[This word was proclaimed at Community of the Savior, April 12, 2019, and in an earlier version at Brunswick Church, Good Friday, 2002.]
“A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” John 19:29-30
One does not use this word, it is finished, for something menial or trivial, but for something major, something momentous. It speaks of completing what one set out to do. Something demanding. Challenging. Physically and mentally exhausting.
It is a word that Micah Herndon may well have used last Monday in Boston as he crossed the finish line of the nation’s most venerated marathon—the Boston Marathon. Marine Micah Herndon ran the race not for any personal glory, but for three fallen Marines who served alongside him, but didn’t come home from their assignment in Afghanistan in 2010. “I run in honor of them,” Herndon said. “If I get a heat cramp while running … or I am getting exhausted, I just keep saying their names out loud: Ballard, Hamer, Juarez…. I run for them and their families.” Tattooed on the back of his hand were three names: Ballard, Hamer, Juarez. Laced on his running shoes were three names: Ballard, Hamer, Juarez.
At the 22-mile mark, one leg began cramping, then the other. For four miles with both legs cramping, Herndon kept running. As he approached the finish line on Boylston Street, within 100 yards of the finish line, he fell to the pavement. He started crawling. He crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 38 minutes, on his hands and knees, repeating the names of his fallen Marine buddies: Ballard, Hamer, Juarez.
Jesus does not run this race for himself, but for others, for his sisters and brothers, his family. Jesus’ words from the cross begin with concern for others, not himself. He is not running this race for himself:
- For his accusers and tormentors, he prays: forgive them…
- For the penitent thief, he assures: today you will be with me in paradise….
- For his aging mother, he speaks to a disciple: take care of her….
Then the words get more personal:
- My God, why have you forsaken me? This is no role-playing. O answer is given him.
- I am thirsty. His human weakness is on full display.
Then the word that John, the last of the gospel writers, puts last on the Lord’s lips:
- It is finished!
In translation we have three words; for Jesus it is but one word. There is a visceral power in saying it in the original: Tetelestai. The tense is perfect, a completed action. Not past tense, merely denoting something that once happened, but perfect tense: a completed action with continuing benefits. Tetelestai. Finished. Completed.
What does he mean by it: Tetelestai–finished? We have come to call the work of Jesus on the cross the atonement, the making at-one what was separated by sin; bringing together what was apart. The Church over the ages has developed theories of the atonement, a handful or more. We’re not dealing with theories tonight. We are dealing reality wrapped in mystery.
I know this: Jesus is not satisfying the wrath of an angry God, but magnifying the grace of the loving God. This is not the heavenly Father punishing the undeserving Son. This is God-in-flesh so intimately identifying with us, that God-with-us experiences first-hand the brokenness of our world. The weight of our sin. God-with-us is so with us that God-with-us experiences in this hour separation from the Father.
In agonizing human weakness and frailty, we hear his cry: Tetelestai. It is not a whimper of defeat. Jesus is not throwing in the towel. He will cross the finish line, even crawling in unimaginable pain.
It is the cry of one completing the assigned task. Tetelestai. It is a word we might hear from a ship’s captain coming into port after braving all the ocean could throw at that ship. Wind and water battered, but home. Storm worn and scarred, but home. Tetelestai. It is the cry of the marathoner after months of grueling training, finally completing 26 miles and 385 yards, covered with sweat, muscles cramping, joints trembling, sight blurred: Tetelestai. It is the cry of the climber taking that one final step to stand on a lofty summit. Tetelestai. Finished.
Tonight we see Jesus in his full vulnerability. We ponder his passion, that is, his suffering. Passion is not just liking something a lot; it is being willing to suffer and die for something. The earth quakes. The women weep. The men flee. In the eye of the storm of the ages, in the epi-center of the quake, Jesus cries: Tetelestai. Journey completed. Promise kept. Work done. Vision realized. Hope secured. Salvation secured.
We will not try to explain the unexplainable; but we will proclaim the undeniable. Jesus has conquered. To the glory of God, for the redemption of the world. Tetelestai. Finished.
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?