|Andrea di Bartolo, The Crucifixion|
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” 48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. (Luke 23: 44-49 NRSV)
We have been with Jesus as he hung there on the cross since around nine in the morning. He has been suffering greatly. We’ve heard his cry of desolation and the request for something to quench his thirst. We’ve heard him offer words of forgiveness and take care of family business. Then came what seemed like the last word -- “It is Finished.” That word, however, has given way to one truly final word: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” With these words, which were accompanied by the darkness the covered the land at about noon, Jesus breathed has last breath.
The Roman cross that Jesus died upon was reserved for those who challenged Rome’s rule. To speak of a kingdom, even if it’s not of this world, sent a message that Rome could not and would not tolerate. Sunday evening I watched the classic Bible epic Ben Hur, which reinforced that message. Judah Ben Hur’s childhood friend, the Roman Tribune Messala, said of the emperor: “He is God! The only god! He has power, real power on Earth!” Messala implied that the God of Israel had no such power. When Rome placed Jesus on the cross, it told the people of Judea, that the emperor would not permit the creation of any rival kingdom, whether of this world or not.
When we attend to these seven last words, we’re invited into the complexity that is Good Friday. The cross reminds us of the human capacity for cruelty and malice, especially when political power is at stake. It is also a reminder of God’s compassionate presence even in the midst of suffering. If we ended with the words “It is finished,” we might have been left with a feeling of despair. But that is not how it ends.
In Luke’s vision of Good Friday, Jesus commends his spirit to God’s care. Jesus ends life in this world with a statement of trust in God’s goodness and grace. That trust doesn’t go unnoticed. The Centurion, the soldier charged with overseeing this process, acknowledges Jesus’ innocence.
These last words leave us with a sense of anticipation. Maybe this isn’t the end of the story. Luke tells us that many who watched this process beat their chests in grief, but those closest to Jesus, including the women who followed him from Galilee, watched from a distance. These are intriguing words. They might suggest that those closest to him were wondering what would be next.
It is good that we come today to meditate upon the cross and its meaning for our lives. It’s important to remember that without Good Friday there is no Easter, but without Easter there is nothing Good about this Friday. We must hold them together.
If we can hold on to Jesus’ statement of faith in the compassionate care of God, then we can respond in our own moments of death with the words of faith that were upon Jesus’ lips as he breathed his last: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Preached by: Robert D. Cornwall
Ecumenical Good Friday Service
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
March 25, 2016