Last Words

John 15:9-17

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other."

Prayer – Gracious and loving God – as your beloved son, Jesus the Christ made his way to Jerusalem, his entire life he showed his disciples how to love.  Today he offers them and us some of his last words, to love as he did. Grant us the awareness, grant us the passion, grant us the ability to love with lasting impact on all of your children – amen.

Last Sunday I mentioned to you that it had been four years since my dad has died.  And so it has been just over four years ago that my dad spoke to me for the last time.  It was Monday evening the day before he died. As my family and friends gathered around his bed that day, there were many words of love and appreciation shared.  As I was getting ready to leave that evening, Dad knew that I would be going to work the golf tournament in Charlotte that Tuesday, and so he called me over to his bed for one last word.  He said to me, “Look after your Mom.” “Dad, you know we will.” “I love you, son.” “I know dad, I love you too. See you tomorrow evening when I get back.” Little did I know that those would be the last words we would knowingly share.

The next morning I got up early to go work the tournament.  I decided to call over to Covenant Village to check on him. The nurse who answered told me that she had just gone and gotten my mother and that I needed to come.  I immediately called my hole captain and told him I wouldn’t be there. I got to Covenant Village and went down to dad’s room in health care where he was in hospice care.  I went into his room. He was staring out the door way I walked through but he never saw me. Mom and I sat with him for a while. I had gotten a damp wash cloth to cool his brow as he was breathing pretty hard.  I went back into the bathroom to dampen the wash cloth one more time. I heard Dad call out, “Hurry!” I was like, whatttt??? He called out a second time, “Hurry!” as he stared out the door. Mom asked me who he was talking to.  I knew it wouldn’t be long, “Probably his mom, dad and sister,” (all had previously died) I said to my mom. Ten minutes later he died.

The imminence of death is indeed sacred ground, and in those moments we cling to last words in hopes of gleaning some meaning, some promise, some legacy.  Every transition, every transformation, is a death of sorts, as well as a new birth. For something new to be fully born, something old must die. It’s the way of the world.  Even the transitions we welcome are always bittersweet. Having launched four adult children, I think of the series of last words with which we bombarded them, before the first day of school, before driving the car alone, before the first date, going off to college or life.  

Dying words are in a league of their own.  How about you? If you could say just a few last words as you knew you were dying, to whom would they be addressed and what would they be?  I’m guessing that somewhere in those last words would be a heartfelt, “I love you,” as well as some sincere request like “take care of your mom,” or “live your life,” or “hurry.”

In John’s gospel, chapters 13-17 are essentially Jesus’ last words to his disciples, words of meaning words of hope, words of promise, words of legacy.  He was trying to prepare them for a major transition. Something new, namely, the ministry of the disciples and the church, is about to be born; and as with all births, something is lost, something changes, forever.  In that holy ground context, Jesus says to his friends, ‘As God has loved me, so I love you, and so you are to love one another.’ What is it that matters when all else, including life itself, is said and done? What is the most compelling, the most powerful, the most enduring force in all of the cosmos?  What, as we prepare both for living and dying, become the echoing refrain? LOVE. Not the normal ‘What do I get out of it’ kind of love we usually mean when we use the word. Jesus was specifically commending to his friends and followers, agape love, the unconditional and self-sacrificing love that Jesus embodied for his followers then and now.  

How does one measure such love?  “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Last words matter. They are precious. Of all the things Jesus might have said, he chooses love and relationship as the cornerstone of his legacy.  He chooses us in love and chooses to send us out into the world as his emissaries to love. Not a feeling or inclination, but a deeply held belief that his love, God’s love, is worth sharing with the world.  

An other-centered, belonging-to-something-greater-than-yourself love was crucial to the struggling little community that John was addressing.  Just as the disciples were about to experience their world imploding as Jesus faced death and those disciples ran for cover, so the Johannine community a generation or two later was facing all sorts of persecution and ostracism because of their faith.  They might have been tempted to turn inward, loving God and one another, and concentrating on their own survival.

Instead, Jesus lays on them a different ethic, one that will transform the world rather than judge or run away from it.  In a way, this love which Jesus speaks of is a ‘tough love.’ Jesus’ declaration to his friends and followers both then and now, to love provides a clear, comprehensive framework for forming values in every age and every situation, no matter how different our cultures, our technologies, our sophistication.  We might ask ourselves about every decision and choice and plan and vision. Is this rooted in love? That’s the true test and believe me, it is tough to love in this way.

The love that Jesus was talking about with this friends and followers doesn’t mean the romantic love that fuels our popular music, our movies, and all too often, our personal quest.  Being other-centered rather than self-centered, even to the point of giving up our lives, suddenly or over a life time, fulfills the mission Jesus sets before us. Purity codes and legalism fall away.

How well we know the challenge of being other-centered in our culture, with mobility, career pressure, distractions, and overloaded calendars.  It’s difficult to make room for friendship. We don’t stay long enough to get to know one another, let alone to care about one another. And yet this gospel keeps talking about staying, about abiding, about making our home in God, in love.

I have had the privilege of being with many, many people at the end of life.  I have overheard many last words. Words of love and forgiveness, words of remembrance and promise, words of gratitude, sacred words.  I have also heard words of shame and guilt and betrayal, those painful words were sacred as well. Ira Byock, a physician and advocate for end of life care, has said there are four tasks for the dying – to give and receive love and to give and receive forgiveness.  I am convinced that those last words of forgiveness and love are so very important.

Several years ago Ken Burns was doing research for a PBS series on the Civil War.  A professor sent him a little-known letter written by a Rhode Island soldier to his wife Sarah.  The author, Sullivan Ballew, had a premonition of his won death, and he wrote to his wife:

“The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eyes when I shall be no more. Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence could break. The memories of the blissful moments that I have spent with you come creeping over me. I feel most grateful to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long, and hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of year when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood around us. If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.”  

Sullivan Ballew was killed seven days after he wrote that letter to his beloved wife, Sarah.  Sacred last words.

Our gospel passage this morning comes from Jesus’ last night with his disciples.  We know that he demonstrated to them what love looks like by kneeling before them and washing their feet; we know that he demonstrated to them what love looks like by sharing a meal with them, even with the one who betrayed him and the ones who denied him or left him literally hanging on a cross.  The following day Jesus was crucified, and his last breath from the cross and first breath in the resurrection whispering was our name, was our forgiveness.

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.”  It is your name, it is my name, he whispers before we were formed in our mother’s womb, in the waters of baptism, around the altar, in the word, in the fellowship of this community and all communities of faith.  It is your name, it is my name, no matter how far we may wander, that if we pause to listen, we will always hear, “Listen to me, Child, I love you. And now your only job is to share that love.” The first, and the last word is love – thanks be to God – amen.