Sunday, October 4, 2009

on John 18:1-13: Christus Victor

Matthew 12:20 "A battered reed He will not break off, And a smoldering wick He will not put out, Until He leads justice to victory” (NAS).

John 18:1-12 presents Christ victorious on a field of battle against the darkness of Enemy; the spoils of the battle, so to speak, are Jesus’s own disciples and the believers they will subsequently gain for the faith – ie whoever might believe in Him. This was the theology of atonement present in the early Church when John was written, and, I would argue, the one present in the text itself. That this victory would come in apparent defeat was of course something of the purpose, and underscores the sharp contrasts of the earliest Christian theology: as life was achieved through death, so Christ’s victory is achieved through his acquiescence to Roman binding and Temple jurisdiction.

The theology of Christus Victor is present from the beginning of the text, at least in part: Jesus and his followers cross the brook of Kedron, itself a site of military import to Davidic history, where he fled his son Absalom. More, the language of the text suggests Jesus at the head of his followers as a captain would be at the head of his unit. He is, in military parlance, “leading from the front.”

That Kedron was a Davidic retreat rather than a triumph only further underscores the type of victory Christ is about to accomplish. That the garden is familiar terrain in John’s gospel, and that Christ knew all the things that were to come, similarly mimics a captain choosing the field of battle. Judas comes similarly at the head of a Roman cohort and Temple officers; the sides are joined, though we might wonder what becomes of the captain of darkness afterward (Judas doesn’t lead from the front for very long). The cohort comes with “lanterns and torches and weapons” amounting to a military inventory of the kind long synonymous with battle: equipment matters in the warring world.

Jesus then steps forward as in a military parley: “Whom do you seek?” The question is perhaps not as important in this case as is the fact that Jesus asks first; Jesus initiates; Christ is in command not only of his own “troops” but of the opposition. He fires the first volley, strikes the first blow. With his acknowledgement that he is the one they seek; the cohort collapses. Falling back, they break good Roman formation. The men should have stood together. But the men fall over, testimony both to the power of the Word of God and the shallow nature of the victory the forces of the world are about to gain.

Again Christ rejoins the conversation; this is to be not a battle of blades but of words, and here Jesus clearly has the upper hand. With his second acknowledgement he suggests (declares? orders?) that with his captivity, his men are no longer needed by anyone, “let these men go.” He thus secures their freedom from both arrest and death. He himself is the only casualty of battle: “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” (Do they flee? Or just choose a retreat? A rearguard action?)

That Peter subsequently draws a sword is both entirely appropriate and entirely misdirected; he rightly feels the contest but wholly misinterprets its nature, threatening the victory as if he were some soldier out of place and exposed to harm. Christ’s command is swift and precise: “Put your sword back into its sheath.” This is both because the victory is already being accomplished and because Christ Victorious is not Christ Militant – most of the earliest Christians were pacifist. The soldiers, officers and Jewish police, not knowing that darkness is already being defeated, arrest and bind Jesus as though, indeed, he were a slave or common prisoner taken from the field of battle – something which all good Christians would know that he of course was not.

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