Death is never easy to face.
I still remember the phone call I received the day after Mother’s Day in 2007.
“She’s didn’t go to her dialysis appointment today” my dad gently told me.
We all knew what that meant. My grandmother, though still relatively young at a spry 76, had been failing with a variety of maladies for some time. The dialysis treatments began to take their toll and we knew eventually she wouldn’t have the energy to keep going.
Having made it through mother’s day, she stopped. With that missed appointment, we knew the clock was ticking and that it would be just a matter of a day or two before her creatine levels rose to the point that she’d drift off into a gentle sleep. And so, we made the most out of those last few hours of lucidity.
As my siblings gathered to say goodbye to her on the porch of our family farm, she was already starting to drift and detach some. Knowing I needed to help everyone make every last moment count, I gave gram a gentle nudge.
“The kids are going to be leaving now, Gram. This is going to the be last time you’re able to talk to them in this life, so if there’s anything last thing you’d like to tell them, right now will be your last chance.”
With a spirit determined to finish strong, she mustered up the energy to have memorable last words for everyone– words that pointed to Jesus.
Over her next 24 hours or so before she finally went to sleep for the final time, I was able to sit and spend time with her. I listened to her talk about things she was thankful for. I also for the first time, listened to her talk about some regrets. Yet, each word she spoke or topic she covered seemed very purposeful.
Finally, before she drifted off, she grabbed my hand and looked over at me for her last words to me:
“Ben: go, and live the life that God called you to.”
When you’re dying, there’s no time for wasted words.
When you know the clock is against you and you want to utilize what time is left to impact those you’re saying goodbye to, you speak the most important things you have to say.
Jesus, I have come to experience, is no different.
After spending three years with his close band of friends, it was time to say goodbye. Over the course of time, they’d covered much ground. Jesus had taught many things- some that folks understood, and some that confused people. Realizing his time was dwindling, Jesus begins to summarize his teaching and give reminders- reminders that will carry on after he has departed.
Even his disciples realize something has shifted. They realize that these words are somehow different.
“Finally, you are speaking to us plainly and without parables” they sighed with relief.
Ever since saying goodbye to my grandmother, I see the final words and actions of Jesus in a new light. I see them as crucially important. I see them as the final words of a parent saying goodbye, prepping to finish their own race well.
In fact, at the end Jesus even tells them as much.
“I have told you these things so that you will not fall away”, he tells them.
Jesus’ last words, he says, are words that will keep us from walking away from the faith, will keep us from being left spending a life wandering, and something that will keep us from getting tripped up on this path we call life.
So, what are these last words of Jesus? Well, there are a lot of them. Jesus spends his last week teaching all sorts of really good stuff. However, if I had to boil it down to just a few things, here are the ones that jump out at me the most:
It’s all about me, Jesus reminds them.
When Jesus tells his mates that he’s getting ready to leave, he encourages them to keep following him. They of course don’t quite get it (they often didn’t– thus why Jesus once asked “why are you so dull?”) and so they asked Jesus, “how will we know the way?”
Jesus responded with one of the first verses you and I memorized in Sunday school: “I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the life”.
And so we see Jesus remind his disciples what he had claimed to the Pharisees– “it’s all about me”.
The Christian faith is nothing if it’s not about actually following Jesus. It’s all about him. It’s all about faith in Jesus. It’s all about loving the world like Jesus. It’s all about pointing others to Jesus. It’s all about striving to be more like Jesus.
It’s ALL ABOUT JESUS.
It is about nothing else. And if it turns out to be about something else, count me out– because I’m on the Jesus train and I’m not getting off, consequences be damned.
During these last conversations, we also see Jesus on multiple occasions remind his followers to:
Obey his commandments.
I admittedly have a hard time typing that term, as it triggers me a bit. But, not when I crack it open– when I explore that phrase, it becomes not a fundamentalist goal post I’ll never reach but a beautiful reality I can accomplish.
When Jesus reminds his disciples that if you “obey my commands you’ll remain in my love” the first thought that comes to my mind is that I am totally screwed. There’s no way I could ever perfectly obey- I am a messed up, and tragically flawed individual. If being loved and blessed is completely dependent on my ability to perfectly comply? I have no hope.
Thankfully, the word in Greek that often gets translated into English as “obey” (τηρέω) has a far greater connotation in the original language. A better rendering is “keep” or “guard” but even those words in English don’t do always justice to this word in Greek.
In Greek, we see this word used in reference to guards at a jail– people who keep watch of prisoners to make sure they don’t go anywhere. In this regard, we see Jesus pleading– don’t let my teachings run away from you. Watch them. Guard them. Make them your focus.
The other nuance of this word is often translated as “keep”. While in English we associate keep with being closer to “obey” in actuality it’s actually more of a navigational term. It is where we get the term “keeping the stars” which references sailors using the stars as their focal point to navigate their journey. We also see this in aviation- as recently as WWII, aviators had to “keep the stars” (use stars as a visual reference point) in order to know which direction to fly in.
When we crack open the nuance of this word, we don’t see Jesus expecting us to have it all together or to obey his commands perfectly. What we do see? We see Jesus reminding us that the best way to navigate this life is by using his commandments as our compass to guide us. Yes, we might stray to the left or to the right, but as long as we’re “keeping” his commandments, we’re using them as a visual reference point to help us to get back on the right instead of spending a lifetime wandering. The key to remaining in love and blessing no longer becomes a supernatural ability to live perfectly, but rather a decision to have Jesus as our compass.
Yet, when we say “keep commandments” that can seem like a daunting task. In that respect, Jesus reminds us that his commandments aren’t as suffocating as we’d think.
The command is to love, Jesus reminds them.
There are 613 commands in the Old Testament and during his public ministry Jesus was asked to weigh in on the debates surrounding them. Each rabbi had his own interpretation of what it meant to obey each of these 613 commandments and ended up developing an oppressive system referred to as the “oral law”. Like any other rabbi in the first century, people asked Jesus what he thought were the most important out of these 613 laws along with their oral traditions attached. His answer?
Love God and love others.
In his final moments, however, Jesus does something interesting– he condenses his teaching. And, he doesn’t condense it in the direction we might think– instead, he simply reminds them:
A new command I give to you: love one another.
The meal is over, feet have been washed, Judas has already left the table, and it’s time to head to the garden for the most emotionally difficult moments of Jesus’ life. Little time left for words, so he reminds them…
“I give you a new commandment. You are to love each other. You must love each other as I have loved you. If you love each other, all men will know you are my followers.”
Why reduce it to just “love one another”? Well, I think that’s because of the simple fact that how we love others is how we love God. They can’t be separated. Want to show God how much you love him? It seems he’ll know what he needs to know by watching how much we love other people.
And so, facing his final moments we see a Jesus who was not all that unlike my grandmother.
We see a loving parental figure prepping children for success– he even affectionately calls his disciples “little children”.
We see a Jesus who is making the most of opportunities. Choosing words carefully. Giving final encouragement and reminders to his followers.
As I flip through a few chapters in the book of John, I feel the same way I do when I think about that last conversation with Gram. I soak in the words. I remember their importance. I draw them in close to my heart and hold onto them.
It’s all about me, Jesus reminds them. We know the path to God- and his name is Jesus.
If we want to make it through this journey, we must guard his teachings– making them a compass that gives direction through the night.
Finally, he reminds us that this commandment we are tasked with keeping is radical, unselfish love for one another.
They’re good last words. Powerful last words. Last words worth remembering.
My prayer for this Holy Week is that we will reaffirm in our beings that Jesus is the center of our faith and practice– that we will re-embrace the sacred commandment to “love one another”.