A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Good Friday 2 April by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: Luke 23:46
If we were gospel writers, and we were imagining Jesus’ last words today, we’d probably imagine these: ‘I can’t breathe.’ I can’t breathe, because the lungs are forced down by the position of my arms and the weight of my body. I can’t breathe, because like George Floyd I’m being asphyxiated. I can’t breathe, because for the first time in my earthly existence I can’t feel the Holy Spirit breathing through me.
The hardest thing, in remaining at the foot of the cross for three hours, is to hold together both Jesus’ full divinity and his full humanity. If you start with the humanity, you focus on the horrific pain, the grievous betrayal, the monstrous injustice, the gracious love, the painful isolation, the criminal desertion. But the problem is, none of these are especially unique. Quite a number of people were crucified in the ancient world, and three hours was on the short side for a crucifixion; and crucifixion is almost by definition an isolated way to die, combining agony with humiliation in a terrible form of torture. People still die today in cruel and excruciating ways. If you start with the divinity, you focus on God’s grace, Jesus’ coming, the inevitability of his death, perhaps as part of some kind of plan, the prospect of resurrection, the purpose of bringing the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. The problem here is that it all begins to look a bit stitched up: if there’s some divine plan at work, the sense of real human suffering gets lost; if Jesus knew he would rise again, his crucifixion seems like it’s coming off a script, like short-term pain for long-tern gain. It turns a cataclysmic disaster into an orchestrated gesture.
So the mystery is to hold together the profoundly human with the tangibly divine. And this is what we get in the seventh and last of Jesus’ seven last words. Before he says these words in Luke’s gospel, two things take place that vouch for the significance of the moment. Creation recognises this is an awesome event in the darkness that eclipses the sun in the middle of the day; and the tearing of the temple curtain highlights that this is a turning point in God’s relationship with Israel: the holy of holies has transferred from the temple to Jesus, who is now the embodiment of God’s reconciliation with all humankind. Before this moment we have the confession of the penitent thief, symbolising Christ’s transformation of the human heart, and after this moment we have the confession of the centurion, symbolising the dismantling of the power that possessed Israel, and the transformation of the whole world, represented by the Roman empire. All of these signs and wonders cluster around the cross, making Jesus’ last words a comprehensive act of consummation and fulfilment.
On a human level, what’s taking place here is a handing over. Think of all the handings-over that take place in the gospel story. Gabriel hands Jesus over to Mary. Mary and Joseph hand Jesus over to Simeon and Anna in the temple. The disciples hand over the loaves and fishes to Jesus at the feeding of the 5000. Jesus hands over the bread and wine to the disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus is handed over to the soldiers by Judas, and to the Sanhedrin by the guards, and to the crowd by Pilate. Finally Jesus does the last handing over himself – the handing-over to the Father. Remember Jesus’ words that those who hold onto their life will lose it, but those who hand it over will find it? Here Jesus embodies his own command, and lets a grain of wheat die that it might become universally fruitful.
Think of the practice of writing letters of commendation – today we write references to vouch for a person’s suitability for a job; in the ancient world a letter of commendation counted for a great deal, since there was no other way to vouch for a person’s character. Jesus is commending himself to the Father. On what grounds? On the grounds of the preceding 33 years, which have shown the Father and us who Jesus is. Most of all on the grounds of this very moment now, when, hands spreadeagled and feet nailed to the cross, Jesus is saying, ‘This is what love looks like in the face of evil.’ When people apply for a job today they often start their cv with a brief personal statement. ‘Self-starting high achiever soaked in values who will never rest till the job is done.’ Well, Jesus is handing the Father his cv. And in place of a personal statement, is this image: his crucifixion. It tells you all you need to know about Jesus.
On a divine level, what’s taking place is revealed by the three crucial words in this sentence: Father, I and spirit. Here at the central moment of history, we discover what the Trinity is. The Father brings forth the Son, Jesus, who, in classical language, proceeds from the Father. The Son, Jesus, is brought forth from the Father, and in turn, with the Father, brings forth the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit presents the Son to the world and is presented by the Son to the Father. Pretty much the whole of Trinitarian doctrine is here in this sentence.
We could say ‘That’s all very well, but what’s it got to do with us?’ again complaining that the divine story doesn’t seem to impact on our human story. But here’s the point. The cross is the moment, above all other moments, when the divine story and the human story, God’s story and ours, are inextricably intertwined with one another. Jesus’ crucifixion is his utter rejection by humankind, and yet the utter expression of God’s commitment to be with us. This the ultimate revelation of who God is, at the moment of our complete ignorance of what is really going on. This is the most divine action of all, at the moment that the human Jesus is totally powerless.
What does it tell us? Jesus’ whole life is God’s gift of life and love to the world. Jesus’ death is humanity’s utter incomprehension of an allergic reaction to this gift. Just as Jesus has commended his spirit to us for 33 years, now he commends his spirit to the Father. Most of all, there is nothing more of God for us to see, and nothing more of humanity for God to see. We’ve been shown everything we need to know about ourselves and God’s been shown everything about us.
But notice one more thing. The word commend. In old English the word ‘mend’ means ‘entrust.’ In Latin, the word ‘com’ means ‘with.’ At the start of Jesus’ life, Gabriel says to Mary, ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you.’ In other words, the Spirit will be with you. Here at the end of Jesus’ life, we see the Spirit is with Jesus and the Father. What this is saying is perhaps the most important thing we learn on Good Friday. In Jesus we see that when God is with us, Jesus is the form God takes – there is no God, no part of God that is not with us in Jesus, sacrificially, mercifully, utterly. At the same time, there is no moment we are before God when Jesus is not with us. In Jesus, we see there is no humanity that stands alone before God: we always have Jesus by our side, with us. Even in our most unspeakable, agonising moments, Jesus is commending us: both entrusting us, and being with us. The cross is the moment Jesus commends to the Father not just his spirit – but ours too. He can’t breathe. Neither can we. From now on, the only life we have is what the Holy Spirit breathes through us.