“When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples. And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples. Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. 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. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground. Then asked he them again, Whom seek ye? And they said, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus answered, I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way: That the saying might be fulfilled, which he spake, Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none.” John 18:1-11
After his high priestly prayer Jesus left the Upper Room with his disciple in tow and walked over to the Garden of Gethsemane which site today is only about 12,000 square feet, not much larger than our property just below the parish church. The Beloved Disciple’s account is brief and most of the details given in the Synoptics are left out: there is no mention of the prayer, no account of the bloody sweat, no report of the disciples falling asleep, there is no reference to the Judas Kiss. John condensed the account and focused on the arrest, Judas’ identification with Satan, and Jesus as the Father’s loyal Son made flesh, who remains faithful and true to the death. So let us first look at the details of the narrative.
Judas led the authorities to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus and according to the text he had procured “a band of men” as well as “officers from the chief priests and Pharisees.” The word that we have translated as “a band of men” is “cohort,” which is a specific Roman military category referring to 1/10 a legion of troops. A “cohort” would have been between 480 – 600 soldiers — a lot of soldiers and all of them equipped with “lanterns and torches and weapons.”
I say that seems like a lot of soldiers; might the Beloved Disciple be exaggerating the numbers? Could what John calls the cohort have been just part of a cohort? It is possible but not probable because the Beloved Disciple also records that the “chiliarch,” the captain of the cohort was present. If the captain had detached a smaller unit he would have delegated someone below his rank to lead. In other words Jesus’ arrest was not left to a lower level of authority than a Roman cohort and their captain and some Temple guards. The force was meant to overwhelm.
The chiliarch, the captain, was acting on behalf of Caesar as well as Caesar’s allies, namely, the ruling elite of Jerusalem. These two jurisdictions of authority, Roman and Jewish, had made a common cause, namely to put an end to Jesus. So you can see a combined force of hundreds of Roman soldiers along with Jewish paramilitary guards were led to their target by Judas. You see in your mind’s eye the overwhelming display of national military power — a Roman standard bearer would have led the way, maneuvers and formations shouted, directing Roman soldiers to surround Gethsemane, their torches blazing in the dark, their weapons visible — meant to absolutely terrorize and bring opposition quickly into submission. Once securing the perimeter of the Garden of Gethsemane to make sure no one escaped, they would send in an extraction team led by the captain and accompanied by Judas the traitor. John now disdainfully ignores Judas. According to his account the captain placed Jesus under arrest, bound him, and led him away from the garden to the home of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. The Roman captain would have handed Jesus over to the Temple guards who would being him before Caiaphas. Why? Because no law abiding Jew, much less the high priestly family, would have permitted a Roman to enter into his household. You can see how the overlapping jurisdictions are cooperating for their common interest. But first, they had to identify Jesus:
“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. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them. As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground.”
Imagine that. Jesus speaks the Name: “I am.” And they whole of them, the texts says, “Went backwards,” and fell to the ground. Now that has to mean that the whole lot of them fell to the ground because if only the extraction team had fallen that would have been the signal for those surrounding the garden to rush to their aid. No, the best way to read this is that the whole mass of soldiers spontaneously fell back, not because a leader had shouted an order, but because Jesus said, “I am.” The nations together rage against the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed One. The military force of Rome and Israel and the apostate disciple embody the forces of darkness. The forces of darkness have to carry torches and still cannot identify Jesus — the Light of the World — without the help of an apostate disciple; a traitor the Romans despised. And as soon as Jesus declares his identity by speaking the majestic and all powerful Name — “I am” — the agents and the puppets of evil fall prostrated before the true Captain, the True King of the Universe. Then again Jesus takes an action that demonstrates his power:
“Then asked he them again, Whom seek ye? And they said, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus answered, I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way: That the saying might be fulfilled, which he spake, Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none.”
Were they still prostrated before him when Jesus asked them to repeat themselves or where they recovering from whatever force it was that slammed them to the ground when Jesus said, “I am?” Notice the posture! Either way, Jesus is the man standing — the man who has taken control of the situation. And take control he did. What is the point? The point is that all the power in the world could not take Jesus against his will. Jesus laid down his life, embraced the scourging, the humiliation, and the Cross because of his devotion, his unbreakable love, allegiance, and fidelity was to his Father and to his Church.
Furthermore, when Jesus says, “I have told you that I am he: if therefore ye seek me, let these go their way…” he is not bargaining with the powers of darkness, he is giving them an order. And just as John points out, he does so because meant to loose not one of them. You do not belong to any other power in the universe. You belong to Jesus. He purchased your freedom from the powers of darkness with his own precious blood. The same may be said of the last verse we are looking at today:
Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”
According to Matthew’s account, after Peter cuts off the ear lobe of a Temple official, Jesus declares that if he needed help he could call twelve legions of angles to come to his aid. To say nothing of the fact that he could smite the whole lot into outer darkness with one little word. Jesus sums the whole up with his declaration:
“the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?”
Once again, the point is that all the power in the world could not take Jesus against his will. Jesus laid down his life, embraced the scourging, the humiliation, and the Cross because his devotion, his unbreakable love, allegiance, and fidelity was to his Father and to his Church.
Here the Church Fathers are so insightful and pastoral in their grasp of the mystical meaning of the Gethsemane narrative. Albeit this is factual history, these are the events that occurred, it ought not to be lost on us that our first parents first betrayed God in a garden and here with Gethsemane the overarching narrative of the Bible begin to make full circle. Just as God was betrayed in the first garden, so now the Word of the Father made flesh is betrayed. But Judas is not representative of Adam in his betrayal, but rather Judas is representative of the lying Serpent whose word is full of poison. After all, John reports that Satan had entered into Judas as he ate with Jesus the night he betrayed him. It is Jesus, the Word of the Father, who is representative of Adam. Adam did not love God. He essentially called him a liar. Adam didn’t love his wife. He could have offered his life up for her, and instead he made her the scapegoat. But now the world is being made right: The New Adam loves his Father and he loves his Bride, the Church. He demonstrated his unwavering devotion to God and to his creation by Passion and cruel death. The Son of the Father made flesh came down from Heaven and shunned all power and might and majesty. He lives out perfect union with his Father and perfect solidarity with his creation by embracing our weakness and mutability.
“Then the cohort and the captain and officers of the Jews took Jesus, and bound him, And led him away to Annas first; for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year. Now Caiaphas was he, which gave counsel to the Jews, that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.”
And it is here that we shall pick up our story next Sunday.