[A Meditation on the Seven Last Words]
St Stephen Lewisham Friday 6th April 2012
GOOD Friday? Well, what a curious thing to call it!
Just consider. We are looking at a young man, 30 years old, ‘in His prime’, as they say A man whom many people believe to be a genius. He certainly has the most remarkable abilities and powers of healing, which He has used exclusively for the benefit of others over the past three years.
We, the Local Authority, had Him arrested by the police on Thursday night. He was hauled before a Court which has been convened (illegally, as it happens) that same night, put under oath, asked His Name, and as a result of His answer, decided He deserved the death-penalty.
But now we’ve hit a snag: we don’t have the authority to carry out His execution. So what do we do? We dig the Governor, who does have that authority, out of his bed early on Friday morning and, with the help of a mob which we have rustled up for the occasion, managed to put such fear of God (or, more strictly speaking, fear of man) into him, by threatening to report him to the Supreme Head if he doesn’t do what we demand, that he meekly signs His Death Warrant.
After that, it’s fairly plain sailing. We march the Victim of our injustice outside the city with a couple of other criminals and nail all three to crosses until each dies of exposure (or gangrene) in the mid-day sun...
…it sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? – the kind of thing they do to people in the Middle East. One would think that day when it took place should really be called Bad Friday, shouldn’t it?
But that’s the sort of thing that has happened to Good Men and Good Women over and over again, throughout history and all over the world: innocent people become the victims of gang warfare, corrupt government, or simply of the envy, hatred and malice of their fellow-men.
But this Man’s different. He’s not just good; He’s said to be perfect. He’s not just a man; He claims to be one with God the Father! Perhaps His death isn’t just another of those run-of-the-mill tragedies which are so familiar. But now He’s saying something; so let’s listen carefully to what He’s saying:
1. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do
Well that’s surprising. We know in our hearts of course that He was innocent, and that it was one of those unfortunate injustices which always happen every now and then even in the best-regulated circles. But whilst his two fellow victims are effing and blinding about how unfair everything and everyone else is, He is praying to God that His accusers and executioners may be forgiven.
But listen! One of the criminals has stopped blaspheming. Instead he is reprimanding his colleague. ‘You and I have got what was coming to us; but this man has done nothing wrong. So hold your tongue’. There’s a pause, and the criminal turns painfully towards the Man in the Middle. ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ he pleads. Maybe it’s those first words of the MiddleMan, ‘Father, forgive them’ spoken in prayer to God as His Father–which have, so-to-speak, ‘helped the penny to drop in the criminal’s mind’ and prompted him, for the very first time in his life offer up a prayer to the MiddleMan, addressing him as Lord and saying ‘Lord remember me’. To which comes His answer:
2. Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise
So one sinful man has come to understand his need of forgiveness and turned towards the MiddleMan as if He were able to forgive sins. Well, at least that’s one Good Thing that has come out of this Bad Friday. But now listen to what the MiddleMan is saying to two of those standing below His cross.
3. Woman, behold your son: behold your mother
Round every dying person there will always be a group of his friends and relatives. His Mother is there, His Best Friend named John, and a woman from Magdala whom He had rescued from a life of hopeless depravity. Such people, as we all know, can be a great source of comfort to the dying. But the Middle Man is as concerned for the welfare of His Mother as she is for Him. John embraces the Mother and, as we later gather, has taken her away afterwards to look after her for the rest of her life. That’s another Good Thing that has come out of this Bad Friday. As for Mary Magdalene, she will have an important task to perform later when he is buried in the tomb. But now the MiddleMan is praying again:
4. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,
Has He has lost His faith? No, for He is quoting the opening words of Psalm 22. All His life, The MiddleMan has used the Psalter as His hymn book. The psalms explore every human feeling, from Exaltation to Despair, from Joy to Sorrow, from Darkness to Light. Yet each one carries the certainty that we ‘need fear no evil’; that ‘God is our hope and strength: a very present help in trouble; that however bad our situation; and even in the Valley of Death itself, He will ‘turn our darkness into light’.
This psalm goes further still. Having foretold, with uncanny accuracy, the sufferings of the MiddleMan would have to go through, the nails, the piercing lance, his thirst, the jeerings, the dividing of his clothes, the Psalmist suddenly changes his theme. His song of sorrow turns into a cry of triumph. Listen to what he says: ‘All the earth shall remember and return to the Lord … They shall worship Him… My soul shall live for Him…my children serve him. They shall tell of the Lord to generations yet to come, declare his faithfulness to people yet unborn: "These things the Lord has done". What better assurance, as the MiddleMan predicted, that when He was lifted up, He would draw all men to Himself?"
5. I thirst
Some of those standing by the cross, however, may be saying to themselves, ‘well, if he is God (which we personally doubt) then surely those sufferings of His can’t be real. They must be just ‘pretend’ sufferings’. But we know from these two words that He is really suffering the full agony of parched thirst in the noonday sun. So, whatever else He is He must be really human. So as the Letter to the Hebrews says, ‘it was appropriate that God… should make perfect through suffering the leader who would take [his sons] to salvation’; and later, ‘…it is not as if we had a high priest incapable of feeling our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tested in every way that we are, though without sin’. So Bad Friday became Good Friday not in spite of, but because of what He suffered on Calvary
6. It is finished & 7.
Let us take these two words together. Jesus cried out ‘It is finished’). That word, tetelestai in Greek, doesn’t mean (as one might think) ‘my life’s all ended in a disastrous failure’, but rather ‘It is complete, it’s accomplished, My Father and I have triumphed’. It tells us that the disobedience of the First Adam has been nullified by the obedience of the Second Adam. God in Christ (whom we’ve called ‘The MiddleMan’) has reconciled the world to Himself’ and through Him we have access to the Father.
So what more fitting way to conclude the turning of Bad Friday into Good Friday than by quoting yet another Psalm as Jesus Himself did, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ but adding those words which the Psalmist wrote ‘…for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of Truth’?
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