Parting is such sweet sorrow

Sermon at St James, Easter 7, 21 May 2023

Acts 1: 6-14; John 17: 1-11

To listen to a recording of the sermon as you read:

I have to ask you to bear with me briefly while I recount three personal incidents in my life which might ring bells for you.

The first incident was when I left home for the first time. I was 18 years old, and I had never been away from my parents and brothers for any length of time. I was leaving to live in digs and work shifts in a steel works near Sheffield—all part of a GAP scheme between school and university. I had heard that people in Sheffield spoke a different language, so I was quite apprehensive and very homesick as I sat in the train at Temple Meads in Bristol. Saying goodbye to my parents had been painful and tears kept welling up.

The second incident was when my father died. I had not experienced a death of a loved one until then and although the whole family knew that it was coming and although I was with my father when he died it came as a tremendous shock so that when friends and colleagues offered me their sympathy my grief and loneliness brought tears to the surface.

The third incident was when a boy in my school in West London was killed instantly by a speeding motorist as he crossed a road near his home. He was a fifth-former approaching GCSEs and the news of his death hit his year group like a sledgehammer. They were distraught. The crematorium service in Golders Green and the Memorial service in the school hall with his favourite music could not disguise the fact that we were trying to say goodbye when we hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye.

Three instances of painful goodbyes - so who was the bright spark who said that “parting was sweet sorrow”? How can sorrow be sweet? It was, of course, Shakespeare who gave those words to Juliet as she said goodbye to Romeo: “Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”

Last Thursday was Ascension Day when the Church recalled the final parting of Jesus from his disciples. But what a roller-coaster of emotions those first Christians had suffered. For about three years they had said goodbye to their families and followed Jesus round the Galilean countryside and with some excitement looked forward to reaching Jerusalem. When they finally arrived at the city walls they were greeted by crowds. Everything looked rosy as the people cheered them but within just four days the mood had changed, and a sense of foreboding took over as Jesus spoke about his death. On the Thursday night in Gethsemane trying to support their lord and teacher the reality of the situation was only just sinking in and then, desperately they saw him dying as a common criminal.

Had they said goodbye properly? Did they feel alone and lost in grief? Were tears bursting through uncontrollably? They must have been totally overwhelmed by misery. Their dreams and expectations had been shattered like a broken pane of glass falling in shards to the ground. It would have felt so final and such a waste of their lives and his life.

So, when some women reported seeing the risen Jesus there would have been much disbelief and questioning—just wishful thinking, perhaps, to relieve the pain of parting. Dead people do not reappear. So, gradually, as Jesus showed himself to more and more of them, they had to reset their emotions yet again.

In today’s gospel St John gives us some of the farewell wishes of Jesus. They are in the form of a prayer to God: “Father, … I have made your name known to those whom you have given me from the world, protect them…so that they may be one as we are one.”

Then at his final parting from them Jesus tells them simply, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”

This was surely a sweet parting because they had wonderful memories and a triumphant message to proclaim. They had loved and lost for a short time but then had been lifted and empowered to do a job in his memory.

At this Ascensiontide we recall that you and I walk in the footsteps of those early Christians as well as in the presence of Christ himself—sweet memories and a demanding responsibility.