"It Is Finished": State Violence, Religious Complicity, and Salvation Accomplished For and Against Us

Sermon for Tre Ore
The Sixth Word from the Cross
Luther Memorial Church, Madison, WI
Good Friday afternoon, March 30, 2018

John 19:30

"Then, when he received the sour wine, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' And lowering his head, he yielded up the Spirit."

There are lots of ways that the gospels, as stories, convey the message "we've done our part, now it's up to you," from the authors and their communities down to the audiences of any later time. But not here. Not today, not in this moment. "It is finished." And perfectly so! A thing that was never our work, never our responsibility, a thing God does for us, has been completed right here, in this moment, today, and every time this story is read. "It is finished."

But it's an odd thing to say, for a man being put to death. It's an odd thing to say, for a man in his 30s whose life is being cut off by state action. In every way we could possibly make it, this story is an eschaton, a broken end, not a perfect one—a life left unfinished.

And John's gospel surrounds this text with the agency of others, with lives going on as they participate in the premature ending of yet another life. It's a weird kind of story John tells us, in which the latest piece of meat for this machine of state power—machinery in whose workings even the most devout religious people are complicit—in which this one of all people is in charge of his own destiny. That he has thrown himself into the works voluntarily—and not as though it would stop them. No … but because this is how we die, and God wills not to be an exception. Not to side with our power. Not to surrender God's true power and right over us. Not to bless what we call order, and condemn what we call disorder. But instead: to show how the powers and rights we have appropriated for ourselves are used even against God—and to show that God does not will to cooperate with us in this evil we commit against one another.

But the whole story of Jesus is an eschaton, a broken end and not a perfect one, smack in the middle of our history. And yet it is not Jesus who breaks. It is not our destruction of one another that has been perfected—our destruction even of God who has come to us bearing the word and reality of our salvation. It is not our power that has been perfected in the completion of Jesus' destruction, but rather our power that will be broken by the completeness of God's life for us.

Of course, we're still ridiculously dangerous to one another, nearly two millennia later, and those with the loudest claims to stand in the place of God are among the worst—and if you don't think so, you need to look more clearly at the world around you, and who is doing and defending the destruction of their neighbors in the name of morality. Jesus didn't come breaking the power of secularism so that religion could take its place. The gospels, as subversive texts, demonstrate that this is not another Maccabean revolt, not the people of God rising up against their oppressors and retaking their rightful place—but instead the people of God and their oppressors rising up together, for as many different reasons as you can imagine, to put an end to this one who threatens them all.

Even the disciples are complicit. All the things they think they have understood, all the goals they believed possible because of Jesus, all the ways they thought they could use him—all the things that drove Peter on his secret mission (presumably to rescue Jesus) as much as they drove Judas on his secret mission to hand him over to the authorities—all these things are broken now, and the disciples will scatter. And it is profoundly sad that their belief in power is what so clearly gets broken first, that the most faithful are most immediately broken by this event, while the alliance of religion with the apparatus of state rolls merrily along. With them, today, we can only ponder what his words truly meant, and what this painful reality of Jesus Christ means for our true hope. With them, we can only hope by faith to come to a better understanding, again and again.

But Jesus doesn't say, "it's over." And Jesus also doesn't say, "they are finished." Jesus doesn't express either capitulation or triumph here. This is not a surrender, not a victory, not about a choice between factions much less a choice between Jesus and them. This is not about the agendas of any of the various people, vicious or virtuous, expectedly or surprisingly so, whose stories begin to intertwine with and take over the narrative in John once Jesus tells us everything that's about to happen. And he does, for chapters and chapters of exposition, the best of what the gospel of John does best, with Jesus telling us everything that's about to happen—and with it, everything that has been and will remain true for us.

This is a man in total control of himself, caught up in the processes of this world for our sake, who has lived his life so self-consistently, and with such total faith in the Father from whom he comes, that face to face with the world there could have been no other end. Everything that lives, dies, and Jesus lived, so he was always going to die, simply by dint of being human as we are human. But this was his choice. We were always going to kill him, because he was never going to compromise, never going to be God for us in the ways we insist God should be for us, never going to submit to our ways. "Not like a tame lion," as Lewis says. Not safe—but good. Jesus was always going to be God for us in the ways God has always been for us, and always will—even though that means also being God against us, according to the ways we have structured ourselves and our worlds. Jesus is God seeking always to make us people for Godself, calling us ever and again to renewed faith and responsibility on the basis of an eternally faithful grace and mercy and peace that is supposed to be our nature, too.

We need to know that this calling does not lead us to salvation, much less offer it to us as a mere possibility. It is finished. Our work relates to God's as a second thing to a first, but salvation is never a third thing beyond it. It is finished. Our history is broken here in the middle, the history of a world that scripture tells us begins not with creation, but with the Fall, a history that was broken from the start and will be broken at that end we officially call "the eschaton," so that the creature may be redeemed—but our salvation is finished, here, now, today, and forever. A perfection the world cannot achieve, no matter how long it runs. A perfection we cannot merit by any work, much less lose by any. A perfection that meets us as a gift in the life and death (… and life!) of this one, Jesus Christ, who is God for us.

By grace you have been saved. It is finished.


Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

Bless, O Lord, your rebellious creature, your scattered but no less graciously adopted children, whose salvation is finished here today. As you continue to realize this gift in and for and among us, may we too realize the truth of that grace for our lives, and for those around us.



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