John 18:1 - 19:42
Of all my childhood memories I hold a special place in my heart for the day when I came to realize that I was part of something much greater than myself. Nineteen seventy was a turbulent year, and it was difficult to find a place where my nine-year-old mind was not assailed by some sign of the brokenness and disruption that marked that era. I remember the images that were broadcast each night on the six o’clock news of fire fights in some distant land, and the confusion I felt upon hearing that US troops were engaging “gorillas” in these far-off jungles. I recall my fear as anti-war protests broke out on college campuses throughout my home state of Ohio, and my younger sister’s precocious question, the one that confounds me to this day: “How can people fight for peace?” In many ways, 1970 was the worst of times.
But it was the best of times. And April 22 of that year would have a transforming effect on my life. I don’t know that I had seen the image before, but when my third-grade teacher held before us that now-iconic photograph that astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission had taken from outer space, I was transfixed. I did what most children do in situations like these: I tried to find my neighborhood, and then my state. Eventually I had to settle on my country. What I saw that day was big; bigger than me and all of us combined. Even now I cannot dissociate this image from the one scripture passage that so many of us seem to know yet so few of us seem to affirm: “For God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).
Earth Day 1970 was when I first realized, or at least I intuited in my own childlike way, that what gives my body life – the earth and all its good gifts – and what lies at the core of my soul – the breath of God – cannot be so easily separated. Even then I somehow knew that if the fighting and destruction that had been such a prominent part of my lived experience were ever going to cease it would require more than mere technical solutions to the problems we faced. It would require a conversion, a new way of locating ourselves on that photograph. We would need to become citizens of a different kind of political order.
My only other memory of that momentous celebration is this: I walked home barefoot that day and thought about planting a garden.
It is no coincidence, I think, that the events that we commemorate in our observance of the Triduum – from Good Friday to Easter Sunday – begin and end in a garden, for it is here that Christ, the new Adam, embarks on the harrowing journey that ultimately enables us to reclaim our true identities as tillers and keepers of creation. Here we are offered a new insight into what kingdom is truly ours. The narrative that will hold our attention over the next three days recapitulates in a symbolic way the events of the Hebrew Bible up until the coming of Christ. The new Adam is taken forcefully from his prayerful solitude and brought before the powers that be, the “kingdom of this world” whose hallmarks are the same violence, humiliation, and death that so frightened me as a child. This is clearly not the realm of the “I am,” the self-affirmation spoken by Jesus throughout the Gospel of John. Rather, it is the domain of the denial of God and the denial of our true humanity. The contrast with the words of Christ could not be simpler, and we hear it three times on Peter’s lips: “I am not.” But what makes this narrative different from the Hebrew story that precedes it is that this time Adam is not left to wander further and further east of Eden in a land far from his home. This time Adam returns to the Garden.
And in this we find hope for our own return, not so that we can practice the kind of violent dominion and darkness so typical of the “kingdom of this world,” but so that we might “serve and preserve” (Gen. 2:15) the earth that gives us life and from which we came. It was not in vain that Paul admonished the Romans to think about their reconciliation to God through Christ in a radically new way:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected in futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:19-23).
John says it more simply: God so loved the world – that is, the entire cosmos, the earth and all its bounty, including God’s human creatures – that God gave his only son to restore us all to our true vocation as “servers and preservers” of our home. Ours is a kingdom not of this fallen world but of the original creation.
We read later in the Gospel of John that on the day of his resurrection Jesus is mistaken as a gardener by one of the women who knew him best, Mary Magdalene. It is easy for us to write this scene off as a telling indication of Mary’s confusion and grief, but we should not be so quick to discount the author’s theological intent in retaining this apparently minor detail in the narrative. It was perhaps inevitable that Mary would encounter the risen Christ as a gardener, because that is in fact what he was: the new Adam, in a new creation, and the full embodiment of all that we as God's people are now called to be.
Having said this, we need to pause and reflect on how faithfully we have followed through with this role. Our pericope for Good Friday presents us with the image of two kingdoms. The first is the realm of authentic being, the peaceful abode of the Garden where the weapons that divide us are sheathed and we rest in faithful communion with Jesus. It is here that we can truly say, along with Christ, “I am.” The second is the domain of denial where we perpetually pursue our self-serving ends only to discover that we are sinking deeper and deeper into oblivion. In our despair, in our failure to affirm our relationship with God, with others, and with the earth, we cannot help but profess, along with Peter, “I am not.”
Between these two lies the excruciating death of the Word made flesh at the hands of those who would exercise a corrupt earthly dominion. On this Good Friday, on this Earth Day, we must ask ourselves, and with some urgency, “as the body of Christ, which side are we on?” Will we continue blithely to reconcile the values of our consumerist culture with our original vocation as faithful stewards of creation? In so doing, I say, Christ is mocked and crucified again.
If my lunar calculations are correct we will not see Good Friday coincide with Earth Day for another eighteen years. By then, God willing, I will have traveled the road of a lifetime from my third-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary to my as yet unknown identity as an older man. I do wonder where I will be all those years hence, but more than this I wonder where the church will be. Perhaps we will look back on 2011 as a time when we began to realize that these two communal observances – one solemn and the other hopeful – need not be so easily segregated, for in the sacrifice of Christ lies the hope of the world that God so loved. But I am not optimistic. Given the rapaciousness with which our American way of life continues to gobble up the precious gifts of the earth, it seems that creation, still subjected in futility, is destined perpetually to groan in travail as it awaits the revealing of God’s children and the coming of a kingdom not of this world.