“Sit here while I go over there and pray,” Jesus tells nine of his disciples as they enter the garden of Gethsemane following the Passover meal.
I have to admit that the wording here strikes me as odd. It is like Jesus sent these disciples to “children’s church,” and then took Peter, James, and John into “big church” with him. All he asked of the nine was that they sit there, nothing more.
Of course, we know that Judas did not do as he was told. He left to find the chief priests. We assume, though, that everyone else listened…and sat there.
From how the rest of the evening goes, Peter, James, and John may as well have stayed there with the other nine. Jesus asks them to stay awake with him while he prays. They simply cannot do it. He doesn’t even ask them to pray with him. He asks them over and over to stay awake. And they keep falling asleep. It’s like watching Dorothy wandering through a field of poppies on the way to Oz.
There is a popular theology that God never asks of us that which we cannot do, but I’m not so sure that is true. Contrary to what Yoda might say, maybe there is something to be said for the “trying,” for the process, for just making the attempt, for feeling God’s presence with us in the struggle.
Unfortunately, we don’t get any insight into what the disciples were experiencing here. Jesus, however, is clearly agitated, grieved, but the disciples don’t seem to sense anything amiss. At least Matthew doesn’t give us any clues into what is going on behind the scenes with Peter, James, and John.
Jesus prays several times for the “cup to pass” if that is at all possible. It sounds like he wants a way out of what he knows is his future. But he doesn’t get it. While the disciples sleep, the focus here is entirely on Jesus and on his conversations with the Father. Or is it? Maybe the focus is really on human frailty. And on Jesus’s experience of it.
This passage makes me wonder about the nature and being of God. Did Jesus, as fully divine, experience through his fully human nature something that God had not experienced before? It is a HUGE question. Did God fundamentally change because of the incarnation?
The disciples are human. They can’t stay awake. They are weak. Jesus is human, too. Weak, vulnerable, maybe even afraid. Jesus is God. Therefore, God experiences weakness, vulnerability, and fear from a human perspective. It’s a lot to take in.
We sing all those beautiful hymns about God who is immutable, unchangeable. But is God really static? Some people are comforted by the notion of a God that never changes, a God that is predictable. I think C.S. Lewis might have referred to this as wanting God to be a “tame lion.” But I think one big revelation of the gospel is that God chose to change. God chose to change for us, for humanity. To me, that is even more powerful than the idea of an unchanging stone pillar of a God. It gives me hope.