Summary: A sermon for Good Friday about Christ's trust in the Father and his victorious death on the cross.
Just over 500 years ago, a thirty-three year-old artist was commissioned by the Vatican for the job of a lifetime. In 1508, Michelangelo climbed up onto a piece of scaffolding, laid down on his back, and began painting scenes from the Bible. The result, as many of us know today, were some of the mostly beautifully depicted scenes of the Bible ever painted. The most famous of them, perhaps, is the image of God reaching out to Adam, their fingers almost touching. I can’t imagine spending four years lying up in a piece of scaffolding, my nose just inches from a ceiling, painting, stroke by stroke, the entire ceiling for an enormous room. But four years is how long it took Michelangelo to complete the frescos of the Sistine Chapel. And can you picture what his reaction must have been when he brushed the last detail on the final scene? I imagine he rushed down the scaffolding, absolutely exultant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he cried out in joy over and over and over again, “It is finished! It is finished!”
On a Friday a little over 2,000 years ago, a different artist finished his commissioned work. He was thirty-three when he breathed his last. And before he died, he too made a declaration. “It is finished.” Every year on Good Friday, Christians come together solemnly to remember Jesus’ death on the cross. In our observance, we sit at the foot of the cross—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—and we recall the trial, the brutal beating and mocking, and the crucifixion itself. It is a ghastly scene, and the act of remembering is overwhelming because we begin to feel the grief of loss, and we know that we were a part of making that happen. All-in-all, Good Friday is generally a pretty desolate day.
And yet, we get the sense that when Jesus raised himself up by the nails in his wrists to say, “It is finished,” it wasn’t a cry of defeat, but rather a victorious announcement not unlike the moment Michelangelo finished the Sistine Chapel. It seems strange, doesn’t it? That even as he hangs dying, Christ is crying out in joyous victory. But there is something very important here that John wants us to remember as we think again of this scene on the cross. You see, John has told us throughout his gospel that when Jesus is “lifted up,” this will be the very moment of God’s glory shining through him in full strength. So, here, as if to confirm this revelation of God’s glory, lifted up on the cross of his death, Jesus gives one last cry, “It’s finished! It’s all done! It’s complete!” He has finished the work the father commissioned him to do. He has loved “to the very end” his own who were in the world. He has accomplished now the full and final task, and even in his very act of dying, God is being glorified.
But what does that mean? What, exactly, was completed on the cross? What purpose did Jesus’ suffering and death serve? I don’t think I have to tell you all that there are all kinds of possible answers to that question; we call them atonement theories, which is a big way of talking about how Christ’s death on the cross pays for our sins. But really, all of the answers boil down to a single, very simple truth: on the cross, Jesus shows us what love looks like. The cross is the moment in which God gives himself, through his Son, to save us, his creation. The word which is translated as, "It is completed," is actually a single word in the original Greek. It's the word that people would write on a bill after it had been paid in full. The bill has been dealt with. The price for human sin and rebellion has been paid. In this single act, God has convicted us of sin, revealed to us the costliness of grace, and then taken up the sins of the world; all so that we might know what love looks like and so that we might follow in living lives of sacrificial love ourselves.
This isn’t like working out a math formula that has a specific method and exact answer. The cross is not math or science; it is poetry lived out in human flesh with meanings of love, redemption, grace, and liberation all rolled in to one. In Jesus’ death on the cross, God is speaking a profound message to us, and this message of the cross actually has the power to save us, to save the world! This is the “it” that was finished on the cross; our very salvation.
And so that we might know that Christ’s work indeed was done, just after he declares, “It is completed,” the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. For thousands of years, that curtain, made from a single piece of woven fabric, separated God’s dwelling place, the “Holy of Holies” from the Holy Place called the court of the priests. Only the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies once a year to make an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people. This was the only time that any one was in God’s presence, ever. But now, as Jesus hangs on the cross on a hill overlooking Jerusalem and declares his work complete, that Temple curtain that sets apart God’s dwelling place is ripped from top to bottom. This is because, in his death, Jesus made one final and perfect sacrifice to reconcile humanity to God for all time, and the tearing of the curtain is a sign that from this time on, there is no longer a need to be separated from God. Through Jesus, humanity would now come directly to God’s throne room to ask for mercy and receive God’s grace. He had made a way for all people to enter God’s presence and experience God’s love; Christ’s work was finished.