Shirley was expecting her husband Joe to die at any time, so she’d sat with him all night in the hospital. By morning nothing had really changed; he was still hanging on so Shirley decided to go home and freshen up. As she arrived at her front door five minutes later, she could hear the phone ringing inside: Joe had died within minutes of her leaving the hospital. That’s a story repeated many times over. They say a person’s protective instinct can remain with them right up to the point of death, even to the extent of making a choice when they actually breathe their last based on how they perceive their loved one will deal with it. If that’s true, then Joe presumably figured it would be easier on Shirley if he died when she wasn’t actually there. So today we come to the same point of Jesus’ life, where it would seem he too chose the point of his death. After at least 6 agonising hours on the cross he too was about to breathe his last, his final words being ‘Father, into your hands I commend/commit my spirit’, a quote from Psalm 31:
Psalm 31:5 (NRSV) Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.
Over the last number of weeks we’ve been considering the things Jesus said on the cross as a means of preparing us for Easter. In one sense we should have been doing this word on Good Friday, but we’re leaping ahead and considering it on Palm Sunday instead. I’ll ask again what I’ve asked before: how can we ever comprehend the breadth and depth of what was happening for Jesus on the cross as he said these things? The words of Jesus on the cross are not something to be picked apart because to do so runs the risk of trivialising and/or coldly and objectively analysing. We run the ever present risk of commentary from a distance or surrounding the event with nicely structured doctrine, seeking to look into and understand things that in the end are mystery.
This is real.
A real event.
A real death.
Located in space-time.
This is life.
I’m doing my best to avoid commentary and doctrine, but there are three things I still want to highlight .
I was with another family as their father and husband was dying. He was pretty much unconscious, but every now and then he suddenly made a really loud and startling sound. I’d never heard anything like it before, and it was very distressing for the family. It turns out that he was sneezing!
I wonder if Jesus calling out like that startled and distressed his family in the same way? We’ve pondered about the tone of some of the other things Jesus said while on the cross, but there’s no doubt about how he said this: he shouted it. In the circumstances a loud voice seems incongruous. Jesus was already in a bad way before he was even hung on the cross. At this point he’d been on there for at least 6 hours. We know that hanging on a cross placed great stress on the chest and lungs, so how could he ever have enough energy to raise a whisper let alone shout? Nevertheless, he shouted his last words.
Why did he shout?
- Because God is deaf?
- He wanted to be heard over the hubbub?
- He meant it as a note of victory?
- Given what he’d just said (‘Finished!’), perhaps he did it as an verbal means of gathering up all that he’d done on earth?
Here lies a mystery.
This last shout was highly relational. This wasn’t ‘God, into your hands I commend my spirit’ (as in ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’), but ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’. ‘Father’ as opposed to ‘God’ has a far more personal and relational ring about it for me. Father is a very familiar and familial term and there’s a lot implied by it: relationship, familiarity, comfort, protection, security, hope—to name a few. Assuming it is significant, then I think we can equally assume that Jesus’ sense of being forsaken had passed. But we can’t consider ‘Father’ on it’s own; it goes with the rest of what Jesus said.
Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit
Here’s a paraphrase of Jesus’ words: ‘Hey Dad!! I’m coming home!’ As you know, I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago. It was a very pleasant spot looking out over the sea (which was about 15m away) and the company and food was good. But after we’d finished everything we needed to do, I was hanging out to get home. Last week Wendy took us to tetelestai: finished, accomplished, complete. Jesus too had finished everything his Father had given him to do and he too couldn’t wait to get home. He was going back to his Father. The first verses of the Psalm Jesus quoted (31) give us added context. They talk about God being a refuge and fortress. So the last words of Jesus are ones of faith and trust in his Father.
Some commentators and preachers I looked at in helping me prepare the sermon talked about how Jesus died full of faith and how it can be the same for us as followers of Jesus. Did Jesus die the way he did in order to give me an example of how I should be when it’s my turn? No. He died that way because he died that way. There may well be things I can learn, especially in regard to faith, but he died with those words on his lips because that’s what he did.
How will I be? That’s one of the things I occasionally ponder.
Will I be like Dominique Bouhours? Bouhours was a French grammarian who on his deathbed said: “I am about to — or I am going to — die: either expression is correct.”
Or will I be like some of the great saints of old, such as Hugh Latimer? Latimer, a protestant convert from Catholicism, was burned at the stake in 1555 by Queen Mary.
He was tied back to back with Nicolas Ridley as the two were burned at the stake. He called out as the flames were lit, “Be of good comfort, brother Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” As the fire was kindled, Ridley cried out, “Lord, into Thy hands I commend my spirit: Lord, receive my spirit!” He repeated the latter phrase often. Latimer cried out, “Father of heaven, receive my soul!”
(J. C. Ryle, Light from Old Times [Evangelical Press], p. 163.) Quoted in https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-111-dying-well-luke-2346
How will I be? I don’t actually know. I’ll find out at the time! One thing I hope is that I won’t pretend to be one way when I’m really the other; that I’ll be how I’ll be. While I’m sure Jesus didn’t die that way in order to be an example, there’s still things to be learnt. As followers of Jesus, we believe he’s made promises regarding the life to come and painted a picture of what it will be like. Our faith says that death isn’t the end, but is the first step into a new life. We’d hope that that hope will sustain us at the end.