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Life options in Gethsemane

20 April 2011


When they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of the disciples drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.
Then Jesus said to him:
“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.
“Do you not think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?
“But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
 

Matthew 27. 52-54

Jesus the way-finder

All through the Gospel story, we can see Jesus finding his distinctive way, discerning and doing his Father’s will.    

It is not an obvious path.  Jesus calls us to go a narrow way, which is hard to find (Matt 7.14).  He could call us to find it, even though it was not easy, because he was already living in that way,  always looking for it, always learning, always daring it. So it was in the desert when he was tempted  (Matt.4.1-11).  He considered the options which might fit the task he had been given in life: to live as the beloved Son of the Father, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, fulfilling all righteousness from one situation to another in a fast-moving history (Matt.3.13-17). He turned down Satan’s obvious common-sense ways to achieve his goals for God.  He found other ways, unlikely ways, hard ways.    

All through his life he was choosing narrow ways, and inviting others to go with him. 

At the end, in the Garden of Gethsemane,  it is still the same.

Option One: the Sword

One obvious commonsense response to the gang who came to arrest him was the Sword.  

So one of his disciples thought: Kill your enemy – if you miss his head, you may still get his ear.  At least, you will have done something.    

This is the way we all follow most of the time. In some countries many people have their own guns, for self-protection. In this country, we shun personal firearms, but we live within a public order guarded on occasion by armed officers. We find it hard to imagine how we could cope without the sanction of force as the final resort.  

Jesus said: All who take the sword shall perish by the sword.   Does this mean all use the sword will, sooner or later, be killed by the sword?  Using the sword does not have to lead to unlimited killing, though there is always a danger that it will.  The truth in this word of Jesus, and the wisdom of it, does not depend on whether the sword gets turned back on every user or that every bomber is hoist with his own petard. As Jesus saw it, walking on the narrow way, to use the sword implies  relying on it to solve problems. Those who trust in the sword find that it defines the possibilities open to them, shaping their values and vision. Those who take the sword find themselves limited by it. 

We know what this limitation is in practice as we reflect on our engagement in Afghanistan.   We engaged there because some good needed  to be done, so we thought. We had military power so we put it to work.  And then, somewhere along the road, it dawns on us that there is no military solution to the tangle we have got ourselves into – we must be working for a political way forward.  We have to use soft power. It is a matter of hearts and minds, and they cannot be shaped by the sword. 

And now we seem to have the same problem in Libya.  Everyone, and certainly the British government, is in danger of being limited by its vision of the problem, expecting the civil war to be won militarily by the right side (the rebels, not Gaddafi, who, we say,  must go, because there is no place for him in the future).  But it may be a long time before the disorganised rebels get near to winning, and along the way, wounds will be opened that may bleed for a long time.   We need more than the sword in our  imaginary and practical armoury. 

Gethsemane is a great clarifying moment in the mission of Jesus, and very instructive for all of us who want to be his disciples. So Jesus in this mortal crisis enlightens us with his wisdom, which comes from his own living.  Lethal force tempts us to think we have the decisive solution to problems in our hands – but it does not work as we would like it to.  It is wise then to consider other options. 

Option Two:  Angels

If the sword is put back in its place, what other way is there – in tight corners like Gethsemane?

Ask the Father:  pray for twelve legions of angels.  That will see off the high priest’s minions – it would dispose of the Roman army too.  This is divine power in miracle, in answer to prayer. And Jesus says No to this option too.  

Good believer, does that not seem strange and upsetting to you?   Are we not called to pray with faith, and so to move mountains?  

We accept Jesus’ saying No to the sword, but can we go with him when he says No to heavenly miracle?    This is a blow to lively, adventurous Christianity. It is a discouragement to faith. But if we are determined to solve life’s problems by having the twelve legions of angels riding to take us out of Gethsemane,  we will not be going forward with Jesus. If we must not take the sword, lest our whole being gets imprisoned in reliance on deadly force, we should be careful about praying in ways that value God because his deadly force is much more than ours could ever be.  Both ways, the victory is handed to deadly force, not the life of love, and the love of life. 

Option three:  being fully human in God’s way

But what third way can there be?  

The sword is practical, even if destructive.  Trusting God for miracle is conceivable.  But a third way – can we see it?   The gate to it is not only narrow but disguised.

It is indeed disguised in God’s becoming human.  

Jesus in the desert refused any power Satan could give him to achieve his mission.  So now, he declines to ask the Father for the miracle of twelve legions.  He holds on to what he has been given in life, what he has discovered in learning: it is necessary for the Scripture to be fulfilled and his life takes its shape in serving that fulfilling. Jesus was dedicated to doing God’s will in God’s way.   

Does this mean that God had a detailed plan, which had to be followed to the letter?

And did Jesus know this plan, because he could read the cryptic clues which were scattered through the Scriptures? Did Jesus live by the book in this way?  Is that the view of Jesus you get from reading the Gospels? If the Bible has cryptic clues laid down long before the event, and then Jesus lives a life which fits into them, that looks like a miracle.  Quite a few people think of it like that. They read the Bible to decipher the clues and they believe in Jesus because what happened to him fits what was apparently foretold.  

If this is how it is, we do not have a third option here – we have a variant on the miracle of the legions of angels. (Note that Jesus does not deny miracle – he just says it is not the way for him or for us in the present world, in Gethsemane. By declining to go this way, he must look for a third option, and commits us to doing the same.)

The third option is not to get a miracle, to take one out of the tight corner or to give fatalistic assurance of being right. The third option is so narrow and hard it makes Gethsemane unbearable.  Jesus prayed with blood and tears to see it and to get going on it. This option is to go on and go through with the human life given to him, in the place and time where it is given.

Living human life, loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves, is what we are called to in the Scriptures. All the commands of God, given us in Scripture, are summed up in this commandment to love.  It commits us to living from the beginning to the end of life in a particular spirit.  The Scripture tells us that God gives us life in human form and it is in living human lives  that we glorify and thank God, offering to God as a living sacrifice  the whole being that we have in and with our bodies (Romans 12.1,2).   Often, in this life in the body, this life on earth, great, joyful and surprising gifts are given us, and we find the language of miracle is just what we need to describe what we have met on the way.   Often too, life is narrow and threatens to close down altogether:  then,  Jesus says,  we will go on with God and not be tempted by either sword or miracle.   And Jesus does all he can to guard us from doing anything else: Put up your sword, he says – and heals the poor servant’s ear.  And lets himself be taken.  

Jesus is God’s way of being fully human, from beginning to end.  The good news is that Jesus shares and opens up God’s way of being human, so that we too may become fully human. Jesus opens, and keeps open, that way of being human even when we are in Gethsemane, when we are invited to be watching with him, but can only ‘sleep for sorrow’ (Luke 22.45).  

Jesus keeps open the way by being himself, to the end.  He is the Way – our way is with him and in him.   He is here for us still, the One who kept to God’s way of being human, even in Gethsemane and Golgotha, is the Same who is eternally our Brother, Guide and Path. 

Jesus keeps open the way for us, in the crisis of pain, fear and loss, by refusing the sword and  by declining miracles, for both tend to exempt us from being faithful to our calling and his, to live in God’s humanity.

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