Having to saying goodbye, for many people, is not an easy thing to do. Whether it is us who are moving away, coming to the end of a visit, or coming to the end of life itself, or whether it is someone else, saying farewell and facing up to the fact that we might not see someone for a while, or ever again, can be a very difficult thing to do. As a consequence, as part of a way of coping with such situations, as a society, we have evolved a number of rituals (formal and informal) in order to ease the situation.
For example, when someone dies it is usual to farewell them by conducting a funeral, and we can express our grief and loss as we gather around the coffin. On the other hand, when people are going away for a while, or moving away, words are usually employed as an encouragement to continue the relationship, even at a distance.
Of course, sometimes our words can seem quite silly, like: ‘Be good’, ‘Don’t do anything that I wouldn’t do’ or ‘Look after yourself’. But regardless of the quality of the words, the sentiment behind them is clear. And that is that they are an expression (however inadequate) of the care that we have for that person, and that we are truly sad about the separation, no matter for how long.
1. Jesus Bids Farewell (31-33)
Imagine for a moment, then, the situation of Jesus and the disciples in the upper room, in our gospel passage. Jesus and the disciples had gathered together as part of the celebrations leading up to the Passover. All quite innocent enough. Except for the fact that where we meet the story, Judas had just left the room to put into action the plan to betray Jesus.
Now the rest of the disciples knew nothing about what was going on. They certainly didn’t understand what had to happen to Jesus. And they were totally ignorant of Judas’s part in the plan. However immediately that Judas left them, Jesus told the remaining eleven disciples that he was going away and, what’s worse, that none of them could go with him.
To say that the disciples would have been shocked would be a gross understatement of the situation. For sure, Jesus had talked about the Son of Man having to die and that he could be raised three days later. But to be honest all that sort of talk had gone straight over their heads. So, when Jesus talked in terms of leaving them, about going to a place, and about them being unable to go with him, apart from being saddened—in the same way that you or I would when saying goodbye to a good friend—they would have been very confused indeed.
But Jesus reassured them: It was necessary, he had to go. And one day they would understand. And he had to go for three reasons:
Firstly, so that he would be glorified. In other words, he was telling them that he had to do the very thing that he was sent to earth to do—to die, to save others from their sins, so that, as a consequence, others could see and accept God’s salvation work for themselves in the crucifixion and acknowledge Jesus as the saviour of the world.
Secondly, as a result of that, so that God could be glorified in Jesus. In other words, he was telling them that God could then give his seal of approval on Jesus’ crucifixion work, by resurrecting him from the dead, which would reflect the depth of love God had for his creation.
And, thirdly, because the time had come for him to act, and there was a pressing need to do this without delay. Now was the right time, and Jerusalem, at that time, was the right and proper place.
Now without doubt the upper room scene was just as difficult a farewell for Jesus as it was for the disciples. He knew what he had to say was difficult, and he knew what he had to go on and do wasn’t going to be easy either. Because even though his affection for the eleven remaining disciples (plus his other faithful followers) had grown so strong, leaving them behind was something he had to do.
He did, however, have a few hours left. But after that . . . Well, it might be some time before they saw him again.
2. Love One Another (34-35)
Now, having delivered the shocking news: that he was going to go away, and that there was nothing that the disciples could do to stop that, Jesus then proceeded to launch into his farewell speech. A speech intended to hold the disciples in good stead until he should come again.
And at the beginning of that speech, he did what many of us do, and that is he gave the ‘look after yourself talk’. Only with Jesus, as you might expect, there was a little more involved: ‘I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Indeed, that you are to love one another as I have loved you’ (34).
Now, in reality there was nothing new about Jesus’s command to love. Indeed, it was an old idea that dated back to the time of Moses (Leviticus 19:18). What was different about what Jesus was saying, though, was that he expected the disciples not just to care for their neighbours—as the Old Testament commandment was usually taken to mean—but rather, as a small group of followers being left alone who needed all the support and encouragement that they could get, to really care for one another on a much more intimate basis.
For sure they should still love others—neighbours and enemies alike. But, as part of a brotherhood of faith based on Jesus’ life and work, what was new, and what was expected, was a special focus on the need to care for each other on an even higher level than would normally be expected in caring for one’s fellow man.
And ‘love’ as the focus? Well, the kind of love that Jesus wanted was the kind that at the time was rarely mentioned in literature—except in the bible. The kind of love that Jesus described was the kind that was recognised as the highest and noblest form of love that there was. It not only incorporated love as a religious duty towards one’s fellow man, where practical help for those who needed it was very much the order of the day. But more that. Indeed, in this instance, it was love specifically targeted towards one’s fellow believers.
It was imitating God’s love to a brother or sister in Christ. It was recognition that Jesus lived within that other person. And it was the need to treat that other person as though they were Jesus himself.
Now, as far as Jesus was concerned this kind of love wasn’t a fantasy. On the contrary, Jesus himself had set the example. And now, as Jesus was going away and wouldn’t be with his disciples for a while, he wanted to make sure that they stayed together.
Yes, they needed to care for others. Yes, they needed to care for their enemies. But more importantly they were to love one another and to follow in the steps that he had trod.
Jesus’s exhortation, then, was not to ask them to do anything that he hadn’t done himself. Indeed, all he was asking was they imitate his very own behaviour. But this time to each other.
3. Distinguishing Mark (35)
And if they did that . . . Jesus concluded: ‘If you do this, if you have love for one another, all men will know that you are my disciples’ (35).
Not only would the disciples get the human support they needed at this very difficult time. But in addition, there would be no doubt about to whom the disciples belonged. By implication, the rest of the world would then sit up and take notice. And what a magnet that would be, for attracting others to Jesus and the Christian faith.
Saying goodbye to someone, then, might be something that most of us don’t find easy—and in that upper room, it wasn’t something that Jesus found easy either. Indeed, in the words that Jesus spoke, he recognised that. However, in the sadness of the moment he gave his disciples a message—a message which provided some very important instructions indeed.
Now fortunately for us, we don’t have to face the shock of Jesus having to leave us so that he can be crucified and resurrected—like the disciples did. Because that has already happened. And the fact is, we are now waiting for Jesus to come again.
Despite that, however, the words of advice to the disciples—Jesus’s new commandment of how to behave in the period of his absence—are just as important now as they were back in the upper room. They still have very important implications, that we should take note of today:
1. Loving Fellow Believers
And the first of these relates to the question of whether we really do care for our fellow believers or not. And whether we really go out of our way to help and encourage those around us who share the Christian faith.
Now that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love and care for others as well. But it does raise the issue of how seriously we demonstrate compassion and care for those who are like minded in their acceptance of Jesus as saviour and Lord.
For example, when fellow believers struggle spiritually—or otherwise—are we there to help them through? When fellow believers get into the difficulties of life of any description, are we there to give them support? And do we give our effort, time, energy, possessions, financial support, or whatever it takes in order to build and support our fellow brothers and sisters in the faith?
Because that’s what Jesus did. Yes, Jesus showed compassion for all. But, on top of that, he made a special effort when it came to his devoted disciples. He provided food for their family’s tables (fishing miracles). He healed sick relatives (Peter’s Mother-in-law, Lazarus). And he spent a lot of extra time just with his faithful followers teaching and encouraging them in their faith.
Jesus set an example on how, as believers, we are supposed to live. We are supposed to encourage and build up one another—to do what Jesus commanded his disciples to do. We need to give time, patience, understanding, material support, and a listening ear to our fellow believers. And that is the expectation (not a request) of Jesus for all believers.
And, if we do, then the natural response will be, that not only will the members of his church be cared for. But others will stand up and take notice.
At issue is not only the need to care for one another but is the witness and unity of the church. A church that functions with a group of people united in belief and mission, and who really care for one another, will have the added effect of being attractive to people outside the fold.
Now, that doesn’t mean that within the church there can’t be differences of opinion, and different ideas on how to reach God’s goals. However, what it does mean is that if the members of the church love one another, as they are supposed to, the church will remain strong, united in acknowledging the one and only true God, the one and only Saviour, and the common purpose of the church—to worship God and to tell others about the faith. All expressed through the loving way we care for one another.
And if that happens, any differences that believers have will become insignificant in the scheme of things. And the church will naturally attract others to its doors.
However, without that love, there will be no unity, the church will be torn apart and divided. It will have no common purpose, and its existence will become counter-productive. And what’s worse, with disunity, the members of the church will be guilty of the worst crime that could ever be committed by anyone—and that is turning people away from God. A crime that people will need to answer for come judgement day.
When Jesus embarked on his farewell speech then, is it any wonder that he began with the topic of love?
Love is fundamental to the Christian message. Love is what God showed his creation in sending Jesus. Love is what Jesus demonstrated in this world, particularly through his death. And as a consequence, love is the one thing above all other that the faithful are expected, not requested, to express in their lives.
Indeed, love is the one thing that holds the whole Christian Gospel together. And by application, lack of love, lack of caring, is the one thing that will tear the whole thing apart.
When we consider saying goodbye to our family and friends then, yes, we may find it difficult. But then we should remember how hard it was for Jesus saying goodbye to his disciples too.
Fortunately for us, however, his farewell speech to his disciples had some very sound advice. Indeed, not just advice but a commandment—a commandment for all Christians to love one another.
At the heart of this commandment is everything that God and Jesus stand for. And it’s what we should be standing for too.
The words of Jesus to love then are not a request but a command. And we need to take them very seriously indeed.
Posted: 9th December 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis