Fifth Sunday of Easter, rcl yr a, 2020
St. John’s in Quarantine
ACTS 7:55-60; PSALM 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 PETER 2:2-10; JOHN 14:1-14
Two of the last words of Christ on the cross, ones we will revisit today, come from Luke’s gospel. The first is: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” The second: as Jesus breathes his last, he says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
These two sayings speak powerfully to two different kinds of divine reconciliation. The first, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” speaks to Jesus’s desire for our reconciliation with him. In this way, Jesus isn’t speaking simply to the Romans tossing dice for his clothing; this moment of forgiveness is part of the larger programme, you might say, of divine life on earth: that Jesus comes to us not to condemn, but to forgive.
And so in these words we would hear words addressed to us: that we too, along with those Roman soldiers, would be forgiven, and reconciled to Jesus. And that in this forgiveness, this moment in the divine drama of our reconciliation to Jesus—our being embraced by Jesus—Jesus would show us the way to live: reconciled to one another, just as we are reconciled to God in Jesus.
The second saying from the cross for today, is “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and is a second moment of reconciliation: having been reconciled to Jesus, in his petition that we would be forgiven, we are caught up here in Jesus’s reconciliation to God the Father.
Jesus, representing us, gathering us into his life, can now in gentleness offer us all up to life in God, because as Jesus commends his own self to the Father he no longer does it alone—he does that with us, and for us, teaching us again, something of what it is to live: to live is to be drawn into God’s life, to recognise that God is present to us and ready to receive us, and welcome us into the life shared by the Father and the Son, in the bond of the Holy Spirit.
So there’s a kind of mystagogy here, a way of describing the ways God leads us, a kind of divine initiation at work, where we are first reconciled to Jesus, and then, invited into the life of Jesus, we are brought heavenward with Jesus, into the intimacy Jesus shares with the Father.
Or perhaps another way of saying it: Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life, by showing us the way of the cross, shows us the way of life, a life lived with him, and in him, a life of divine trust and intimacy.
So what does this look like? This way of the cross, as the way of life? We get something of a hint in Acts. Both of those sayings of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” come from Luke’s Gospel.
But Luke didn’t write just the Gospel; Luke carried on, writing Acts as well. And today we hear, in Acts, of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, a martyr Luke makes a special effort to describe as someone following the way of Jesus. Stephen does great deeds, wonders and signs, but offends the authorities with blasphemy. And so he’s hauled him in front of a council, where he gives a long sermon, enraging the council. And so Stephen is dragged outside the city, to be killed by stoning.
And this is when Stephen, in his own last words, says two things that should sound familiar to us by now. Stephen first says, near his end: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And then, just before he dies from stones thrown, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
The way of Jesus has become Stephen’s way.
And so we see two different things about Jesus’s life becoming part of the life of those that belong to Jesus. First: Jesus acts speaks for us. Even in times when we do not know what it means for God to be present to us, when our feelings are feelings of absence rather than presence, Jesus speaks for us, words we might not even know to say, commending us to the God who is present to him, and if present to him then present to those who are in him.
This is part of what it means to be reconciled in Christ—Jesus transfigures us by speaking for us, bringing us into the presence of the Father with him.
By speaking for us, we come to the second way that Jesus’s life becomes our life: we are not longer alone and at a loss for words. Jesus’s words become our words, like they became Stephen’s words.
Having just been brutally stoned for preaching a sermon and doing good deeds, Stephen knows the words of Jesus, because he belongs to the Jesus who says, “forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” The words of Jesus have become Stephen’s own.
But Stephen doesn’t just speak Jesus’s words of forgiveness—he speaks too of God’s presence to him, even in his suffering. In that moment of suffering, of brutality, Stephen had Jesus’s own words to say. The words that were once said for him are now his own, in Christ—and so he can look heavenward, in a moment of deep distress and anxiety, and say the words given to him in Christ, the one in whom he was reconciled—“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
If they are Stephen’s words, because he was reconciled to Christ in his Lord’s crucifixion, so too are they our words, in our time. We might petition God too for the mercy we know in Jesus: as we are are forgiven, so to would we forgive, asking God that he would have mercy on those who do us evil. In feelings of persecution we are not alone. We are in Christ, and his words are ours, our own words, now for others: “Forgive them Lord.”
And in our distress, Jesus’s words are our words too: in a time of deep suffering and pain, God is indeed near at hand, and ready with open arms for us, ready to receive us, and not simply in death: he is ready to be with us now, here for us, and here with us, in our lengthening distress. And we can say, too: “I commend myself wholly to you, Lord, even in my distress; even in my distress, Lord, I commend myself wholly to you, in trust and in love.”
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons