“It is finished.”
So says Jesus, the last word he speaks from the cross in John’s Gospel. What does this mean? Is Jesus simply saying that it’s all over, is he relieved that death, finally, is at hand to end his sufferings? Sometimes, after the death of someone who has suffered much, we find comfort in the thought that their suffering is over. That is not wrong.
But is that all there is to what John is saying here? John, of all the gospel writers, is the most rich in symbolism, in hidden depths of meaning. What is finished is the task that the Father has sent Jesus to do, and we know this because Jesus has already many times spoken of its completion.
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, after he told her that he would give living water, he said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”
Later, he said to those who criticised him for healing on the Sabbath, “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”
Then, at the Last Supper, in the high priestly prayer, he prays to his Father, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
What is finished is the Father’s work, the work of the creator, which Jesus has come to complete. This work consists of bringing everything into being, giving life, and glorifying the Father.
It may seem strange to think that the work of creation might not be complete. But only if we think of creation as an event in the past, something like the “big bang” setting everything into motion. But that is not the scriptural idea of creation at all.
Creation is the principle by which everything exists moment by moment. It is the dependence of everything on the will of God.
In the biblical vision, creation is something continually coming into being, striving in its own birth-pangs to come to the completion willed by the Father.
What is that completion? It is union with God. It is entering into the life that God lives, which we call eternal life.
This takes us right back to Christmas morning, and the prologue of John’s Gospel, in which the mission of Jesus is announced: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
Jesus, the Word of the Father, has come into the world to complete the work of creation, to put right all that is wrong, to heal the sick, to raise up the fallen, to give life, to give power to become children of God. Jesus has come from the Father so that we, too, can call God Father.
So the cry of Jesus on the cross, “it is finished”, is not a statement of final relief, still less of despair. It is a cry of triumph and exaltation. It recalls the words of God over creation at the beginning and the end of the Bible.
In Genesis, we are told, God finished the work of creation, and blessed it, and rested from his work. And at the end of the book of Revelation there is that glorious vision when the new heaven and the new earth have appeared and the new Jerusalem has come down from heaven to be home for all peoples. And Jesus says, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”
But how is it that the work of creation can be completed on the cross, in what seems like a shameful act of violent destruction?
For the author of John’s Gospel, what is truly taking place on the cross is not defeat, but victory; not shame but glory. Many times Jesus has spoken of his death as his glorification. Why? Because it is his return to the Father.
What is taking place is the spiritual reality foreshadowed by the Rite of Atonement in the temple. This is referred to in the reading from Hebrews that we heard this morning, which tells us that Jesus is “the supreme high priest who has gone through to the highest heaven”.
In Rite of Atonement, which took place once a year, the High Priest offered a sacrifice for the sins of Israel and then went into the Holy of Holies, the place where God symbolically dwelt, to intercede for the people.
So Jesus, returning to the Father, has offered once for all his self-giving sacrifice for sin, and entered the heavenly sanctuary where God dwells, to make intercession for us and for all of creation.
So this is indeed the completion of his work, his return to the Father. The death of Jesus is his glorification, his exaltation.
The Rite of Atonement in the temple was at its heart a symbolic enactment of God restoring his creation. Jesus has in his person achieved what the Rite of Atonement pointed to. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, he has passed into the true heavenly sanctuary, through his sacrifice of self giving love, and in so doing has achieved the eternal perfection of all he is sanctifying.
But of course that is not the end. We could not realistically believe that creation had been restored by the death of Jesus if his body had stayed in defeat in the tomb.
The glorification of Jesus is not a nice idea, floating somewhere in the heavens above but not connecting with us down here. It would mean nothing if the rest of the human race remained in slavery to sin and death. But that glory cannot be contained, and will come bursting from the tomb.
The Church lives in the light and power of that victory. Every day, including today. We only celebrate “Good” Friday because of the resurrection. But in the cycle of the liturgy, for the time being, we wait. Hidden from our sight, our High Priest has passed to the Father and completed the work of our redemption. But it is his resurrection that enables us to share in his victory. In but a little while, we shall acclaim him with shouts of Easter joy. Today, we wait at the cross, outside the tomb. Christ has won his victory, and the victor’s triumphant return will not be long.