As we enter Holy Week we encounter Jesus, on the cross. It is common for many Christians to focus on the words of Jesus as they move toward the darkness of Good Friday. He asks God to forgive those who are torturing him. He welcomes a thief into paradise with him. He mourns with his family and friends. He wonders, out loud, where God actually is in all of this: has he been abandoned? He is thirsty. And then, his final word: It is finished.
We know we are nearing the end. It is finished. There is a sense, in this word, that all has been completed. There is a sense that the assignment has been fulfilled. The phrase, literally, is one Greek word, and in the ancient world its usual context was what someone would write across a bill that had been satisfied, meaning, “paid in full.”
In Mark’s gospel we are told that Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last (15:37). Perhaps these words expressed his loud cry: It is finished.
Among the seven traditional last words of Jesus from the cross, three are from John’s Gospel: behold your mother, behold your son; I thirst; and it is finished. Each is an expression of confidence, of completion; each is attached with the reminder that this was to fulfill the scripture.
Jesus had accomplished what he had been placed on this earth to do: his life, his teachings, his healing, his compassion, the friendship with disciples, the Passover meal, the betrayal, the arrest, and then the crucifixion, which is about to be completed. This is not a word of resignation. It is a strong affirmation of faith and hope: It is finished.
Jesus had prayed, in the garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me?” When the disciples wanted to be in positions of leadership and honor, he had asked them, “Are you able to drink from the cup that I drink?” And now, he has drank completely from the cup of suffering, it is all gone; it is finished.
Jesus had anticipated this moment. Earlier in the gospel of John, he had said, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (12:24). And then, “when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me” (12:32).
Now the grain of wheat has fallen into the earth. Now the son of man is lifted up, on a cross. It is finished. This is the objective reality of the Christian faith. It is the aspect that does not depend on your feelings or mine, on your virtue or mine, on your opinions or mine. It is finished.
We have a few of those experiences in everyday life, where we know something is finished. I remember in divinity school a large group of friends getting together to watch the last episode of the television series MASH. I remember calling a member of the church about something, it was a little past nine o’clock, and he said, “actually we are watching the last episode of ER.” We did not talk long!
We have other experiences in life where we know something is finished. You cross the stage and receive a diploma. You lose a game, and walk off the field. You pack up all of your belongings into a moving van and pull away from a neighborhood and a group of friends. You walk your daughter down the aisle at her wedding. You leave an office, your last day in a workplace. You sit and wait in the presence of someone you love, some talking but mostly silence, you watch the breathing patterns become more labored, and then, something changes. There is an ending, a still-point.
The feelings about it all continue, for some time; the internal debates go on, about what you might have done differently, and yet, the fact remains: it is finished.
At the cross, John tells us, he bows his head and gives up his spirit, literally he hands over his spirit, just as he had been handed over to be crucified by the religious and political leaders. Jesus is active here: no one takes my life from me, he had said in John 10, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down…
He bows his head and gives up his spirit.
In the biblical languages, spirit is a word that also means breath. He “breathes his last,” Mark’s gospel tells us. In Luke’s Gospel, the community also remembers him saying the words “Into your hands, O God, I commend my spirit.” For Luke, this is an act of trust, relinquishment, surrender. His spirit returns to God. But in John, he hands over his spirit to those who are present, his mother, the disciple (John) and others. This is in anticipation of what will happen later: after the resurrection, and this is recorded in the very next chapter of John, he breathes on the disciples, and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And this, for me, is the really fascinating dimension of this word of Jesus. From the cross, Jesus says, “It is finished.” This is of course a brief word filled with contradiction: it is finished, but it is never finished. His work on the cross is finished. This is our justification by faith in his final, complete and sufficient offering on the cross. And yet there is the necessity of his ongoing work of grace in our lives. Methodists have called this sanctification, it recalls the teaching of Paul in the letter to the Romans, to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.”
The cross is a contradiction, it is finished, but it is never finished. This is both the gift and calling, the law (Jesus’ fulfillment) and the gospel (the good news about what happened on the cross), the finality of it all and the way that all of this goes on into infinity. It is done, it is fulfilled, the cup of suffering is empty, let this cup pass from me, Jesus had prayed, he drank it all…but, as Pascal observed, it is also true that “Christ will be in agony until the end of the world.” The contradiction can be heard in the simple phrase of the gospel hymn: Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe.
It is finished, but it is never finished. I wonder: This do we ever really finish anything? Do we ever finish being a parent? Do we ever stop learning? Do we ever move beyond the most important relationships?
I recently completed reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It is moving book by a widow who goes over and over her husband’s last words, their last experiences together, which included their adult daughter’s hospitalization. It is clear that he has a continuing presence in her life, even as time passes. His life has ended, their marriage is finished, and yet her identity has not quite changed. She cannot bring herself to check the box “single” and she cannot not think of herself as a wife. It is finished, but it is never finished.
Once Joan Didion has moved through an entire calendar year, she knows that she is living through days that her husband had not lived the year before. Toward the end of the book she confesses, “I realize as I write this that I do not want to finish this account.” Letting go is difficult. She continues:
I look for resolution and find none…I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go…
This is true of the cross as well. If it were finished, why would we plant a giant cross on the front of our campus each year, why would our eyes be drawn again and again to survey the wondrous cross, why would we sing these hymns? His work is finished. It is the full, complete and sufficient sacrifice. His work is finished; ours never is. He hands over his spirit to us, he lives in us, and there is some ongoing purpose.
A year or so ago one of our daughters was home from school, it was a Sunday, we had been here for the morning services and decided to go to a small Chinese restaurant for lunch, it was a place we could all agree on. The food is good and we knew it would not be too crowded.
We ordered, we talked, it is amazing how our kids grow up and mature, the meal came, we prayed – a ritual that has been with us since they were very small, and then we ate, we continued talking about everything under the sun, had you overheard our conversation, you never would have guessed it was a “preacher family”!
We finished the meal, and we waited for the check. Finally the waitress came by, and in the limited English she spoke she said that someone had paid our bill. I questioned her, just to be sure that this was actually the case, and she assured me that there was no misunderstanding.
I could do nothing in that moment, except to become more aware that I lived in a “grace-filled world,” and to go into the rest of my day with eyes opened to the ways that I might, in the title of the movie, “pay it forward.”
Because of the healings and the teachings and also the conflict with some of the religious leaders, Jesus drew a crowd, and some, many, pinned their hopes on him, that he would be the next David, the next great king and political ruler. They shouted and waved palm branches when the parade came by. It would be the inauguration of a new era.
The story takes a very different turn, however. Jesus comes to fulfill not so much what the people want, but what they need: a right relationship with God. This happens in the most grotesque of ways, on a cross. Suffering is not avoided or judged, it is embraced and transformed. The cross is the bridge between holiness and sin, between what we want and what we need, between what is finished and what is never finished.
God comes clearly into focus as Jesus hangs from the cross, and the decisive moment is when he says, “It is finished.” What is finished, fulfilled at the cross is the response to our greatest need: to forgive or be forgiven, the assurance that we are not alone, an unresolved grief. It is the debt paid in full; it is the cup of suffering that is completely drained. It is creation of a grace-filled world, in response to our deepest human desiring.
What is never finished is what we do with the cross he has handed to us. This is the compassion that he asks us to share with others: a decision to forgive, a gesture of friendship, a witness to the good news of salvation, a prayer of intercession.
And so his last words become our legacy. What I have done for you, he says, you must now do for others. It is finished, but it is never finished.
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking.
Carlyle Marney, He Became Like Us.
N. T. Wright, John for Everyone.