by The Rev. Charles Henrickson
"Three Words from the Cross" (Luke 23:33-49)
Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke seven words from the cross. We get that number by piecing together the accounts from all four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But no single evangelist records all seven words. Matthew and Mark report only one: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" St. John reports three: "Woman, behold, your son" and "Behold, your mother" count as one word; "I thirst" and "It is finished" are the other two in John. That leaves three words from the cross that are recorded only by St. Luke. Those are the three that we take up today: "Father, forgive them"; "Today you will be with me in Paradise"; and "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit."
"Father, Forgive Them" (Luke 23:33-38)
And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." This is the first of three words we hear our Lord speak today from the cross.
Here is Jesus being crucified, unjustly, unfairly. Crucifixion was a particularly cruel and shameful death. Jesus is crucified with criminals--even though he himself had done nothing wrong. We are reminded of those words from Isaiah, "He was numbered with the transgressors," "although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth."
"He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth." When he does open his mouth, what does Jesus say? He prays for the forgiveness of those who are crucifying him. In the midst of his dying woes, Jesus intercedes on their behalf with his heavenly Father. He says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Now who are the "them" for whom Jesus prays? It would seem to be the same ones referred to just a moment earlier when it says, "they" crucified him. That "they" would certainly include the Roman soldiers, the ones who literally nailed him to the cross. But it would also have to include the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who authorized his crucifixion. And what about the crowds who cried out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" And the crowds were brought to that point by their leaders, the Jewish leaders, who had it out for Jesus and plotted against him. All of these Jesus includes when he prays, "Father, forgive them."
And those people certainly need forgiveness. Look at the wrong they are doing. Look at the guilt they are heaping upon themselves. Look at the abuse and scorn they heap upon Jesus: The Roman soldiers, who "cast lots to divide his garments." The Jewish rulers, who scoffed at him and said, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers again, who came up and mocked him, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" Pontius Pilate, who had ordered the mocking sign which read, "This is the King of the Jews."
Truly these people did not know what they were doing. They did not realize who it was they were crucifying and mocking, namely, the Lord of glory, the Lord of life, the very Son of God come in the flesh. They did not realize that it was for their sins that Jesus was suffering, that it was for them that he was dying. They did not realize that it was precisely in not saving himself that he was, in fact, saving others. They really did not know what they were doing.
But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing! He was fulfilling what Isaiah had prophesied: For "he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors." Jesus knew what he was doing: dying for the sins of the world, dying for and praying for the forgiveness of all people, those who crucified him directly, as well as all those whose sins caused his crucifixion--thatís us.
Jesusí prayer for forgiveness--and his atoning death which procures that forgiveness--covers us all. We too are among those included when Jesus prays, "Father, forgive them." For it is our sins, too--it is for us that Jesus prays and suffers and dies. We need that forgiveness from God that Jesus prays for and dies for. And by his death, and by his fervent prayer for us, "Father, forgive them"--yes, my friends, you are forgiven!
"Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:39-43)
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, 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." And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
This is the second word from the cross, as recorded in Luke.
So abuse and scorn and mockery are heaped upon Jesus. Even so, Jesus does not respond in kind; he does not return evil for evil. Instead, he prays for the forgiveness of those who crucify and mock him. Even one of the criminals is hurling insults at Jesus: "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!"
But the other criminal rebuked him. "Do you not you fear God," he said, "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."
Here we meet someone who turns to Jesus in repentance and faith. This criminal on the cross, who had seen and heard the evil coming from all those around, who realized his own guilt before God and man, who witnessed Jesusí innocent suffering, who heard the words of divine forgiveness issuing from Jesusí lips--this man now is given the gift of repentance and faith.
First there is a confession of sins: We are punished justly, "for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds." This man knew that he had done wrong, both in the sight of man and in the sight of God. He knew that he deserved punishment, even death. This is proper contrition. This is repentance that is appropriate in the face of oneís own sin and guilt.
Then there is a confession of faith: "But this man has done nothing wrong." The criminal recognizes the innocence of Jesus, that he is suffering unjustly, that he is indeed a righteous man. Whatís more, all this mocking talk of "the Christ" and "the King of the Jews"--the Holy Spirit must have been using that to bring the repentant man to a true recognition of who Jesus is: that Jesus really is the Christ, that he really is the promised King who would confer the blessings of Godís kingdom. So he asks in faith, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Yes, that sign on the cross got it right, ironically right, when it said, "This is the King of the Jews." For thatís who Jesus is. The true king of the Jews, the Messiah, the Christ sent from God. Jesus, the Christ, is the great king who brings in an eternal kingdom of peace and life and blessing. Thatís who the criminal is turning to when he says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Here is Jesusí answer: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." What a promise! "Today you will be with me in paradise." Today. This day, even this day in which you are dying. Death for the believer is not the end. No, "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." Today, with Jesus, in Paradise--thatís the promise.
Paradise. What a beautiful term! It recalls the Garden of Eden. But the Garden became Paradise Lost when man fell into sin. Now in Christ, though, we have Paradise Restored. The tree of life, the living waters. The new creation, restored in all its harmony and abundance.
But most of all, Paradise means fellowship with the Lord. "With me," Jesus says. Paradise means enjoying the presence of God, dwelling with God for eternity. Jesus says, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." Thatís the wonderful thing about being in Paradise--being with Jesus. As we say in the Catechism, "That I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom."
Friends, this promise of Christ, "Today you will be with me in Paradise"--this promise is for you, too. Jesus has prayed for, and died for, your forgiveness. Therefore he is able to promise you Paradise. So turn to him in repentance and in faith. Join that repentant criminal in praying, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And when you die, on your last day you will hear the words: "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
"Father, into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit" (Luke 23:44-49)
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sunís light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, "Certainly this man was innocent!" And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.
Our Lordís final word from the cross: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!"
The old order of things is coming to an end. So darkness comes over the whole land. There is going to be a new creation, brought about by the redeeming death of the Son of God. The final sacrifice for sin, the ultimate sacrifice, is being made. So the curtain of the temple is torn in two. The old sacrifices will no longer be needed.
Jesus calls out in a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" Now our focus is on the relationship of the Father and the Son. We contemplate the profound mystery of the person of Christ: Jesus is both true God, and also true man, in one unique person. A real man, in the flesh, a man who is dying, about to breathe his last. A faithful man, a man who trusts in God, placing his life into Godís hands. True man, and yet more than that, true God also. Jesus is the Son of God, the only one who can call God his "Father" in a one-of-kind way. The Son came to do the will of his Father, who sent him.
Now Jesus has fulfilled that will. He has won the salvation of the world. He has prayed for, and died for, the forgiveness of all people. He has bestowed that forgiveness, and the resulting promise of Paradise, on the criminal next to him, showing that forgiveness and eternal life are given to every sinner who turns to Christ in repentance and faith. Yes, Jesus has done the will of the Father. The work is complete, finished. So now, at the last, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!"
Because Jesus came and did the will of the Father, because of the salvation he won for us on the cross, now you and I also are able to call on God as our Father. Now we can commit our lives, our body, soul, and spirit--we commit our whole lives, even to our dying breath, into the loving hands of our heavenly Father.
Today, on this Good Friday, our Lord Jesus has spoken the Good News to us. Weíve heard it in his words from the cross: "Father, forgive them." "Today you will be with me in paradise." "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." Yes, this is very good news! Forgiveness is won and bestowed, Paradise is promised and restored, and the heavenly Father takes us as his own dear children. All of this, because of what Jesus Christ did for us when he died for us and spoke these words for us on that Good Friday.
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