“C’mon Red Raiders! Wreck ‘em! Finish!” That’s what I saw people posting all over Facebook on Monday evening. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the finish Tech fans hoped for. When we say something is finished it seems so final, so definitive. And I’m sure that’s how it felt to all those surrounding the cross of Christ. For you see, the thick and peculiar darkness was spilling away and daylight was creeping back in. The physical strength of Jesus was slowly seeping from him and the end of his life was drawing near. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And after a period of silence came the very human cry, “I am thirsty!” Then, since Jesus was close to death and his mother was now being cared for by the beloved disciple, it is likely that most folks had probably gone home. Darkness then changed into light and Jesus said our seventh word, this last word, “It is finished.”
But what was finished? With sweeping glance, we see that the work of Jesus’s life was done and his death on the cross was at an end. That’s the easiest interpretation of this last word. But we must look deeper. Just because Jesus’ experience on the cross was finished, doesn’t mean we, today, are finished. This word shows us that we mustn’t be complacent, for the work that God has for us to do in the world has only just begun. And because death came to Jesus it allowed a resurrection, a new beginning to take place. It seems to me that these last words we’ve been focusing on week after week in Lent, this time of Jesus’ life ending, is only the beginning for us. That is why there was vigor to Jesus’ cry from the cross. For you see, when I hear the words “It is finished,” in my mind I don’t hear those words as a whimpered whisper or a muttered announcement. “It is finished” doesn’t seem to me to be a resigned plea that Jesus is done for and everything is in vain. No, I think this seventh word, “it is finished,” was a cry of victory. Jesus was basically saying that all he personally came to do had been accomplished. All had been completed. All was finished.
As one who doesn’t really resonate with the somberness of the Lenten season where we must experience a great deal of self-control, uncomfortableness, depravation, and pain, I gravitate towards this seventh and final word of Jesus from the cross as one of fulfillment, completion, and triumph. And this word of triumph reaches out to us from the past, reassuring us that the pain and heartache of the world is only temporary. The things we are going through right now are short compared to the prospect of being with our Creator God.
Because for everything that is finished indeed creates a new beginning. At the beginning of the Gospel of John we are told: 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 being in 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). We are reminded that not only does everything finished have a beginning, but everything created has an end. Creation, according to the Bible, is consummated when all things are made new and we have a new earth. We should look forward to things being finished.
Today’s seventh word reminds us that we do indeed have a finish to Jesus’s life and ministry. And because we have that end, we have a new world we can help co-create as we follow the one who modeled a sacrificial life and death for us. And when we follow this savior, we become the new body of Christ, through the Spirit. We become the finished ones. This is what early church father, Athanasius of Alexandria, meant by his statement that “God became human so that humans might become divine.” Which means, as Richard Neuhaus puts it in his reflections on the seven words in his Death on a Friday Afternoon, “’It is finished.’ But it is not over.” God remains at work making us, his beloved creations, divine. Making us into those followers who will help create the new reality where all people are included and accepted and fed and clothed and loved.
We know that to live as humans, our fight for justice and our grasping for grace will never be finished. We will never live lives free of suffering or shame, hurt or pain, but we can know that in the midst of our suffering, and even through our suffering, God’s purposes and priorities can become real. For Paul said to the Colossians, “I am not rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known.”
Paul said he was completing the suffering of Christ. But I don’t think we have suffering in our lives because Christ’s suffering on the cross wasn’t enough to get rid of the pain and hate in the world. No, I think the Apostle Paul and we, today, are able to trust in our sufferings and hope in our sufferings because the hard work of the cross is indeed finished. The hard and completed work of a saving God, the finished work of a loving God reveals to us that God has finished what only God can finish.
Yet, even though Jesus uttered the powerful words “it is finished” from the cross – words that continue to ring throughout history as a sign that our missteps and mistakes are forever defeated and the power of death broken – much of the significance of this statement is actually lost when the Greek is translated into English. The statement, “It is finished,” is three words in English, but it is one word in Greek, “tetelestai.” When Jesus cried out “it is finished” from the cross, the Greek word “tetelestai” is used, which means “to bring to a close, to complete, to fulfill.”
What makes this exclamation by Jesus truly unique, however, is the Greek tense that was used. You see, verb tenses are the most important and most communicative part of the Greek language. This importance is also sometimes lost in translation. Jesus speaks in the perfect tense, which is different than the perfect tenses in English. In English they usually mean an action that is completed. The perfect tense in Greek is not the same thing. It is a combination of two Greek tenses: The Present tense and the Aorist tense. The Aorist tense is specific: meaning something that happens at a specific point in time; a moment. The Present tense is linear: meaning something that continues on into the future and has ongoing results and implications. The combination of these two tenses in the perfect tense as used in our last word for today is of overwhelming significance to the Christian faith. When Jesus said, “It is finished” or completed, what he was actually saying was “it is finished and will continue to be finished.” It was finished at that moment and it will be finished for all time. For all time! That is powerful.
But what was the work that Jesus did that needed to be finished for all time? According to prominent DFW Methodist pastor, Dr. Leighton Ferrell, “Jesus came to preach the good news, to reveal God’s love for God’s people, to speak the truth in love, to inaugurate the kingdom of heaven, to reconcile people to God and to one another, to heal the sick, to bless the poor, and to comfort those in sorrow.” And Jesus did that. He did all he could, his task and his mission was over. The work God had sent him to earth to do was completed with his death upon the cross. But friends, unlike Jesus, our work is not done. We must continue the work of Christ. We have work to do too to keep Christ’s presence and love and compassion expanding into the world. Our work is anything but finished.
Since our work in the world isn’t finished, what is it we are called to do? This is what it says in Matthew 25:
‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Friends, it is our job as Christians today to carry on this mission that Jesus started. We must live out “tetelestai” and the ongoing idea that the work of Christ will continue to be finished on into the future. We continue to finish the work of God by being kind to everyone, being humble, loving our neighbor, basically loving one another, always and in all forms.
Episcopal priest and early contributor to the Alcoholics Anonymous code, Samuel Shoemaker, devoted his life to the ministry of the poor and disenfranchised in the slums of New York City. With his health failing health and frequent feelings of discouragement, he was asked by a friend, “Why don’t you just run away from it all before you are broken by this inhuman burden that you have placed upon yourself?” Shoemaker replied, “I would like to run away from it all, but a strange man on the cross won’t let me.” Although Jesus said “it is finished,” we know that it isn’t finished for us. We can’t run away from the mission Jesus set before us in the world. Jesus’ work on earth may have been completed, but our work isn’t. There is still more for us to do.
So, that is why I think it is fitting that we have this seventh word of Jesus from the cross on Palm Sunday. We are all already familiar with the procession and the parade. We all know about the waving palms and the excited children. We all know the shouts of “hosanna” that trail off into echoes of “crucify him!” We know that this triumphal moment of Jesus entering Jerusalem was when his ministry in the world was finished, riding a colt straight into the jaws of Roman authority. Jesus was finished on the cross, but Jesus isn’t finished with us. We are in between the Palms of the crowd and balms of the women at the tomb. We are in the midst of a week of immense darkness that will open up into light of new beginnings if we let it.
Mennonite minister Ron Adams thinks that Palm Sunday is a day in which we are in between, finishing up Jesus’ life and preparing the world for a new beginning. He says, “The Palm Sunday story calls us into an in-between space – into the fraught space between freedom and captivity, companionship and betrayal, outrageous joy and unspeakable sorrow, life and death. Somewhere between Bethany and Jerusalem a parade is forming that also, in a certain light, looks like a funeral [procession]. We know what is coming, but we are not there yet. We are in between and we are asked to sing. It is uncomfortable, singing even as we weep. But it is the way of discipleship.”
So, even though Jesus said, “it is finished,” we know it is not over. The work of Christ didn’t stop at the crucifixion. In fact, it is now being made whole in us, each and every one of us. We will continue to do the work of Christ in the world and help make a new earth that is sufficient and lovely and hopeful for all of God’s people. Every single one. So, when you feel like you can’t go on and that life is hard, know that your work isn’t done. We have more to do as we near Easter. We have a resurrection of Jesus to look forward to and we have a resurrection of hope that will fuel us to live Easter lives each and every day.
Church, even though we will see during this upcoming Holy Week that Jesus’ mission and Jesus’ life is indeed finished, we must remember that going from death to life is still hard work. The heavy words, “it is finished,” carry the pregnancy of transformed life. Birth can’t happen without pain. Jesus was in the grave for three days and we can’t hide from the difficult and dark moments in our own lives. Because it is in the hard moments that God will birth something beautiful. This last word from Jesus is only the beginning, the beginning of our work of following Christ, the beginning of a changed world.
Friends, our work is not finished… not yet.