"It is Finished:" A Good Friday Sermon
Douglas B. Olds (all rights reserved), A Sermon delivered on March 21, 2008 to First Presbyterian Church, San Anselmo, CA
Text: John 19: 28-30
PLEASE PRAY WITH ME: Almighty God, you have spoken to us through your Son. Let your written word now be spoken and heard by each of us. Give us ears to hear and hearts to understand, that we may not refuse your calling or ignore your voice. May we all be taught by you through your powerful Word. Bring our every thought captive to obeying Christ, to the glory of your holy name. Amen
On Tuesday night, October 30, 2007 I was sitting in Professor Lewis Rambo’s Cinema and Religion class up the hill where we were watching the movie “Jesus of Montreal.” That movie chronicles a small repertory theater that stages the life and passion of Jesus. At the moment of the initial staged crucifixion scene, a 5.6 Richter-scale earthquake centered on the fault north of San Jose shook the region. The trembler came in two parts: --an initial, sharp shudder, then a short lull, followed by about 10 seconds of shaking. The earthquake shook those who were viewing the film in Scott Hall, and it began, to my memory, at the very moment of the screen death of the Christ figure.
This earthquake faded from our thoughts as we continued with the film. In the next performance of the crucifixion, the Cross on which the lead character is mounted falls over, crushing and mortally wounding him.
I don’t wish to make too much of this coincidence. Yet my memory has been turning over this film and this earthquake as I composed this, my first public sermon. Acting out Jesus’s crucifixion gives me pause. It is not a trifle. The account of Jesus’s death inspires in me awe, even fear and trembling. It occasions neither the glib statement regarding a spectacular coincidence of an earthquake nor comfort that a place like San Anselmo is built on bedrock.
Good Friday is the day that Christians come to the Proclamation of the Cross in danger, as culpable bystanders. We are culpable because our sins are represented in the fearsome joining of state brutality fanned by religious deceit and mob violence, and we too often are bystanders to contemporary brutalities of state, church, and community. I am intimidated by the news of the Cross, and I am culpable. Thus, here I stand at the foot of the Cross and observe and listen for the Spirit of God in a moment that Matthew states was utterly forsaken.
And yet more so than in the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of John has Jesus determined and composed during his Passion.
The Gospel of John’s writer is able to consider what was going on in Jesus’s mind: The Gospel writer has Jesus knowing that everything already was accomplished. This is prior to his death and prior to his last acts upon the Cross.
Let us read the words of the Gospel of John again:
19.28 After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Already knowing that all had been finished, Jesus added a determined, emphatic ritual and speech act to the conclusion of his life. He knew it was finished, he announced that he thirsted, he tasted the commoner’s wine that brushed his lips from the frond of the hyssop, and THEN he said aloud, “It stands finished. It is finished. It has been finished!”
This is a great mystery. The Gospel of John’s writer informs us that Jesus knows that all that he was sent to do by the Father has been accomplished. What Karl Barth calls the “provisional and the debased” portion of human history was finished. Jesus knows that his life and death had brought to ruin that destructive moral order which mixed retaliation, mockery, and brutality in the normal courses of its operation.
And yet Jesus does something on the Cross with this knowledge. He tastes the wine and then announces aloud, for us to hear: “It stands FINISHED,” in greek, tetelestai, “It HAS BEEN finished.
What are we to make of John’s thin narrative, where there is a delay between Jesus’s inner knowledge that “it has been finished,” and his tasting the common wine followed by his announcement then that “it has been finished”?
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I believe that Jesus was granting us a sign of grace and confidence in those terrible moments just before his death! The wine on the sponge of the hyssop frond points back to how houses of the Israelites were anointed with blood spread by hyssop leaves for the original Passover of death, in Exodus chapter 12.
For this insight, I owe much to Dr. Herman Waetjen’s commentary on the Gospel of John. Just as I owe much to the community of faith that attends to these words that I offer, I owe much to this church and the oversight and support I’ve received here. I believe that in this episode, we may look to the perfecter and Captain of our faith for a sign that leads us forward in confident discipleship. I invite us all to consider the Sign from the Cross and determine our own meanings. I hope to hear from you should you discern another.
Yet let our interpretation of this Sign and Word be FROM GRACE. For Jesus lived his life to bring grace, to bring it “abundantly,” to bring it in boatloads. And so, from first principles of our God we must consider Jesus’s final acts as bringing a message of grace and hope--grace and hope that builds confidence.
What I believe we may learn from this Sign on the Cross is the Passover that Jesus intends for the door of his lips from which issued forth words to be protected from the Destroyer. That what is to abide from the old age—the old moral order--is no more, and no less, than the Words that open the doorway into eternal life. The sign of wine upon the lintel of his mouth, the lips of Jesus who John calls in chapter 10 “the door,” (thura, greek) communicates to us symbolically that Jesus intends that his words be a haven to all who fear the Destroyer. Jesus’s words create a house which no earthquake can fell, no storm tatter. This sign is for all who are caught still in the old moral order where power is expressed in brutality rather than love, and this sign is for all of us in the new age who lack confidence in the staying power of the message through which we first believed.
Jesus’ words are built on bedrock, so let Jesus’s symbolic act cast out all fear, knowing that death shall pass over all that we have built on this earth that comes from a loving heart and accords with the words that we have reported from the lips of Jesus. May we speak with the same care and conviction, that what words we leave behind are ones spoken in love and praise of God and service of neighbor. In that case, our words and our deeds will indeed survive the Destroyer of all things human. Thanks and Praise be to God for that protection of the fruit of Christ’s lips, the message that abides the Destroyer of all things merely human, the house that stands the ravages of earthquake and storm.
The grass withers, the flower fades but the word of our Lord endures forever.
Scripture citations are from the New Revised Standard Version