Monday, April 06, 2015
The Eight Last Words From the Cross
This is the text of the sermon I preached at St. John's Episcopal Church in Centralia, Illinois on Good Friday this year. Curiously, scholars have all but proven that the crucifixion took place on April 3 in the year 33, so this year matches the dates of that year. I post this sermon by request.
The first recorded words of Jesus are these:
In Matthew, to John the Baptist when John says that it is not fitting for him to baptize Jesus: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (St. Matthew 3:15)
In Mark, as he begins his public ministry: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (St. Mark 1:15)
In Luke, to his parents who had sought him for several days after he had disappeared at the age of 12 when they visited Jerusalem: “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (St. Luke 2:49)
In John, to two who followed him when John the Baptist had pointed him out as the Lamb of God, he said, “What do you want?” (St. John 1:38).
These words are significant, for they set the theme of Jesus’ life and mission: to fulfill the law and will of God, to bring the message and truth of salvation, to show himself as the one who reveals the nature of God, and the one who challenges people to come into the heart of God.
The last words of Jesus before his death are also significant. Traditionally they have been counted as seven in number, and on Good Friday, they have been frequently preached on. But there are really eight, as you will see. Each stands out in a particular way. They come from the four Gospels, though only two are recorded twice. They follow a logical order, and teach and challenge us as we reflect on the actions which saved the world from eternal ruin, and opened the door to eternal joy and rapture.
1. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
Did they really not know? They put to death a man who had been proclaimed innocent, three times, by the highest local Roman authority. It had all been engineered--obviously, since one may assume that middle of the night arrests without witnesses were not the custom. Jesus’ first words to those who arrested him were, “I was with you in the Temple every day and you did nothing then.”
They knew that what they were doing was wrong and unjust. Very much so. It was dark work. John’s Gospel said, “Men prefer darkness, for their deeds are evil.”
What they did not know was that he was the Son of God and the Messiah. Paul writes, “Had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” They knew the claims he had made and they knew what people were saying. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” cried the crowd on Palm Sunday. “Rabbi, rebuke your disciples!” said the rulers. “Are you the Son of God?” they asked when he was on trial. “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly,” they had said.
He was an innocent victim. Even the Roman centurion made that observation. “Surely this was a son of God--surely this man was innocent.” Sadly, not unique. Jesus was one of thousands then and there have been and are now innocent victims of numerous crimes and assaults. There are and were many who suffer wrongfully, and the outrage cries out daily.
They knew that the hands and feet which they transfixed were innocent, but they were ignorant that they were the hands and feet of their Savior--that the pierced heart released the flood by which earth and stars and sky and ocean were freed from sin--that the thorned brow wore indeed the crown of the King of Israel. Even the mockers were right: “He saved others,” they said. “This is the King of the Jews,” said the sign.
The prayer, then, was heard. “Father, forgive them.” By the very actions they committed, the forgiveness of sins--effected by the shedding of blood--came about. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” This is the most unexpected of the eight words from the cross.
Who are “they”? The Jewish council that condemned him? Pilate, whose limp leadership permitted a bloodthirsty crowd to decide for him? The Roman soldiers who wielded the whip, plaited the crown of thorns, pounded the nails? The crowd who said, “Release for us Barabbas! As for this man, crucify him!”? Judas, who betrayed him? The disciples who abandoned him? Yes. And more.
For it is the sins of the world which are forgiven. Your sins. Those whose sins hurt you. Even the great sins. Even the greatest sins.
This is love--as vast as the galaxy, as measureless as the boundaries of the universe, as incomprehensible as the mind and heart of God. And this is the God who is to be our judge at the end of time. We are fortunate indeed.
2. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (St. Luke 23:43)
There were two thieves crucified with him. The sons of Zebedee, or their mother on their behalf, had asked to sit on the left and right hand of Jesus when he came into his kingdom. Jesus had responded that it was a privilege not his to grant, but only by the Father in heaven. Strange that the honor was given to two thieves, whose names were never known and whose thrones were wooden crosses placed outside the city gates. For it was by the Cross and on the Cross that Jesus came into his kingdom and opened it to others. Strange that the first one who receive the promise to enter it, once it was assured, was the unknown thief--our brother in heaven.
It is said in the Gospels that when the authorities taunted him, that those who were crucified with him cast the same in his teeth. It is natural to do so. The fury of the downtrodden, the chronically unfortunate, even the habitual criminal and sinner and violent to curse others.
But one realized what he was saying, and saw his last hope. The last hope truly. He came to himself, like the prodigal son, and looked to the far one and said, “Don’t you fear God? We have received the just sentence of our lives, but he has done nothing.” And to the one in the middle of the three. “Jesus,” he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
By these words the nameless man admitted a need for God, the sinfulness of his life, proclaimed his belief in Jesus’ innocence and power to save, and prayed for a simple remembrance. They are words of deep faith. He is the very first to realize--or to hope--that the crucifixion is not a disaster. He is far ahead of the disciples. The disciples, who had walked with Jesus for 2-3 years, had fled and were utterly at a loss, overcome with despair.
Jesus words to him are the most puzzling of the eight words from the cross. “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” It brushes off all the mockery and the taunts, as if they had no effect and no power.
3. “Dear woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother” (St. John 19:26- 27)
Mary was probably staying in Bethany with the sisters Mary and Martha, with their brother Lazarus whom Jesus had so recently raised from the dead. They were personal friends of Jesus and Bethany was a very short distance from Jerusalem--2 or 3 miles probably. Mary is probably about 45-50 years old at this time.
One can imagine the message coming to her that Jesus had been taken and condemned to death, that he is being led to crucifixion right now. She came at once. Imagine her state. She had loved him perfectly from the time of the annunciation and had seen him grow from infancy to childhood to early manhood. She was the only one who had known him all his life.
She had seen him embark on his public ministry. She had heard the words in the Temple when Jesus was only 40 days old, “He shall be a sign for the rising and falling of many in Israel, and a sword shall pierce your own heart also.” She treasured in her heart, that same heart, the key words of those early days. She must have pondered the meaning of those frightening, chilling words, and worried about them as three decades passed.
Now they were being fulfilled. The signs had been there. The opposition had been there and growing and becoming more and more powerful and less and less willing to coexist with Jesus and his words. At the time of his own death, then, he commended his widowed mother to the beloved disciple John, who alone of the twelve had accompanied Jesus to the cross.
“Dear woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” The most tender words of the eight from the cross. Divine callings and the fullness of grace cannot, and should not, prevent the experience of grief and anguish and ordinary earthly suffering. And ordinary earthly comfort is the means by which heavenly grace works--a new family is made. Young John and widowed Mary, both bereaved, those who loved Jesus best, are brought together. Love continues, and grace abounds.
4. “I am thirsty” (St. John 19:28)
Jesus had probably not drunk since the evening meal the night before. It had been more than twelve hours, perhaps as many as eighteen. No wonder he was thirsty. He asked for water. It was the only request he made of those who put him to death. Why?
The full quote is, “Jesus, who knew by now that everything had been completed, and in order to make the Scripture come true, said, ‘I am thirsty.’” In order to make the Scripture come true--which one? Probably Psalm 22:15, which we have already looked at. “My throat is dry as dust, my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.” A fulfillment of prophecy.
But certainly also a real need. He was truly thirsty. It is because he was a man, with all the bodily needs of a human being. These are the most human of the eight words from the cross.
Jesus once said to a woman of Samaria, drawing water from a well, “Whoever drinks this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks the water I shall give him shall never be thirsty again.” Paul had written that when the Israelites walked in a hot and barren desert and demanded water, and Moses brought them water from a rock, that that rock was Christ. He satisfies the thirst of others, but himself thirsts, humanly, on the cross.
He shows, then, with this word, the true state of Man. One who thirsts for living water--a fallen and ignorant race needing salvation. “A draft from the water springs of life will be my free gift to the thirsty” (Revelation 21:6) “Come, you who are thirsty, accept the water of life, a free gift to all who desire it” (Revelation 22:17b) “You shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12) It is our race which thirsts and in its ignorance bypasses the water of life, generation by generation. But there are also many who receive from the water springs of salvation the once-and-for-all quenching of salvation, given by the Lord of Plenty.
5. “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” (St. Matthew 27:46; St. Mark 15:34)
One of three passages in the Gospels in which the original words of Jesus are quoted, in the original language. The others are “Talitha cumi,” (little girl, I say to you, arise) when he raised the daughter of Jairus. And “ephphatha,” (be opened) to a blind man to whom he restored sight.
The words mean, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words sound like an acknowledgement of defeat and despair. It appears as if he couldn’t quite make it to the end. He had gone through arrest with authority, trial without fear, mockery without answering, scourging and crowning and carrying the cross and even crucifixion without any sign of breaking.
But it seems that now, at the time of most intense agony, the futility and hopelessness of his situation has gotten the better of him. He cries out, wondering why God has abandoned him. Perhaps his broken voice, altered by the endurance of agony, spoke unclearly so that is “Eli” made some of the bystanders think he was calling for Elijah. A pathetic statement that his life and ministry had been based on a mistaken notion--Elijah, the one supposed to appear before the Messianic age is inaugurated. “Where is Elijah?” they think he is saying.
He had taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Yet he with the purest of hearts feels the distance, the absence of God.
He had taught that whoever would follow him must take up his cross to do so. Yet now it seems that this is not the way of discipleship at all.
He had taught that the heavenly Father knows our needs, and knows even the number of our hairs. Yet now it seems that God is not watching.
So it seemed. So it seemed. There were those who thought it was a cry for Elijah, and others apparently who recognized the words for what they were and remembered them as they were spoken.
But it is no cry of despair. It was not lack of hope or lack of faith. The cry is the first verse of Psalm 22. The psalm describes the details of the crucifixion in a prophetic manner. “They pierced my hands and my feet, they cast lots for my clothing,” etc. The cry of Jesus is a proclamation to the people, whether they understood it at the time or not. He is saying, “I am the One to whom the scriptures point.” He began his ministry in Nazareth by saying, “Today in your hearing this Scripture is fulfilled.” He says now the same as he closes his ministry.
“Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” They are the most triumphant of the eight words from the cross. They are in the same class as riding a donkey into Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of the humble king. They are in the same class as acknowledging John the Baptist as the long-awaited Elijah, ushering in the Age of Messiah.
We have just read Psalm 22. It is not merely a psalm of despair for it ends in triumph. “He does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty,“ it says, “neither does he hide his face from them; when they cry to him he hears them.” And “My soul shall live for him,” it says. “Kingship belongs to the LORD; he rules over the nations,” it says.
Jesus’ words, then, are a statement that “his hour had at last come.” As he cried out words which seemed to be words of despair, the world’s greatest hope was becoming a reality.
6. “It is finished” (St. John 19:30)
This is the word Jesus utters as the last moment of his death arrives. He says it at the culmination of the many abuses he has suffered during the previous twelve hours. But they are not words of resignation. He is not saying, “It’s all over.” He is saying, “It has been accomplished.” He says, “I have succeeded.” He is saying, “I win!” He is bringing the redemption of the world into full operation. It is the most comforting of the eight words from the cross.
God’s will is not to be thwarted--not by evil men of Judah or Rome who are used to controlling people by issuing orders. Not by Judas, not by the soldiers, not by the members of the Jewish council, not by Pilate or his assistants, not by the bloodthirtsy crowd in the cold, pre-dawn hour. Even when they choose the wrong path, they still find themselves, apart from God as they are, fulfilling God’s plan.
Jesus becomes now Jacob’s ladder, fixed to the earth by a piece of wood, lifted up from it by its crosspiece, drawing all men to himself as he had promised. Now he opens heaven so that from the doorway to heaven a path reaches down from Glory to earth, with its foot at the cross. The hour has come. It is celebrated in the beautiful canticle, the Te Deum, which has the line, “When you had overcome the sharpness of death, you opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”
Jesus had said several times before, “My hour has not yet come.” When his mother informed him, at a wedding in Cana, that they had run out of wine, he responded, “My hour has not yet come.” When they sought to attack him in Galilee, he said, “My hour has not yet come.” When they tried to arrest him in the Temple, he said, “My hour has not yet come.” But now his hour had come. It was all going as God had said. Even when Pilate claimed the power to free or to crucify Jesus, Jesus asserted that Pilate would have no power at all had it not been given him from above. Now, at last, his hour had come.
The authorities doubtless thought that they had finally overcome Jesus, that their plan, knife-edge risky but so necessary from their point of view, had worked out well. They had eliminated Jesus without having a riot erupt during the festival. It would have been understandable if they were the ones who had said, “It is finished,” heaving a sigh of relief. But they would have been wrong.
7. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (St. Luke 23:46)
This is the most intimate of the eight words from the cross. It is spoken directly to the Father by his Son. It is not really for human ears. We are bystanders and eavesdroppers. All words which came before were said either for our benefit or to a human being for a specific reason. Here, the word is said directly to the Father.
It is a reminder to us bystanders and eavesdroppers that Jesus’ true home was with the Father in heaven. Before the worlds were made, that was his home. As John’s Gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.” To his disciples just a day or so earlier, he had said, “I am going to my Father.”
The Word shows us the way to the Father. “I go to prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to the disciples. He also said, “You will drink the cup that I will drink.” There is no other way to get to that place he has prepared for us. “No one comes to the Father but by me,” said Jesus, and then he walked the way of death. For those in Christ, death is a way of peace. Even after the cross and the pain, for Jesus there is a time of intimacy with the Father, a time of peace. It is the joy of the last part of the long, hard journey before the arrival home. Weary as one may be, or even uncomfortable or even in pain from the journey, there is eagerness, expectation, and excitement when the End comes into sight.
So is any homecoming in life, and so it is for the final homecoming we call death. I have seen it many times at the bedsides of those completing this mortal life and relinquishing their lives into the hands of God. Like many saints and martyrs before them, they quote the words of Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” It is the intimate self-offering which is possible when one truly believes that one’s true home is with God, that the true relationship is one of love, and that the true state of life is joy. It is the last moment of deepest earthly intimacy before the eternal and perfect intimacy begins.
8. [A loud cry] With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last (St. Matthew 27:50, St. Mark 15:37).
You see, there is an eighth word. Not traditionally counted as part of the famous seven, it is nonetheless a vital part of the whole testimony of Jesus from the cross. Just as God created the world in seven days, and then completed the creation with the Resurrection on the eighth day, so we must understand the fullness of the last words from the cross with an eighth which completes the seven.
The loud cry is the ultimate rending of the human life of Jesus, the moment of his death. His flesh is left lifeless, hanging grotesquely from the cross; his spirit has gone to the place of the departed, there to rend hell and preach to the departed, as described in the First Letter of Peter.
What is perceived, then, as the ultimate loss and destruction, the final ridding of the earth of Jesus so long and desperately and dangerously sought by the authorities, is actually the beginning of the victory. It is the point of turning. This “eighth word from the cross” is like the “eighth day of creation”; the day of rest, the Sabbath, the seventh day, is followed by the liturgical, theological “eighth day”—the day of re-creation, of renewal and redemption, of resurrection. The first assault of the divine against the gates of destruction is not seen on earth. The first assault after the crucifixion is upon hell, whose greatest weapon is death.
This is always the pattern of our fighting God--to wait until the powers of evil have done their worst and it appears as if there is absolutely no way that they can lose--when all hope for truth, goodness, justice, and love is gone, and the powers of darkness, death, and destruction have no more that they can do--then to strike hard and decisively where it is least expected. God acted this way numerous times in the Old Testament, and now he does it best of all, when the human life of Jesus, the incarnate God, has been forfeited by treason through hell’s greatest weapon: death.
The New Testament presents Jesus as coming to destroy that weapon. The letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: "Since the children have flesh and blood, [the Son] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil--and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Jesus destroyed death by entering death's domain as a mortal, and then breaking death from within. He accepted the wages for sins he had not committed, so that those who are redeemed would not ever have to do so. Though he is personally without sin, Jesus came voluntarily and in love to accept the consequence of sin, so that those who are under sin's condemnation could be rescued. It was the only way salvation could be achieved. The Gospel according to Mark presents Jesus as experiencing the consequences of this separation, in that he dies with a loud cry (Mark 15:37).
As a mortal, Jesus experiences the fullest alienation from the Father. This alienation is the meaning of death, the darkest, clammiest, emptiest, most endless and bottomless of any hiding place for life. Even he who reveals himself as "the light of the world" (John 8:12) could be lost in its darkness for a time.
Yet not even the utter darkness of death could hold the Author of Life, for that "light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" (John 1:5). At a pivotal moment in his classic saga of Middle-earth, J. R. R. Tolkien has one of his characters say, "Through darkness you shall come to the light.” In that one sentence the mythic understanding of the way of the cross is set forth. Though the way of the cross led to torment, crucifixion, death, and burial, it was not the end of the journey.
The loud cry is the most fearful of the eight words from the cross, but it is also the most exultant, for it is impossible for a crucified man, in the final slump of death, to make any sound or even to breathe. The great cry at the moment of death, heard as the last impossible expulsion of breath from the dying Jesus, can also be seen as the first exultant cry of triumph at the victory he has won.
Jesus said, "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father" (John 10:17-18). Crucified, dead, and buried on Friday, Jesus was raised to life early on Sunday morning. The book of the Acts of the Apostles says, "God raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).
The final enemy was to be conquered by the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. The cross had done its worst. It was not enough.