Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sunday Scripture: Mark 14:32-52

Mark 14:32-52

14:32-34 – In these opening verses of Mark’s Gethsemane scene, we see two elements that will be repeated throughout: Jesus’ deep longing for the supportive strength of his friends, and the depth of his own wrestling with sorrow. Jesus first instructs all of the disciples to wait while he prays, and then takes his inner circle of Peter, James, and John along with him a bit further. And then, in v.34, he says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” What clearer proof could we ask to show that our Savior had a real human nature, and that he experienced all its frailties, longings, and sorrows? For those who have struggled with deep valleys of sadness, grief, and depression, we see here that our Lord has known every depth of that same journey. He then instructs his three friends to stay and keep watch. What is likely meant by this is that they, too, are to be attentive his condition, and to respond to it by standing with him in prayer. Christ’s sorrow here is joined to his passion, to his experience of suffering for the world’s sins on the cross. That sacrifice was once-for-all, but he still bears its wounds, and he still sorrows along with the brokenness of our sinful, violent world. Are we, his friends, praying and keeping watch along with him now? 

14:35-36 – Jesus falls to the ground and prays—a position of abject humility and grief. (Customarily, Jewish men would most often pray in a standing position.) Mark tells us that he prays that “if possible, the hour might pass from him.” Here we see something at once terrifying and heartening. It is terrifying because we can see clearly that the suffering that the things Christ had to undergo for our sake were of such terror and difficulty that even he, the incarnate Son of God, reacted with grief and sorrow and a longing to be beyond that moment of suffering. It was no small thing that our Savior did for us. Let us never think that it was a simple matter for Christ to bear the cross just because he was the Son of God—no, this passage shows us that it was something of tremendous difficulty, pain, and sorrow. No doubt he has in mind here not only the physical pain of being crucified, but, even more so, the pain of seeing his friends betray him; of having to bear all the sin and injustice of the whole human race upon his own shoulders; of having to drink down the curse of death and the divine wrath that righteously rises up against the horror, evil, and cruelty of sin; of entering into the experience of feeling forsaken by God the Father, cut off from the eternal dance of love, the unending perichoresis of the inseparable Trinity. This was no small thing he did for us, and of course Christ—in both the fathomless knowledge of what was to come that he held by reason of his divine nature, and in the authentic frailty of his human nature—longed that it might pass. Jesus cries out to God the Father as his “Abba”—the common, familial, intimate name for a father in Aramaic. Jesus here was not crying out simply as any Israelite might, to the God of his fathers; he was crying out to God as his father. And here is the heartening point: he affirms that God can do anything, and shows by his own words that any cry of the heart, if sincere, is acceptable to God in prayer—even the cry of despair. But a further question emerges: if God can do anything, as Jesus says, could he then deal with humanity’s problems of sin and death some other way than through the cross? Such a question is perhaps unanswerable, and yet it seems to be what Jesus is asking. Here’s what we know: God can indeed do anything, but Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was uniquely suited to accomplish everything that we needed, and to do it in such a way that we would forever know the full depths of God’s love for us. It is impossible for us to imagine a more perfect method of humanity’s full redemption. But whatever the expectation behind his words, Jesus prays for the cup to be taken from him. This could be a reference to the cup of God’s wrath (as in Isaiah 51:17-22), or possibly the final cup of the Passover feast, which other accounts record Jesus as having foregone during his celebration of the Last Supper; if the latter, then the cup of Passover was equated with the spilling of Christ’s own blood. He ends with a note of tremendous humility and courage, a saying which ought to be every Christian’s motto in prayer: “Not my will but thine be done.” There is very often too much of us in our prayers; and we don’t have the perspective and discernment enough to winnow out the chaff of our hidden motivations from the authentic cry of the Spirit in our hearts. But that’s OK, because God can take our prayers for what they are, and magnify his own will through them, imperfect though they are.

14:37-42 – In this section of verses, we have quick sequence of events, in which Christ returns three different times to his disciples, and each time he finds them sleeping instead of keeping watch with him. No doubt, full of sorrow as he already was, it was one further heartbreak to see his friends not able to act as true friends toward him. The fact that this happens three times speaks to the fullness of the disciples’ failure, from which no one was immune—it wasn’t just Peter that failed Jesus three times with his denials; it was all of them, failing three times to watch and pray with him in his hour of need. His admonition to Peter is worthy of deep reflection. “Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour?” Think for a moment for how easy it is for us to frivolously throw an hour here, and hour there, to any trifling thing that comes our way: video games, television shows, scrolling through Facebook, a football game. And now think of how easy it is to spend an hour in prayer. If you’re anything like me (and most humans), you’ll be struck by the fact that you’re in no position to be wagging fingers at those laggard disciples! We are far too ready to pour our time into a thousand silly, enervating things, and so slow to pour them into the deep, hard work of standing with Christ in prayer. So Jesus’ rebuke is for us as well as Peter: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Christians have always held that it takes discipline towards ourselves to attain any measure of growth in the Christian life—we need to be willing to do the difficult task of saying no to the weakness of our flesh, and instead to grow in our resolution to cry out in prayer along with the Holy Spirit.

14:43-52 – Here we have the tragic scene of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. The great irony, of course, is that Judas gives him away with this sign of affection and intimacy: the Son of God is betrayed by a kiss. How often in our lives do we loft symbolic kisses toward Christ in our public words, while denying and betraying him with our secret sins? We too can sometimes play the part of Judas to Christ. The story then records that “one of those standing near” cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant; we know from other Gospel accounts that this was Peter, and that he was rebuked for this action and the man’s ear was healed. But Mark leads us directly to Jesus’ rebuke of the mob, noting to them the dishonesty that they themselves must know very well—the evil that they were not willing to do in broad daylight, when everyone was watching, is something they willingly do in the dark, when no one else would see them. This, too, is the pattern of our own sin, which we try so piously to veil from watching eyes, but find it much easier to indulge in when we think we are alone—we, too, can play the part of the mob when we sin. These stories of the disciples’ failure, and Judas’, and the mob’s—they are our stories too, and it is for these things that Christ has died. (Mark includes parenthetically here a note about the young man who fled away naked from the scene—tradition holds that this was Mark himself. It’s a note of some humility that the one place in which he highlights his own presence in the story is the moment of his deepest cowardice and shame.)