Wednesday, April 4, 2012

It is finished

A sermon that will be preached at St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic Church on Good Friday, 2012
It is finished. 

Except it isn’t. If it had been finished on that Friday afternoon nearly 2000 years ago, we wouldn’t be gathered here today. John’s gospel doesn’t end at the 30th verse of the 19th chapter, it keeps going to detail the resurrection and ascension. Without the resurrection, without the continuation of the story, there would be no Christians, no Church, no victory over death, no first fruits of eternal life. Sadly, it isn’t even the end of the indignities upon Jesus’ body—he has yet to be pierced by the spear. The work of Christ does not end on the Cross; death is not destroyed by Jesus dying, it is destroyed by Jesus rising. And even now, the work of Christ continues in the Church, in the lives of those who follow him and pray to and with Jesus… it will not be finished until his return, and I’m not even sure if that will be the end.  

But Jesus thinks it’s over. And in that gap between personal experience and theological reality lies our shared humanity. 

How many of us, at a hospital bedside, have waited hours or days or weeks, longing to finally be able to say the sentence, “It is finished.” Finally, the pain and suffering, the agony is over, and the person we love is at peace. Thank God it’s over. Or at other times in the presence of death the sentence, “It is finished,” brings disbelief, despair—surely this life could not yet be snuffed out. Surely this isn’t the end. But somehow, numbingly, it is. There is clarity in death. We know what it is to say, with Jesus, that a life is finished. 

But our lives never are finished. Is the agony and pain and suffering finished at the point of death?—perhaps, but eternal life has just begun. It looks like we are finished, as realistically as it looked to those on Calvary that Jesus’ life was finished. But in neither case does death have the last word. The reason we chant alleluia at the grave is our sure and certain hope that resurrection follows death, that death does not finish us any more than death finished Jesus. It doesn’t take away the appearance of finality, or the reality of earthly loss, but it does extend hope. Which takes a lot of faith. But for me, it also challenges me to find another way of understanding Jesus’ proclamation of “It is finished.” In my life, where does “It is finished” resonate beyond the fear and hopelessness at the hospital bedside? Where does it proclaim good news for our lives, and not just our deaths?

One image of that proclamation stays with me all the time. It is Jose Clemente Orozco’s painting, Cristo destruye su cruz, Christ Destroying the Cross. It is one of my favorite paintings, by this Mexican painter of the early 20th Century, depicting an indigena Christ, an Indian Christ, who has pried himself off the cross, and wielding an axe, has chopped it down. His hands and feet are gruesomely wounded, and the crown of thorns is cast off to the side. The cross is falling onto a blazing fire fed by burning books. And Jesus stares hauntingly out at us looking at him, exhausted, suffering, but liberated. It is so arresting that the first time I saw it, in a museum in Mexico City, I just stood there staring for 20 minutes feeling my understanding of the cross shifting and growing. 

It is a very different embodiment of Christ declaring, “It is finished,” than the Gospel; but in its own way it is no less orthodox or compelling. Here he is demanding that the suffering of his people be finished. Here the indigena Jesus is proclaiming, “It is finished. Enough. My oppression at the hands of Spain, of the Church, of the government, of the rich, is over. I have been on this cross for 400 years, neither able to live, nor being granted the peace of death, and it is finished. My people are free.”

In the midst of Christ’s work of liberation we have too often not only crucified peoples and nations, but we have prolonged their anguish. Orozco’s painting to me has been a profound reminder that when we see someone—whether an individual or a group—on the cross, suffering, it is our responsibility as Christians to take up Christ’s words and say, “It is finished,” and help them down. The cross is the primary symbol for Christians to remind us of our own sin, our own complicity in crucifying Christ; and also the symbol of our salvation, our affirmation that our sin does not have the last word. Therefore, today, when we pass by our present sins, the Cross should remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, and also invigorate us towards finishing our sins.  

So what are the sins we are passing by today as a people? Who—and what—is on the cross today, in need of our cry with Jesus to let their suffering be finished? It is too long a list. The billion people in the world who live on less than a dollar a day. Women, around the world and here at home, who are oppressed, and abused, mutilated, forced into marriages too young to safely bear children so that one woman dies in childbirth every minute somewhere in the world. Prisoners held without trial; hostages who are kidnapped from their families. The victims of genocide in Sudan and elsewhere. Boys forced to be soldiers and commit atrocities that damage them for the rest of their lives. And right now, the very earth itself is suffering on the cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son.” Jesus comes to redeem the whole earth, so when the very earth is gasping for breath because of our sin, it joins him on the cross. 

A thousand of these crosses stand on hillsides compelling us to cry out “Enough! It is finished! We will no longer join in this sin!” If we leave here today, having spent these hours at the foot of the cross, and do not carry that awareness of Christ’s suffering out into the world, and the willingness to proclaim with Jesus that “It is finished,” then we continue the sin that killed our Lord. If the cross is only a thing of the past, and not part of our present, then why have we spent these hours sitting at its foot? I would pray that we will leave here today with the sure and certain hope that Christ’s work is not finished, and that it continues through his Body, the church, in all its many members, and part of that work is to finish the suffering of the oppressed, the poor, the marginalized, and the earth, that they might be liberated, freed, and resurrected with Christ.

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