By The Rev. J.C. Austin
“If you knew you were going to die, what would you do so people would remember you?”
That’s essentially the question that record producer Sam Phillips asks the singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, the film about Cash’s early life. Cash, trying to get his first break in the music industry, auditions for Phillips in his studio.
For his audition, he chooses a gospel standard, but before he even gets to the second verse, Phillips interrupts: “I’m sorry, do you have anything else?” he says. “What’s wrong with that?” Cash asks. “I don’t believe you,” Phillips replies. “Are you saying I don’t believe in God?” Cash shoots back, getting angry.
“You know exactly what I’m telling you,” Phillips says; “we’ve already heard that song a hundred times, just like that, just like you sing it. If you were hit by a truck, if you knew you were going to die, if you only had time left to sing one song that people would remember, are you telling me that’s the song you would sing? Or would you sing something different; something real?”
Cash stands there for a minute in silence. Then softly, slowly, he begins to sing about a prisoner listening to the sound of a train full of people going by his jail. He is tormented by the contrast between those people who are freely traveling where and when they want and himself, who, because of his choices and actions, has forfeited his freedom and everything else good in his life.
He knows he deserves it, and yet he longs for redemption. And, as the song builds, Phillips begins to smile. This is what he was looking for: something different, something real, something that people can and will remember.
If you knew you were going to die, what would you do so people would remember you? The things we say and do in the face of impending death carry a lot of weight: the prisoner’s last meal that reveals a long-held fantasy or recalls lifelong favorites; the deathbed confession that unburdens truths that could never be spoken in life; the final grasp at reconciling long grudges and healing old wounds that has the urgency of knowing there will be no further opportunities.
Our final words and actions reveal much about who we are and how we understand ourselves; about our hopes and intentions for how we will be remembered and for those whom we leave behind. They have the power not only to sum up a life, but to determine how it is understood, valued and remembered.
That is what Jesus is counting on as he gathers his disciples together in the Upper Room. This very night, he will be arrested. This very night, he begins the final part of his journey toward the cross. This very night is his last night with his disciples. And he knows it; he knows that he is going to die, knows that he has this one last chance to give them something to remember.
And he uses it: “Little children, I am with you only a little longer,” he says. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
It might be a bit of a letdown, considering the circumstances. Love one another? That’s the big finale to Jesus’ earthly ministry? That’s what he wants to make sure we remember, above everything else? Of all the commands he could have given, the teachings he could have provided, the truths he could have revealed, he’s going with “love one another”? Haven’t we heard all that before?
When I was a student in seminary, I had the opportunity to be part of a year-long dialogue between seminarians of different traditions and faiths. One night, I fell into a conversation with Dawud, a passionate young Muslim student. We started talking about what it means to identify as a practicing Muslim or a Christian; what is really required or expected to live out your faith.
“As a Muslim,” he said, “it begins with the First Pillar of Islam: the declaration of faith that there is no god but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet.” “Actually, Christians have something similar,” I responded; “someone formally becomes a Christian when they publicly declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, which is part of our sacrament of Baptism.”
This was not the place to get into a whole explanation of how that works with baptizing infants versus adults; sometimes you have to stick with the big picture. But it got more complicated after that. He talked about the Second Pillar of Islam, the ritual prayers said five times each day. “Well,” I said, “we don’t really have something like that. I mean, people often say the Lord’s Prayer when they’re praying, but there aren’t fixed times to do that. People have all kinds of different spiritual disciplines about prayer, but they choose those for themselves.” Dawud looked increasingly puzzled as I talked.
Finally, he said, “So what exactly, do you have to do as a Protestant Christian besides a declaration of faith?” I squirmed for a moment; Muslims clearly have the Five Pillars, Jews clearly have the Law, but what is truly required of Christians? Finally, something came to me.
“Love!” I said. “Jesus commanded his disciples to love God and others. We even have a special holy day during Holy Week about it: Maundy Thursday. Maundy is Latin for mandate, it’s a reference to the commandment Jesus gave his disciples before he was arrested, which was to love one another.” I was fairly proud of myself for all of about ten seconds, until Dawud broke the silence. “Love?” he said; “That’s it? Muslims and Jews are expected to love, too. Everyone agrees about that.”
Dawud is echoing Sam Phillips at this point: “‘Love’ isn’t new; what’s so special about that? Everyone knows that one; it’s just the same old song we’ve heard a hundred times before.” And at first glance, it seems like he’s right.
But there’s something very new and very big here in this passage that makes all the difference: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another: I don’t know about you, but I think that’s actually one of the scariest verses in the entire Bible, and certainly the hardest commandment.
We haven’t heard anything like that before. Love God? Well, of course. Love your neighbor? Sure. Love one another? Fine. Love your enemies? That’s getting a lot harder, but okay. But love one another just as Jesus has loved us?
Not inspired by how Jesus has loved us; not in the spirit of how Jesus has loved us; not even as best we can; just as Jesus has loved us. Jesus, the one who tossed out all standards of dignity and status when he washed his own disciples’ feet, which he did right before giving them this final commandment?
Jesus, the one who even washed the feet of Judas, the one who was about to betray him? Jesus, the one who got up from the table, walked outside, and was promptly arrested, tortured, and executed, sacrificing his own life to conquer the power of death over us? We’re supposed to love one another like that Jesus, with concrete, self-sacrificial acts that embody boundless love?
In a word: yes. And not merely for the sake of each other or of the church; for the sake of the gospel itself: “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, ‘if you have love for one another.” To be a disciple means to follow, and it is in following Jesus’ example of love that people will know we are his disciples.
Which is why Jesus’ last commandment was also the hardest, and also the most important one, the one that Jesus wanted to make sure his disciples would hear and remember. As followers of Jesus Christ, he most profound gift we have to offer the world is not in the purity of our theology, or the strength of our prophetic witness, or the vibrancy of our institutions; it is in the quality of the love we have for each other, the same overflowing, reconciling, grace-abounding love that Jesus has for us.
That is the most prophetic witness we can offer; that is the purest theology we can profess; that is the greatest truth we must always remember and share, if we or anyone else are going to know that we are disciples of Christ.
Today we are going to baptize three children into the Christian faith and church. As we do so, their parents will be making promises to both live out their own faith in Christ and teach that faith to their children. And so will we all, because Baptism is an act of the whole church, not just something that is done for the person being baptized; simply by being a part of this church, you are a part of those promises.
But those promises are not really about our church’s educational programs, or the quality of our welcome to these children in our worship services, or even whether we make space for children to be fully-engaged participants in every aspect of church life. All those things are important, but they are not really the point today.
The point today is to promise that we will, in fact, love one another and particularly these new young members just as Christ has loved us: with warmth and conviction, with patience and intention, with sacrifice and self-giving, with joy and with hope.
And as we do so, we will also remember that the hardest commandment is also the best one, because it is ultimately not a burden that we must carry but a gift that we both receive and share, because the love of Christ is always, more than anything, a gift.