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Posted on Fri 10 April 2020

The Last Words

Bishop Michael has recorded a message for Good Friday. A transcript is below and it can be viewed by clicking this link: https://www.feba.org.uk/blog/holy-week-20 

It has become the custom in many churches that, in addition to prayer and meditation, there should be some reflection on Jesus’ words from the Cross.There is evidence of those undergoing execution in the ancient world of crying out and even conversing with those being executed with them.The Words from the Cross are in accordance with this evidence. Compared to other convicts, who could hang on crosses sometimes for days, Jesus was on the Cross for a relatively short time: according to the first three Gospels, he was on the Cross for six hours from nine o’clock in the morning to three in the afternoon (John computes his time differently). During this time of intense agony, he speaks no less than seven times. All the Evangelists record him as speaking: Matthew and Mark record one of his sayings and Luke and John three each.

St Luke seems to record the very first saying, even as his tormentors are nailing him to the Cross, he says “Father, forgive them ; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).This is entirely of a piece with Jesus’ teaching about praying for and forgiving our enemies: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”(Matt5:44) and in the Lord’s Prayer and subsequent teaching, he teaches us to forgive those who trespass against us (Mat t6:9-15). The term trespass meaning ‘sin’ or ‘ offence’.

The point about this Word from the Cross is that Jesus, at this moment of extremity, is himself doing what he asks his followers to do.It is the one who staggers under the weight of his Cross, who asks us to take up our own crosses and follow him( Mk8:34).He asks nothing of us that he has not borne himself. As it says in the prophecy about him in Isa 53: he has borne our sicknesses and pains. Although the saying fits very well the attitude of Jesus, it is not found in some otherwise quite reliable manuscripts.In this it resembles the story of the woman taken in adultery, again, undoubtedly authentic but we do not now know exactly where it should go in the canonical Gospels.

It may also be that the memory of the mob saying: “his blood be upon us and our children” (Matt 27:25) led some scribes to exclude it.It is a tragic fact of history that anti-Jewish polemic in the early Church and anti -Christian polemic in early Judaism involved vastly different estimates of the meaning of Christ’s Cross.It seems, however, that the reporting style is that of Luke and the saying bears a striking similarity to Luke’s report of the martyrdom of St Stephen where the proto-martyr cries out:” Lord do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 6:60), clearly in line with what his Lord had said before him.Whatever the mob may have said of itself, Jesus’ offer of forgiveness is for all, even his murderers!

All the Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified with two criminals. It is possible that they were not ordinary malefactors but zealots who wished to disrupt and overthrow Roman rule by force. The other Gospels don’t make any distinctions between them but Luke alone distinguishes between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ or, rather, the unrepentant and the repentant. “Remember me when you take up your kingly rule,” says the latter, leading Jesus to tell him, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk23:39-43).

Again, this fits in with Jesus’ teaching that last minute repentance is possible. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, those who come in at the eleventh hour receive the same wage as those who have been there all day. The New Testament certainly teaches that there is reward for faithfulness but there is no difference in the promise of salvation for all those, even those approaching death’s door, who put their trust in Jesus and what he has done for them. Paradise is a Persian word meaning a garden and the paradise the repentant brigand is promised was regarded as the original garden of Eden where the souls of the righteous go to await the Resurrection. There are many references to such a blessed state in the NT:the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk16:19-31), Stephen crying out at the time of his stoning,”Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”, Paul longing to be with the Lord after death (2 Cor5:1-11) and claiming to have been caught up into Paradise(2 Cor12:2-5), the martyrs in Revelation awaiting vindication (Rev6:9-11). It is true that the final vision is of resurrection and the restoration of body and soul wholeness, along with the renewal of heaven and earth, but the assurance to the repentant criminal is also of comfort to us, of a crossing of the Jordan to an experience of fellowship with the Lord and an immediate, if only intermediate, blessing.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who deny that there is any survival after death and that we have to await the Resurrection for experience of life after death, punctuate the saying differently claiming that it should read, “Today I say to you, you will be with me in Paradise” ie at some future time when there is the general resurrection. There seems to be little warrant, however, for removing the immediacy of the saying which makes it so memorable and it seems to be in line with contemporary Jewish belief about paradise.

The third Word from the Cross is addressed neither to his tormentors nor to those dying with him but to his nearest and dearest: his mother and the disciple whom Jesus loved ie John, in whose Gospel we find it (Jn19:26,27). The women, who stayed with him to the end, are mentioned in all the Gospels: sometimes they approach nearer their beloved, sometimes they are driven back by the soldiers so they can only watch from afar (Mk15:40,41 and parallels).Among them is his mother. It is almost impossible for us to understand the suffering of Mary at this time. Here is her special son about whom so much was said to her by the angels, by Elizabeth, by Simeon and Anna- and now it has come to this cruel and humiliating death.in one sense, of course, Jesus’ death is utterly unique in which no can participate: he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world but who can deny that Mary shares his suffering with that womb- wrenching empathy that only a mother can feel? We too as followers of Jesus, with Mary and the Apostles, can go outside the camp and suffer with him (Heb13:13). Mary now becomes the mother of the disciple whom Jesus loved and he her son. She embraces the apostolic witness to Jesus and this witness embraces her. From now on she is to be found in the company of the nascent Church (Acts1:14).

The next Word from the Cross is the most difficult of all. It may be that Matthew’s version is the nearest to the original cry; a mixture of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, the common speech of Jesus’ day. Thus the first two words of “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” ie “my God, “my God” are in Hebrew and drawn from the first verse of Ps22, while the remaining ones, “why have you forsaken me”, are in Aramaic(Matt27:46).This would make sense of the cry being misunderstood as a call to Elijah for help.The use of the original languages in which they were spoken by the Evangelists, themselves writing in Greek, is an indication of the importance attached to the very words of Jesus by the early Church. At face value, the cry would have called for explanation and this also is an indication of its authenticity.

But what does it mean and why did the Gospel writers include it in their Gospels? The use of the Hebrew in the first two words suggests that Jesus, along with pious Jews of his time, was quoting Ps22, used in times of trouble.When adversity was very severe, the first verse was enough and stood for the whole psalm- a psalm which, in spite of its opening, is a psalm of trust and hope in God’s vindication.

This should not take away from the psychological state of feeling utterly alone and abandoned in his time of great suffering and approaching death.Nor should we neglect Jesus’ consciousness that he has come to Jerusalem to die for the sins of his people and, indeed, for all who became part of this people by putting their trust in the God he was revealing. This sense of bearing the burden of people’s sins, as atonement before God, must have been a crushing weight, even as it waited for divine acceptance of this offering.

At this time of a pandemic, we too may feel alone and cut off from our usual ways of worship and of fellowship, from work and from colleagues, even family and friends.Let us, with Jesus, offer this aloneness to God so he may use it for his glory and the extension of his kingdom here on earth and in the lives of men, women and children.

The nature of a suffering God who suffers to redeem his people is certainly and sharply focussed on the Cross. As Bill Vanstone’s great poem puts it:-

“Therefore he who shows us God Helpless hangs upon the tree; And the nails and crown of thorns Tell of what God’s love must be”.

It is through this suffering love that our ills are dealt with, our wounds healed and our souls saved.

Timothy Rees’ famous hymn puts it like this:-

“And when human hearts are breaking Under sorrow’s iron rod, Then they find that selfsame aching Deep within the heart of God”.

But what we also should never forget is that here is a human being suffering the most extreme agonies, almost impossible for us to imagine. The beating, the bleeding , the carrying of the Cross, the hunger and now the raging, unbearable thirst, expressed in just one word in the original: dipso. The one who said to the Woman at the Well that he would give her such water that she would never thirst again (Jn4:13), who turned water into sweet, refreshing wine (Jn21-11) is now dying of thirst and is given vinegar to drink! Of course, John and the early Church saw this also as a fulfilment of Scripture (Ps69:21) but we should not forget the human cost of ransoming us for God: he thirsts so we may never thirst again for that fellowship with God which is the very basis of our existence. He thirsts for us to respond to the open invitation of God’s good news. He thirsts so we may drink of the water that wells up to eternal life. Glory be to Jesus!

Now comes the end or is it the completion, the fulfilment, the perfection? St John (we must remember that he was standing near the Cross) tells us that Jesus, knowing that it was all done and that death was approaching, said “it is finished“ (Jn19:30). As is well known, in the Greek John uses the Perfect here, literally: ”it has been finished” and behind it lies an Aramaic term meaning fullness, wholeness or completion (root kll).In the past, Jesus has spoken of fulfilling the work his Father had given him to do: the work of witnessing to the kingdom by his teaching, caring, including, healing and feeding. Now the most important part, of which he was always conscious, of dying in fidelity to his Father’s will and for the sake of his people, is also complete. All that is required for the kingdom of God to arrive has been done and as the Letter to the Hebrews has it, the atoning offering of the human Jesus on the Cross perfects him as the pioneer and exemplar for all those who are now God’s children through Jesus(Heb2:10). This is the perfect sacrifice that completes the sacrificial system of the old covenant.Here is the Law of love that transcends the Law of ordinances and commandments. Here is the reality of which everything that went before was a shadow.

And so he inclines his head and gives up his spirit: like others crucified, he did not struggle to raise his head and gasp for breath until death came and the head fell, involuntarily, to the chest.He gives up his spirit himself and as Luke tells us commits it to his Father in keeping with the teaching of Scripture that the human spirit comes from God and returns to him (Eccl12:7, Lk23:46). When he has been raised from the dead, with the same mouth he will breathe on his followers to give them the Holy Spirit so that they may announce the good news of Jesus and his Resurrection with power (Jn20:22) but for that we have to wait for Easter!

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