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Good Friday Meditations: The Last Word Series – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

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Title: Mark’s Last Word, Matthew’s Last Word, Luke’s Last Word 

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  7 April 2023  12pm – 1.30pm 

Mark’s last word

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When one of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.”  And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”  Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

One of the big questions raised by the events of Good Friday is a question which sounds very, very simple – but is, in fact, rather complicated. The big question of today is, at its simplest, one of identity: who is it that dies today?

We can, I think, all agree – and by ‘all’, I don’t just mean you and me here in this cathedral this afternoon. By all, I mean the voice of history, tradition and reason that has been the backbone of Christianity for 2000 years. We can agree that a man from Nazareth by the name of Jesus dies today. But that is about as much as it is possible to say without raising some fairly big questions.

For people were executed all the time by the Roman authorities in first-century Palestine. The bad and the ugly, and quite possible a number of the good as well. The rule of the occupiers’ law was hard and fast, and all the more effective for that.

But the question remains, albeit in slightly nuanced form – who, or perhaps what, is it that dies today?

When you embark on the study of theology, one of the disciplines you rapidly encounter is called Christology. Christology is about working out what on earth we actually mean when we talk about the Christ. Or, in other words, just exactly what do we think Jesus whom we call Christ actually was – or, indeed, still is? And the nub of this debate – the key to this question – is all about whether Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is properly human, and/or is properly divine, and/or is both.

This was a big, big question during the first four hundred years of Christianity, and different theologians and bishops had very differing answers. There were those who said it was impossible to hold that God was one, and that Jesus could be divine. There were others who said that, in essence, if Jesus wasn’t divine, all this was a load of fuss about nothing, and of no value to folk like you and me.

And there were arguments about how it might be he could manage to be both. Arguments that sometimes verged on him only appearing to be human, or only appearing to be God – all of which were expressed in philosophical terms that would make any normal person’s head spin in this day and age.

Needless to say, this kind of stuff was, and continues to be really quite hard for most theological students to follow. It feels, in its way, only one small step away from debating how many angels can be found on the head of a pin. But I was blessed with a lucid and clear-minded teacher who said that, to preserve what you and I might think of as a conventional, orthodox Christian faith, there were three simple rules that had to be upheld. And the rules were easy to remember, as they all sounded the same – at least at first.

All you needed to remember, so this wise and learned man said, was

It must be God who becomes human.

And then he repeated this maxim two more times.

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

Our teacher could see that we were still scratching our head, so he clarified it for us – and showed us why he repeated his saying three times. For, he said:

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

Or, to be slightly more serious and easy to explain – it must be God, and no lesser being, that becomes human – if the Christ is only a watered-down form of God, that’s no use to anyone, least of all you and me.

And God truly must become human. It can’t be play-acting or make-believe. God really has to do this living as a human experience. The act of becoming has to be genuine, and not a charade.

And, finally, and for St Mark, most importantly, it must be proper humanity that God embraces. In other words, he mustn’t just look like it – he can’t just pop down from heaven in a kind of spacesuit with a human face painted on it. God in Christ really must become just like us.

And that’s a big order – but it is, for St Mark, the last word on the subject. And much of Mark’s gospel, and much of Mark’s passion story is shot through with hints that, in the eyes of this gospel writer, Jesus is gut-wrenchingly human. Indeed, one of Mark’s favourite turns of phrase, often translated in rather genteel terms as indicating that Jesus was deeply moved is really about a visceral response to injustice that gets Jesus knotted up in his bowels or stomach, he is so upset.

And Mark gives us a hint of all this, literally, in the last words he reports from the lips of Jesus. Words which have made generations of clergy stumble to ensure they are pronouncing them correctly: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabacthani – words which, translated, we recognize as the opening words of Psalm 22 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We know the translation well. Psalm 22 is one of the great psalms of despair, at least in its beginning. But the question Mark raises for us is what language are the words which Jesus utters? And a secondary question, for those who know the New Testament well, might be whether those words are the same words we find in Matthew’s account of the last words – for Matthew recounts Jesus as crying out Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani. Matthew takes out one letter ‘o’, and Eloi become Eli.

Why, you might ask? Or even more crisply and relevantly – why does this even matter?

I want to suggest to you it’s just a little, very Marcan clue or reminder that this is an utterly human Jesus we see dying on the cross. But you would have to go to a small village about an hour outside Damascus in Syria, really to understand this today. For in the village of Maaloula, which is a tiny little place, the inhabitants of the village are about the only community left in the world who still speak Aramaic as their native language. And Aramaic was the language which Jesus spoke on a day to day basis as his mother tongue.

It’s not a biblical language. You won’t need me to remind you that the Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, and that the New Testament was written in Greek. And when St Matthew quotes Jesus’ last, despairing cry, he does so in Hebrew – the ‘real’ language of the Jews, and certainly a language Jesus would have known well….but not his native tongue. Mark, however, gives Jesus his last words in his own, real vernacular Aramaic. And the only difference in those four words is that letter ‘o’ – Eloi not Eli.

 That may sound to you a trivial, semantic difference. But Mark, like all the evangelists, was concerned with the detail as well as the big storyline. And for Mark it was not enough simply to have that all too human cry of utter despair. For Mark it was not enough to portray a Jesus showing full, vivid human emotions of anger, terror and despair. For Mark it was not enough to have Jesus die this most abject death, broken, vulnerable, and so utterly alone that he felt even God had deserted him. Mark had to underscore that point, for those who were ready to listen to or read his gospel with care. Mark had to have Jesus speaking his ‘real’ language. Even by the simple, almost throw-away use of one single vowel, Mark is using his last word to say to us, this God has become utterly, completely, fully human.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is.


Matthew’s last word

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Ò You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’ ”

Do you remember what you were doing 45 days ago? Ordinarily, that would be an absurd and impossible question to answer. Today, however, you might just have a clue that six Sundays and forty other days make up the season of Lent, and thus the penny might just drop that 45 days ago you were gathered once again in church, to mark out the beginning of Lent.

I don’t know about you, but to me, it feels like a long time ago, and it has certainly been a long journey, as we have inched closer and closer towards the foot of the Cross. And it feels a long time ago that we confronted our own mortality in the simple, chilling formula that accompanies the imposition of ashes – Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Lent opens with a stark reminder of the profoundly ordinary quality of us and our flesh, and the heavy dose of realism that we are no more than dust, and dust will be our final state.

And from those chilling, profound words, we have had a holy season with which to grapple with sin, and with the cause of sin, which we call temptation. And four days on from Ash Wednesday, on the first Sunday of this great season, we are always confronted by the story of Jesus being tempted. Tempted for forty days in the desert, battling with the shadowy figure we call the devil.

It feels a long time ago, but the memory of it, I am sure, lurks in your minds, for it is a well known gospel story. A ravenous, probably despairing Jesus, after forty days of fasting, is rounded on by the devil. And they speak of stones and bread, and pinnacles and dashed feet, and kingdoms and worship. And, each time as the devil goads Jesus, he challenges him by saying If you are the Son of God…

 If you are the Son of God… turn stones to bread

If you are the Son of God…throw yourself down

If you are the Son of God…worship me

If, if, if…. could you bear it? Could you bear it if you knew it all to be true??

The Temptation story is a profoundly uncomfortable story precisely because we know, and Jesus knows, that the devil is right. All that goading, all that taunting… You say you are the Son of God… prove it…

His Majesty’s diplomats – consuls, ambassadors, and other senior figures – are customarily rewarded for good service by being appointed as members of the Order of St Michael and St George, and thus, depending on their status, get allowed to put after their names CMG, KCMG, or GCMG, designating them as being Companions, Knights or Grand Knights of this strange order.

It may be that being an ambassador requires one to put on airs, but the rest of the Civil Service likes to joke that these three sets of letters actually stand for Call me God, Kindly call me God, and, at the most senior, God calls me God.

And here is the devil, doing exactly this with Jesus. He is making him the most truthful member of the diplomatic honors system – he calls him what he is. God – or at least, the Son of God. If you are the Son of God…

And when Matthew tells the story, he deliberately brings it to a climax on a very high mountain, from which Jesus can see all the kingdoms of the world, where the devil attempts to demand that Jesus worship him.  Jesus, of course, as you will remember, has no truck with this, and sends the devil packing, and angels take his place, to wait on Jesus.

But now the angels have gone. We have leapt to the end of our six-week journey, and temptation and testing have been replaced by desertion and despair. We come, today, to the last scene of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, to find him arms outstretched on a cross, nailed there like a common criminal. And it is time for us to look at St Matthew’s account of this dreadful scene, and see if we can work out what Matthew’s last word is on this extraordinary death.

I spoke just now about the three simple rules of Christology that I was once taught. That God really must become fully human, that it must, genuinely, be God who becomes human, and that God must really become human.

Mark’s last word which we considered just now, emphasizes very clearly that God, in Jesus, has become completely and totally human. Now, as we look at the same scene through the eyes of St Matthew, I want to suggest that he is helping us understand that, truly, it is God and no substitute or imitation that, in Jesus, has taken flesh.

Because, for Matthew, I think it hangs in the way, in the precise way, in which Jesus is taunted as he dies.

If….If….If….  If you are the Son of God…. come down from the cross.

 Because, for Matthew, the mocking of the dying Jesus is, incredibly, another temptation.  If… If… If… you are the Son of God – turn stones to bread, throw yourself down into angels’ arms, worship the devil…. If you are the Son of God…come down from the cross.

The Temptation story is not, of course, about If you are the Son of God… The evangelist knows that Jesus is the Son of God. Call me God… Kindly, call me God… yes, even God, calls me God, to use diplomatic language.

The Temptation story if about what it means to be God. The Temptation story is about how God behaves, if you like – it is about how God chooses to show God’s creation the nature of God. It is about how God guarantees God will be, and what God will not do, no matter how much the devil may want it…. no matter how much we may want it.

And for Matthew, his deft telling or re-telling of the crucifixion of Jesus, his unique inclusion in this narrative that has the chief priests, the scribes and the elders taunt Jesus by saying If you are the Son of God… come down from the cross, for Matthew, this is, if you like, a last word on what it truly means to be God.

For God can, indeed, turn stones to bread, and God can, indeed, jump off high places and be guarded by angels. God can utter all sorts of powerful words if God thinks it right to do so. And God could come down from the cross – but then, what kind of god would God be?

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak.

They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne.

But to our wounds, only God’s wounds speak.

And no other god has wounds, but thou alone.

(Edward Shillito, Jesus of the Scars)

Matthew gives us his last word in his unique telling of the crucifixion narrative. If you are the Son of God come down from the cross, they cry out.

And because he is the Son of God, he will not.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is. Amen.


Luke’s Last Word

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”  One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

As we move from hearing Matthew’s last word on the Cross, on the death of the Son of God, to seeing how Luke depicts the final moments of Jesus’ life, things have changed for us, quite dramatically. If you open up the Passion narratives from the four gospels, you will find a great deal in common between Mark and Matthew, but when you come to look at how Luke tells us the details of this ultimate story, somehow the feel is very different.

A few minutes ago, we were considering Matthew’s last word – how Matthew wants us to be clear that it is, indeed, the Son of God who is nailed to the cross. And that last word, as I said, helps us, who are wounded and vulnerable, to know that God has direct and personal experience of brokenness and death.

Luke’s last word, I think, Luke’s last word takes a different tack, but also has something vital to offer us as we contemplate the death of Jesus. The mood that pervades Luke’s account of Jesus’ execution is a very different mood to the other three gospel accounts. It would be going too far to suggest that for Luke this is a happy ending, and not a sad one, but Luke has a last word to offer us that is more overtly Good News, perhaps, than the other gospels. And that, I think, is because Luke wants us to understand that in this death – this very regrettable death – something redemptive is really going on here.

For it is strange, is it not, that this is the day of the year that we call Good? There are so many obvious candidates for the title Good in the Christian calendar, but, if we were starting from scratch, I doubt if you or I would label today, of all days, Good. You might think of putting that label on the Sunday we will reach in two days’ time, when all is joy and excitement – the new life of Easter, surely, is good? Or the day that we celebrate Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem – surely it is a good day when we celebrate that the Word has become flesh. But this day – this day of all days – this is good?

Well, says Luke, the last words I want to give you are, truly Good News – Good News even in the context of the death of Christ, the death of the Son of God. And for Luke, the news is Good, and the day is Good, because it makes a difference. It makes a difference to you and me. And you can see that it makes a difference.

The nails go in. The Roman soldiers do their job, and nail the Son of God to a cross. And Mark and Matthew and John get on with the action. But not Luke. Luke wants to give us the last word of redemption – Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

The Centurion stands to watch the proceedings and sees Jesus die. The other evangelists have him tell us that this was the Son of God – to which one might, just perhaps, say, “Whoops”. Bad news. Better not to try and execute a relative of the Almighty. But Luke wants to tell us of redemption: Certainly, says the Centurion, this man was innocent. The executioner is prepared to own up to a big mistake right there and then.

Everyone is being redeemed. Things are unpleasant and unfortunate, but blame is being avoided and people are being forgiven.

And then there is the thief – the so-called penitent thief.

And let’s be honest. Was ever a label so inappropriately given? Even Luke – even the kind-hearted and non-judgmental Luke is clear that Jesus is crucified surrounded by two criminals. And while it is certainly the case that one of them gets into an argument with the other one about the merits or not of crucifying Jesus, there is not a hint – not a jot or tittle – not the tiniest scent of anything approaching penitence with this man at all.

I hope that, on this day of all days, I don’t have to remind any of you that penitence means saying sorry. And there is not a single mention of apology with Luke’s portrayal – which is the only portrayal in the four gospels – the man we call the ‘penitent thief’ is actually, when you look at the facts, impenitent!

He’s argumentative – very happy to argue with the other dying criminal. And he’s cheeky, or possible opportunistic – hey, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Or perhaps he is plain sarcastic….) But penitent he is not. And it doesn’t matter! That, surely, is Good News. That, surely, is redemption.

This man is a chancer. Perhaps it was being a chancer that got him nailed to the cross for his pains. But he chances it one last time. And he hears the other thief talk up the idea of Jesus being the Messiah. Well, maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. But, like Voltaire, who on his deathbed, when asked to renounce the devil, exclaimed as his last word that it wasn’t the time to be making enemies, in a similar spirit, this thief isn’t going to argue with these Messianic claims.

And so he says, maybe just as an outside chance, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. It is, at the very least, a cheeky request, and there is nothing penitential about it at all. And yet, none of that matters. Truly says Jesus, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Earlier, as I was telling you about the three ways that we have to think about who and what Christ is, I explained how I was taught that God really must become fully human – which Mark’s last word emphasizes for us. And I explained  that it must, genuinely, be God who becomes human – something which Matthew’s last word underlines for us.

The third piece of that jigsaw to help us understand who and what Christ is – especially who Christ is as he hangs on the cross – is that God really must, properly, have become human. It can’t just be some kind of divine cross-dressing act. God has to have become, and not just seem like one of us. Because only if God has become human can he really do anything to respond to human need. And that’s what Luke’s last word gives us right now, as we look at this extraordinary, cheeky, wonderful encounter with a thief who is a smart lad, but utterly impenitent!

God, who has truly become like one of us, can look at this outrageous character, just as he can look at you and at me, and use last words to say Today you will be with me in paradise.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is.

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