God Never Finishes

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Good Friday
April 2, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Of all the gospels, John's is the most descriptive regarding Jesus' suffering during the Passion. When Jesus announces that "it is finished," he speaks those words in relief and faith in what God does in the Cross. After Jesus' death, the blood and water that come from Jesus' side represent God's grace from a desolate situation.

How do we feel when we arrive at the end of a terrible ordeal, when we can truly put something behind us? Following the death of actor Chadwick Boseman from cancer, a college professor named Malcolm Frierson wrote of his own experience with the Big C. After three years with no symptoms he described himself as "cautiously ecstatic."

We might find that an unusual term, because ecstasy usually takes over, and we lose the capacity for caution. Nevertheless, Frierson celebrated the end of a painful time of his life. "No more labs every few months, no more scans and scopes biannually and no more torment over the thought of dying before my little girl forms permanent memories of her dad."1 He had reached a point at which he believed he could say that one particular problem no longer consumed him. He felt finished with his cancer. We might substitute our own trouble that no longer threatens us. How do we experience that sense of "finished?"

Jesus' experience of the end of his Passion

John reports that Jesus uttered the words, "It is finished," as he died on the cross. We don't have access to tone of voice in reading scripture, so we have to imagine how Jesus sounded as those words stumbled out of his mouth. Can we even imagine the emotions behind them? We know from what John tells us some of the things that were finished.

Pilate had Jesus flogged. The straps hit his back ripping the flesh, tearing ridges in Jesus' skin. Perhaps the state of shock helped, but the searing pain would have lingered. Just because the whip no longer flew, the wounds did not cease to ache. No salve would have eased Jesus' physical agony. Only time could have closed the gaping sores. Jesus did not have time. Just after the flogging, the soldiers dressed him in a purple robe. As soon as the fabric hit the marks on Jesus' skin, he would have clenched his teeth, pursed his lips and squinted his eyes.

But now, at the end, the physical pain was finished.

Not content to inflict merely physical pain, the soldiers mocked Jesus in his helplessness. They did not see Jesus as the "light" that had come into the world.2 They saw a victim they could taunt as a sick game. The crown of thorns would have caused physical pain in addition to the flogging, but the crown of thorns spilled over into emotional abuse as well. The soldiers intended the crown of thorns and the purple robe, traditionally signifying royalty, as humiliation. Hailing Jesus as "King of the Jews" heaped up the emotional pain. Experts tell us that emotional abuse works its damage in ways that not every eye can see. Only the sensitive eye can see the effects of emotional abuse.

With Jesus' dying breath, the psychological torment was finished.

John tells us early in his gospel that Jesus' own people did not accept him.3 Now, at his time of pain, his people turned against him. In the same way that mob mentality kept black children from attending school in the 50s, mob mentality turned against Jesus. Drowning out any chance for recognition of who Jesus was, the words, "Away with him! Crucify him!" filled the air.

At his death, Jesus' awareness of the betrayal and the hatred of the mob was finished.

Despite Jesus' warning, Peter denied Jesus. After all their time together, after Jesus' patience with Peter, after Peter watched Jesus heal and turn water into wine, Peter denied Jesus. Earlier, Jesus had shown courage, with his words, "And what should I say - 'Father save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour."4 Peter sought safety and broke his relationship to Jesus when denying Jesus.

The feeling of loneliness that Jesus felt at that denial was finished at his death.

Pilate knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. To keep peace with the crowd, he capitulated to their demands. He could have stood up for what he knew was right.

When Jesus died, the effect of the political expediency Jesus suffered was finished.

Jesus' suffering and God's work

It's almost as though the various kinds of suffering that afflict all of us decided to gang up on Jesus on that last day. All the physical, emotional and social pain heaped up on him all at once.

When he died, all that experience was finished.

We cannot solve this mystery entirely, but God worked through all the abuse and pain of Jesus' time during the events of the Passion. Jesus knew and accepted that God would work through all his experiences. He had already said that, earlier in John's gospel: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."5

Jesus was finished with the pain of this earthly life, but when Jesus uttered the words, "It is finished," he also acknowledged that God had done the divine work. God had taken on "the ruler of this world"6 and notched a decisive victory.

The pain was finished, the task was accomplished, the victory was won.

God's response

Even though Jesus pronounced that "it is finished," the story continued. After an act of great horror, the religious leaders displayed shallow religiosity. They did not blink an eye at the violence of the crucifixion, but at the same time they did not want to leave the bodies on the cross during the sabbath. So, the soldiers broke the legs of the victims. The soldiers determined that Jesus had already died. Who can explain what happened next? One soldier pierced Jesus' side. Did he want to make extra certain that Jesus had died? Did he commit an act of disrespect to Jesus' body? Did he act in a callous way to mutilate Jesus as one last act of humiliation? For whatever reason, the soldier's sword punctured Jesus' scarred body.

What John reports after this one last act of violence against Jesus' body teaches us about God. Blood and water poured out of Jesus' corpse. The narrator, who often explains things,7 falls silent about the meaning of the blood and water. We might guess that the blood could represent the sacrament of communion, where Jesus offers us blood. We might guess that the water represented baptism.

John does not have as much to say about the sacraments as do the other gospel writers. Here at the end of Jesus' life, the sacraments pour out of Jesus' dead body. Starting at the very end of Jesus' life, the sacraments become God's gift to the church. The sacraments take Jesus' place as the presence of God among the people. The sacraments become available because of a callous, disrespectful gesture by a Roman soldier. God speaks through and redeems a brutal act. A soldier plunges his sword into Jesus' dead body. God's grace flows out.

We don't usually read this passage at baptisms, but maybe we should. We don't usually read it at the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist, but maybe we should. The sacraments take Jesus' place, and become available through the careless or deliberately mean-spirited act of violence against Jesus' dead body. God's grace flows out of the most desolate of situations.

God's grace in our suffering

On the cross and just before the cross, Jesus endured the range of human suffering. His body ached, his mind reeled and his heart broke. He gasped out the words, "It is finished," as relief and trust in what God could do. From that situation, the blood and water of grace flowed out. It was finished, but God didn't finish.

We should never minimize the suffering that we all experience. We face the pains our bodies can cause us, the loneliness and agony that our minds can put us through. We affirm, even though we do not do so lightly, that God can bring grace to our pain. We do not dismiss pain to say that God can bring grace and healing while the suffering is upon us. In our battles with illness and injury, God brings grace. In our broken families and in the midst of those who have betrayed us, God brings grace. In the bitter dysfunction of our political situation, God brings grace. We need to do our part of healing body and soul, building bridges in our relationships and fixing our system. Yet we look for how God continues to work even in cases where it seems as if things have finished and finished badly.

John's portrayal of Jesus' time on the cross teaches us that God acts that way. God brings grace out of the worst of pain, and the cruelest of actions. Let us look for that grace and let us build our ministry of the church from it.