Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord, Jesus Christ: “Farewell!” We have arrived at the last day of our academic year. We may see each other again—in fact, it’s almost certain, God willing, as you have exams to write, short term courses to complete, and a Call Service to attend. But this final Communion service of the year is a fitting place to bid you farewell. It marks out the parting of our ways. “Farewell” comes from the same root as the German word fahren “to travel”—and both, as your ears might tell you, come from the Greek word πόρος that means “ferry, or river crossing”. As a close friend or family member departed from your home, you might have walked with him for a while out of town. But the first river crossing on the route would draw a line between you. On the banks of the river the hugs and kisses were exchanged, the tears flowed, and as he embarked on the ferry you cried out to him, “ferry well”, “Farewell”—may God grant you a safe journey and good health while we are separated from each other.
We’re standing on those banks today, even if the ferry’s departure is delayed for a few weeks. Some of you will see each other again in September, but many will be separated for at least the next year, if not longer. Who knows what the Lord’s plans have in store for us? Perhaps today is the last time we’ll commune together on this earth. We face the near future with considerable anxiety. Vicarages in unknown places, summer jobs, a new marriage. Children returning from university, or perhaps leaving home for good. “We walk in danger all the way”, as the hymns sings. Anxiety about the future is a powerful factor in our lives. How will we pay off our debt? Will we have enough students to make the seminary viable? Will we get through our ATS visit next year? Will I get hit by a car on my way down the hill today—I tend to cause my wife more anxiety than she causes me. But I worry about her and her health, and I’m concerned about my children’s future. What about you? There are greater things to fear than your next exam.
For most people the most powerful fear is the death of a loved one. We’ve faced an emotionally draining month, as a friend recently put it. Two pastors lost their wives to cancer at far too young an age. An even younger woman in a nearby congregation lost her husband to sudden cancer and then was bereft of her grandmother within a week. An elderly pastor’s frail body breathed its last and was buried by his own parishioners. Those were farewells of a different sort, farewells with no thought of earthly reunions. And yet there was a definitive sort of joy that was exuded by those funerals—the joy of Easter, the joy of knowing the future, the joy of certainty that comes with the promise that those bodies so tenderly and tearfully laid in the ground will rise again, that Christ will call them forth as he called Lazarus from his tomb to reunite him with Mary and Martha, his sisters. The grief of separation was tempered by a confident faith in the Gospel promises. Jesus’ words and deeds were proclaimed to the gathered congregations, so that when they said “farewell”, it was more than a wish. It was a certain blessing rooted in Jesus’ pledge.
The lengthy sermon of Jesus that begins with today’s Gospel in John 14 and carries on through four chapters is often called His “farewell discourse”. He’d reached a river crossing that was hidden from their eyes, but painfully visible to Him. They didn’t understand what He was saying. “A little while and you are no longer seeing Me, and again a little while and you will see Me” (Jn 16:16), as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. What was He on about? Perhaps they recalled His passion predictions and feared that the time had now come when He would be separated from them by that great river of death. He caused them much grief with those words. Peter once before had rejected all thought of Jesus’ willing submission to suffering and death. Jesus’ rebuke, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Mt. 16:23), had stung him painfully. Now Peter is more valiant, proclaiming fearlessly just before our text that he’d gladly lay down his life in order to follow Jesus where He was going (Jn 13:37). Were his words ironic? Did he realise that laying down his life was indeed the only way that he could follow Jesus on this journey? In any case, he was offering something he couldn’t give—and Jesus stung him again by predicting his threefold denial of his Lord on the eve of His crucifixion.
We often forget that that exchange with Jesus came immediately before these very familiar words from our text: “Let not your heart(s) be troubled; you trust in God, trust also in Me” (14:1). They were troubled by His farewell; they were troubled by the coming separation; they were troubled by His insistence that no human devotion could keep them together, and that Peter would deny the One whom he loved most deeply. They were troubled by the magnitude of that sin. And yet, even in the midst of such anxiety, Jesus proclaims that their hearts ought not be agitated. How can that be? “Believe in the Father; believe also in Me!” Is this His answer: trust Me, trust God? Perhaps. But there must be a reason to trust Him. So He doesn’t stop there. He opens the door ever so slightly to give them a glimpse of the Father’s plan. He goes to prepare a mansion for them in His Father’s house—well, not a “mansion” in the way we always imagined when we heard it from the Authorised Version, but a μονή, a “resting place”, where the heart can stop racing and the brain can stop worrying and the feet can stop running and we can enjoy what the Sabbath only faintly pictured on this earth. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord … , that they may rest from their labours” (Rev. 14:13)—the words of John’s Revelation that form the most poignant moment in the requiem masses of old. Like the Good Samaritan who picks up the dying man and takes him to an inn for rest and healing, promising to return for him later, Jesus goes forth to ready our resting place—and He promises to return for us.
Don’t let go of the second part of that promise. His departure to prepare a place for us with the Father in heaven gives us an incomplete hope. By itself it might simply mean that when we die, our souls will go to rest there, too. “He’s gone to be with Jesus”, we hear in many a funeral sermon. But that faint comfort falls far short of the robust claim Jesus makes in His farewell sermon. Jesus would not be comforted on the eve of His crucifixion merely by the knowledge that in death His human soul and His divine nature would rest with His heavenly Father, for without the promise of His living and life-giving, triumphant exit from the tomb His death would be a defeat. And so He also promises to us. He not only departs, but He will return for us. We not only die and rest with God, but He will come back to raise our mortal bodies to be like His immortal flesh. His promise to take us to be where He is doesn’t apply just to our souls; but as He rose and ascended bodily into heaven, so He promises to lift up our bodies to join Him and see His Father in the flesh. And in the meantime He promises that He will not be so far ahead of us on the road that we lose sight of Him. Thanks to the probing questions of the faint-hearted disciples Thomas and Philip, Jesus calls us to fix our eyes on Him, promising, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. … He who has seen Me, has seen the Father” (14:6, 9). That’s what we’re doing here—we’re fixing our eyes on Jesus, and in Him we’re seeing our heavenly end. He went away, but He also came back. He isn’t absent, but is with us on the path, calling us with His words and feeding us with His Body and Blood. “For Christ goes with us all the way—Today, tomorrow, ev’ry day!” (LSB 395:5). Those memorable words of Philip Nicolai were written by a pastor who’d seen his town devastated by the plague and who buried as many as 30 parishioners a day in his church cemetery. And yet he could still sing of such joy; for he knew that Christ, the resurrected One was with them in their suffering, had Himself died as they were dying, had risen as they would rise, and was coming back to claim them as His own:
What joy to know, when life is past, The Lord we love is first and last,
The end and the beginning!
He will one day, Oh, glorious grace, Transport us to that happy place
Beyond all tears and sinning!
Amen! Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! Crown of gladness! We are yearning
For the day of Your returning!” (LSB 395:6).