Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Seven Last Words

On Good Friday 2016 I preached on the traditional Seven Last Words of Jesus at Saint Thomas' Church, Fifth Avenue, New York.

These are linked below as individual sermons:

The whole service including the sermons is webcast here; a service leaflet can also be downloaded from that page.

My thanks to the Rector for the invitation to take part.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Seven Last Words: 7. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.
Jesus’ labor completed on the cross, like that of God in creation, gives way to a time of rest. What comes next, in Gospel as in Genesis, is the Sabbath.

"And on the seventh day,” Genesis says, "God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation."

So God “finished" the work he had done on that seventh day, the Sabbath - even though it was on the previous day, the sixth, that God already “saw everything that he had made, and it was good.” What then remained to be done on the seventh, or could be done, that amounted to “finishing”?

Creation it seems was not complete in the making; the last thing, the Sabbath itself, was the very fact of creation existing in its completeness before God. On the Sabbath, God and creation enjoy the reality of what has been made, and the fact of being related as creator and creation. This is now the finished work. The point of creation was not just the divine sovereignty manifest in the making in the six days, and the divine “let there be," but the relationship that is its result; God’s creation is not merely a task, but a state of being. And God blesses that result, in and on the Sabbath rest.

So what is created on the Sabbath is that time itself, that rest, which celebrates the fact of creation and makes its enjoyment the goal of life, rather than activity for its own sake.

As Jesus dies he enters the Sabbath literally, as Friday draws on to a close. St Augustine of Hippo suggested that the rest of Jesus in death between this time and the first day of the week was the observance of Sabbath, like that given by God in Genesis and in the Law of Moses, and that the interval between his death and resurrection reflects his observance of the Sabbath according to law (Contra Faustum 16.29). To have risen before that would have been to work, and to defile the Sabbath. So even in death Jesus will be fulfilling the law, complete in his obedience to the God of creation.

The rest of Jesus in death is therefore not about passivity. Having worked on the cross, Jesus now rests, as the Creator rested on the Sabbath, to bless and enjoy what has been made, because Jesus’ work too is done, and the failed and broken creation is renewed by his embodied word: forgiven, loved, redeemed, and more, and he himself now fully a part of what he had both made and remade, not despite death but in it.

Although there will be a further day, an eighth day of creation as the ancient Christians saw it, when Jesus will see new life, this Sabbath rest is not to passed by lightly as a mere hiatus.

Human existence is so often frenetic activity or unceasing labor; we tire of meaningless work and the world itself groans under our efforts to sustain ourselves.

As Ecclesiastes says:
What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest (2:22-3) 
Although we must work to live and, properly understood, our work can be a contribution to God’s continuing work in creation, there is a sense in which we are all seeking a rest beyond our present labors. All our work and all our quests are truly oriented towards this rest, whether we know it or not. Augustine again said, “you [Lord] have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you (Conf. 1.1). Jesus also anticipates this desire for rest speaking during his ministry, "Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

So as Jesus breathes his last and is taken to his Sabbath rest, we too find ourselves praying for true rest; not merely the end of labor, but the opportunity to enjoy its fruit. The Sabbath that many in this city will observe in a few hours is a sign of that deeper Sabbath that is both embedded in the good creation, and now for us restored in a new creation; what God has done, once and again and still today, is very good, and blessed. That rest is a truth in our present life, and a hope for our future; for the end of pain and suffering, and for the fulfillment of hope and love.

At the end of Bach’s great St John Passion, a lullaby is sung as Jesus is taken to the tomb: Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heilige Gebeine;

Rest well, rest well, you sacred limbs,
I will weep for you no more
rest well, and bring me also to rest.

Seven Last Words: 6. It is Finished (John 19:30)

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

On the sixth day of creation in the Genesis account, God calls forth living creatures into being to populate the earth, beasts and cattle; God then makes humankind according to God’s likeness. Then the narrator says:

God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.

As in the sixth day of creation, Jesus with his sixth word from the Cross reaches the point where all has been accomplished. He has done what was necessary, from beginning to end, from the Angel’s word to Mary, to journeys taken through Bethlehem and Galilee, to Samaria and the towns of the Decapolis, and even to Jerusalem the great city. He has taught and he has healed; he has sought out the lost and consoled the broken; he has spoken truth to power and to the powerless, offering the light of God’s truth into places and to people darkened by sin and despair.

Consummatum est - it is finished. The meaning of the statement is not so much that something is over, but that is has been brought to completion, fruition, or that it has reached a goal. It is like the divine creative statement, a blessing in effect, on the sixth day - "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good."

What has been accomplished? Jesus’ life and ministry indeed, but also the whole scheme of creation and salvation.

John Donne again, in that poem reflecting on the concurrence of Annunciation and Good Friday in 1608, puts it thus:

All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.

But what has Jesus actually done, and why? Why has all this been necessary? What difference does this cross in particular make? It is a question more and more Christians have asked during the 20th and 21st centuries, finding themselves unconvinced or even disturbed by some articulations of the doctrine of the atonement. In crudest form, there are those who say that Jesus died to assuage the Father’s wrath, as a substitute for a penalty otherwise due to humankind. At its worst this becomes a view of God that implies a cosmic psychopath, determined to kill his own son because of rules he will not break. This view we must reject firmly - not because it is distasteful to us but because it is not true to the Gospel.

All this does not mean that we do not need a doctrine of the atonement, as some would go so far as to say. This is merely to misunderstand what atonement is, or to hand its reality over to the caricatures of some fundamentalisms. We need atonement because we need God and we need forgiveness and we need liberation from sin and death.

Jesus does not then have to die because of a vengeful God, but because of a broken world. God did not kill Jesus, people did. Jesus suffers because of human inhumanity as so many still do today, in the spectacular results of war and or untrammelled gun violence as well as in the often-unnoticed deaths of the lonely, the addicted, the marginalized. A cross is at first and second glance no more a thing to celebrate than a gun or a syringe or an explosive belt; but a man on the cross whom we see God is another matter.

The whole work of Christ, from incarnation to cross and beyond, is necessary because of the depth of sin and brokenness that is the human condition. In Genesis God creates by word; in the Gospel we are told the creative Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. In Christ humankind is remade, and we find in him both a model for life but more importantly we encounter the reality of of God entering human existence and recreating what has been broken. The pattern for this is not divine violence or vengeance, but divine love and gift.

The key to God’s saving work is that God enters fully into human reality, and redeems it by participating fully in it, across the full extent of our condition, as St Gregory Nazianzen put it: "What [he has not] assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved."

This means the whole of life, from beginning to end; conception and birth, growth in personhood and learning, but also vulnerability and mortality. God's completed creation is the recapitulation in Jesus of human life as intended, in all ways like us but without sin (cf. Heb 4:15). This life becomes an example to us of course, but not merely an example; that alone would merely underline our frailty and failure, for we do not and cannot live as he did. Our hope lies in the fact that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19) and that his life changes all life. Placing our hope in him, baptized into his death, we participate in him and his renewed human reality.

What is completed on the cross is this full and complete self-giving of God. What was once created is now recreated. It is finished.