"Parting is such sweet sorrow" is a quotation attributed to William Shakespeare from a line in the play Romeo and Juliet and it is much used on occasions of farewell. All farewells are not the same and the abundance of emotion at the parting has to do with many factors, some of which are quite difficult to determine.
One of the most moving farewells in the annals of Christianity, as recorded in the Bible, involved the Apostle Paul as he took his farewell from his beloved Turkey (then Asia Minor) and journeyed to Rome via Jerusalem with the certainty that he would never again set foot in his homeland.
All of us who has departed our homeland for whatever reason somehow have the feeling that we would return even if under different circumstances. For the Apostle Paul his feelings were mixed and bittersweet because he knew what awaited him and he determined that whatever lay ahead would not deter him from pursuing his goal of reaching Rome.
But what was so compelling about reaching Rome and what was Paul hoping to accomplish?
People have argued about Paul's real achievements when he got to Rome, and it will be debated for some time if things did not turn out rather differently, and some will say sadly, from that which was intended. Some will contend that Paul's going to Rome preceded and caused Peter to go to Rome and as a consequence caused Rome to be established as the putative centre of Christianity and from it the Roman Catholic Church and the establishment of the professional clergy that many regard as problematic for the church in general. Add to that list the abuse of Papal power to persecute contrarians, undertake witch hunts, crusades, power struggles, etc., and Paul's indirect achievements are seen in a different light.
All of these points are subjects of ongoing academic debate and depending on your theology and church affiliation you will make up your mind accordingly.
However what we can be sure of is what Paul tells us were his reasons for going to Rome; and we must neither confuse that with fanciful assumptions nor leave it open to anyone's personal interpretation.
Paul gave us four reasons why he wanted to go to Rome and we know the reasons are all based on his calling as minister to the gentiles. Here are his reasons:
1. The church was a pioneer church and Paul wanted to establish it by imparting a spiritual gift, "For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established." (Romans 1:11)
2. Paul wanted to comfort the church and in turn be comforted by them in his ministry, "That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me." (Romans 1:12)
3. Paul's ministry was about spiritual production and fruitfulness among the saints and he wanted such a harvest from the saints in Rome, "Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles." (Romans 1:13)
4. The church in Rome had no Apostolic foundation and Paul wanted to visit so that he could preach there and ensure the Gospel of Jesus Christ was up front and centre, "So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also." (Romans 1:15)
So even although Paul had a very successful ministry spread over Asia Minor and the two Roman provinces of Greece, Macedonia and Achaia, he nevertheless felt impelled to visit Rome to complete his ministerial calling.
Doubtless Paul had farewells before, having been on two previous missionary journeys, and founded about 18 churches, but this farewell was to be different for it contained elements that were not prominent in previous farewells. Here is how the Bible recorded this historic farewell:
"And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. And when he had thus spoken, he kneeled down, and prayed with them all. And they all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck, and kissed him, Sorrowing most of all for the words which he spake, that they should see his face no more. And they accompanied him unto the ship. (Acts 20:32-38)
Paul wanted to go to Rome and he plainly said so, "After these things were ended, Paul purposed in the spirit, when he had passed through Macedonia and Achaia, to go to Jerusalem, saying, After I have been there, I must also see Rome." (Acts 19:21) and yet here were the saints weeping and sorrowing at his farewell. Paul had arrived at this heartbreaking bittersweet moment in his life and he handled it masterfully and with great aplomb.
We in the Caribbean, especially small developing countries like Barbados, know only too well the bittersweet tang of farewells and the foreboding, sometimes sheer terror, as we board our transport to America, Canada or the United Kingdom looking to improve our lives.
There were times in the 50's and 60's when the turboprop airplanes were shaky, noisy and unreliable and horror stories from victims were so raw that you had to be super-courageous to even think about such a perilous journey.
And if you chose instead to sail towards your destination in the Northern Hemisphere then the rough seas would surely get you or the bad food would do you in or the crooks, the pirates and the incompetent crew would conspire to do you mischief.
In these circumstances these farewells were more than bittersweet moments, in truth they were emotional tug-of-wars painted in bold colours on a canvas of hopelessness and despair. No wonder there were always a lot of hugging, and crying on these occasions as Paul found out, and it would not have helped, had they burst out singing, what so many of us have undergone over the years, "When we asunder part, It gives us inward pain; But we shall still be joined in heart, And hope to meet again." The big difference is that they did not expect to see Paul again; not in this life and sadly they did not.
From Paul's perspective the bitter moments of separation from these loving saints were far outweighed by the sweet moments of anticipation of doing God's work in Rome and a relish for seeing the goals of his ministry accomplished.
Life's bittersweet moments are often wake-up calls to reassess our priorities. Paul could so easily have chosen the comfort and relative ease of staying in Asia Minor, among his kinfolk and the fledgling churches that he founded and among people who valued his ministry and enjoyed his companionship.
But ministry in its widest significance is not about ease and comfort and safety. Paul understood this and was prepared to put his life on the line, and at a time when standing up for the gospel was dangerous asserted boldly, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." (Romans 1:16)
ALL believers are called to ministry, for to minister is merely to carry out those duties attached to your calling as a child of God. "...Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen." (Revelation 1:5-6)
Life's bittersweet moments should neither curtail nor dampen believers' enthusiasm for doing those things that God wants them to do but afford the opportunity to reassess their priorities and deepen their commitment to continued service.
When Paul was forewarned what he faced on his hazardous journey ahead, he neither flinched from his intended destination nor sought to lessen its dangerous impact but asserted his full commitment to doing God's will, "Then Paul answered, What mean ye to weep and to break mine heart? for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. And when he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, The will of the Lord be done." (Acts 21:13-14)
Another bittersweet moment for Paul and again he acted with commendable fortitude and correctness. You just have to admire this good and faithful servant.
So how are you handling your bittersweet moment? And yes, how did you handle them in the past? Well then prepare yourself anew for surely you will be called on to handle them in the future?
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Dr. Henderson Ward received his Doctor of Divinity in theology, with distinction, from Masters International School of Divinity, USA, where he is currently a post-doctoral fellow. Dr. Ward's career involved pastoring, evangelism, and teaching. Copyright 2013
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