The Garden of Gethsemane has always been one of my favorite passages of Scripture. The most vivid description of it is found in the Gospel of Mark.
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 will 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.
Mark 14:32-52 (New Revised Standard Version)
It is interesting to me that in later Gospels, this story gets truncated. In Luke, which most scholars agree was written after Mark, Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane was much briefer, and the sorrow and agony he experienced was not as graphic. The Gospel of John, which most scholars agree was the last of the four Biblical gospels, does not include the agony in Gethsemane at all.
I think this reflects an emotional response that is still common to people when they first read about Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. Here we have Jesus tormented and upset. We have him begging his Father to let him pass from the cross. It makes us uneasy. It seems strange to think of Jesus having fears and doubts. It makes us wonder how close he was to turning. What would have happened if Jesus decided, “Not your will, but mine,” and left. What if there had been no cross for Jesus? In this moment of Jesus in Gethsemane, we can imagine it for a moment. We wonder, with bated breath, what he will do. This is unsettling.
Yet at the same time, this story of Jesus in Gethsemane may be the most important passage in all of the gospels. It is here that Jesus is most human. It is here that Jesus is most vulnerable. And it is here that Jesus is most courageous. What makes this passage so powerful is the idea that it could have gone either way. We have the luxury of reading the gospels knowing the end of the story. We know his decision. We know how the story ends, but if we allow ourselves to enter the drama of the moment, we can see Jesus making the decision to go forward.
Jesus spent his ministry teaching about love. Through word and deed Jesus showed us how to love God and to love one another. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He invited the women and the children and the tax collectors and the sinners to come to his table. He broke bread with the least and the lost and shared the cup of redemption with them all. He crossed boundaries of race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and class. He challenged religious authority, and he scoffed at the pomposity and self-absorbed granduer. He called out the hypocrites. He admonished the scribes and the pharisees for their hardened hearts. He brought a simple message: Love God, and love one another.
And for all of that – for the criticism and the invitiation and the healing and the challenge he represented to the comfortable and powerful – he knew he was going to the cross. He knew if he stood up for all that he lived for, for all that he believed, for all that he held dear, he would be killed. He knew that if he followed God’s will it would lead to a cross. Not because God needed him to die, but because men could not allow him to live. We would not allow him to live.
So he sat there in Gethsemane and he prayed. He prayed for another way out. He prayed in anguish. He prayed as a man who could feel pain, who would be hurt by betrayal, who would be scarred by the scourge, and would bleed when nails were driven into his arms and legs. He prayed as a man who knew that if he would follow God’s will, he would be charged, convicted, mocked, humiliated, abandoned, and nailed to a cross. Knowing all of this full well he prayed, “Not my will, but yours.” Then he rose and stood up for all that he had lived for.
Stengthened by his prayer and with the power of the Holy Spirit he stood, and he went to the cross. He did not go as a lamb to the slaughter, for a lamb knows not where it is going. He went as a man who had decided to follow God. He went as a man that would endure a punishment he did not deserve. He went as a man that would heal and forgive and love even to the very end.
Gethsemane reminds us that Jesus chose his fate, but more importantly, it reminds us that we choose our own as well. When we see Jesus in agony in the garden, we know that we will face our own Gethsemane, but we will never do so alone. Every day we have the choice.
We can follow the way of the world – we can be selfish, we can look out for number one, we can work hard to get what we deserve, we can acquire more stuff, we can ignore the outcast, we can condemn the poor, we can tread on the orphan and the widow, we can judge the sinner, and we can build our nice comfy walls which no one will breach accept those we deem worthy.
Or we can follow Jesus. We can pray to God, “Not my will, but yours,” and mean it. We can fail from time to time, but we can know that we are always struggling, like Jesus in the Garden, to do God’s will. And we can do it knowing that as we struggle, as we are mocked, as we are belittled, as we fail, as we triumph, as we suffer and as we celebrate, Jesus is with us.