Large and in charge

Right this moment, I’m sitting in my living room recliner, typing on my laptop computer. The sky outside is overcast, though the sun is just beginning to peek through. I can see the patio; it’s still wet from last night’s rain. The cement is beginning to steam as it warms in the sun.

But if I hadn’t typed these words, and tomorrow you asked me to tell you a story about today, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned any of these things. I might even have left out things that seemed important today.

Put simply, there’s much more to any person’s life than can be told in a single story, and John says as much about the story of Jesus (John 21:25). He writes neither as a historian nor a journalist, but as an apostle; he has a message for his readers, and has to choose from among all the memories and materials at his disposal to tell a tale that gets the message across.

As we come to the narrative of Jesus’ arrest in the garden, the message comes through loud and clear: this man is nobody’s patsy. He is unarmed and outnumbered, but large and in charge.

We’ve noted throughout the many posts on John’s gospel how different his version can be from those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the so-called Synoptic gospels), and this part of the story in particular is strikingly so. On the surface level, the different gospels note different details. John, for example, tells us that Jesus and the Eleven crossed the Kidron Valley and entered an unnamed garden where they had all spent time together (John 18:1-3). The Synoptists, for their part, don’t name the Kidron, but do name the garden — Gethsemane — though none of them actually note that it is a garden. We can only speak of “the garden of Gethsemane” by bringing the different versions together.

More significant, however, is the way in which Jesus is portrayed in the different narratives. We’re used to thinking of Gethsemane as the place where Jesus poured out his anguish to God, praying for an alternative to the cross. In Matthew, for example, Jesus prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt 26:39, NRSV). The prayer ends, of course, with Jesus’ obedient submission to the Father’s will (vs. 42).

But there is nothing like this in John’s account. There is neither anguish nor doubt. Jesus is fully in command of himself and of the situation; the story even suggests that hundreds of burly Roman soldiers were afraid of him. And though the “cup” of wrath and suffering is mentioned, it’s in the context of Jesus’ determination to drink it to the dregs (John 18:11).

It’s not difficult to “harmonize” the stories. John has already told us how Jesus was troubled in spirit regarding his betrayal and crucifixion (e.g., 12:27; 13:21). Here, John simply picks up the story after Jesus has prayed his way through the anguish and into firm resolve.

That’s all well and good. But in our possible anxiety about reconciling the stories, let’s not miss what John’s story is trying to tell us. This is the Jesus who told his disciples, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:13). This is the Good Shepherd who sacrifices his life for the sheep (10:11, 15) — not because anyone has forced him to, but in loving obedience to his Father (10:17-18).

This is the eternal Word made flesh, the one who came as light into the darkness. And that truth is upside-down and backwards from how others might have told the tale. More on that in the next post.

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