On Maundy Thursday, we normally focus on Jesus’ last supper and his words which transformed the Passover meal of the Israelites into a meal for the forgiveness of all people's sins. The image of Jesus at the table and his words,“This is my body… this is my blood given for you,” bring us great comfort.
But I want to look at another scene. Let’s listen to some words of Jesus that follow on the heels of his last supper--words that often have the opposite effect on us.
The Jesus we see praying at Gethsemane makes us uncomfortable. It troubles us almost as much as Jesus’ impending suffering and death trouble him. In one sense, this is good. It challenges our presumptions about who Jesus is and what he came to do.
At Gethsemane, we can no longer picture him as the near-emotionless stoic or the strong, silent type he's often made out to be. That’s not who we see. Here, he trembles. Here, he’s sorrowful to the point of death. Here, he falls on his face and prays in earnest desperation as “his sweat became like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). Here, in our eyes, he is weak.
We think: he’s not supposed to act this way, have these struggles, or pray these prayers. He is the Christ, the righteous, obedient Son of the Father. But he is doing and saying things that unsettle our presuppositions.
At Gethsemane, Jesus faces his greatest temptation. And at this moment he takes to heart the words of David in Psalm 55:22, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” But his prayer unsettles us even more than his actions. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).
The “if it be possible” part troubles us the most. But the importance of Jesus’ opening address can’t be overstated. He calls on God as his Father, and he does so as the perfect Son in a perfect relationship with him. In this time of great and unimaginable struggle, Jesus still trusts in God as his Father. This trust carries through to both the end of the prayer and the end of his time at Gethsemane.
The cup Jesus speaks of is none other than the wrath of God toward sin that he is about to drink in his suffering and death at the hands of sinners. But only by drinking this cup does Jesus make it possible for his disciples to drink from the cup he spoke of just before their time at Gethsemane. “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This cup contains his blood which pays for the forgiveness of our sins.
Jesus drinks the cup of wrath so we can drink the cup of grace.
Jesus ends his prayers with the ultimate show of trust in the Father, "not as I will, but as you will." It is a logical possibility that God could bring salvation another way. By definition, as God, he can do anything. But a logical possibility does not change reality. The Father's desire will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus knows full well his rejection, suffering, and death must happen. He predicted it. He foreshadowed it. The meal he instituted in the upper room delivers its benefits to those who receive it in faith.
Because Jesus is fully man and fully God, his seeming hesitation to want to do God’s will creates dissonance in our understanding of him. In the end, there is an amount of mystery in Jesus' prayer that we can’t overcome.
We rightly focus on Jesus at Gethsemane. He is at the center of it all, which is why we can be so troubled by what we see. But it is the image of the disciples that should trouble us the most.
Jesus becomes increasingly isolated from them as the night goes on. Judas departed the upper room before them to set in motion his previously-agreed-upon betrayal in the coming hours.
At Gethsemane, there’s also a literal physical distance between Jesus and the disciples. He leaves the rest behind, taking Peter, James, and John farther on. Then he leaves Peter and the sons of Zebedee, moving a stone's throw away to pray alone.
Each time Jesus returns from praying, he finds the three even farther away from him. While he struggles and sweats, they sleep and snooze. The first time, he wakes them with exhortation, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:40-41).
All the disciples fail at Gethsemane, but Peter, James, and John fail particularly hard. James Voelz points out that these disciples, who comprise Jesus’ inner circle, are also the disciples most full of themselves. On their journey to Jerusalem, James and John displayed their overconfidence by asking Jesus if they could sit at his left and right in the new earthly kingdom they presumed he came to establish. Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I drink?” They foolishly replied, “We are able” (Mark 10:38-39).
When Jesus told the twelve that they would abandon him, Peter answered, “I will never fall away.” When Jesus told Peter he would deny him, Peter doubled down. “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matt 26:33-35).
Luther labels this temptation of overconfidence in the Small Catechism as “false belief.” This false belief is a misplaced confidence or faith in our own abilities to act and be righteous. Peter, James, and John don’t see the danger they’re in. They don’t keep watching and praying, so they fall into temptation. All of them abandon Jesus. And Peter will double down once again, this time denying him, just as Jesus foretold.
The portrait of the disciples at Gethsemane brushes in full color a reality of us we are only too eager to look past. We all have a self-serving bias, the tendency to attribute our successes to our hard work, and to attribute our failures to outside causes. This byproduct of our sinful nature would have us believe that we’re not all that bad, that we’re better than we really are. But this picture of the disciples puts that idea straight to bed without any supper. Like them, we’re left staring up at Jesus, sleepy-eyed and dazed, with nothing to say.
The contrasting images of Jesus and the disciples at Gethsemane shows us what we need to see. That we fail as hard as the twelve. They are our example.
The purpose of this story is far from portraying Jesus as our example in prayer or directing us to our own piety. Instead, we see, as Jeffery Gibbs writes, that, “Jesus is not like us in these verses; rather, Jesus is for us in these verses.”
At the start of this story, we were uncomfortable, even troubled, by the Jesus we saw. But now, our hope builds. We see that Jesus felt temptation as we do. “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb 2:18).
Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “To feel temptation is, therefore, a far different thing from consenting or yielding to it.” As Jesus’ betrayer arrives, his closing words show he succeeded where his disciples failed. “See the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” He has overcome temptation. His will is the Father’s will and as the perfect Son, he is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8).
So let’s go to dark Gethsemane. For there we see that even in his greatest moment of weakness, Jesus is our only source of strength. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). He succeeds where we fail. He is righteous where we are sinful. On the cross, he gets our sin and in exchange, we get his righteousness and the forgiveness of our sins.