The COVID-19 pandemic has brought hardship to many, and as it continues to drag on, leaders of the Christian church have come together to offer their messages of hope to the community. For Christians, this week marks the ultimate offering of hope as Jesus’ crucifixion is commemorated, and His resurrection is celebrated on Sunday.
Severely limited over the past year in how churches have been able to interact with both the community and their own congregations, Concord Presbyterian Church Pastor Ginny Teitt sought out the help of fellow pastors to express their own feelings on Jesus’ time on the cross and what His spoken words in the midst of anguish mean to them.
“This is kind of our COVID response to not being able to do a community service that we’ve done for decades,” Teitt said, adding that it was a fitting time to offer hope during a time where hope has been waning for so many.
“We have a weary people, and there’s been a lot of loss,” she said. “How can we not take advantage of the resurrection hope, and how could we lose the tradition of being a presence in the community?”
In reaching out to the various pastors, Teitt asked them to each hone in on a specific offering from Jesus’ Seven Words as he died on the cross. Second Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Michael A. Curtis dived into Jesus’ first statement, in which He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“To forgive is one of the most misunderstood qualities of the Christian community,” Curtis said. “To forgive can transform our relationship with God, with each other and ourselves. Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness was an act of love, an extension of mercy, and an opportunity for reconciliation with God. Divine forgiveness does not overlook sin or dismiss it lightly, but rather it is an act of love. God can now give us new hope through his grace, which is the favor God extended because of the prayer and the love Christ that was extended on that day on the cross.”
Jesus’ second word came as He spoke to one of the two criminals also being crucified. The criminal professed the crucifixion as just punishment for both himself and the second criminal, but in exclaiming Jesus’ innocence, asked that Jesus remember him when Jesus takes his kingdom. Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Hearing these words disconnected from their context, it is easy to imagine the speaker boarding a boat or preparing for some long road trip,” said Julie Morgan, pastor at Delaware City Vineyard. “Instead, we find Jesus bloodied and beaten, nailed and hanging from a cross, dying a death only He didn’t deserve. On either side hang two criminals, sentenced to the same death. One of them is able to see Jesus for who He really is — Savior and Redeemer — and believes that even as death is near, it is not too late for him. He too can be saved and boldly asks Jesus to remember him.
“Certainly, 2020 taught us, if we didn’t know it already, that life, along with beauty and growth, brings hardship and pain, often unforeseen. When my moments of suffering come, I want to be like this criminal; I want to look to Jesus to be my comfort and my promise, to listen for His still, small voice in the darkness. But I also want to be like Jesus, and see the other, even in the midst of my own suffering, when my own pain seems to loom so large. O’ that I would speak hope and be present to another. As we reflect on this gruesome yet good Friday, may we all consider how we can bring hope and promise to the world around us, and find Jesus, that He may fill us with life and hope anew.”
Dr. Mark Allison, the pastor at First Baptist Church, focused on Jesus’ third word, when Jesus spoke to his mother, Mary, and one of his disciples from the cross. Jesus said, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”
Allison said, “The first thing that comes to mind is the thoughtfulness of Jesus to make sure that in his absence, his mother would be cared for. Traditionally, this text has been used as a biblical encouragement for all of us to take care of aging parents, as Jesus did, and also to be aware of those around us who may need care, even if they are not biologically related. It is right, of course, that we should accept and honor these commitments, they are both responsibilities and privileges.
“Is there more to it than that? This moment is the most tender of all the moments of the cross. Jesus, in his distress and pain, was not thinking only of himself, but of others about whom he was concerned. And in this moment he gave us a new definition of family. One that not only includes the traditional view that family is inherited biologically, but also that we are family by grace. Right from the cross we learn that we are family. We are fathers and mothers and daughters and sons; we are sisters and brothers. Given the situation of the world, it staggers the imagination.”
Jesus’ fourth word has Him asking God, “Why have you forsaken me?” Tamara Wilden, Director of Field Education at Methodist Theological School in Ohio said Jesus’ words are all too familiar with what many Christians also feel today. Yet, it is important to remember that even Jesus was not spared from pain and suffering.
“Sometimes we feel abandoned by God, too,” Wilden stated. “We cry out. We question. We wonder, just like Jesus did, “Where is God?” Jesus was not spared pain and suffering. We remember the gift Jesus gave to us. We know Jesus and God understand our suffering and pain. It could not have been easy for God to place the sins of the world on His Son, and Jesus for a time felt the desolation of being unconscious of His Father’s presence.”
The fifth word Jesus spoke on the cross perhaps shows him very much in the human light, as his body began to succumb to its brutal injuries. Yet, Father Brett Garland of St. Mary Catholic Church in Delaware suggests there is a much deeper meaning to Jesus’ two simple words.
“This short remark reveals one of the most profound beliefs of the Christian faith,” Garland said. “On the cross, Jesus, the Son of God, entered into the depths of our human experience. He knows us. He is one of us. And he chooses to suffer with us. We have all come face to face with suffering during this past year. We are all yearning, thirsting, for a return to normalcy. Celebrations have been postponed and rites of passage canceled. Loved ones have died without the consolation of family members at their bedside.
“A year ago it felt as if Easter never came; instead, it’s been a long Good Friday. Think of all the things you have thirsted for in the past year; spending time with friends, embracing an aging parent, holding a newborn grandchild for the first time. And yet none can compare to Jesus’ thirst on the cross — his thirst for you and me. When he uttered, “I thirst” from the cross on that first Good Friday, he was speaking not so much of his need for water, but his need for us, his thirst for us — so much so that he entered into the depths of human suffering to demonstrate his love for us … During this long Good Friday, we have not suffered alone. Jesus always suffers with us because he loves us. And it is only by choosing to accept his self-giving love and sharing it with others that we can begin to quench Jesus’ thirst… and our own.”
After Jesus drank, his time on the cross came to an end with his final two statements. With his powerful statement that “it is finished,” Jesus handed over his spirit to God and fulfilled the prophecy. But for Christians on Earth, Rev. Deb Patterson of the First Presbyterian Church cautioned that their walk with Jesus is never finished.
“’It is finished’” are the three last words Jesus spoke before he died on the cross on that fateful Friday,” Patterson said. “Through His crucifixion and death, Jesus took on our brokenness so that humankind would be made whole with God. In that final act, we found our redemption with God. Now, nothing we will ever do will separate us from God’s love. In that act, it is finished.
“It is not the end though. Through the Easter morning resurrection of Jesus, God has promised us new life. We may want a lot of things finished in our lives, this pandemic, an illness, or suffering, a difficult relationship, our grief, or our debt. We may want our degree finished or our job finished, or whatever finished. These events will find their finish line, but with God, there is never a finish line. There is always more, more hope, more love, more life, more grace.”
With his final breath, Jesus proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Obedient to the end, Jesus’ final moment on Earth was a cry out to God to bring him home.
“What in heaven’s name does it mean to place one’s life into the hands of the Eternal God?” retired Ohio Wesleyan University Chaplain Jon Powers pondered. “I have no idea – yet! But, if the rest of this Rabbi’s earthly message holds any heavenly weight, I suspect it means that all our feeble bets are off! No more divisions! No more boundaries! No more walls of any kind! God only is in charge of all our silly walls of distinction and division.
“This past week has been a powerful blend of those silly walls of our quite commonly shared sacred heritages — Jesus’ Jewish Passover, our Christian Holy Week, and the preparatory plans for our cousins-in-Christ, our Muslims neighbors, who are about to celebrate their sacred Ramadan. My old, Swedish farm boy heart leaps at the thought that we all — Jew, Christian, Muslim cousins alike – might well shout in unison a prayerful, ‘Alleluia: “Father, I place my life in your hands!’ Imagine a resurrected life into such an eternal blessing that God has created us all to be at peace with one another.”
In addition to spreading hope to the community, Teitt said she hopes to unite the churches together — regardless of denomination — on the most aspect of each of their work, that being Jesus Christ.
“I feel like, at this time, we have to do better,” Teitt said. “We have to come together, even if we have great differences, we have to come together on the common ground of the hope of the resurrection and the answer that Jesus offers.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.