Monday, April 21, 2014

3 Last Words of Jesus: Good Friday 2014

On Good Friday this year, I was asked to share in expounding upon the seven last words of Jesus.  I was given three of them.

"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise"
Luke 23:42-43

            There were three men who were brought up the hill to be crucified that day.  One of them was Jesus, a man so weak; the soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene, who had been in the crowd, to carry his cross for him.  The soldiers kept mocking him, telling him that if he was the Messiah, if he was the King of the Jews, he could save himself.  They laughed as they hung the inscription above him, King of the Jews.
            But the other two hung there were there for good reason.  They were criminals, receiving the death sentence for the wrongs they had committed. Who knows what actions they may have done to deserve this sentence.  These criminals watched the proceedings along with the crowds, but they not only saw Jesus being nailed to the cross, they were nailed to their own as well.
            One of the criminals derided Jesus, just like the soldiers who were hanging him on the cross.  He mocked, saying,  “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” He laughed and jeered along with the others. He was upon a cross, a man condemned to die the same death as Jesus, yet even he was mocking Jesus. 
            The other criminal couldn’t take it.  He had seen the crowds and the soldiers mocking Jesus, and he had kept silent. But to hear someone mock Jesus as he was hanging next to him on a cross?  That he could not stand.  He stood up for Jesus, 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.”
            It is unclear how much this man might have known about Jesus’ ministry.  What he did know was that Jesus should not be crucified.  He did not do anything that would warrant the death penalty.  He witnessed how Jesus had been treated, and he could not turn his back at the final insult hurled at Jesus. So he spoke up. 
            After he rebuked his fellow criminal, he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Remember me when you come into your kingdom.  He looked at the inscription over Jesus’ head, and he confessed Jesus as King.  He understood who Jesus was. Even when everyone else was mocking Jesus and laughing at him, this criminal saw the Messiah.  He looked at a weak, bleeding body, a person who was nailed to a cross, and saw the Messiah.  When everybody else missed the Christ in their midst, a criminal dying on a cross saw him.  He saw him.
            I wonder how often we miss the Christ in our midst, the Messiah alongside us. How often do we go along with the crowd, mocking others? How often do we declare anybody to be less?  Less human, less deserving, less needy? How often do we fail to respect the dignity of every human being?
            But we don’t always fail.  Sometimes we see.  Sometimes we stand up.  Sometimes we fight for the dignity of others. Sometimes, in this world of pain, in a world that so often mocks the way of the cross, we find ourselves as the only ones who can stand up in the face of derision and rejection.  We recognize the body of Christ, still in our world.
In those moments, I imagine Jesus looking up, bloody and tired, hanging on a cross, but he looks us straight in the eyes, smiling a little as he says, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

"I am thirsty"
John 19:28

“I am thirsty” the Messiah cries.
The same Messiah who had talked with a woman of Samaria at a well, saying, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
This Messiah longs for a drink.
The same Messiah who told the crowds, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
This Messiah thirsts.
The same Messiah who cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”
This Messiah cries, “I am thirsty.”
This man, this divine, feels the thirst of the world.
He feels the ache of the world.
All the pain and suffering ride upon his wounded back.
He leads us in expressing our want.
Our need.
Our thirst.
For our Messiah is thirsty.
As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
So our souls long for you, O God.
Our souls are athirst for God, athirst for the living God;
When shall we come to appear before the presence of God?
Why are you so full of heaviness, our souls?
And why are you so disquieted within us?
Put your trust in God;
For we will yet give thanks to him,
Who is the help of our countenance, and our God.
As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
So Jesus’ soul thirsted.
The heart of God ached upon that cross.
The fountain of life poured itself out.
The wellspring of life dripped its last drop.
Yet we can put our trust in God.
For we will yet give thanks to him,
Who is our savior, our help, and our God.
Oh God, you are our God; eagerly we seek you;
Our souls thirst for you, our flesh faints for you,
As in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
For your loving-kindness is better than life itself,
Our lips shall give you praise.
So will we bless you as long as we live,
And lift up our hands in your Name.
For you have been our helper,
And under the shadow of your wings we will rejoice.
Our souls cling to you;
Your right hand holds us fast.
The savior who said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” is thirsty;
Come let us give him drink.
Let us give him our hearts,
Let us bless him as long as we shall live.

"It is Finished" 
John 19:30

            We had spent the last few days going back and forth to the hospital.  We had a carefully planned calendar, ensuring that should Grandma’s time come, she would not be alone.  It had stopped being a matter of if she would die but when. We sang hymns to her, and we prayed for her.  Then one afternoon several of us were in her room, keeping our vigil.  The family was conversing, and I was spending my time coloring.  All of a sudden a deep quiet took over the room.  We all instinctively drew around her bed.  We watched as she took her last breaths.  She gasped once, twice, and then silence filled the room.  We began to pray. Her spirit left her, and later that week we put her body to rest.
            Jesus’ death looked different from my grandmother’s death.  She was in her seventies dying of a long-term illness in a hospital bed.  Jesus was in his thirties.  He was beaten, wounded, and nailed to a cross.  His death was violent.  But just like my grandmother’s death, there were some who kept vigil, waiting with him, making sure he was not alone.  I can imagine the three Marys and the beloved disciple gathered around the foot of Jesus’ cross.  They had never expected to find themselves here, they did not wish for this to be happening, but here they were and they could not look back.  It was no longer a question of if Jesus would die, but when.  They kept their vigil at the foot of the cross, watching and waiting.  Then all of a sudden there came a quiet upon them.  They instinctively drew closer to Jesus.  They knew his time was near.  Then they heard his final words, “It is finished.” He took his last few breaths, gasping once, twice, and then silence filled the earth. He gave up his spirit.  Then they too, working with Joseph of Arimathia and Nicodemus, put Jesus’ body to rest.
            Dying is a sacred act.  Death is a sacred moment.  Every last breath both releases a spirit and fills this world with a hole, a place of emptiness, where someone once was, but is no longer.  There is an ache. There is a loss.
            The three Marys and the beloved disciple were able to witness the most sacred of these moments, the moment when the Messiah who had been incarnate in the world was no longer.  He gave up his spirit.  With that came a deep ache and a deep loss.  There was a Christ shaped hole left in this world. 
            We know that this is not the end of the story, but today, let us contemplate the absence felt that day.  Jesus had been the Christ, living in the world.  He laughed, he cried, he touched people.  He was in flesh. Then it all got taken away.  In less than a week Jesus went from a beloved healer and revolutionary figure to dying on the cross. The crowds that once cried “Hosanna” had turned around and began to chant, “Crucify him.” When he was led off, his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas and the beloved disciple came and watched vigil over him in his time of need, so he would not die alone.  Then, finally, after several hours of agony, he said simply, “It is finished” and he died.  The loss of Jesus left a deep pain and a deep hole in the world.  Those who followed him must have felt that the incarnation had come to an end.  There would be no more Messiah. God would no longer walk beside them.  This death was a truly sacred and a truly painful moment. 

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