This spring has been a difficult one for me as a gardener. My peppers have been wiped out multiple times, but their demise has provided me with helpful metaphors to think about the Christian gospel, particularly in relation to the account of 1 John 1:5-10, which provides an excellent summary of God’s nature, human nature, and how we are reconciled with God and each other:
God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
I. God’s light, our darkness, and scorched peppers
Light is such a good metaphor for God’s nature. God’s truth is perfect and cannot be manipulated, corrupted, or concealed. The fact that God is all light does not mean that God is a grouchy, cantankerous old man. It does not mean that God gets pleasure out of punishing us or calling out our sins. It does mean that carrying our darkness into God’s light would be a painful experience. The Eastern Orthodox understand hell to be just that: standing in the presence of God’s fiery light after living a life of darkness without any acclimation or protection. Light is both the source of all life and something that burns.
It’s kind of like a hard lesson that I learned this spring about pepper plants. I had started them from seeds indoors far in advance of the last frost date because peppers need a long time to germinate. When they came out of the ground and we had our first day above freezing, I got really excited and took the tray outside. I kept the clear plastic cover on top since it was still cold. I figured with the temperature being about 45 degrees outside, the greenhouse temperature inside the tray would heat up to maybe 65-70 degrees, which didn’t seem too hot for peppers. What I learned is that peppers die when you put them in the direct sun too quickly. I lost almost all of them. It doesn’t matter how cold or hot it is; peppers need artificial light for the first weeks of their life outside the ground and then they need to slowly transition into direct sunlight. Our need for transitioning out of a life of sin into a life of holiness is analogous to pepper plants. We need something to make it safe to climb into God’s light so that our leaves don’t get scorched. Because of the terror of God’s light, we generally prefer to stay in our darkness and keep things with God on a superficial level. As Jesus says in John 3:19, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
II. Jesus’ blood and the fungus of sin
A second catastrophe this spring that killed the second wave of peppers I planted was a fungal epidemic known as “damping off.” The fungus eats the baby plant’s stem until it becomes threadbare thin and flops over and dies. One morning they were all healthy and alive, and in a single day, they had all flopped. An organic strategy for innoculating against this fungus is to spray your plant’s soil in weak chamomile tea. 1 John 1:7 says that “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” Jesus’ blood is basically the fungicide that kills our sin.
In the pre-scientific world of the ancient Hebrews, animal sacrifice was the means of cleansing the community of sin. The life in the blood of the animal was a pure substance that could purify the corruption in the air around it. Leviticus 17:11 describes the foundation of the sacrificial cult: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” It is as life that the blood of animal sacrifice made atonement for sin. The word for atonement in Hebrew is kippur (like the Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur). Kippur means to cover something. The blood in the animal sacrifices in the temple was used to cover the sacred vessels of Hebrew ritual in order to purify them. Sacrifice was not about making the animal suffer punishment vicariously for the sins of the people, but about using the animal’s sacred life to purge the air of spiritual death.
So it’s very important to say when we’re talking about Jesus’ cross that sacrifice and punishment are not the same thing at all. There are multiple metaphors we can use to talk about the mysterious cosmic transformation that occurred through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and no single metaphor has priority over the others. I just did a sermon series about this over Lent. What I need to say emphatically over and over again is that Jesus didn’t bleed on the cross because His Father is a blood-thirsty vampire or a cosmic version of the Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice who demands a pound of flesh in exchange for the debt of our sin. Jesus bled to make us clean and to give us the assurance of God’s desperate longing to bring us into His light. Jesus bled because we were covered in sinful fungus and needed something to kill it so that we could grow strong enough to face God’s sunshine and thrive in it.
III. A garden of blood and light
I realize it’s bizarre in our scientific world to think of blood as something that purifies, but this is an aspect of the Christian story that needs to remain permanently ancient. Some Christians say we need to take the blood out of the story, because people in our day don’t think the same way that 1st century Jews thought. But I say we need to become 1st century Jews who haven’t taken the blood of the story. A story without blood is an inauthentic life. And that is the crisis of modern existence among the privileged (the marginalized have no choice; they deal with blood all the time).
Let’s go back to 1 John 1:7 and read the whole sentence this time: “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” Walking in the light and living a life in which blood happens are two different ways of describing authentic existence. It is only in the context of this authentic existence that we can have “fellowship with one another.” Scared little pepper plants living under artificial light in Morgan’s basement don’t get to make friends with the other plants in the ecosystem. God wants to draw us out into the direct sunlight of His presence not only because He wants to hang out with us, but because it’s only in that light that we can have real relationships with other people.
Real community has to be a place where blood happens, where light exposes uncomfortable truths. It is a place where sin is confessed. We don’t really know other people until we know what they’re struggling with. I don’t care how much time you spend together; if it’s all banter and joking around, you do not have a real relationship. In real relationships, we “speak the truth in love,” that perfect phrase that Paul uses in Ephesians 4:15. That means that we have the safety to reveal our darkness little by little until everything is in the light. Even though the whole world doesn’t need to know the ugliness and pain that we hide, if somebody else does, then we are not ultimately by ourselves. Jesus’ blood is what provides us with the safety to let our walls down. His vulnerability invites us into vulnerability, and His blood assures us of our amnesty from condemnation for our sin.
One of the things I experiment with as a gardener is the symbiosis between plants that occurs when you plant them side by side. Peppers and tomatoes, for instance, can make each other grow better when planted together, once they get past the vulnerable phase of their existence. At the same time, when plants are seedlings living in a damp indoor environment, crowding them together invites a fungus epidemic. The damping out that wiped out my peppers actually originated with my tomatillos and spread from there to my peppers. Sin kind of works the same way. When our fellowship is not grounded in God’s light, sin damps us out. But when we’ve been acclimated to the light of holiness and fortified against the fungus of sin by the blood of Jesus Christ, then we can stand together in the garden of the Lord with all different species of Christian, and God’s direct sunlight will no longer be something that scorches and kills us, but a rich source of joy and life that makes us grow taller and taller as we reach for heaven.