Luke 23:44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, "Certainly this man was innocent."
Have you ever wondered what your final, dying words might be? We’ve all heard the cliché “Famous last words.” Well, you would be amazed by how many websites exist devoted to just that; the last words of famous people. Some are quite sad. According to one site, actress Joan Crawford died of a heart attack in 1977. It is said that as her house keeper began to pray for her, Crawford said – as her last words – “Don’t you dare ask God to help me.” Charlie Chaplin also died in 1977. A priest was present and offered up the prayer “May the Lord have mercy on your soul” to which Chaplin replied, “Why not? After all, it belongs to him.” In 1865, Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt was hanged; the first woman executed by a U. S. military tribunal. Her dying words, “Please don’t let me fall.” James Donald French, put to death in the electric chair in 1966 had a rather cavalier approach to his demise. His last words to the press who had gathered for his execution: “Hey fellas, how about this for a headline for tomorrow’s papers; French fries?” Clearly French had put some thought into his final words.
That is, perhaps, the singular advantage of capital punishment. One has plenty of time to consider the words by which they want to be remembered. Given ample time, one would hope that their dying words would reflect some of their deepest held wisdom and beliefs; be a reflection of their true character.
And so in Luke, Jesus final words were “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In truth, they cannot be separated from the prior two statements Jesus makes from the cross in Luke. On that cross, before Jesus breathes his last, he implores the mercy of his heavenly Father on behalf of his murderers who, he says, have acted in ignorance. Then, when a criminal hanging next to him asks Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, Jesus reassures him saying, “Amen. Amen. I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
And so it is that, despite his own injustice, pain and suffering, Jesus remains consistent to the bitter end in proclaiming and living the message of God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy. His famous last words are not words of anger or judgment; desperation or fear; they are words of mercy and trust.
When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, he did not fight them off. In fact, one of the disciples instinctively responded to the threat by drawing his sword and cutting the ear off a slave. Jesus restored the ear and informed the disciples it was time to dial it back. Jesus says to his captors, “…this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”[i] And so it would appear. Yet, by the time Jesus is nailed to that cross, it seems their hour has expired. Ultimately, they cannot take Jesus’ life because, in his dying breath, he entrusts his life, his spirit, to his heavenly Father.
Jesus has always known that he belonged to God. As a young boy, his parents discover he’s missing when they’re on a return trip from Jerusalem. Frantically they go back to the temple and find Jesus there. Giving him a stern scolding as any worried parent would, Jesus tries to put it in perspective: “Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?”[ii] He belongs with the heavenly Father; he belongs to the heavenly Father.
It is God’s Spirit that descends upon him at baptism;[iii] the same Spirit that anoints him for his ministry of making the grace, forgiveness and mercy of God known to those most in need of hearing it.[iv] Jesus knows he belongs to the heavenly Father and, hanging from that cross, he knows he has accomplished what the Spirit anointed him to do. And so, even amidst such hideous violence and hatred and fear, Jesus can say with his dying breath, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor remarks that this is standard procedure when death comes to call on God’s faithful. As clergy, at a funeral, we stand near the corpse and commend the person who’s died to God. We say words like, “We commend your servant into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints of light.”[v] We acknowledge that although we thought this spouse or child or parent or sibling belonged to us, we know, in truth, that they belong to God. They came from God and now return to God.
Likewise Jesus knows: his place has always been with his heavenly Father and so he commends his own spirit back into the merciful arms of his Father.
But if you ask me, our lives are commended (entrusted, that is) long before death. Jesus’ life had always been entrusted to his heavenly Father; always been dedicated to his Father’s purposes. He simply brings the message home one more time with his dying breath. Our lives, too, are undoubtedly entrusted to someone or something. There are some who commend their lives to the world which can be a place of darkness, fear and aggression. We see it all around us. When we human creatures feel threatened, like those disciples in the garden with their Lord, it is hard to resist rashly grasping for something with which to defend ourselves.
Those final words Jesus speaks from the cross, “into your hands I commend my spirit” have a long history. They are taken from Psalm 31. They are the cry of God’s faithful ones across the ages.
Friends, as we watch and listen to news here in our country and around the world, it may seem that darkness has come over the earth and in fact, darkness can and does settle in wherever and whenever people commend themselves to the world’s fear and aggression. But what Jesus did on that cross delivers us from fear and darkness. My friends; life without mercy and forgiveness is truly death and darkness. But Jesus on that cross delivered us from darkness and death. Praise be to you, O Christ.
[i] Luke 22:53
[ii] Luke 2:49
[iii] Luke 3:21-22
[iv] Luke 4:16-21
[v] United Methodist Book of Worship, p. 150
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