The list of things I enjoy about ministry is a long one, but building ecumenical relationships is one of my very favorite things. From ecumenical lectionary study groups, to combined efforts to meet needs in the community and ecumenical worship services, building relationships with other clergy and other churches from varying traditions has stretched me and help me see a wider picture of the body of Christ.
And sometimes those ecumenical partnerships give me opportunities to try things and experience things I may never have otherwise.
Today, for Good Friday, I had the opportunity to join with two other congregations for a service of the Seven Last Words of Jesus. For this particular service, I was invited to reflect on two of those seven last words: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39-43), and “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
The other words are: “Forgive them, Father” (Luke 23:33-38), “Woman, here is your son” (John 19:25-27), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33-34), “I thirst” (John 19:28), and “It is finished.” (John 19:29-30).
I wanted to share with you my reflections on two of these last words.
“Today you will be with me in paradise”
In a video short called “Trees,” Rob Bell makes the claim that we are living in between the trees – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Even and the tree of life that flourishes in the book of Revelation. We live in between those trees, and we find ourselves asking the same question Rob Bell asks as he considers this time of “in between,”
How is it that our world can be filled with such beauty and such order and such good, and yet at the same time filled with such heartache and such pain?
Our journey through Holy Week is similarly book-ended by trees – the palm branches of celebration as the crowd cried out, “Hosanna! Save us, Jesus!” and the cursed tree of the cross where one of the criminals beside Jesus would cry out, “Are you the Messiah? Save yourself, and us!” From shouts of “Save us, Jesus!” to jeers of “Save yourself!” we journey this Holy Week between the trees – the trees of celebration, and the tree where death appeared to have the victory.
Yet, into this in-between Jesus speaks words of hope. Though one of the criminals jeered at Jesus, the other made a startling request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” From the tree that stood like a curse – the cross – Jesus spoke hope: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
This makes me think of the Garden of Eden once again, a place of communion with God, but this time forevermore. Today, even while the suffering of the cross is present, there is the hope of paradise, the hope of the tree of life, the hope of the healing of the nations, the promise of peace and justice and wholeness once more upon the earth.
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
From the tree of despair, a vision of life.
From the darkness, the Light of the world promised a day when light would envelop us all.
From the cross, a brief glimpse of the healing of the nations.
Today. Even now. Even while the darkness of the cross hangs so heavily upon us. Even now, today, the promise of paradise.
“Into your hands I commend my spirit”
The Gospel of Luke tells us that darkness covered the earth beginning around noon. He described it as the sun’s light failing. That image captures me as I read and think about it. In this profound moment of loss, even the sun ceased to shine. The curtain of the temple was torn in two, a moment that seems ironically hopeful at a moment of gripping despair.
It is into this darkness that Jesus quotes from Psalm 31, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” It almost seems out of place, this expression of trust in a moment of deep darkness. But, knowing that it came from the psalms sent me back to Psalm 31 iteself. Jesus’ words in their context say this, “You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
This statement of faith and trust in the midst of darkness and adversity unsettles me because I think of all the times when I felt unable to cling to the truth that my refuge can always be found in God. I think about all of the times when I’ve needlessly worried, or feared the worst, only to have things turn out fine in the end. When I see the faith of Christ even on the cross, it can be easy for me to fall into despair for all the ways that my faith hasn’t made itself manifest in the way I live my life.
But, just as the darkness seems to fall over me – and I wonder if it has ever fallen over you, too – I realize something. What if Jesus’ words on the cross were not just for himself, but for me, too? What if “God with us” isn’t just about the incarnation – the Word made flesh – but also about all of the ways God is with us? What if it isn’t only about faith in Christ, but also about the faith of Christ – the faithfulness of Jesus that reconciles, hopes, trusts, and believes even when I am so weary that I can’t do so for myself?
What if in the darkness of Good Friday, Jesus still gathers, protects, and love us? And in so doing unites us to God through the gift of himself.