People have a fascination with a person’s last words before they die, especially when someone said something either profound, touching, or incredibly ironic. For example, Blues singer Bessie Smith said, “I’m going, but I’m going in the name of the Lord.” How’s that for last words? Entomologist Vladimir Nabokov, a man who studied insects, said, “A butterfly is already on the wing.” Or Leonardo Da Vinci, who said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.”
There are also touching last words. Vince Lombardi’s last words were “Happy anniversary, I love you,” said to his wife. John Wayne said “Of course I know who you are, you’re my girl. I love you.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said to his wife, “You are wonderful,” as his last words. Now that’s how I’d like to go.
But there’s also the ironic. My favorite of which was by Major General John Sedgwick. On May 9, 1864, he commanded the Sixth Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac. On the battlefield in Spotsylvania, VA, his men reminded him to take cover from the confederate sharpshooters, to which he dismissively replied, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.” Moments later, he was dead.
We can oftentimes make a lot out of last words. We give special importance to them. Especially to Jesus, who knew that his time was short before he would be arrested and crucified. And that is where we find him, with his disciples gathered in the upper room for the Last Supper, giving what Bible scholars call the Farewell Discourse to his followers. Judas had already gone out to betray him, and Jesus takes this time, this last intimate moment with his disciples, to give his final thoughts and wishes to those gathered with him.
And where does he begin? “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” I puzzled and pondered about about this for a while: what’s ‘new’ about the New Commandment? After all, earlier in his ministry, when asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responded that we are to love God and to love our neighbors. And in doing so, he was quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus from the Old Testament Scriptures, words which had been written at least 500 years earlier. If the commandment to love is so ancient, how can Christ call it new?
In this New Commandment, it is no longer simply understood that we are to love others, like the good Samaritan who cared for the wounded and dying man on the side of the road. No, we are to love one another like Christ loved us. Christ, who loved us to the point that he took up a wooden cross and died for us. In this marvelous act, the love of God has become intimately connected to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The two have become inseparable. Our love for one another is and will always be rooted in the love that Jesus has for us in the cross. We are to love, like Christ loved us, with a love that is sacrificial and costly. There is to be no bound or end to our love.
Another turn we see in the New Commandment is that the focus is less on neighborly love, and more on becoming a community of love, to love one another as disciples of Christ, and that this love then serves to become a testimony and a witness to the world of who we are in Jesus. This is, surprisingly, not a commandment to love any and everyone, which we have in other places, but for those who are part of the Church, the body of Christ—one another. And not only this, but in this New Commandment, love has become the supreme badge of discipleship. It is the evidence of who we are in Christ, how we are different and distinct from those who don’t share the same hope in Christ. We are to be a community defined by our love for one another.
Nowhere is this more more evident in the Scriptures than in 1 John 3, where the author writes this – let these words sink in:
“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Here again, we see the interconnectedness of love for one another and the death of Jesus. We know what love looks like, because loved us so much he laid down his life for us. That is the model that our great shepherd of the sheep has given to us. That we love one another because Jesus loves us, and we love one another like Jesus loved us.
So what does it look like to love like Jesus, who gave himself up for us as an offering and sacrifice to God? What does self-sacrificial love look like?
We find at least one answer by picking up the thread from 1 John 3. Continuing where we left off, we hear:
“Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”
Concern for the well-being of others, is an important part of love. And helping others in need, is an important part of our love. Love is not just an inward feeling, but it must be accompanied with action. And love is not just in what we do, but in our emotions and feelings toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. And here, John ties it in to how we can give of ourselves—to lay down our lives, so to speak—to help those among us in need.
It’s at this point that I’m grateful that to help a person in need is a lot easier than dying for them.
I must say, too, I hear so many things in these Scriptures that apply to my own life. Those who have had the misfortune to hear about about all that has been going on in my family and the ways that my relatives have actively sought to hurt and to harm one another, will understand how much I need to hear John’s words when he writes “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer.” I am in that spot, once again, where I need to learn how to let it go, for love to replace anger and resentment, and to find forgiveness.
It’s hard, isn’t it, when there is so much to be angry about? When someone has intentionally and deliberately hurt you and others in your family, to love. And not just in what we say, but in how we act. (My wife) Ashley took those very words, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth, wrote them out beautifully on paper, and framed it alongside one of the last pictures of me with my father (it’s in the narthex if you wish to see it). And now, as long as I look at it, they will be a reminder to me of my need to love everyone, in thought, word, and deed, even when it’s hard.
But isn’t that the point? That lots of people are loving, but you and I are to be more loving. Lots of people care for others, but we’re to do it more. Love is the supreme badge of our discipleship, and we are to outdo others in their love, and their concern for others. We are to love when it makes no sense. When it’s hard. When we don’t want to. And in doing so, to lay down our lives for one another.
So may you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, grow in love for one another, for your brothers and sisters as disciples and followers of Christ. May you be moved to pity for the needs of those around you, and to love not only in words and speech, but in actions and in truth. And through our love in this community, may those who see us and know us come to also believe in the love and grace of God, in Jesus Christ.