Preached at St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church at their ecumenical seven last words service on March 29, 2013
This is the last word, and I’m going to try to use it to sum up everything we’ve heard today by using our imaginations.
Put yourself in the position of Peter, Andrew, James, John, Matthew, Bartholomew, Philip, Thomas, Simon the Zealot, James son of Alphaeus, and Judas son of James on the day of the Crucifixion. You’re hiding out. You’re scared you’re going to be arrested. You haven’t slept much for the last few days. You’re pretty sure that your teacher has been executed. Or maybe you’re still holding out a little hope that there will be a miracle and God will intervene. Either way though, you feel incredibly guilty, because by rights, you should be with him. He would be there for you. You might be angry, too—how could Jesus have let this happen? He’s dead, and you’re at risk; this was supposed to be about the reign of the Kingdom of God, and now the kingdom of the world seems to be a lot more powerful. And so every noise outside, every knock on the door, brings a surge of adrenaline—who is it? Is this it?
Finally, night is falling, and the women return to your hiding place. It’s Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and a bunch of other women that you’ve known since Galilee—I’m following Luke’s gospel here, since that is where this last word comes from, and those are the women he names. And the women tell you the story that you’ve heard today—because they were there. They were with Jesus at the cross, and they recount—each a little differently—what they heard and witnessed.
Jesus is dead. There was no miracle. No divine intervention. He said some things from the cross—some of them kind of hopeful. At least he died comparatively quickly. He has been buried in a tomb—the women know where it is and accompanied the body there.
How do you hear their words and story? Is it good news? Do you feel uplifted and comforted when you hear that Jesus’ last words, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit,” are a prayer? Or is it just one more confirmation that Jesus is gone, and that his particular gifts and miracles and inspiration are over?
Or do you believe the women at all? The disciples won’t believe these same women when they testify to the empty tomb, which admittedly requires a bigger stretch of imagination, but maybe you don’t want to hear what they have to say. Maybe you’re angry at them—jealous, in a way—because they were there and you weren’t. Of course, it would have been easier for them as women to be there and not be noticed—you might have gotten arrested if you were there, but they could be “just women” and do the business of women—comforting, weeping, grieving, and burying the dead. But maybe they’re not telling the truth. Maybe he didn’t really die. Or maybe he didn’t say all those holy things from the cross—maybe he was just screaming and crying and in agony and the women are covering for him, putting verses of the Psalms and forgiveness to his executors and his fellow criminals in his mouth as a way of keeping his memory untarnished.
These disciples—and these women—were human beings, with human frailties and broken relationships that influenced how they heard and how they told and how they interpreted the story of the crucifixion. Just as we are human beings with human frailties and broken relationship that influence how we hear and tell and interpret the story of the Crucifixion.
And just like them, it matters what we testify to—it matters what we open our eyes to see and who we tell and how we tell the story of what we’ve seen.
To what is Jesus testifying, by saying, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit?”
The first word, “Father,” is striking because it is the one change from the verse of Psalm 31. In that psalm, it is into Yahweh’s hands that we commit our Spirit. Jesus changes it to Father. There is a new intimacy to this relationship between God and Jesus and God and God’s people. Children have a claim on their parents for love and safety and care. And Jesus has passed that claim and special relationship on to us. Even from the cross, as it were, Jesus is reminding us that we now claim God as our Father and Mother; that the images of the angry and vengeful God of our bible are being replaced with a God of love and nurture and familial intimacy.
Who testifies to this truth today? For myself, I discover new understanding in being a parent. I always understood God as Father and Mother figure, but to be a mother and understand the bond between me and my child and extend that to God’s bond to us is extraordinary. I know how visceral and strong that connection between my four year old son and I is—I know the depths of love, the depths of frustration, and the willingness to sacrifice. If I can feel that for my son, how much more must God feel that for me. We can look to our own families to testify to this.
The central testimony of Jesus in this word is his commendation into the hands of God. Now we often use those words—“it’s in God’s hands” as a way of offering comfort. It’ll be OK—it’s in God’s hands. Whenever I picture the hands of God, I actually picture the hands of Jesus—hands that are pierced and wounded, but that are, ultimately, safe. So that when we commit ourselves into the hands of God, we are not committing ourselves into a place where there is no pain, or suffering. We are not even commending ourselves into a place where there is no death. We are commending ourselves into a place where we are not alone. We are commending ourselves into a place where God’s justice and mercy reign—while recognizing that the world rarely follows God’s justice or offers mercy.
Who testifies to this truth in our world today? Who acts as God’s hands today? Whoever shelters the poor, whoever cares for the sick, whoever advocates for the jobless… those are the people we should be listening too.
Finally, Jesus is witnessing to his possession of a Spirit; a Spirit that we share. We have a Spirit, and it has infinite value, to us and to God. We are precious creatures, beloved of God, made in the image of God, and undeserving of torture or abuse. And so when we—or others—find our spirits being tortured and abused and crucified, we are called to speak out and stop it. And this is where knowing who we trust to testify to us matters. Because as one person or group is being tortured, another person or group will deny that torture. We are called as Christians to be smart listeners; to be skeptical of power; to give the benefit of the doubt to the poor and downtrodden. The women are important witness of the crucifixion and resurrection not just because they were the faithful ones who were willing to take the risks of being at the foot of the cross; and arriving at the tomb before daybreak; but because they follow in the footsteps of so many of God’s chosen prophets by being the less likely; in the same way that God always chooses the younger son over the older; the way that God silences Zechariah while giving voice to Elizabeth; the way God chooses Mary as the mother of our Lord rather than a woman of power or renown.
With the renewed interest this month in Latin American Roman Catholic Archbishops, I’ve been reading a little Oscar Romero. In The Violence of Love he says, “For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty, and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with the earth’s glory, believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. As holy defender of God’s rights and of his images, the church must cry out. It takes as spittle in its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion, all that human beings suffer, even though they be unbelievers. They suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image, and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.”
Archbishop Romero also said that “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” When we see Jesus speak those last words through eyes that have cried, we know it’s not just about him. It’s about us.
“Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.” I give up. I cannot take care of my spirit any more. I need your help, God. My hands are not large enough, strong enough, constant enough to hold myself together. I have to commit my Spirit to you, God, because it’s too much for me. So, here. Take my Spirit. Hold it. Love it. Open it. Break it. Let it die if it must, so that it can be reborn.
Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit.