Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Good Friday.
One summer while I was in college, I worked in a group home for kids with intellectual disabilities, mental illnesses, and other special needs. Most of the kids were high-functioning teenagers who had a difficult time adapting to mainstream academic and social settings; the group home was a place where they could be themselves. While the work was enormously rewarding, it was also exhausting. Not only were we responsible for all of the normal aspects of raising a teenager: cooking their meals, driving them to school, and making sure they did their homework; we also had to deal with some of the challenges unique to these young people: giving them their medications, supervising their hygiene, and dealing with the occasional catastrophic meltdown. Every day had the potential to be physically and emotionally draining. I remember that at the end of my first day, after all of the residents had finally gone to sleep, the woman I was working with, a veteran of the organization who was simultaneously maternal and tough as nails, handed me a cup of coffee and said, “Enjoy this.” “Enjoy what?” I asked. “The quiet,” she replied. As I savored the bitter institutional coffee, a wave of relief spread over me as I realized that we were finished for the day. The meds had been distributed, the residents were asleep, and everyone was safe. We had done everything we had to do and my coworker invited me to acknowledge that accomplishment. To this day, the taste of institutional coffee reminds me of that sense of accomplishment, the joy and relief I felt when I realized that for at least the next eight hours, all was right with the world, that for at least one night, the work before me was finished.
The gospel according to John tells us that the final word of Jesus from the cross reflects this sense of accomplishment. Just before he bows his head and gives up his spirit, Jesus says, “It is finished.” This actually translates a single word in Greek: “tetelestai,” meaning “it has been accomplished,” “the end has come,” or to put it another way, “my work here is done.” In John’s gospel, we do not hear the agonized cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that we hear Matthew and Mark, nor do we hear the deeply comforting affirmation of “Into your hands I commend my spirit” that we hear in Luke. Instead, the final word of Jesus in John’s gospel is ambiguous and a little unsettling. What exactly has he accomplished? There is a finality to “tetelestai,” a sense that everything is taken care of, that there is no more to be done, that everything that needs to be finished has been finished. “Tetelestai” implies that there are no loose ends, that all is right with the world.
And yet, even as Jesus uttered this final word of accomplishment, very little was right with the world. As Jesus hung upon the cross, struggling under his own weight, chaos swirled around him. Though those closest to him had promised to stay by his side no matter what happened, his disciples had abandoned, denied, and betrayed him. Though as the Messiah he represented the hopes and dreams of a subjugated and enslaved people, he had been executed as a rabble rouser by a cruel and powerful dictatorship. Though he had affirmed that he was the incarnation of the almighty God, he died a criminal’s death, completely impotent and helpless. As chaos swirled around him, it seems that there could not have been a less appropriate time for Jesus to affirm that everything had been accomplished. The world was falling apart around him, questions were left unanswered, and his ministry seems to have been in vain. Describing his work as “finished” seems to be a cruel joke worthy of the soldiers who mocked him.
Just before Jesus gives up his spirit, John’s gospel tells us that he addressed his mother and the beloved disciple, who were gathered at the foot of the cross. As they stood in their grief, gazing at the gasping body of Jesus, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.” To the disciple whom he loved, he said, “Behold your mother.” John goes on to tell us that the disciple took Jesus’ mother into his home from that day forward. Though this is a powerful message of love, an example of Jesus taking care of those he is leaving behind, there is more to it than that. Scholars, for instance, have wondered why Jesus calls his mother “Woman,” which is not something that any of us would have been allowed to call our mothers as we were growing up. While some have argued that “Woman” was actually a term of respect in first-century Palestine, I’m more inclined to agree with those who suggest that Jesus uses this word to recall the creation of woman. By calling his mother “Woman,” Jesus is bringing us back to Genesis, back to the Garden of Eden, back to the first days of creation when Adam and Eve disobeyed the commandment of God and men and women were estranged from one another. This is the reason that so many important events in John’s gospel, including the arrest and burial of Jesus, take place in a garden. John wants us to remember that first garden, to return to the first moments of creation so that we can understand that God is bringing about a new creation through Jesus Christ. The words of Jesus to his mother and the beloved disciple are words of love and affection, but they are also words of restoration. By bringing these two people together, Jesus heals division, restores human relationships, and repairs what was torn asunder by our disobedience to the commandment of God. By restoring the relationship between his mother and the beloved disciple, Jesus Christ restores all human relationships and inaugurates a new creation, a creation that is no longer subject to disobedience and death, but has been renewed by the self-giving love of God. This is what Jesus accomplishes on the cross. Jesus says, “It is finished” because he has completed this work of restoration; he has finished the work of recreating the world in the image of God’s redeeming love. Even as the chaos swirls around him, there is a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation through the Christ who reaches out to us in love from the hard wood of the cross.
In a few moments, we will pray for a world that is in chaos. We will pray for a world of geopolitical saber rattling, where countries threaten each other with nuclear weapons and refuse to engage in diplomacy. We will pray for a world of political intractability, where politicians seem unable to communicate or find common ground. We will pray for a world of suffering and affliction, where people are hungry, homeless, and oppressed through no fault of their own. We will pray for a world where hundreds of millions of people do not have access to clean water, where tyrants massacre their people, and where children are killed in their classrooms. In the face of these overwhelming challenges, we might be tempted to throw up our hands in despair, to conclude that there is nothing that we can do to alleviate such suffering. We might be tempted to pretend that we do not care and turn away from those who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But if the gospel that is proclaimed from the cross is true, then every act of kindness and generosity is a proclamation of God’s new creation. Every person we feed, every child we comfort, every donation we make becomes a symbol of God’s great love revealed to us on the cross. Not only that, every effort we make to reach out and participate in God’s work of restoration is an opportunity for the whole world “to see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.” Jesus may have finished his work of restoration on the cross, but we are invited to share in that mission. Even as the chaos swirls around us, we are invited to recognize and affirm that there is always a glimmer of hope, a whisper of restoration, and a quiet promise that God will finish God’s new creation though Jesus Christ working through us as we reach out in love to this world that needs it so desperately.