It Is Finished–Good Friday 2015
Seventh Last Word: “It Is Finished” (John 19:30)
Presented at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio on Good Friday, April 3, 2015
I had the privilege, the honor and the great sadness of being present at the deaths of both my mother and father. They did not die in a hospital or suddenly. They died at home, in bed. I suppose it is a common inclination to dwell on their last words. We remember last words. My three siblings and I have agreed that Dad’s last words were: “Get some rest.” He apparently felt we were taxing ourselves hovering around his bed. And my mother’s? The ones I remember the best as she spent her nine last days in a semi-comatose state were: “Take time to smell the roses!”
And so there are these three last words of Jesus: “It is finished!” They are only recorded in John’s Gospel. John was reportedly at the foot of the cross; he would certainly remember them. Or perhaps he wanted these words to sum up the story of Jesus, who was John’s hero, the person he equated with the Word, with God, and wasn’t John the disciple Jesus loved?
So what did Jesus mean when he cried out: “It is finished?” What does the “IT” refer to? The words are translated in Latin as Consummatum est [“It is consummated!”] But look at the original Greek: The word is tetelestai which was written on business receipts in New Testament times indicating that a bill had been paid in full.
And so to John’s Greek-speaking readership; it would be unmistakable that Jesus Christ had died to pay for their sins. [From: Bible.org].
So that’s the usual interpretation: And if we agree with it, if we feel we are now close to understanding who God is, if we feel that we owe it to hundreds of years of tradition to believe that Jesus was the scapegoat for our sins, we will feel—what? Guilty?, Repentant? –but comforted? grateful? We laid our sins on him and he was killed so that God could once again love us or see only the sacrifice of his son instead of our ugly sins.
It is almost completely irresistible to accept this interpretation. “It is finished” then means that our sins were paid for; God’s wrath appeased; we are redeemed, bought back, restored by the Second Adam to the favor that the first Adam (and his wife, of course) screwed up, lost, forfeited—the original sin!
It is comforting, isn’t it, to trace Scripture from that fateful third book of Genesis through the Exodus and Law and Judges and Kings and Prophets and Gospels and Letters and Revelation to conclude: Jesus was sent by God to sacrifice himself for our sins, to save us from God’s wrath and from hell. And when he died, It Was Finished! He had saved us; he had redeemed us, bought us back with his blood, appeased his Father, took away our sins! Isn’t that what we believe (Jn 3:16?) and what our beloved hymns proclaim and perhaps why we are here during these three hours today, on Good Friday?
May I turn this jewel of Good Friday slightly to consider it from a different angle? Doesn’t that traditional interpretation create the danger of freeing us from paying very close attention to Jesus’s LIFE? –A life so concerned with the people at society’s margins: the poor, the diseased, the possessed, the despised tax collectors and sinners, the aliens (we would call them immigrants now, wouldn’t we?), people of low status in those days like children and widows and prostitutes and thieves; and now if we are concerned with where to find him since his body ascended into heaven?: ah yes, says Matthew 25, we find him in the hungry and thirsty and naked and imprisoned (Mt. 25).
Pope Francis couldn’t resist putting a Latin phrase into his Lenten sermon this year: Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum.” “Make our hearts like yours.” Does it make any sense to interpret “It is finished” as Jesus saying: “My life is my example for you humans that I love. I did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied myself and took the form of a servant (Phil. 2). IF you follow my example, I will have SAVED you. My example of praying, doing and acting; relying on my Father for help and support, will make it possible for you to get beyond your selfishness, even your irritation and hatred of each other and to love my father with all your hearts, and to love each other as you wish to be loved.”
The question is phrased—perhaps irreverently—by Tony Jones in his new book: Did God kill Jesus?. No. God so loved the word, He sent His Son to show us the Way to save us from ourselves; and so that, writes Jones, God could experience suffering and dying and violence and even–abandonment. In becoming human, writes Jones, God learned about, FELT, our suffering, our dying, and our feelings of abandonment that He/She could not experience as God!
That was the plan. That IS the plan. And it’s all about love, about God being with us. –Difficult love in a cracked world. As Sister Joan Chittister once said (TEDx Women Talk): “God didn’t make nuclear weapons; WE did! And we can unmake them as soon as we WANT to!” But what would it take to want to unmake them? “Did you not suppose,” the evangelist Matthew (26:53) quoted Jesus when the powers-that-were came to arrest him, “that I can call on my Father to provide in a moment’s notice more than twelve legions of angels?”
What would it take for us NOT to counter violence with violence? –to make our hearts like his? Violence stopped with him. The world was so cracked that people in it killed Jesus rather than have their structures of oppression overturned. They couldn’t stand it that a LOT of people wanted to be like him, follow him, to be led by that kind of King.
We have a long way to go. The turning around, the metanoia necessary for us to—as Brian McLaren quoted on the cover of his book—“make the road by walking” is not as easy as doing an about face like a marine at the tomb of the unknown soldier. After all, the people closest to Jesus didn’t get it either; they completely missed what he was meaning. Some say he spoke in parables so they would have to think about them and not immediately accept or reject his ideas .
The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who lost a coin, a shepherd who lost a sheep, a man who fell among thieves, a son who ran off with his inheritance. A lot to think about, because it’s a completely DIFFERENT notion of what a kingdom is! Riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was NOT about humility, but about leadership, kingship. Kings at that time did this at their annual enthronement celebrations: they rode into the city on a donkey. But shortly after his procession, at the Passover meal, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. “Here’s the kind of King I am. Here’s the paradigm to follow. It will bring you suffering, if you continue after I finish. And I have to finish my bodily experience here so I can become your cosmic Christ, your way through suffering, so I can send you my Spirit!”
My father’s last words –“Get some rest,” come back to me when I have at last put some meditation time into my daily schedule and when I see all of the wonderful emphases these days on contemplation by people like Richard Rohr, and eastern mysticism by people like the Buddhist nun, Ani Palmo, and the prayer groups all over the place. “Get some rest” now means to me: Experience the presence of God! And my Mother’s admonition to take time to smell the roses now reminds me of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Altar of the World and Walter Brueggeman’s book on the Sabbath, Henri Nouwen’s hands open to new realities, Thich Nhat Hanh’s contemplative prayer, and my dear Rev. Cam Miller, an episcopal priest who moved from Buffalo to a town in rural Vermont, but who writes a blog that is read by people all over the world. And then there’s Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, and yes, Marcus Borg.
Marcus Borg died on January 21, 2015 at the age of 72. His memorial service at Trinity Episcopal in Portland, Oregon was just held this past Sunday. You may have heard him speak during one of his trips to Cleveland. He wrote over 20 books, but the one just published certainly contains HIS LAST words. It’s called Convictions. It will lead you to a new approach to Scripture and to a whole new understanding of Jesus’s words. I wish I had time to summarize Borg’s words for you. Join any group that studies it.
Neither my mother nor my father (nor Jesus, I think) would want me to spend the rest of my days getting some rest and smelling roses. No. Before I am finished, I need to make the road by walking, to hear the cries of the people, to show up every day and do what I can, to practice what I preach. We have each other. You at St. Paul’s and we at Heights Christian and so many other congregations represented here, are examples of people doing things for others, having a care for this earth (“Look at those lilies,” Jesus said. “LOOK at them!” with the same awe that our four year old granddaughter lavished on her first sight of a full-blooming amaryllis that we gave her as a bulb for Christmas). I know you are members of the Greater Cleveland Congregations that are non-violently making things happen within the structures of our society, just as Jesus did. And we at Heights Christian, continuing the feistiness and pizzazz of our forefathers and mothers who built our church during the Great Depression, have summed up our mission statement in just two words: “Building community!”
Our work is by no means finished. We are finishing what He started. And we stand here today so grateful that 2000 plus years ago, a Jewish man possibly in his early 30s summed up all he had said and done as the Eternal Word in human form in these wonderful last words: “It is finished!”
And when it comes time for us to say “it is finished” because we are dying, we can be so grateful to God and Jesus. We can say “You did such a good thing, because now you know what it is like to suffer and die; you are with us. You have taught us we can let go; we can get through this. There is another side. There is light; there may be lilies, and we will look at them in wonder and love.” Amen.