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John 18:1-19:42

One of my congregants decided he was going to help me start a little vegetable garden at the parsonage, just tomatoes and peppers, nothing too difficult. We prepared, planted, and pruned. I watered, waited, and watched. But something went wrong. When the plants produced, each piece of fruit was the same: the center was sunk in, soft, and black. Not one tomato or pepper was edible from that short-lived garden.


Gardens bookend the Gospel reading for Good Friday (18:1 & 19:41). While this lection is lengthy and seemingly unwieldy, it does allow us to make a connection: We are hearing the story of two gardens and all that lies between them. In the first garden, Jesus is arrested, Judas’ betrayal comes into focus, Peter uses his sword to remove Malchus’ ear, and Jesus identifies what is to come as “the cup the Father has given me” (18:11). In the second garden, Jesus’ body is laid in a tomb; the incarnate God is dead. And everything that comes between these two gardens is what we call “the passion.”


These gardens pitch us back to the beginning where this whole God-and-humanity experiment started. Just as God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, so Jesus walks with his disciples into a garden (18:1); and just as a snake (God’s creation) slithered around to distort God’s desires, so Judas (God’s disciple) and his posse creep into the garden with violent intentions (18:3). So this text actually tells the story of threegardens.


In the beginning… God kneels down in the dirt, makes a person-sized pile, breathes into it, and voilà: humankind! A little while later, the Word of that God steps back into the dirt, this time in flesh, and makes his way to a garden where the humanity he created binds him (18:12) and takes him out of the garden. Whereas, back in Eden, Adam and Eve’s actions led to their expulsion, in the garden of the arrest, Jesus’ actions lead to his. Make no mistake, John emphasizes, Jesus is in charge of this whole thing, and it’s only happening because he’s allowing it. Yes, the inhabitants of Eden leave the garden, but that isn’t the end of the garden story. It isn’t even the end of the gardening story for them; God goes with them to do the hard work of gardening the whole earth outside of Eden. Are we catching on? When Jesus leaves the garden with a gang of ruffians, he is doing what God has always done.


The Gospel reading ends somberly, with the lifeless body of Jesus placed in the tomb. Good Friday is a chance for us to be together without pretending that everything in our lives and world is okay. It is the day we let the cross cast us into darkness. And yet, at the very same time, the trajectory of the garden story invites us to look in Christ’s tomb and remember what God did with a pile of dirt in Eden. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:

“Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way. If it happened in a cave it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I let that sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in t