Good Friday.23 “Finished” John 19:17-30
In his classic work “Mimesis” (published in 1947) the philologist Erich Auerbach examines the ways reality gets represented in the seminal texts of Western civilization. His first chapter compares the two granddaddies of them all, Homer’s “Odyssey” and God’s holy scriptures. In this chapter, Auerbach compares the scene where Odysseus returns to Ithaca after his long journeys and finds his island kingdom overrun with suitors trying to marry Penelope his wife who presumes him dead. Odysseus has to be wily (he’s always wily) because if he reveals himself, he figures the suitors will kill him.
When his old nanny is washing his feet (as the custom of hospitality in Greek culture requires, for strangers) she recognizes the scar on Odysseus’ leg from a run-in with a wild boar when he was a youth; and Odysseus silences her before she can say who he is. Auerbach compares this passage to Abraham sacrificing Isaac in Genesis 22. And he notes the massive difference is that the Greek heroes are like Marvel cartoon characters. Like Dory in finding Nemo, they “refresh” every 24 hours or so. It’s like every day is the first day of their lives. No hugging, no learning. Just one darn thing after another.
Also, most crucially: Greek heroes speak to empty the contents of their mind. They have no secrets. There is no mystery, nothing holy in their world. What you see is all you get.
By contrast, the world the holy scriptures narrate is all background. What God and we did long ago is a backdrop to our lives that shrouds the mystery, meaning, and holiness. But it’s a secret never spoken. It’s something the great characters like Abraham must discover by faith alone. Characters, including God himself, speak in the holy scriptures not to reveal but to conceal more deeply their true thoughts, to cloak the Mystery in an ever deeper darkness in which faith finds true light.
These few, terse, shocking sentences of Auerbach which Hans Frei introduced me to, my first year of grad school, completely rocked my world. They made sense of things I’d been terribly confused by for years. Yes! The world of the scriptures is the only real world!!! It subjects us to the majesty, mystery, and might of God. It is the only real world, destined for autocracy. And if we will not be subjected, we are rebels who will be destroyed by our obstinate unbelief.
Questions like “did Odysseus really do all that stuff? Did the recognition of him by his old nurse really happen?” are meaningless questions for the heroic age of Homer. It’s like asking if kryptonite really weakens Superman completely? He’s a cartoon character for goodness sake! It’s just a story!
But questions like “Did Abraham really do all this? Did God really die on a cross? When? Where?” are vital questions, the answer to which is an unqualified “Yes! Yes, it all really happened! With Abraham, around 1850 BC; and the place is certainly the mountain on which Jerusalem is built, probably the very hill of Golgotha on which Christ was crucified, which happened on April 6, 30 AD from 9 to 3 pm (and from noon to 3 in total darkness which covered the earth).”
Now, if you deny the reality of these things, the connection between Abraham’s sacrifice and Christ’s that truly foreshadowed God Himself going under the knife for us and our sins to save us forever—well you are truly blind, and deluded…
Why did these words (and Mr. Frei’s masterful elucidation of their deep meaning) rock my world? Well, because I’d fallen into the modern trap of thinking that science and reason and history are the real arbiters of reality instead of God’s holy writ. I thought the bible was just fodder for a systematic philosophy that explains the way things work and how we can manipulate those things for our advantage. Because I’d been taught at a supposedly “Lutheran” university such nonsense by men who weren’t Xn as much as rationalist dopes.
It’s ironic that it was at a thoroughly “secular” ivy mantled temple of Renaissance Humanism, in grad school, that biblical realism was expounded to me in a way that made me realize I’ve always known the holy scriptures alone are true and absorb me into Christ’s world—which is the only Real One, and which has no end to its glories for those who will not reject the Word but receive the Mystery in humble, child-like faith and happily be subjected to whatever whims and ways God has in store for us.
All through college, I’d been seeking a reasonable explanation that made plausible sense to a modern scientistic rationalist materialist sensibility. I was bewitched by Homer’s Marvel cartoon thinking instead of being captivated by Abraham’s faith in the hidden God who kills to make alive and wounds in order to heal.
I try to get that distinction across in an indirect way in every sermon I preach, every class I teach. But, sometimes, you just have to come out and say it…
I think we all look at a text like the crucifixion of Jesus and go “What’s the point? How do I fit this into a reasonable scheme that lets me manipulate the world for my advantage?” And we don’t see this blinds our eyes to the mystery, majesty, and might of God that is grasped only by blind faith.
To put it another way: the bible never explains why Jesus’ death on the cross saves us, or how exactly sin, death, and hell are crushed thereby. It just narrates it to you and faith finds in the background, in the darkness the light that needs no explanation—that demands only knees that bend and tongues that confess our shame and the glory of the Name of Jesus.
One word says it all: “Finished!” the last word of Jesus on the cross. τετελεσται in Greek. What is finished is the sin Adam and Eve started, in the garden, eating the apple. What is finished is the sacrifice of Isaac Abraham began. Because Jesus is seed of Abraham and Isaac, and, as the One True God, he alone can make the sacrifice work…
Jesus takes on our flesh at his incarnation, the annunciation to Mary who conceived, as Luther says, by the ear. He took on our sin at the Jordan river, baptized by John. And, as sin personified, (though without any sin in himself) he goes to the cross and steps in the bear trap that destroys the sinful person eternally.
But what gets “finished”—-and the bible won’t say it, you just have to notice it by being a good reader—what gets “finished” is sin and death and hell itself! Because, when the trap of sin, death, and hell snaps shut on Jesus, the trap itself breaks. By finishing off Jesus, sin, death, and hell have finished off themselves. Death gets broken. Sin gets broken. The devil’s grip on you, me, is broken, finished. Hell’s gate slams shut. The door to heaven swings open. Which is why this is Good Friday, not bad, not sad Friday.
Saying it like that takes a little off the mystery, but since you’ve already, by faith, figured it out yourself, it does no harm to say what we all know, deep down. It’s all background. But a background whose mystery you know without explanation.
The trick then, is to get finished off with Jesus, ourselves—to take up the cross and share his dying because it will be the finishing-off of the sin, death, and devil in us—the beginning of a new chapter in the Story where each is better than the last and the joys have no end.
By Word and Sacrament, through faith alone, we are absorbed into the Story, ourselves. We are transported to Golgotha, right now, ourselves; and being finished-off as sinners ourselves, we’ll take a 3 day paschal rest to see what happens next…
In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.