"It is finished"-A Sermon for Good Friday, John 18:1-1942
I have a good friend who spent a significant amount of time in prison, and, thus, I was blessed to spend some time with him there. Not in prison myself, though knowing my friend’s story, I also know that the choices we make have real consequences and that one poor choice, even a seemingly naïve or compulsive one, can have disastrous results, that can be overcome, but are very painful nonetheless, even for good people…even very good people. So, my time with my friend in prison was mainly in visiting rooms…sometimes face to face and sometimes with thick glass separating us. And these conversations were almost always theological in nature. That is, we spoke of innocence and guilt, justice and abuse, shame and forgiveness, even death and resurrection.
And one experienced while in prison that irked my friend, and that is putting it lightly…that deeply troubled my friend…was, of all things, his experience of Christian revivals that took place in the prisons where he spent many months…and that happened with some frequency. Preachers would be invited into the prisons…which I would consider overall a very good thing. And these preachers would indeed preach. In fact, hey would speak often of the death that we remember this day…the death that Jesus really experienced. They would preach entirely convicted sermons about Jesus dying a painful death on the hard wood of the violent cross…stretching his arms out…offering his life…for our sin…that we all might come within his loving embrace…might enter into the everlasting arms of love. Jesus’ arms were stretched out and nailed to the cross…taking on his own back our own sin and brokenness that we all might be free…free from sin and death…forgiven for our wrong doings…washed clean by the blood of lamb. As Isaiah said when prophesying about the coming Messiah, who we know in the person of Jesus, that though our sins are like scarlet…through the sacrifice of God’s paschal lamb, God’s Messiah, through Jesus’ shed blood on the cross…we all are made white like new fallen snow. For through Jesus’ death that we remember this day, forgiveness is poured out into our world…out into our lives…forgiveness for the sin in our life…forgiveness for our own poor choices…forgiveness for our betrayals and self-centeredness…forgiveness for the hurt we have caused others and ourselves…blessed forgiveness and eternal grace…amazing grace.
And that forgiveness leads to freedom…freedom from guilt and shame…relief from the pain that our memories of past wrongs hoist upon us…hoist upon our hearts and minds that so often cripple us…make us sad, full of shame…that seek to shackle us to our past…memories that suggest we are dirty and broken and worthless…deserving the pain and guilt with which we live and subtly suggesting that maybe there is no reason to repent and turn in a new direction…to live a new sort of love-centered life…for our guilt feels so utterly complete…so seductively deserving. So why change…why follow Jesus into a whole new sort of life…for we remain broken…so why not just embrace it…just get really good at it…become professional sinners, if you will. And indeed, sin is seductive, almost addictive, almost second nature. But there is a solution, we can be made free…and it all begins at the cross…for again there is freedom found there…for Jesus takes on our sin…owns our sin…we are forgiven…and there is power here to be found…grace offered…the light of love shinning in the darkness of our sin-sick souls…and it begins at the cross…for Jesus’ death offers us forgiveness.
And my friend would say this message of the cross…the message of forgiveness…Jesus’ life given for ours…taking away our sin…taking away the blood on our hands and washing them clean…this message of forgiveness given with passion and conviction by preachers of all stripes, would often profoundly move the hearts of the men in prison with him. Even the most hardened criminals who had committed the most heinous crimes, would be brought to their knees, the tears would flow like and an unstoppable flood. At the altar call, men would come forward in droves…receiving prayer…giving their lives to Jesus…asking for forgiveness and believing they had received it…believing they had received it with all their hearts. In the Kairos Prison ministry, of which I have been a part, we call the incarcerated men, the “men in white”, which is a reference to the white jump suits that are their uniforms while in prison…and in these moments of spiritual conversion, as men confessed their sin and embraced the forgiveness offered in Jesus’ death, this description takes on new meaning…something like what is described in the Book of Revelation when it says that those who surround the throne of God are those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb and now spend their eternal lives in service to God…surrounding God’s throne, offering praise and adoration to the one who has set them free…cleansed them of their sin…and welcomed them home. And again, I would say this is more than good…this is a great scene of hope…full of love…hope for our world…hope for each of these men, who have set before them, a whole new life…rooted deeply in the love that was before time, is now and shall be forever…the love of God…inaugurated in Jesus’ passion…in Jesus’ death…on this day long ago that we rightly call good. And I want to say that I believe these men’s experience was authentic…that their hearts were indeed in all the right places…that the tears and the desire for a new life…for freedom from sin…to make up for past wrongs…gratitude for the forgiveness that Jesus’ death offered…were all together wonderful and heartfelt…again utterly authentic.
But…but here is what irked my friend…or again really troubled my friend deeply. After the preachers went back to their pulpits outside the prison and all the tears were wiped away, all the hugs were finished and life returned to its mundane routines…an everyday, ordinary sort of life…or as much as you can describe life as ordinary in prison…my friend said that for many, perhaps not for all, and I can say certainly not for all, but for many…for many it seemed not much had really changed. Folk slipped back into their gangs, violence continued to be the order of the day, taking advantage of the system continued be the daily game played by most…and wistful conversations about all the trouble folk would get up to just as soon as they got out of the prison re-emerged…dreams of re-offending, abuse, fueling addictions, acquiring wealth by whatever means deemed necessary…became once again the fuel that fed their hope for life beyond the prison walls…that which was most looked forward to. The new life, the altogether different life, offered in that hope filled revival…that life freed from sin…through the forgiveness the cross offered…a life given to Jesus…faded into the background…like a distant childhood memory. And for my friend this all felt so terribly sad. It felt like grace was made cheap and the cross was made a mockery. Rather than a moment for transformation or authentic change, true repentance and an amendment of life…the revivals felt in retrospect to my friend at best like something to do to break up the monotonous nature of life in prison…and perhaps at worst a temporary psychological crutch to assuage guilt for past wrongs…and perhaps even more at worst…an excuse to change nothing in one’s life. For if forgiveness is easy, if grace is cheap, why change…right…I can always be forgiven again. Jesus died on the cross to take away the sin of the world…and that will still be true tomorrow and the day after and the day after that…there is always another revival. I can and will be forgiven again when I make my next mistake…so I’m all good…my bad behavior always has a cover…the ultimate get out of jail free card…and we always got it with us…ready to pull out of our back pocket whenever we need of it. This is indeed cheap grace…and the cross is indeed made a mockery…an excuse to fuel a sin-sick soul…an excuse to live life on our terms rather than love’s terms. And this whole cycle broke my friend’s heart…it made him sad all the way down to his toes.
And before we dismiss this as far from our own experience…for we are not hardened criminals…we are not convicts suffering in the cycle of incarceration and poverty that so sadly plagues our culture. I ask us to step back and take a hard look at the lives we live and the choices we make. For if willing to be honest, I think we all might admit that at one time or another, at least, one time or another, we have all made grace cheap and Jesus’ death a mockery…or at the very least taken both for granted. And maybe, just maybe, our own participation in making grace cheap, in using forgiveness, that indeed came at a real cost for Jesus, as an excuse for our own poor choices and self-centered behavior…is even more scandalous than what my friend experienced in his time in prison. For we lead relatively comfortable lives. We benefit from homes that are more or less put together…that are filled with love. We benefit from the better part of our educational systems. We are supported by a family of faith and fed with the spiritual nourishment that we receive in this meal of bread and wine, of body and blood, that we share each week. We attend, in a sense, a weekly revival…we respond to a weekly altar call…we come to this altar most weeks and are washed clean in the blood of the lamb. We call it Holy Communion, and we participate without even thinking…but what we are really doing, if we but only pay attention, is that we get up out of our seats, a very intentional act, and we come forward to meet Jesus. We give our lives to Jesus, right here, each week, and he fills us with his own life, with his own body and blood that was indeed broken and shed on the cross we remember this day…giving us all the spiritual resources and nourishment we need to live a full life, a meaningful life, a love-life, a good and Godly life…forgiven, healed, restored, to be the very heart and hands of the God of love out in and for the world…for all those whose paths we cross. And even then, with all of these benefits and blessings, we, at times, at times, make grace cheap. We use this time each week to assuage our guilt…to make ourselves feel better for a time…and even excuse patterns and habits that hurt, really hurt, ourselves and others…and Jesus’ death indeed is mocked…and, on this day in particular, this should make us all sad all the way down to our toes.
For here is the thing, Jesus’ death on the cross, his life sacrificially offered up for us, the very forgiveness offered for our sin on the first Good Friday, is not just, or even principally, to forgive us for our wrong doings, for our betrayals and waste of God’s creation and abuse of our bodies and little lies and self-centered orientation. It is for this, but not only for this. For if it only about us…about our guilt…about feeling better about ourselves, forgiveness is too easily made just a crutch, just a get out of jail free card, just about me. Instead we come here today, to the very foot of the cross, to the grace offered here, to be entirely changed, a complete make over from the inside out, to be entirely convicted that Jesus’ death indeed washed away our sin…so that we can be freed from its shackles to live an entirely new life moving forward. Anything less, makes the grace offered at the cross cheap, or at least something less than it can be.
The cross, as I said on Palm Sunday, is a mirror that we peer in and see ourselves for who we are…embrace the truth about ourselves honestly…see our own sin and death so wonderfully co-mingled with Jesus’…such that we can be reborn through death into life…a whole new life. And then, and only then, can grace be fully experienced at that for which it is intended…to be the very source, the very power, that makes all things new. The cross, Jesus’ sacrifice and the forgiveness and grace there offered is unequivocally about one thing alone…complete transformation…the old life dies…such that a new life can be resurrected from the ashes of the old. And nothing should…nothing can be the same. Grace is power for living…power for overcoming that for which we have already been forgiven. Amen.