It is finished…

When Jesus had received the wine,
he said, “It is finished.”
Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
~ John 19:30 (NRSV)

“Here the sentence has been fulfilled.
Where one finds himself at the only irremediable thing that exists in the world,
The grand mark of our strange destiny on earth,
The single fact, with no clear explanation, that makes all things that are alive equal,
As if made up of a single herd of lambs, marching to the slaughter,
For everything living dies.”[1]

These profound words come from Brazilian playwright Ariano Suassuna and they express a sentiment that, though common, falls short in the task of describing the bleak reality experienced by those who first heard the words of Jesus, as he uttered from the cross,“It is finished.” For millennia Christians have pondered on these words and marched into Holy Saturday with heads held high in glee and expectation of the marvelous events that are to come next—forgetting the anguish and responsibility which fell on the shoulders of those who had loved and followed the beloved rabbi we call Jesus of Nazareth.

Those who expected this man to be the fulfillment of their long-expected Messiah, the one who would deliver them from the political oppression of their time, found themselves with a do-good, faith-healer, who re-interpreted the commandments of old, criticized the religious elites, and called all people to a deeper and more genuine relationship with God and one another. Yet, this man who went to places where no respectable teacher would go (Luke 19:7); who ate with people no politically astute person would spend time with (Mark 2:16); who partied enough that those outside his circle believed him to have a drinking problem (Matthew 11:19, Luke 7:34); and who was so outside the norm that his own family attempted to commit him by force (Mark 3:21) but yet some… not all… some, placed their hopes in him and waited for a grand revelation and the fulfillment of their earthly expectation.

But now, here they found themselves… with hopes dashed, at the foot of a cross. Looking in disbelief at the inhumanity of the situation… confronting the finality of all that they had worked for… The text does not betray their feelings when it tells us that, “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30, NRSVUE).

For those who experienced the trauma of this event firsthand, at that moment, the words of the poet would seem correct, “everything living dies.” But as our faith teaches us, in God’s economy, that which is visible is not always true. So those who celebrated in victory the death of another troublemaking Jew and those who wept in sorrow at the murder of a beloved teacher at the time did not conceive that death was not an ending but the beginning of something more… the launch of a new era… a transition into a new reality, that no one had heard, no ear had perceived, and no eye had seen.[2]

Beloved, we cannot forget the pain and depth of sorrow contained in this moment, for this connects us to the joy of Easter and our call to journey with those who are neglected, dejected, oppressed, and forgotten. The great teacher, James Cone, in his book, The Cross and Lynching Tree, reminds us that the cross, this symbol that has become so ubiquitous in our society, is God’s critique of power, oppressive power, power that seeks to perpetuate itself for power’s sake. So, while to the eyes of the world, the deed was done and the end had arrived, God was at work, showing us that true transformation, liberation, and freedom do not come through brute force, but through powerless love. God was at work showing that victory over the troubles of the world does not come through state power, but through Spirit power. God was quietly at work showing us that sacrificial love is indeed a powerful weapon.

Even though it is difficult not to rush ahead into celebration mode, if we settle ourselves in the reality of the moment—just for a little bit, we can hear that “It is finished” is no cry of defeat but a call to action. We can hear and see the ways in which powerless love can produce victories out of defeat. We can hear that the cries of those who have suffered at the hands of individuals and organizations who wield power like a weapon are not cries of defeat, they, too, are a call to action, and we have a responsibility to recognize the shift in responsibility, the passing of the torch into a new generation of faithful followers, who though pained and heart-broken must continue to lead the good work.

Beloved, it is to our own detriment that we make matters of the faith pie in the sky theory and don’t heed the call of the great theologian James Cone who tells us that the sole purpose of our theology “is to put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world, so that the community of the oppressed will recognize that its inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[3]

So, here we stand, hearing these words once more, “it is finished.” Here we stand, over 50 years removed from the realities of sanctioned segregation within our denomination. Here we stand far removed from the legislative victories conquered by the civil rights movement. Here we stand, continuing to struggle with the human condition, that is, sin and its subsidiaries that reveal themselves in acts of racism, sexism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and all of the other phobias and isms that make some feel less than full humans. Here we are and our human impulse is to replace the statement “it is finished” with the question “is it finished?”

But there is no question, beloved… It is finished is not an invitation to soak in our pain, but a call to move out into the world with aching hearts and renewed resolve. It is a call to ensure that the realities of God’s kin-dom are made visible on earth, around us, in our spheres of influence. The responsibility is now placed on our shoulders to empathize with those who suffer,  “put into ordered speech the meaning of God’s activity in the world,”to help them understand and reclaim the truth that God “is close to the brokenhearted; [and] saves those whose spirits are crushed” (Psalm 34:18, CEB).

It is finished, beloved. What now is yours to do?

Thanks be to God.

[1] Translated by Jefferson M. Furtado, words of Ariano Suassuna, found in play “Auto da Compadecida.”

[2] Adapted from Isaiah 64:4.

[3] Cone, James H.. A Black Theology of Liberation – Fortieth Anniversary Edition (p. 1). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.