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Friday, April 19, 2019

Closure | Good Friday 2019

Robert Couse-Baker  (CC BY 2.0)
"When Jesus had received the wine, he said, 'It is finished.' Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30 NRSV)

We crave closure.

Who remembers the TV show 'Terra Nova'? How about 'Sliders'? Both are programs I enjoyed that concluded with loose ends. Terra Nova left us wondering about the future of the human colony established 85 million years in the past of an alternate earth (or something like that), and Sliders petered out with the last of the original cast injecting himself with a virus to kill the antagonist humanoid species and sliding into another universe. Neither program was ever really 'finished.' Then, of course, there's 'Firefly.' I won't even get started on that one.

It's irksome when a program ends without resolution, and it motivates people to take up fan fiction to work it all out. It's like an itch that bugs us until we do something about it. Further, sometimes we're so eager for for closure that we declare victory too soon. President George W. Bush's infamous 'Mission Accomplished' banner comes to mind. Many of us also made a similar mistake in assuming Hillary Clinton couldn't lose against Donald Trump. We anticipated success...and were proven terribly wrong. At other times, we consider the wrong event to be the 'happily ever after' we were hoping for, like when the Soviet Union came apart. Now we have Putin. Since history doesn't end — at least not from our miniscule perspective in space and time — nothing can ever truly be considered the absolute last word.

In the Gospel reading for today, Good Friday, we are told that the last words from Jesus on the cross were 'it is finished.' In Greek that's just one word: tetelestai. In the past 100 years or so researchers discovered that this is also the word stamped on closed accounts when payment was complete. Sort of like 'paid in full,' although it's a stretch to make it take that precise meaning in other contexts, like with the execution of Jesus. Though it works with substitutionary atonement theory, I doubt it's what the historical Jesus would have had in mind.

If Jesus said something like this, it's easy to imagine that he was thinking of the work of his ministry as well as his death. He taught love for God and humanity, broke through traditional barriers, and subverted the established order. He was an advocate for non-violent resistance ('turn the other cheek,' 'walk one mile more,' etc) who predicted that the path his people were taking would lead to their eventual destruction by the Roman authorities. In his death he laid bare the foundation of the Pax Romana, demonstrating that the power of the state lies in violent oppression. It should have served as a warning and a powerful appeal to follow his path to overcome tyranny through peaceful, subversive means. In 70 CE, Jerusalem was destroyed after an armed rebellion.

Although from his perspective Jesus' work was complete, the churches that came into existence afterward carried on what they saw as his mission. Some followed paths similar to the mystery religions, while others took a more transparent approach. What became orthodoxy a few centuries later itself became the oppressor, a tool of the state to control the population. And yet, people inspired by what they see in Jesus have arisen in every generation to call for a better world. Many were tortured and executed, some saw modest progress in their lifetimes, none ever managed to truly complete the work.

Unitarian Universalism was formed out of the union of two reformist denominations, and although it no longer holds to the exclusively Christian viewpoint of either, it maintains a commitment to prophetic witness in the second of its Six Sources:

Words and deeds of prophetic people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love

As much as we yearn for matters to be resolved, there will always be work left to do. Eventually, Donald Trump will no longer be President of the United States. Someday, we may accomplish positive immigration reform that sustains our economy and welcomes people of all nations. In neither case will the story be over and the work complete. The best we can hope for is a pause to take a breath and enjoy the moment before setting our hands once again to the plow.