One of my favorite places is the garden at a monastery called Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. The trees are old and large, many dripping with Spanish moss. There are a few statues and pieces of artwork that are artfully nestled in the gardens. There is an old, small cemetery surrounded by a rusty wrought-iron fence. But the most wonderful part of the garden is the river that runs along the edge of the gardens. Benches are strategically placed near the water’s edge so that visitors can sit and listen to the lapping water, hearing the whir of insects, and rustle of the breeze. The gardens of Mepkin Abbey are one of the most peaceful places I know.
Or at least, they are supposed to be. Everything there, from the beauty of God-made creation to the beauty of man-made art, is supposed to invite the visitor into holy contemplation. But I rarely find contemplation peaceful. Contemplation usually leads me to a quiet conversation with God – which certainly sounds peaceful and serene. But the trouble is that more often, my prayer life is about talking to God. When I make space for the kind of quiet I need to actually listen to God, I sometimes hear things I do not want to hear. God uses the rare gift of silence to put before me the things I have been avoiding with all my busyness. So what should be a time of peaceful bliss more often becomes a time of sobering reflection.
The agonizing story we tell this day is rooted in gardens too: three of them to be exact. As the story opens we are told that Jesus and the disciples go to a garden – one where they had frequented, as Judas is familiar with the garden where they often met. The garden was a place of peace for Jesus – the place where he retreated for prayer after long days of teaching, preaching, and healing. The garden was a place of familiarity – a home for the man who really had no home. The garden was a place of affirmation – a place where he and his closest companions went together without pressure to perform or do, but to just be together. Into that peaceful garden violence erupts. “Sinful men, violent men, men with weapons, come to the garden in the dark, looking for someone,” as one scholar writes. “The someone who was the father’s only son. Like all humans, they are looking for God, but they don’t know that’s what they are doing. They think they are only doing their job…”[i] But unlike in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospel, John does not paint the garden as one of agony. No, Jesus has already done his grieving. In this garden, Jesus is ready. We hear his resolve in his conversation with the armed men. Jesus has no intention of hiding or grieving in the darkness.
The story of that garden is laced with the story of another garden: the garden in which John’s gospel is rooted. If you remember, John’s gospel is the gospel which starts on a much more philosophical note than the other gospels. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the beginning there was a garden too – the Garden of Eden. In the Garden of Eden, the roles were reversed. Instead of men coming to look for God in the person of Jesus, God goes looking for man – Adam, specifically. N. T. Wright describes that day in Eden artfully, “[God] came on the evening breeze, came as he had always come. Came because they knew each other, and used to spend time together. Came to the garden because that’s where they always met. That’s where he was at home. And there was no answer. The man had hidden. Something had happened. The friendship was soured. There was a bad taste in the air, a taste made worse by the excuses and feeble stories that followed. Love, the most fragile and beautiful of the plants in that garden, had been trampled on. It would take millennia to grow it again.”[ii]
In the garden of Eden, God comes searching for a sinful man. In the garden of betrayal, sinful men come looking for God. The first Adam entered into sin, forever straining the relationship between humankind and the Creator. John’s gospel presents Jesus as the true Adam, the man without sin, who is sent to his death by sinful Adams, so that “the garden may be restored, and instead of bloodshed there may be healing and forgiveness.”[iii] From the beginning of our story today, the two gardens are ever intertwined, holding for us the tension of the significance of this event. For although this story today is the story of our Savior crucified, the story today is also a cosmic one, one we understand to be rooted in the oldest of stories – the fall of humankind that is not redeemed until the fall of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course, Jesus standing boldly in the garden of betrayal is just the beginning of our story. We listen intently as we hear the painful story retold – of God’s chosen ones betraying God by putting Caesar in the place of God, of Pilate sacrificing his ethics because of peer pressure, of disciples abandoning and denying Jesus, of Jesus’ suffering to the very end. And where do we end our story, but in another garden – the garden that holds a new tomb that Joseph of Arimathea offers. This is the garden that will host sacred events. The redemption begins right away. Though Joseph and Nicodemus were ashamed and afraid of their discipleship, when the opportunity comes to show their loyalty, they do not waiver. Their shame is washed away by their royal care of Jesus’ body. With enough spices for a king, in an untouched tomb, in the beauty of a garden, they put to rest the new Adam, who redeems the age-old Adam in us all.
Now I said initially that there are three gardens in our text. That number is still true. But today, we create our own garden as well. Our garden is bare – stripped of beauty and adornment. But our garden is still here – a sacred place of comfort, companionship, and company with God. Stripping our garden of its usual adornment allows us to strip ourselves of our normal busyness and sit with our God. That is what gardens do for us anyway. No matter how many beautiful pieces of art or flowering beauties we see, at some point we have to sit down, take a deep breath, and listen to our God. That is what we do today. We come to the garden of the redeemed to ponder how we got here. We come to remember our roots in the sin that severed our relationship with God in the Garden of Eden. We come to remember those times when we have taken up arms as we stormed into the Garden of Betrayal. And we also come to remember those moments of redemption when we did the right thing, placing our Lord in the Garden of rest.
Our time in the garden of redemption will not necessarily leave us feeling fulfilled. In fact, our leaving here pondering the cosmic nature of what Jesus has done to remedy the sin of humanity is all we are given today. We know good news is coming – that the garden of rest will become the garden of resurrection. But not today. Today we leave this place pondering our own participation in the action of the gardens of today’s story: those times of our sinful fleeing from God, those times of our sinful persecution of God, and those times of our abandoning God or our fear of proclaiming God. We are blessed by the garden of redemption, the garden of St. Margaret’s, to sit and listen. We share the experience and draw strength from one another. Our joy will come soon. But not today. Amen.
[i] N. T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 102.
[ii] Wright, 102.
[iii] Wright, 104.