It is Finished
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church
29 March 2013
"It is finished."
"What is finished?" one might wonder. And if one wonders long enough, one wonders if anything was accomplished that day.
For evil was clearly not vanquished. Every day we are reminded that evil continues to thrive.
Nor did suffering come to an end. We each can tell our own story of suffering.
Nor was death conquered. Death and our grief over loved ones continues to rob us of life-affirming power.
Justice and peace didn't reign supreme, for violence and oppression continue.
It isn't even that the Christian vision triumphed over the empire, for subsequent history makes clear that the logic of empire infiltrated the church, and we became perpetrators of violence, oppression, and exclusion.
Theologian Wendy Farley describes the "ongoing crucifixion of the world."
A few minutes reflection and one wonders why we still tell this story and why we believe it offers us any type of salvation. Maybe we should listen to those voices who tell us to reject this story, because it clearly does not have the power to save. Voices like Rita Nakashima Brock,
I saw in Christianity's ideas about Jesus, a theology that made people passive and acquiescent in their own suffering, a legacy of abuse entrenched in doctrine.
Or Karen Baker-Fletcher who wrote,
Glorifying the cross as though Jesus came to die actually glorifies the 'human capacity to oppress others.'
I deeply respect these voices and have learned much from them, including that there is much in our tradition that must be rejected if we are to find salvation. For our conventional way of telling this story has not stopped humanity's suicidal trajectory, but may have actually assisted it to death.
Yet, I cannot reject the cross.
More than a year ago some of the folk in my congregation came to me and said they had questions about the atonement. They had just finished a study of a Bart Ehrman series on the historical Jesus, and they were puzzled by things he had said about Evangelical views of the atonement, views that were unfamiliar to them. I said I'd be happy to teach a class on the atonement, but that I wanted a few months preparation to read a lot of the latest books on the subject, as I knew there had been much ferment on this topic in recent years.
And, so, I spent a few months last year reading books on the cross. The best one I read was by James Cone. Cone was one of the founders of Black Theology and his masterpiece God of the Oppressed had already transformed much of my thinking about Jesus and cross. He taught there that crucifixion was a present reality, an on-going experience in the life of black people, and that they were empowered by the story of Jesus sharing in their suffering. In 2012 he developed his ideas further in a little book entitled The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In it he took to task American mainline Protestant theology for its participation in and subsequent failure to recognize the on-going crucifixion of black bodies.
He also wrote about the life-affirming, transforming power of this story in the black community:
Instead of attempting to explain the saving power of the cross rationally, black Christians recognized it as a mystery, beyond human understanding or control. In remembrance of Jesus' last week, leading to his death, blacks at Ebenezer and other black churches, celebrating the sacrament of "Holy Communion," raised their voices to acknowledge "a fountain filled with blood," "drawn from Immanuel's veins"; "blood," they believed, "will never lose its power," because "there is power in the blood," and "nothing but the blood."
When blacks sang about the "blood," they were wrestling not only with the blood of the crucified carpenter from Nazareth but also with the blood of raped and castrated black bodies in America -- innocent, often nameless, burning and hanging bodies, images of hurt so deep that only God's "amazing grace" could offer consolation.
Rather than seeing the on-going crucifixion as a reason to reject the story of the cross, black suffering led to a deeper and more passionate embrace. Cone continued:
One has to have a powerful religious imagination to see redemption in the cross, to discover life in death and hope in tragedy. What kind of salvation is that? No human language can fully describe what salvation through the cross means. Salvation through the cross is a mystery and can only be apprehended through faith, repentance, and humility. The cross is an "opening to the transcendent" for the poor who have nowhere else to turn -- that transcendence of the spirit that no one can take away, no matter what they do. Salvation is broken spirits being healed, voiceless people speaking out, and black people empowered to love their own blackness.
And this is where Cone's writing connected with what I was reading in many other theologians -- that the saving power of the cross is the transformation in brings about in us. Because God is identified with the oppressed and because God accompanies us in our suffering, suffering and oppression can enslave and tyrannize us no more. We are able to imagine something different, something new, something good and beautiful and healing.
Delores Williams wrote,
Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus' death on the cross. . . . Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. . . . God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively and abundantly in relationship.
And, so, now I return to the word from the Gospel of John. "It is finished." Jesus of Nazareth had finished his work. He had lived in such a way that challenged violence and oppression and offered us a new way of living, a new vision. His work was done. That there is an "ongoing crucifixion of the world" is not because his life, his death, this story failed, but because we didn't really get the message.
The work of salvation – liberating, healing, and empowering creation to live in justice, love, and peace, isn't finished. We are responsible for carrying on the work, so that Christ did not die in vain.