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.


Reverend Janet

4 Responses
  • pennyjane hanson on April 22, 2011

    on this good friday, as with them all, my focus is more on Jesus, the man. i’ve heard it said and it resonates with me, that there at gethsemane He was at His most human. i get the impression that He was pleading with His Father for permission to save Himself. i can only relate to this as seen through the time in the wilderness when we are told that satan “tempted” Jesus, it doesn’t say “tried” to temp Him, is says that He was tempted. you never get the impression, from scripture, that this temptation was very much….Jesus counters so boldly and with such self-assurance at every effort until the very end when He finally just says, “get out of My way, little man, I’ve a world to save.”

    the difference between these two human moments…one of temptation and the other of dispair is stiking.

    i have nothing but sympathy for the disciples….they had to have been both spiritually and physically exhausted, conditions sure to induce melancholy…and thus overwhelming sleepiness. i don’t think it should, as we sometimes might think, be confused with indifference. we know that sleep is our great defense against depression and i guess i kind of see melancholy as fetal depression. perhaps they were beginning to “get it”, that they were catching a glimpse of the cup the Master must now drink from…and if it had such an affect on Him…how must these all mortal beings have suffered.

    i sometimes, even after 2,000 years of retrospect, want to pray for Jesus’ suffering at that time…i find myself wishing that there was another way; that our precious and beloved Savior might yet be given another cup.

    in the end, though, we know that His last prayer was, “Your will be done.” and, in this last real temptation, He did not save Himself, but chose to save us instead. God, the Father, assured Him that the outcome was not in doubt.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Janet Edwards on April 22, 2011

    Dear pj,

    Your comments always expand my horizons–thank you for them!!

    I, too, am struck by your connection between the temptation of Christ at the start of His ministry and this moment in Gethsemane. The sense of power at the beginning, of possibility, is a great contrast to the anguish and resignation today as ministry gives way to the ultimate self-sacrifice. This trajectory seems to me so very human.

    Perhaps this explains why Jesus, beyond His provocative question, does not pester the disciples about their failure to join Him in prayer. He thoroughly understands. He simply calls them to the work to be done.

    Just take up the work to be done–that is what I try to do. And my impression is that this is what you do as well, pj.

    The peace of Christ be with you this day, Janet

  • pennyjane hanson on April 22, 2011

    see to the work at hand!!! that sounds like the perfect presbyterian love cry.

    i got a thank you note just recently from the chair of our worship committee she was commending me for accepting an offer to fill in as a last minute liturgist on the day after christmas. i wondered why a thank you note was in order for doing something i was thrilled to have been asked to do.

    but…that’s the kind of behavior modeled in our church. “see to the work at hand!” i viewed this as an opportunity because that’s the way i’ve been taught by the older members of our congregation. i started to respond to her note with a list of those elders and leaders who make this kind of thing a way of life….but the list was too long. that’s just the way it works around here…where there is something to be done, no matter what it is…it’s more about who’s handy than who might be best suited. God will equip whoever is called with the skills needed.

    i think of patrick, who is with us no more. he was a large man with a very dignified beard, very stiking…and a booming, most authoratative voice…one that commands one listen. you were just as likely to see patrick taking out the trash after bible study as moderating session. he was smart enough to be president and humble enough to push a broom…and it really didn’t matter to him one way or the other. he just took up the work to be done.

    thank you, janet…for making me think of this wonderful man, and for raising the call, “take up the work at hand.”

    much love and hope. pj

  • Donna on June 10, 2011

    I think the disciples represent the fact that God calls the willing, not the perfect.


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