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

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Title: The Last Word of All

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  7 April 2023  5.30pm

When Jesus had received the wine, he said It is finished.

Back in 1993, a 74-minute CD was released by an English composer. A distinguished English composer, who has written some very well-acclaimed pieces that have been performed by a number of internationally renowned artists. But this record was not quite like his other ones, for it consisted entirely of one phrase of music being played again and again, and the music in question was a man singing the refrain of a hymn.

Now if you think it strange that someone could release CD consisting of part of a hymn being sung over and over, what made it even stranger was who it was that was singing. For this was no professional singer – quite the reverse. The singing is actually a tape-recording from the early 1970s, taken from material compiled by the BBC for a documentary about life in slums of inner-city South London now long-since demolished. And the researchers for this documentary came across an old man on a sitting on a lonely bench singing to himself – quite unaware that he was being overheard. And as he sat there he sang:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

The voice of this old man sounds ragged and pathetic; he was clearly someone not only well advanced in years, but clearly not in the best of health. There are frequent pauses for breath in between the clauses of the song, and his aged voice sounds pretty toothless, and conveys all the signs and sounds of extreme poverty. And yet he sung

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

It is a performance, in its way, of great grace and serenity. Were you to listen to the recording, which is widely available in all the usual places, you would realise at once how near the bottom of the social scrap-heap this man must have been. And yet, he sings this genuinely pathetic and touching refrain, this most unexpected and unlikely affirmation of faith in God’s love and support.

Today, of course, we are singing rather older and more venerable songs. Songs not from the 1970s, but songs rooted in ancient traditions of the church. We have, indeed, just sung one of the four accounts of Christ’s passion, and sung it in a musical style the origins of which are more than 1500 years old. And all of that feels, perhaps, appropriately Good for such a distinguished setting as the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York which we know as York Minster – appropriately Good for a holy day that the Church has labelled – so paradoxically – as being Good.

And that, in itself, is a strange last word – a very strange last word to ascribe to the day that the Son of God dies. An even stranger last word to ascribe to the day that the Son of God not merely dies, but is unjustly and cruelly executed by a conspiracy of corrupt and callous humans, too bent on their own agenda to notice the incarnate Love of God present in their midst.

And so it is, on this day of days, that we hear that ultimate, final Last Word: When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”

And this last word is inexorable and inescapable. For century upon century upon century, across the entire Christian world, it has always John’s account of the Passion that has been read on the day that Christ dies. And thus the last word of all is always, and can only ever be It is finished.

For these are very human words. We are finite people, and we live in a world of beginnings and endings. And we know that every beginning comes to an ending – whether the ending is happy or sad. A lovely holiday finishes. A lifetime’s employment finishes. A love affair finishes. Every single life that is lived comes to its conclusion, prematurely, or after many years – life finishes.

This last word is no more and no less than the ultimate statement of the human condition – for we are finite, and thus we have no other destiny but to finish. As creation begins, so it must end – and endings are hard, for every ending is, in its way, a death. And yet…. And yet that old man, who had, I am sure, lived out most of the years of his life, that old man could sing

This one thing I know, that he loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

This one thing I know…. That he loves me so…

And that is the big clue…. That is the key to the mystery of this day… that is the lens through which Saint John calls us to view the Cross, to view the the broken and pierced body that hangs upon it, to view the death of God, inexorably shot through with the Love of God. And, for Saint John, and for the Church of God, it is the triumph of that love which allows us… which dares us…. Which demands of us that we call this day Good.

Nearly 40 years ago, one of the finest priests who has ever ministered in the Church of England, a man with a theological brain that could have guaranteed him a professorial career of great distinction in any university, but who chose to devote himself entirely to parish ministry – nearly 40 years ago, well into his fifties, this man wrote an account of the nature of the church’s ministry that many regard as a spiritual classic of the 20th Century.

In it he explains all sorts of not insignificant ways the church brings benefits to society, many of which are as valid today in the Britain of 2023, as they were back in the 1970s. He would, I am sure, have applauded how the Church of God has, in the last fifty years, become much more conscious of the call of what many people call social justice. But ultimately, he says, it is not for this service that the Church…makes its offering…

 The Church offers itself to the triumph of the love of God… The Church lives at the point where the love of God is exposed to its final possibility of triumph or tragedy – the triumph of being recognized as love, the tragedy of so passing unrecognized that the final gift, the gift of which all other gifts are symbols, the gift of love itself is never known. The Church cannot endure that this tragedy should be…for it recognizes…the love of God is no controlled unfolding of a predetermined purpose according to an assured programme… But rather….

That upon which all being depends is love expended in self-giving…[love] without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent: love…on the brink of failure…yet ever finding new strength to redeem tragedy…and restore again the possibility of triumph.

That weary and broken old man – he knew this. He knew it in the very fibre of his being, which was why he could dare to sing

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

For pretty much everything had failed him. His friends and family had failed him. His community had failed him. His country and his politicians had failed him. All those who should have supported him had failed him, and, in our own day, we fail him and so many like him again and again and again. But Jesus – Jesus, who we see today, so finished upon the cross – Jesus had not failed him – had not failed him and could not fail him. Could not fail him because of and not despite of the shedding of his blood.

For today, on this Friday we call Good, we hear the Last Word of an incarnate God who thinks big – who thinks bigger and more daringly than the world had or has ever witnessed. The God Incarnate who, at the very start of his ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, encouraged his followers to be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect. A tall order you may well think. But in this ultimate last word, we get the clue to that. For last night, were reminded that Jesus loved his own to the end – to love so completely finished that it is made perfect.

And today, on this stark day of horror and of triumph and of life, we see a Jesus who has put all in order, and done all that he came to earth to accomplish. To make sure that all is complete, he’s even prepared to drink sour wine. And then, in triumph, and in control – he bows his head, and he gives up his spirit. This is not just what some might call a good death, it is very much more than that….

When Jesus had received the wine, he said It is finished.

This is the last Last Word, because it is the word not of despair and brokenness, but of completion and perfection. Of a life so perfectly lived in tune with God’s will, and a love so perfectly loved in tune with God’s love.

That is the last word which God’s church is called to proclaim anew in each and every generation – a last word of paradox and triumph, enunciated by a broken figure reigning from a criminal’s cross.

As Gavin Bryars, the composer who made famous this old man’s song, as he was working on this recording one morning, he went to make a coffee, and he left the tape-loop of the old man playing in his office, adjacent to a staff common room in the university in which he worked, unaware that the song would be overheard.

When he came back with his drink, he says, “I found the normally lively room subdued. People were moving about more slowly than usual, and a few were sitting alone, quietly, weeping.”

For in his eloquent and melodic Last Word, that old man sung of love perfected upon the Cross. Of a love which would never fail him – which would never fail the world. A Love that could drink sour wine and proclaim the triumph of God’s work as it exclaims It is finished.

For that is the ultimate last word from the cross and about the cross. It is the Last Word about what Bill Vanstone so aptly called  Love’s Endeavour and Love’s Expense. It is the Last Word on which, and only on which, you and I can dare to rely. For it is the last human word that demonstrates the eternal truth that He only became human, that He only did any and all of this, and did it so perfectly, that we might become divine.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

What Last Word will you dare sing today?

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