Rev. Stephen Baldwin
NT: John 17.1-11
Saying goodbye is enormously difficult. Especially for Appalachians.
You know about the Appalachian goodbye, don’t you? The one that is so long and drawn out it lasts longer than the sunday sermon?
It goes something like this: You say goodbye, you hug, you start telling stories, you smile, you laugh, you remember you need to leave, you say goodbye again, you start to cry, you hug…again, you make plans for the next time you’re going to see each other, you pull away, you thank them for the time you spent together, you say goodbye again, you blow kisses, you wave, and you finally leave.
The Appalachian goodbye. Yall know all about it, amen? We have major separation anxiety, because we are so closely connected to our loved ones.
Saying goodbye is difficult. Even if it’s only leaving town for work for the week. But when we have to say goodbye to someone we love for a long period of time, it’s all the more difficult.
Jesus finds himself in that position in today’s reading. He is about to say goodbye to the disciples, preparing to ascend from this world to the next. Let me read you the prayer he prays to God, anxiety about separating from his friends.
(Read John 17.1-11)
Can’t you feel the emotion in Jesus’ prayer? He is pouring his heart out to God, begging God to protect the sheep he’s spent his life protecting. Because he knows the end of his time with them is near, and he’s anxious about saying goodbye.
More specifically, he’s anxious about them not having him as protection and teacher. Every parent can relate. Whether it’s dropping your kids off at the first day of kindergarten or the first day of college, you are screaming inside, “Dear God, please protect them!” Because you can’t in that moment. You’ve done all you can do.
Jesus is there at this point in his life. He’s done all he can do. Despite the disciple’s doubts, he believes in them. He assured God they’ve done their best, they’ve spread the Good News, they’ve believed in God. I’ve glorified you, God, and now it is time for you to glorify me. In other words, it’s time to end the long goodbye. It’s time to take the next step.
In the world of mental health, this is called “acceptance.” When a person finally accepts their reality. It’s the last stage in the grieving process. After denial, after anger, after bargaining, after depression, at some point we accept our reality. It’s why goodbyes take so long in Appalachia. Because it takes a lot of work to get to acceptance, and we will exhaust every other possibility on the way there.
But when we finally reach acceptance, a weight lifts. The fear of the unknown lifts like the fog, and we move forward.
That’s why Ascension Sunday matters. It’s the moment we move on from the grief of Gethsemane and the cross and the tomb and even the resurrection. It’s the moment when we accept that God hears and answers our prayers, even if we don’t always understand or accept it.
God heard Jesus’ prayers for the disciples. We are living proof all these years later, still building the kingdom, still feeding the hungry, still worshiping God, still singing hymns of praise, still baptizing children, still studying the word, still praying each and every day!
Saying goodbye is enormously difficult, especially for us. It was even difficult for Jesus. But the way he did is a model for all of us to live by. Jesus’ prayer was out loud in front of all his disciples. He prayed for them to God out loud as they listened.
Imagine how it felt for the disciples to hear Jesus pray for them. Realize that Jesus prays for you just the same. Jesus accepts you. Jesus loves you. Jesus knows you.
Saying goodbye is enormously difficult. Especially for us. But when we accept that it’s only the beginning of something new, just like ascension is the beginning of something new, then we are coming closer to knowing God. When we realize that Jesus left his work to us, then we are coming closer to knowing Jesus. Amen.