First Word: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”
We gather on this day
to be confronted by
hanging on the cross.
whom we believe
is the Son of God,
suffering the pain of crucifixion.
A voice from heaven had declared
‘This is my Son, whom I love.
Listen to him!’ (Matt 17.5)
Here we are faced
and we listen to his words.
Seven in number.
We come to give our attention
and his voice from the cross.
We come to be silent
because coming to the cross
on this day
is not a day for lots of words.
“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The first word speaks of forgiveness.
It is addressed to the Father,
and so we are over-hearers,
those who listen to a conversation,
deep in the heart of God.
Jesus prays ‘Father forgive.’
Forgiveness belongs to God
Reconciliation belongs to God.
We do not reconcile ourselves to God,
but God reconciles himself to us.
Jesus had said “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
and we see now that this was no metaphor,
no idealistic dream,
for he prays for his enemies, the main foes of his good news, us.
In this new world that the cross begins,
the first words are,
“Let there be forgiveness.” [i]
There is no confession of sin, there is no cry, “Lord forgive us.”
God determines that we are forgiven,
even whilst we don’t know what we are doing,
in our ignorance, in our hostility,
in our sinfulness,
Jesus prays, “Father forgive”
The forgiveness of God precedes our repentance.
God forgives before we even realise we are in need of forgiveness.
We live as those in whom God has already made his own.
Jesus names us as those who “don’t know what we are doing.”
He unmasks our pretence to think we do know what we are doing.
We go from childhood to adulthood,
we go from instinct and reaction, to rationality and intentionality;
we become self-aware;
those who know and shape our world,
or that is what we’re told.
But Jesus says “we don’t know what we’re doing”
that we are not
as knowing or seeing,
as good or just
as we think or believe.
So Jesus prays, ‘Father forgive them.’
That the first word is about forgiveness,
reminds us that we are sinners.
To gather here today with Jesus on the cross
is to acknowledge the sinfulness of humanity
to confess that we are not different,
we are not immune
we are not otherwise
to the crowd that cried ‘crucify him’
‘Father forgive them’
is to know God has the power to really forgive
to free us from that which we cannot change [ii]
whether it be our folly, our failure or fecklessness
or our deception, our denial or destruction
the forgiveness of God doesn’t change the past,
but it does release us from the power of the past
the forgiveness of God doesn’t rewrite history,
but it does prevent our histories from suffocating our present and
the forgiveness of God made possible through the passion of Jesus
is the healing of a wound
that says we are no longer a victim of our the sins done by us and done
we are those in whom Christ has made survivors,
who have discovered in Christ a way of being embraced
in a story and a history bigger than us
which we call grace.
Second Word: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”
Two criminals are crucified alongside Jesus
and as we overhear their conversation, we perhaps
One criminal says “if you are the Christ,
save yourself and us.”
In this, we see how we believe,
but that our belief struggles to see the cross
We are those who keep the cross smooth and empty,
we do not want a suffering saviour.
And yet it is because Jesus does not save himself from death
that he is the Christ
and not the other way round.
The other criminal sees something else in Jesus.
He sees that he has acted wrongly
but that Jesus is innocent,
and more than innocent, that Jesus
is a king with a kingdom.
“remember me” – meaning don’t just
recall my face, but save me.
He does not ask something different
from the other criminal,
but whilst the other criminal believed salvation was getting out of life alive,
this criminal understands that salvation will come out of death,
that there is a kingdom
beyond Rome or Jerusalem
and Jesus has the power to re-member him in it.
Jesus responds with “today”
not tomorrow, not at the end of all things,
but “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
This word ‘paradise’ appears only here in the entire New Testament,
and we have invested it with particular meaning,
but more than a place, I suggest, we should
understand it as meaning “whenever, wherever you
are with Jesus” … paradise is relational not geographical,
to be with Jesus is to experience grace …
Today … not when you draw you’re final breath … not tomorrow …
The gospel is good news for today.
Three times in Luke’s gospel Jesus says
He preaches in the synagogue,
reading from the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord upon me
to preach good news to the poor
to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
the recovery of sight for the blind
to release the oppressed
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
“Today this scripture is fulfilled.” (Luke 4.16-21)
He finds Zacchaeus hiding in a tree
and invites himself round for tea and talk
Zacchaeus repents – literally turns his life around
“Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19.5-9)
The third time is to the criminal on a cross
“Today you will be with me in paradise”
If the first word was healing our past, our histories
This second word speaks to
our tendency to delay, to postpone
or to focus always on the day ahead
The cross is about transforming our lives today
You don’t have to wait for salvation, for good news,
the grace of Christ is a gift for today.
Third Word: “Women, here is your son!” … “Here is your mother!”
The third word from the cross
now invites us to over-hear a conversation
between mother and son.
There is something enigmatic about this third word.
we are given no commentary to any of what Jesus says from the cross
and so there is a temptation to fill the meaning in ourselves.
As Jesus suffers he address his mother,
he says to her ‘woman’,
the same way he did at the wedding at Cana (John 2.4).
This at the very least protects us from seeing this exchange as
a sentimentalism about family:
“Good Friday is not the first Mother’s Day” [iii]
Are these words to his mother an expression of his care and concern?
Are they a signal that we should see Mary as the new Eve?
Or are they part of Jesus letting go of his earthly existence
– severing ties of family and friendship?
Here at the cross,
a new family is created
one which as John said at the beginning of his gospel
is ‘not born from natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will,
but born of God’ (John 1.13).
from the cross,
creates the church as the new family of God.
Disciples are bound together in new familial relationships
through the blood of Jesus.
The church is born in the midst of death,
as the Apostle Paul puts it:
“we always carry around in our body the death of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor. 4.10).
If the first word was about yesterday,
and the second word was about today,
we could see this third word speaking about tomorrow:
How can we live when death comes to our door?
When tomorrow, when the future,
seems to be one of increasing loss,
of increasing isolation and separation
Jesus speaks of the continuing friendship that is in his body,
in the church.
The church speaks of an ongoing community
a people bound together
like a vine and its branches (John 15,)
where no one is alone,
where the future is made possible,
because of the love created through the cross.
Fourth Word: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The fourth word marks the half-way point.
The divine conversation ended
or at least the Father appears absent.
These words ring out in the darkness
in the silence.
They echo in our lives,
in our feelings of abandonment and forsakenness.
‘Yes Jesus,’ we say, ‘we recognise this cry,
we have claimed it as our own.’
We are comforted by our saviour having
known the despair of the human condition.
We are, perhaps, relieved, that in these words from the cross
we hear this word.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is this word that jars with our calling of this Friday ‘Good.’
It is this word that questions seeing the cross as triumphant.
The word comes from the Psalms,
it is the cry of David,
it is the cry of Israel,
and it is the cry of Jesus.
Psalm 22 is full of imagery
that finds echoes in the passion:
the Psalmist speaks of being mocked and insulted
of his hands and feet being pierced;
of his garments being divided.
We cannot help but read this Psalm
as ‘language prepared for Jesus to walk in’ [iv]
as the ‘cry of the long-expected Messiah’ [v]
as the prophetic word of God now fulfilled.
With all this in view,
what does it mean for Jesus, the Son of God,
to say these words.
It is to say that what makes the cross unique,
what makes it not just another horrific painful death
is that on the cross Jesus is forsaken.
Matthew begins his gospel by saying that the one born to Mary
is Emmanuel – God with us (Matt. 1.23)
and here at the cross Jesus is forsaken.
The one who came to be with us,
is faced with a ‘litany of desertion,’
and ultimately he is God-forsaken:
“Like the clouds coming across the sun,
shrouding the earth in shadow, the essence of God,
always three persons in perfect relationship,
always God's life shaped to be with us –
that essence is for a moment lost.” [vi]
The deepest horror of the cross is this.
To face Good Friday,
to enter it,
to dwell in this day,
is to ask, is all lost?
and all of humanity,
This cry, this word from the cross
is both the demonstration of our extreme alienation from God
the deep rupture in the relationship between Creator and creation
and it is the extent that God in Christ must go to reverse and heal it
it is what one theologian called
‘the way of the Son into the far country’ (Karl Barth)
This is suffering at its most deep,
this is love at its most profound:
Jesus is the God-forsaken in order that we might be reconciled.
Fifth Word: “I thirst”
This fifth word reminds us,
if we had somehow forgotten,
that the one who speaks these words
is hanging on a cross;
whose every word
comes amidst gasps for breath
and the pain of crucifixion.
The physicality of crucifixion
rudely awakens our spiritual ponderings
and confronts us once again
with the reality that Jesus is suffering,
he is dying,
Those of us familiar with John’s gospel
in which this particular word is recorded,
will recall that Jesus is one who has previously
promised to quench humanity’s thirst
with the gift of living water (John 4.13-14)
Jesus quenches our thirst by becoming thirsty himself
The gift of life that Jesus offers
comes only through the giving of his own life.
The Psalmist speaks of
being one who thirsts for God (Ps 42, 63)
Is Jesus then the one who embodies our thirst for God?
Jesus not only stands in our place,
he is not just our substitute
he is our representative.
Jesus is the one who cries ‘I thirst’
on behalf of all humanity:
“My soul thirsts for you” (Ps 63.1)
“My soul thirsts for the living God” (Ps 42.2)
Jesus reveals that we were made to be those who are thirsty for God:
“We are restless until we find our rest in you” (Augustine).
More than that, Jesus thirsts for the kingdom and for God:
“Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness
for they will be filled” (Matt 5.6)
he desires that all will be fulfilled,
all we be complete
all we be satisfied
Sixth Word: “It is finished”
The way that John’s gospel presents the story,
Jesus sees the cross as the work he has been sent to do.
He speaks of ‘laying down his life’ of his own accord (John 10.17-18)
Jesus refers to the coming ‘hour’ meaning the cross
and that this hour will be for God’s glory (John 12.23, 27)
He speaks of being lifted up from the earth
and drawing all people to himself (John 12.32)
So when Jesus says ‘It is finished’
he means his mission is complete,
it is accomplished.
His death is his victory.
John the Baptist had said
“Behold the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29)
and for John, Jesus is the Passover lamb,
whose sacrificial mission is now completed.
Pilate had placed above Jesus’ head
the title “King of the Jews” (John 19.19)
and for John, Jesus is not misnamed.
Jesus is king and this king rules from a cross.
This language, ‘it is finished’,
may well remind us that the gospel of John is a new creation narrative.
This is the seventh sign.
In the creation narrative at the beginning of Genesis
we find that “by the seventh day
God had finished the work he had been doing” (Gen 2.2)
and so now has Jesus.
This is a new creation story
accomplished in death.
This language, ‘it is finished’,
also points us to the end,
that Christ is one in whom
both the beginning and the end
of all things,
are finished, perfected and transformed (Col. 1-15-16).
The cross stands
in the middle,
revealing Christ to be
the author and perfecter
of our faith (Heb. 12.2).
God’s great cosmic drama
which began in love
and ends in love
in what happens over these three Great Days.
And what is finished in Christ
is now being finished,
transformed in us.
We are now those in whom God is at work,
whom God is finishing:
‘God who began a good work in you
will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 1.6)
We are made witnesses
to the wonderful news of Jesus.
Seventh Word: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”
With this seventh and final word
The Son of God is dead.
It is to the Father again
that this final word is spoken,
and as before, we overhear this conversation,
we are those who are invited to listen in.
This word is familiar to us because
we hear it said at a funeral,
where we commend the one who has died
into God’s hands.
But it begins first with Jesus,
we imitate him,
not he us.
Jesus is not a Christ-figure,
but the Christ.
Jesus is not a Christ-figure
in that his death is just an example of a good man dying for others,
some kind of universal pattern of self-sacrifice.
Jesus is not a Christ-figure
in that his death is an example of how we should all die, that is,
as those who have nothing to fear from death. [vii]
This is the death of Jesus the Christ.
At his death,
Jesus trusts God with utter confidence.
He had trusted God,
when “he resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Lk 9.51)
He had trusted God,
on the journey to Jerusalem,
when he was informed that Herod wanted to kill him,
“I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day –
for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem” (Lk 13.33)
He had trusted God,
when he entered the city riding on a donkey
and then entered the temple.
He had trusted God,
on the Mount of Olives,
as he prayed,
“yet not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22.42).
Here at his death,
in this final word,
we see that Jesus’ death
was not an unfortunate accident,
a miscalculation on his part,
but in full accordance with the scriptures
and the will of God:
“He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities
and by his wounds we are healed.
He was oppressed and afflicted,
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
he was cut off from the land of the living,
he was assigned a grave with the wicked.
Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him
and cause him to suffer
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53.3, 5, 7-10, 12)
(picture above by Rick Beerhorst, found in Stanley Hauerwas, Cross Shattered Christ
[i] William Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday. Willimon is my guide for much of this first word reflections.
[ii] This last section was helped a lot by Sam Wells, ‘Set Me as a Seal upon Your Heart’, Oxford Diocese Imagine a Faith Renewed March 25, 2014.
[iii] Fleming Rutledge, Seven Last Words from the Cross
[iv] Christopher Seitz, Seven Lasting Words
[v] Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ
[vi] Sam Wells, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2011/04/22/3198634.htm
[vii] Stanley Hauerwas, Cross-Shattered Christ