Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
The Episcopal Church »  |  The Diocese of Virginia

Good Friday April 18, 2014

I got a graduation announcement the other day from a friend’s daughter. It said she was finishing her degree at FloridaState magna cum laude. Four years of her life that no doubt included a lot of work, a lot of fun and a lot of learning about who she is as an adult is over. It is finished. But now a new life begins. I got her a card that says, “Congratulations on your graduation from college” on the outside. But the card is not blank on the inside. The cover refers to the past, but the inside offers best wishes for a wonderful future. It points toward what is to come in her life.

Jesus’ last words from the cross in the Gospel of John are, “It is finished.” It is a phrase that points to the past and yet looks toward the next things to come. What is finished? Jesus’ ministry on earth is finished. His teaching, his healing, his exorcisms, his feeding of the people physically, emotionally and spiritually is ended. His death marks the end of his life on earth, just as our deaths will put a period to the lives we have lived.

Jesus’ death also marks the finish of the power of sin and death. Sin will not go away as long as we live in a broken world, but it will be forgiven, and we will be made new people little by little. Death will also remain a reality in our sinful world; Adam and Eve were told if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would die and so they did. And so have human beings since the beginning of time.

Jesus’ death marks the finish of his reconciling work. Jesus was not sent by God to condemn the world, but so the world might be saved through him, says John 3:17. Jesus was sent to show us how much God loves us and how much we can depend on God to take care of us so we do not have to practice manipulation, degradation of others, violence or oppression to get what we think we need in life. Jesus’ work, according to John, was to get us to believe in him and his message.

But the finish that was Jesus’ death also marks a new beginning. Jesus’ death will result in his resurrection, in his overcoming of death forever, not only for him but for us. And Jesus’ resurrection marks not just the beginning of eternal life after death, but the beginning of eternal life here and now, as soon as we believe in Jesus and what he has said. We can begin to lead a new life that puts God at the center and lets us love one another as Jesus loved us. Our new life as servants of God and servants of others will be one marked by joy and gratitude for the immeasurable gift we have been given.

There is no doubt that Jesus’ last words were planned – crafted so that bystanders like the women and the beloved disciple, bystanders like us, could understand that while Jesus’ life and ministry and mission were over, our future was just beginning. The passion in John does not have a scared Jesus in the garden; it has an eyes-wide-open purpose-driven Jesus. It is clear that Jesus is in control of his destiny throughout the gospel. In a passage talking about slavery and freedom, he speaks of knowing Abraham. When he is asked how that is possible, he says “before Abraham was I am”. Of course, I AM is how God identified himself to Moses; therefore Jesus is identifying himself as one with God. He also calls himself God’s Son. When the soldiers come to arrest him and they ask for Jesus, he says, “I am he” (another translation of I AM), and the soldiers back up and fall down because once again Jesus is identifying himself as God. Jesus holds all the power at his trial. When Pilate says he has the power of life or death over Jesus, Jesus says that he only has the power because God has made it possible. If God had not, Jesus implies, there would be no way he could hold Jesus. Jesus carries his own cross to Golgotha. He ties up loose ends, giving his mother into the beloved disciple’s care. It is as if he were ticking off some imaginary check list headed, “Make sure I do these things before I die”. Finally, Jesus hands over his own spirit to God. A man in control until the very end.

“That’s great,” we say, but we have a question. “Why did Jesus have to die to accomplish all that?” No wonder the disciples deserted and betrayed him when they saw he was going to use his power to have himself killed. No wonder the Jews were offended at the suggestion that he could be the king of Israel when he was not using his power to redeem them from Roman rule. If Jesus was God, the Word made flesh, the great I AM, why is it that he could not overcome the world’s dark powers by living forever and by letting us live forever. Death was not fun for Jesus, and it is not fun for us. Why did God pick this plan?

But we forget. In the first chapter of John, when John the Baptist sees Jesus go by, he says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”. Jesus is a character in the story of the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, but it is not Moses, the great deliverer. The great I AM is the Passover lamb. He is identified with the lambs that were slaughtered whose blood was used on the Israelites’ doorposts so that their first born children would not be killed. The lambs’ blood saved them from death so they could leave Egypt. Even so, like Lazarus who was raised by Jesus from the dead, the Israelites would die later, and sin would still remain. To deliver us forever from sin and death and save the world, God acted in love and provided Godself in Jesus to be the perfect sacrifice that no bull or goat or sheep could ever be. It is God’s love, not God’s might, that is required to defeat sin and death. It is not the bloodshed of violence, but the bloodshed of innocence that is required to save the world.

God showed us how much God loves us in the crucifixion of Jesus, who was willing to let himself be sacrificed for our sins. The crucifixion is a finish, but it is not the end. It is instead the beginning of something new – new life and health for all of us that we are able to experience not just after we die but now in our lives. The crucifixion makes a difference in the way we live and the way we love. It gives us a sense of our own great value in God’s eyes, allowing us to value ourselves. It gives us a purpose – to love one another as Jesus loved us. Good Friday is a hard day to go through. It is a time of great sadness, but it is also a time of great gratitude. We are blessed imcomparably and saved forever through the cross of Christ. It is finished, but it is just beginning.

AMEN.

     - The Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works Consulted:
Randall C. Zachman, William F. Brosend, Susan E. Hylen, Trygve David Johnson, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, “Good Friday” (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009), p. 298-303
Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 218-219
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching – Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 253-254