I sat with my head bowed over my phone the other day as I attempted to take in words that were not surprising, but which I still somehow was not expecting.
A colleague and friend of 30 years was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer less than two months ago. His children had just made the impossible decision to move him to palliative care. Even as I sat down to write this, they were planning to cut back on his sedation so they could attempt to share in conversation with him. One last time.
And oh, I do recognize their yearning, for along with my family I stood alongside a similar bedside more than twenty years ago. There were no ‘last words’ offered between us then, though, at least not in the way we tend to think of them. The damage to his body was simply too profound and we were left to piece together what our dad would have said then, given the chance. I am grateful that we were fortunate to have had countless other conversations through the years so we had a lot to draw from and while they may not have been actual ‘last words,’ even so they have proven to be lasting in their importance to me, to us.
And yet, we do tend to place a particular importance on actual ‘last words,’ don’t we? Go to your search engine and plug in the words “famous last words” and you will get numerous links to words spoken by famous people as they breathed their last. Some of those utterances border on the profound while others might be characterized as practically nonsensical. Perhaps in much the same way, if we page through the last chapters of John’s Gospel we find it recorded that Jesus’ last words as he was dying include:
“Woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27)
“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)
“It is finished.” (John 19:30)
And surely these ‘last words’ alone speak of
- Jesus’ care for those who he was leaving behind,
- the fact that he was entirely human as well as entirely divine,
- and the certainty that his death on a cross ‘finished’ or ‘completed’ God’s intent for us all in our relationship with him.
More than this, the vast majorities of all four Gospels are devoted to Jesus’ last week before he was crucified. For it is so that last things, last words can often help us to discover the full meaning of a life…
And so it is that in this week’s Gospel we hear some of Jesus’ last words. No, not the sharply punctuated sentences which he uttered on the cross. Rather, in what John’s Gospel offers us now we receive a window into Jesus’ deepest yearning for his closest followers as he prays in their midst ‘one last time’ as he sits with his disciples at table that Thursday night. And while Jesus has a whole lot more to say than what we hear in this brief section of ‘last words,’ he certainly gives us more than enough to ponder now as we listen in as he prays…
- We get a sense of Jesus’ profound connection to the one to Whom he prays. And we are told that those who followed Jesus had learned of the truth of this as well.
- We are led to wonder at what it means that you are I are actually ‘in the world but not of the word.’
- We hear of Jesus’ great love for the disciples as he begs his Father to protect them even as he had sought to protect them.
Indeed, as he prays Jesus does not shy away from the fact that there are dangerous forces in this world. And yet, we come to realize that for all that danger, even though we do not ‘belong’ here, we are to stay here, for it is to all of this that you and I are surely sent. It is for all of this that we are called. Even as Jesus was.
- Finally, we hear Jesus praying that those who follow him might be ‘sanctified in truth.’
- That truth which comes from God.
- That ‘truth’ which we will all come to recognize ever more surely in the narrative which follows. For in what comes next we are shown that life and love and hope are, in the end so much more powerful than death and hatred and despair.
- And more than all of this, we are given a model in Jesus by which we are called to try to live as though this were so.
Oh, isn’t it so that we always yearn to hear and to cling to and to be comforted by and empowered by the ‘last words’ of those we have loved? What a wondrous gift we are given in this section of John’s Gospel as Jesus allows his followers to overhear ‘last words’ to live and believe and yes to die and to enter into eternal life by.
- As we come to end of this Easter Season, I will be spending some time back in Holy Week in John’s Gospel. I am captured now by what it means to be ‘sanctified by truth’ and I am quite certain that finds its truest meaning in the last days leading up to the cross. Does that seem like a possibility for you as well?
- If not this, what strikes your imagination in Jesus’ last words? Where will they take you in the days to come?
- How are Jesus’ ‘last words’ like or unlike others you have known, experienced or even heard for yourself? How can ‘last words’ help bring meaning as you seek to understand the gift of a life? How have you known this to be so?