2nd April 2024

Reflection on the Seven Last Words of Jesus from the Cross

Sermon by Jeremy Davies


First Word: Father forgive them

When they came to the place that is called the Skull they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’. (Lk 23 vv 33-34)

Though we have the remarkable model of our Lord himself as an inspiration and encouragement forgiveness is no easy matter. Forgiving and being forgiven, for that matter, can be fraught with difficulty and resentment. But forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, and we have the prayer he taught us to say each day, focused as much around making peace with our neighbours as it is about asking for our daily bread.

We all know those occasion when we have been forgiven, or indeed when we have forgiven others, when we have mustered the moral courage to acknowledge our own fault or have extended the hand of love to another who has trespassed against us. We know what relief and a release such moments can be : they are truly moments of grace when relationships are restored and renewed. It doesn’t always happen, often because our pride or vanity or ongoing sense of hurt gets in the way, but when it does and forgiveness is given and received, we are drawn close to the heart of the Lord Jesus as we discover again both the cost and the unspeakable joy of being his disciple.

Let me conclude this reflection with a poem by the late Monica Furlong (her version of the Lord’s Prayer):

God who cares for us,
The wonder of whose presence fills us with awe.
Let kindness, justice and love shine in our world;
Let your secrets be known here as they are in heaven.
Give us the food and the hope we need for today.
Forgive us our wrongdoing,
As we forgive the wrongs done to us.
Protect us from pride and from despair,
And from the fear and hate which can swallow us up.
In you is truth, meaning, glory and power,
While worlds come and go. Amen.

Second Word: Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying: ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong’. Then he said ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. He replied,‘Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23 vv 39-43)

It could be that all the last Words of Jesus from the Cross are primarily about mending and renewing relationships – and certainly Jesus’s whole ministry to this point has been about such mending. The mending of broken bones, the curing of incurable disease and haemorrhages, and raising children and friends from the dead – were signs both of mended bodies but also symbols of new relationships, of re-establishing trust and companionship. Even those opposed to Jesus – Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch – were enabled to become friends through their proximity and mutual (if devilish) attraction to Jesus. Jesus here and throughout his ministry had opportunities to practice his vision of human life not only amongst the crowds which followed him, but particularly with the group of men and women whom he called his friends.

In Holy Week we are particularly conscious of the tensions and strains within that group of friends. Under pressure and despite their loud protestations of loyalty you get the impression of the family unravelling. We only hear of Peter’s denial and Judas’s betrayal as the most egregious examples of the disciples’ disunity – though earlier James and John were vying for the best seats at Jesus’s banquet, and later Thomas was to demonstrate the kind of scepticism which I guess afflicted all of them if truth were told.

A few years ago I wrote a hymn (which we will sing later) to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War, and in it I remembered Judas – one of the twelve – and wondered, if he had turned and greeted Jesus with a hug of friendship rather than a traitor’s kiss, even Judas’s betrayal might have had a different outcome, enfolded a he might have been in Jesus’s love. Here are those verses of that hymn:

But God’s peace is often sneered at –
Just as Judas’ false embrace
Spurned the warmth of Jesus’ friendship,
Cast his love back in his face.

But if Judas in the garden
Had but paused and then returned,
He’d have found his friend, still waiting,
Offering peace where rancour burned.

Jesus crucified confronts us,
Sees the anguish in our soul,
Yet consoles us in our raging,
Loves, forgives us, makes us whole.

Maybe that possibility of healing and reconciliation might have been offered to Judas – as it certainly was to the malefactor who hung beside Jesus on the cross, and who had upbraided his fellow criminal who had demanded that Jesus should perform some miracle if he was indeed God’s Son.

‘Do you not fear God?’ said the other, ‘Since we are under the same sentence of condemnation. And we have been condemned justly … but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Jesus blesses the man for his insight and for his self understanding. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Third Word: Woman, behold thy son

Meanwhile standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother: ‘Woman here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19 vv 24-27)

In so many ways the words of Jesus from the cross sum up and re-capitulate his life and ministry: his words reveal The Word – the Word made flesh and dwelling among us – whom we revere and worship and love as our friend Jesus.

The words reveal The Word – as St John says at the beginning of his Gospel: The word was made flesh – and there is no greater revelation of that enfleshment, that incarnation, than at the moment of Jesus’s death, when he whom the gospel reveals as ‘The Way, the Truth and the Life’, even he is subject to the same destiny that all flesh is heir to – namely death. This was the destiny he clearly saw for himself, and which he made no attempt to evade. It was his destiny – but not his final destination. For this death – cruel, unspeakably barbaric and inhumane as it was – was not in fact an end, but a beginning. And all the words from the cross of our Lord are laying the ground for the future he sees from the cross, and which even at that moment of agony he already holds in his bloodied and outstretched hands – hands which hold the future and which he extends to us in blessing and love.

Even as he submits to the worse evil and inhumanity that men can inflict on their brothers and sisters he is creating the future. He is not indifferent to, or uncaring about, the cruelties of his own day, or indeed of ours. He endures it all and furthermore he carries the marks of his passion, the deep scars of human brutality always in his body. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us to the Father. How does he make that prayer for us? Jesus, even in heaven, lifts his head to the Father, so that the one he calls Abba can behold the marks of the crown of thorns; he stretches out his hands to reveal the marks of the nails, he reveals his side to show where the spear passed between his ribs. God never forgets what happened to his Son, and Jesus never ignores the indignities, the hurts and the horrors that afflict his brothers and sisters even today. He ever lives to make intercession for us. And one of the ways the Lord Jesus makes intercession for us is by enlisting us in his plan of redemption.

In countless reproductions of this scene of crucifixion – in paint, in wood and stone – in rood screens in thousands of churches across the world Jesus is almost always flanked by his blessed mother and his beloved friend and disciple, John. And in John’s Gospel – and only in John’s Gospel – do we have this moment of filial love and duty, as the Lord commends his mother to the care of his best friend: Mother behold your son; behold your mother.

This is a characteristic scene of love and compassion, as Jesus ignoring his own suffering thinks of the needs of others, in this case those who had loved and cherished him more than any others : his mother Mary and his friend John. Poignant though that vignette from the Passion narrative is, it is also the moment when the crucified Lord both takes the future into his hands and releases the future into the hands of others – as he creates the church.

We are told that from that day the disciple took the mother into his own home as Jesus no doubt expected. And when that dark day was over and the disciples were locked in a room in Jerusalem for fear of the Jews – for they understandably feared reprisals because of their association with Jesus. But thereafter when Jesus, after his resurrection burst through the locked doors of their self- imposed prisons, he gave them a new mission and a new mandate. They were no longer to be locked in secret hidey-holes. But where would they meet to pray, remember and plan? Luke gives us a clear idea in his account of the beginning of the church in the Acts of the Apostles:

Day by day as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2).

They broke their bread at home – where do you think home was? Where did the disciples and close friends gather after Jesu’s death and resurrection to break bread, share an agape or love feast. They would naturally have gravitated to the home of the two people who knew and loved Jesus best of all – Mary his mother and John his closest friend.

When Jesus commended his mother and his best friend to each other he was not simply taking care of those he loved, he was creating the church. We are not told specifically in scripture where the disciples regularly gathered (apart from the Temple) but we can surmise from the few clues we have that the first house church was the home of John and Mary – commissioned by Jesus himself in his final agony.

Fourth Word: My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, elli, lea sabacthani?’
Which means My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15 vv 33-34)

This cry of dereliction has resounded down the centuries as it seems that Jesus the hope of the world has given up hope. What can we do? What hope is there when Jesus himself despairs?

This cry of helplessness harrows us as Jesus feels not only the pain of his torture but the sorrow of abandonment. Jesus had always spoken of his closeness, even his intimacy with his father in heaven – The Father and I are one Jesus says in St John’s Gospel. And more than that Jesus had spoken of this intimacy as a feature of our relationship with God as well. And as though to reinforce this claim Jesus offered us a way of coming into the Father’s presence as intimates. ‘When you pray to God,’ he said, ‘say: Our Father.’

For Jews to utter the divine name was a blasphemy – too holy to be spoken by ordinary mortals – and they went to great lengths to invent a word – Yahweh – which combined the vowels of the Hebrew Jehovah and the Greek word for lord (Adonai) An etymological creation which allowed them to approach the divine presence without mentioning the divine name!

And then in the sermon on the mount the Rabbi of Nazareth (who you might have expected to know better) gives his hearers a new name – a very intimate name – for God. Abba – the name that a child would use in calling out for his or her father. Abba – dearest daddy. A name of intimacy and childlike closeness, which would have been Jesus’s preferred name for his Father God- a name he invited his disciples, including you and me, to use when speaking to our Father God.

Even on the cross Jesus, in his final agony, addresses the Father whose presence and love he never doubts as Abba father. Only once in these words from the cross does our Lord drop the intimacy of dearest daddy when he says: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. It’s such an alien or at least unfamiliar form of address for Jesus to use that he has to resort to someone else’s words: the words of the psalmist. At one level Jesus of course recognised how applicable this psalm (22) was to his present situation. It was of course the go-to psalm for a man enduring the most painful, humiliating and degrading torture imaginable. And Jesus who knew the psalms by heart and used them as part of his daily prayer almost inevitably resorts to this psalm – despite its initial sense of abandonment: the sense of the Father’s absence.

Indeed Psalm 22 goes on in the vein it began as Jesu’s heart breaks as well as the flesh and blood of his body. ‘I am a worm and not human’ the psalmist complains, ‘scorned by others and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me: they make mouths at me, they shake their heads….many bulls encircle me- they open their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion’ And the psalmist does not leave out the excruciating details of bodily endurance:

I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws – you lay me in the dust of death.

Only Jesu’s recitation of the beginning of the psalm are recorded by St Mark, but Jesus wouldn’t have stopped his recitation of the psalm at that point. Although not recorded in the scriptures he would surely have continued with the psalm which became his prayer right until the end. He would have continued with the psalm to the end because the Lord Jesus knew that the psalm changed its tone and its character half way through. From a sense of desolation and abandonment which characterises the first part of Psalm 22, it changes to a prayer of hope and trust. The psalmist – and Jesus quoting the psalmist – both pray in their need:

But you O Lord be not far away.
O my help, come quickly to my aid.
Deliver my soul from the sword;
My life from the power of the dog.
Save me from the mouth of the lion.

And then the prayer of the psalmist and the prayer of Jesus make an extraordinary shift. The Psalm continues:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
In the midst of the congregation will I praise you.
You who fear the Lord praise him
for he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted.
He did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

That is the triumphantly hopeful tone of the latter part of the psalm, which Jesus must have found so resourceful and comforting even as he died.
‘The poor shall eat and be satisfied,’ the psalmist continues. ‘Those who seek the Lord shall praise him. May your hearts live for ever.’

No wonder the Roman centurion who was standing there listening and watching as Jesus breathed his last breath said: Truly this man was God’s Son.

Fifth Word: I thirst

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished he said, in order to fulfil the scripture ‘I am thirsty’. (Jn 19 vv 28-29)

This fifth word from the Cross is the only time when Jesus speaks of his own need, giving voice to the torment his broken body is enduring as the sun beats down, cracking his parched lips as the sweat drops from him: I am thirsty. There are poignant moments – particularly in St John’s Gospel when the narrative is punctuated by a short but heart-rending phrase. At the death of Lazarus reread ‘Jesus wept,’ and here in his own final agony, ‘I thirst’.

I doubt if the sponge filled with sour wine pressed to Jesus’s lips would have given him much refreshment or respite but the words ‘I thirst’ not only reflect a dying man’s physical needs, but also are charged with a holy man’s spiritual yearning. We know that Jesus had quoted the psalms as he hung on the cross as he had quoted them every day from his boyhood. No doubt as he longed for a sip of water another psalm sprang to his mind. Psalm 42 maybe:

As a deer longs for flowing streams
So my soul longs for you O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?

But even in this longing for God – akin to Jesus’s thirst for water – there are moments of doubt, certainly for the psalmist and maybe for the Lord Jesus at this moment of crisis. Maybe he empathised with these verses from Psalm 42.

I say to God my rock, Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully?
Because the enemy oppresses me?
As with a deadly wound in my body
My adversaries taunt me
While they say to me continually
Where is your God?

But Jesus surely would have followed this memorised psalm through to the end – as with Psalm 22, eventually finding the refreshment he needs:

Why are you cast down O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God: for I shall again praise him, My help and my God.

or as the hymn we shall shortly sing has it, in paraphrasing Psalm 42:

As pants the hart for cooling streams when heated in the chase
So longs my soul O God for thee And thy refreshing grace.

Sixth Word: It is finished

When Jesus had received the wine he said
‘It is finished’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (Jn 19 vv 28-29)

So we come to the last act of the drama – or what appears to be the last act – as the veil of the temple is not only torn but lowered it seems – as if to say The End! But it’s a curious thing for anyone to say at the point of death. ‘It’s all over’ maybe – or ‘I’m done for’.

But, ‘It is finished’?

Sounds more like an old master standing back to look in admiration at his great masterpiece and realising that no extra daubs are required: It’s finished. Perfect indeed.

But Jesus is too painfully involved, so thoroughly immersed in the work of redemption to stand back. And yet his words ‘It is finished’ have the feeling of something completed. More than just a life coming to an end – crucially significant part of the work completed though that life and its ending are. The words ‘It is finished’ must mean that something has been brought to its perfect end. And what is that Jesus sees from his vantage point as he draws all man and women to himself – as he promised. What is it that has been brought to perfection?

John alone has these words from Jesus’s lips – and it is John who right at the start of his gospel account alone puts the life and ministry, the dying and rising of Jesus in its global, indeed its universal context. You remember how his gospel begins.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God…. All things were made by him.

Whatever it is that is brought to its perfect end had its beginning at the beginning of all things. Of course John reminds us that the creation of all things was not as plain sailing as we might imagine. What we refer to as the Fall of Humankind – graphically described in the Book of Genesis with all the consequences that followed from the disobedience of Adam and Eve. It was that Fall that ruptured human kind’s relationship with the Creator God. In that ruptured relationship the divine love is a constant factor even though that love is as constantly rebuffed as often as it is graciously given. Jesus represents the most gracious attempt of the Father God to bring his lovely but wayward creatures back from the fall into a new, intimate and loving relationship with the Father God. Jesus who always enjoys the closest relationship with his Father, promises to us and to all men, women and children – indeed the whole of creation – the same kind of loving relationship with God that Jesus enjoys. God in Jesus throws everything into this attempt at reconciliation and renewal – this attempt at a new creation. And when I say everything was thrown I mean everything was thrown. God spent himself to the uttermost to get his own back.

The work which had begun on the first day of creation, the work which had been so thoroughly trashed by human wilfulness was – amazing though it is to say – brought to its perfect consummation as the crucified Lord Jesus brought our human kind back to its true likeness and to its divine origins as a new relationship of intimacy and love with God himself was forged. Yes indeed – it is finished; it is completed; brought to perfection.

Thanks be to God who has prepared such good things for us at such unspeakable cost. Thanks be to you our lord, our Saviour, our Redeemer and Perfecter; our friend and brother. Amen

Seventh Word: Into thy hands I commend my spirit

It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus crying with a loud voice said ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit’. Having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23 v 46 )

The last word of Jesus that we have recorded from Mark are those of terrible loneliness ‘My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me’ which Matthew also records.The last word in St Johns Gospel we have just reflected on – ‘I thirst’. But the last word in St Luke’s gospel is: ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit’ The last word in St Lukes wonderful gospel narrative is about coming home. Having reconciled himself to his fellow human beings – the malefactors who hung beside him, who are of course our representatives, and having promised them (and us) a place in Paradise, he now turns to the Father from whose gaze he has never wavered and from whose hands he has never for a second fallen.

Those final words of Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel somehow sum up the character and the life and ministry of the Lord which Luke’s Gospel perhaps more than any of the others describes. Just consider the gospel passages that only occur in Luke’s gospel: the stories of Jesus’s early life – including the annunciation to Mary that she is to be the mother of God, or the presentation of her new born in the Temple. Or those great parables of Jesus only recorded by Luke – the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. And those quintessential Lucan stories of inclusion and home-coming – the journey to Emmaus and the meal that reveals Jesu’s identity. And the conversation we have already noted between Jesus and the crucified malefactors. These only appear in Luke’s gospel and the outstretched arms of the crucified gather into his embrace and so into paradise the strangers who find a place in this gospel – the women, the outcast, the children, the wrong doers , the foreigners, the Gentiles. And then finally Jesus turns to the Father (from whom in truth he has never been absent or separated); he turns to the Father with whom he is always at home, and who has always sustained him with his love. Like the prodigal returning from the far country Jesus turns his face, his love and his longing towards the father – carrying with him the needs and hurts of the world. He carries the wounds of war-torn Ukraine, the thirst of drought-ravaged Africa, and the needs of countless Pakistanis who have lost everything in cataclysmic floods. And then all those suffering from the Covid Pandemic and those who care for them; – and you and me as well with all our waywardness and shames and sorrows – he brings us all with him, enfolding us in his outstretched arms, to the place he has prepared for us in Paradise, with the words ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’.

At last, by God’s grace, we are welcomed home – though if truth be told – wanderers though we are – we have never been far away. Thank God!

If I were to select a psalm which Jesus might have chosen to accompany his final return home to the Father’s heart I would choose without a second’s hesitation Psalm 139 – my favourite psalm!

O God thou hast searched me out and known me
thou art about my path and about my bed and spiest out all my ways.
If I go up into heaven thou art there
If I go down to hell thou art there also;
If I take the wings of the morning and alight in the uttermost parts of the west,
Even there shall thy hand lead me
And thy right hand shall hold me.