Friday April 18, 2014
12:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead, Fr Austin, Fr Spurlock & Fr Daniels
Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ
The First Word
The Reverend Andrew C. Mead, Rector
”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
From St. Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 23, beginning at verse 32: “And there were also two other, malefactors, led with him to be put to death. And when they had come to the place which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand and one on the left. Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And they parted his raiment, and cast lots. And the people stood by beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God.’ And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him and offering him vinegar, and saying, ‘If thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself.’”
Who was around Jesus, when he said, “Father, forgive them...” Who are “they”? The soldiers crucified him, but they followed the Governor Pontius Pilate’s orders. Pilate had Jesus crucified because of the demands of the chief priests and religious leaders and the uproar of the people. There “they” all were: the soldiers nailing him to the cross, with Pilate and imperial Rome behind them; the chief priests and rulers mocking; the people standing by and beholding; the disciples crying, running away, or living with their sense of betrayal. But “they” include many more. A hymn today asks, “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?”
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
A big part of me feels that they knew perfectly well what they were doing. It wasn’t a mistake. It was, in the words of the Litany, “envy, hatred and malice, and all uncharitableness.” It was also an avalanche of cowardice and evasion.
When I look at this, I want God to do justice, to avenge the wrong. I think of the words of the ancient Psalm: “Are your minds set on righteousness, O ye congregation? And do ye judge the thing that is right, O ye sons of men? Yea, ye imagine mischief in your heart upon the earth, and your hands deal with wickedness. The ungodly are froward...they are as venomous as the poison of a serpent...Break their teeth, O God in their mouths; smite the jaw-bones of the lions, O Lord.” (Ps 58:1-6)
Jesus knew all this perfectly. The Psalms of David were his hymnal and prayer-book. He died with fragments of them on his lips, as we shall see. Yet here he said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do; and that line is not from the psalms.
In the summer of 1969 as a seminarian I did clinical pastoral training in England, at St. Bernard’s mental hospital in Southall, in London. Each week was spent on a different ward. There were outpatient wards administering drugs and electroshock treatments, substance abuse wards, maximum security wards with padded cells and various restraints. It was a faith-stretching six weeks for would-be clergy. After the course was finished, I hitchhiked around the country, trying to digest what I had been through, trying to understand the difference between sanity and insanity.
I got to Coventry, where during World War II the Germans had bombed the city, demolishing the medieval cathedral church. A new church had arisen nearby, striking in its way, but it was the ruins that struck me. A stone altar with a cross of charred timbers had been set up, with words newly inscribed on what was left of the ruined medieval wall: “Father, forgive.”
My father fought in World War II. I had picked up the natural American feeling about our enemies in that war. How much more was the feeling of those in England who had been directly bombed? Yet there it was, right on the spot: Father, forgive. Whether inside or outside the mental hospital, I thought, what is needed is what Christ bestowed. Whether on this side of a war or on the other side, we need mercy. We, I, you, need it desperately. Please God, not justice alone, but mercy. Father, forgive them, us, me, you; for we know not what we do.
Jesus sees further than we do. He sees through the natural justice of this world into the eternal consequences which unfold forever into the justice of God in that place, where, as Jesus put it, “their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” Christ knows that his enemies, that all sinners, truly do not know what they are doing. They, we, do not realize what demonic powers and forces have had their way with us, using our hatreds, prejudices, angers and resentments, our frustration, envy, and insecurity, to work evil greater than we ever imagined or intended. We do not know the great extent of the hurts we cause. Jesus knows. He knows as well that we are but flesh, and we need mercy, whether we know it or not.
If we really want justice, then there must be justice all around, and there is hell to pay; in the words of the Psalm “If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it?”
But just as Jesus was being put to death, he interposed himself between his killers and the full consequences of what they were doing. Let us remember that those particular characters — the chief priests, Pilate, the soldiers, the crowd — are simply the sinners who were immediately on the scene. They represent all of us, the whole fallen human race. We are among them. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
This is the Good Friday Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray thee to set thy passion, cross, and death, between thy judgment and our souls, now and at the hour of death….”
Jesus did put a stipulation on his forgiveness. It is that we must forgive as well. “For if you do not forgive others their trespasses,” said Jesus, “neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses.” And when he taught us to pray, “Our Father,” of course he included, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How often? “Seventy times seven times,” said Jesus. In other words, we must simply be forgiving. Jesus is; so are his disciples. Jesus’ stipulation is simply the way in which his forgiveness, which is granted to everyone, is received and takes effect in our lives. For if our hearts are hardened against our enemies for whom Jesus died as well as for us – how then can our hearts be open to that very same love?
As we meditate on the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ this afternoon, let us begin where Jesus begins. The issue is not so much what are our smoldering resentments, our injuries new and old, our cherished grudges, our ancient feuds. The issue is, rather, where are they? Am I carrying them around with me, waking up to them every day, dining with them, going to bed with them every night? The burden of them is intolerable. We have an invitation: Give them to Jesus. Lay them down, right there at the foot of his cross. And then, live.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
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The Second Word
The Reverend Michael D. Spurlock
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”
As the afternoon wears on, one of two malefactors hanging on his own cross to one side of Jesus takes up the derision of the crowd and rails against the Lord, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” A malefactor on the other side of our Lord rebukes his compatriot, “Do you not fear God? We are dying under the same sentence of condemnation as this man. But we are getting what we deserve; he is innocent.” And he petitions our Lord, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
In the beginning when every thing was made our first parents, humankind, were set in the midst of the created order. Yet, we were unique to all other aspects of creation because we carried within us the image and spirit of our creator that no other creature was given. Though that would suggest that we were set apart from the rest of creation, it wasn’t so. We fit within the created order seamlessly and in perfect harmony. We likened this order to a kingdom and the kingdom was at one with itself, united in a common order and a common purpose. And this state of affairs, this place of being, this state of being we called paradise.
How it came about that we didn’t fit any longer could have been as simple as us eating the wrong thing or confusing another creature’s voice for that of the creator’s, who we call God, but however it happened, the seam was rent, we tore the fabric of creation through what we now call sin, and in that moment, that defection of our wills from God’s will, our intentions became discordant with God’s intentions and we were set apart in a way that was never intended in the beginning. We had to be expelled from paradise; a sword set between us and our first home effectively cutting off the way between how we live now and the way God intended us to live in his kingdom. We could not live in paradise anymore because we are sinners, malefactors who do injury and evil to the world and to one another and the consequences of those actions do injury and evil to our sown souls. How can such creatures, enslaved to sin and subject to death, ever hope to have a home in paradise?
If we ever had a prayer that we could live in paradise again, some things would have to change as it relates to our place of being and our state of being. As to place: our Lord, while he lived among us, taught us to pray. When you pray, pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. First, this acknowledges our state of affairs, that we are exiles from our first home. We live in a realm that is not as it is in paradise and we voice our desire that this place of being be changed. We want the chasm that exists between heaven and earth to be spanned and that heaven and earth become one kingdom again, united in a common order and purpose. On earth as it is in heaven.
As to state of being, our bondage to sin and death must be broken. One of the malefactors crucified with Jesus shouts, “save yourself and us.” Jesus, punished in the same manner as the sinner, said that when he was lifted up high on the cross his father would glorify him, and that he would draw the whole world into his saving embrace. Jesus is the Christ and his very presence on the cross is his answer to the first malefactor’s petition. I am saving you. I am doing so right now.
To hang on a cross between two sinners for the salvation of sinners everywhere is Jesus’ particular glory. The blood he sheds blots out the stains of our sins, we are being washed pure and clean through the blood of Christ. When we have been cleansed from sin, we are seen to resemble our old selves, our old, unfallen selves, we are made pure and declared innocent by an advocate who pleads our case before our Father in heaven. Jesus is renewing and transforming us, we are reborn into our proper relationship with God and a proper place in creation; united to God through his son’s one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice and we are again made fit creatures for paradise.
If the first malefactor asks that Jesus save us; the second asks that he be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. This petition calls to mind an ancient lament:
When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
By faith in Christ and reborn to new life in him, is this the best we can hope for? Lord, when you are in your kingdom and I am in my grave, don’t let my sins trouble you. Just think on me from time to time, but forget my fate. No, that is grossly insufficient.
When Jesus gives up the ghost and dies on the cross, he sets off towards paradise. Where Moses once lead the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, Jesus begins his greater exodus through the valley of the shadow of death and leads the innumerable souls of all those who put their trust in him through that valley and onto the shores of a once and promised land. He goes there to prepare a place for each and every one of us who believe in him and he has told us as much. “And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.”
Our own patron saint, Thomas answered Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you or going and we don’t know the way.” Like Thomas, we very often forget most of everything that Jesus has ever told us. So, we remember that Jesus told us how to get to where he is: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. Follow me in this way and to the place… and today, you will be with me in paradise.
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The Third Word
The Reverend Andrew C. Mead, Rector
“Woman, behold thy son...behold, thy mother.”
St. John recounts this scene at the cross. “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, [and] Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to that disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” (Jn 19:25-27)
The biblical scholars tell us that it is probable that John is speaking of four women (two pairs) rather than three. For it does not seem very likely that Jesus’s mother’s sister was also named Mary. Besides that, some ancient manuscripts of John’s Gospel have the conjunction, “and”, squarely between “his mother’s sister” and “Mary the wife of Cleophas” in order to remove all doubt.
Who is Jesus’ mother’s sister, and why is she not named? St. Matthew and St. Mark provide the clue. Putting two and two together with many biblical scholars, she is, according to St. Mark, Salome, and she is, according to St. Matthew, “the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (Mk 15:40; Mt 27:56)
The great St. John commentator, Archbishop William Temple, summarizes this situation at the foot of the cross succinctly: “There were four women by the cross — Mary the Mother of the Lord and her sister, Salome, the mother of the Beloved Disciple; also Mary the wife of Clopas...and Mary Magdalene; and among them was the Beloved Disciple, the son of Salome, the nephew of the Blessed Virgin and cousin of the Lord.”
There are many things wrapped into this scene. Once again, Jesus is active in the last moments of his life. He commends his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple. This action is not startling; it is not as though John is a stranger to our Lady. They are kin.
But there is more. Early in his ministry, Jesus’ mother and half-brothers sought to call him back from his mission. They were afraid for him, afraid for the enemies he was making. Told that they were seeking him, Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then he answered his own question, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
There were other episodes when Jesus spoke in the same vein.
Clearly, our Lady St. Mary, tried as she was at such points, was blessed because she was indeed Jesus’ natural mother, and also because she heard the word of God and kept it. As St. Luke tells us, she became Jesus’ natural mother precisely because she heard the word of God and kept it.
Just as clearly, St. John was beloved to Jesus, as his young cousin, but at a much deeper level because he also, like Mary, heard the word of God and kept it.
As he was dying on the cross, God incarnate took care to make arrangements for his mother. He was also revealing his church family. “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
We know this truth of Jesus in our own experience. To share the knowledge and love of Christ is the great bond within the Christian family, the Church. It makes friends out of strangers. “Heart speaketh unto heart.” It creates bonds of sympathy across barriers of language, culture, generations. On the other hand, when within a blood family, or a marriage, there is knowledge and love for Christ in this member, and no knowledge or love for Christ in that member, there is a great gulf between them. What a blessing it when faith and family are joined together. How sublime it was, amidst all their trials, for the Holy Family; for it appears that those older brothers and sisters, these children of St. Joseph, came to believe in their young step-mother Mary’s Son!
“From that hour,” says John, “that disciple took her unto his own home.” The Gospel and the letters of John are from Asia Minor, probably the city of Ephesus. There is a well-based church tradition that John took Mary with him there, where she finished her life on earth.
Commenting on her “falling asleep,” or rather, her being “taken up,” Austin Farrer wrote these words: “The bond of the Incarnation is unbreakable, and Mary, dying, is united with her Son. He came from her womb, she goes into his mystical body; once she was home for him, now he is home to her. She surrenders to him the flesh from which he had his own. He takes up the pieces where she lays them down and remakes her life in the stuff of glory. He cherishes the dear familiar body, entirely her own in every part, and entirely the work of his hands.”
Now Mary belongs to all of us. St. John, by referring to himself as the Beloved Disciple, is inviting us to see things through his eyes, and to become part of his family. He calls his flock, “my little children.” If Christ’s mother belongs to him, she belongs to us too. We can take her into our own home. We can include her in our prayers. We can cherish images of her, as we would pictures of our own mothers and family members. We can light a candle in front of her picture. These are signs of love.
Dear Lord, thank you for giving us your Mother; and grant that by the inspiration of her example and the aid of her prayers, we also may hear the word of God and keep it.
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The Fourth Word
The Reverend Victor Lee Austin
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
We find this “word” of Jesus’ only in the gospels of Saint Mark and Saint Matthew. Saint Luke like Matthew and Mark tells of the darkness, but he omits this word. Saint John, who has a radically different understanding of Jesus on the cross as being a king in victory, does not know this word at all. Only Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus said My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? And the disjunction is complete. Not only is this word not in the other gospels, but everything that the other gospels tell us that Jesus said is not in Matthew and Mark. In the telling of the Passion that we get from Mark and Matthew, this is the only thing Jesus said in his entire time on the cross.
He hung there from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., and only this did he say, only this, and only at the end. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? The crucifixion is dreadful enough already, but imagine that this question is the only thing you heard Jesus say. How stark it would be to hear this agonized cry of forsakenness and to hear this only!
It has been dark since noon, a strange darkness that has blanketed the whole land and has lasted these three hours. The darkness means that God is displeased. There was darkness over the land of Egypt for three days, darkness so thick that it could be felt and the Egyptians could not even see each other: that was the penultimate plague that God sent to get the Egyptians to set free the Israelites; darkness was the penultimate plague, followed by the final plague in which every firstborn throughout the land died. Here at the cross we have darkness sent by God not for three days but for three hours, the penultimate dreadful sign to be followed by the final sign, the death of the Son.
Darkness was also to mark, according to the warnings of the Old Testament prophets, “the day of the Lord,” a day of wrath, of punishment, of gloom. We heard it six weeks and two days ago, when, beginning this season with a day of fasting and prayer, we received the imposition of ashes as a signal of our mortality and heard the words from the prophet Joel: “the day of the Lord cometh,” Joel said, “it is nigh at hand; a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1-2). Now that day has come, and it has come upon Jesus.
Nothing good has happened to Jesus since he was put on the cross. All the signs are against him. He has been mocked, and his mockers have asked for a sign that he is the Son of God. Well, the sign has been given. Here is the sign that Jesus is the Son of God: darkness. God has pulled back.
Do not miss the point. Everything has turned against Jesus: the cosmos, the political world, his compatriots, his fellow religionists, his chosen companions, nature itself. There is no mercy. There is no grace. There is not even a fragrant breeze.
And have you ever thought about this? There is no silence.
You might hope to come to your death in peace, to have a calmness and quiet about you within which you could compose yourself to face your end. Jesus had no peace. Not only the pain from the nails and the agony of suffocation, he had the horror of screams. A crucifixion scene is a scene of screaming. A scholar named Blinzler, quoted by Raymond Brown, says [here Brown] that “what made crucifixions particularly gruesome [was] ‘the screams of rage and pain, the wild curses and the outbreaks of nameless despair of the unhappy victims.’” [Death, 1044] There was screaming around Jesus for hours from the others, only a fragment of which is recorded in the gospels (their taunting of Jesus). And finally, at the end, Jesus himself screamed.
Yes, Jesus screamed out in the midst of his pain, not in rage, not in curse, but in a loud cry. The Word of God incarnate does not merely speak; it is a screamed-out question, and it is his death cry. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
What does it mean?
It means, I think, the obvious thing: that Jesus died in the worst way possible, that he died in unimaginable pain, and that his physical pain was accompanied by the mental and emotional pain of being abandoned by God. He entered into our human condition; he came down from heaven and was begotten by the Holy Ghost of the virgin Mary and was made man. And then he went down further. He entered into the saddest and lowest human conditions, he entered into griefs and degradations and betrayals and tortures. He entered into them, he went down, and then he went down further. Jesus plumbed the absolute and literal depths of what it is to be human. He wept sometimes with us and sometimes over us. He visited our tombs. And—it sounds trite but it’s literally true—he shared our pain.
This, to be honest, is good news for us. There are no depths to which we may have to descend that Jesus has not already descended. However bad your life gets, Jesus will be with you. He can be with you, because he has gone down even further.
There is a profoundly moral novel by a man named Eugenides called The Marriage Plot. The main character in it, at some point in his early 20s, goes to India. He wants to help in the work with Mother Teresa with the poorest of the poor; he wants, shall we say, to go down much farther than he has had to go as a rather privileged Western college student. He is there for a couple of weeks, living with other volunteers, helping out on the sides and edges of things. One morning he is asked to take care of a man who has no bowel control at all, and who has lots of other afflictions. Our young man suddenly cannot stand it. He leaves the wretch he is supposed to take care of, runs out of the building, scoops up his belongings, and escapes on the very next train. The reader might regret the loss of a romantic image of personal growth and human fulfillment derived from charitable actions helping another human being, but actually, in my judgment, the novelist is very wise. Our character discovered something about himself, that there were things he could not stand, depths into which he could not go. He discovered his limits, his frailty, his own fragility.
You will, perhaps, forgive me if I acknowledge a personal point here, since it is at least partially known to a number of you. For years I was the principal caregiver for my wife. I learned that there were care-giving things that I could do that I might otherwise never have thought to be within my capabilities. It was often humbling. My wife died, however, before I was tested in greater ways, and I do not know for sure how I would have been able to respond. I suspect many of you know this same thing yourself. You have found in caring for someone you love that you are able to go a lot further down into the world of sickness and pain than you ever imagined you could. And yet, all of us know that we have untested limits.
For Jesus there were no untested limits. And with trembling in our bones we can voice the sacred truth, that it is . . . good . . . that Jesus was so completely tested. For when Jesus screamed, it was, as I said, not in rage, not in anger, but in: a prayer. Although screamed out, the words My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? are a prayer. Jesus feels nothing but abandonment from God and yet nonetheless he prays to God. He no longer feels any intimacy with God—less than twenty-four hours earlier he was praying to his “Father” that he be spared all this, now he cannot pray to his Father but he can still pray like any human being can pray, to “God,” to indeed “my God.” He screams, yes, he cries out, yes, but it is a question that he cries, and a question rests upon a relationship, on the reality of one to whom a question is addressed. Jesus goes all the way down to the very bottom of human existence and even at the bottom, even in the midst of all the pain of the universe, even in the absence of any sign at all that he has a divine Father, even there at the bottom a human being can still pray to God, can still ask if nothing else why this God, to whom he is speaking, why this God has forsaken him.
We find God by going down this road, down the road that goes down. A poet of imperfect faith [Leonard Cohen, in “Suzanne”] has said that Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water, who realized that only drowning men could see him. Jesus saw this from his lonely wooden tower where he was forsaken, almost human.
No, that last word’s wrong: forsaken, fully human is the point. But it may be true that only drowning folk can see Jesus. We can see him, I think, because he has been fully human to the end; in the darkness, beyond the darkness, forsaken, fully human, he sank beneath God’s wisdom like a stone.
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The Fifth Word
The Reverend Andrew C. Mead, Rector
This fifth word of Christ from the cross introduces the end of his sufferings. Sometime before, Jesus had commended his Mother and the Beloved Disciple to each other. Now Saint John tells us:
“After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” (Jn 19:28-30)
“I thirst.” It is remarkable, that this is the only one of the seven words from the cross referring to physical pain, as Jesus revives himself to make the great cry that follows, “It is finished.” So even here Jesus mentions his discomfort only with the declaration of the end of his mission in view.
However, the Evangelist saw significance in the very words, “I thirst,” as a fulfillment of scripture. It is the lament of the servant of God in Psalm 69: “Reproach hath broken my heart; I am full of heaviness: I looked for some to have pity on me, but there was no man, neither found I any to comfort me. They gave gall to eat, and when I was thirsty, they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Ps 69:21-22)
Ever since Saint John’s first reflection on this word, that great Psalm of suffering, like Psalm 22, has been seen as a foreshadowing of the Passion of Christ. Furthermore, the Psalm has helped Christians to take in the lesson taught by the risen Lord; namely, that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer these things, and to enter into his glory.
Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, that great student of Saint John’s Gospel, wrote this: “How impressive that though the pain of body was so great there was only this incidental allusion to it! Nor can we doubt that the very words I thirst carried with them for the Lord a recollection of the Cup that He had once prayed might pass from Him. He has accepted it with calm resolve; the cup which my Father has given me, am I not to drink it? Now he is eager to drink it to the dregs that all may be finished – I thirst.”
The soldiers kindly act in response. The vinegar or sour wine was there for the soldiers whose job it was to keep watch until the victim on the cross was dead. They filled a sponge with it, put it on hyssop, and lifted it to his mouth. So Jesus was enabled to say his last words.
Drinks of water have quite a history in the Bible. When Abraham’s servant was sent from Canaan back to his master’s kindred in Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac – the child of promise – he prayed for and took as sign Rebekah’s gift of water for him and his camels to drink. One thing led to another, and lo and behold, the parents-to-be of Jacob, Isaac and Rebekah, were brought together. A generation later, at Rebekah’s insistence, Isaac sent Jacob from Canaan back to his kin to find a wife. Jacob met Rachel at the well, where he rolled away the stone cover for her to water the flock.
Giving drinks of water to the thirsty are important to Jesus. Once, sitting by a well in Samaria, Jesus asked a woman from the town nearby to give him a drink. His request and her response brought forth not only a dramatic change in the woman’s life but in the lives of the other townspeople.
On another occasion, Jesus said that whoever gives even so little as a cup of cold water to “one of these little ones” in his name, “shall in no wise lose his reward.” This was no mere passing remark. In his description of the Last Judgment and the separation of the “sheep” from the “goats,” Jesus said that among the things the King would say was, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” To the question, “When was that?” came the answer, “Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” The difference between the righteous and the unrighteous, between everlasting punishment and eternal life, turned on the question of such acts of kindness and mercy.
So on his way to the very end of his love for us, Jesus asked for a drink. If we do nothing else in response to this day, let us go from this place resolved and ready to be kinder. If someone is thirsty, let us give them something to drink. Life depends on it.
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The Sixth Word
The Reverend Joel C. Daniels
“It is finished.”
From the Gospel of John: “Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished’: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.” [John 19:30]
“It is finished.” What was finished? It would be interesting to know what all the different people around Jesus at that time thought was finished. One can imagine the Roman soldiers, who were mocking Jesus, giving him vinegar to drink, gall to eat, overhearing him and affirming it: Oh yes, you’re right, it is finished: your rebellion against the empire; your undermining of religious authority; your disruption of governance. It is finished. And you lost. Let there be no mistake: the proof that you were defeated (utterly defeated, they would say) is evident there for all to see, in the way that the full weight of the state has crushed your body, scattered your compatriots, and is now taking away from you the final breath of life. Oh yes, it certainly is finished, and that was precisely the goal.
The Roman soldiers might not have been the only people who saw Jesus’ statement as an acknowledgement of failure. You might count among that number some of the disciples—at least the ones who hadn’t yet fled in terror, in fear for their own life. They were both frightened and deeply disappointed. Many of them had had high expectations for what their work together was going to come to, and it certainly did not involve this messy and ignoble business of crucifixion. They expected victory. What they got was defeat, a devastating defeat. After all this time together, the hope they had shared, their expectations for what was going to come of Israel thanks to this amazing man from Nazareth—after all that, this: death. It is all finished. And we lost.
Of course, we can’t hear Jesus’ words in the same way that they did, knowing what we know, and what they did not. And St. John, for his part, doesn’t seem to know what defeat is. So we know that the acknowledgment that it was finished probably wasn’t an admission of failure. We might put it otherwise, then. I propose that what was finished there on the cross was something that had been started at the very beginning of time. Perhaps creation itself was being finished; finished, perfected, completed.
Scripture indicates that one of the goals of God’s creation of the world was the formation of creatures that were capable of relationship with God. In the first chapter of Genesis, God’s last action was the creation of human beings in his image, according to his likeness. To affirm that the existence of the human creature is the result of millions of years of evolutionary development is simply to say the same thing in different words. The point is identical: God brought human beings into existence desiring a relationship with them. But their sin—that is, our sin—puts a barrier between us and God, making impossible the full expression of the relationship that God intended, which is full participation in the life of God.
God the Son, the Word, was made one of those creatures, when the Word became flesh. That is because the will of the Father for relationship with his creatures, a will expressed there at creation, will not be prevented. What we cannot do, therefore, he will do. And if God is for us, who can be against us? In the fullness of time, God’s will will be done. God doesn’t engage in contests; God doesn’t participate in competitions. God’s will will not be prevented, even if it kills him in the process.
That was one of Jesus’ jobs, we might say, his responsibility as the incarnate Son of God: to bring human beings to a place where they were able to be the full recipients of God’s grace, and thereby facilitate that final stage of creation. Sin is the impairment of our humanity, not something added to it, and so what we need is to be made fully human; which is to say, without sin. Our goal isn’t to become angels, or super-humans of some kind. Nothing needs to be added to us. Our end is simply to become what we were made to be: people who are capable of being in relationship with God.
But that required the mediation of the Christ. The final act of creation required Jesus to bring humanity to God in a purity and sinlessness that we couldn’t accomplish on our own. We might say that the formation of the human being wasn’t completed until the death of Jesus Christ, because the mediation of Jesus Christ is what enabled the fullest relationship between the sinful and the sinless. This was, after all, one of the very first things said about Jesus in the Gospel of John, proclaimed by a very odd man living in the desert: Behold the Lamb of God, John the Baptist said, who takes away the sin of the world!
On Good Friday, that work was finished; he had taken away the sin of the world, and finally made us human beings. He had embraced his role as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He had preached the good news of God’s salvation. He had turned himself over to the Father’s purposes. He had transparently revealed the nature of God. And he had opened himself up to accept whatever was going to come next: thy will be done. It was finished.
But was it? Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that the work that was required to make us worthy of sharing in the life of God—and nothing less than that, being in full participation in the divine life—do we really believe that, in that one agonizing moment, there on the cross, 2,000 years ago, in a time and a place that are foreign to us, far away in every sense, a minor drama of unimportant characters (fishermen and bureaucrats and tradesmen, some rich women and a few unsavory characters) people that nobody really cared about—do we really believe that in that moment all the sin in the world was taken away? That all the work that needed to be done was finished? Do we really believe that it has all been accomplished for us, on our behalf, once, and for all? That it’s all over? Done? Nothing more to do, nothing more to say? Do we really believe that the grace of God that was revealed by Christ in that one moment is sufficient for salvation. That it’s not something we earn? Do we really believe that it is finished? It hardly seems possible. That’s just not how the world works.
But it must be possible. If it didn’t happen—if it wasn’t really finished, the final sacrifice made on the altar of the cross, and accomplished forever—then we are a people without hope, and we really have been defeated. Because we simply do not have the ability—in this broken and fallen world, in which you and I share in its sinfulness and destructiveness, where God knows our sins are ever before us—in that world we simply do not have the ability to earn our salvation. Try as we might. Our capacities are impaired; our efforts are insufficient. And in my heart I know, too painfully, that this is true.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t confess our sins, of course; this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to live in imitation of Christ. It doesn’t mean that “anything goes.” It does mean, however, that everything we do, we do in the light of Christ’s sacrifice, and we give thanks for it every single day of our lives, until that last day when we are face-to-face with the judge, and we confidently and joyfully claim its final benefits in full. Because there on the cross, it was finished.
There was more to come. It remained for the Father to bring life out of death, at the crack of dawn one morning. The cross was not the last word that God spoke. But it is what enabled the last word, the final, loving consummation of our marriage to God. That marriage was still in the future—just a few days away. But there on the cross, Jesus the Christ completed his job. His work was over. He had done what he had been sent to do. Creation rejoiced, because it was finished.
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The Seventh Word
The Reverend Andrew C. Mead, Rector
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
We conclude as we began with Saint Luke, who writes, “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit; and having said this, he gave up the ghost.”
Beginnings and endings are important – in a vocation or career, in a job, in an assignment or project, in a relationship. The beginning is important, because it is the first impression you make. First impressions stay with people. Thank God, time and good will and forgiveness and grace allow us to correct poor first impressions. But endings mean time is up. It is very important to finish well. You don’t have a second chance to make an end. A poor ending can affect the way people look back on the whole thing.
It seems to me that we should want to make a good ending of our life on this earth. Saint Paul counsels us to “redeem the time” of our lives as disciples of Christ, and our beloved hymn, Come, Labor On, picks up those words beautifully. Our Centennial Play was entitled, Redeem the Time. Every stage on life’s way presents an occasion in which the Christian can give particular testimony to the faith and hope that is in him, to redeem the time given us. The time of death is very revealing. It has a way of showing what is in us, what we are really made of, what we really care about, and what we truly believe.
In the old church missals, there is such a thing as a “Mass for a good death.” We might well ask ourselves, what is a good death?
Over the years, I have found myself regularly praying, in my personal devotions, that the Lord will give me the grace to depart this life in good fashion, to die well.
One story that moves me is the account of the exchange between the Anglican martyrs, Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley. They were burned at the stake for their faith in Oxford during the Reformation, when Christians, Catholics and Protestants, made martyrs of each other. I do not want to be seen as scoring points here for either side. One could just as well cite, for example, Sir Thomas More, the “Man for All Seasons” who was martyred by Henry VIII and who prayed for his killers, adding his wish that he would meet those mourning his death “merrily in heaven.”
Anyway, as the flames in Oxford were rising, Latimer famously cried out to Ridley: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as (I trust) shall never be put out.”
“Play the man.” “Light a candle.” Die well. Be a Christian. Pass through the chemotherapy with grace. Take courage. Lay down the burden of the flesh with love and charity for those around you. Bless your enemies. Go to God with faith and hope. You are going to see Jesus in just a moment.
Interestingly, Saint Luke shows Jesus dying, commending his spirit to the Father. Then, a little while later, in his Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells the story of the first martyr Saint Stephen, who, when dying, forgave his killers (among whom was Saul of Tarsus) and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Stephen’s good death helped convert one of his killers into Saint Paul the Apostle, who spread the Gospel of Christ all over the Roman Empire.
Dying well as a Christian makes a difference.
Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the chief translators of the King James Bible, wrote a personal prayer which I cherish. It goes like this: “A Christian close, without sin, without shame, and, should it please thee, without pain, and a good answer at the dreadful and fearful judgment-seat of Jesus Christ our Lord, vouchsafe O Lord.”
So now we come to the big question. Our glorious and sinless Savior commended himself to his Father. How shall we in turn commend ourselves to him? What is a “good answer” when we shall find ourselves, all by ourselves, standing before JESUS for our Particular Judgment?
My mother-in-law used to say that “Thank you,” and “Lord, have mercy,” are in order. But words like this also come to mind, at least for me: “Lord, I know it hasn’t always or even often looked like it, but I love you and believe in you.”
The priest and poet George Herbert felt himself in this bind and wrote about it. In this poem, one of several of Herbert’s entitled Love, the poet calls the Lord Jesus simply LOVE. It is a dialogue, I and THOU, between the poet and the Lord. Bear with me as I read it to you; it is short.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, you shall be he.
I, the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit downe, sayes Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Our Lord Jesus made a perfect end. Dearly Beloved in Christ: We can pray and try to live and to die well. We have so much for which to be grateful to the Lord. We have nothing to fear. He has borne the blame. We have everything to look forward to, finishing in a heaven of unspeakable joys. Remember: Heaven belongs to Jesus. It is his home.
Jesus lives! That is why today is truly Good Friday.
 The hospital has been closed.
 St. Mark 9:42-48
 Psalm 130:3
 William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1952), p. 367.
 Mk 3:31-35
 Mt 12:46-50
 Cor ad cor loquitur, “Heart speaketh unto heart,” was the motto taken by John Henry Newman for his coat of arms as a Cardinal.
 Austin Farrer, Lord I Believe: Suggestions for Turning the Creed into Prayer (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1989), p. 95.
 William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1952), p. 368.
 Gen 24:1-28
 Gen 29:9-11
 Jn 4:1-42
 Mt 10:42; Mk 9:41
 St. Luke 23:46
 Ephesians 5:16 and Colossians 4:5.
 Acts 6:9-8:1 Stephen’s martyrdom follows the pattern of the Lord’s death.
 The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, Translated from the Greek by John Henry Newman (Abingdon-Cokesbury: New York, 1959), “Order of Matin Prayer”, p. 6.
 A Choice of George Herbert’s Verse, Selected with an Introduction by R.S. Thomas, p. 91.