Dying Words and Feeding Sheep
Have you ever had someone share with you their dying words? I have. Such words leave a mark.
Both of my grandmothers shared words with me before they died that I remember clearly. Oma, on her hospital bed, in and out of consciousness, spoke privately with each of her children and grandchildren who were present. I can vaguely see her in my mind’s eye. Her beautiful white hair, uncharacteristically loose, draped across the pillow.
I held her hand and she said to me, “Andrew, keep praying with all your heart.”
The hospital visit with the emotion of gathered family weighing relief and fear against the history of family dynamics, the possibility of her absence finally materializing, and the fresh taste of death. All of that was the context in which I absorbed the words she whispered to me and in the whirlwind of those days of grief and gathering, the words didn’t settle in until much later, upon reflection.
Grandma. Just her and I on her sunny back porch in White Rock. We played a game of crib and talked about things small and great. And when I left we said goodbye. Lovingly. A divine moment I understood in the moment to be divine. Touching her soft skin, saying how we loved each other. One goodbye for me, then another, then two more – one for each of my brothers who would never see her again on this earth. God’s love and grace for our family were in those words.
Perhaps you have not been left with words but with a last act that is engraved into your memory. I am haunted and marked by the gesture of a woman I visited in Kenya, laying on her bed, about to die. She showed two friends and I the mark AIDS had left upon her ravaged body. It was a moment so unexpected for us white strangers. Through her gesture, one of the last enacted while alive, she made me a witness to the horror of disease, the cruelty of sin and death, the terror of extreme poverty.
The words and actions of the dying have pressed into me: a commission to pray, an assurance of love, a call to remember and bear witness. The dead spoke and still speak. Final statements are important.
In the gospel of John, we are given a record of some of the last words Christ spoke to Peter. They were spoken man to man, friend to friend, teacher to disciple while Christ was still on earth.
They weren’t dying words, for Christ had already risen from the dead. Nor were they final words, for through his Spirit, Christ would continually speak to Peter as he does now to us. They weren’t fighting words either. But they were the last words John records that Jesus spoke, in the flesh, to his friend.
“Do you love me?”
A thrice-repeated question that pierced Peter’s broken heart. A heart that not only betrayed his Lord, but betrayed his own self – betrayed his faith and own stubborn conviction – because of the cruel enemy fear. A heart that with every beat was reminded of that very denial. Surely Peter would have ripped that same heart out of his chest if only for it not to be marked by guilt for failing his friend. And yet the heart was renewed and restored, newly committed in service to God by the impossible suffering and sacrifice of the betrayed friend who took the guilt of Peter’s sin upon himself:
“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
Go with Peter to Galilee and through his eyes see for the first time this young, handsome carpenter’s son appear in his life. Sit with Peter and watch with awakened curiosity as he hears for the first time news of a new kingdom. Step out with him on the water, hold the extra baskets of food in your hand, walk the mount of transfiguration and see if you could resist building a booth to remain in God’s glory. Walk with him to the temple only to witness with what fire his friend cleared the money-changers’ tables. Wave the palm branches in exaltation. Eat the feats of the new covenant. Defy his death and any thought of betrayal and then walk in fear to the court of the Sanhedrin. Hold your chest as your heart stops when you see him deny the Lord for you have denied him too. Enter the horrid darkness of death where all memory of any good thing is gone.
But do not stop there. With trembling knees step into the empty tomb. With wonder reach out to touch the hand of your resurrected Lord – a human hand and marked. A hand of flesh. Jump from the boat again and run to shore when you realize he has appeared again. Have fellowship with God himself, broiled fish and tea. Bear the gaze of his penetrating eyes as he purses his lips and asks, “Do you love me?” The last words Peter will ever hear from Christ in the flesh on this earth.
Christ, in the years leading up to his death and in the short post-script we read in the gospels, laid down the foundation of what loving service to God looked like. Peter knew there was no greater love than when a man laid down his life for his friend. Peter could not be more loved by his resurrected Lord than when he stood on the Galilean shore.
We do well to inhabit Peter’s space, imagining how he felt in a moment where grief, fear, relief were weighed against a personal history of Palestinian politics, ancient hope, and the numbing suspicion that the too-good-to-be true feeling of Christ’s presence was slowly slipping away. Remembering that when he looked into the eyes of Christ he looked into eyes that shared his own history of stories, interaction, and meanings.
It was love for Christ – personal commitment and devotion to him – that would be Peter’s reason to feed Christ’s followers. A thrice-repeated command: Feed my lambs, Tend my sheep, Feed my sheep.
And what about us? Can we only imagine Peter’s experience, or do we also stand in his place? Can we not encounter him today, walk down dusty roads, go to the mountain of transfiguration and wish to linger, scrape our feet in the drudgery and depression of the demon-possessed valley?
Perhaps all of life is like a cloud – a grey billowing entity that seems to overwhelm the entire jurisdiction of the sky. And yet Christ, as he turned to Peter, turns to us too with a question that pierces the heavy atmosphere like a sharp and blinding bolt of lightning.
“Do you love me?”
It is the love of Christ that must compel us. A love that poured everything out. Every last drop. It is this undeniable, unimaginable love that is ours. A love that did not withhold its own life but gave that too.
Dangerously, we must ask, What is that love asking us to do?
Consider them a once-dead man’s living words to you. He already knows your answer. And it will be proven in your life.
Loren Cunningham, founder of YWAM, is challenging people wherever he goes to make a covenant to ensure that ‘the flame goes forward’ in YWAM’s 50th year since inception. Andrew spent a few formative years studying and working with YWAM overseas, and occasionally teaches and speaks in YWAM schools in different parts of the globe. Attentive to this call and in light of the mandate of the church, Andrew is reflecting on the five tenets of this call.