This week heading up to Easter is one of mixed emotions. Nearly 6 weeks ago, we started this Lenten March toward Easter remembering that from ashes we come and to ashes we will return. We’re faced with our own mortality—and with the mortality of Jesus. It is Jesus’ mortality that I feel so keenly during this Holy Week. I know that the celebration of his divinity and his triumph over death is coming on Sunday, but each day that we move closer toward Friday—the day that we call Good Friday, despite the tragedy that befalls the Savior that I love—I feel a stronger sense of sadness. In these days, I remember most vividly the humanity of Jesus. There is a time in the last week of Jesus’ life that often captures my attention. It is told in the synoptic gospels—Jesus’ prayer the night before he is arrested. In a request that gives us a glimpse into the vulnerability of Jesus, he asks the disciples to stay up with him while he prays. Read these words from Mark 14.
At first glance, this glimpse of Jesus’ life is not the picture that we would imagine for the Savior of the World, is it? It’s a desperate man—asking his friends to wait up with him. It’s a man who reverts even to child’s language, calling his Father the equivalent of Daddy—Abba. It’s a glimpse of a man who is asking for release from the job ahead of him and shows his frustration with his friends. But…when we look at what happens to him in the next few hours, we see that this glimpse of Jesus underscores the obedience that he shows by willingly giving his life for all of humanity.
But I can’t get over the vulnerability that I see in Jesus! He is so bothered by what is happening that he asks—no, he begs—his friends to watch and pray with him. I’ve had friends in desperate situations before—as I’m sure that you have, too. If a friend of mine explicitly asks me to do something for them—I do it, even if it is inconvenient. Even if it requires a sacrifice on my part. So, we can imagine, then, that Peter, James, and John—Jesus’ three closest friends—stayed up all night and prayed with Jesus in his darkest hour, right?
Sadly, no. Despite the request to watch and pray (3 times, by the way), they fall asleep.
Peter, James, and John—these three privileged disciples who have witnessed so much and thus, are entrusted with so much, they fail to meet this fairly simple and straightforward request by their friend and Messiah. Jesus picks one of the disciples from the three, Peter, and calls his name: Simon. He doesn’t call him by the name that he had given him: Peter. No…Peter means “Rock.” This is Simon—the pre-Jesus version of himself. The one who reminds us of a faltering faith and gives us the foreboding feeling that even one of Jesus’ best friends could deny him. This—Simon! He is the one, with the others, too, of course, who slept when Jesus specifically said pray.
This, Simon, who did not resist temptation.
Perhaps Jesus even has another garden, Eden, on his mind as he warns the disciples to resist temptation. For it is in the story of the Garden of Eden that we see sin coming into the world and it is in this Garden, Gethsemene, that we find Jesus preparing to defeat sin.
And it’s this same Simon, though we know him forevermore as Peter, who writes in 1 Peter 4:7, 7 “be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.” He may have lost the battle with temptation in that precarious time with Jesus in the Garden, but he did not lose the war. He got it! He recognized that it was possible to stand up against temptation—and pray!
The very same guy who yielded to temptation that fateful night in the garden, evidenced a transformed life in the book of the Bible that bears his name.
But Peter is not our hero. It was Jesus whose life Peter speaks of in 1 Peter 4 saying that because Jesus suffered in the body—starting that overwhelming night in the Garden—he lived his earthly life for the will of God.
This is huge! Even Jesus—who is God—suffered. Even Jesus learned to be obedient and do the will of God. And now—for Peter and for you and me—it is Jesus who gives him inspiration to actually follow through on his intentions. Whereas that sad night in the Garden, his spirit was willing but his flesh was weak, we now see a new understanding in Peter, the Rock. He tells them to be self-controlled, so that they can pray.
So why should we be concerned about prayer?
I’ve been contemplating prayer for nearly a year now—I’ve read about prayer, I’ve prayed, I’ve talked to others about their own prayer lives, and I’ve prayed a little more. I can’t help but think that Jesus seemed to think that something significant happened in prayer, or else he wouldn’t have insisted that his disciples stay up all night and pray with him. I can only deduce that for Jesus, prayer was a way to offer oneself to God’s purposes. It was a way to reorder one’s own priorities, even as Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but your will be done.” Prayer became, then, a time not when Jesus was at his weakest, but rather, he was at his strongest. That’s why he urged his disciples to watch and pray, and thus stand up to temptation. It was through an honest encounter with God through prayer that they would see their own vulnerability and in some way take on the countenance of Christ.
Jesus knew this, and he wanted his disciples to know this. Thankfully, Peter came to understand it and teach us, as well. The conviction with which Jesus faced the cross was borne out of strength in prayer, not out of his weakness.
The work of Christ on the cross started in the Garden—the sin of humanity was defeated once and for all, and temptation no longer holds us hostage. And so, we can, like Peter—because of Christ—be self-controlled and pray. Our earthly life can be lived by doing the will of God. Our victory comes through Christ. What starts as grief in the Garden turns to grace. While we may start as a Simon, we can end as a Peter—the rock! The grief only serves to make the joy of Resurrection morning all the more thrilling. But while we’re still in the Garden—we are to watch and pray. Watch and pray. Watch and pray.