Friday, April 19, 2019

Christ reigns from the tree

[I'll be preaching this brief homily for Morning Prayer this Good Friday in about twenty minutes.]

“Jesus, therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he.”


This morning’s second lesson is packed with Old Testament allusions. We begin with Jesus crossing “over the brook Cedron.” This is the same river that King David crossed when he fled from his son Absalom’s rebellion in 2 Samuel (15:23). In fact the word translated as “brook” is a specific word for a river that only flowed during winter (the rainy season in Israel), and it’s precisely the same term used in the Greek translation of the account of David’s flight. In that Old Testament story, meanwhile, David’s close advisor Ahithophel betrays him and then eventually hangs himself — one of only two characters in the Bible to do so, the other being Judas Iscariot.

 The account of David’s flight is poignant: “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went” (2 Sam. 15:30, NRSV). Likewise, our Lord enters into the Garden of Gethsemane, which was an olive grove (Whitacre 425), where, the other Gospels tell us, he endured great agony as he anticipated his impending death (Luke 22:44; Matthew 26:38; Mark 14:34). It is there that he asked his disciples to pray one hour with him, there that they all failed. And it is that grievous hour in that garden that some of you even now reenact as you seek to enter into the suffering of our Lord in some small way.

John refers to this place of watching simply as “a garden.” He gives the same name to “the place where [Jesus] was crucified” and buried (19:41). Mary of Bethany will even mistake him for the gardener (20:15) — as indeed he is, the New Adam whose death reverses the curse wrought by the first gardener’s fall (1 Cor 15:22; Rom 5:14-18).

This morning’s first lesson provides us with another Old Testament foreshadowing of Christ. The Isaac who is nearly sacrificed and metaphorically brought back from the dead becomes the Christ, who truly dies and then becomes the “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18). Indeed, Jesus acts as both Abraham and Isaac, for he willingly offers himself up in obedience to God.

The account of David’s flight from Absalom arouses pity because in it David has become so pitiful — a sad, broken-down old man who must be roused to his own defense by his allies. And Absalom’s rebellion is implicitly presented as the consequence of David’s own sordid history of lust, murder, and parental neglect.

Evening Prayer today will emphasize that Jesus, by contrast, is an innocent sufferer whose suffering expunges the guilt of others. But as our reading from John makes clear, Jesus is not a passive or helpless victim.

Having eluded his opponents’ previous attempts to apprehend him before the appointed hour, Jesus now dictates when, where, and how he will be taken. His enemies come in full military force, but it is Jesus and not they who control the scene. He comes forth and interrogates them: “Whom seek ye?”

They answer “Jesus of Nazareth.” He responds, “I am he.” That last word, “he,” is grammatically implied but unstated in the Greek, so what Jesus has actually said is simply, “I AM.” This declaration of the divine name literally knocks the armed band clean over. They are, it seems, so rattled that Jesus has to prompt them again to say who they’re looking for, and they dumbly repeat the same name. Jesus then orders them — it is an imperative — to let his disciples go. Here and throughout his interactions with Pilate, the superficial powers of this world are belittled and diminished in the presence of true omnipotence.

Good Friday is tragic. Jesus’ death is the result of sin, and as Fr. Glenn recently reminded us, sin is no happy fault. It is grievous. The grim spectacle of our Lord upon the cross should fill us with deep sorrow for our sins which placed him there. And yet, throughout St. John’s Gospel, the cross is Christ’s glorification. The great Anglican theologian E. L. Mascall writes that in his obedience, Christ’s “divine dignity is not diminished but manifested; when he stands before Pilate, it is he, not Pilate, that is the judge; when he is nailed to the Cross, he is reigning from the tree.” As we grieve, therefore, let us also worship and adore our king, for whom the cross is at once torment and triumph.

“Jesus saith unto them, I am he.”