Words from the Cross of Eternal Life
The Passion Narratives
On Palm Sunday, there were a great many who accompanied our Lord and came out to witness His entrance into Jerusalem. One Gospel writer describes the crowd of people as a “multitude.” Saint John records the Pharisees exclaiming that “the whole world has gone after him.” Until recently, though, this wasn’t the case. After Jesus fed the five thousand, many stopped following after Him—some because they came to realize that it wasn’t His intention to feed their bellies and make life easy for them. Others were offended by Jesus when He identified them as sinners and told them that they needed to repent of their sin.
It was during this time, as Jesus was making His way toward the cross and people were turning away from Him that He asks His disciples, “Do you want to go away as well?” Replying for the Twelve, Simon Peter says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Dear friends, we have come together on this Good Friday morning to hear the words of eternal life—words that are spirit and life—words that come from the lips of the dying Son of God and breathe life into our dying bodies. The Gospels record seven times when Jesus speaks from the cross. Each of His words open for us the redeeming work that He is doing as He suffers and dies as our Substitute—as God’s own Lamb offered up for us.
The first word which Jesus speaks is a prayer for forgiveness. Nailed to the cross, Jesus calls on the Father. He does not pray for Himself. He does not call down the wrath of God upon those who torment Him. He has every right to pray those imprecatory psalms of the Old Testament that implore God to vindicate the righteous sufferer and crush the workers of iniquity. Instead, Jesus prays an entirely different prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Lord Jesus had taught His disciples to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, and pray for those who persecute them. And in the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples, there is the petition, “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here on the cross, His teaching about mercy and forgiveness is put to the test. Does He practice what He preaches? He sure does. There’s no crying out for retribution or revenge from Him, only a plea for forgiveness for those who sinned against Him. Later on, the Apostle Paul would write that, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Christ’s death was the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the world. From the cross, He holds His atoning work before the Father and prays, on the basis of that atonement, for the forgiveness of a world that crucifies Him.
Jesus’ first word from the cross is a prayer for forgiveness. His second word from the cross is an Absolution, a declaration of forgiveness. There are two criminals crucified alongside of our Lord. Both join in the ridicule thrown at Jesus by the bystanders, the soldiers, and the chief priests. But something happens to one of those criminals. He ceases to blaspheme Christ. His lips are opened to pray, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He calls on the Name of the Lord and he is heard. Our crucified High Priest does His priestly work. He puts His “Amen” to the repentant thief’s prayer. Jesus says “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus had invited all who laboured and were heavy laden to come to Him for rest. A dying criminal comes and is not refused a place in Jesus’ kingdom. He comes confessing his sins as he rebukes his companion in crime, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” The criminal confesses his own sin and the innocence of Jesus. He does not come to the Lord with the expectation that his conversion would save his life. He comes only with the prayer that Jesus would “remember” him in His kingdom. And Christ the King gives this penitent the Absolution that opens heaven to him: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus makes a dying robber His brother, giving him a place in the family of our Father. Now Jesus turns to His own flesh and blood, His mother. Jesus knows the pain of separation that she will face. Just days before, He had wept at the grave of His friend, Lazarus. With the eyes of His compassion, the Lord looks on the beloved disciple John and on Mary. To Mary He says, “Woman, behold your son!” and to John He says, “Behold, your mother!” The Lord who joins together the solitary into families, gives His mother Mary to John and John to Mary, in the same way that He places us as sons and daughters of our Mother the Church so that we will not be left alone in our sin and suffering.
In Gethsemane’s Garden Jesus did not refuse the cup that the Father set before Him. He drains the cup of suffering dry. It is a deadly brew that He drinks, for it is the cup of God’s wrath intended for the wicked of the earth. Now, on the cross, the Lord who promised living water to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is thirsty. Years before, the Psalmist David had prayed from the Judean wilderness: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” There will be water to slake your thirst, dear friends, for our Lord has promised: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” Out of the Lord’s own pierced side there will flow water and blood to quench our thirst for salvation. But before this happens the Lord Himself says, “I thirst.” Thirsty for our salvation, He endures the agony.
But there is more to be endured than the pure physical pain. The deepest agony of Good Friday is not the tongue swollen and parched. It is not the crown of thorns or the nails. The deepest agony of Calvary is expressed in our Saviour’s fifth word from the cross as He cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The Lenten hymn, “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted,” gives good insight into this word, in the following poetic way:
Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting His distress;
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would intervene to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that justice gave.
The Son of God is left alone with our sins. The Righteous One is judged in the place of the unrighteous. To the ears of the chief priests and scribes, our Lord’s cry of abandonment seems to confirm their accusations. They had concluded that Jesus was a blasphemer, for He made Himself equal with God, and blasphemers deserve death and rejection. Now in the throes of death and the agony of hell, Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But Jesus is not experiencing the hell and damnation of God’s forsaking for His own sins, of which there are none. It is for our blasphemies, our iniquity, which He carries to the cross. He is made sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
Even though forsaken by the Father to suffer the fate of our sins, Jesus will not let go of the Father. Instead, in the confidence of a child saying his “now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep” prayer, Jesus prays the prayer that generations of Jewish children had learned from Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Now, dear friends, you need dread the grave as little as your bed, for Jesus’ death has robbed death of its power. Living by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself as the sacrifice for our sin, you can face death itself with Jesus’ prayer on your lips: “Father, into hands I commit my spirit.”
All is done now. The birth at Bethlehem, the growing up years lived in obedience to Mary and Joseph, the Baptism in the Jordan, the miracles that made manifest divine compassion, the teaching, the fulfillment of Scripture, the betrayal and suffering are all complete. So Jesus says, “It is finished.” Nothing is left undone. Salvation is achieved. The work of redemption is done. Jesus has finished it, brought it to perfection. It is complete. His mission is accomplished. Jesus’ last word on the cross is full of comfort, for this word tells you that your salvation is sure and certain. Faith does not add to Jesus’ work, but receives the gift that He has won. The price has been paid. You are free. Listen to Him who has the words of eternal life. Amen.