In many ways I find Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane as painful as any event around Jesus’ death. The mock trial is frustrating, with the sinking feeling with which we watch rigged trials today. The death is horrible. Any death viewed is horrible. That is why terrorists broadcast beheading or stoning. They want us twisting in fear. But there is a special aching sadness about the prayer in the garden. Are we back at that other Garden, Eden, where we were without sin? In a sense we are. And Jesus is wrestling anew with the impossible pain, and love, and obedience to his Father, his Abba, as he is called in Mark (14:36). Because that obedience may be righteous, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t without suffering. Sometimes it is the knowledge that the suffering is coming is as bad or worse than experiencing it. Once you are in it, courage and the Spirit will uphold you, but the waiting, that can be the worst.
As so we have the New Adam, who is again in the Garden and tempted with power and knowledge. And choses obedience and humility, God in the vulnerable body of a man. He did not go alone. He took three disciples with him, Peter, John, and James. His rock. And the two sons of thunder, as he called them. Closest to him. Loyal, insofar as their human sin allowed. And they slept, although their Master was close and praying until he was sweating blood. Luke 22:45 gives them a pass. They slept for sorrow. They curled up in their denial and shut down. It was too terrible. It was so pointless. Their Lord could have run away, but he refused. And they can’t wrap their minds, no, not their minds, but their hearts around this terrible inevitability. But here we are being taught something different. Something harder. Something we needed to hear. In Matthew they are chided three times as Jesus returns again to prayer. Can they, or we, not watch for an hour? The spirit is willing, but the flesh of the body is weak. Their eyes are heavy and again they fail to watch, to witness, to support their Teacher with prayer and caring. Until Jesus, having accepted his Father’s will, rouses them to face the reality. The words in Mark 14:32-42 are much the same.
We are reminded many times in the Gospels and in the Apostolic Letters to keep watch. Partly it is the sign of the times in which these words were set down. The End Time was expected. The Master was coming back and how will he find us? Times of a new faith in competition with an old one, and the powerful ones approved of by the Imperium. The Imperium is not the Kingdom of God, but of Caesar and the Senate and of the world. We are never off the hook. Or the Cross. We are God’s in Christ. Pray without ceasing. Give all for the glory of God. And that is a hard call. And the men who walked with Jesus couldn’t make it for one hour. It is this intrinsic humanity which makes us both beloved of God and in need of Jesus’ forgiveness. Adam and Eve hardly needed a snake. Sooner or later, one or the other would have gone picking fruit for dinner and forgotten that the luscious fruit of this tree had been forbidden. And what difference would one or two pieces from a tree bursting with abundance make? We are willful, forgetful, distracted. We are human. We fall asleep. And sometimes watching the death of someone we love is all we are offered to hold that terrible love and faith together. And stay awake. And that means accepting the hard, sometimes horrible reality of life on earth. We are called to look up, when down is all we can see.
And today death is all around us. Mostly COVID, but not all. Today I am praying for the immortal soul of a great friend and truly holy man who died suddenly after what appeared to be a successful surgery. And for another, a man of ethics and courage whom I have known for almost half a century who is alive, but barely responsive after a sudden massive stroke And only God knows, and God wills, if he will be alive with us or alive in eternity by the time this is in print. We are watching. And praying. Because there is nothing else that we can do, as those three Apostles could do nothing for Jesus in the Garden. Jesus enacted the first sin in Eden, the one which robbed us of innocence and immortality, but now in redemption and reparation. And his companions lived out the first sin by their inability to stand and not stumble for the weakness of the flesh, for looking away. Because we are human. Jesus closed the circle of the first sin in Salvation history on the Cross, but it started in the Garden.
Paul says it, as he often does, in his letter to the Church in Rome (Rom 13:8-14). We owe nothing. We aren’t called to owe, to pay the price. We are only called to love. And he spells it out. Yes, don’t kill anybody. Don’t commit adultery. It isn’t the sex that is so bad. It is the hurt. Don’t steal or covet. Whatever it is, either you don’t need it or there is an ethical way to get what you do need – if the community is awake and willing to serve God’s people. Those “shalt not” commandments are of the world. The Commandment of God in Christ is to love one another. That will take care of the rest. Hold this part of Rom 13:11 against the sleeping Apostles in the Garden. “[Y]ou know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Time to embrace the light, the Light of Christ. To put on the armor of light. To put on endurance in faith.
2020 is only half over. COVID cases are on the rise. People are edgy. Many are out of work. The schools and churches aren’t safe. And the great sin of systemic racism has hardly been touched. We have a lot that can put us to sleep out of fear and exhaustion. Or drive us to self-willed quick fixes. The only fix that will work is through Jesus in the Garden, submitting to his Father to bring the possibility of the Kingdom of God here on earth. And for that we have to stay awake, pray, and listen to the voice of God in our hearts. Or as Paul says in verse 14, “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” And we are a very “provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” kind of world. Materialistic. Competitive. The flesh is weak. Is the spirit strong in faith? A strength that is not the strength of kings and tyrants, but of the little ones whom Jesus cherishes.
My spiritual director keeps saying to me (and will until I get it) “As Paul says, ‘your grace is enough for me’ (2 Cor 12:9-10).” Paul went on to add, “for my power is made perfect in weakness. So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me.” We are a people who say we will keep watch and then fall asleep on that watch. And that is all right. We are human, but redeemed. And with prayer, and learning to trust in God, we will learn to stay awake. As my director often enjoins, “Keep the Light of Christ burning for a world in need.”
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, CA. She earned her master’s degree in systematic theology from the Jesuit School of Theology/GTU and PhD in church history and spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. She lives with her cats, books, and garden.