“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46
Sermon for Good Friday
[Preached in a service as a reflection upon the final of seven last words of Christ from the cross.]
In putting these seven words together, the church gives us a text different from that of the gospel writers.
It’s always a question about how we tell the story. Do we put the four gospel accounts together and try to harmonize them? Do we focus on the story as each evangelist told it? Do we let the particular gospel voices speak to one another in our hearts and minds?
It matters. In today’s readings, we could easily think that “into your hands I commend my spirit” is simply the coda to “It is finished.” Now that he is at his end, he tells us where he is going.
But Luke, who gave us these words, does not report that it’s over. In Luke’s version, Jesus first prays to his Father for forgiveness of those who are killing him. He announces forgiveness to the thief (or rebel) next to him. And then, just before he dies, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
“Father” is one of those words that carries a lot of weight. There are some here who are mourning a father’s recent death, some who lost their father years ago, and some among us whose father is sitting here in church with them.
My father died just a few weeks ago, and that provided the occasion for much remembering and rediscovering of his life and our relationship. His tenderness, and his wrath. The times he was there for me, a rock to stand upon or cling to; and those frightening times when he foundered, or was absent. I remember the times I let him down and the times I knew his love and pride.
Fathers loom large in our lives, and that’s true whether they were good fathers or bad fathers, whether they were present or absent, living or dead. Just think of your own experience of “Father.”
That was certainly true of Jesus. You will remember of course that Jesus had two daddies. We don’t know the exact mechanics of his conception, but we do know that he had a conventional father, Joseph, who raised him just as other fathers raise their children. And the gospels tell us that, sometime early in his life, Jesus came to know a heavenly Father, that he turned to again and again to guide his way through life. As we’ve heard in this Passion story, this Father also guided his way through death.
After Jesus’ death, the evangelists see in his story echoes of prophecy suggesting that Jesus was fulfilling a divine plan. Some have taken this into the bizarre notion that Jesus’ Father required his death as satisfaction for sin.
But I would like to suggest that this theological speculation, however Biblically-based it might be, is far removed from Jesus’ relationship with his father.
Jesus’ own experience with God, with his heavenly Father, with the Spirit which descended upon him in power, was of a calling forth not into death, but into a life filled with wisdom, with healing, with forgiveness and compassion.
Jesus often went off to pray, so that his Father, his heavenly Father, might reveal to him things not seen in other ways, and might lead him in a life of grace. On the night before his death, with the authorities out to get him, he apparently received guidance not to run for his life, but to give his life that others might experience God’s love. It was not his Father which drove him to death – the gospels detail the collaboration of human powers which sought and carried out his murder. On Sunday, we’ll hear the will of his heavenly Father, which is for life.
Today, though, there is silence. There is the silence of death, as Jesus draws his last breath and gives up his spirit. There is the silence of his friends, who are bereft at what has happened to their courage, to their friend, their hope.
And his last words were, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
I can’t help but turn back to those other words, the words of Matthew, of Mark, and of the whole people of Israel: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is not the way the story should end, broken, dying, abandoned. This is God’s beloved? It surely seemed to all – even Jesus – that he was abandoned by his Father God. We know this feeling in ways small and large, when the success we’ve hoped for disappears, when the care we need is lacking. There are, it seems, times when God is missing in action.
Commending himself into his heavenly Father’s hands at this point might seem an act of pathetic desperation, or just plain foolishness.
Yet Jesus knows his Father even in his absence. Luke, who is so big on forgiveness, reports Jesus speaking forgiveness in his earlier two sayings from the cross. I wonder if Luke means to show us that, in this, Jesus is forgiving his Father. Forgiving him for the hardships of his life. Forgiving him for putting him in this impossible place. Forgiving him for his absence.
Commending his spirit into his Father’s hands at this point is an act of radical trust, radical hope, radical love. It is a declaration that it is not finished.
While it may seem hopeless, giving oneself to God is not the end. It is the beginning. The seed is now planted in the heart of the earth, in the womb of God. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
L'Ascension, Albert Tucker, 1962.