We have long had the notion that the last words someone speaks before death–especially, someone famous–are of particular and lasting significance. We hold this to be true, despite counter-examples, such as the last words of Socrates. According to his student Plato, Socrates’ last words were,”Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”
Certainly, last words can be moving and inspiring–like those of John Wesley: “The best of all is, God is with us.”
Last words can also be mysterious and evocative, like those of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: “Let us cross over the river, and rest in the shade of the trees.”
My own favorite last words were spoken by Union General John Sedgwick, at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse: “I’m ashamed of you men, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range!”
Sunday’s lesson from Acts also dealt with famous last words: those spoken by Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was one of the first seven people to be named deacons: specially appointed to serve under the leadership of the apostles (Acts 6:1-7).
Stephen was a very effective preacher and teacher; he angered the religious leadership, however, and so was tried on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and condemned to death.
Among the last words he spoke, as the stones were raining down on him, were, Kyrie ‘Iesou, dexai to pneuma mou: “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” (CEB), or more literally, “Receive my spirit” (NRSV). Praying in this way, Stephen follows the example of his Lord Jesus, who he asks to receive his spirit. In Luke, Jesus’ last words are, Pater, eis cheiras sou paratithemai to pneuma mou: “Father, into your hands I entrust my life” (CEB), or more familiarly, “I commend my spirit” (NRSV).
Both Jesus’ and Stephen’s last words refer to Psalm 31:5 (in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, Ps 31:6): “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” The Greek of that first phrase is eis cheiras sou parathesomai [a different form of the same verb Luke uses in Lk 23:46] to pneuma mou.
These words may remind you of the prayer we pray beside the grave of a loved one–a prayer our family prayed in a snowy cemetery in Michigan this past February, as we committed Mom’s ashes to the ground, and entrusted her life into the hands of God:
Almighty God, into your hands we commend your daughter Gerry, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is what we believers do for those we love: with words of confident assurance, we entrust them into God’s loving hands.
But in Psalm 31, these words are not spoken at the end of life. The Psalmist expresses trust in God in the midst of life, out of turmoil, conflict, and struggle:
My life is consumed with sadness;
my years are consumed with groaning.
Strength fails me because of my suffering;
my bones dry up.
I’m a joke to all my enemies,
still worse to my neighbors.
I scare my friends,
and whoever sees me in the street runs away!
I am forgotten, like I’m dead,
completely out of mind;
I am like a piece of pottery, destroyed.
Yes, I’ve heard all the gossiping,
terror all around;
so many gang up together against me,
they plan to take my life!
But me? I trust you, Lord!
I affirm, “You are my God.”
My future is in your hands.
Don’t hand me over to my enemies,
to all who are out to get me!
Shine your face on your servant;
save me by your faithful love! (Ps 31:10-16)
What could it mean to commit ourselves, and those we love, to God–not at the end of life, but right here, right now?
In one sense, it really doesn’t mean anything. After all, God is Lord of the universe, whether we recognize it or not; our lives are already in God’s hands, whether we acknowledge it or not. To commit ourselves and those we love to God is only to recognize the way that things actually are.
To pray this prayer, however, says a good deal about who we believe God to be! The psalmist prays,
Listen closely to me!
Deliver me quickly;
be a rock that protects me;
be a strong fortress that saves me!
You are definitely my rock and my fortress.
Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! (Ps 31:2-3).
Entrusting ourselves into God’s hands, we avow that God is our rock, our fortress. We confess that God is for us, not against us–and that confession changes everything!
First, commending our lives into the hands of a loving God changes the way that we see our own lives and circumstances. We can face struggle, hardship, and trouble with confidence, knowing that we are not alone. We need not be anxious about the future, because we know that, whatever comes, that future is securely in God’s hands.
Commending ourselves and those we love into God’s hands also changes way that we see one another. We don’t need to be fearful and anxious about those whom we love. We can let them go–trusting them into the hands of God.
We can also let go of those whom we do not particularly love, and who do not love us–those with whom we are angry, perhaps for very good reasons. The psalmist, who has experienced oppression and violence from his enemies, is very angry, and calls for vengeance on his enemies:
Lord, don’t let me be put to shame
because I have cried out to you.
Let the wicked be put to shame;
let them be silenced in death’s domain!
Let their lying lips be shut up
whenever they speak arrogantly
against the righteous with pride and contempt! (Ps 31:17-18)
But not Stephen! The very last words that Stephen speaks are, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60). In this, he once more follows the example of his Lord.
Luke records that Jesus prayed for his torturers and executioners, who had nailed him to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” How did Jesus and Stephen let go of resentment and anger, and forgive their enemies? Perhaps they could do so because they trusted even their foes into God’s hands, believing that God was at work in them, bringing transformation.
Certainly, that was the case among Stephen’s persecutors. Luke tells us, almost in passing, that before they began to stone Stephen, “The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). Later in the story Acts unfolds, this young man becomes first, an avid persecutor of the church (Acts 8:1-3), and then, its most ardent defender–better known as Paul (Acts 9:1-21).
We need to be careful here. Commending our lives into God’s hands is no guarantee that all will turn out well: it certainly didn’t for Stephen, who was stoned to death, or for Jesus, who was crucified! Faced with tragedy, or failure, or frustration, we may be brought to the point of giving up. What difference does faith make, anyway?
In his book The Irony of American History (1952, p. 63), the great twentieth century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reflected upon this mystery. He wrote:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however, virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.
Commending ourselves into God’s hands, we can face whatever comes, even the worst, with courage, knowing that God is at work in us, through us, and in spite of us! As Paul–who, recall, had been one of Stephen’s executioners–acclaimed, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). Trusting that God is at work in our lives and in our world, may we–with Jesus, Stephen, and believers in all times and places–say this day and every day, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”