it – don’t do it in the kitchen. In retrospect, he said goodbye in his own way – ringing old friends to arrange a bike ride and taking the wheel trims back to Jean that she’d been mithering him about for months.
Less than saintly
We’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness and consideration shown to us. And we thank you for it. His loss affects a vast number of other people as well as us and we’ve heard many stories of Stuart’s generosity with his time going back decades – many of which we hadn’t heard before. We’ve also heard about some of the less than saintly things that he got up to when he was younger – which he hadn’t thought to tell us about at the time! We realise that we had just a small precious part of his life. And that he shared other parts of himself with others.
But we’ve been stunned by the number of those who have been touched with similar loss within their own circle of family and friends. Sharing our pain with others has given permission, an invitation, for those others to share theirs with us – and it’s been truly humbling. That shared vulnerability has drawn us closer to others and restored old friendships.
And most of you here will also have suffered loss of a loved one. Some sudden, some not. You will know the whole mix of emotions that are at play as well as all the practical stuff that needs sorting out.
King Charles and his brothers and sister have also had to come to terms with the loss of their mother, the late Queen. They will have heard stories of the warmth, affection and respect with which she was held. Charles, of course, has had to take on responsibility and authority too. The Queen’s eventual departure, her leave-taking, had been planned and anticipated. And Charles had been carefully trained and prepared over many years.
In our readings from Acts and John today, Jesus is practicing the art of leave-taking too. He invites us to think about what it means to say goodbye with intention and mindfulness and love.
A lot to contend with
The disciples, in our Ascension story from Acts, have had a lot to contend with. Jesus had died suddenly and with it all their hopes and expectations of what they thought a Messiah was here to do. They’d given up everything for him and it had all apparently come to nothing. But 3 days later he was back again – and it took them all a while to process what was happening.
And now he was going again, telling them that they had a job to do. They were to witness, to tell people about him. Not just in Jerusalem or in their own country but throughout the world. They had a responsibility to take on. But they would be given the power and ability to do that. That power would come through the Holy Spirit.
I love this little line in our story from Acts where Jesus had just said goodbye and was disappearing into the clouds – yet another thing that was going to take a while to process. The disciples are looking up at the soles of his feet getting smaller and smaller, when the two men in white robes suddenly appear and ask them what the heck they think they’re doing standing around and staring up into the sky.
And in amongst the grief for us these last few days, there has been laughter for us too as someone shares a humorous anecdote about Stuart. Or when our granddaughter Maisie got sent some flowers from her school. We thought it was a thoughtful thing for them to do. But Maisie says: “They don’t like me, and I don’t like them, but they still sent me flowers.”
Praying out loud
There have been some moving moments as well where someone has prayed for us, voicing out loud their love and concern and putting us into God’s care. And that’s just what we have in our Gospel reading. The disciples have the privilege of hearing Jesus’ prayer for them. Of hearing what was important to him, hearing his love and concern and putting them into his Fathers’ care.
Jesus and the disciples are sat round a table after a meal and Jesus is sharing his final thoughts. Jesus himself, who knows he is about to die, is praying out loud to his Father for his disciples. This passage in John is John’s equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer. He doesn’t have the one that we say in church each week. He has this one. And we would do well to think about it because it charges us, commissions us, to do something.
Perhaps imagine that we are sat next to Jesus, and he has one hand on our shoulder and the other hand raised as he looks to heaven and prays for us.
He starts with maybe the best definition of eternal life – that eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. Simple as that. In John, knowing God doesn’t mean the ability to recite a creed. Knowing God means to be in relationship with God.
John’s Gospel is all about incarnation, God made flesh and dwelling among us. Being in relationship with God was being with a God who enjoys a good wedding and talks to people that he shouldn’t do and feeds those who are hungry. A God who walks on rough seas and heals people and gives others a second chance. A God who cries for his friends and washes their feet – and then dies for them too – before being restored to life.
So that they may be one
In this last Sunday of Easter before Pentecost, Jesus finishes our Gospel verses with these words: “And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
What a thought, what a challenge, what a commission, for us to think about during the season of Pentecost! Because in this Lord’s prayer, the prayer that the disciples can overhear and which is about them, Jesus is saying that his incarnation might be over but the disciples (and therefore you and me) are still in the world. Jesus’ works are now in our hands. He is counting on us to be his presence in the wake of his absence (21:15-17). We now have the responsibility.
This prayer of Jesus is telling us that the Gospel story doesn’t stop with the resurrection. Instead, the resurrection is just the beginning not the conclusion. The promises of the resurrection are, in part, ours now to fulfil, with the power of the Holy Spirit with us.
Earlier, in John 14:12 Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”
How different would our life of discipleship be, our witness, our love, if we truly trusted that Jesus meant what he said? If the Gospel of John had some chapters added telling what you and I had done in the power of the Spirit, what would that look like I wonder?
We are in the world now. The world that God loved so much, that he gave… We are in the world with Jesus’ hand on our shoulder praying that we be one, just as he is one with the Father.
In the Ascension, and at the table, Jesus urges his friends to grow up, to enter into a new relationship that doesn’t depend on his physical presence but relies instead on trusting in his love and growing into the people and the community that they were called to become. He calls us, now, today, to do the same.
We’re in interregnum. Another time of transition. It’s a time to say goodbye to one shepherd as we wait for another. But it’s also a time for us to grow up and take responsibility – and to become closer as a community.
Sometimes leave-taking can be welcomed and planned and joyful – but sometimes it can be resisted and sudden and grieved. But it always brings a space for the Spirit to come. As we handle the goodbyes, the leave-takings, in our own lives, let’s keep our eyes open for what blessings they offer, what invitations they hold, that we too may be one.
In the Leaving – A Blessing by Jan Richardson
In the leaving,
in the letting go,
let there be this
to hold onto
at the last:
the enduring of love,
the persisting of hope,
the remembering of joy,
the offering of gratitude,
the receiving of grace,
the blessing of peace.
- And with thanks to the Manchester ALM Worship and Liturgy Class of 2023