The Seventh Word of Jesus from the Cross (Friday, April 18, 2014 at Second Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana) -
"It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last." Luke 23:44-46
Across the United States tonight in small hamlets, rural farming communities, and bustling cities, young girls and boys will lie down on their beds getting ready to go to sleep. Before their mom, their dad, their grandparent or their guardian departs their room leaving them to enter their slumber these words will be recited in many of the homes, "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray The Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray The Lord my soul to take." For over 200 years, this simple prayer from the New England Primer has tumbled off the lips of children all across the country at bedtime. This small but meaningful prayer was memorized at almost the same time that children learn their alphabet. It provides comfort and peace at the close of the day as the first hints of sleep creep across weary eyes and as the weight of the darkness of night closes in.
In another place and in another time, children learned another prayer. This prayer, similar to the one learned by small children in the United States, was a prayer of trust; a prayer that offered comfort to the weary. Mothers would teach this prayer to their children around the same time they would rehearse their aleph bet together. Perhaps, Mary even taught this simple prayer to her baby child holding him close to her breast as he fell asleep. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
According to the author of the Gospel of Luke, it was these words which were the final words Jesus spoke as he hung on the Roman cross; it was these same words that tumbled from the parched lips of Jesus as the weight of the ultimate darkness of death closed in. It was with these words…"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit, or my life breath (the words in both Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Psalm and Luke's text respectively contain both meanings)…" It was with these familiar words from Psalm 31 that Jesus breathed his last giving back to God the very breath he had been given - the very essence of his life.
In her commentary on this psalm, Dr. Marti Steussy from CTS says, "In Luke's telling of the passion story, Jesus cites the first part of Psalm 31:5 on the cross. Unlike the psalmist, who commits his spirit to God in confidence of being saved from experiencing death, Jesus finds deliverance on the other side of death - he is not sheltered from human plots but suffers and transcends them" (Steussy, Psalms: Chalice Commentaries for Today, 92). Within his darkest moment Jesus utters a simple childhood prayer, a psalm of trust.
It is with these words on the lips of the Jesus that the author of Luke expresses the depth of trust Jesus had in God's presence in the face of the death. He knew and we must come know that even at the end of life God is present and because of this we can also trust God will be present at every moment of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and loneliness. Yes, even in our darkest hours when we feel our very breath escaping our bodies, these beautiful words spoken from the cross, this childlike prayer, this ancient psalm reminds us that our lives are never void of the divine presence.
This quote, this prayer, from Psalm 31 that falls out of the mouth of the dying Christ as if by rote, "is an existential confession of ultimate helplessness, dependence, and trust, a way of saying in the midst of affliction, 'It is up to you, God, what becomes of me, and I am willing to have it so'"…this belongs, theologian James Mays continues, "to the living as well as the dying. Indeed, it is a question whether (these words) can be said at the end in authenticity unless they have been our confession all along the way. In the mouth of Jesus the sentence is surely a profound interpretation of his entire life" (James Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 144). From the mouth of Jesus these words of ultimate trust spill out. Even in the throes of death Jesus is showing us the way.
When ethicist John Kavanaugh went to visit and work with Mother Teresa at "the house of the dying" in Calcutta, he was seeking an answer as to how he should spend the rest of his life. On the first morning he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, "And what can I do for you?" Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him.
"What do you want me to pray for?" she asked. Then he spoke the concern he had long been carrying. He said, "Pray that I have clarity."
She said strongly, "No, I will not do that." He asked her why she would say such a thing, she said, "Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of." But, John said, "You always seem to have deep clarity." To that, she laughed and said, "I have never had clarity; what I have is trust. So I will pray that you trust" (Adapted from Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust).
We too crave clarity, and we have a hard time with trust when our journey is less and less clear. We attempt to eliminate the risk, even the risk of trusting God. Yet it is toward this trust that we must move, and Jesus has shown us the way.
The question is, can we make Jesus' final words our own words each and every day.
Because, the breath we just took was our last breath, and the next one we take will also be our last. Within that breathing - the inhaling and exhaling - the filling our lungs with the divine breath - do we have the courage to trust. Do we have the courage to say along with Jesus, "Into your hands I commit my next breath and the one after that" even in the darkest moments of life; even in all moments of despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and loneliness; even in the valley of the shadow of death.
"Father, into your hands…" and with that, he breathed...we breath our last. Pause and breath.
Almighty God, on this Friday that we call good, in the shadow of the cross, in the shadow of death, may we have the courage to trust you with our very breath. Today, hanging on Golgotha’s cross is Emmanuel, God with us even in our darkest moments of despair. It is there in our hopelessness, our helplessness, that we call to you. Its it there that we commend our spirit, our every breath, to you. It is there we trust. Amen.