The First Word – “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
In the title of his book on the subject, Archbishop Desmond puts it this way: there is no future without forgiveness. Without forgiveness, the human descends into patterns of remembered hatreds and ongoing hostility. Without forgiveness, the human descends into repetitive cycles of violence and counter-violence. There is no future without forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t simply about letting go of wrongs done to me. Forgiveness isn’t about making me feel better and allowing me to get on with my life. Forgiveness is a step on the way to restored relationships. Forgiveness is about a restoration of trust in relationships where trust was broken. Forgiveness is about restoring respect in relationships where disrespect was shown. Forgiveness is a step on the way to healed relationships – on the way to an embrace between those who were alienated. The path of forgiveness and reconciliation is often a long and difficult one. But there is no future without forgiveness.
God’s arms outstretched on the cross; Christ’s arms outstretched on the cross, remind us that it is not only in our relationships with friends, family members, and neighbours that forgiveness is so important. The fundamental human condition has been one of alienation from God. We can barely see it – we resist acknowledging it – we convince ourselves we’re really pretty good people anyway. But we have been alienated from God. God’s arms outstretched on the cross. Christ’s arms outstretched on the cross, symbolize and actualize the forgiveness, the welcome embrace that God offers. “Father forgive them.” For the human, there is no future without forgiveness.
Forgiveness means restored relationships – when the forgiveness of Christ comes to us, we are drawn into intimacy and encounter with God. When the forgiveness of Christ comes to us, we are set free for encounter and reconciliation with others, also. Those who were the enemy, those who were held at a distance, those who were estranged, are brought close in a loving embrace. The path toward forgiveness and reconciliation is a long one, a hard one – the cross is a reminder of the pain and purification that forgiveness and reconciliation always requires. On the cross, Christ bears our grief, our sin, our alienation, our pain. “Father, forgive them.” We respond with gratitude, for we know that there is no future without forgiveness.
The Second Word – “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Throughout his ministry, the religious authorities were skeptical of the company Jesus kept – Jesus keeps company with prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners. Those marginalized by the wider society and those deemed unsavoury by the religious establishment. In fact, however, the company Jesus keeps is an expression of the reconciliation – the new community life – that Jesus seeks to establish in the kingdom of God. The forgiveness that Jesus brings is not merely a forgiveness of this act of wrong-doing, or that wrong-headed life. The forgiveness that Jesus brings is broad and deep and wide – it comes to expression in a new community life in which every person is welcomed to the table – everyone is invited to share in fellowship and worship – here the marginalized find a place of prominence.
As Jesus hangs dying on the cross, he remains among the marginalized. And even while he grits his teach against the pain of nails pounded into hands and feet, he extends the broad forgiveness of God, the communally-defined salvation of God. The second thief, as we know him, offers a rebuke of his fellow-criminal – and offers an expression of confidence and faith in Jesus. He expresses, also, a desire to be in the presence of Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answers him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise”
This statement of Jesus does not merely indicate that this thief gets to go to heaven – as if that were the essence of Christian faith. Jesus’ answer to the thief certainly includes the reality of life shared together beyond the realm of time and space. But Jesus’ answer to the thief, within the context of Luke’s gospel is yet another reminder – that in Jesus Christ the salvation of God comes to expression, and it comes to expression in a shared live with the many we might otherwise have held at a distance.
As Jesus says earlier in Luke’s gospel: “Then people will come from east and from west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Those on the margins – the prostitutes, the tax-collectors, the sinners, the thieves – they know and embrace Jesus and are on their way in. They will sit at table in the kingdom. Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The Third Word – “Woman, here is your son… Here is your mother.”
As Jesus hangs dying, he remembers not only the thief who is crucified alongside him – he also remembers his mother Mary. It sometimes surprises us to learn that throughout his ministry, Jesus didn’t show the greatest respect for his family, or for the family in general – he shows little interest in defending or promoting the family defined in biological terms. In Mark’s gospel Jesus seems to dismiss his own family when he says of the women and men gathered around him: “Here are my mother and my brothers.” And in this John’s gospel, Jesus speaks in a disparaging way to his own mother at the wedding in Cana, when he ways to her: “Woman, what does this have to do with me?”
But here on the cross he remembers his mother, Mary. He remembers the woman who welcomed the message of the Angel Gabriel – who graciously responded to the message of God: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” The woman who gave birth to him. The woman who raise him. Jesus understands that she will now be alone, and he intends to meet her need. From the cross, Jesus in a sense gives Mary to John as a mother, and gives John to Mary as a son – a relationship of care and responsibility.
But perhaps we actually could see this moment, as much as Pentecost, a the moment of the church’s birth. In this moment, Jesus does not merely meet the need of his mother for care and protection, given his own imminent leaving of this world. Rather, this is a binding together, in love and service, of those who are followers of Jesus. Under the shadow of the cross Mary and the beloved disciple find their life not as isolated individuals, and not merely as members of a family, but as those who have received Jesus and follow him in faith. What better definition of the church is there? We are those who live together under the shadow of the cross – we receive our calling from him, to love and serve one another. We become to one another sister and brother, aunt and uncle, mother and father. This is the gift of the church that Christ gives to us.
The Fourth Word – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
All of the words from the cross are painful, difficult words – each word is spoken in a moment of suffering, and from a place of real darkness. But the fourth word is certainly the most painful of all words – it is a devastatingly difficult word. Before approaching the cross, before the crucifixion, Jesus cries out in prayer, earlier in Matthew’s narrative: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not what I want but what you want.”
Who would choose willingly and without hesitation to go to this place of God-forsakenness? Jesus did not choose it willingly and without hesitation. Yet he chose it. And not only to suffer, but to enter into the place of godforsakenness.
The Apostle Paul writes: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
He humbled himself to the point of entering into the place of godforsakeness that is our place – he is there, absolutely alone, for us. In this moment on the cross, the NO of God is spoken. A No is spoken to all that is hateful and selfish and proud and hurtful and violent in the human. That impossibly difficult NO is not spoken to us – it is spoken to Jesus – and in that moment godforsakenness, the impossibly difficult NO of God is taken into the very life of God. “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me.”
The Fifth Word – “I am thirsty.”
As we have said, in many ways Jesus’ death is unlike other human deaths – his death is unlike the deaths of those of us who die in our sleep or in war or in car accidents or as a result of natural causes. His death is unlike ours. We confess that Jesus, in his death, bears the weight of human sin and suffering – we confess that Jesus’ death means the end of death. His death is unique.
But on the other hand we also affirm that Jesus’ death was no different from other deaths. Though he suffered a particularly cruel death – flogged and crucified as he was, his death was a human death. He did, in fact, die as any one of us will die.
Jesus hangs dying on the cross and says “I’m thirsty.” In Jesus Christ, God enters into the fullness of human experience and into the darkest place of human suffering and death. His body is parched and dry. His body cries out for water – that cry makes its way from his body, through his mind, and onto his lips. “I’m thirsty.” It is a cry for water that has been on lips of so many in their dying moment – Jesus shares that dying moment with them, for them.
In a lovely metaphorical reading of the passage, William Willimon writes: Maybe Jesus wasn’t even thirsty for water. Maybe he was thirsty for his righteousness’ sake. Maybe he was thirsty for us. Is not that a fair summary of much of scripture – God’s got this thing for us? God is determined – through Creation, the words of the prophets, the teaching of the law, the birth of the Christ – to get close to us. God has this unquenchable thirst for us. Even us.
God has this desire for us, this longing to be with us. Jesus was thirsty for water. But perhaps Jesus was also thirsty for us. As life fled from his body, as deep thirst over-came him in his dying – he cried out for water, and he cried out for us. Love defines him to the end.
The Sixth Word – “It is finished.”
It is finished. It’s over.
A life lived in humble obedience to the Father. It is finished.
A life lived with those on the margins of society. It is finished.
A life lived in the righteousness of God. It is finished.
A life lived embodying the forgiveness of God. It is finished.
But there is something deeper to this cry from the cross – it is not just this one life that is finished. It is not simply that Jesus’ life is now over.
The church has always understood this word from the cross as something of a triumphant cry. The work of Jesus – the purpose he sought to fulfill – is fulfilled in this moment of suffering. In this moment, the kingdom of God, the reign of God, is in some profound sense, accomplished. It is finished.
The forgiveness of sin is accomplished.
The kingdom of God is established.
The justice of God is made real in our world.
The healing of God has come to men and women.
The hospitality of God has come to decisive expression.
It is finished. Through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, of all things, it is accomplished.
In an inversion that is entirely consistent with the whole life and ministry and teaching of Jesus – the moment of ultimate submission and service, becomes the moment of triumph. Jesus reigns from the cross – he is a king who makes a cross his throne. It is finished. It is accomplished.
Can we get our mind around this possibility – that the divine reality – the purposes and way of God – are revealed in this moment of agony and suffering. It is a mystery before which we are silent. We offer halting words of explanation about the scene unfolding before us – and then fall silent again. We attempt to formulate an explanation of what it all means – and then fall silent again. God’s ways are not our ways. God’s wisdom is not our wisdom. This is not a mystery to be explained, or a problem to be solved. This is God with us and for us – God’s purpose fulfilled.
From the cross, of all places, Jesus declares: It is finished.
The Seventh Word – “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
We are all put into other people’s hands, from the moment we are born. In the most concrete sense, and also in a metaphorical sense, our lives and being are in other people’s hands.
When they carried us as infants, and held our hands crossing the street as children – our lives were in our parents’ hands.
When they diagnose our sickness and prescribe medications – our lives are in the hands of our physicians.
Throughout our days our lives had been put into the hands of others – Teachers’ hands, bus drivers’ hands, neighbours hands’, friends’ hands.
To be human is to receive our life and our security and our identity from others and through others. We often neglect, or intentionally forget, or naively refuse this possibility and reality.
To be truly human, is to acknowledge our dependence, and our interdependence.
Jesus is the truly human one, who in his dying moment acknowledges that his life is in the hands of the Father – not only does he acknowledge that his live is in those hands, he places it there. Jesus says:
“I do not have my life, cannot have it, apart from God.”
“I will not have my life apart from God.”
Through faith in Christ, through the blessing of the Spirit, many of the saints across time and place have taken these last words of Jesus onto their own lips in their dying moments. “Lord, into your hands I commit my spirit.” To die in this way is a confession of faith. To die with these words on one’s lips is, dare we say, is to become a sacrament of grace for those who have gathered ‘round and who hear. For those of us who hear the last words of Jesus, through the narrative of scripture, his words are a sacrament of grace.
We do not have our life outside of God.
And by the grace of Christ, we will not.
Father, in to your hands I commit my spirit.