Typically, at the start of a new year, we talk about new beginnings, new resolutions and new goals. But this week, i want us to look at some important “last words”. Last words are those definitive pronouncements that one makes as he/she is coming to the end of a journey. Most often, it is the journey of life, and death is approaching. But in other instances, it can occur at the end of one’s tenure of leadership or mission, just prior to one’s departure – or – when one is preparing to depart for an extended journey or mission of uncertain outcome. Most often, they are words to inspire us or encourage us, as we continue on in our respective journey. They can be words that summarize the truths they have learned, the experiences they have had, or the feelings they have. They can be words of wisdom, blessing, love or appreciation. Regrettably, they can sometimes be words that tear down or curse. But regardless of their intent, they are often the most remembered words that the person has ever spoken to us.
i often think back to the last conversation that i had with my dad before he passed away – a very real conversation about life and death. He taught me – and modeled – many things over the years – but i am often reminded of his authenticity and transparency – and the moment we shared – in those last words. i am also mindful of the last words of challenge i received from one of my mentors, just prior to his retirement. Those words have often encouraged me to persevere in the midst of tough times.
As i write this, i know that some of you who are reading this may have been wounded by the “last words” spoken to you by a family member or acquaintance. If so, my heart aches for you and the experience you have had. But my encouragement to you – and reminder to all of us – is that we must never allow cursings to define us – but we must always allow blessings to encourage us. For all of these reasons, i think it is important for us to remember some of Jesus’ “last words”. It is particularly an appropriate reminder as we begin this new year.
On that night in the upper room described in John 13, just prior to His betrayal, Jesus took the opportunity to share “last words” with His disciples. He had been teaching His disciples through word and action for over three years, but now He was speaking those truths that He wanted them to remember, even if they forgot everything else. So, pull up close, and let’s not miss a word. Jesus said, “I am going… and “you can’t come where I am going” – at least for now.“So now I am giving you a new commandment….”
“…Love each other.” They had already heard Jesus say, earlier in the week, that the greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind”, and the second greatest is to “love your neighbor as yourself”(Matthew 22:37-39). Now He was saying that He was giving them a new commandment to “love each other.” Love God. Love Your neighbor. Love each other. Why did Jesus feel it was important to add that third statement? Isn’t loving each other a part of loving your neighbor? Earlier in His ministry, His mother Mary and His half-brothers had come looking for Jesus, and He said, looking at His disciples gathered around Him, “whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:35 NASB). Jesus was communicating that His followers were not only family to Him, but also to one another. So when He said, “love God, love your neighbor and love each other”, He was saying, “yes, love your neighbor, and make sure you don’t leave out loving your family of brothers and sisters in Me.” Jesus knew that sometimes we can be more loving and giving to our neighbors around us than we are to our immediate family beside us. He knew that sometimes we can love our neighbors and still be feuding with family. Sometimes we can be more forgiving of others than we can be of immediate family members – whether it is our nuclear family or our family in Christ. i will confess that some of my greatest disappointments and some of my greatest hurts have occurred at the hands of church family members. I am mindful that too often new church plants are a result of church feuds instead of good mission strategy. And those feuds that resulted in splits most often occurred within church families that forgot – or failed – to love each other.
Tertullian was a theologian in the early church (A.D. 155 – A.D. 240). He wrote that the Roman government was disturbed by the early church. So they sent spies to infiltrate and observe worship gatherings. They came back to their Roman leaders with a report that was something like this: “These Christians are very strange people. They speak of One by the name of Jesus, who is absent, but who they expect to return soon. And they demonstrate a love for one another that we have never seen before. They are ready to die for each other.” Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). And the early church took Him seriously. We are to love each other!
“…Like I have loved you.” The apostle Paul writes, “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proudor rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged.It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Paul was writing to a church. He was describing the love of Christ – and the love that they – and we – are to have for one another. It is a love that is selfless. It is a love that is unconditional. It is a love that doesn’t give up.
And, it is a love that “…proves that you are My disciples.” It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say that it would be their doctrine that proved that they were His disciples. He didn’t even say it would be their service or their mission that distinguished them as being His disciples – though in reality, love for one another will in fact drive our service and our mission. He didn’t say it would be the eloquence of their speech. He didn’t say it would be the orderliness or beauty of their worship experiences. He said it would be their/our love for one another. So we have got to ask the question, do we love each other in a way that proves we are followers and disciples of Jesus? The “proof” is in our love – or lack thereof. As those not within the body of Christ encounter us, are they overwhelmed, like those Roman spies were, by our love for one another? Or do they witness division, criticism, gossip or enmity?
Why was Jesus giving a “new commandment”? Because He was birthing something new. He was birthing His church. He was instructing the apostles who would be the first shepherds of His church. He was instructing those to whom He was giving the assignment to go forth and make disciples. But before He talked about how they were to do that, He told them that they had to love each other. Before He told them to baptize new believers, He told them that they had to love each other. Before He went to the cross and expressed His ultimate love for them – and for us – He told them to follow His lead and love each other. Before they – or we – could take up the cross and follow Him, there must be a love – His love – for one another.
i am convinced that if we truly would be followers of Jesus in 2019, and if we would truly be a people that take up the cross and follow Him, then everything He is calling us to be and to do can be encapsulated in these simple truths:
Love God. Love our neighbors. Love each other.
Those are last words to hold on to!
Scripture reference: John 13:33-35