Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Last Words...

LAST WORDS

(Binan UCCP, 21 March 2008)

Last words are important to many of us. Famous last words include
Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios” and Antonio Luna’s “P___ -Ina!” Those of us who watched the coverage of FPJ's wake and burial four years ago will remember the variety of remembrances of people who talked about his last words to them. My late mother's last words to me--when we were in the air-conditioned ER of the Philippine Heart Center--were: "Anak mainit, paypayan mo ako." And, of course, the most famous last words ever
recorded would be Jesus’ Seven as found in the gospels: Mark and Matthew have one; Luke has three; and John has three.


Many Christians do not read the Bible. We read books about the Bible and parts of the Bible. If the Gospels were movies, the way most of us “read” is akin to watching only parts of a movie, not the whole show.

Now, who among us only watch parts of a movie--5 minutes of Spider-Man 3 or 10 minutes of Marimar? The Gospels are complete narratives.I propose studying Jesus’s Last Words based on that fundamental assumption.In other words, if Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were movies or tele-dramas, then Jesus’s dying words play important roles in how the stories play out.

Last Words-- Matthew

If one reads Mark and Matthew from beginning to end, one will discover that both narratives privilege Galilee as locus of God’s activity. Most of Jesus’s healing, teaching, and preaching ministry happen in Galilee. In the Matthean and Markan narrative Jerusalem is bad news. Jesus is betrayed in Jerusalem. Jesus is arrested, tortured, and executed in the Holy City. Jesus dies in Jerusalem. One can even argue that God forsakes Jesus in Jerusalem, thus at the point of death he cries, “Eli, Eli lama sabacthani?” or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many of us who grew up in church and in
Sunday school remember the countless number of Bible verses we memorized. Many of us hated the ritual. I know I did when I was growing up. We thought those verses were useless until something happened in our
lives and then the verses suddenly took on a life all their own.


The Jesus of Matthew was rooted in the Hebrew Scripture. At the lowest point in his life, near death, Jesus was not blaming God. He was quoting Scripture. Psalm 22 to be exact. I have witnessed people pass from this life to the life beyond and quite a few were quoting scripture. Remember that Matthew does not end with Jesus dying on the cross. The gospel ends with God raising Jesus from the dead. Psalm 22 begins with despair but ends with triumph and an affirmation of faith in a God who saves. Go and read it.
Jesus’ last words in Matthew celebrate the promise of Immanuel. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us. Always.

Last Words—Mark

In Mark, Jesus cries, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani” and dies. Unlike Matthew, the risen Jesus does not appear in the ending. Check your Bibles. The gospel ends in 16:8, where we find women silent and afraid. What we have in the story is a young man who tells the women that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee and will be waiting for them there. Jesus is not in the tomb. He is not in Jerusalem. He is not where we want him to be. He is back in Galilee where his ministry began and he is waiting for us there. And we are afraid. Why? Because we know that this path will eventually lead to the cross. We know that following Jesus will lead to suffering and, yes, death.

Unlike Matthew, Luke, and John where we find beautiful stories of the resurrection—Jesus appears to Magdalene, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, by the beach and eats breakfast with his followers, Mark offers a young man with a confirmation of a promise – Jesus is risen just as he told you. We do not see Jesus. We are told to believe he is risen. And it is only in going back to Galilee, in places we do not want to go, in ministering among the poorest and the most oppressed, that we will eventually find him.

The last words of Jesus in Mark are dying words. The gospel does not end with Jesus’ triumphant words as a risen Lord but with a young man’s affirmation of God’s resurrection power: that hope is stronger than despair, that faith is greater than fear, that love is more powerful than indifference, and that life will always, always conquer death.

Last Words—Luke

Many Filipinos love the Gospel according to Luke. I read somewhere that our favorite parables are The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan. Both come from Luke. A lot of the scriptural support for the Roman Catholic Church’s theology of preferential option for the poor is based on Luke.

God is definitely pro-poor in Luke. Jesus’s birth is announced to poor shepherds. Jesus's first sermon--which almost gets him killed--is a proclamation of good news to the poor. And this God who loves the poor so much is most often described as a loving parent. From Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, to Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the Father of the Prodigal Son who waited patiently for his son’s return, to Father Abraham who takes poor Lazarus into his bossom… the Gospel of Luke reminds us, offers us metaphors of God’s unconditional love as parent. At the cross, two of Jesus’s last three words in Luke are addressed to his father. Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If God is our parent and we are all God’s children, then we should ACT as brothers and sisters. This means not behaving like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or like the Rich Man in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This means acting like the Good Samaritan who did not consider the wounded Jew as an enemy but as a brother. Jesus in Luke challenges his followers to love their enemies and to do good to those who hate them. Jesus set the example. We call ourselves Jesus followers but do we really follow? If Jesus is our "Kuya" then our words and our deeds should remind others of our "kuya."

Bombing Afghanistan, invading Iraq, trampling on Philippine sovereignty in the guise of "visiting rights"-- are Jesus's brothers and sisters supposed to do these things? Jesus says to one of the criminals crucified with him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Filipinos are social creatures. The worst punishment for Filipinos is solitary confinement. Many Filipinos turn on radios and televisions when they are alone, not to listen or watch, but simply to create a semblance of community. God’s salvation is a community project. No one can be a Christian alone. When God saves, God saves communities and peoples. To celebrate the incarnation is to celebrate that God has left heaven to be with us. So no one lives and dies alone. God is with us. In the midst of death on the cross, Jesus reminds his fellow victim that he is not alone. Hindi siya nag-iisa.

Then Jesus says, “Father, into they hands I commit my spirit.” Luke follows Mark and Matthew’s lead here. Jesus also quotes an Old Testament Psalm. In this case Psalm 31. It is also like Psalm 22, a Psalm of deliverance. Jesus believed in a God who will never forsake. And God does not forsake Jesus. Many of us pray Jesus's prayer before we sleep at night. We commit everything to God, yet we stay up all night thinking of so many things only God has control over. Let us follow Jesus. Even in death, he knew that he was safe in God’s hands. We are never alone.

We will never be alone.


Last Words—John

If one reads the Gospel of John from start to finish one will discover that the story celebrates the discipleship of the unnamed. In other words, the most effective followers of Jesus in the story have no names. The Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well, who runs to her people to share her experience with Jesus, is unnamed. The young boy who offers the five loaves and two fish so that Jesus can feed over five thousand people is also unnamed. The beloved disciple who plays a role bigger than Peter’s in the story is also unnamed. But most important of all, the only disciple who we find at the beginning and at the end of Jesus’s life is also unnamed: Jesus’s mother. We find the two—Jesus’s mother and the beloved disciple—at the foot of the cross. Jesus says to them, “Woman behold your son; behold your mother.” Jesus asks that his two faithful disciples take care of each other. Love is the key theme of the Gospel of John. God became human because of love. The world is supposed to be blessed by our love for each other. Jesus in John leaves his followers only one commandment—for us to love one another as Jesus loved us. Mothers behold your sons; sons behold your mothers; parents behold your children; children behold your parents. We are members of the family of God and our primary task is to live in love for each other, like a family: each one willing to offer one’s life for the other.


Then Jesus says, “I thirst.” Again, in the Johannine story, particularly in his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus is the Living Water. Thus, many people find it puzzling that the one who says he is Living Water is suddenly thirsty. And he is given vinegar by his executioners.
Like Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s quotations, John’s “I thirst” represents a quote from the Old Testament--Psalm 69. Faith draws strength from the past. Like Daniel’s three friends who faced death, yet believed in a God who will deliver them as God has delivered in the past, Jesus affirms the same unwavering faith in a deliverer God. And God did deliver Daniel’s three friends. And God delivered David (who wrote the Psalm). And Jesus believed God will deliver him, as well.

Then Jesus says, “It is finished.” The End. Jesus is dead. Remember the only commandment Jesus left his followers in the Gospel of John—greater
love hath no one than this, that one offers one’s life for another? Jesus does
exactly that. His life was an offering. And we are challenged to do the same. At the beach Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Jesus… We are asked the same thing. Can we love as Jesus loved? Jesus was not alone when he faced the cross. And his last words on the cross affirmed his faith in God, in people, in the transforming power of love and life, and empowered him to face death. Psalm 22 which Jesus quotes in Matthew and Mark, Psalm 69 which he quotes in John, and Psalm 31 which he quotes in Luke celebrate a God who delivers, a God who liberates, a God who will always take the side of the poor and the oppressed, a God who will not forsake us. And God did not forsake Jesus.


And God will never forsake us.

[Preached at the Binan UCCP, Good Friday, 2008]


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