Friday, April 3, 2015
"It is Finished": The Beginning-- A Good Friday Meditation
(Photo by Millard Cook, 2014)
I again had the honor of preaching at the Liturgy of the Seven Last Words at my home parish,St Bartholomew's Church. The other preachers were exceptional this year, and the fact that it is Buddy Stalling's last Good Friday as Rector, added an emotional layer to the day.
You can actually hear my meditation here. The text follows:
“It is Finished”
A Meditation on John 19:30
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Good Friday
April 3, 2015
Many years ago, when I was a boy, the first book I read that wasn’t written specifically for children was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It retells the story of King Arthur, whose Round Table White sees as an effort to overcome the notion that Might makes Right. Might makes Right was seemingly triumphant in White’s own time—he wrote as the Second World War was getting under way.
The book ends, as every re-telling of the King Arthur story must, in tragedy: The Round Table is split, the best are killed and scattered, and nobody is quite sure what happened to Arthur, “that gentle heart and centre of it all,” lost in a futile battle he struggles to prevent. But he, and his friends, are remembered by White as having “tried, in their own small way, to still the ancient brutal dream of Attila the Hun.”
At the bottom of the last page, are two simple words: The Beginning.
Not “The End.”
I always remember that on Good Friday. The battle’s lost, Might triumphant, the forces of light scattered or simply dead. And White, off to join the war effort, ends the book with a simple request: “Pray for Thomas Malory, Knight,” who compiled the Arthur stories into a coherent tale, “and for his humble disciple”—that’s White—“who now voluntarily lays aside his books to fight for his kind.”
He didn’t expect to come back, you see. But as he lay aside his books, he wrote: “The Beginning,” anyway.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says “It is finished” with his last breath. He says it from the Cross to which he was sentenced for opposing the exploitation of the poor pilgrims who came to Jerusalem, for helping people on the Sabbath, for preaching love to a world that was governed by hate, and by law.
The late, great historian Marcus Borg called the Roman order in Jerusalem where occupier and occupied united to crush the presumptuous prophet from Galilee an “imperial domination system.” Today we commemorate that system’s crushing, seemingly final, victory.
Jesus took on the powers and principalities of this world, and they put him to death in the most barbaric way the ancient world had designed—a slow death by suffocation, shameful, surrounded by mocking crowds. Those who hated Jesus are there to gloat. Almost worse, those who didn’t know him were just there for the show, as a public entertainment, like Victorians attending a public hanging, and betting on who lasts longest, while they picnic.
Jesus dies, the imperial domination system wins.
Every telling of the story of Jesus has to have that dark victory.
It’s part of the arc of the story. A great scholar of Jesus’s life, John Meier, says that the uncomfortable fact of that victory is part of how we can be sure he lived—nobody would make up a Messiah who sets the people alight with hope, only to have him die a shameful agonizing death, the end.
And Jesus says just that, doesn’t he. “It is finished.” “Finis.” "The End."
But what was finished?
Jesus’s ministry? His life? A ritual sacrifice, as the mid-twentieth century scholar C.H. Dodd suggests? Or is Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest expert on the Fourth Gospel, right when he says that Jesus’s last words from the Cross are “a cry of victory,” a triumphant shout that he has defeated the powers and principalities by enacting his role as sacrifice to the very end?
That doesn’t feel right today, as we grieve in front of the black-draped, rough wood of the Cross, as we hear the choir ravage our souls with some of the most heartbreaking hymns and anthems composed in the nearly two thousand years since Jesus’s death—
And wait just a second, there.
Where is the power of the Caesars today? Who would have heard of Pontius Pilate other than a few obscure Latinists if he hadn’t made it into the Creed?
Here we stand in New York City, in 2015, in a building hallowed to that presumptuous prophet who gave his life not just to oppose an imperial domination system, not just to point a better way to live, but to point the way to wholeness of soul. Don’t take that from me; it’s in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In the same chapter of the Gospel that first calls Jesus the Son of God, we are called to be Daughters and Sons of God.
And that Way—because that’s what the early Christians called it, not a creed but a way of life—has outlasted the Roman Empire in which it grew, and the rise and fall of a myriad of other empires. Domination systems—imperial or not—come and go. Through them all, pilgrims walk the Way.
So—a shout of victory? Not quite that, I think; the cost is too high—both on that day at Golgotha and in innocent blood since. No, not triumphant jubilation, exactly, but recognition that the world has changed forever.
Because what is finished is the notion that these domination systems will ever go unchallenged again. Jesus’s teachings are too subversive to sit well with exploitation, even when done in the name of God by self-professed Christians.
Jesus, in his words, and in the breaking of the bread and in the liturgy, keeps reminding us of who we are—and who we aren’t. In our hearts, we are not citizens of the Empire, whatever form it takes in our day. We just live in it.
In the moment of that terrible death, Jesus knew that one story was reaching a terrible and yet triumphant conclusion, ending in victory despite the tragic cost.
But he also knew that this story was not the end in itself. In the mysterious explosion we call Easter, Jesus on this day kindled the fire at which believers could, to paraphrase the Anglican martyr Hugh Latimer, light such a candle, by God’s grace, in all the world, as we trust shall never be put out.
And so the story ends.
It is finished.