"Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It’s late. It’s been a long and confusing day for this raggedy group of disciples. They celebrated Passover, but then Jesus got all weird about it and said Judas would betray him. And then he said the wine at dinner was his blood and the bread was his body, which was also pretty weird. And after all of this—after 3 years of following him around day in and day out, he says they’re going to desert him? “No way,” they say. “Even if we die because of it, we won’t deny you. We’ve come this far; surely we wouldn’t have given up everything in our normal lives, our income, our family’s expectations, possibly our dignity, just to deny you now.”
So they follow him to a garden in the middle of the night and it’s late. They just pledged their loyalty to their Teacher, so they’re more determined than ever when he tells them to stay awake. “We can do this,” they all silently think to ourselves, even though some of them are not exactly night owls. But if Jesus asks, they are going to stay awake. He tells them he is deeply grieved, even to death and that scares them because they’ve never heard him talk like this before. He leaves to go pray by himself, which they’re used to by now. But he’s never asked them to pray for him while he did so. So why is tonight different? They fight back yawns but remind themselves, “No, we’re going to stay awake. Jesus asked us to, so we can do this.” So they pray. They pray aloud but start to run out of things to pray. “How long is Jesus going to take?” they wonder. “What are we supposed to be saying? Should we just repeat the same thing over and over again? What was that prayer he taught us?” It’s getting even later, and the yawns are rapidly increasing, so they say they’ll just “pray in our heads”…while laying down…with their eyes closed.
Before they know it, Jesus is standing over them yelling, “Could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.”
They feel so guilty because his disappointment is even worse than his anger. He leaves again and now they’re even more determined to stay awake. They try walking while we pray, and that seems to work for a while. But then their minds start to wander and they begin to wonder what the point is of staying awake. "I mean, Jesus isn’t even with us. What difference does it make if I’m praying or sleeping? Shouldn’t someone be resting for what lies ahead tomorrow? We won’t be of any use if we’re exhausted tomorrow, so maybe we’d better try praying while we lay down again." So they wad up their coats into pillows, still telling themselves they’ll keep praying. They try to keep their eyes open, but their eyelids feel like rocks and they finally give in. Someone tells them later that Jesus, covered in sweat that looked like blood, came back again but this time didn’t even bother to wake them, and that makes them feel even worse, which they didn’t know was possible.
In what feels like moments later, Jesus comes and wakes them up, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”
And that’s when things get fuzzy. Their memories swirl of betrayal by their very own brother, of the arrest of their teacher and friend, of their shameful denials, and of his disgraceful death on a sinner’s cross.
Racked with guilt, they beat themselves up inside. "Why couldn’t we just do what he asked? It wasn’t so hard, was it? Why couldn’t we stay awake? What did Jesus mean about our flesh being weak? If we could have stayed awake, if we had just prayed harder, would any of this have even happened? And why did Jesus need us to stay awake and pray in the first place?"
Staying awake is hard. Life is exhausting. There’s the never-ending flow of homework, including the impossible amount of reading you’ll never finish, the jobs and internships that seem to ask more and more of you each week, taking care of your kids, eating right, and trying to maintain some semblance of “balance.” Most people are running on caffeine and a martyr complex. It’s cost all of us something to get here. We gave up careers, left our families communities behind, and took a serious pay cut, many to the bewilderment of those who love us. We’ve followed Jesus’ call this far, so when we hear those terrible words, “you will deny me three times” we say, “no way, Jesus.” Not after all we’ve given up to get this far.
So when Jesus says “Stay awake and pray,” we try even harder than before—we dive into our studies; we pursue jobs and internships that make us feel like we have a meaningful influence on this broken and chaotic world; we go to chapel when we have time and try to not hide the fact that we’re in seminary when we get stuck making small talk with strangers. No denial here, we say. In fact, we will stay woke to injustice, we will stay woke to the evils of white supremacy and state-sanctioned violence. We will not fall asleep this time.
While we’re working so hard, we’re also wondering why Jesus is asking us to stay awake and pray. Why does Jesus need our prayers? And what does it mean to stay awake today, not just late at night in the garden with the incarnate Christ?
What is it with God and gardens? This place of beauty, of life and growth, and humans come in and mess it up. It’s the site of our great failure—our first break of trust, so why would God keep returning to a garden? Wouldn’t it be better for God to go somewhere that isn’t so tainted by sin, somewhere where new memories could be made?
I think God keeps returning to the garden because God wants to redeem it and wants to redeem us, no matter what. The garden is home to our first denial of God, when, in our pride, we put ourselves first, but it’s also home to where we walked with God side by side. So Jesus spends his last night of freedom in that earthly body in the garden, talking to his Father, hoping his disciples can stay awake. But of course, they don’t. They fall asleep, the first denial of Christ.
But God doesn’t stop there. God doesn’t give up on gardens or give up on us. Instead, Jesus rises from the dead and stays in the garden, waiting for someone to meet him. He’s so comfortable there, so happy to redeem it that he’s mistaken for a gardener. And it’s then that he calls Mary by name and she sees him for who he really is. “I have seen the Lord!” she tells the disciples. The garden is the place of her liberation, of her witness to the resurrection.
Where is your garden? Where is the place that you are secretly haunted by your sin? It’s the place where you denied Christ; where your pride, selfishness, lust, or anger won out. Is it’s the thing you did or failed to do, that you secretly think disqualifies you from ministry, because how could someone who's done that, be a pastor? Or is it a place you have longed to forget as if time could erase your failure. You think, if you get far enough away, it won’t impact you anymore. Maybe then you can be free.
But God doesn’t seem to take that approach. God keeps going back to the garden, ever loving, and ever hopeful that we will let this place be the place our redemption. I think Jesus—fully human and fully divine—chooses this garden because it is the place where the human and the divine meet. Where better to cry out to his Father than in the place where all life began? Where better to ask for the disciples to stay awake? Because their prayers and their attention are necessary for Jesus’ work in this world. Jesus wants to meet you in your garden, to meet you in your shame and imperfection, and call you his friend.
Maybe we are like the disciples. We’ve tried our best, and our best was not enough. We are so tired—tired of trying to do it all, be it all, love them all, pray for all. Staying awake is not easy and we cannot do it on our own. These disciples who fell asleep—Peter, James, and John—they are the foundations of the church. Even they could not stay awake. Yet I am struck by Jesus’ response to their slumber. He’s disappointed, but he keeps waking them up. For some reason, their prayers to and for the God of all Creation mattered. In the hour of his deepest pain, Jesus needs his friends to stay awake with him. And when they don’t, he doesn’t cast them out and condemn them.
There will be days when you fall asleep when Jesus asks for your participation and you say no. There will be days when you are racked with guilt at your failures. But Jesus looks you in the eyes and instead of condemnation, he says, “Get up, let’s be going. There’s work to be done and I need you to do it.”