Have you ever been with someone as they approached death? Though it is sometimes difficult, people will often speak in their final days or hours. They may simply be expressing a need, “May I have a drink?” or “could you please move my pillow?” Sometimes the words will express a concern for others; “Everything will be okay,” or simply, “I love you.” A person’s final words reveal what is on his or her heart at the time, and sometimes they reveal the nature of the person’s faith and hope. Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, is said to have uttered these words as he died, “Best of all, God is with us.”
In the case of one being crucified, the very act of speaking was painful and required great exertion. Death by crucifixion was planned so as to make the criminal suffer in great agony for a good length of time before finally succumbing to death, usually through some combination of exhaustion, shock, and asphyxiation. To speak while being crucified would require great effort as the victim would have to pull himself up by the nails in the wrists in order to expand the diaphragm enough to speak. For all of these reasons, words were scarce among the victims of crucifixion.
Yet, the gospels record seven statements that Jesus made from the cross. Tonight, we begin together our Lenten sermon series, which will take us through these last words that Jesus spoke in the final hours before his death. These are commonly known as the “Seven Last Words,” but really it’s seven phrases. We will work through them more or less chronologically, at least as best as we can determine the order in the from the four gospels, and also making allowances for special observances, like this evening and Palm Sunday.
Indeed, Jesus’ final words fall in the episode of his crucifixion, which we usually only bring up in the final week before Easter. So it is unusual to spend all of Lent talking about Jesus’ hours on the cross. And yet, in these final words, we learn something important about Jesus. We know that Jesus went to some effort and bore great pain to speak these words, and that these words were most important of all because Jesus made that extra effort to speak them. Taken together, as we will do in the coming weeks, they offer a powerful and moving picture of what was on the heart and mind of Jesus as he died. And they also tell us something about who we should be in our relationship with Christ.
So we begin tonight with the first words from the cross as recorded by Luke, words uttered by Jesus just moments after he was hung on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing.” These first words, not surprisingly, were a prayer. But what is surprising is what he prayed: “Father, forgive them.” So, for whom, exactly, is it that Jesus is praying? Who was the “them” Jesus was asking God to forgive?
It’s not terribly difficult to deduce that Jesus was praying for the soldiers who had tortured him and crucified him and who were now standing at the foot of his cross and preparing to gamble for his clothes. Jesus was also most certainly praying for the crowd. This was the crowd that had called for Barrabas’ release and yelled for Jesus to be crucified instead. Luke notes that even with Jesus hanging on the cross they were still deriding him, shaking their heads, mocking him. Then there were the religious leaders – jealous and spiritually blind, they conspired with the Romans to kill Jesus. For all of these people – the brutal soldiers, the mocking crowds, the jealous religious leaders – for all of these Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”