The Seven Last Words from the Cross
These reflections were presented at the 9.30am Good Friday Service on 14 April 2017. Our custom is to combine with the Ashburton Uniting Church and this year we hosted our Uniting friends at the Ashburton Baptist Church. The service was led by ABC pastors Keren McClelland and Geoff Pound. They presented these reflections many of which were interspersed with silence and Good Friday hymns and songs.
We come to hear these famous last words of Jesus. They’re the last words, not uttered from a lectern but from the cross of slow and painful execution.
Keren and I will offer some brief words of reflection on each of Christ’s statements. We acknowledge that our reflections have been enriched by a little book by Walter Brueggemann entitled, ‘Into Your Hand’. But our task today is primarily to announce these last words of our Lord, and to let the text, energised by the spirit, do much of its own work.
So to the first saying from the cross…
One: Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do
Did you know that this famous verse, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’, is missing from some of the most important manuscripts of the New Testament? This saying is not reported in any of the gospels except Luke.
Why would the early church leave this statement out and pretend that Jesus did not say it? Well maybe they found it too radical. Maybe they figured that there was a limit to forgiveness and if there is, then that red line was surely crossed in the execution of Jesus.
In the narrative, those who wanted him dead, those who shouted, ‘Crucify him’, knew that they will carry blood guilt that is beyond forgiveness.
This word of forgiveness is Jesus’ ultimate most radical word. But in Luke's story, it is the very first thing Jesus says when he arrives at this place of his execution.
It’s as though Jesus seizes the initiative. He wants to frame his execution in a specific way by making this prayer at the outset. It’s as if Jesus is saying to the soldiers, ‘Before you do anything of the process of execution, know my attitude toward you. Know that I will not hold a grudge against you. I will forgive you who do the actual killing. I will forgive the authorities who do not even come to Calvary but who have engineered the killing. I will forgive you because it is my most basic action to forgive. This is my signature act—that for which I am best and most faithfully known.
But Jesus himself does not forgive them. He refers the matter to his father. He says ‘Father forgive them’. He draws the attention of the father to his particular moment, to these particular offenders, to his particular moment of suffering and death.
It’s as though this active forgiveness has cosmic proportions, as forgiveness always does. The extremity of his situation is matched by the extremity and urgency of the prayer. He asks of the father an outrageous act of self-giving, for who among us wants to forgive the killers of our beloved son or daughter? But Jesus knows the heart of the father God who is essentially a forgiver.
God does not retain anger. God does not hold grudges. God does not keep score. God’s proper business is compassion.
The Father does not answer the prayer soon. The answer that leaps to forgiveness comes at Easter. In Easter, we will learn that God has no vengeance, no grudge, no retaliation. God only reaches into the hate and death of the world to make all things new. So, when we hear on Sunday, ‘Christ is risen; he is risen indeed’, mark that as an answer to this prayer pleading forgiveness.
The world is forgiven.
The people of hate and violence are forgiven.
The cruel executioners are forgiven.
The pattern of death is broken. This is not a Friday moment. It is a Sunday answer to the Friday prayer.
Two: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Of the seven statements by Jesus on the cross, six of them he just blurts out. This one is unlike those other six because this one is a response to something that has been said to him. As a result, we must start with the address made to him. The conversation at Golgotha was between two other criminals who were also crucified.
One of the two, in his anger and fear taunts Jesus: “Save yourself and us” or maybe you are not really the Messiah. But the other criminal, who was also about to be executed, scolds the first guy. He can see at a glance that Jesus, in contrast to the two of them, is an innocent man being unfairly sent to his death.
After he rebukes the other criminal, he addresses Jesus. He said to him: ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. He not only sees that Jesus is innocent. He acknowledges who Jesus is. He doesn’t doubt that Jesus has a future beyond his execution.
The man wants to be remembered. This isn’t just the hope of been recognised and legitimated as a person. He may imagine that when Jesus comes to power, as he surely will, he will issue an amnesty and he wants to be on the list of those who he will pardon.
Jesus makes a remarkable response to this man. He affirms to him that he does indeed have a future that the Roman Empire cannot deny him.
Notice these three elements in the response of Jesus:
First, he says ‘Today’. Right now! You don't even have to wait for Easter. ‘Today’! Maybe that means when we die which will be very soon but maybe it means right now as soon as I say this to you. The ‘today’ is an incredible welcome. No questions asked. No qualifying exam. Come on in.
Secondly, Jesus, according to Luke, uses the curious word ‘Paradise’. We take it as a reference to the Garden of Eden that contained the tree of life. Jesus invites the man back into the garden of well-being. Paradise is rather a place of well-being presided over by Jesus. It’s marked by blessedness, fruitfulness, abundance.
But it’s the third term that clarifies both the ‘today’ and ‘paradise’: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It is not just a place but a relationship. It concerns being with me. The place of well-being, abundance and blessedness is in relationship to Jesus, in his presence. And that may happen right now, immediately.
Three: “Woman, here is your son; here is your mother.”
John 19: 26-27
We’ve just been told about the mocking abuse of the soldiers. But as John tells it, Jesus isn’t preoccupied with that abuse. His attention is elsewhere. The scene juxtaposes the aggressive soldiers and a group of weeping helpless women who keep vigil at his execution. What a contrast! The Empire and the vulnerable vigil of women. This is an invitation for us to position ourselves in the story.
That group keeping vigil includes the two other Marys and his mother. The three women are there in their grief. Jesus is preoccupied with his mother. He’s tending to unfinished family business as she’s left vulnerable and alone in this patriarchal society.
“Woman, here is your son; here is your mother.”
These words of Jesus are ‘family forming’. He makes a connection between his mother and his disciple and by his words declares them to have a new family relationship.
It's as though he makes formal introductions: ‘Mother meet your new son’; Disciple: ‘Meet your new mother. Jesus creates a new mother-son relationship. Her proper son will not be present in the future family gatherings. He will be lost, remembered but absent.
Jesus is abandoned by God on the cross. Now his mother is abandoned and Jesus takes steps to override her abandonment by making sure she has a son who can look after her.
Having a son matters hugely in this male-centred world! Now she has lost her son. But Jesus has provided a new son for her.
The execution of Jesus destroyed his family as executions by empires always do. He had to make a new family. He makes a new family by designating mother and son between the two, Mary and the disciple who in fact are not kin.
The new family that Jesus makes is not made of blood connections but of love connections. It is a family of those who embrace God’s will and purpose, which is the purpose of love and peace and justice.
The Messiah who makes new families calls us out to meet new brothers and new sisters, and to make new relationships and new families.
Four: My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34
We like to say and sing reassuring words of God’s unfailing loyalty to us. We celebrate it and count on it.
But this Friday throws Jesus’ words into the teeth of that claim. On the cross on that Friday Matthew and Mark tell us that this is his final word: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
They tell it in Aramaic so that we don't miss the point that it is from his lips.
Often religion imagines God’s constant attentiveness to us. But we know that to live in God's world is to sometimes live feeling abandoned. It can mean absence and aloneness. This Friday cry of Jesus calls us to relearn about faith, obedience and discipleship.
Jesus is not the first one to know about being forsaken. And Jesus is not the last one to know about this abandonment. Some of you know it acutely and there are people in our community and around the world who know of God’s abandonment that must not be glossed over.
This Friday is the day we reflect on God-abandonment. We think of how he lingered on the cross executed by the state. We linger over it all of Saturday for there is no reassurance on that day. We do it and we notice that the life of Jesus in obedience, is a life without resource or reassurance.
So live in abandonment until Easter day. Fix your attention on your own abandonment and if you don’t know it, then focus on someone else who is feeling abandonment, some of our friends, some of our enemies, all of us Friday people.
There are some things to notice about this Friday abandonment:
Jesus was not silent about it. He didn’t knuckle under in despair or resignation. He cried out with a loud voice. He didn’t just cry out: ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ He cried out in a loud voice, ‘My God my God.”
He addressed the God who was absent. He summoned God. He insisted that God must come to deliver. The most basic act of faith is an imperative that cries out to God, out of this sense of absence. Jesus shouted his trouble as we must shout out the troubles of our world. When we do, it is a loud cry for all the abandoned peoples.
Five: I thirst.
Can you remember your Mum or Dad saying, ‘Don’t drink soft drink? Water will quench your thirst much better.” This is a most basic issue of faith, ‘What are our real thirsts and in what false and phony thirsts do we indulge?”
Jesus on the cross was thirsty. John tells us that the reason he was thirsty was to fulfil the ancient prophesy of the Psalms in Psalm 42.
But clearly Jesus, in John's gospel, is a real human being, come in the flesh. He had a real thirst for water. After all, he had been detained by the authorities, interrogated all night, and then subjected to what must've been a hot Friday sun.
Jesus was a person in need and when they gave him sour wine, that was more abuse. Their offer shows a complete mismatch between his thirst and their offer. Water would quench his thirst so much better.
Friday is the day that God subjected God’s own self, in the flesh of Jesus to the reality of basic bodily need. This Friday performance is no pretend job. Jesus is a real human person, debased by the force of the Romans and being denied what he needs.
On this Friday as we ponder Jesus’ unrequited thirst, we move back and forth between the literal thirst and the figurative thirst for water. We remember Jesus and the woman at the well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
We are invited to reject the drink that does not quench and to taste the Living Water of the gospel.
But then, consider the thirst to be literal. Remember in the gospel of Matthew how Jesus reprimanded his critics: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.” Matthew 25:42
Think what water you must have to live. Think what unquenching drink we like too much. Think who needs water in our world and with whom we may share water and from whom we have withheld water.
Think what it means to live in a country that is so often wasteful of water. And let it ring in our ears, “As you did it to the least you did it to me.”
This Friday, Jesus is reduced to the least, to the most helpless to the one without recourse or authority. He thirsts. And so do we! And so do our neighbours.
Six: It is Finished.
The last word Jesus speaks on the cross in John's Gospel is ‘It is finished’. It's not a statement of defeat or resignation, it’s rather God’s victory cry. Already on the Friday before Easter Sunday, Jesus declared his victory. It was a victory for the purposes of God even if his execution on the cross at the hands of the Roman Empire seemed for the moment like a visible defeat. He knew better! And he said so!
Now ponder that victory that was accomplished on that Friday. The phrase ‘It is finished’ is a deliberate reference to God’s finish in the Old Testament. In the Genesis story God finished the work. God saw that it was very good and said ‘It is finished’. God has overcome chaos and so God rested.
Now here’s another finish on this Friday. Today we celebrate one more achievement by God. One more gift to the world. What is now finished is the victory of God’s way in the world enacted by Jesus.
Jesus has practised the way of suffering love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and generosity. On that Friday, the power of death has done its best and it could not overcome the power of God and the person of Jesus.
The Friday victory is the defeat of the power of death.
The Friday victory is the defeat of the Roman power and all who depend upon muscle and military might.
Jesus has been on trial before the Roman Governor Pilate but he has not given in and he has not been found guilty. And now Rome has executed him as an enemy of the state but it has no power to destroy his love for the world.
The Friday victory is the defeat for all those who colluded among his own people, those who thought they could compromise and manipulate their way to well-being. And now it is all finished. It’s like a game when victory is declared in the third quarter. The power of death will continue to compete for a while. But it has lost; it is finished!
This means that the sting of death is gone. We need not fear being diminished any more.
It means that the power of guilt has evaporated and we need not carry all wounds of shame.
It means that we need no longer operate out of fear and loss and defeat.
It is finished! Hear the victory cry! In this moment of victory all the pain is being turned into joy. (John 16:20)
Seven: Father into your hand I commend my spirit.
Twice in the gospel of Luke, Jesus on the cross addresses words to the ‘Father’. He speaks first on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Now in his final word in the story of Luke he cries in a loud voice, “Father into your hand I commend my spirit.”
He trusts his very life to the Father. His life had derived from the Father and now he gives his life back to the Father.
We’re familiar with the phrase ‘I commend my spirit.’ When we let the term mean spirit/breath it may turn out, ‘I give my breath back to you’ because in the ancient world it was easily understood that breath is a gift from God. Our breath is a gift given and given and given as we inhale and exhale.
That statement of relinquishment by Jesus is followed by the report, “Having said this, he breathed his last.” He had relinquished his breath, his very claim to life, back to the Father.
His readiness to give up his breath is a readiness to die. He will die willingly. He hands his life back to God who gave him breath. He remained, until that final moment, fully in charge of his life. In that moment, he ceases to be in charge and he trusts himself to God.
Jesus’ life and breath were not taken from him by the Roman Empire because they belonged to God. Jesus is prepared for that moment because the Father is ultimately trustworthy.
Jesus would have prayed with the Psalmist, “My times are in your hand.” This God may have the whole world in his hands. But what counts is that my times are in your hands, my times of well-being, my times of obedience, my times of joy, but also my times of grief and despair and failure, my times of death, especially my time of dying, are in your hand.
Jesus says into your hand I commend my life. The hand is the image of power. My times are in your power. I commend my life to your power. And he breathed his last, having yielded his life.
Luke reports three responses to this confident yielding to the father:
The soldier guarding the cross watches his death and declares ‘Certainly this man was innocent.”
The crowds that wanted him executed and said ‘Crucify him’, they beat their breasts. They did so because it became clear that they’d urged the execution of an innocent man. They had engaged in mob rage in mindless support of the Empire.
And his followers, not least the women, watched these things. They could not easily compute what was happening but they knew that something momentous and unprecedented was happening before their very eyes.
We are also witnesses to this trusting relinquishment of life to God the Father.
We are partly the Empire and its soldiers, recognising who he was, but too late.
We are partly the crowd, shrinking away in cowardice, because we too often want to eliminate, for force of the will of the Father.
We are among his followers, bewildered by his death, moved by his courage and his freedom.
And we hear the words of the Psalm: ‘Our times are in your hand.’
So let us put our times in God’s hands and then trust our life, our spirit and our breath to the Father who gives us all that we have and all that we are.
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters, is hung upon the cross.
He who is the King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns;
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery;
The Bridegroom of the church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced with a spear;
We thank you for your passion, O Christ.