We can never lose each other, but for now, ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’

Liz Stuart, 22 August 2021

Psalm 84: 1–12; Ephesians 6: 10–17; Luke 24: 13–35

I wonder if you remember the TV comedy programme M*A*S*H? It ran from the early 1970s to the early 1980s and it followed the fortunes of a fictional American mobile hospital unit in the Korean War. The final episode of M*A*S*H became one of the most watched television broadcasts of all time and it was entitled ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’. In it, one of the characters, Captain B. J. Hunnicutt, cannot bear to say goodbye to his colleagues who are all joyfully dispersing after the end of the war, and he fantasises about keeping in touch with all of them and visiting each other.

I wonder how many of us are sat here today thinking, ‘I’m sure Peter will be back soon’, ‘Perhaps I could go and stay in Dorset for a few days’, ‘I must ask him to come back for my funeral or wedding or baptism’? We do not want to let him and Julia and Katie go; but we must, and they must let us go too.

The Christian life is one in which there are many partings. Why? Because, as Peter has taught us, and as we define ourselves, we are pilgrims on a journey. We long to reach God’s dwelling place with a yearning articulated by the author of the Psalm that was our first reading today: ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord’. But we know that we’re not there yet and to get there requires movement. Anyone who has been on a walking pilgrimage knows that people walk at different paces, and you travel with somebody for a bit, and then you lose them. You can do that confident in the knowledge that you are all heading for the same destination.

We also have the consolation of knowing that we can never really be lost to one another because of that font, which Peter has put so much thought into, and what that font symbolises. For those who follow Christ, water is so much thicker than blood. The waters of baptism bind us to Christ perpetually and indelibly, and in and through him they bind us to each other. We can never lose each other or him. There are no goodbyes for Christians – only farewells until we meet again.

For those who follow Christ, water is so much thicker than blood. The waters of baptism bind us to Christ perpetually and indelibly, and in and through him they bind us to each other.

This glorious truth is illustrated in our gospel reading today. The disciples think that they have lost their Lord, but he walks beside them still, even (and this always blows my mind whenever I hear this story), even when they’re going the wrong way. Why do we spend so much time worrying about the future and whether we’ve chosen the right path when Jesus walks with us even when we’re going the wrong way? We should not be anxious about how we’re going to manage without Peter, or what that successor of Peter will be like, or the slight kerfuffle that’s going on in the diocese at the moment. We gird ourselves with the armour of God, which is nothing less than the realisation that Jesus never leaves us.

Jesus reveals himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread. It is here at this table that we find each other when we are parted. Peter’s ministry has been before all else and for all else a priest at this altar, a doorkeeper under divine mandate to open to all the great mystery of God giving himself to us in Christ. Peter’s deeply incarnational ministry flows from this space where the incarnation continues and is extended into bread and wine.

There’s a scuffle going on in the Church of England at the moment about the future of the parish. Peter’s ministry exemplifies the value of parish-based ministry. In this space he has nurtured our baptismal vocations to serve our community in the name of Jesus and he has created a church with permeable boundaries, seeking to build the foundations of the kingdom of God in this bit of Winchester among this group of people, no matter what their faith. And now we and he have to say ‘amen’ to that ministry.

Peter lays down this ministry, but he cannot ever lay down his priesthood. So, in his retirement he will have to work out with God a new way of being priest. ‘Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged’, the bishop instructs those to be ordained. Peter has enlarged his heart for 20 years by loving us, and the parish. He must find other ways now. Whatever else, they will involve prayer. Until my dying day I will never forget what it’s like to pray beside Peter. It’s like being connected to a powerhouse.

I came across a theory once that priests spend their eternity collecting the souls of the dead and leading them to heaven. I don’t know about you, but there is no one I would rather see as my eyes dim on this world than Peter. Though I’m not assuming that he’s going before me! (You wouldn’t want me turning up at your deathbed – I’d arrive late and grumpy. And Mary would arrive with her guitar!) If there is any truth in this – and let’s face it, it is just an extension of what priests should be doing on earth – that makes for a rather busy eternity for Peter, so he deserves a bit of time off to prepare.

In the final episode of M*A*S*H the character Hawkeye Pierce says to B. J. Hunnicutt, ‘Look, I know how tough it is for you to say goodbye. So I’ll say it. Maybe we will see each other again, but just in case we don’t, I want you to know how much you have meant to me.’ As Hawkeye leaves in a helicopter, he sees that B. J. Hunnicutt has spelled out ‘Goodbye’ in rocks. He’s finally able to say it.

One of the last things that Hawkeye says to B. J. Hunnicutt is, ‘I’ll never be able to shake you’. Peter, Julia, Katie, we will never be able to shake you because through baptism we are one body and we will remain connected through Christ, mystically present to each other always in the celebration of the Eucharist. But because of that we can now say thank you, we love you, and ‘Goodbye, Farewell and Amen’.