The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Good Friday
14 April 2017
The last day of Christ’s life is like a horrific nightmare. Betrayed by one of his best friends, he is unfairly tried by the religious leaders of God’s own chosen people at what could only have been called a secret trial before dawn had even arisen. Flogged, beaten, spit upon, and ridiculed, Christ was thrust into the street to drag his own cross to the place of the skull. And to be clear, Jesus and his followers were also Jewish—when John says that Jesus was handed over to the Jews, tried by the Jews, taken to Pilate by the Jews, that the Jews cried out, “Crucify Him,” all of this is in reference to the same group of religious leaders in the high priests’ council—in our Episcopal tradition, this would be the bishop, priests, and deacons, who bodily dragged Jesus before Pilate, demanding his death. And, with Christ’s last words, “It is Finished,” the work of crucifixion has come to its end and Jesus’ life is spent.
Yet what is finished is neither his ministry, nor his teachings, nor certainly is it God’s love— though these all seemed to come to a crushing end this day on the cross.
What then is finished?
Written in Greek, John’s capturing of Jesus’ departing words comes from the root teleo, which means to bring to an end, or to complete. The believed original tense in the Greek “tetelestai” conveys both a perfect tense, which means an action that was competed in the past, yet continues into the future; and passive mood, which refers to the work being God’s work having been accomplished with continuing significance for all future times.
What then is finished is the work Christ came to accomplish in the world.
Anyone who has heard me preach over the past seven weeks likely has a good idea of what I believe Christ’s work was in the world. Put as simply as possible, it was to teach us to love as God loves. Living as Christ’s hands and heart, we are to continue in his teachings, to bring the abundance of God’s unconditional and unremitting love and forgiveness to life in the world around us as agents of God’s kingdom.
Jesus lived his life as a testament to this love, and he died, as he lived, courageously, unwilling to turn away from living the example of God’s love even in the face of violent suffering and death. In taking on human flesh in the Incarnation, a part of God’s own infinite self became finite, vulnerable, human.
This is “Kenosis”—a self-emptying, a self giving—a willingness on God’s part to become human, to become one of us, so as to teach us how God loves us and how we ought to love one another.
As most of you also already know, I disagree with Augustine’s notion of atonement. I don’t believe that Jesus came into this world simply so that he could be killed in order to counter Adam and Eve’s original sin so that God could finally forgive us. It is not in God’s nature to not forgive us. The whole of the law and the prophets and the whole history of Israel demonstrates, if nothing else, that God is in this for the long haul. We can turn back in the desert, complain, fall away from our faith, worship impotent golden statues, set up rulers and kings in God’s place, but at every turn of heart that draws us back to the knowledge and love of God, God is right there waiting for us with open arms. Echoing Christ’s experience in today’s reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah and in the haunting words of Psalm 22, today’s gospel tells the horrific story of the depths to which humankind is capable of sinking. And yet, as our reading from the letter to the Hebrews tells us of God’s response:
The Holy Spirit testifies, saying:
“This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds,”
“I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Christ taught us that every one of God’s commandments could be fulfilled through the simple act of loving God and one another. That through true love for all of humankind, we would find ourselves incapable of the acts that destroy the spirit, trust, and love within us and others. He explained, through parable and example, the teachings of the prophets, pointing to God’s unconditional love for us. He worked tirelessly in ministry to lift up the poor and downtrodden, to draw in the outsider, to heal the socially and physically wounded. He sat down with the outcasts to demonstrate to us who is most in need of God’s healing and forgiveness, and he taught us that true healing is a state of our hearts that comes through word and action—in spiritual and emotional intention combined with the loving touch of personal contact.
This isn’t the theology of a God that needed to kill a perfect human as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
But if God didn’t need for Christ to die… who did? My friends, we did. And we do.
Like Judas’ betrayal, the crucifixion of Jesus was foreseen by the God of a people that so needed to know first-hand what the kingdom of God looked like that it was worth it to God to come amongst us in Christ, even knowing what we would do to him. That kind of self-giving love— the love that would save his whole world of closest friends by demonstrating God’s forgiveness to us with such reckless and careless abandon—is why Christ died for us. It was not so that God could forgive us, but so that we could finally be brought into the understanding and acceptance of a love and forgiveness so profound and unconditional that without God’s ultimate sacrifice, we just couldn’t have grasped it.
In looking at the completion of Christ’s crucifixion in terms of kenosis, “It is finished” takes on a new dimension by which Christ’s completed sacrifice may be seen not as his violent death but in his willingness to stand up to death in cooperation with love’s integrity—not as a silently suffering victim, but in open defiance of the shame and fear that domination inflicts on humankind.
It is this same kenosis through which God’s love was given to the creation of the physical universe; through which God reached out in passionate desire for relationship with humankind; and ultimately through which God took on flesh in Christ’s incarnation. As the living embodiment of God’s unremitting and unconditional love, Christ’s kenotic self-giving becomes an act of integrity, strength, vulnerability, and grace, rather than being shamed into submission, dominated, or victimized into silence.
In this final act of courage, and in defiance of those who believed God’s love could be intimidated into silence, Christ willingly faced death to show us that no power is greater than God’s love for us.
This day, we complete our first season together—a season of reflection, of listening, of mutual discernment, and of getting to know God, ourselves, and each other a bit better through the spiritual disciplines that have guided our time over these past forty-five days. This very long day, which began last night with Christ’s disciples in table fellowship, and ends tonight at sunset with the cross behind us and nothing left but the silence of the tomb, signals the end of our Lenten journey. In the liminal space of these next thirty-two hours, spanning the second and third days—we take in the cosmic silence of what has been accomplished.
In the complicated mix of our lives that so often overlap solemnity and tragedy with occasions of joy, today is also Jane’s 40th birthday! Over these past forty-six days that I’ve been away, she has been toiling relentlessly to get our house ready to sell. Exhausted by parenting our three children without me there to share in parenting, exhausted further by moving furniture and wall hangings for the painters (who didn’t put anything back, by the way—so she had to move it all back again when they finally finished the job), exhausted still further by caring for her mom and our nephew, both of whom live with us, and again still further by training our new puppy while she watches our deteriorating and precious 14 year old boxador near the end of her time, Jane has nearly fallen into bed at the end of these very long days. Add to this the carpet cleaners, the staging of our home, seeding the new lawn in the back yard, the physical and occupational therapies for our children, the medical and mental health appointments for her mom, the grocery shopping, getting the kids to and from school, and feeding everyone except herself because she’s simply too overextended to eat more than once a day, and I start to wonder how she has survived this time. Where all of this is going is that this past Tuesday our professional photographers came. Her goal was to be done in time for them to take the pictures, and to have everything in a state of readiness before her birthday so she could finally rest. Obviously this is anecdotal in comparison to this day, but I think we all have those times in our lives when we are just done… and with our release comes the wearied cry of victory—“it is finished!”
Reading “It is finished,” this year, while it certainly sounds like a sigh of relief—a resignation to accepting the terminus of crucifixion in death—it sounds even more like a wearied cry of victory. Here God’s love has been brought to its completion in a life lived without regret, without compromising Love’s demands, and without submitting to the domination of the world’s powers. God’s work of love through the Incarnation has been accomplished for all time. God’s kingdom has come near, has seeded the hearts of God’s children, has taken root, and will spring up in and through every generation as we continue to live as Christ’s hands and heart in this world.
Here is Good News within Good Friday itself. Even the abject torture, humiliation, suffering, and violent death of Jesus cannot overcome the indomitable love of God. The completion of God’s love in the fullness of Christ’s life, ministry, teachings, and facing the ultimate penalty in death is completed then, now, and for all generations yet to come. It is finished.