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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Good Friday – Year C

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)

According to St. John, those were the last words Jesus spoke before he died: “It is finished.” Was he saying, Finally it’s over—this suffering, this pain, this exhaustion, this agony? Surely he was feeling all of it in abundance. Death by crucifixion was without question one of the cruelest, ugliest, most excruciatingly painful executions ever invented. Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ,” although vastly overplayed in my opinion, at least offered a graphic picture of the unbelievable torture Jesus must have borne. For him to have shouted Thank God this is over! would have been totally understandable for one who had suffered so much.

But that’s not what “It is finished” means here. If you look up the Greek text or consult a Bible commentary, you find that Jesus’ last words were in fact a shout of victory! “It is finished” really means, “It is accomplished!” Jesus has completed what God has sent him to do in the world. His shout of victory is his final word of love for God and humankind. It reminds us poignantly of the Last Supper where, as John puts it, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1)

Jesus, to the very end, is utterly in command of what he is doing. You see that in his interaction with Pontius Pilate: Pilate demands to know where he is from. Jesus is silent; Pilate is furious. He says, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answers with absolute assurance, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” Quietly but assuredly the powers of evil are being defeated by the power of God. As his life is about to be taken from him, Jesus is making a total offering of his life—to the glory of God and the salvation of humankind!

This is what lies behind Jesus’ shout of victory, “It is finished.” “Then,” says John, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Jesus is even in charge of the very moment of his death. We need to understand that the death inflicted by crucifixion did not come from loss of blood or from dehydration or exhaustion, agonizing as these were. Death on the cross came by asphyxiation. When the victim could no longer hold his head up, it would drop upon his chest, cutting off his airway, and he would die. That’s why the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two criminals on the other crosses. Without the support of their legs, their heads would drop and death would come. Not so with Jesus. By bowing his head he robbed the soldiers of their final act of torture! He offered his death as he had offered his life.

And that is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about: In his total offering of himself, with the very heart of God, Christ has deprived the powers of evil of their ultimate control and brought to all of us wholeness of life and oneness with God—brought it to all of us who will offer to God our trust and allegiance. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, you and I, in turn, live in hope and offer ourselves, our souls and bodies, for others.

I know of no more moving example of the spirit of offering one’s life in the face of evil than the case of Joseph Carey Merrick, and the doctor who cared for him. Joseph Merrick was born in England in 1862 with a very rare condition called Multiple Neurofibromatosis. As he grew up he developed numerous unsightly growths, with the texture of cauliflower, all over his body. His right arm became two to three times the size of his left. His head grew enormous and assumed a grotesque shape. A bad fall as a youngster damaged his hip and left him permanently lame. His mother died; and his father remarried and mistreated and rejected him. Merrick ran away and was hired as a freak, called “The Elephant Man,” in a traveling circus.

After a show in Brussels the circus owner stole what money he had and abandoned him. Merrick made his way back to England, only to suffer the ultimate indignity—what amounted to a crucifixion—at a railroad station in Liverpool. A rowdy crowd of gawkers backed him into a corner, shouting at him, calling him names and terrifying him. I’ll never forget the film version of his story which shows him cowering in the darkest corner of the third class waiting room. And he shouts out: “I am not an elephant man—I am a human being!” And that’s the turning point in his life. In the face of unspeakable cruelty, he begins to take charge of his life. He will not surrender his spirit to the forces of evil.

Into that scene of darkness comes a compassionate presence, in the form of Dr. Frederick Treves, who takes Merrick to the famous London Hospital—which will be his home for the rest of his life. As the doctor comes to understand his distorted speech he discovers Merrick to be a highly intelligent young man with a sweet and beautiful spirit, grateful for the mercy of God who has given him new life. He proves to be a gifted craftsman and passes his days making extraordinary model churches out of cardboard. Anglican Bishop William Howe confirms him in the hospital chapel. Dr. Treves gives him the love he has never had. He takes him to the theatre. He takes him out on a six-week holiday, and Merrick describes the incomparable beauty of the English countryside, the feel of the grass on his feet, the singing of the birds, the glories of God’s world.

Finally, inevitably, his health deteriorates. But his spirit flourishes. A priest brings him communion at his bedside. He rests quietly, his large misshapen head held erect by pillows. On Friday, a good Friday, April 11, 1889, at the age of 27, Joseph Carey Merrick is found dead—of asphyxiation, his head bowed, his pillows cast aside. By the grace of the Living God, in the face of unspeakable tragedy and rampant evil, having taken charge of his life, Merrick now takes charge of his death. In the spirit of his loving Lord, his life is not “finished” but accomplished, his death not “inflicted” but offered.

And that’s what God asks of you and me—on this Good Friday, as we walk with Jesus in the Way of the Cross, and in this Easter Season and beyond, as we walk in the companionship of the Risen Christ. God asks us and empowers us to live with Christ the offered life, and to share that life with one another.

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