Céline Dion’s song ‘Goodbye’s The Saddest Word’ speaks of the love between a daughter and her mother and looks ahead to the pain of separation which death brings:
‘Goodbye’s the saddest word I’ll ever hear.
Goodbye’s the last time I will hold you near.
Someday you’ll say that word and I will cry.
It’ll break my heart to hear you say goodbye.’
Those of us who have lost loved ones can identify with these lyrics and there is no doubt that separation of any kind can cause us deep anguish and grief. The leaders of the church at Ephesus experienced these feelings when Paul gave his farewell speech to them before moving on to other places (see Acts 20:37-38). Paul, on his way to Rome via Jerusalem, arrived at Miletus and asked them to come to him so that he could say goodbye. (Acts 20:13-38) In this speech, where we see Paul ‘vulnerable, meditative, steady in his faithful perseverance but with no hint of triumphalism’ (Tom Wright, ‘Acts For Everyone Pt 2, P 131), we get a glimpse not only into how Paul has lived as a leader among them for the past three years but into his heart for the church of God. He is at pains to remind them of his service and giving and to urge them to ‘keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.’ (Acts 20:28) He knows the opposition will come (even from within the church) and longs for their ongoing spiritual growth. (Acts 20:32) No wonder the Ephesian elders were sad at the thought of never seeing him again. Paul was their spiritual father and they had learned so much not only from his words but from his whole lifestyle among them over the past three years.
The word ‘goodbye’ is actually a contraction of the phrase ‘God be with you’, which used to be the more formal way of blessing someone as you left them. The French word ‘adieu’ still has that connotation (literally, ‘to God’) and other ways of saying goodbye (au revoir in French, auf wiedersehen in German) still contain elements of hope that the parting will be temporary (‘see you again’). For the Christian, even death is not the ultimate end, painful though that separation is, and we can be sure that we look ahead to a future without sorrow: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (Rev 21:4) Paul committed the Ephesians to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32); when we do this in life, perhaps goodbye is no longer the saddest word but can also be a reminder that there is more to come.