Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

These are the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:46). They are the last words spoken by Jesus in his earthly life.

If we put the different gospels together, then Jesus first speaks those words of utter abandonment, as he goes into the darkness, and takes the sin of the world onto his shoulders: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me'.
Later John records how Jesus, just before he dies, says, 'It is finished'.
Luke doesn't record those words, but he does say that after the three hours of darkness, the curtain in the temple is torn in two.
Something has happened. The curtain which separated the Holy of Holies - that most astonishingly holy place where God said he would be - from the rest of the temple was ripped apart. God has come out. The death of Jesus on the cross has broken down all barriers. The way to heaven is now open.

And so the very final words of Jesus, spoken as he dies, are the words of one who, having been cut off from God his Father, is once again in communion with God. The price has been paid, the task has been accomplished, heaven is opened.

1. This is a prayer of communion with God.
These are words spoken by David in Psalm 31. They are words that Jewish mothers would teach their children to pray before the darkness of night closed in: 'Into your hands I commit my Spirit'.

Jesus takes that simple prayer of Psalm 31:5 and adds one word, 'Father'.

It is the name that Jesus used par-excellence for God. The very first words that Luke reports Jesus saying are: 'Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house'. He teaches his disciples to pray to 'our Father in heaven'. In the garden of Gethsemane, as he struggles to submit to the will of God, he prays and addresses his God as his 'Father'. It is only as he experiences the eternal separation of hell that he addresses God as 'God'. And now, as he faces death, he calls God 'Father'.

And Christians can, because of Jesus' death on the cross, share that privilege. The door to heaven has been opened. We can call God 'Abba', 'dear Father'. Our relationship with God really can be one of intimacy. The Spirit that God gives us is the Spirit of Jesus which cries out in us, 'Abba Father'.

I was greatly touched last week at the 'Sometime on Sunday' event when we host people with learning disabilities. I was sitting next to Karina. And she asked me very directly whether I loved Jesus. And I said 'yes'. And she said, and her eyes sparkled as she said it, 'I love Jesus, I love Jesus'.

And if we don't experience that intimacy - and many faithful Christians can go through life without that awareness - we still hold on by faith to the fact that one day we will know profound intimacy with God. When we cannot call God 'Father' by feeling, we can call God 'Father' by faith.

2. This is a prayer of confidence, of trust in God.
We put our trust in ourselves, or in professionals (doctors, teachers, politicians), in money or science, in our family.

But the crunch comes at the moment of intense pain or when we face death. When money, education, our body and mind let us down; when the doctors and the family are helpless - in whom or what do we put our trust?

Last year I was with a young woman who was dying. She was in some pain. Her family were around her. They told her she was going to a better place. She said, 'No, I'm going to the other place'. I guess that is when the vicar steps in. It was one of those occasions when I don't remember what I did say, and do remember coming away wishing I had said more. What I hope that I did say was something like this: 'We all deserve to go to the other place, so you are not alone. The fact you've realised it is a pretty good thing. But put your hand in the hand of Jesus. He loves you and he died for you. Call out to him and trust him. He will save you'.

Jesus' prayer is a prayer of trust:
It is a prayer of trust in the face of unimaginable pain. [In order to take each gasp of breath, he would need to pull his body up, putting his whole weight on those nail torn hands. So he would pull himself up, breathe, and then - because of the pain - drop down; but then he couldn't breathe, so he would pull himself up, breathe, drop down; pull himself up, breathe, and drop down].
It was a prayer of trust in the face of agony and, no doubt, a longed for death.

It was a prayer that he could pray then, because he had prayed it many many times before.
It is a prayer that recognises that God is bigger even than death, and that in the end it is only God who we can trust.

Henri Nouwen wrote:
".. the Words of Jesus flashed through my mind: 'Father, into your hands, I commend my Spirit.' Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying, is to say, ' Do not be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don't try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust." (Father, Into Your Hands I commend my spirit; an excerpt from Our Greatest Gift, A Meditation On Dying And Caring, Harper, 1994)

And Jesus does not whisper the prayer.
He calls out in a loud voice: "Father into your hands I commit my Spirit".

He wanted people to hear him.
This is a prayer of trust, but it is also a declaration.
He wanted them to know that his Father can be trusted.
He wanted satan to know that despite his worst - far worse than what Job had to go through - he still trusts his heavenly Father.

He wanted them to know that there is no one else who he could trust.
He wanted them to know that there is no one else who he would have wanted to trust.
He wants us to know that there is someone who you can trust

3. This is a prayer of commitment, of self-giving to God.
Jesus is literally giving everything that he has, himself to his Father: 'Into your hands I commit my spirit'. He is not giving his body, because his earthly physical body is shot through. There really is nothing left.

For 33 years, he has given himself in life to God; now he gives himself in death to God.

This is a prayer which can be prayed by all people at all stages of life.

It is a prayer of commitment and surrender that can be prayed when a person begins to understand that there really is a God who loves them and who has a claim on their life.
It is a prayer of commitment and surrender that can be prayed by a person as they face their own death.
But it is also a prayer that can be prayed by you and me, here and now.

We look at the Father who loves us and gave us everything and then gave his Son for us.
We look at the Son of God who loves us and gave everything to us and then gave himself for us.
And we kneel down and we pray, 'Father into your hands I commit my spirit'.

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