Christ contests, Christ triumphs, Christ saves. The beginning of the eighteenth chapter of John is not about an arrest. It is a battle. How do we know this? We begin: Jesus leads his disciples across the Kedron, where there is a brook. Now this is a place. It is a military place. David fled there. Defeated, David fled the fury of his own son Absalom at the place called Kedron and crossed over into the wilderness. David did not triumph at the Kedron. Will Jesus? Will Jesus turn his tail and run?
Jesus goes forth with his disciples. Jesus goes first. The disciples follow. Christ is here being what tradition calls ‘the captain of our salvation.’ We can say that he is, in military parlance, leading from the front. Where is he going? Where is he taking them? Across the Kedron, to Gethsemane, where he and his disciples often meet. He is, again in military terms, choosing the field of battle. Would that all commanders knew all that was going to happen to them.
Christ contests. Christ combats. But who does Jesus fight? “Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees.” Sound like a battle now? The opposition has a captain, too – the betrayer, Judas. He’s leading, too – for now. And he brings the full detail: “lanterns and torches and weapons.”
You almost want to hear how many, don’t you? 6 lanterns and 16 torches and 53 weapons: this is that kind of list. Soldiers would come equipped. But what did the disciples have? What were they, in the dark? Christ combats. But maybe this isn’t going to be the kind of battle that we might expect.
Christ comes forward, apart from his men, we presume. This doesn’t look like a battle. This looks like what we might call a parley. This looks like what we might call an act of negotiation. And he asks: “Whom do you seek?” Uh-oh. The captain of our salvation is about to give someone up.
Wait, Christ triumphs? But they answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Wait a second: they answered him? What happened to their captain, their representative? He’s just standing there. Not too much authority. So maybe things might turn out after all. And Jesus asks first. That’s good negotiation. That’s good standing. Matter of fact, that’s just rank. And the other side falls down! For guards and soldiers, that’s not good. You fight standing. You fight in formation. You don’t do too much stabbing from below. Christ triumphs. He and his disciples might even get away, now.
But he asks them again, “Whom are you looking for?” Wait, he still wants to give someone up? Not the kind of battle we’ve been looking for. And they say again ‘Jesus of Nazareth,” and he says “if you are looking for me, let these men go.” Aha! The good captain goes down for his troops. The good captain gets his men out alive. Jesus contests, Jesus triumphs, Jesus saves. But saves who? What are the disciples going? Have they fled?
And Peter draws his sword. We see why, right? It’s a battle. Who wouldn’t draw a sword? And he cuts off the ear of the slave of the high priest. After the battle has been won and after the arrangements have been made. A soldier out of place. A man endangering the mission. Put your sword away, Peter. It is no suggestion. Christ gives Peter a command. So that Peter can keep his head – even after he’s already lost his head. Jesus saves.
And they arrest him and bind him and take him to Annas and they do not do anything to his disciples. Christ contests, Christ triumphs, Christ saves.
It is not the kind of battle we might expect. Gethsemane is a war of words, of statement and surrender. And it is not the kind of triumph we might expect.
Our captain, our command, is lead away in cords and chains – a symbolic defeat if ever there was one.
And Gethsemane is not the kind of salvation we might expect. It is not ethereal. It is not about the next life. And it is not salvation of the particularly deserving.
Instead, Gethsemane is the salvation, especially, of a hot-blooded fool whose passion overcomes all good judgment – but one who, nonetheless, gets to live just another day. A rock of the church if ever there was one.
No, none of these things are what we might expect. But Christ contests, Christ triumphs, and Christ saves nonetheless.