Rev. Mark Schaefer
Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church
April 14, 2017—Good Friday
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
“It is finished.”
In John’s gospel, these three words are the last words to cross Jesus’ lips before he bows his head and dies.
“It is finished.”
It is definitive. It is final. It is the perfect conclusion to the narrative. “It is finished.” Far more powerful than “Well, that’s enough, I suppose,” or “That should be sufficient.” No: simple, declarative: “It is finished.”
But what is finished? Certainly not the narrative itself; it continues on for another two and a half chapters.
Jesus’ ministry? Even John’s gospel presents more ministry from Jesus following his resurrection on Easter Sunday, his encounter a week later with Thomas, and his encounters with the disciples as they fish the Sea of Galilee some time later. Clearly that work is not finished. At least not when Jesus says, “It is finished.”
To be perfectly honest, it is hard to look at the state of the world today and assume that anything is finished. If you hired a contractor to repair your dilapidated home and he told you it was finished looking half as bad as the world does today, you’d refuse final payment and take him to court.
So, what exactly is finished?
I confess, I have a hard time with this theology. The gospel of John is rather unlike Mark’s gospel where I find my home. John evidences what theologians call a “realized eschatology,” that is, a belief that the Kingdom of God is already present in a meaningful and powerful way. Generally, it is seen as present in the community of believers who create an alternative existence from the problems of the “world.” Sure, the world might be falling apart, there might be wars and injustice and violence and death, but what does that have to do with us? Here, in this fellowship, the Kingdom of God is present as a spiritual reality that we experience through faith. All else falls aside.
That’s an ancient belief, as ancient as the Gospel of John itself. But it’s not generally where I come out on this issue. I’m much more shaped by Mark’s gospel, much more in line with the plaintive and anguished cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cliffhanger ending of Mark’s gospel where the women run from the tomb in terror, so frightened that they don’t say anything to anyone, jibes much more with my understanding of the world. It is a world very much broken, a world very much still in need of redemption. A world very much in need of consummation. The Kingdom of God is not here yet, in the thinking of me and my namesake gospel. Oh, we might be able to get a foretaste now and then, but the reality of the Kingdom? That’s still to come. (This is what theologians call a “futurist eschatology.”)
But here I am, confronted with these words of Jesus from the cross, “It is finished” as I look around at a world and a hoped for redemption that I can feel in my very soul is un-finished.
What is finished, Jesus? How can someone like me join in with you in declaring that “it is finished”?
II. WHAT PEOPLE HAVE THOUGHT
Well, there have certainly been answers to that question over the centuries. Generally, given the nature of John’s gospel in which Jesus is seen as the Incarnate Word of God, it is assumed that Jesus came down to earth from heaven, did the work that God gave him to do, finished it, and returned to heaven, where he had been since before the world was created. It’s straightforward: “Everything I came to accomplish has been accomplished. It is finished.”
But even that is hard to grasp, knowing that the Resurrection still lies in the future. Does the work of God include only the crucifixion? Is it Jesus’ death alone that accomplishes the work of God? Does the Resurrection have nothing to do with God’s purposes? Is it just an add-on, a parlor trick after the bulk of the work has been done?
This kind of thinking doesn’t often sit well with modern Christians, uncomfortable with the idea of a God who demands a blood sacrifice to appease his sullied honor. For those Christians who find more meaning and power in the Resurrection than in the cross, declaring the work to be finished before the tomb has even been emptied can come up wanting.
How is such a Christian to join in with Jesus in proclaiming “It is finished”?
III. THE WORK
Maybe we need to go back and look at the text again, to those three words: it is finished.
In the Greek original, there is only one word: τετελεσται, tetelestai, which can mean “it has been finished,” “it has been completed,” “it has been concluded,” “it has been fulfilled,” and “it has been ended.” The root upon which the verb is built is τελεω teleō which means “to complete.” But it is also related to the word τελος telos, which means “goal” or “purpose” or “end.”
Given that, we might understand Jesus’ statement to mean something like, “It has achieved its goal” or “its end has been achieved.” That’s somewhat different than “it is finished.” Because an end might be achieved, a goal met, and still the world could need some work.
And there’s something else at work, too.
Try as our modernist minds might, we cannot read these verses outside of their context, and the context in which they occur is the entirety of the Gospel of John. It is a Gospel with a great deal of metaphor and symbol, of enigmatic language, irony, and two-fold meaning. And it is a gospel with a fair amount of poetry, most notably at the beginning of the gospel. A beginning in which we encounter this poem:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into beingin him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1–5 NRSV)
This hymn that opens up the Fourth Gospel has deliberate echoes of another hymn from another book of the bible, the first chapter of Genesis. “In the beginning…” evokes the song of Creation in which God, through the power of the Word, and the life of the Spirit, creates all that is. Here in John’s gospel, the Word makes another appearance, once again as God’s creative power bringing all things into being. But then ending with the powerful line: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NRSV)
In light of this passage, that we can see that the Gospel of John begins with Creation and it is there on the cross that Jesus declares “it is finished.” A new creation.
A new creation in which we serve one another in love, not out of self-interest. In which the old hierarchies of the world fade away and the common kinship and equality of humanity is emphasized. A creation in which community is built not on privilege but on serving one another, washing one another’s feet. A creation in which we have been remade through the power and witness of Christ into the witnesses who can help to reveal the Kingdom of God in our midst. The work may not be finished, but everything that we need to do the work has been. We have been re-formed, remade, reborn through the work of Christ into the community of faith, the community of power and hope that can be an agent for the transformation of the world.
There’s yet another clue.
There is a translation of the New Testament called the Peshitta, written in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic, Aramaic being the language Jesus spoke. In that text, the term used to translate tetelestai is likewise one word: משלם m’shalam. It also means “it has been completed” but there is an additional sense. The root that this word is built on— שלם sh-l-m—is the same root that gives us the word שלום shalom, “peace” or “wholeness.”
In the Aramaic sense, Jesus is not simply declaring the work finished, he is declaring it whole. It is a word that evokes not only the beginning of all things, but the end. That wholeness, that shalom that we seek in God. Jesus is on the cross offering it to us right there and then.
We can look around our world with honesty and integrity and admit that it is still broken. We need not denigrate the material world and focus only on the spiritual world. We can behold our world, a world that God so loves, and say that there is much work that needs to be finished.
But within us Christ has already worked a new creation. Christ has already given us the grace, already given us the hope, already given us the shalom that we need to do the work ahead of us. Because of Christ’s love, because of Christ’s sacrifice, because of Christ’s solidarity, we are transformed. We are made new. And we can stand before a broken world, with so much work left to be done, and proclaim boldly with our savior, “It is finished.”