Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed;
“My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
The garden of Gethsemane is a “pre-scene” to the Easter story, and yet it is the foundation to the story that leads to the salvation message of the gospels, and the point around which all the gospel narratives pivot. It is one of the places where we really get to see the tension between Jesus’ lived experience as one who was fully human and fully God. Jesus, at around 33, had already lived a life that was so counter-cultural, so challenging to the status quo and the powers that be, so exemplary of the Kingdom of God and critical of the earthly kingdom he lived in, that by the time he is in Gethsemane, it is the point of no return.
Before we read of Jesus’ heartbreak in the garden, we read in Matthew 21 that Jesus enters the city being praised by the crowds who followed him. The people of the city asked ‘Who is this?” The crowd, that had grown in number during his extraordinary three year “ministry trip” between Jerusalem and the most forgotten and hard-pressed parts of the occupied nation, follow him into Jerusalem calling him the Son of David, the prophet, the Nazarene. The rulers of the law, religious authorities and, it seems, all who had a vested interest in the power inequalities of the status quo, are indignant. Ultimately, they call him a traitor, a blasphemer, and a rabble rouser. They demand his execution.
As I reach this moment in the gospel narratives, I imagine that Jesus found himself with very few options, even as he asks his father whether it is possible to avoid what is ahead. In order to be spared, surely he would have to avoid arrest. Perhaps this could have been done by going into hiding? Or through launching a campaign using force and self-defense? Or by stopping doing and saying the things he was called to do and say, and perhaps even publicly apologising?
As we know, he did none of these things. Yielding to God’s will at this crucial point meant that neither hiding nor resisting, neither fighting nor backing down, neither apologising for the truth he had preached, nor forcefully imposing it were the obedient options. There were other moments in his ministry where withdrawing, opposing, resisting and publicly demonstrating another way was obedience. But now, as he faces the consequences of this obedience, submitting to a very public trial and execution, he becomes the one “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians).
What did obedience look like for Jesus? To keep moving towards Jerusalem unashamed and unapologetic about the message of the Kingdom of God and what would make for peace in his time … and then to face the consequences.
What does this look like for us as followers of Jesus in South Africa as we reflect this weekend on the Easter story? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor who opposed the Nazi regime, wrote in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” When we consider Gethsemane and Jesus’ obedience described by Matthew and Paul, we have to ask ourselves what it looks like to “come and die”? We have to ask ourselves what obedience looks like.
Even though vastly different in many ways, the world we find ourselves in now has many similarities to the one in which Jesus and his followers found themselves. We grapple with what it means to know what would make for peace in our times. Opinions and responses vary. We are tempted on a daily basis to go on the offensive using force. We are also tempted to hide, to keep from putting our heads above the parapet, to withdraw and avoid upsetting the status quo. We are tempted to avoid the consequences of being peace-makers and justice bringers, perhaps to choose a quiet life even though the cost of our silence is deathly for many in our society and generation. It seems to me that too often we choose the wrong kind of death. The death that brings division, hatred, exploitation, corruption and greed.
This Easter, let us ask Jesus what it looks like to be walking in the way of his obedience, sacrifice, suffering and death … the one that leads to LIFE and life in abundance for all.
By Caroline Powell