Last Words | It is Finished
“It is finished.” And with that Jesus drew his last breath.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been the recipient of the last words of someone you love. It happened for me at my grandfather’s side, almost 15 years ago. Having grown up with some shelter – and maybe some luck – it was my first real experience with loss and finality at age 21. I drove up, came through the old carport and through the screen door and into my grandparents bedroom. It was dark. The air was thick. It wouldn’t be long, and his cognizance was fading. And I leaned down instinctively and as I hugged him he said, “Hey, Old Buddy.” A familiar greeting. The final time.
I sat there with Grandpa. Remembering so much. Mourning its end, but giving thanks that I had known it. Not knowing what else to do, I began to talk. And when everyone else had left the room, I decided I wanted my grandfather to be the first to know that very soon I was going to propose to Jenny Warner – the college sweetheart Grandpa had called “a beautiful and sensible young woman.” I was going to ask her to be my partner in life, and together I hoped we would build a life that looked a lot like his.
Our lives are filled with endings and beginnings, both. And sometimes at the same time.
How do we understand these final words of Jesus? How will we hear them? “It is finished.” It’s a phrase with some complexity. The meaning is not clearcut exactly, which I’m sure is no accident. For one thing, to what is the impersonal pronoun “it” referring? What is finished, exactly? And what does “finished” mean?
For one thing, it means it’s over. I guess there is a part of us that resists the tragedy and the finality.
Fleming Rutledge – the Episcopal priest and author – describes once waiting at a jewelry counter behind a woman who was shopping for a cross necklace. The clerk pulled out a case and sat it on the counter and asked, “Now do you want a plain one? Or do you want one with the little man on it?”
Maybe from our vantage point all these years later we forget those for whom these last words are an absolute tragedy and devastation. For them it is all finished.
Mary, the mother of Jesus who birthed him into this world – who felt things within her own body that were a sign of what his life would mean, and who was herself a participant in God’s salvation. She had braced for this. She knew that her son had put his life in between the powers that be and the ones that God so loved. But she could never have prepared fully. Now he’s the one who labors. Her dreams, her hopes, a mother’s great joy… it is finished for her.
Next to her is Mary of Magdala, the one who had know hardship and suffering in her own life and who had experienced salvation and renewal in the ministry. But now that hope is layed open, struggling to breathe. And with each moment her capacities grow more shallow. Her expectations of what her life could become… it is finished.
With them stands the beloved disciple. The loyal one. The one who had followed this far, from the moment Jesus first called to him in the middle of his own labor and invited him to walk where he walked, to see as he saw, to love as he loved. This disciple was bold and loyal enough to resist his own urge to join the others in hiding. Maybe he was holding out hope that Jesus would prove to all those standing around just how powerful he was – show them that it was no fluke that he could calm waters, and raise the dead, and cast out the demonic forces of this world. Any moment now he’d show them all… until it’s finished for him, too.
Not a single one of them expects his resurrection, no matter what he has said. Later that weekend Mary will go to the tomb not to greet the new dawn, but to prepare a body for burial, carrying spices and grief that reveal she only expects to meet death there. When she tells the disciples, the beloved will run to the tomb, having to see for himself whether her story is true, and hesitating just a beat before he enters the empty tomb for fear that it hasn’t actually happened. Others will go back to their fishing boats – “I guess he’s gone and we should get back to work,” they think to themselves.
Because all they can see is the ending. Make no mistake. He is really dead. It’s really over. This is not a 14karat crucifixion, ornamental and symbolic. It’s real. It’s finished. And that finality often proves more than we can bear as we tell the story of Jesus.
In some churches – I think in this church some years ago – an Easter tradition has developed with children where we release butterflies as a metaphor for resurrection. Well, I tried that. Once. The entire congregation processed outside on Easter Sunday after the service, gathered around the cross of flowers. “Come in close, children,” we said as we opened the box. “Mommy, the butterflies are sleeping,” one child said. Thinking these sleeping butterflies needed a little jolt, the box was shaken into the air. And you can imagine it – those butterflies landed and just kept on sleeping right there at the foot of the flowered cross.
Imagine the trauma for those kids! But then again, maybe that’s an important metaphor, too. Sometimes the spring turns cold, and the plans fail, and we open the box to find it is nothing like what we hoped for. And we’d rather distance ourselves from that reality of the cross and the tomb. We’d even place our trust in our own hearts, minds, souls, our own strength, our own creativity, our own clever ideas to save us from the power of death and the reality of its ending.
There is a poem that has become popular in funerals these days for its comforting message that many of us embrace if we’re raw and fresh in our grief. “We would like to read this instead of Scripture at the funeral” some families might say, as they read the opening lines: “Death is nothing at all. I have only stepped away into the next room.”
We want to believe it: that death is nothing at all. Our beloved is not really gone. But there’s no cross in those words. No crucifixion. Comforting though they are, such sentiments can cause us to forget that the story of God-with-us is not only comfort and hope. It’s also loss and finality. Death is something. And Jesus’ death was something. It was an ending. It was a stone. That’s why Fred Craddock has said that “Christian witnesses must draw their breath in pain to tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection…” It was finished.
For some this was a victory. There were surely those for whom the cross did exactly what it was supposed to – it silenced him, it kept the peace, it signaled the power of the empire. “It is finished,” they echoed with satisfaction to themselves, glad that their plan had worked and the threat was over.
And before we distance ourselves too much from them, maybe you’ll recall as we shout “Hosanna” this Palm Sunday that it was those same voices who would later shout “Crucify.” The hands that laid palm branches would soon wield the instruments of an angry mob. And some of the ones who had amplified him would seek to silence him.They got what they wanted – for him to stop talking. “It is finished,” and with that he bowed his head, breathed his last, and it was silent. With his death, there were no more words from Jesus.
But somewhere in that silence, don’t you think it began to dawn – slowly at first on a few, and then on many more, and finally on us today… He was the one who decided when it was over. “When he had seen that all was now finished…” the gospel of John says very clearly. Jesus decides when it is finished, which means he is also the one deciding what is finished.
The Greek word for finished here not only has the sense of finality, it also has the sense of completion. It is fulfilled. It is completed – and not merely his life, but also his work. It was a work that began somewhere in the mists of creation, as God made a world of goodness and beauty. “It is very good” God said, and on the seventh day, God rested, just before the creatures God made sought to silence God, as we always do. We sought to become God. We sought to make for ourselves a plan for this earth.
And so Jesus came to reclaim and remake this world God so loves. Teaching would not do it. Healing wasn’t enough. Proclaiming the kingdom – compelling as it was – ultimately left him hoarse as it fell on deaf ears. He needed something stronger than all of those, and he had to stake his own life on it and throw his own body into it. Ultimately it was his self-giving love that remade us. “No one has greater love than this,” he said on the last night of his life, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13). Once he had explained it to them, he went out to show them what it looked like. Less than twenty-four hours later, it was finished. And in that seventh hour, Jesus could rest: “Into your hands I commit my Spirit…”
As we stare at the scene, how will we understand these words? Will we see only the tragedy? Will we join the victors in claiming triumph over silencing him? Will we also see the fulfillment of what our lives can be? And might we even see at the foot of the cross that our lives, as we have known them, are finished, too?
“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes. It means our self-satisfaction is finished. Our secret shame, finished. Our overwhelming fears, finished. Our attempts to build a tower to access God, finished. Our lives lived in separation from God, finished.
And in that silence after his last word, maybe we begin to remember all his other words, and the claim they make on our lives. “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… Love one another as I have loved you…”
Maybe we start to hear again his otherworldly ethic, “Go the second mile…Turn the other cheek…Love God with all that you are…Love neighbor as yourself… Love the enemy as if the enemy is also someone God loves.”
Well, that’s enough to finish us – or at least finish the lives we’ve led to this point and replace them with something new. So many didn’t want to listen to that kind of disruption – they didn’t want such a claim made on them – so they made sure he had said his last word. It was finished. No more words from Jesus. No more breath from Jesus. They silenced him, which we effectively do to this day with instruments far less violent. We tell ourselves we will do fine without his words. We can raise our children, spend our money, build our lives without any words of Jesus. We can spend our energies as we want, treat our neighbor as we want, treat our enemy the way we want without Jesus imposing his way for us to live. And again, he breathed his last, bowed his head, and it was silent.
But when is it in that silence that we realize that if it is finished – if we lose him finally – then we are actually the ones who stop breathing. If he stops speaking, then we are the ones who lose the capacity for abundant life. If he is gone, then we are actually the ones who die.
So what happens now that it is finished? Well, we decide that daily in what we do at his cross. Will we take up the life of the one who now hangs silenced? Soon in the darkness, the body will be claimed, a tomb prepared, a stone rolled, guards standing by, funeral plans made. All we feared will come visiting us, trying to make us forget his words and betray his hope. Behind all those stones it’s dark. The air is thick.
What do you think? Is it the end? Or is something beginning?