Sermon / April 14, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / John 19:30 / Good Friday
“When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”
“It is finished.” Those of you who have been in church on Good Friday over the years know how the image of Jesus bowing his head and breathing his last breath are an indelible part of your religious imagination. It’s an image of Jesus utterly alone, at the end of the road. Scripture records no comment from those standing around the cross. There was nothing left to say, or perhaps what was said did not seem to matter anymore. Because it was finished.
It’s worth thinking carefully about what Jesus meant by the “it” in “It is finished.” In one sense, the “it” refers to Jesus’s vocation to be faithful to us even unto death. And so as he died, he marked the accomplishment of this companionship with us by saying, “It is finished.” The job is over and done with. Jesus has completed the sacrifice of his life with the sacrifice of his body. He has given us everything he had to give. And so with those words, he closes the book on his earthly life.
You may have had similar experiences in your life – of things being clearly over, clearly ended. We’ve experienced this together, in our national life. Those of you old enough to remember the assassination of President Kennedy know that that was such a time. When we recall what we were doing when we heard the news of his death, we are remembering “before” and “after”. We are remembering how the way we think about what is possible changed forever. The day that the Berlin Wall fell was also such a day. And of course, September 11. Our lives as we knew them were finished. My son Jeff was 20 years old and he was at ground zero when the attack happened. As he lay weeping on his bed later in the day, he cried out, “I will never be the same person again.” And “This is a Godless day!”
“It is finished.”
It happens to all of us, daily, without our realizing it. You walk with a friend or a spouse or a relative through a long terminal illness. When it is over there appears a clear edge in life, an unmistakable clarity. Or you finish high school and know you are not a child anymore. Or a marriage ends. You give up the booze and you begin to see the world in living color again. You begin to see the hand of God in your life and faith blossoms in you and you find yourself in church. You let your life speak and finally you find the work you were meant to do and nothing is the same again. You look back at the life you lived before and you say, “It is finished.” In all these things there is a “before” and “after” that will always be with you.
I think I’ve mentioned to you before that my younger sister was murdered when she was a teenager. She had never been the most predictable or happiest of kids and in her late teens she “made some bad choices” as we say euphemistically, and one night she ended up a thousand miles away from home in a city park in Austin, Texas, trying to buy $200 worth of weed without the $200. The kid she tried to rip off pulled out a gun and shot her in the head and then he raped her and set her on fire. Her body was not found for many hours, not until dawn. When the Texas State Police called, the officer said to me, “There’s been an accident.” I will never forget his attempt to ease us into that clear demarcation between “before” and “after”, the way he lied to spare us the truth, if only for an hour or so, when they had to tell us what had really happened.
On the morning of my sister’s funeral, the undertaker sent a kind of limousine to pick us up and bring us to the church. It was a hideous vehicle, a long sleek car of death. As the car inched along slowly in the funeral procession, my mother and brother wept freely. My father bowed his head and said, “There’s no use crying. It’s all over now.”
“It’s all over.” I have thought about those words for many years. My father didn’t mean only that my sister’s life was over. He meant that everything we had known was over. My sister had died and in a sense our family had died. He knew the despair delivered by the hand of death, when life becomes an empty pit and the way you have understood God is finished. Gone, forever. Your life has been crucified.
It is this void, this despair, that Jesus was sent into this world to redeem. And so when he says, “It is finished”, he refers not only to his willingness to get slammed on a cross (because that is what the world does to people who speak the truth and refuse to capitulate to evil). He’s also speaking about his vocation in a larger, even cosmic, sense.
We often assume that Jesus’s physical suffering on the cross was itself what redeemed us. I was taught, as a child, that Jesus suffered more than anyone had ever suffered, and that this extreme suffering was what appeased God and persuaded God to let us off the hook for our sin. This is of course an incorrect, medieval understanding of the cross. And we all know that right now, people all over the world are undergoing the same extremity of suffering that Jesus did.
The greater suffering for Jesus must have been his existential suffering, the agony of his spirit. Think about it. All through his life, at every moment, he had been in perfect communion with his Father. He had never known alienation from God. Now, he does. This is hard for us to understand, because as sinners we are habituated to feeling somewhat alienated from God. But Jesus, who had never sinned, now knows the consequence of sin: utter separation from God. It inhabits him, and it breaks him.
In a sense, this is a rupture within God himself. God witnesses his own death, and he reels from it. On the cross, God meets us completely in sin and death. God now experiences human life fully, and so there is nothing that separates us from God anymore. I suppose you could call it a “before” and “after” experience within the Divine. God now knows exactly what it is like to be human. God now knows what it is like to sit in a shiny sleek vehicle of death, and hear someone say, “It is finished.”
This was the inner work of the cross. This was what lay behind the nails and the thorns and the blood and the screaming. God and humanity are finally one. And somehow, in that uniting death, something new has been conceived. What it will be, we don’t yet know. We will let this day expire. We will let this day finish itself. We will wait while Jesus rests in his tomb. And then we shall see.