When World War II broke out, there was a UVA student named Walter Harris who left school and became a pilot in the Marine Corps. After the war, he married and had a daughter who idolized him. When she was young, he left to serve in the Korean War, and was captured and detained as a prisoner of war for ten months. Eventually he was released and he returned home. His daughter, Emmylou Harris, grew up to become one of the premier singer-songwriters of her generation.
I met Emmylou Harris several years ago at her nephew’s graduation party. (Her nephew was active in the church where I was serving). I was so star-struck all I could do was stutter a few awkward phrases about how much I enjoyed her music. She graciously thanked me and was so genuinely kind and unassuming that I felt silly afterwards for being so nervous.
She won a Grammy for her 2000 album, Red Dirt Girl, which has a song called “Bang the Drum Slowly” that she wrote about her dad after his death. She sings about some of the things she meant to ask him but never did:
I meant to ask you how to fix that car
I always meant to ask you about the war
And what you saw across a bridge too far
Did it leave a scar?
Or how you navigated wings of fire and steel
Up where heaven had no more secrets to conceal
And still you found the ground beneath your wheels
How did it feel?
I meant to ask you how you lived what you believed
With nothing but your heart up your sleeve
And if you ever really were deceived
By the likes of me
Our lives are filled with things we mean to do but don’t actually do, things we start but never finish. Some of these things are minor—we start a book but never finish it, or buy supplies for a home improvement project that are now in a shopping bag gathering dust in the basement. Other things are not so minor, like what we meant to ask our father while he was alive, but never did.
Our lives are also full of “would have been’s,” “should have been’s” and “could have been’s.” A few illustrations…
Years ago there was a famous syndicated columnist named Erma Bombeck, whose hilarious columns were read by millions of people. Before her death in the mid-90’s she wrote a column entitled “If I Had to Live My Life Over,” a litany of things she would have done differently if she had a second chance at life:
“I would have talked less and listened more,” she wrote, “I would have invited friends over for dinner even if the carpet was stained or the sofa faded… I would have cried and laughed less while watching television—and more while watching life… When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, ‘Later, go wash up for dinner.’ There would have been more ‘I love you’s,’ more ‘I’m sorry’s.’”
In 1979 the English rock band Wire released their song, “I Should Have Known Better,” a bitter, angst-ridden song about someone who has been burned by a relationship. It includes these lyrics, “I offer no plea… in light of your actions I question your love…I should have known better, I should have known better” (on the album 154).
And in the Oscar-winning 1954 film On the Waterfront Marlon Brando plays Terry Malloy, an ex-prizefighter turned longshoreman who years earlier had been forced to throw a boxing match out of fear of the mob. Toward the end of the film he’s riding in the back of a car with his brother and his regret comes pouring out, “You don’t understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody—instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
We all have “would have been’s,” “should have been’s” and “could have been’s.” We all have things we meant to do, but never did.
And the reality of human nature is that even if we got what Erma Bombeck wished for, a second chance at life, we would mostly likely end up doing, or not doing, the very same things again.
In the collect for Good Friday we ask God “to behold this, your family”—which includes you and me and people all over the world.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of being part of a group from Christ Church that spent a week in Honduras. We stayed in San Pedro Sula, which, as CNN reported just yesterday, is the murder capital of the world. Armed guards are posted in front of businesses all over the city. In the neighborhoods, each and every residence is completely fenced off, surrounded by walls that often have shards of glass jutting up from the top with barbed wire fencing above that.
In the midst of this violent city is a haven called Our Little Roses, a refuge where about sixty girls aged three to seventeen live, attend school, and learn about the love of Jesus. These girls have all been rescued either from the streets or from violent and abusive homes.
We played soccer with the older kids (they literally ran circles around me), but with the younger kids all we had to do was sit at a table or bench and they would climb all over us, so excited that we were there. There was a seven year old girl named Naomi—who looked only four or five years old because she was undernourished when she was younger—with thick glasses, black braided hair, and a huge smile. Naomi would frequently sit next to me or climb on my back, laughing. And you know what she said to me? “You are my father,” she would grin, “you are my father.” She couldn’t hide her desire to be part of a family, a desire we all have.
And each one of the kids at Our Little Roses is part of the same family that you and I are a part of, the family “for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners.”
On Good Friday, we remember the One who did what he meant to do, who finished what he started, who came to earth “to suffer death upon the cross” in order to atone for, or cover, all the “would have been’s,” “should have been’s” and “could have been’s;” all the things we meant to do but never did.
On Good Friday, we read John’s account of Jesus’ passion and death. John was the only one of the twelve disciples who actually stood at the foot of the cross and watched the blood run down his beloved friend and teacher, listened to his gasps and labored breathing, and watched him bow his head and die. And in his account of Jesus’ passion and death John records a few statements of Jesus that Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not—including what John tells us was the last thing Jesus said before he “bowed his head and gave up his spirit”—“It is finished.”
“It is finished.”
The primary reason Jesus was born was to die.
Yes, Jesus preached good news, told parables about the Kingdom of God, healed the sick, and walked on water, fed the multitudes, ministered to the needy, on and on.
But ultimately, Jesus was born to die.
We see this most starkly in the creeds. Both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed move immediately from Jesus’ birth to his passion and death. In the Apostles Creed we recite that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;” and in the Nicene Creed that Jesus “was made man… for our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Neither creed mentions anything else at all about the earthly ministry of Jesus.
And in his death on the cross Jesus finished, completed once and for all his work of salvation for you. There is absolutely nothing you can do or need to do to add to it. His death is enough to atone, or cover, all your sins, each and every one. You have been forgiven. It is finished.
Article XXXI of the Thirty-nine Articles, the classic sixteenth century distillation of the theology of the English Reformation, puts it this way:
“The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone” ( BCP, p. 874).
We also see this clearly in today’s lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews: “There is no longer any offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:18).
And the wounds which Jesus suffered in his feet, hands, and side, did leave scars, scars which remain on Jesus’ resurrected and glorified body, scars which remind us that his death really happened— as Cormac McCarthy once wrote, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. The events that cause them can never be forgotten” (All the Pretty Horses, p. 135).
On this Good Friday the good news of the gospel is that it is finished.
On the cross Jesus—who had nothing but his heart up his sleeve—died for you because he loves you that much.
On the cross Jesus showed that when it comes to God’s love for you, heaven has no more secrets to conceal.
On the cross Jesus died for all the “would have been’s,” “should have been’s” and “could have been’s” in your life, as well as all the things you meant to do but never did.
It is finished.
And in light of Christ’s finished work on the cross, you need not ever question his love—a love that can reach past all the armed guards, past all the walls with jutting glass and barbed wire, past everything, to the darkest places in your life and reassure you that you are indeed part of God’s family for whom Jesus died, that you are loved more than you will ever know, that you can truly say to God, “You are my father.”
- John 19:30