As described in John’s Gospel account of the Crucifixion, as Jesus was dying on the cross, his last words were, “It is finished.” We might interpret these words to mean, “It is over, done, ended, forecast is doom and gloom.”
When we step back, however, reading more closely Jesus’ words to his disciples in the hours before he would go to the cross, we begin to better understand, “It is finished” to mean more accurately, “It is complete; it is perfected.”
If Michelangelo stood gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and spoke the words, “It is finished,” his meaning would not be indicating an ending but a beginning. “It is finished.” [Though it is well-known to have been quite a miserable four-year experience for the artist] But rather, his statement would mean for us, “My work is completed, with God’s help it is perfected to the best of my ability;” generations going forward will be inspired and enlightened by this magnificent work of art.
Understanding that Jesus’ death and resurrection completed our salvation causes us to look more closely at the words we read from our Gospel lesson for this 5th Sunday of Easter. These words from our Gospel lesson are a portion of Jesus’ last discourse – a discourse that consumes four full chapters of John’s Gospel – chapters that preceded the account of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Jesus is speaking to his followers, trying as best he can to prepare them for the horrific events that are to come, planting seeds of insight that would be nurtured and understood as the events unfold, planting seeds of insight that would guide them in the days when Jesus would no longer be physically present with them, and it would be up to these first followers to see that the seeds of the Good News would be spread throughout all the world.
Jesus spoke to his followers of the New Commandment – a new understanding of what it is to be the people of God – a new way of understanding that the Crucifixion was not an ending, but a beginning.
Certainly, Jesus’ command that we love one another is not a “new” commandment for us, for the disciples to whom Jesus is speaking, or for the audience to whom John is writing.
Our lesson in John follows the departure of Judas into the night for the purpose of betraying Jesus to the authorities who would arrest, convict, and crucify him. Just prior to Judas’ departure, in the essence of ultimate humility and servanthood, Jesus had bathed the feet of the disciples as they gathered in this upper room where they shared their last meal together.
Jesus’ time for instruction of his disciples was coming to a close; these are among his last words to his followers during the last hours of their time together. There are no parables or allegories to tease their understanding of his message. This setting creates the paradox of Jesus’ words. And, Jesus gets right to the point.
How odd that Jesus would speak of the Son of Man being glorified and God being glorified in him. This gloomy setting would seem to be the opposite of glorification. Yet, without question, Jesus is speaking of the fulfillment of God’s work through him, fulfillment that would come in the next hours and days.
God would be glorified. The horrors of the darkness of this night were just beginning. But, the evil darkness would be overcome by Jesus’ Resurrection on the third day, and the truth of Jesus Christ as the Messiah would be illumined for all the world to see and believe. God would be glorified.
Jesus exemplified humility and servanthood in the washing of his disciples’ feet – even the feet of Judas. Now, Judas had departed to commit his evil deed. Jesus knew of the physical, emotional, and spiritual torment that he was to face and, yet, he spoke of love, forgiveness, and peace as he went forth willingly to the cross.
These last hours are most sacred and intimate for Jesus and his followers. His address, “little children,” emphasizes the intimacy.
Certainly, Jesus’ command to love one another is not new, but the background and the circumstances of this intimate setting broadens and clarifies the meaning of loving one another in a way that challenges the disciples – in a way that challenges all of us – to love beyond the limits of our fears, beyond our surface understanding of love, beyond our preconceived opinions of one another.
Jesus demonstrates the servanthood of love.
In our lesson from Acts, the seeds of understanding the new commandment of love beyond fear are beginning to sprout for Peter. In this mysterious rather bazaar dream, Peter is the first perhaps to experience this new understanding. For Peter, God’s people were those of the Jewish faith, circumcised believers, children of Abraham. Anyone outside the faith was a condemned sinner, outcast, not worthy or even capable of receiving and understanding the Word of God.
This dream, about which we read in our lesson from Acts, changes that interpretation of God’s plan for all creation. Peter, prior to this time had been criticized for his violation of the strict dietary laws of his Jewish faith. In his dream, he is assured of the cleanliness of all foods, kosher or otherwise. In interpreting the dream, Peter comes to see that the message doesn’t really apply only to food for human consumption and dietary laws so strictly enforced; the message applies to people. All people – men/women; Jew/Gentile/Greek/Roman; young/old; black/brown/white; familiar/foreign – all people are to be the recipients of the spread of the seeds of the Good News. “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The ministry of Jesus Christ was not “ended” on the cross; it was “perfected.” Now, it would be up to his followers to carry that message of perfection to the world – to carry that new understanding of the new commandment – a clarified understanding through the mission and ministry of Christ – a new commandment of just how we are to love one another – loving beyond our fears, loving beyond our prejudices.
Love is loving others more than our earthly selves – accepting, embracing, forgiving, upholding, loving each other even when we are so hard to love. In love, the glory of God is fulfilled as our lives, our community, and our relationships are centered in Christ. In these last hours, Christ breathed peace into his disciples. The peace of his love overcame the betrayal and the denials. The peace of his love overcomes our betrayals and denials.
Listen again to the words of Jesus – words among the last that he would speak to his disciples before being condemned to death on the cross, “Little children, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I have loved you in order that you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Thus, Jesus’ time on earth was finished, completed, perfected.
Through the servanthood of love beyond fear, in peace and forgiveness, everyone will know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.