"And Now in Conclusion…"

II Corinthians 13:5-13; Matthew 28:16-20

First Congregational Church, Columbus

May 26, 2002 -- 1st Sunday after Pentecost -- Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching

By the time Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, the young church had already gone through many challenging days. First of all, its members found themselves in the midst of a culture whose standards of moral conduct were very different from the instruction of Paul. There were also divisions in the church as to which leaders to follow. For a period foreign teachers resided in Corinth and they, to Paul's dismay, threatened to take the congregation in a new and unproven direction. The apostle was never reluctant to write a strong corrective word to the churches he had established or nurtured.

He ends this letter with an eloquent flourish: "Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

Now that's quite a way to conclude. In fact, only in the last 75 years or so have we reduced the more expansive closings of the past and, instead, substituted abbreviated endings to our letters like, "Well, gotta go" or "Time to sign off." Letter. writers from the early part of this century often went to great lengths to say something more than just "sincerely" or "yours truly."

People worked hard to find just those right words of transition from the body of the letter to the signature. It would be commonplace to run across such final phrases as "Thankful for your many kindnesses to me, who remains, and shall everlastingly be, your humble and obedient servant, James." It sounds flowery to us today, but at least it has some style, some charm. And it took effort to create.

Truth is, we spend a lot of our time saying hello and good-bye. And whether it's the written word, or the spoken, we work at finding the best way to express those greetings and farewells. It's not easy.

We've all heard those familiar words, "Parting is such sweet sorrow." And, more often than not, that is the truth of the matter. It's hard to leave people we love, especially if we won't see them again for some time. Saying good-bye in person may take quite a while from the time people start to the door until the car is finally out of the driveway. The more you care, the harder it is.

Perhaps our long good-byes really stem from our fear of separation. We don't like to be cut off from others, especially those we love. You see it early in life when children stall about going to bed. When youngsters call for another drink of water, another kiss, another trip to the bathroom, another story, they are often just trying to postpone the inevitable. Going to bed is a farewell, not only to the day, but also to the people children love best. Staving off bedtime may be the only way a child can delay things enough to get a feeling of settlement that makes them ready for sleep. They need a lot of reassurance to be comfortable. But, then again, the same feelings are raised in grown children as well.

On Christmas Eve in 1942, Corp. Richard Morris wrote back to his wife, Jan, in Akron. He has just arrived in England after his long voyage in a troop ship across the Atlantic. After telling her how much he misses her, he concludes with, "Please don't worry about me `cause I am OK and I will come back to you as soon as I can. I am having a lot of fun, but you're not here to share it with me. I love you, darling. Your loving husband, Ricky." His pain of separation is transparent in the letter, but he tries to put up a brave front as he concludes. It's hard to find the right words with which to end.

Like the Epistle and the soldier's letter, the Gospel reading from Matthew also records a farewell. In this instance it is the risen Christ who appears to his disciples in Galilee. In both these Biblical farewells, that of Paul and of Jesus, there is a directive and an assurance. Paul tells the congregation at Corinth to "agree with one another, to live in peace." Jesus tells his circle of friends to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

In both farewells, likewise, there is a reassurance that, though people must inevitably part, there need never be any parting from God. The disciples were to go forward in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-- Holy Parent, Chosen Child, Abiding Presence. And in that way, Jesus said, he would always be with them, even "to the end of the age." Paul's words echo this assurance: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit [will] be with you all."

These texts for today present us with a comforting thought that goes with all our good-byes, no matter how painful they may be. The promise we're given is that God is still with us, whether we realize it or not. We are not alone, even if it seems that way when we look around in vain for that familiar face we long for.

That word good-bye, which we use so often, is actually a contraction in English of the blessing, "God be with ye." The equivalent word in Spanish is adios, or "to God," and sometimes expressed as vaya con dios, "Go with God." So that even our common words of taking leave reflect the reality that underlies them.

Still it's easy to lose sight of this great promise. We get so busy with the moment-by-moment of our everyday lives-- the things that have to get done, the responsibilities we carry-- that we get out of touch with our spiritual side. We often forget that God is with us every step of the way and that God offers us strength and help when ours alone is insufficient. Ironically, it often takes times of trouble before we become aware of what we should have known all long. When we're in crisis we are often given a compensating gift of spiritual sight, the ability to see life clearer than we can ordinarily.

My memory can still take me back years ago to the time when I had surgery. It was my first and only stay in the hospital. An orderly came into the room in the morning and announced it was time to go. I found myself reluctant to let go of the hands of those who had come to spend this important time with me and who would be staying until the operation was over. I didn't want to leave their side even though I knew I must.

As I was being wheeled down the long corridors I saw no one, just the cold white ceiling with its fluorescent fixtures. Only the thought that God was with me prevented this from being the loneliest ride in the world. That was what sustained me and got me through the operation and my eventual recovery.

Some of you, no doubt, have had such experiences as this. Perhaps not exactly the same circumstance, but the same sort of feeling. And what a joy it is to find God again in such an intimate way, to find God where God has been all along-- at our side and encircling us in love. It is a discovery that makes a difficult day bearable and a tolerable day a joy.

There are many stories coming out of Central America about those who have fought against oppressive governments in the cause of freedom. One young woman was arrested because of her activities on behalf of her people and placed in solitary confinement. In that antiquated jail cell there were no windows and only a single light bulb. After a few days in prison her sadistic jailer unscrewed the bulb and took it, leaving her in total darkness. He taunted her, shouting, "We have taken away your light. Now what will you do?" She replied in a shaky, but strong voice, "You cannot take away my light. God is my light."

At the close of our worship every week is a reminder that, as we part from one another, God goes with each of us. The benediction reveals that the Lord is not limited to our liturgies nor a prisoner of our sanctuaries. God is truly present in our hearts as the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that presence surrounds us and permeates us wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, whomever we're with. That's something to remember in the difficult moments that will inevitably come to us this week, or any week.

The benediction is more than a farewell; it is a promise. It challenges us each week to go from this place and to live in faithful discipleship. At the same time it assures us that there is a love that will not let us go, and that love will sustain us until we all return again.

That kind of ending to our worship is not so much a stopping point, but an invitation to the next beginning.

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