Famous last words -they're the final words people say right before they die. They can be sweet, funny, sad, ironic or sometimes even mean. And sometimes, they're remembered long after a person has died, because they can give insight into who a person really was and who or what they valued most.
So if you google "Famous Last Words", there are all kinds of famous last words which pop up. Here are a few:
- Composer Jean-Philippe Rameau objected to a song sung at his bedside. He said, "What the devil do you mean to sing to me, priest? You are out of tune."
- Nostradamus predicted, "Tomorrow, at sunrise, I shall no longer be here." He was right.
- Johnny Ace, an R&B singer, died in 1954 while playing with a pistol during a break in his concert set. His last words were, "I'll show you that it won't shoot."
And sometimes, it's the famous last words which are most memorable about a person. This is actually the case in today's first reading from Acts, which contains the last words of Stephen.
We actually don't know a lot about Stephen. All we really know is that there was a dispute in the early congregation of Christians in Jerusalem. Some of the widows weren't being taken care of, and the apostles had their hands full with preaching and teaching. So, they appointed 7 people to be "deacons" - folks who would make sure people within the community were being taken care of.
Stephen was one of those chosen. Except that we never read about anything Stephen does as a deacon. Instead, he gets arrested for talking about Jesus, and when he's dragged before the high priest, he starts preaching a sermon. And that sermon gets people so ticked off that they take him outside the city and stone him to death.
That's all we really know about Stephen. And if he were just another early Christian martyr, he might not be that remarkable. Except that he utters these famous last words, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."
"Lord, do not hold this sin against them" - the very people who are knowingly killing me. I mean, those probably wouldn't be the last words of this Steven if it happened to me...!
I'd almost surely say something more along the lines of "repay them according to their work and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward." (Psalm 28:4)
But not Stephen the deacon. Instead, his last words reflect some of Jesus' last words, "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing." (Luke 23:34)
In fact, Stephen is probably best remembered for his famous last words. And like the last words of some others, those last words show what Stephen believed and what he valued. And so they became important words for the early Christian community to remember.
And they were important to remember not only because they were so unusual and different, but because these last words lifted up Jesus by proclaiming:
- Forgiveness over vengeance - it's one thing to talk about forgiveness as a great virtue; but it's another to actually live it. Stephen's last words were a prayer for God to forgive even those who were killing him, because he wanted even those folks to come into a living and life giving relationship with Jesus ...
- Confidence in God's future - the story says that Stephen had a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Maybe that means he actually saw something. But it could also simply mean that he had such an experience of God's presence in his life, that he was certain of God's future, even when his present looked horrible ...
- His willingness to continue to live as a follower of Jesus, even if the society around him thought he was weird - it was totally inconceivable to any early Christian in the New Testament era that "Christianity" would ever be a dominant, let alone majority, group in the world. They lived the way they lived not because they thought they could convert the whole world, but because they saw themselves as ambassadors of the coming kingdom of God, who could give the world a foretaste of what God would do at the end of time...
In the end, these last words aren't so important because they're the final words as they are because they lift up ways and values that we should live as followers of Jesus in our own time. And that's why these words are also important for us to remember. Often right now, the most important ways we can live as followers of the Risen Jesus include:
- Openly demonstrating forgiveness in our lives - our world, as it's always been, is filled with great stories about how people have "gotten even" with people who have wronged them. Some of those stories make us feel really good, because we feel like those who were wronged have been vindicated. But stories of forgiveness are much harder to find. And when we're willing to forgive people who have wronged us, it can show Jesus to the world in ways our righteous indignation never can...
- Expressing confidence in God's future, even and especially when we can't control what today or tomorrow brings - and for us, too, that's also about having a vision - a vision that transcends the here and now and that's bigger than anything we think human effort can achieve; it doesn't mean being confident that "everything will be OK", but that God's will finally will win even when everything's a mess. That kind of confidence can often show Jesus to the world in ways that human plans never can...
- Being willing to call ourselves followers of Jesus even when it's no longer popular in the culture - for 1500 years in the West, people who called themselves Christians simply expected to live in a world where Christianity was "normal" and even popular. And if it's not, some Christians start to freak out as though Christian community can't go on if it's not the dominant force in society anymore. But some of the best witness Christians ever made were in times when they couldn't ever believe they'd be in the majority anywhere. They lived the way they lived because it was important to them, and not because they thought they could force or even convince others to join them. And yet, that kind of willingness showed the living Jesus to the world in ways that an established "powerful" Christianity never can...
Last words can be important in showing people what we really believe and what we really value. But so can the words and deeds and attitudes which we live every day. Those words and deeds and attitudes are ultimately the things which present the living and Risen Jesus to the world around us.
And it may be that our last words have a profound impact on people close to us. But in the end, the last words that really make a difference aren't ours, but God's. And God's last word has already been spoken in Jesus' Resurrection - when God declared life and wholeness and peace even in the face of death.