A sermon text, based on John 18.1-19.42, particularly John 19.30, preached, via video, with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on Good Friday, April 10, 2020
“It is finished.”
Good Friday. We contemplate Jesus’ death. Again. And as Jesus died for us, we are called to contemplate our lives. Again.
“I want Jesus to walk with me” is one of my favorite spirituals. But today, Good Friday, Jesus walks not with us. For we must wait and watch as he, on the cross, leaves us behind to enter that place within us where we rarely desire or dare to go. There, Jesus declares, “It is finished.”
Jesus crucified enters that chasm within us between the image of God, the perfection in which we are created and the imperfection of our shattered humanity. Jesus, stretching out his arms, bridging that chasm, declares, “It is finished.”
This chasm has a name. Sin. Translated from the Greek, hamartia, literally “to miss the mark,” sin is less about iniquity, our failing to fulfill an ethical standard, and more about falling short of the authenticity of being true to ourselves, others, and God.
Our awareness of sin provokes shame. Guilt is remorse about what we do; doing what we ought not to do and not doing what we ought to do. Shame is sorrow about who we are. That we, because of our very human nature, don’t…can’t get life “right.” And, regarding authenticity, we can’t keep it real; at least, not consistently.
What to do?
In my experience of myself and of others, we deal with shame in two basic ways. We internalize it; punishing ourselves, listening to that long-playing psychological tape of our characteriological flaws. And we externalize it; projecting it onto others. Either way, we become “headhunters.” Beating up ourselves or lashing out at others, victimizing ourselves or them, lopping off our heads or theirs.
Headhunting. A universal human act (art?) with two unspoken, yet understood rules…
Rule #1: Never discriminate. Anyone can be our victim. Everyone is fair game. No one is on the Endangered Species List.
Rule #2: When we become victims, quickly victimize someone else. (Preferably the one who victimized us! But, if, for any reason, that’s not possible, refer to Rule #1.)
Headhunting began shortly after creation’s dawn. Cain murdered his brother Abel, whose spilled blood cried out for vengeance. In that generation, seven lives of an enemy’s family could be taken as reparation for a death.(1) Only five generations later, Lamech, Cain’s descendant, would swear, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”(2)
Historically, the price of victimization and vengeance has skyrocketed. And we humans, horrified at the high and deadly cost of sin and shame, have devised strategies “to civilize” our retaliation. We call it “justice.”
In the Old Testament, the elaborate system of temple sacrifice is an alternate example of how to remove sin and release shame. Still, it required bloodshed. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest poured out the blood of the sacrificial animal to wash away the people’s sins. However, this ritualized sacrifice, requiring annual repetition, proved ineffectual; unable to destroy the seed of sin or uproot its bitter fruit, shame.
Today, many, too many, far too many still believe that bloodshed is the only way to right a wrong. A victim must be sacrificed to obtain justice for the offended party, whether a person, family, community, nation, or religion.
What to do?
God knew. The crucifixion of Jesus.
On the cross, Jesus, as priest and victim, offers the sacrifice and is the sacrifice. So, the hymn:
Thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh, our great High Priest:
Thou on earth both Priest and Victim in the eucharistic feast.(3)
On the cross, even more, Jesus is the last victim. So, the Eucharistic Prayer, “once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice…for the sins of the…world.”(4)
On the cross, still more, Jesus stretches out his arms in the depths of our selves, our souls to touch the opposite sides of that chasm between the image of God and our shattered humanity. And, in his death, he holds them, holds us together. There, he declares, “It is finished.”
Yes, his life, but not only that…
The need for any more sacrifice, but not only that…
Our need to be headhunters.
Yes, as long as we dwell in this flesh, we will experience sin pulling us, keeping us on the side of our shattered, shameful humanity. Yet because of the crucifixion, we can cross the bridge, who is Jesus, and reach the other side of the image of God, being true to ourselves, others, and God as God so made us.
The unbreakable bond of sin. “It is finished.”
The unbearable bitterness of shame. “It is finished.”
Therefore, the only reason that we and the world continue to seek and to make victims is because we refuse to learn this lesson of the cross: “It is finished!”
(1) Genesis 4.15
(2) Genesis 4.24
(3) Alleluia! sing to Jesus!, verse 4, part 2, The Hymnal 1982, #460
(4) The Book of Common Prayer, page 334, abridged.
Illustration: Christ Crucified, Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664)