It Is Finished

It is finished. He is dead. You may test it any way you like: hold a feather under his nose, press your finger against the big vein in his neck, stick a spear into his heart. He is dead. The struggle is over, and the last words he said were, "It is finished."

That is one of those pungent, final-sounding sentences we have heard so often that we actually think we know what it means, but the third person, impersonal pronoun remains problematic. Why use a word like that unless you want to leave a little mystery around what "it" really is? It is finished, but what is it, exactly?

Well, the dying, for one thing. There was no lethal injection in Jesus' day. There was no attempt to make execution less painful at all, since that would have ruined its use as a deterrent. Under the Romans, crucifixion was reserved for the lower classes, especially slaves accused of robbery or rebellion. The whole point was to make it hurt as much as possible, and everyone agreed that death by crucifixion was the worst. Seneca, a Roman statesman who witnessed some first century executions, wrote that he saw crucifixions of many different types. Some were crucified upside down, he said, while others were impaled through their private parts. Some were nailed to their crosses while others were tied. Josephus, a first century historian, called it "the most wretched of deaths."

Jesus probably died right side up, since all four gospel writers agree that there was a sign above his head. That being the case, he probably also died of suffocation, as his arms gave out and his lungs collapsed under the weight of his sinking body. Blood loss is another possibility. Heartbreak is a third. Whatever finally killed him, it came as a friend and not as an enemy. Death is not painful. It is the dying that hurts.

Another thing that was finished was the project he had begun, way back when he first saw what kind of explosion it would take to break through the thick rock around the human heart. Teaching would not do it. Neither would prayer or the laying on of hands. If he was going to get through, he had to use something stronger than all of those, and he had to stake his own life on its success. Otherwise why should anyone believe him?

Self-annihilating love was the dynamite he chose. "No one has greater love than this," he said on the last night of his life, "to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15.13). Having explained this to his friends, he then left the room to go do it. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished.

Whether or not he intended it, he finished something else while he was at it. He finished off the religious system that he opposed—not the Judaism of the people but the Judaism of the temple—the careful division between clean and unclean; the posturing clergy who pretended to know which was which; the whole idea that a lamb, or a goat, or a calf was an acceptable substitute for a surrendered human heart. The prophets had challenged it all long before Jesus did, but he received no better hearing than they.

At the same hour that he died, the parade of Passover animals into the Temple began. For the rest of the afternoon, their owners slaughtered them while priests caught the blood and poured it on the altar. Outside in the courtyard, the corpses were skinned and cleaned according to the law of Moses while Levites sang psalms of praises to God.

So there were two bloody places in Jerusalem that day—Golgotha and the Temple—both attended by powerful religious people who believed they were doing God's will. Please hear me. This is not about Jews. This is about powerful people in any religious tradition who believe they are doing God's will. Wherever you encounter them, in whatever time or place, it is best to keep your back to the wall. Power and religion are a lethal mix.

When it was all over on Golgotha, some realized for the first time who the scapegoat had been, and the system that put him to death was doomed. Because he would not respond to their tactics, their tactics were exposed. Because he would not honor their values, their values were revealed. The system did not exist to protect God. The system existed to protect the system. Jesus was the last lamb of God who would die for the people.

So that was finished too. At least one of the reasons Jesus was killed was to prevent a Jewish revolt, but thirty something years later the revolt happened anyway. The Romans turned on the Jews. Jerusalem was destroyed, and Temple Judaism was over forever.

There was one more thing that was finished that day, and that was the separation between Jesus and God. In John's gospel the distance was mostly physical and it was only temporary, but when Jesus gave up his spirit, he was not thirsty anymore. He dove back into the stream of living water from which he had sprung and swam all the way home.

Those whom he left behind saw nothing but his corpse. He was not a teacher anymore. He had become a teaching instead—a window into the depths of God that some could see through and some could not. Those who held out hope for a strong God, a fierce God, a God who would brook no injustice—they looked upon a scene where God was not, while those whose feet Jesus had washed, whose faces he had touched, whose open mouths he had fed as if they were little birds—they looked upon a scene in which God had died for love of them.

He had put his own body between them and those who meant to do them harm. He had demolished the rock around their hearts. He had shown them a dangerous new way to live.

It was dark by the time they got him down and found a place to lay him. It was the Sabbath, his turn to rest. His part was over. His work was done.

Copyright ©2000 Barbara Brown Taylor

This homily was delivered at the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, Tennessee, on April 21, 2000. An earlier version of this sermon appeared in Home By Another Way (Cowley 1999).