Year C, RCL
April 14, 2019
North Fork Ministries
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. And having uttered these words, according to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus “breathed his last.” The Jesus depicted in the Gospel according to Luke, is the Jesus we often aspire to be. Maybe not always the Jesus we most relate to, but the highest and best Jesus, the most faithful Jesus, the Jesus who remains most consistent with our image of the Divine Jesus, the authentic Christ.
In many churches it is customary, particularly on Good Friday, to engage on a meditation on the Seven Last Words of Christ. The experience can be deeply meaningful. I remember, as a lay person, being assigned the task of offering a meditation on the last words of Christ as found in the gospel of John. “I thirst”, Jesus said from the cross, and a sponge full of wine was raised to Jesus’ lips on a branch of hyssop. At that stage of my life, a deep, unquenchable thirst – for what I wasn’t sure, characterized my fragile existence. And Jesus’ expression of profound thirst, resonated deeply within my own soul. Reflecting on my understanding of the nature of Jesus’ thirst, allowed me to experience the Passion of Christ in ways that had previously eluded me.
However, there is something a little contrived about the practice of meditating on Jesus’ seven last words. It is necessary to read from all four gospels to find each of the phrases that Jesus is thought to have said from the cross. The words are very different and the emotions and frame of mind expressed by Jesus vary widely from one gospel story to another.
Also in John, having taken the sour wine to his lips, Jesus proclaimed, “It is finished.” With those words, John tells us, Jesus gave up his spirit. They are words that can resonate in our hearts at the close of a difficult day, or perhaps in our souls at the completion of our own life’s work.
But in Mark and in Matthew, we find a Jesus who has been silent on the cross, not responding to the thieves that were crucified beside him, nor to the soldiers or religious leaders who mock him. He doesn’t say anything until finally uttering his cry of desolation and betrayal, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me.” It is a mournful wail that anyone who has ever felt completely alone and abandoned can identify with.
But in Luke, in the Passion Gospel we read today, the portrayal of Christ on the cross is different. He tells the repentant thief at his side, “This day you will be with me in paradise.” Even on the cross Jesus shows compassion for the soldiers who crucify him, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And in striking contrast to the Jesus in Mark who feels entirely forsaken, the Jesus we read today in Luke, with the sky darkening in mid-afternoon, exclaims loudly “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”. Luke’s Jesus is a compassionate, forgiving, and accepting Jesus, a Jesus who is fully cognizant of what is going on around him and responds by placing his trust in God’s wisdom and love.
Our fundamentalist Christian brothers and sisters, grow a little uncomfortable with this kind of side by side comparison of the Gospel writers’ varying depictions of Jesus’ words and actions. If one professes to believe that every word in the Bible is meant to be taken as literally accurate, some difficult mental gymnastics are required to reconcile such sharply contrasting words of Christ.
Thankfully, in our church we are not required to be literalists or asked to echo the words of the Red Queen who said in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Instead, we can fruitfully examine these last words of Christ and find in them truths that are more profound, more meaningful, than any literal interpretation ever could. I don’t know if Jesus said all these words on the cross, or if different listeners heard them different ways, or if the Gospel writers, taking into account the needs and concerns of their listeners, remembered Christ’s words in ways that meaningfully responded to the suffering or the elation or the hope of first century Christ followers. First century Christians were people who were trying to make sense, in the context of their own lives and times, of the life and teachings and passion of Christ.
And so, my friends, are we. On Palm Sunday, we engage in a ritual enactment of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. And then, afterwards, we stream into this sanctuary where we share the reading of Christ’s Passion - the story of the last supper, Jesus’ betrayal by Judas, his denial by Peter, Jesus trial, the crucifixion itself and Christ’s burial in the tomb. Each year we hear this story told from the point of view of a different Gospel writer. And it is these varying perspectives that give the story such power and relevance to our lives some 2000 years later. We too have different stories. And within our own stories we recognize the reality of triumph and betrayal, of fellowship with friends and lovers and then denial, of compassion and rejection, of quiet confidence in the love of God, and of what it means to feel forsaken by one the One we hold most dear.
Yet within and underlying each version of the gospel story is a common theme. It is the theme that gave unity to the disparate groups in the 1st century trying to make sense of their encounter with a simple man from Galilee, and it is the theme that binds together we 21st century followers of Christ. It is the theme that gives us hope through the darkest days of Lenten despair, betrayal, and anguish. It is the essence of why we call ourselves Christians. We have to wait until next Sunday to celebrate, in all it’s glory, the elemental spirit of what it means to follow Christ, but today, I’ll give you hint: It’s called resurrection.