Sunday, April 4, 2010

I Don’t Know Why You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

I Don’t Know Why You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

Maundy Thursday, April 1, 2010

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

About 40 years ago now, a musical group from England popularized a song that has been running through my mind ever since I first began reading over tonight’s New Testament text in preparation for this service. Some of you will recognize the words, others won’t, but they seem to me to be pertinent to the celebration of the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples when he sat with them one Passover evening centuries ago. The words go like this:

You say “Yes,” and I say “No,”
You say “Stop,” and I say, “Go, go, go!”
I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye,"
I say, “Hello.”
Hello, hello!
I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye,”
I say, “Hello!”

Even if it sounds a little befuddling, as much of the later music of the Beatles did, it seems to me that that song perfectly describes what often goes on in human relationships. We say one thing, our friend hears another. We want this, they hope for that. I want to work, you want to go fishing. You want to eat out, I want to cook hamburgers at home. While you expect this, I am planning for that, so no matter what you say, I will never hear you just right, because what I want you to be saying is playing so much louder in my mind than what you actually are saying.

The disciples, fresh back from the grand entry into Jerusalem, flushed with the reflected glory of the great man to whom they had attached their lives, for whom they had given up everything to follow, these folks were ready to hear a word of triumph. Their long treks over the barren northern provinces of Palestine could finally bear fruit; having “paid their dues,” as they say in the entertainment business, they were ready now for some truly big successes. Instead, what they heard from their master were unbelievable words, words of his impending death. No wonder he knew one of their number would betray him. Surely some of them must have felt themselves to have been betrayed! How could Jesus bring them all this way only to see him die? What was to have been a victory celebration turned out to be a retirement party. I don’t know why you say “goodbye,” I say “hello."

"One of you will betray me...” Goodbye.

"...that day when I shall drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Hello.

A passage which began by preparing Jesus’ disciples for his death – at least partially through their own betrayal, denial, or falling away, saying goodbye when they meant to say hello – ends with an equally shocking surprise when Jesus anticipated a glorious kingdom to come: saying hello when they have not even begun to accustom themselves to his goodbye! It’s confusing to us. It must have been confounding to them.

There are present day hellos and goodbyes in this passage. Here we have the foundation for one of the two holiest actions of the worship of the church, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. From Jesus’ own words, “Drink of it, all of you...,” it was clearly an action intended to bring Christians together in the future beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection. And yet, this holy hello has been one of the single most tragic occasions for division among believers. How ironic that as we despair over Jesus’ death tomorrow on the cross, tonight in different denominations – another word for the exclusion of one believer from another – we continue to tear his body asunder throughout the universal church, by our failure and refusal to even attempt to agree on this critically important act of worship. In this one great sacrament, meant to be God’s loving ‘hello’ to us, we continue to turn our backs on each other, on fellow believers. An occasion for a holy ‘hello’ has become another goodbye.

I don’t know why you say “goodbye,” I say “Hello.”

Even within our own church we individualize this sacrament to the point of eliminating any awareness of others during its celebration. The sacrament which Jesus instituted nourished each disciple individually, but it also bound them together as they were bound to him. In many of our celebrations, seated in our pews, we may have privatized it to the point that if anyone were to say “thank-you” or even clear their throat too loudly upon being handed a portion of bread, it would cause a stir, probably accompanied by raised eyebrows. “Don’t bother me now, I am having my moment alone with Jesus!” An occasion surely meant to be a ‘hello’ among believers, the New Testament version of a potluck dinner, this sacrament has become another ‘goodbye’ as we ignore one another’s presence during the serving of the holy meal.

Tonight, let me invite you to recall the fellowship aspect of the sacrament and feel free to speak to one another as you come forward to partake of the bread and wine. Nothing fancy, nothing threatening, not even anything too loud or boisterous. As the bread is offered to you, try saying a simple word of thanks. Likewise with the wine. Use one another’s names as you greet each other along the aisles. What kind of hello, holy or otherwise, fails to call us by name? No one shares a meal with another human being anonymously. Names have to be attached. “Rob, this is the body of Christ for you.” “Brenda, Jane, Tom, Pete, this is the blood of Christ for you.”

We search the gospel passage in vain for the familiar communion words from I Corinthians, “Do this in remembrance of me.” This meal, tonight especially, is not a jazzed up memorial service. Instead, probably more than on any other occasion of the church year, it is a time to participate in our oneness with Christ, a time to appreciate his living presence and our unity with each other; we are one in him, we who – sometimes at great personal cost – have chosen to follow Jesus, we are tonight declaring once again our discipleship by eating from the loaf and drinking from the cup. This requires our participation with one another as we partake of the bread and wine. We are disciples together. Speak to one another, exchange the words of life as the bread of life passes among you. I don’t know why you say “goodbye,” I say “hello."

Finally, Jesus closed this meal with a promise. The goodbye in anticipation of his death had been spoken, yet he closed their Passover meal with an unexpected word of hello: “I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord’s Supper, on this night of all nights, is not only a memorial, an occasion for fond goodbyes, but an anticipation, a divine hello on which we may rely. For very soon, Jesus will come again to claim those who are his own. Just when things may look the bleakest, just around the corner will be our Friend and Master to say to us, “I don’t know why you say ‘goodbye,’ I say ‘hello.’”

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

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