Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit – Rev'd Andrew Watson

What will be my last words here on earth? What will be yours? Lying in hospital or at home – surrounded I hope by a group of our closest family and friends – I wonder what we will want to communicate in those crucial, dying moments.

Over past years famous last words have been collected and treasured. They range from the funny – Oscar Wilde’s ‘Either that wallpaper goes or I do’ to the tragic – Princess Diana’s ‘My God – what’s happened?’ They move from the romantic, Napoleon’s last word ‘Josephine’ to the mundane: Humphrey Bogart’s ‘I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis!’

They encompass the deluded – the Roman Emperor Vespasian’s ‘Oh no: I think I’m turning into a god!’ and the genuinely faithful: the French King Charles 5th’s ‘Ay, Jesus’. They include the plain unfortunate: General Sir John Sedgewick’s ‘They couldn’t hit an elephant from that dist…’, and the visionary – Thomas Eddison’s ‘It is very beautiful over there’.

And in the final instalment of this series on the Seven Words from the Cross we come to Jesus’ last words – at least the last words before his glorious resurrection: words based on a verse from the Psalms – ‘Father into thy hands I commend my Spirit’.

There had been a time, just an hour or so before, when Jesus had not been able to utter the word ‘Father’: when the only Psalm he could quote from was one of the deepest abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Yet now that hour was past. Jesus had paid the full price for the sin of humanity. He had been declared guilty so that we could be pronounced innocent; alienated from God so that we could be reconciled to God. The great curtain in the Temple that divided ordinary worshippers from God’s presence had been ripped in two from top to bottom; the clouds had parted; and once again Jesus could pray,

‘Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit’.

Jesus had passed through many hands over the previous twenty-four hours. Judas had handed him over to the chief priests and the elders; the chief priests and elders had duly handed him over to Pilate. Pilate had washed his hands, before sending Jesus to be manhandled by his guards who’d mocked and beaten him, blindfolded him and taunted ‘Who hit you that time?’

Others had used their hands to weave a crown of thorns and thrust it onto Jesus’ head; still others to take up hammer and nails, to do the dirty work of the public executioner before lifting up the cross, then throwing dice for Jesus’ clothing. ‘The son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners’, Jesus had said at the end of the vigil in the garden of Gethsemane, and from that moment on his experience was of hands that whipped and stripped and nailed and impaled – treacherous hands, guilty hands, bullying hands, murderous hands. And what a relief after all that for Jesus to pray:

‘Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit’.

To the outsider it seemed that Jesus had lost control of the situation: that from the moment he was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane he was simply a victim of his circumstances, powerless to respond. But that was not the reality. As Jesus himself put it, ‘the reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life, only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’. Despite all appearances, the spirit had not been ripped from Jesus’ body: no, it was deliberately, carefully placed by Jesus himself into the loving hands of God:

‘Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit’.

And Jesus’ dying words, of course, could be taken as a model for all Christian believers, an expression of the deepest trust and security, and definitely more profound than ‘Either that wallpaper goes or I do!’ But commending our spirit to the Father – placing our lives in his hands – is not simply for the dying: it is also for the living.

Jesus’ words could be taken on our lips before we go to sleep: in the ancient office of compline, members of monastic communities pray every night, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit; you will redeem me, O Lord God of truth’. Yet commending our spirit to the Father – placing our lives in his hands – is not simply for the sleeping: it is also for the waking.

The conscious decision to live for God, to follow him, to seek his direction, to acknowledge that He knows best is, of course, a distinctly counter-cultural way to behave. While we willingly place our bodies into the hands of fallible surgeons when we know that there’s something wrong, we are somehow far more reluctant to place our spirits, our very selves, into the hands of an infallible God. Yet God’s service is perfect freedom: living for him is life at its best. And anyone whose first miracle was to turn 120 gallons of water into rather good wine could hardly be described as a kill-joy!

A true story with which to finish: the great 19th century acrobat Blondin had chosen, for one of his stunts, to stretch an 1100 metre tightrope over the Niagara Falls, and to walk across it. ‘Do you believe I can do it?’ he shouted out to the assembled crowd. ‘Yes, Blondin’, they shouted back, ‘you can do anything’; and he duly walked across.

A week later the crowd assembled for another feat. Blondin was going to walk across the Niagara Falls once more, but this time pushing a wheelbarrow in front of him. ‘Do you believe I can do it?’ he shouted again. ‘Yes, Blondin’, the crowd shouted back, ‘you can do anything’. ‘Do you believe I can do it with someone sitting in the wheelbarrow?’ Blondin persisted. ‘Yes Blondin, you can do anything!’ ‘So who’s going to sit in the wheelbarrow?’ – and there was a deathly hush!

Who’s going to sit in the wheelbarrow? Who is going to entrust their very lives into the hands of our all-knowing, all-loving Heavenly Father. It’s a prayer for our waking and a prayer for our sleeping, a prayer for our living and a prayer for our dying:

‘Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit’.

Rev’d Andrew Watson, Vicar of St Stephen’s Church, East Twickenham
2nd March 2008

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