The first word from the cross tonight is from Luke 23:34. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The first word from the cross was a prayer. And just as Jesus had taught his people to pray with the words, “Our Father,” he prays on this night: “my Father.”
This was different from the way the disciples had been taught to pray while growing up. Jesus did not use grand and flowery salutations. There was no “Lord of Creation,” or “King of the Universe” in his address. It was simply “Father.” When Jesus was in the midst of his most difficult moment, he chose intimacy. I remember being sick in bed as a child. I remember calling out Mommy and Daddy. It was a call for help, and a sign of my complete dependence on them.
Jesus was a walking, living, breathing paradox. Both human and God. This was the human side calling out. Vulnerable, in pain, and dependent on God the Father…on Daddy.
And for what did Jesus pray? For relief? For rescue? For vengeance? No. What is most startling, even shocking about this word is that Jesus prayed for forgiveness for those who had put him on this cross.
Forgive them, for they know not what they do. These soldiers…Pontius Pilate, even the Pharisees, they were, after all, just doing their job. They were following the rules. They didn’t really recognize, did they?
How often have we not recognized? How often have we turned a blind eye to injustice, to hunger, to racism or to violence? We don’t always see, and we don’t always recognize.
But this word reminds us of two things: First, Jesus chose intimacy. He called out to his father. Likewise, we too can address God intimately, especially when we are in pain. We have that kind of a relationship. And secondly, that we too don’t always know or see those things that as people of faith we should address. But we should look…we should open our eyes. And when we fail…we know that Jesus’ words: “Father forgive them…” those words are as much for us as they were for those who put him on the cross.
“Father, forgive us for we know not what we do.”
The first candle is extinguished
Sing the first verse of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
The second word from the cross tonight is from Luke 23:43. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
When you hear the word “paradise,” what images come to your mind? It will be different for each of us.
- It might be Mount Ranier, in the cascade mountains.
- It might be sitting on an island, on a beautiful, starry night, in the middle of the Boundary Waters.
- It might be on an ocean beach, with the waves coming in.
- It might be on a baseball diamond, on a crisp, summer night.
- It might be with family, gathered around the dinner table.
We use the word “paradise” when we think of places that make us happy. And happiness is good. But in this word, this phrase, Jesus is talking about something much deeper. He turns to the thief who is on the cross next to his and he makes a promise: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
It is not an observation, nor a comment. It is a promise.
Today. Today you will be with me in paradise. Immediately. Instantaneously. Now. Not tomorrow, not in a hundred, a thousand or a million years. But today. And at the resurrection, the promises of God are fulfilled. And so Jesus speaks those words to you as a promise. You will be with him in paradise. As Romans 8 promises, nothing can break that relationship with God made whole through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities. Nothing. It is a promise made for today…for you.
What is it to be with Christ in paradise? We will experience pure grace….pure love…pure acceptance. There will be no war, nor starvation, nor evil, for these things will have been all destroyed. And our hearts will be filled.
Tonight, Jesus speaks to you through the centuries: Today, you will be with me in paradise.
The second candle is extinguished
Sing the third verse of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
The third word from the cross tonight is from John 19:26-27. “Here is your Son. Here is your Mother.”
In his last act of compassion, Jesus focused on the needs of others, and asked them to take care of each other in the future.
The story of Jesus’ life on earth was bookended with Mary, his mother. We begin Jesus’ story in the Gospel of Luke with the angel speaking with Mary about her being chosen to be the mother of the Lord. And we end Jesus life story here, at Golgotha, the place of the skull, with Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary was the only person in the Bible who was with Jesus from beginning to end…from birth to death. She was with Jesus throughout his entire life.
This end point, this moment at the cross had been prophesied. When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple as a child, an old man named Simeon came up to her and said “a sword will pierce your soul and the hearts of many people will be revealed.” Scripture says that mary pondered these things.
Now, over 30 years later, Mary sits at the cross, next to the disciple John, who was called “The Beloved,” and watched her son suffer. This would have been the most awful and gut-wrenching experience of her life. This was the piercing of her soul.
And so Jesus looks down at her from the cross and says “Here is your Son. Here is your Mother.” Jesus was thinking of the two people who loved him most during his earthly life: his mother and his best friend. He asked them to care for each other in the future. And they did. We find that Mary and John were together in the room when the Holy Spirit was given to the church in Acts 1 and 2. We also discover that Mary and John traveled to live in Ephesus. There are temples built in Ephesus to both Mary and John, pointing to their time there together. Mary, mother of Jesus and John, the beloved disciple, the two people who loved Jesus most on earth, took care of each other until their dying day, just as Jesus asked.
Tonight, Jesus speaks to us through the centuries: “Here is your Son, your daughter, your brother, your Mother, father, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew and niece…” Be family for each other…care for each other…love each other, in my name.
The third candle is extinguished
Sing the first verse of “Ah Holy Jesus”
The fourth word from the cross tonight is from Mark 15:33-34. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These may be the darkest words of Jesus during this time. Can you imagine what it must have been like for him? Can you imagine being the Son of God, being as closely connected to God the Father as Jesus must have been? To be one of the trinity…and then suddenly, to have that connection feel cut off? To not be able to feel the presence of God?
Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The word forsaken…can also be interpreted as abandoned, or deserted. It is to be separated from…apart from…and for Jesus, that must have been painful, and terrifying. Scripture says that he cried these words out. He shouted them. I cannot begin to imagine.
At some point in their lifetime, I believe everyone experiences a sense of being forsaken…being abandoned. Relationships that break up…death of a loved one…divorce…someone who moves away…and we are left behind. Jesus reminds us that it’s ok to wonder, to ask, even to cry out “God, in the midst of what I’m going through, where are you? Where are you?” To have these feelings…to vent these feelings, is ok.
Jesus was actually quoting King David in Psalm 22 when he says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” But many scholars believe that Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 were actually intended by David to be a single Psalm. In 22 we hear of this sense of David feeling abandoned…but then Psalm 23 begins with “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” David is saying that though he feels abandoned, he knows the Lord watches over him.
And while these words from the cross may sound and feel the darkest, they are not Jesus’ last words. The words that follow are words of promise. Jesus, like David, knows that while he may feel abandoned, he is not. God has not left him. God is present. And God’s promises are real. Jesus knows that while he despairs, resurrection is coming.
And as people of God, we may know what it is to feel forsaken…but God’s promises, because of Jesus, are real. And we know that resurrection, Easter, is not far away.
The fourth candle is extinguished
Sing the second verse of “Ah Holy Jesus”
The fifth word from the cross tonight is from John 19:28. “I thirst.”
If our previous word from Jesus on the cross was about his emotional and spiritual pain at feeling abandoned, this word is about the physical. “I thirst.” For three hours, Jesus has been hanging on the cross. Scripture tells us that Jesus was on the cross from 12pm until 3pm. And now we are approaching the end.
“I thirst.” And someone, we assume the guards, dipped a sponge in sour wine, placed it on the end of a stick or a vine, and lifted it to his lips. Their final act towards Jesus was one not of compassion, but of cruelty.
Jesus knows our physical pain. Jesus, fully God and fully human, knew pain. There were 39 lashes across his back. There was a crown of thorns stuck into his head. There were ten inch spikes through his wrists. He had been hanging on the cross for 3 hours. Jesus experienced the enormity of human pain, and thereby, so did God. God’s heart knows the enormity of human pain because God became human flesh and suffered on the cross.
In Matthew 25, Jesus said in a parable that “When I was hungry, you gave me food. When I was thirsty, you gave me drink. When I was in rags, you gave me clothing and shelter.” When we give to those in need, it is like giving to Jesus himself.
Mother Theresa, who fed and cared for the hungry and the poor of the world, had a sign above the entrance to the chapel in all her missions around the world. The sign simply said: “I thirst, I quench.”
When we give water, or food, or clothing, or whatever, to those in need, it is like we are giving water to Christ on the cross. We are quenching his thirst. And we live in a thirsty world. We are tending to the physical pain of Christ and Christ’s people. Tonight, Jesus speaks to us through the centuries, and says “I thirst.”
The fifth candle is extinguished
Sing the third verse of “Ah Holy Jesus”
The sixth word from the cross tonight is from John 19:30. “It is finished.”
There are two different ways that we can hear this word from Jesus on the cross: “It is finished” as in, it is done. It is over with. Or, “It is finished” as in it is accomplished. It is complete.
During our lifetime, we all have experiences with “It is finished.” It might be relationships that come to an end; it might be a job that ends with a pink slip; it might be that game in the state tournament that doesn’t go our way; it might be a sports season that comes to a sudden or premature end. It could be standing in the room at hospice and being present as a life comes to a conclusion.
“It is finished” can mean over. Done with.
In the days of Jesus, the Romans thought that this “Jesus thing” was finished. Their empire had been the most powerful political force on earth for the past three hundred years. And they were just ridding the world of another revolutionary. In the next 20 years, it is estimated that they crucified another 5,000 political revolutionaries. So who was this Jesus? Just another in the crowd that they thought they’d rid themselves of. As far as the Romans were concerned, it was all over. Finished and done with.
The Jewish leaders also thought it was finished. They assumed that with Jesus’ death, the Jesus movement was also dead and that life could return to “normal.”
The disciples thought that Jesus and the Jesus movement was finished too; over and done with. Their leader had been killed on a cross, and now they would grieve, and then return to their jobs: fishermen, tax collectors, or whatever.
But when Jesus says “It is finished,” he means “it is complete.” Jesus personified love throughout his whole life; in his teachings, in his compassion and in his miracles. And at the end of his life, Jesus personified God’s love by dying on the cross that we might live.
Jesus knew that through his death and resurrection, the promises of God would be fulfilled. The promises that you and I each receive in the waters of our baptism, are fulfilled in this one moment; when the life of Jesus is complete, and he says “it is finished.”
Extinguish the sixth candle
Sing the fourth verse of “Ah Holy Jesus”
Christ’s final and seventh word from the cross tonight is from Luke 23:44-46: “Father, in to your hands I commit my spirit.”
Christ final words are a prayer, and trust. “Father, I give you my spirit.” After Jesus had spoken the sixth word, and before he spoke the seventh, Luke tells us that the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The curtain that separated the room called the Holy of Holies, the one that prevented the “un-holy” from entering the Holy house of God, was ripped in half. That separation was gone. When Jesus cried out “It is finished,” this curtain was no longer necessary. Jesus Christ would now be our only mediator between God and God’s people.
Why? Why this journey? Why the cross? Why these seven last words?
In the early 1960’s, crowds jammed the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago to hear Dr. Karl Barth, one of the most brilliant theologians of the century speak. He spoke amazing, intricate and deep truths about the faith.
During a question and answer period after he spoke, a reporter asked him “Dr. Barth, what is the single, most important discovery you have made in your years of theological work?” After a pause for pondering, the great intellectual said “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Jesus’ final act and his final word, was a simple sacrifice. And his final words were a prayer of communion, of confidence and of commitment. Jesus deposited his soul, his love, and his life with the Father. Because he loves you. And he asks us to pick up our crosses and to follow him. Together, let’s follow Jesus; all the way to the cross. And empowered by him, let us pray together the simple prayer that Jesus said: “Father, into your hands, we commit our lives.”
The seventh candle is extinguished
Sing the fifth verse of “Ah Holy Jesus”