The story of Jesus praying in the Garden is probably familiar to most of us. The children of MP2 love this part of the Walk to the Cross each year (and, by the way, you can join them this year, on April 4). They go to the Memorial Garden, and their leader (usually Nancy Rozak) takes the part of Jesus, asking them to stay awake while Jesus prays. Jesus goes farther away, behind the memorial garden wall. And the children, led by one of the youth leaders, love to pretend to fall asleep like the disciples did. Nancy/Jesus returns and chides them for falling asleep. She/Jesus asks them to stay awake and again goes away. The children lie down and enjoy making little snoring noises. Nancy/Jesus comes back again to find them "asleep," and again chides them, and goes away. Of course they fall asleep again, giggling and enjoying the play. But they also get the meaning of the story on their own level. When Nancy returns the third time, she comes out of character and tells them that next Jesus was betrayed by Judas, arrested by soldiers, and taken to Pilate. The children are next led to meet Pilate. (And I won’t give more away. You will just need to come on April 4 to experience it yourself.)
The story of Jesus praying in the Garden occurs in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John does not mention the garden, but devotes Chapter 17 to a prayer of 26 verses, with Jesus praying for the disciples. Mark, often the most terse of the gospels, is not the shortest in this instance. Luke presents the shortest version of the Garden experience, eight verses that include the image, not in the others, of Jesus’ sweat coming "like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44). Matthew’s version is very similar to Mark’s. But one of the main differences in Mark’s version is the emphasis Mark puts on Jesus’ human and divine struggle with the events to follow – the trial, the crucifixion. and the death. If you come on Wednesday night, maybe one of the paintings you will see will be one I remember from childhood. It shows Jesus kneeling in the dark garden, his hands stretched out on a table-size rock. He is looking up at a light breaking through the darkness in the sky. His face is serene, even regal. Yet, in Mark, we see Jesus, for the first time in his ministry, so "distressed and agitated" (14:33) that "he threw himself on the ground" to pray (14:35). We Presbyterians hardly even kneel to pray. Jesus threw himself down. To throw one’s self upon the ground to pray is a very emotional and also humble position.
In the other two gospels, as he prayed, Jesus then said, simply, "Father God, if it is possible, take this cup from me; but if it is not possible, Your will be done." But in Mark, Jesus spoke intimately to God, "Abba, Father, everything is possible for you." Then Jesus pled with God, "Take this cup from me." But finally he relented, "Yet, not what I want, but what You want." The human and divine Jesus almost seem to struggle with one another. Of course the divine wins, as the God in Jesus knows what must happen in order to save humanity. Yet the very human part of Jesus seeks to deny the cruelty and the finality of what must come next.
Jesus returned to find the disciples had fallen asleep. Perhaps they were weary because it was late. Maybe they had a bit too much wine at dinner. Or maybe they too wanted to deny the seriousness in Jesus’ words and manner. Jesus called Peter, the Rock, by the name he had before joining Jesus’ little band of disciples. He called him Simon. Maybe Jesus saw Peter reverting to his former life, not remembering all that Jesus had taught him or all that he had experienced along the journey with Jesus and the other disciples. Jesus said, "Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial." In the only Synoptic Gospel not to include the Lord’s Prayers, these words remind us of those words we say every Sunday, "Lead us not into temptation," or, as the ecumenical version says, "Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil." Then come Jesus’ words that are often quoted but probably not recognized as coming from this time of trial. He said, "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." And we have probably always assumed that he referred to the weaknesses of the disciples, who could not even stay awake to pray with and for Jesus. But perhaps he was also speaking of himself, as he we saw him on the ground wrestling with the human denial and the godly knowledge within himself. The very human Jesus in Mark comes somehow closer to the humanity within us. Jesus went away a third time, and returned to find the same results, and to say the same words. Three times, we were told in the verses before this, would Peter deny Jesus. Three times Jesus went away to pray. Three times the disciples failed to stay awake. Three is, of course, a holy number, the number of the Trinity. Maybe Mark is telling us that, as hard as these events seem to us – a distressed Jesus, a denying Peter, sleeping disciples – maybe these are a part of the holy plan, ordained by the wisdom of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with a wisdom greater far greater than ours.
I have admitted in the pulpit before that I am a Trekker, the preferred name of a fan of the STAR TREK series of TV shows and movies. I could not help but think, as I read and read today’s Scripture about Jesus agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane over the events to come in his life, of scenes from the movie, "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan." Early in the movie, when Captain Kirk accepted a promotion to Admiral, his First Officer, the Vulcan Spock, said to him, "If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept the promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, your best destiny; anything else is a waste of material." Kirk stated, "I would not presume to debate you." Spock replied, "That is wise. Were I to provoke logic, however, logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." "Or the one," added Kirk.
Later in the movie, the spaceship was in grave danger, and its warp drive had been shut down. If the ship could not move, an impending explosion would destroy the ship and all 500 people in it. Spock made an almost impulsive move to beat others to enter the radiation chamber of the ship in order to repair it. He succeeded, and the ship was able to race away in time, but Spock had been fatally poisoned by the intense radiation. Kirk talked to him through the glass surrounding the warp chamber. "Spock!" he cried emotionally. "The ship," struggles Spock, "out of danger?" "Yes." "Don’t grieve, Admiral. The needs of the many outweigh…" He faltered, and Kirk finished for him, "the needs of the few." "Or the one," Spock added this time.
What human would not struggle with having to give up his or her life for another? We cling to this life because we know no other, because there are so many people and things and events we love in this life. Even Jesus wrestled with denying giving up this life, this cup (perhaps Mark’s reference back to the Last Supper which established our communion). Many give blood or plasma for others, some have given a kidney or bone marrow to help a family member or friend. We wrestle with many decisions, hopefully with prayer and silence to guide us. But we are not usually asked to give up our life for others as Jesus was. Of course Jesus agonized over this. But of course he chose God’s wisdom, perhaps God’s logic, the divine love for and needs of the many outweighing the human needs of the one – "The hour has come," Jesus said, "Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand." (Or in other words-) "Let is all happen, as it must, in order to save everyone else. The garden of denial ends with the greatest example of love anyone could ever have – "What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the heavy cross for my soul, for my soul, to bear the heavy cross for my soul." May we bear the love of Christ to a needy world in our lives.
Glory be to God. Amen.