Maybe you’ve heard it said at a memorial service. We’re not to mourn for the dearly departed, because they’re in a better place. Instead, we should be happy for them…
That may be true. The apostle Paul himself told the Philippians that to him, dying and going to be with Christ would be better than staying in this world (Phil 1:23). But there’s no contradiction between feeling glad for the one leaving and sad for ourselves. We are made for relationship, for deep connection. When we lose someone important to us, it hurts.
So what did Jesus mean when he told his disciples the following?
You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (John 14:28-29, NRSV)
Was he saying, “If you loved me, you’d be happy for me because I’m going to a better place”? I doubt it. But I do think he was trying to jog them out of their understandably frightened stance. He’d already told them that he was leaving and that he was coming back. Indeed, those two statements seem to summarize the whole horizon of the distressed disciples’ world. Right in that moment, these may have been the only things they could think about; they were terrified at the first and clung desperately to the second.
But if they loved him…? As we saw in a previous post, Jesus said something like this before: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (vs. 15). That wasn’t a statement of insecurity; Jesus was teaching them what their love for him should entail. Obedience is one consequence. But so is stepping outside of their self-pitying frame of reference to see what Jesus sees. If they did, they would rejoice. Why?
Jesus’ return to the Father was not a matter of going to a better place. The heavenly Father was “greater” than the earthly Jesus in the sense that the Father is the one who sends the Son, not the other way around. The Son would return to the Father when his mission was accomplished. And if the disciples loved him, they would have rejoiced in a job well and truly done, to the glory of the Father.
Tough times lay ahead. After his departure, Jesus wanted them to remember that he told them what would happen in advance, so that they would keep the faith and know that the world wasn’t spinning out of control. God would still be in charge.
And that’s still a good reminder for us as well. Jesus has already predicted that those who follow him will suffer, and suffering is never pleasant. But we needn’t despair that God has left the building. Jesus’ mission was accomplished through what seemed like an utter disaster at the time, and we should expect more of the same.
He has told us in advance that we might believe.
And in believing, we might rejoice.