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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 the dark.”[1]

We cannot talk about the two gardens in the Gospel without talking about Eden any more than we can talk about the God who is crucified without talking about the God who creates, especially in John’s Gospel where at the cross Jesus gives his mother and John to one another and creates a new family that is born of his blood and formed out of a new kind of consanguinity. In order for something new to grow, it must be planted; Jesus is the seed of that new family, planted in a tomb in a garden. Remember, God is the kind of gardener who throws seeds all over the place, even in the soil of days like Good Friday, like today.

Both Cyril of Alexandria and Cyril of Jerusalem made the connection between these two gardens and Eden. About the garden in which Jesus was arrested, Cyril of Alexandria wrote:

“The place was a garden, typifying the paradise of old. For in this place, as it were, all places were recapitulated and our return to humanity’s ancient condition was consummated. For the troubles of humanity began in paradise, while Christ’s suffering, which brought us deliverance from all the evil that happened to us in times past, began in [this] garden.”[2]

While we often think of a battlefield, a courtroom, or a hospital suit, the Gospel affirms that when God wants to deal with Sin and Death God goes into a garden. The water and blood that flow from Jesus’ side remind us that God is willing to pour Godself into the garden so that we might receive life (19:34), or as Cyril of Jerusalem put it, eat of the fruit of Christ’s vine. Cyril said,

“A garden was the place of his burial, and a vine was what was planted there, as he said, ‘I am the vine.’ He was planted therefore in the earth in order that the curse that came because of Adam might be rooted out.”[3]

From that vine will grow the tree of life that somehow will be on both sides of the river of the water of life, produce its fruit each month without the interruption of seasons, and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:1-2). Now the gardens in John’s Gospel don’t only point backward to Eden; they also cast our vision toward the garden God will establish, in other words, the new heavens and the new earth. Ultimately, God will remake all things and we will see that up to this point we’ve only had a glimpse of God’s ability to garden—think of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, when everyone arrives in the new Narnia and discovers that everything before was only a shadow of this place, the real place. So our gardens, literal and figurative, are shadows of what God intends to do in a garden yet to come.

These four gardens orient us to reality on Good Friday: we are those who still see rotten fruit, spoiled by sin and death, but we are also those who have tasted a sample of the fruit of the vine planted in the garden tomb and the fruit of the tree of life God will cultivate here in our soil and which will have no end. Today we may be sinking into the rotten and dark spots of the world, and it is right and good that we name this together. But we who gather to worship do not go in alone. Jesus has gone into the darkness before us so that we might rest in Christ and learn to trust that God is who God shows Godself to be in Christ. Crucified? Yes. Creator? Yes. Dead? Yes. Finished? Not even close.

The Gospel reading begs a question: What if God doesn’t wait for the eschaton to get God’s hands in the dirt, planting seeds in places we’d rather avoid? If God can be found in the garden with Judas and in the garden with a tomb, maybe God can be found among us and those in our communities as well. Therefore, as the body of Jesus hangs on the cross and lies in the tomb, we make company with him, echoing the words of the eighteenth-century poem, Christ the Appletree:

“I'm weary with my former toil -

Here I will sit and rest awhile,

Under the shadow I will be,

Of Jesus Christ the Appletree.”

Whatever we say on a day like Good Friday, we must remember: God has not finished tending God’s garden. And that is very good news, even when the lights go out.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: Harper One, 2014), 129. [2] Cyril of Alexandria from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol. IVb, John 11-21, ed. Joel C. Elowsky and Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 265. [3] Cyril of Jerusalem from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol. IVb, John 11-21, ed. Joel C. Elowsky and Thomas C. Oden (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 335.