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The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross
a sermon based the gospel account of Jesus' Death
edited by Rev. Frank Schaefer

Jesus' death by crucifixion may well be one of the most agonizing forms of torture and execution that humanity has ever devised. It was usually a long and protracted procedure, occupying two to three days. It was not blood loss that eventually led to the death but the victim's inability to lift his head up far enough from his chest to breathe; and therefore he would die of suffocation. Jesus actually dies unusually quickly for a crucified victim. Perhaps this is due to the lashes, that scourging or flogging that Pilate had ordered the Roman soldiers to give Jesus previously in hopes that that would satisfy the Jewish leaders. Or perhaps there is a more supernatural or voluntary element to Jesus' death, since it appears He has the strength to still cry out with a loud voice just before He dies. Perhaps the gospel writers want us to understand that even in the moment of Jesus' greatest agony He is able to consciously and voluntarily lay down His life.

The theology of the cross, of Jesus' time on this torture stake, is also profound; and perhaps as good a way to epitomize it as any in a short survey like this is to focus on what has come to be known as Jesus' seven last words on the cross, actually referring not to individual words but to the seven sayings that the gospel writers, all four of them, in different places, record. The probable sequence of these seven words and their significance may be as follows:

1. "Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother." Jesus turns to his mother and to the beloved disciple, the apostle John, and says, "Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother"-speaking of both of them in terms of family endearment. Even on the cross He has not forgotten those closest to Him. Many believe that Joseph, Jesus' adopted father, may well have died by now, and therefore He is calling upon His beloved disciple John to care for Mary, His mother.

2. Jesus turns to one of the thieves or criminals (better translated "rebels" or "insurrectionists") surrounding Him on the two crosses on either side of Him, who has cried out for remembrance when Jesus comes into His kingdom. Jesus replies, "Truly, today you will be with me in paradise." As soon as they both die, they can enjoy the presence of God the Father in eternal bliss. We must not forget how controversial "death-bed" conversions have been regarded in the history of Christianity--perhaps most notably the death-bed baptism of emperor Constantine. Even while hanging on the cross, Jesus reaches out in an incredible show of grace and love to a repentant person.

3.  "I thirst." Jesus cries out, "I thirst." And yet He refuses to drink what was either a painkiller or a poison, anything that would relieve His suffering or speed up the process of His death. And so His statement, "I thirst," is probably not merely a statement of human anguish but also one of spiritual anguish following His acknowledgment of separation from God.

4. "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?"  Jesus cries out, "My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?" Although theologians wrestle with all of the implications of what it means to bear the sins of the world, this one thing is clear: that Jesus felt some awareness of now being separated from His heavenly Father. The consciousness of oneness and intimacy that He had enjoyed throughout His life was broken. What a dark moment this must have been for the One that was without sin, always in perfect harmony with the heavenly Father.  One must wonder if the mental and spiritual agony Jesus expressed with these words were not more torturous than the physical pain.

5. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." -- The first words that are recorded from Jesus on the cross show that even in this situation of great agony He is prepared to forgive His accusers, His torturers, His enemies, as He cries out, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." Jesus exhibits under the most extreme and difficult circumstances his own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount calling his followers to love their enemies.

6. "It is finished" Jesus cries out, "It is finished"-certainly referring to his life on earth, his ministry, his calling, his incarnate humanity, but perhaps we are meant to see also that the whole plan of salvation history has now been accomplished and established for all generations.

7. "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." Lastly, Jesus says, remarkably, with that well-known Jewish prayer of children, child-like trust in the Father whom He no longer feels is present: "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit." Perhaps this was the most pristine expression of Jesus' own faith.  Faith when the going gets extremely rough; faith in God when God's presence is no longer experienced.

May we all learn from Jesus great faith, trust, love, grace, and mercy which he expressed under the most extreme circumstances the human experience has to offer.   May we be found faithful to God as he was faithful to the end.  May God be unto you a sure help in these days in which we ponder the meaning of life and death and . . . new life in Christ.  Amen.