Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 26:36-56) transports me to the thick olive grove of dark Gethsemane, the garden of a savior’s sorrowful soul, sprouting troubled prayers for the cup of sacrifice to be taken away. It is a garden where friends find it hard to stay awake, looking for some sweet dreams of sleep to come and free them from the nightmare of Jesus’ looming arrest and torture. I can relate to these friends of Jesus. I have always loved sleeping (although in recent years it has sometimes been an elusive love). When I was a kid, my dad would often tell me that I was going to sleep my life away. Later, there were times when I did seek to sleep my life away as an escape from some pain or grief, from the depression of days when hope, unborn, had died.
Sleeping through Jesus’ sorrow was but the beginning of the disciples abandoning Jesus’ ship of sacrifice. When the time came for arrest, Peter proved that he had in some respects been sleepwalking throughout their entire journey, completely missing the meaning of Jesus’ life and impending death. When his idea of the gospel way was threatened, he drew his sword and turned back to the old familiar pattern he had not yet abandoned: payback, cutting off the ear of the arresting officer. Jesus once again tried to awaken his disciples, to liberate them from their mental slavery to violence, and draw them into the core value of his ministry: nonviolent love. He even displayed it at the time of arrest, calling his betrayer friend. It is easy now to be critical of the disciples, with our hindsight perspective. But as I examine my own life, I see how often I fall to sleep during Jesus’ prayer, hearing it but not hearing it.
I can think of times when my idea of gospel living has been threatened: in church fights involving issues of racism and sexism, in political fights involving issues of labor and the environment, in higher ed administration fights involving abuses of power. I think of how easy it is, how natural it is, to call up the spirit of Peter in the garden, to interpret these threats as a call to arms, to draw my rhetorical sword and lop off the ears of those I have deemed enemy. Calling them friend is not my first reaction. Taking the kinds of initiatives that would create friendships is not on the front burner. My supposed faith in transforming love has sometimes slept through months of battle, and months more of replaying events to try and see where my strategy went wrong, why I lost the fight. Then, usually after some serious prayer time, I realize how I framed the whole thing wrong; I failed to live out the very principles of loving enemies that I thought I trusted in. It is far easier to sleepwalk like the disciples than to stay awake like Jesus in times of despair and threat. It is far easier to draw Peter’s sword than the sword of the Spirit when the way of love is under arrest, when the Body of Christ seems to be in a state of arrested development. The hip hop group Arrested Development indicts the contemporary church for its Peter-like qualities: The reason I’m fishin’ 4 a new religion is my church makes me fall asleep. And in a cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, the group encourages us to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery. Sounds like a wake-up call to me.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.