Gethsemane: Faith at the Breaking Point

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus’ Passion and Death (Matthew 26:14-27:66)

Gospel Quote

(Jesus) “threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” (Matthew 26:39)

Gospel Reflection

The conflict between Jesus and the authorities reaches the boiling point in Jerusalem during the feast of Passover. Powerful forces collide: good and evil, love and betrayal, suffering and death. In Gethsemane, fear drives faith to the breaking point. In that moment of truth Jesus surrenders to the will of the Father, Judas betrays him with a kiss, the disciples flee in fear, and Peter – for all his talk – repeatedly denies him.

Jesus enters Gethsemane painfully aware of how alone he is. In the garden he confronts his fear of suffering and death. The cost of surrendering to the Father’s will is clear, and he chooses to pay the price. Because his trust in God is stronger than his fear of death, Jesus chooses to stay faithful to God and true to his mission even when the price of fidelity is suffering and death.

In Gethsemane, fear also pushes the disciples’ faith to the breaking point. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. In contrast to Jesus, their fear proves stronger than their faith. They abandon Jesus and flee to save their skins. Even Peter – the one so sure of his courage – repeatedly denies Jesus, swearing an oath that he doesn’t know him.

As our Lenten journey continues, we come face-to-face with the Gethsemanes in our own lives, those times when fear pushes faith to the breaking point.

Steven Spielberg’s epic movie Saving Private Ryan is based on the true story of U.S. Army rangers behind enemy lines in World War II. Their mission is to find a soldier whose three brothers have all been killed in action and return him home safely. They display amazing courage and resourcefulness in carrying out their mission. By contrast, in a crucial battle, we see the agonizing struggle of Corporal Upham – a young soldier completely immobilized by fear. His spirit is willing, but his flesh is weak. Like the disciples in Gethsemane, he hides from the action in order to save his skin. His failure to deliver ammunition to those under fire results in the death of two other soldiers.

Several years ago, I signed up for what I thought would be a nice weekend of personal growth. Unexpectedly, it landed me in Gethsemane face-to-face with my fear. Like the soldier Spielberg portrays, I found myself paralyzed. Ironically, it wasn’t in the heat of battle, it was in the process of trying to build community.

A group of approximately 25 people – almost all of us strangers to one another – gathered at a retreat house in Northern Michigan with the shared intention of building community. I was hoping the two-day “adventure” would give me an experience of community and teach me something about how to build it.

The weekend began simply enough; each of us talked about why we came and what we hoped to gain from the experience. But, as you’d expect, the road from 25 strangers to being a community had a few potholes in it. To be honest about it, for me one of those potholes was the approximate size of the Grand Canyon. As we attempted to become a community, our various expectations began to collide. This resulted in the 25 of us experiencing what the facilitators referred to as “chaos.” I’d say that was a pretty good description – both of what was going on in the group and what was happening in my stomach. Trying to move beyond chaos is what put me in Gethsemane.

I learned that one way to cope with chaos is to try to “get organized” in an attempt to manage the chaos. Unfortunately, getting organized prevents the group from becoming a community. My head did a good job of coaching me not to fall into the trap of trying to get organized. Alright, if I’m really honest, I did offer a suggestion or two, but I didn’t push too hard.

My Gethsemane dilemma had to do with the other option. The way a group of people moves beyond chaos is through emptying. It is the only path to community. I was clear enough about emptying in my head; I’m sure I could have given the book report. Unfortunately, the group I was with didn’t seem too interested in a book report. They were expressing intense feelings: hurt, anger, grief – a whole rainbow of emotions and vulnerability. I had some of those feelings, too. It’s just that I was trying to have them without anyone noticing it. I was hoping to have my chaos in private while I helped others deal with theirs.

In Gethsemane Jesus trusts God enough to empty himself. He moves beyond his fear, lets go of his own agenda, opens himself to whatever comes and surrenders to God. What I did in that weekend was let my fear get the best of me. I pretty much flunked “Emptying 101.” I flunked in the same way the disciples did – by running away. My body never left the room but I had an out-of-body experience. Mentally and emotionally, I “got out of Dodge.”

By the time the weekend concluded, many of us had experienced community. For my part, I had seen something of what it takes to build community, but my inability to act in the face of my fear kept me from being fully a part of it. Through my struggle, however, I had learned how much I needed to go to “emptying school.”

As our Lenten journey continues, the story of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane calls us to become more deeply aware of the Gethsemane moments in our own lives. Those moments invite us to empty ourselves, claim a faith more powerful than fear and trust God enough to surrender.

Questions to Ponder

  • As I reflect on the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane, what experiences in my own life come to mind?
  • When I face Gethsemane moments in my own life, how do I respond?
  • In my Gethsemane moments, am I able – like Jesus – to trust God enough to surrender? Or, like the disciples, do I run away to save my skin?

Invitation to Prayer

“Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Father, you are with me in the Gethsemane moments of my life. Give me the courage to face my fear in these moments of truth with a deep trust in you. When my instinct is to flee in fear, help me stay faithful to my identity in you and surrender to your will. When my faith reaches the breaking point, help me put my life in your hands.

“Father, if this cup cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

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