I met Bill Rock at a Gold Band Sunday school class party over at the Pusey House. I was invited by some of the members of the class, and I remember how eager they were to introduce me to Bill, whispering that he had lost his eyesight recently but bragging openly about the twenty years he had served as church treasurer and the forty years he had taught fourth grade Sunday school. “Bill?” they said. “This is our new pastor, Dr. Somerville.” And he turned toward the sound of their voices and reached out to shake my hand. I can still remember that handshake, both firm and gentle. I got the feeling that he was not a man who had been humbled by his circumstances, but a man who had always been humble, faithful, willing to serve. That hunch has only been confirmed by the things I’ve learned about Bill in the past two years, the stories I’ve heard since Sunday afternoon, and the eulogy that Bob delivered today. Bill Rock was a very special man. Your presence here this morning is testimony to that, and the only reason this room is not full to the rafters is because so many of Bill’s friends and loved ones have gone on ahead of him.
It was around this time last year that Bill’s daughter, Nancy, came to my office to talk about his funeral service. He was very sick, and it didn’t look as if he was going to get better. She came to see me because she knew he could go at any time. She wanted to be ready. But I don’t know that you are ever ready for the death of someone you love any more than you are ready to choose which breath will be your last one. We fight for our breath. We fight for our life. It is precious to us and we don’t want to lose it. And that’s just how we feel about the ones we love. We don’t want to lose them either. And that has caused me to think some new thoughts about John 3:16, that familiar and well-worn verse that says, “For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” When we stop to think about that verse we often think about what a gift God gave—his only son!—or what a gift we’ve received—eternal life!—but I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about God sending his son because he didn’t want to lose us.
I should have. The verse begins with the truth that God loves us. It continues with the truth that he loved us so much he gave his only son. But only at the end does it say he did this so that he did this so that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, and for the first time I imagined God sitting beside a hospital bed, holding onto the hand of someone he loves, hoping and praying that their next breath would not be their last. It suggests that in these few years we have on earth God could grow fond of us, that as he knits our bones together in our mothers’ wombs, as he brings us into the world through childbirth, as he watches over us all the days of our lives, he might come to know who we are and love us in the same way any parent comes to know and love a child. I can imagine how he came to know and love Bill, and how it has grieved him in these last few years to see Bill lose his sight, to have that long, long struggle with sickness. But I think how much more it would grieve him if he thought Bill’s death would be the end of him.
God loved the world, John says. He loved it so much he gave his only son. He gave his only son so that he wouldn’t ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock. And all Bill had to do was believe that God could love him that much. It’s not easy. None of us thinks we’re worth dying for. But if we could believe in that love, if we could receive that gift, then the end of our life in this world would be the beginning of our life in the next, and that life goes on forever. There is no end to it, and no goodbyes.
I hadn’t thought about God giving the gift of eternal life because he didn’t want to say goodbye to us, but if there is any truth in that idea you can see how he might understand exactly how we feel when we don’t want to say goodbye to Bill. And because he is God and can do something about it he has: he has made possible the hello that follows goodbye. If there is any truth to this notion of the resurrection, to the idea of everlasting life, then I can believe that someday I will be introduced to Bill Rock again, that some of the members of the Gold Band Sunday school class, or some of the members of his family, or maybe even Marylou herself will say, “Look, here’s Bill!” And there he will stand before me—his feeble knees firm, his weak hands strengthened, his eyes bright and clear as he reaches out to shake my hand and says with a smile, “Hello, Jim. It’s good to see you. I think we’ve met before!”
Apart from Christ himself that may be the best gift of John 3:16: the knowledge that this is the last time we will ever have to say goodbye to Bill Rock,
…and the promise of that next hello.