“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 20:36–38, AV)
In Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet,” there is a line most often quoted, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” The phrase is an oxymoron that combines sadness and joy. The phrase came at a balcony scene where it is time for Romeo to leave and Juliet stated, “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night till it be morrow.” The sorrow was in the departing and the sweetness was in the morning when they would meet again.
I personally experienced such sweet sorrow many times in my life, but perhaps the most striking was when I left home to serve in the United States Army in the Federal Republic of Germany, after being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. My wife and I were newly married and I did not know how long it would be until she could join me in Germany, perhaps months. I remember hugging my dad before leaving for the airport. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. My mother held back the tears at the airport, I think to make it easier on me. I remember the final embrace and kiss from my wife before I walked up gangway to get on the plane. Yes, there was a sorrow in my heart, but I also believed that we would soon be reunited and this brought a degree of joy in the midst of the pain.
Here in this passage, Paul is leaving the Ephesian elders for Jerusalem. They kneel and pray together. In this scene there is much weeping, and they expressed affection by giving Paul a holy kiss. They were sorrowful, because of the word Paul spoke earlier, that they would not see his face again (v25). When we read this account, we do not see much “sweet sorrow,” only sorrow. However, there is a hidden sweetness.
In life, we build many close friendships, especially in our families, parents and children, sibling to sibling, aunts and uncles. Leaving these can be painful. We also build close relationships within a church. As a pastor, the parishioners of the church were my family, whom I loved. To leave them was difficult. In normal life, we leave people and we know that we will never see some of them again. Yet, there is a unique finality to Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders. He had indicated that something serious awaited him, the implication of which is that he might soon die and not return.
For the believer in this life all departing from other believers is truly “sweet sorrow,” even that of death itself. The reason is that upon a believer’s death, while we will not see the person on this earth again, we have the promise that we will see them again in glory. Yes, there is still sorrow when a person dies. However, for the believer it is not the end. As a pastor I conducted many funerals and memorial services. While believers mourned, in these services there was the joyful expectation of seeing loved ones again. The reason is that they and the loved ones were trusting in the promise of God for eternal life by trusting in Jesus Christ alone. For believers, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”