They went to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign saying, “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
What a difference a day makes. This saying finds its truest expression in relation to the life of Jesus. No single event in human history has received more attention than the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is believed to have died at the age of 33, after a life of approximately 12,000 days. The Gospel writers devoted the vast majority of their work to just 1100 or so of those, the last three years of his life. And, the bulk of their writing focused on the last week of his life, and in particular, on one fateful day.
Today, we begin a worship series that examines that day. What a difference a day makes; 24 hours changed the world. We will look at the geographical and historical setting of the events of that fateful day; reflect theologically on Jesus’ death; and ultimately, look to see ourselves in the story, considering how we are like Pilate or Peter, Judas or John. My hope is that you will experience and understand the significance of Jesus’ suffering and death in a way you never have before. I invite your full attention as we embark together on this heart-breaking and inspiring journey.
Researching these events and working on these messages have deepened my own faith and my sense of love and gratitude for Jesus. I pray these messages over the next several weeks do the same for you. May we pray.
Thursday Evening – 11pm
Jesus and his disciples had just finished the Passover meal in the Upper Room; that meal we now know as the Last Supper. We’ll look at that meal in a few weeks. At the end of the meal, they sang a hymn that is still part of the Passover Seder today. Based on selected verses from Psalm 113 to Psalm 118, it is called the ‘Hallel,’ meaning praise, and it’s actually the root of the word from which we get another word – Hallelujah.
I wonder if, on that night, Jesus drew comfort from the words: “Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? . . . I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord . . . I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Psalm 118:5-6,17,13-14).
They left the Upper Room in Jerusalem for the 25-minute walk to the garden. Out to the east and down into the Kidron Valley, they walked north through that valley, to the base of the Mount of Olives, into a small garden. It is this garden where Jesus has come to pray all week, since riding into Jerusalem on what we have come to know as Palm Sunday, Jesus has been alternating between teaching in the temple and retreating to this garden to pray.
Fully Divine, Fully Human
This garden was named “Gethsemane.” The word means “olive oil press,” and here Jesus himself will be pressed – tried and tested to the limit of both his humanity and his divinity. From the very beginning, the Church has taught that Jesus is fully human and fully divine. This is one of the great mysteries of our faith – how God became human in the person of Jesus, how Jesus could be both God and human. It’s not that he’s 50% human and 50% divine, it’s not that sometimes he acts out of his humanity and other times out of his divinity – Jesus is fully human and fully divine all the time. This is one of the central tenets of our Christian faith.
The Catholic campus ministry at Wake Forest has t-shirts saying “Catholics: Keeping it Real Since 33 AD.” Holding the full divinity and the full of humanity of Jesus is the basis of keeping it real, something we’ve done since the very beginning – or at least, since 33 AD.
As Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane, never before has he been more human, and never before has he been more divine. He tells Peter, James, and John to watch and pray because he is, “distressed, agitated, and grieved.” These are very human emotions! Jesus went a little further, threw himself down on the ground and began to pray. You need to understand how significant this is. The usual posture for prayer in that day was to stand with your feet apart, look up, and stretch out your hands, either to the side or upward, as you prayed. The posture we assume for prayer – heads bowed, eyes closed, hands folded (the fetal prayer curl) – developed a few hundred years later.
But here, Jesus’ cup is empty. He knows what is ahead, and here his humanity comes shining through. He is wracked with grief, he can see his whole mission in splinters as he will be nailed to the cross. If he dies, most people would not see him as the Messiah. They would not understand that God wanted them to invite everyone to God’s banquet, to offer reconciliation of relationship to everyone, to leave the comfort zone of life with the 99 in order to risk sharing God’s love with the one outside the fold. People might continue with the presumption of judgment so cherished by the Pharisees, instead of cling to the presumption of grace Jesus preached over and over. It might all be lost, and the suffering ahead of Jesus is certainly nothing he wants to experience.
Some Christians have been uncomfortable with how raw, vulnerable, and exposed Jesus seems in this prayer. Personally, I take great comfort in seeing Jesus make this prayer in the garden. Because, he knows what it is to go through difficulty. He is no stranger to suffering. He knows sorrow, and grief, and fear, and pain. Whenever I face some trial or difficulty, my trust and my faith is in Jesus who prayed, “Take this cup from me.” When I am at the end of my rope, when I feel anguished and grieved, Jesus knows what that feels like. He’s been there.
Whenever we face any of life’s difficulties, it is better to go through it with someone else who has been there. When my mom was battling cancer, one of the people who helped her walk through that was Karen, a friend going through the same thing – the same non-textbook reactions to medications and treatments, the same ambiguity, the same fatal prognosis. Karen joined the Church Triumphant in November, and when I called her husband, Bill, he said: “I can’t imagine your Mom or my Karen walking through this without the other. I can only imagine that when Karen arrived in heaven, your dear sweet Julie was among those who greeted her at the door.”
We need others who can walk through the difficult places with us. We need those who can shine the sunshine of God’s presence into the dark places in our lives. We all need that. It is pure foolishness to think that any of us are so strong or so independent that we don’t need that support. We can get it from others who have been there. And most certainly, we get that support from Jesus, because he knows what it’s like. He’s been there.
Aiming our Prayers (and our Lives)
In this prayer offered by Jesus, there are lessons for our own prayers. Too often, we come to God with our shopping list and ask God to check off the items on it – “God, I want this,” “God, give me that,” “God, make this happen,” “God, keep that from happening.” How many times have you been facing some trial or hardship and said, “Lord, take it away because I can’t bear the thought of going through that.”
We can earnestly desire all sorts of things we don’t need, and we can pray for God to make them happen. But, I think Garth Brooks was right. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. I remember praying fervently for this one or that one to fall in love with me, and it just broke my little teenage heart when that didn’t happen. Anyone else ever do that, or was I the only one? But then, a few years later, you run into some of these old flames, and they have changed over the years, and you think, “Wow, thanks, God. Really glad that one didn’t work out!”
Rather than asking God to conform to our desires, I wonder if it wouldn’t be a better idea for us to conform our hearts to the desires of God’s heart. The goal of the Christian life is transformation – more and more into God’s image. We need to embrace change as part of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus constantly asks us to change, to grow more like him, to restore more and more of the image of God marked indelibly on our souls – the God in whose image every man, woman, and child was made.
There’s a facebook group – “Life is better when you have God in it!” I don’t want to belittle anyone’s honest attempts at faith, but that statement is just completely theologically wrong. We don’t invite God into our life – God has invited us to life with God long before we ever reached toward God. That’s part of our identity as Methodists – we celebrate the grace of God that reaches out toward us before we ever have our first thought about God! To say that life is better when you have God in it makes it sound like God is simply one among many ingredients that can be placed in the recipe of your life, or that God is one the parts of a well-balanced breakfast. The language of inviting God into our life or inviting Jesus into our heart suggests that we are still largely in control of things. We may play the gracious host, but it’s our party, our life, our heart, thank you very much, and God is a guest there. Rather than saying “Life is better when you have God in it,” we would be better-served to say, “Life is better when it’s in God.”
“Not my will, but yours”
Placing our life into the center of God’s life brings us back to the prayer Jesus offered in the Garden of Gethsemane. Because, after he asked for the hour to pass from him, after he asked for the cup to be removed from him, he added one very important phrase: “Yet, not my will, but yours be done.” Each of us knows what it is like to sense that God wants us to do something we do not want to do, but praying this prayer with Jesus calls us to search deep within and place our complete and total trust in God.
That sentiment is the root of a prayer from our own Methodist heritage – the Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition. I’ll leave copies of it out on the table in the narthex for everyone. The prayer begins with these words: “I am no longer my own, but thine.” I wish I could say I pray this prayer every day, but there are days I forget. But I will tell you, when I do pray this prayer, it is a powerful reminder of who my life belongs to. I encourage you to pray that prayer daily from now until Easter, and see if it doesn’t transform your heart, your attitude, your desires, and your passions. In fact, you’ll probably want to continue praying it well beyond Easter. You can’t pray that every day and NOT find your heart turned toward God. Even Jesus prayed twice more, using the same words. Even Jesus has to continue to submit his human desires to God’s divine will.
Betrayed with a kiss
Jesus struggled with that for several hours, praying through the night, telling the disciples to watch and pray, coming back and finding them asleep. The final part of the episode occurred somewhere between 1am and 3am. Judas, one of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, arrived in the Garden, leading those sent by the religious authorities to arrest Jesus.
Judas is such a tragic figure; even now, 2000 years later, the name “Judas” is synonymous with “traitor.” Further, each of us has been a Judas, both to Jesus and to others. The sign he chose by which he would betray Jesus was a kiss. The Greek word for kiss is philein, a word used to describe true affection for another. Judas loved Jesus, but he still betrayed him. The very kiss itself may be a sign of the conflict that raged within him – of a love for Jesus and yet a desire to be rid of him, a love for God’s kingdom and the desire for the riches of the kingdoms of this world. One thing I want you to remember about the betrayal of Jesus: it was an inside job. Very seldom is the ministry of Christ – whether in that day or in ours – torn apart by outsiders. We are more a threat to our future, we are more a threat to ourselves, than any factor outside. Judas was an insider.
When Leonardo daVinci was working on “The Last Supper,” he needed 13 men to pose for the figures in the painting. The legend is told that while sitting in mass one day, he looked in the choir and there saw a young man whose face beamed with love, compassion, and kindness, and this young man to sat for the face of Jesus. Ten years later, still finding models for the disciples, he saw a man in the prison whose face wore all the qualities of Judas for which he had been searching. A few days into their work, the man began to weep. He said, “Maestro, don’t you remember me? I sat in this studio ten years ago, and then, I sat for Christ.”
The real difference between Jesus and Judas lay in what they both prayed on that night. Judas said, “God, not your will, but MINE be done.” “Time for action.” “We’re doing it my way.” Judas refused to surrender and submit his self-interest to God’s, but charged blindly ahead with HIS plan, which turned out to be a great act of cowardice.
Jesus also put his own interests out there – “let this hour pass from me, take this cup from me.” Three times, he begged God to take it all away. But then, he submitted his own human life to God’s divine will. He said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” He surrendered, he submitted, which turned out to be a great act of courage.
We can be like Judas, and pray as the world has taught us: “Not your will, but MINE be done.” Or, we can be like Jesus, who taught us to pray, “Not my will, but YOURS be done.” Say it with me – “Not my will, but YOURS be done.”