Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
The last words Jesus utters from the cross, that means of execution by the Romans, are simply: “It is finished.” It is complete. Accomplished. The work he came to do both in and for this world as the Son of the Living God has been done. And, implicit in the Greek, there is also the sense of a new beginning, a start of something that has been waiting to spring up around us, much like the sight of those first sprouts of a germinating seed.
But what is it that is finished? Is it just Jesus’ final breath of life on this earth? Surely this day we have designated as “Good” has more to it than that. Surely there is more to it than simply his execution. Surely there’s a reason he died. And I bet many of you know the Sunday School answer.
Theologian Tony Jones shares a story about his teaching a large youth confirmation class in a Lutheran Church made up of teens and their sponsors. He writes, “[A]fter some warm up jokes, I asked the assembled crowd how many of them had ever been told that ‘Jesus died for your sins.’ As expected, every single person raised a hand. ‘Alright,’ I said. ‘We’re going to take a little test. I’d like each of you confirmands to turn to the adult who brought you and ask, ‘How? How exactly does that work? Please explain to me how it works that the death of one man two thousand years ago takes care of all my sin.’ The adults in the room groaned. ‘One more thing,’ I added. ‘After they answer you, you’re going to give your adult a grade on their answer.’ The groans doubled.” (These quotations and the ones that follow from Tony Jones’ book Did God Kill Jesus? I have the Kindle version, so unable to mark page numbers.)
Sin is a curious thing. I think Frederick Buechner describes it best when he writes that it is centrifugal, pushing others and God out toward the periphery of our lives. Sin isolates us and makes us blind to the beauty of the world around us. Jealousy often can be portrayed as our obsession over something or someone we do not possess but want to claim as our own. Anger can lead to what is described as “blind rage.” Lust has us viewing others as objects. Pride puts us above everyone else. And in all these, we force others out of relationship with us. Our desire leads to rivalry with others and then often to violence.
However when we begin to come to our senses—when we recognize the state we’re in and how we’ve pushed others and God away—remorse often sets in. Guilt floods us. We see what we have done, the havoc sin has taken both in our lives and the lives of those we love. And the mark—the consequence—of that sin is like indelible ink on our hearts. We cannot remove it ourselves simply by wishing it away. It takes something much more as the pressure of the guilt builds up inside us.
Sociologist René Girard through his study of anthropology looked deeply at cultures and how they dealt with guilt. It can best be summed up in this way, according to theologian Tony Jones: “Humanity developed a pattern of violent sacrifice to assuage guilt and appease the ‘gods.’ It worked, but only temporarily.” Jones compares it to the significant back issues that he had that debilitated him over time. “Violence [that we enact against others due to our desire and rivalry] is our back pain; offering sacrifices to deal with our guilt is massage and cortisone shots.” Cultures set up scapegoats to alleviate their own guilt and failings. These ranged from blood sacrifices of animals to doing violence on the one—or ones— deemed to be the perpetrator of wrongs—scapegoats. It acts as a release valve, letting off the steam, but only for a time when it will slowly build up again. We needed something more; something more significant. For Jones what he ultimately needed was back surgery to get to the root of the issue. Similarly, he writes, “Jesus and his work on the cross [is] the surgery we need to really deal with the problem.”
Jones continues, “Girard’s view of the crucifixion can be understood like this: When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we are looking in a mirror. God is reflecting back to us the outcome of our system of rivalry, violence and sacrifice. Jesus’ death shows conclusively that those systems are bankrupt, that the do not assuage guilt, and that they do not minimize violence. Jesus is the final sacrifice because he reveals the fiction behind the entire enterprise.”
“It is finished.”
I know that’s a lot of theology to come at you on Good Friday, but I have too many conversations that recount how sorry people are for parts of their lives, for guilt that builds up over things left undone, for the way that they feel they’ll never be good enough. They look at themselves and hate what they see. They look in the mirror and think that God despises them somehow. That is the wages of sin coming to bear down on our souls, the death the slowly creeps over us as we think that somehow, in some way we need to make it all better ourselves, and we know that we can’t. So we despise ourselves and we expect God’ reaction to be similar, for God to be disgusted with us too. We inflict violence on our souls and sometimes on our bodies so that we can make it all right, so that we can assuage God’s seeming anger.
But God is love.
God longs to be in relationship with us, so much so that God sent Jesus into the world to show us how we are to live. Jesus healed the sick, gave food to the hungry. He listened to the ones who longed to tell their stories and brought wholeness to the fragmented. He had harsh words for the leaders who demanded the system continue. He taught and laughed and ate with those he met. He raised the dead to new life. He ultimately died, uttering those last words: It is finished.
What’s being ushered out with the finality of Jesus’s death is the belief that we must succumb to violence and scapegoating in order to alleviate the guilt. Jones writes about Girard’s view, “Jesus’ death shows that the entire system of sacrifice is bankrupt, that it never pleased God, and it never really solved human problems.” He continues, “In Christ, God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled. The scapegoat is not one who is sacrificed to appease and angry deity. Instead the deity himself enters human society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices.”
God loved us so much that God didn’t want the violence of sacrifice to continue, because God did not want it in the first place. Jesus came to be the final sacrifice for us to alleviate our guilt and the shame in order that we might see the truth that has been present from the beginning: God loves us. In fact, the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ…. cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” Notice it’s our consciences that are cleansed, and not a payment to God for wrongs. God wants to be in relationship with us. God wants us to live lives of fullness and grace. When we sin and the guilt overwhelms us and we think that we must pay for those sins ourselves, God tells us that it’s taken care of through Jesus. We don’t need to do that anymore. It is finished. Something new is afoot.
So trust in that reality. Believe God loves you. Rather than being angry with you over your sins, God desires for you to experience mercy and grace and love. God doesn’t want you to be disconnected from others or from the Almighty One. Rather God longs for you to be in communion both with God and others. When you think you need to do something about the sin in your live, look at the cross. It has been taken care of already. It is finished. And know that all you need to do is turn back to God and simply receive the forgiveness that is already being extended to you. Receive it and feel God’s arms of love surrounding you. And may you know that when you do, before a just, righteous and loving God you stand totally in the clear. Amen.