By Fr. Mark Perkins
Devotion on Morning Prayer
“Jesus, therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, Whom seek ye? They answered him, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus saith unto them, I am he.”
This morning’s second lesson is packed with Old Testament allusions. We begin with Jesus crossing “over the brook Cedron.” This is the same river that King David crossed when he fled from his son Absalom’s rebellion in 2 Samuel (15:23). In fact the word translated as “brook” is a specific word for a river that only flowed during winter (the rainy season in Israel), and it’s precisely the same term used in the Greek translation of the account of David’s flight. In that Old Testament story, meanwhile, David’s close advisor Ahithophel betrays him and then eventually hangs himself — one of only two characters in the Bible to do so, the other being Judas Iscariot.
The account of David’s flight is gut-wrenching: “David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot; and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went” (2 Sam. 15:30, NRSV). Likewise, our Lord enters into the Garden of Gethsemane, which was an olive grove (Whitacre 425), where, the other Gospels tell us, he endured great agony as he anticipated his impending death (Luke 22:44; Matthew 26:38; Mark 14:34). It is there that he asked his disciples to pray one hour with him, there that they all failed. And it is that grievous hour in that garden that many of you are even now reenacting as you seek to enter into the suffering of our Lord in some small way.
John refers to this place of watching simply as “a garden.” He gives the same name to “the place where [Jesus] was crucified” and buried (19:41). Mary of Bethany will even mistake him for the gardener (20:15) — as indeed he is, the New Adam whose death reverses the curse wrought by the first gardener’s fall (1 Cor 15:22; Rom 5:14-18).
This morning’s first lesson provides us with another foreshadow of Christ. The Isaac who is nearly sacrificed and metaphorically brought back from the dead becomes the Christ, who truly dies and then becomes the “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18). Indeed, Jesus acts as both Abraham and Isaac, for he willingly offers himself up in obedience to God.
The account of David’s flight from Absalom arouses pity because in it David has become so pitiful — a sad, broken-down old man who must be roused to his own defense by his allies. And Absalom’s rebellion is implicitly presented as the consequence of David’s own sordid history of adultery, murder, and parental neglect.
Evening Prayer today will emphasize that Jesus, by contrast, is an innocent sufferer whose suffering expunges the guilt of others. But as our reading from John makes clear, Jesus is no passive and pitiful victim.
Having eluded his opponents’ previous attempts to apprehend him before the appointed hour, Jesus now dictates when, where, and how he will be taken. His enemies come in full military force, but it is Jesus and not they who control the scene. He comes forth and interrogates them: “Whom seek ye?”
They answer “Jesus of Nazareth.” He responds, “I am he.” That last word, “he,” is grammatically implied but unstated in the Greek, so what Jesus has actually said is simply, “I AM.” This declaration of the divine name literally knocks the armed band clean over. They are, it seems, so rattled that Jesus has to prompt them again to say who they’re looking for, and they helplessly repeat the same name. Jesus then orders them — it is an imperative — to let his disciples go. What we see here and throughout his interactions with Pilate is the superficial powers of this world belittled and diminished in the presence of true omnipotence.
Good Friday is tragic. Jesus’ death is the result of sin, and sin is no happy fault. It is grievous. The grim spectacle of our Lord upon the cross should fill us with deep sorrow for our sins which placed him there.
And yet, throughout St. John’s Gospel, the cross is Christ’s glorification. The great Anglican theologian E. L. Mascall writes that in his obedience, Christ’s “divine dignity is not diminished but manifested; when he stands before Pilate, it is he, not Pilate, that is the judge; when he is nailed to the Cross, he is reigning from the tree.” As we grieve, therefore, let us also glorify.
Devotion on Evening Prayer
“Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”
The crucifixion of our Lord on Good Friday frees us from sin and death. When we are “baptized into his death,” as St. Paul says (Romans 6:3), we are transformed in our very being. His death accomplishes our regeneration, but it also provides an example for us to follow when we suffer unjustly in our own lives. In our second lesson today, St. Peter pulls together both effects of the cross: we are transferred from death to life, and we are given an example to follow.
The latter half of our text is explicitly directed to slaves—more specifically, household servants—but there are textual indications that St. Peter intended his advice to apply to all Christians as servants in the household of God. St. Peter calls upon these slaves—who, in context, seem to have pagan masters—to endure unjust suffering patiently, a teaching that was no doubt hard to swallow. But for St. Peter, patiently enduring is not about abstract morality but is, rather, part and parcel of a Christian’s obligation to imitate Jesus. Our text dramatically shifts from the mundane, grim particulars of the Christian slave's daily life to the transcendent reality of Christ's suffering. Why is the Christian slave—and, by implication, every Christian—called to endure unjust suffering? “Because,” St. Peter writes, “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.” As St. Augustine comments, “Christ taught you to suffer, and he did so by suffering himself.” In the last few verses of our text, St. Peter draws heavily from the famous “suffering servant” passage of Isaiah 52-53, which is our first lesson today. As God’s suffering servant, Jesus “did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth.” Despite this, he in “his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree.” Note the tangible fleshiness of Jesus' sacrificial suffering—the cross is not simply an abstract spiritual battle between good and evil. It is physical, bodily torture. The language of “the tree” draws us back to the Old Testament. We learn in Deuteronomy that a man hanged on a tree for a crime “is cursed by God” (Deut. 21:21-23). The innocent sufferer Jesus is killed like a common criminal under a divine curse. This profound theological reality undergirds St. Peter’s difficult instruction for day-to-day life. The household servants to whom he writes may be suffering unjustly, but they are, in a larger sense, not innocent of sin. The implication is clear: if he who was in the fullest sense innocent responded in this way, you who are not ought also so to do. “When he was reviled, [he] reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.” Amidst the reviling of persecutors, Jesus' gaze was ever heavenward. This too should be our response to suffering. At the end of our text, St. Peter points out that Jesus’ death is more than just a good example for us to follow—because his death is what transforms us. Unlike the suffering of saints and martyrs, Jesus’ death is what actually enables us to follow his example. Christ died “that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness.” In this particular passage, St. Peter is less concerned with the eternal status of our salvation than he is with the earthly practicalities of right living before God. As one translation puts it, Jesus “bore our wrongdoings” so that “we, having abandoned wrongdoing, might live for doing what is right” (Elliott, Anchor Bible, 523). Christ’s suffering on Good Friday gives us an example to follow—and it empowers us to follow him. As the beautiful Collect for the Monday before Easter puts it,
“ALMIGHTY God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified; Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”