Harrowing Of Hell
March 25, 2016

Good Friday 2016: “It Is Finished”

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch
Scripture: John 18:1–19:42

Years ago, a very close friend of mine died suddenly and tragically. I remember the morning of his funeral like it was yesterday. The world stood still, but just for me. I was struggling to come to grips with the new reality of a world without him. Yet, I vividly remember driving across campus on the way to the Cathedral for the service and college students were streaming through the crosswalk on their way to class; talking, laughing, eating a snack as they walked—just normal.

But the world was anything but normal. I wanted to get out of the car and scream. “Isn’t anyone paying attention?!”

Each year on Good Friday, I seem to revisit that pit of emotion—that “Isn’t anyone paying attention?!” kind of feeling. As I got up in the morning and drove kids to school, made my morning commute, and did the normal sorts of things one does, I wondered, how can the world just keep going? Just watching our neighbors and community carry on with life-as-usual makes me want to jump off this merry-go-round, at least for this one day.

On Good Friday the ruling political forces of Jesus’ day tortured and executed an innocent man. They sacrificed the weak and the blameless to protect their own status and power. And then, on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead, revealing not only their injustice but also unmasking the lie that might makes right.

Imagine for just a moment with me the chaos in Jerusalem from those days of Roman occupation; the tension between the Romans soldiers, the Jews, the religious authorities, and the average citizens just trying to raise their children and make a living. It was the festival of the Passover, which was a hectic and festive time in the streets of Jerusalem. Those that could came from all over to the Temple to celebrate, to sacrifice a lamb, as was the Jewish custom at Passover.

To set the scene is important—the Passover festival, one of the most sacred holidays for Jews remembers the Exodus, which happened nearly fifteen hundred years before the time of Jesus. Remember, Moses had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea (which miraculously parted to let them through), and through the desert to the Promised Land.

As scholar NT Wright explains, “The Jews lived on the hope that it would happen again. The tyrants would do their worst, and God would deliver the people. Understand the Exodus, and you understand a good deal about Judaism. And about Jesus. Jesus chose Passover, the great national festival celebrating the Exodus, to make his crucial move” (Wright, 33).

The particular week Jesus chose to hop on a donkey and ride into town Jerusalem was a pressure cooker. Social, political, and military tension was mounting from the Roman oppression. The Jewish people were living in the midst of a very long narrative. They saw themselves as key players in an ongoing story with God—with enough prayer, ritual, and steadfast hope, they believed freedom, justice, and peace would eventually prevail AND more than that, they believed it was theirs by right.

It is into this tempest of self-absorption and heated political clime that Jesus rides a donkey and ushers in a vision of a new kingdom—the kingdom that is not of this world. For Jesus, this journey to his death is gritty and dirty. It’s undignified and embarrassing. But he boldly and calmly, steps into his fate and invites us into the drama as it unfolds.

In this gospel account from John, Jesus is NOT a victim. He is strong, right up until the bitter end. It is the only gospel in which he doesn’t cry out. Jesus calmly and confidently leads us to the cross and beyond and he does it with one powerful word on this dark afternoon—in Greek, tetelestai—“It is finished.” Jesus is finished.

Those gathered at the foot of the cross heard Jesus’ proclamation, but could not understand the power of what they were hearing. “It is finished.” Perhaps, they thought it meant something about that horrible day being finished. Maybe they thought their lives would get back to normal, but they’re wouldn’t. They will never be normal again.

Jesus is not the only one to be finished that Friday. They are all finished in a sense. Pilate is finished. The judge walks away and sighs knowing Jesus is finished, another political troublemaker out of the way. The religious authorities nervously look around at one another and in relief realize it is finished. Jesus is finished. No more problems out of him. The soldiers turn and walk away. Finished. Their unpleasant, but necessary jobs done for another day.

The crowds watch Jesus breathe his last. They watch his body slump lifeless on the cross. It is finished. The circus of the day, the spectacle of Jesus being paraded through the streets and disgraced, the whole ugly thing—finished.

But Jesus’ word, “Tetelestai” is so much more than a simple “finished.” It is cosmic, a word vast, unbound by time, and with universal meaning. This final utterance hearkens back to the beginning, to that first sentence, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

In the capable words of the Rev. Dr. Amy Richter of Annapolis, “And so Jesus’ word, word of Word incarnate, this one word, which we translate as “it is finished,” is the final punctuation on a sentence begun before all that is, before we were knit together in our mothers’ wombs, before the first light, first life, first spark, first dream, first bursting forth of creation.

The final punctuation on a sentence spoken in love, spoken across space, time, through ages, prophets, patriarchs, matriarchs, sages, and in these last days, spoken to us by a son: Jesus.”

That’s why this day is so jarring. That’s why it is so dislocating. It is cosmic and vast, yet we are firmly located in our present. It can be disorienting—like the day of a funeral after the death of a beloved.

This is the day of the death of our beloved Jesus. It is jarring. It is disorienting. It is final and upsetting in this moment and that is just what this day is for Christians living into the Triduum. It is uneasy and strange. The world is anything but normal. You may want to get out of the car and scream. “Isn’t anyone paying attention?!” And that’s okay. That’s the tension of kingdom living. So, be there. For this one night, just be there.