How the Disciples in Gethsemane Inform My Faith
(Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 40-46)
The wheel of the Christian year has turned again to Good Friday with its betrayal, trial, death and burial. My family and church did not mark Good Friday when I was a child. Or, at least, I did not notice it. I came to appreciate observance of Good Friday when I was in seminary. Perhaps it requires a more mature heart. Its lessons are certainly not easy or simple.
Last year, I pondered upon our sinfulness at Good Friday. The day invites us to that humble prayer of confession. However, this year another aspect of Jesus’ ordeal leading to ignominious death fills my mind. It comes at the start of this day in Gethsemane, a garden about a mile from Jerusalem.
After the Passover meal where the traditions for Holy Communion are laid down, Jesus goes to Gethsemane with the disciples. He asks Peter, James and John to accompany Him in prayer. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell of Jesus’ anguished plea that God would spare Him the troubles He knows will surely come this day. In the end, He asks only that God’s Will be done.
Then Jesus, rising from prayer, finds the disciples sleeping. Matthew and Mark report that Jesus approached them three times in the midst of His prayer and each time they were sleeping for “their eyes were very heavy.” Luke attributes this to sorrow and leaves it at that. And Jesus asks pointedly of Peter – and to every one of us from His time to this very Good Friday, 2011 – “So you could not watch with me one hour?”
I recognize this drowsiness in prayer; perhaps you do, as well. For me, it is somewhat akin to Peter’s denial of Jesus a little later in the courtyard of the high priest and a retreat from Jesus which He explains in Matthew as a “temptation; the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” Whether of spirit or flesh, these heavy eyes have penetrated my morning prayers this Lent in a way I have not experienced in many years.
I have come to understand this relentless sleepiness invading my prayers to be a warning that fear is threatening to engulf me as I can well imagine was true for the disciples in Gethsemane. And I expect that their fears were not far from mine—fears of failure, violence, defeat, ignominy, even, at my age, death. Are these familiar to you as well?
Each time I am on this edge of sleep I will myself to return from it so that I can pray with Jesus. I try to embrace this moment as an opportunity to recommit to seeing Jesus in every suffering person I meet and to accompany that person on his or her road to Calvary, regardless of the consequences for me.
I am grateful for the way Good Friday comes around each year to remind me of my Peter-like weakness. It shakes me awake so that I can do better than Peter did that day and it rekindles my energy and focus to work for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. This is how the disciples in Gethsemane inform my faith.