A sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“It is finished.”
What is finished? We might be tempted to pass over these last words—Jesus has been through a lot. So have we—all through the journey of Lent there are references to Jesus’ cross or his crucifixion, and then this week the story is told at least two different ways. It is draining to go through this execution—and there are so many ways, in the mass of the detail of Jesus’ suffering, that we can miss the point.
One way is to abstract from Jesus’ real life and reduce the crucifixion to a theological principle. One way this has been done is to assert that Jesus had to die in order to satisfy the debt owed to God for all the sins and crimes of humanity. Other times I run into preachers and theologians who are at great pains to demonstrate that Jesus’ suffering was the most or the worst possible. In both cases, Jesus suffering and death becomes symbolic and detached from his actual life and from ours.
At the other extreme, it is common to focus on our own emotional response, and all the details of Jesus’ suffering to the point where we are overwhelmed. There is a great danger in this—when faced with such enormity of suffering, human beings lose their perspective, and either fall into despair, or disavow their own place in this—“Who is responsible for doing this injustice to this good man?” How often in Christian history have people asked that question and then answered it with… “The Jews”? And it’s not any better to ask the same question and answer it with “the Romans,” or “the military industrial complex” or “the Tea Party.”
The life of Jesus that we see in the Gospels is, above all, a real life of a real person. The authenticity of his humanity shows us who God is. The way in which he lived his life reveals to us what we can be. If we say that he is sinless or perfect, it is not a perfection that makes Jesus distant or unapproachable…it is not in trivialities that Jesus is perfect, but in his life of love. We see it in the joyful teacher, the host who gives bread to the crowds on the mountainside, the obedient Son who supplies gallons upon gallons of wine for the wedding guests. We see his love in the courage to heal people when he wasn’t supposed to, for loving people who everyone knew were sinners.
And he led his disciples, inexorably, and against their better judgment, to Jerusalem. In that sacred city, all that was significant of humanity was gathered: pilgrims and people celebrating the feast, imperial bureaucrats and soldiers to enforce empire, religious officials trying and hoping to keep everything from falling apart, and religious zealots and nationalist insurrectionists trying to blow everything up. Jesus came to them in Jerusalem—as he comes to us in the Central Valley of California—to love them. And what we see, in a concentrated way, is what people usually do: they are fearful, greedy, some scheme and find ways to assert power over others, others avoid doing what they know is right because it will be difficult. They are all concerned for themselves, afraid to give, because they might lose something. Each person plays a part, whether priest, or soldier, or disciple or bureaucrat—and Jesus, the real, living, loving Jesus—is put on the cross.
Looking down, he sees there a disciple whom he loved, and his mother. And he says “there is your mother” and “there is your son.” Look, and love. Attend not to your own hardship, but love and care for one another. Jesus had no power to stop all the ugliness and violence of the turn that human reality had taken on that day, but he looked with love on those people and reminded those who could hear to get outside of their own concerns and to take care of one another.
After this, … Jesus knew that all was now finished. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
It was completed, this life of abundance and love. All aspects of humanity had been faced, and loved, and blessed. Even this ugly death, he blessed and embraced. For three days, it could not be known that the ugliness and fear and cowardice and hate of Jesus’ friends and enemies alike had been redeemed and transformed by this Life.
His life was really complete, facing and incorporating that universal human reality that we avoid: his death. Three days in the tomb. Yet we are here, the church is here, because God in Jesus did not let death be the final word or the defeat of that life—the generous, hospitable, and all-loving life of Jesus encompassed and incorporated all that human confusion and evil could muster, and brought forth a new creation.
But the resurrection … that’s the story for after sundown tomorrow.