When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.” This was to fulfil the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.” Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
– John 18: 1-11
Jesus goes out to a quiet lonely place, not far from the city, a place of olive groves, a space in which to pray and reflect, but this place of solitude is invaded, not by friends (who fall asleep when Jesus calls for them to be vigilant) but by soldiers and enemies of his mission. In John’s Gospel we are told that secular and religious powers of Jesus’ day come together in this one act of lawless brutality. Not in the daylight but under the cover of darkness, Judas goes out from among the disciples and we are told ‘it was night’, then with lanterns and torches and weapons they come to arrest him, Jesus, the light of the world.
Like so many stories we hear of victims of injustice, Jesus is arrested and tried at night (in violation of the law), the testimony of his accusers is confused, and the trial presided over by a biased judge. Jesus knows what is about to come upon him, he is to drink the cup of suffering, yet he does not fight instead he steps forward and assures his captors that he is the man they seek. Notice how they respond seized by fear they step back and fall to the ground. These warriors, these men bearing arms, come to overpower this man of peace but cannot help but draw back as this man steps forward with an unexpected dignity, majesty and power.
Time and time again we come up against Jesus with our anger and violence, fuelled by our own (often self-inflicted) hurts, and often we are disarmed by these same words, ‘I am he’. Looking at him we are startled by the man we see, a man-God, who knows our troubles, who has experienced betrayal, who has suffered injustice, pain and loss. Confronted with Christ, the man, we step back, we fall down, and for a moment we are disarmed as we comprehend something of God in this man’s humanity.
For a moment it seems as though Jesus is victorious, these men of weapons act as though they are going to surrender to this man of peace. Then Peter steps forward, sword in hand, to take advantage of the situation, but Jesus rebukes him. What utter grace? Jesus who knows all that would happen to him, the false trial, the beating, the scourging, the mocking, the pain of the cross, thinks not of the violence done to him but of those perpetrating it against him. ‘Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?’
Jesus understands that for these men to truly surrender and to find amnesty, their deeds of darkness must be accounted for, their debt must be cancelled, their sin-burden must be carried, and so he chooses, in that moment, the cross. With all its ugliness, cruelty and agony, Jesus chooses it. For the cross is the consequence of sin and at the cross the true nature of sin is revealed. In the cross we see sin’s brutality, that it would have us murder God, the Source of all beauty and truth and light.
Yet, just as the cross exposes sin for what it is, so through embracing the cross Jesus has borne the curse of sin to bring us peace. Upon the cross the deeds of darkness are accounted for, the price for sin is paid, and the burden of sin is carried. And so that is why we call this Good Friday: good!
For surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed
– Isaiah 53:4-5