“Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)
Three times now I have witnessed first hand the miracle of childbirth. Witnessed up-close-and-personal. I will spare you the details. It is a wonder, truly, to see one’s wife, one’s beloved, change and evolve over those nine months. The journey you are on as a couple, as a family, from that first discovery that some new life, hardly detectable at all, has begun to grow. And the DNA of that child, it is all there right from the very beginning. Over those nine months, for us at least, the excitement and joy grows—this is really happening, this new life is really coming into the world.
However, that sense of excitement and joy is tempered by a growing sense of anxiety and discomfort. For the woman, physical discomfort to be sure, but also mental, emotional, and spiritual. Can I really do this? Will I be able to handle the tremendous pain and stress that my body will inevitably go through. And for the husband—can I watch my wife go through this? What can I do, if anything at all? And this is all caught up together, this anticipation, this excitement, this fear.
Finally, the labour itself is not easy. It is extremely painful. For the birth of our first child Christina opted to have an epidural as soon as possible. However, two years later, delivered our second child at home with no pain medication at all. Embracing entirely the moment that the previous nine months had been building towards. Labour is painful, dangerous even. Not all that long ago many women did not survive childbirth at all. Life and death, all caught up together, we understand it not.
What does any of this have to do with this day, Good Friday? The day of the Cross? The moment of Christ’s Passion? Well, actually, Jesus himself makes the connection just prior to our gospel reading this morning. In the 16th chapter of the Gospel According to St. John, anticipating his coming arrest and torture, Jesus says to his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world,” (16:20-21).
Friends, this day, this moment, this is the hour of our Lord’s anguish. But—and here is the point of our first reflection for today—it is an anguish that Christ Jesus willingly, joyfully even, bears. Why? For love. For you, for me, for the world. So that all might know the love of the Father.
In the portion of John’s gospel that we have just heard, the arrest of Jesus in the garden, the shape of God’s love and life is revealed to us. And it is not what we expected to find for not only is God’s love hidden in weakness but we learn that God’s love is willing to suffer violence, we learn that Christ Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, gives himself into the hands of those who would kill him.
“So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons,” (18:3). The betrayer and his goons came out to the garden armed to the teeth, ready for a fight, ready to kill. During Lent Alexandra has been leading a course on the Psalms titled, “Jesus’ Prayer Book.” I wonder if Psalm 22 which we heard this morning wasn’t on the lips of Jesus that night in the garden as he was surrounded: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion,” (11-12).
Yet, come as they may, weapons and all, no one can take Jesus’ life from him. Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd. And just what is the characteristic of this good shepherd? What makes him good? He lays down his life for the sheep (10:11). He lays it down. For them. “No one takes it from me,” Jesus says, “but I lay it down of my own accord,” (10:18).
As if to put an exclamation mark on this very point notice what happens next in the garden. The mob comes out to apprehend Jesus. While this caught the disciples by surprise Jesus knew full well what was to happen to him. “Who are you looking for?” he asked them. They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I Am.”
The “I Am” is a sign that we are not dealing with an ordinary Rabbi here. Neither is Jesus simply a divine agent, come to bring us good news from God. No, in Jesus Christ we are confronted with the One who confronted Moses that day in the wilderness, in Christ we are confronted with the One who led Israel out of slavery and through the wilderness as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, the One who filled the Temple with his glory, the One who established a covenant between God and man as the writer of Hebrews tells us.
And what is the response of this mob when they are confronted with this One? “They stepped back and fell to the ground,” (18:6). Even those who come out to apprehend Christ, even those who reject him and seek to kill him must fall in line.
As the Psalmist writes elsewhere, “When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and foes, they shall stumble and fall,” (27:2). If this is what Christ did when giving himself up to be judged, what will he do when he himself comes as judge? (St. Augustine).
Contrast the submission of Christ to his suffering with the response of Peter who, shall we say, does not come off as the-rock-upon-which-I-shall-build-my-church material here. Suddenly, he reaches for his sword and with a single strike lops off the ear of one of the mob. He has not yet grasped that we cannot be glorified with Christ apart from suffering with him (Romans 8:17), that we cannot live with him apart from having died with him (2 Timothy 2:11). And so his violent rejection of Christ’s Passion here in the garden is as much a denial of Christ as his literal three-fold denial just a few verses later.
And yet we are so unwilling to suffer with Christ. In fact, we think that if we go with Christ we ought not have to suffer at all. But the way of Christ is the way of self-giving love, it is the way of the Cross. This does not stop us from biting and devouring one another, from seeking to preserve our life rather than to give it away in love entrusting ourselves wholly to God’s loving care. The Anglican Communion is wounded. We will not be healed much less renewed apart from laying our lives down for one another, embodying the patient and sacrificial love of Christ.
For we can not know Christ apart from our willingness to suffer those who in baptism are our brother, our sister.
We might think also of the suffering of Christians around the world. Recall our Coptic brothers and sisters who just five days ago suffered gruesome violence in their place of worship. Their suffering is not in vain but is their victory with Christ and their blood will be the seed that causes the gospel to sprout up even more.
“Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Jesus asks. Christ’s suffering is not accidental, it is not “Plan B”. Nor is his suffering thrust upon him from outside of himself, as if it were some unbearable fate. Yes, the Cross is the will of the Father, the cup that he has given his Son. And yet his Son joyfully takes it because their wills are not opposed but one, for the sake of the world. Even now, in the garden, Jesus is in control.
As the woman at the hour of her labour knows the anguish that is about to come but willingly embraces it for the sake of bringing new life into the world, so here Christ knows what is about to happen to him. Here stands the Good Shepherd at the hour of his anguish, giving himself into the hands of those who have come to kill him, laying down his life for his sheep, for you and I.