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03 April 2015

The Sixth Word on the Cross: Completing Creation

Good Friday Sermon

That was the day they killed the Son of God 
On a squat hill-top by Jerusalem. 
Zion was bare, her children from their maze 
Sucked by the dream of curiosity 
Clean through the gates. The very halt and blind 
Had somehow got themselves up to the hill. 
After the ceremonial preparation, 
The scourging, nailing, nailing against the wood, 
Erection of the main-trees with their burden, 
While from the hill rose an orchestral wailing,
They were there at last, high up in the soft spring day. 
We watched the writhings, heard the moanings, saw 
The three heads turning on their separate axles 
Like broken wheels left spinning. Round his head 
Was loosely bound a crown of plaited thorn 
That hurt at random, stinging temple and brow 
As the pain swung into its envious circle. 
In front the wreath was gathered in a knot 
That as he gazed looked like the last stump left 
Of a death-wounded deer's great antlers. Some 
Who came to stare grew silent as they looked, 
Indignant or sorry. But the hardened old 
And the hard-hearted young, although at odds 
From the first morning, cursed him with one curse, 
Having prayed for a Rabbi or an armed Messiah 
And found the Son of God. What use to them 
Was a God or a Son of God? Of what avail 
For purposes such as theirs? Beside the cross-foot, 
Alone, four women stood and did not move 
All day. The sun revolved, the shadows wheeled, 
The evening fell. His head lay on his breast, 
But in his breast they watched his heart move on 
By itself alone, accomplishing its journey. 
Their taunts grew louder, sharpened by the knowledge 
That he was walking in the park of death, 
Far from their rage. Yet all grew stale at last,
Spite, curiosity, envy, hate itself. 
They waited only for death and death was slow 
And came so quietly they scarce could mark it. 
They were angry then with death and death's deceit. 

I was a stranger, could not read these people
Or this outlandish deity. Did a God 
Indeed in dying cross my life that day 
By chance, he on his road and I on mine?

(Edwin Muir: The Killing)

My friends,

the sixth word of Jesus on the Cross comes from John  19:30; there we read,

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

What were the words Jesus said  before he bowed his head and gave up his spirit?  The New Revised Standard Version renders the Greek as “It is finished”; so does the King James Version.  

The New English Translation has Jesus say, “It is completed!”.  The Message Bible translates with, “It’s done ... complete.” Luther’s translation into German renders Jesus’ words as, “Es ist vollbracht” (It is accomplished).  And the Plattdeutsch New Testament says, “So, nu is allens in de Reeg broecht” (Everything is put in order).

As I dug a bit deeper, I found that the Greek word underlying these various  translations is τετέλεσται. The basic meanings of that Greek word are “to bring to a close, to finish, to end”, “to  perform, execute, complete, fulfill”, “to accomplish” and “to pay”.

So when Jesus said, “It is finished”, what did he mean?  What, in fact, was finished?

To figure that out we need to look at the opening chapters of Genesis. (I am indebted to colleague Matthew Buccheri for the insights shared in the next few paragraphs).

“In the beginning" ... That's how Genesis starts, and that's how "John" starts his Gospel; as he is writing he echoes the words found on the first page of the Bible.  

The opening chapters of Genesis are structured around the seven days of creation. Day one: God creates light; day two: God creates the heavens; day three: He separates the water from the land; day four: He creates the sun and the moon and the stars; day five: He creates the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.

And then on day six, before God rests on day seven, Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his own image and crowned them with glory and honor. Then the writer of Genesis tells us that when the creative process was done, when God looked at his creative work, God said one thing, “It is very good".  Intriguingly God didn't say, “It is finished.” 

"John" opens his Gospel with the opening words of Genesis--“In the beginning”--and he, too, structures his entire account around seven statements: The seven “I am” statements of Jesus.

In chapter 6 of John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the bread", in chapter 8 He says, “I am the light of the world", in chapter 10 he says, “I am the door". Also, in chapter 10 Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd", then, in chapter 11, “I am the resurrection and the life", then, later in chapter 14, “I am the way and the truth and the life", and then finally, in chapter 15 Jesus says, “I am the true vine.”

"John" is doing everything he can to echo the Book of Genesis with the hope that we "get" his riff on Genesis: he's writing the story of  humanity's re-creation and redemption.

So, with Genesis as the backdrop, when the author reports Jesus saying, “It is finished” it would likely mean something about re-creation and redemption.  Perhaps, he meant to say that what is finished are our vain attempts of redeeming ourselves.

But there is more. As I remembered that Jesus didn’t speak Greek primarily, but Aramaic, I dug deeper still.  I searched in many places from various times, and without fail, all my research led to one Hebrew phrase, נשלם (Nishlam). We know that Jesus didn’t really shout “tetelestai” after drinking that wine; it’s rather likely that he shouted, “Nishlam”.

Even as I pronounce the word, “Nishlam”, you may hear its root, without ever needing to know a word of Hebrew or Arabic.  Its root is shalam, salaam or shalom. Shalom is often translated “peace”. When we hear the word “peace”, we usually associate this with an absence of war or strife, but (as is the case with a lot of English translations of Hebrew words), this does not adequately define this Hebrew word.  

The connotations of “Shalom” include completion, fullness and wholeness. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann introduces “shalom” by observing that in the Bible, “all of creation is one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.”

“The most staggering expression of the vision is that all persons are children of a single family, members of a single tribe, heirs of a single hope, and bearers of a single destiny, namely, the care and management of all of God’s creation.”

Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors which make communal harmony joyous and effective. The origin and the destiny of God’s people is to be on the road of shalom, which is to live out of joyous memories and toward greater anticipations.

Shalom is an enduring vision.  The Prophet Jeremiah uses shalom even in the midst of exile, a surprising and powerful promise thrust into a place of despair and cynicism. History is bounded by God’s will for shalom and his accomplishment of shalom. In Jeremiah’s telling, God still promises when everyone else has given up. His message is that God is there.

Shalom is not “a peaceful, easy feeling.” Establishing peace is a disruptive process. The  language of shalom is laced with political overtones and a call to extend blessing to those who wrong you. It is an announcement of the end of the age, filled with messianic metaphor and an-nouncement of the Kingdom of God.

Which brings me back to our moment when Jesus uses the language of shalom:  “Nishlam” – in plain English, “Everything is whole again”.

Creation is not finished until Jesus dies shouting Nishlam.

And there he opens the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week.  Since that first day of the week, all of us are on the Road to Shalom once again.

As one of the disciples, you've given up your job, given up being at home every night with your wife and children, given up everything, all because you believed him. His strength of character and conviction, the incredible authority that shows when he is making God's Word come alive, his seemingly limitless compassion for every-one, even the untouchables like lepers and tax collectors, and strangers, like the Woman at the Well.

But look at him now. Mocked, beaten, bloodied, hanging on this cross, gasping for breath, grasping for life. Oh, Jesus! Why? It's almost over, I think. His breaths are very shallow. He's shouting out something. That's it. He's taken his last breath. He's dead! I can't believe Jesus is dead!

But what was it that he shouted at the end? I think he said, “Nishlam”… “Everything is whole again”.   

How does this make sense?  He’s about to breathe his last, and his summary is that he’s made everything whole. In John's Gospel, there are a couple places where Jesus explicitly tells us what work he has come to do. So if he cries out, "Nishlam!" at the end, doesn't it make sense that Jesus would have that work in mind that he mentioned earlier?  

There are two stories, in John 5 and 9, stories we are familiar with.  In John 5, he heals a lame man. In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind from birth. Both times John is very deliberate to tell us that Jesus did this on the Sabbath, the day that God rested from creation and did no work. In fact, this idea that God rested on the Sabbath and did no further work seems to go beyond that. We often have this idea that God was completely finished with creation after only six days. But listen to what Jesus says to the Pharisees after healing the lame man. They are challenging him about working on the Sabbath. And this is what Jesus says, (John 5:17) "My Father is still working, and I also am working."

My Father is still working. What work could the Father still be doing that Jesus is helping him with? Could it be that God is still creating? Isn't that God's basic work? And then there's the story in John 9, which begins this way: (John 9:1-3) As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him."

Again, God's work is the reason. We are the ones, like the disciples, who think about sin, who jump to conclusions about sin, most often other people's sin. Jesus talks again about showing forth God's work, doing God's work. And then how does Jesus heal this blind man? With mud (!) and power from on high.  Does that remind you of anything? The Lord God formed the man from the soil of the ground ... Gen 2:7

Could it be that the work which Jesus is doing is the work of helping God to continue creating? It's almost like creation isn't finished yet, and so Jesus is healing these people, on the Sabbath no less, in order to continue helping bring creation to fulfillment.

In other words, the goal of God's work and Jesus' work is not just our salvation. The goal is bringing the whole creation to completion.

Could Jesus have meant that when he said with his dying breath on the cross, "All Is Now Whole"? That this death was somehow the fulfillment of creation? How could that be? How could such a horrible death be the crowning event of all life? Of all creation?

Listen to St. Paul put the matter on this cosmic level.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:18-24).

Imagine a TV show in which someone wants something – money, power, prestige, influence – and then someone else wants the same thing. Competition becomes rivalry.  Things escalate further to slander and scandal, and then to blackmail and threats.  Families are in turmoil. A powerful figure steps in and finds the one to blame; then the scapegoat is murdered, and the turmoil dies down, for a time.

Does that sound like “Dallas” or “As the World Turns”? In fact, what I have just described to you is the sacrificial pattern humanity has used throughout the ages to curtail violence. Invariably, the pattern contains desire, rivalry, scandal, scape-goating and sacred violence.

The Son of God came into this world when human sacrifice was still in full force, in the form of executing blasphemers.  Those who participated were blind to our lust for sa-crificial killing, and it took the Son of God handing himself over to the sinful ways in which we are bound, to end the pattern.

He was killed as the only way of leading humanity out of the culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be: to be one with each other, to be one human family utterly alive with God.

“Nishlam”, he cried when he died, “everything is whole again”. At his death, we were made free for a new way of life: not death-based, but life-based.  As our Risen Lord he would come back to forgive us and to release us. “Nishlam” – the cross makes whole ("and by his wounds we are healed"); it fulfills and completes creation.

“Nishlam” shouted our Lord, “It’s done; creation is complete”. He came to end the sacrificial logic (that God requires a sacrifice for our sins). It’s not God but us humans who are wrathful and punishing. God offered a sacrificial lamb so we might see our sin and accept God’s alternative: grace and mercy, forgiveness and love.

Jesus’ death says more about human beings than it does about God. When "John" says that God is love, we know there’s no footnote somewhere that claims, “but sometimes God is wrath and anger”. “Nishlam” said Jesus, and pointed to the power of shalom.

By disrupting the ways of the death-based world, God’s shalom crossed out all our ideas of the atonement.  Take the word, “atonement” apart; take that word  apart the right way, and you get at-one-ment.

At-one-ment is what God desires.  We are all one in love. We are all one on the Road to Shalom Everlasting.

And may the Shalom of God,
Which is beyond everything we can 
grasp or understand,
Strengthen and enlighten you
Until that day sometime soon
When we all are meeting in that Life
That has no end.


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