As we communicate, our conversations can be filled with lots of words that have both nuance and meaning. Some conversations are long and composed of many words, while other conversations can be extremely short with maybe a single word used to convey our thoughts. “Go! Stop! Look!” Usually our conversations have a little pattern to them. They begin with a greeting, followed with the main idea we long to convey, and then maybe we close with a word of farewell. But there is one thing that I have noticed over the course of many conversations with many people. Sometimes it’s the last word that becomes the important word.
For example I have had folks come to my office to chat. We may converse for 5 or 10 minutes. Finally they get up to leave and with their hand on the door to head out, they will finally get around to saying the thing they have really come to communicate. “Preacher, my mom’s not doing well and I am worried.” Or, “I discovered some drugs in my daughter’s car and I don’t know what to do about it.” Or maybe something like this, “The doctor says that I have a lump that needs a biopsy. I’m sure that I will be fine. I just wanted you to know.”
You have been there, right? You listen for the last word. It’s as though the conversation gets really serious at just the point you think that it’s about to end. Sometimes we need to pay attention to the last word.
Go back with me in your mind, to that upper room in Jerusalem. Imagine the scene. A spacious table is filled with the delicacies of the Passover Feast. There is lamb, unleavened bread, fruit, and wine. The room is dimly lit with candles. In the flicker of light you can see the faces of 12 men and their leader as they spend the evening in celebration of their faith heritage. Early on in the evening, the conversation is light and the mood is upbeat. Moments of laughter erupt as these men tell their stories. But the conversation slowly drifts to a more serious tone. Jesus will teach and speak about the coming of the Holy Spirit and about the suffering He will endure and about the hatred these men will encounter. At one point Jesus even gets up from the table to wash the feet of His followers. It is a shocking display of servanthood that seems hard for each man to take in.
Passover Feasts were not the kind of meal through which one would rush. It was a long, drawn-out affair that lasted for hours. We are not told in Scripture the actual hour of the meal but surely it went on into the night. And for argument’s sake, let’s suppose that it was well after nine when Jesus offered some of His last words. If that were the case, then just 12 hours later, He would hang from a cross. Just twelve hours later. That gives a bit of gravitas to the moment. Jesus offers a final word of challenge and command, His eyes riveted to the eyes of His followers. Not only are these words among the last He will speak that night, they are among the last He will speak before the crucifixion and resurrection. They are the last drops of a flood of teaching that has spanned the course of the past three years. And because they are the last words, they become the important words.
And notice to whom they are spoken… the 12 disciples. These men are the foundational stones of the Kingdom of God. Upon their shoulders the Church will be built and the Gospel will take flight. It is this group who will go forth to change the world. Men like the tax collector Matthew, or the fiery Sons of Thunder named James and John. Andrew, Philip, Simon Peter and the others all hear the voice of Jesus. These are the men who knew Him best. They were eyewitnesses to the miracles. They heard the teaching. With their own hands they had passed along the baskets of bread and fish that fed 5000 men. They saw the dead come to life again. Of all the people on the planet, you would think that they are the strongest, the most loyal, the best of the best, ready to go forth in the footsteps of their Master and Lord.
So, listen to what He says to them. Listen to the last words. “This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And just to emphasize His point, a few verses later he repeats Himself, “This is my command; Love each other.” Do you think that is strange? That Jesus has to tell His followers to love each other? Is there the possibility that they wouldn’t love each other? That they would let differences divide and old ways of thinking replace the new? That they would forget all that He taught them? Surely the importance of those words must reach our hearing as well.
This weekend, as we prepare to celebrate the cross, the sacrifice, the pain, and yes the resurrection, do we need to be reminded to love each other again? Probably so. You see if we are not careful, we can let the old ways of thinking seep into the hearts and mind’s of God’s people. We can allow ourselves to live like those who have never met Him. The love that should be evident is sometimes hard to find. Think about the moments in which we now live. These days people who call themselves Christians spew out racial hatred and prejudice in the name of good politics. These days the people of Jesus try to exclude those whose lives are broken because of their “too many” mistakes… somehow forgetting that all of us are just sinners saved by grace. These days Christian folk will talk behind someone’s back or ignore the way words cause injury. These days followers of Christ will ignore the plight of the poor or get angry when someone suggests helping out a neighbor. These days disciples can let the smallest of arguments cause life-long rifts. These days people who have been charged with “changing the world” somehow get angry when the world around them changes and rather than embrace the opportunity to be Christ-like in an ever-shifting culture, they put bigger locks on the doors so that the church will stay “irrelevantly fixed” in time.
We have to be better than that. We have to live by a higher standard. We have to model a better life. The distinguishing mark of Christianity is love and nothing else. So do we love each other? Do we forgive and long to heal? Do we share out of our abundance? Do we care when people haven’t heard the Gospel? Do we weep for the lost and pray for the unsaved? Do we love every neighbor as much as we love ourselves? Do we love enough to listen, to care, to meet a need? Do we love enough to be kind, thoughtful, and welcoming?
On the last night of His ministry, with the last moment of His teaching, with one of the last breaths in His body… Jesus said, “Love one another.” That last word has to matter.