Hail and Farewell
Topic: Biblical Verse: John 14:1–14:14
A Sermon delivered at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
On May 17/18, 2014, Fifth Sunday of Easter (EAST5-A)
By the Rev. Dr. B. F. Nass, Pastor Emeritus
Distinguished members and welcome guests of St. John’s Lutheran Church:
Even the shyest or most reclusive among us enjoys being recognized and made to feel welcome and accepted. That’s especially the case when one’s environment, be it job, or school, or living situation goes through a change either in venue or location. One place where that occurs with great frequency is in the military community, one of which I was a part for a great portion of my ministry as a chaplain. My family experienced those changes seventeen times.
Dealing with this issue becomes a priority for military units since it is necessary to maintain unit cohesiveness and family stability to accomplish the mission. Hence, great effort is exerted in welcoming and rapidly transitioning incoming personnel and their families, as well as, on the other end, recognizing the contributions made by those being reassigned and going through the farewell trauma. One frequently used dynamics is an informal peer party called a “Hail and Farewell.” The name says it all and it facilitates and serves well that need.
That phrase – Hail and Farewell –jumped out at me as I studied the appointed Scripture lessons for this fifth Sunday of Easter. In our Epistle from Peter, of which we’ve been hearing snippets throughout this post Easter season, we hear him welcoming newly baptized members into the household of faith – “new born babies”, he calls them. Conversely, in today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ bidding farewell to his disciples where he tells them, “I am going to prepare a place for you.” And, lastly, in today’s first Lesson from the Book of Acts we have an abbreviated portion of the account and the final words of farewell from the first martyr of the Christian faith, St. Stephen. So, on the basis of these bouquets for thought, I invite each of you to look at them with me in more detail to determine what they say about our role – we who are somewhere between the “Hail” of our baptism and the “Farewell” of our funeral.
Most of us have either read or are at least movie familiar with that pathetic figure in Victor Hugo’s compelling novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. But, you may not remember his name – or do you? What was it? That’s right! Quasimodo! Now, I know the apostle Peter had something totally different in mind than that Notre Dame bell ringer when he hailed the newly baptized members of his day and charged them to become Quasi modo-s. Quasi modo geneti is Latin for “Just like newborn babies.”
Not so many years ago, this reading from 1 Peter was the designated reading for the first, not the fifth, Sunday of Easter. That Sunday was even called by that Latin name -- Quasi modo geneti. This was intentional in order to demonstrate the close, symbolic relationship between Christ’s death and resurrection and our own -- OUR drowning and dying in the water, and then rising to a new life, a rebirth, if you will, one that completely changed our identity and gave us a new and compelling mission which we will get to in a moment. But first came those welcoming words from the already baptized, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, a child of the same heavenly Father, and a worker with us in the kingdom of God.” That’s you’re “hail;” and it means, you are welcome.
Just like a new-born, a newly baptized person is very fragile. Referring to that inborn sucking instinct for nourishment common to babies, Peter recommends sucking in and finding nourishment in God’s word, first in its more basic or “liquid” form, but then going on to solid food much deeper into the meaning of what God desires for and of his people. Because, as we read on in Peter’s letter, we discover there already are growing and ominous threats of persecution and harassment which will require a rapid maturing in the faith to develop an ability to give a verbal and convincing defense of the faith that was theirs. They are to find purpose as building blocks in a spiritual house as they become the new people of God, a community of priest to the world, who must not fail as did the first people who were given the same mission. And the motivation comes from whose they now have become -- God’s “treasured possession” his segula, who have and are receiving a steady diet of His limitless mercy and amazing grace.
That’s the sign of the new identity and belonging that is theirs as well as ours who have been hailed and welcomed into the family of faith. In many military units, when a person is assigned, he or she is given something that identifies them with that unit -- be it a patch or crest on the uniform, a special coin one carries, or perhaps a special greeting unique to that unit. Our new baptismal identity stems from the seal of the cross on our forehead, the sign of the cross on our chest, and the way we roll out the welcome mat to the world around us in our roles as intercessory priests, bringing God to people and people to God. That’s the “Hail!” part.
The “Farewell” part comes in today’s Gospel where we, along with the disciples, are being prepared for the absence of Jesus’ visual presence on earth. We find Jesus’ using current betrothal imagery to indicate his absence will not be permanent.
Weddings were arranged differently in that day than ours. When a young man spotted a girl that struck his fancy, he would have his father contact her father who would arrange a meeting, the purpose of which was to come to an agreement on the “Bride Price.” “How much you give me for my daughter?” was the presenting question. If, and when the two fathers came to a mutual agreement (two camels, three goats or whatever), three cups of wine would be poured. The first two cups were, of course, for the fathers. The third cup was taken by the prospective groom who then presented it to the prospective bride. If she drank from the cup, it was her signal of accepting his proposal. Then the now perspective bridegroom would say something like this: “Now I must go back to my father’s house and build an addition of a couple extra rooms for us to have a home. When I finish that, I promise I will come back and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” Sound familiar?
Jesus, our heavenly bridegroom, paid our “bride price” with his life’s blood. From those who drank from his cup and accepted his proposal, he now bids farewell -- but only temporarily. The promise of the angel at His Ascension only twelve days hence was: “This same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way.” He who is the way, the truth and the life will then gather all his purchased brides from St. Stephen, martyr, all the way down to and including each of us into one joyous and perpetual banquet where all of our “farewells” will fade and be turned into welcome “hails” joined by all those with whom we have shared the good news, who have said farewell to their former way of life, and are now hailed and welcomed into the kingdom of God. And to that, let the people say, “Amen.”