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.’ (Matthew 26:36-46)
In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes some of his disciples with him as he prays and prepares for the next day, the hardest day of his life and the costly climax to his confrontational ministry. Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake and pray with him, but while Jesus withdraws for a time of private prayer, the disciples fall asleep. Three times, Jesus returns to find his friends and companions in ministry sleeping rather than vigilantly praying. Three times, Jesus confronts them. After the confrontation, Jesus declares, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
How often might those convicting words be applied to us, too? The metaphorical power and depth offered by this moment in Jesus’ ministry is profound. The disciples—having been called by Jesus, taught by Jesus, invited by Jesus to begin and see the beginnings of his new, radically rearranged kingdom—cannot stay awake long enough, cannot focus long enough, cannot attend to the in-breaking moments of God’s kingdom long enough to recognize the significance of the time at hand. Jesus, through his shared life and work, has offered the disciples intimate insight into the expectations and ambitions of the kingdom. In addition, here, in this moment of prayerful preparation and struggle, Jesus invites these particular co-workers in the kingdom to share in his struggle, primarily by staying awake!
What does it mean to stay awake? Physically, staying awake is merely not sleeping. Often, staying awake is more easily said than done. (I am well aware of this reality while writing these words after a weeklong mission trip coupled with the loss of an hour’s sleep that the jump to daylight savings time brings!) When we are physically weary, staying awake is not that easy. Yet, there is another time when staying awake is equally difficult. When we do not want to deal with something unpleasant, staying awake is inconvenient and, therefore, avoided. Like a new parent hoping their crying child will simply go to sleep, avoiding engaging the situation is easier than pealing yourself out of a warm bed groggily to attend to your plaintive infant.
As metaphor, sleep is not just about exhaustion but, also, about avoidance.
Jesus’ words to his disciples seem to represent just such avoidance. We, the readers with two thousand years of insight, know what the next few days hold. We know the story of arrest, trial, torture, death, and resurrection. The disciples do not have the privilege of our vantage. However, they had been with Jesus for several months if not years. I think they might have had some inkling as to what was coming. This possibility leads to another set of questions.
What if their sleep was more about not wanting to be responsible for hearing Jesus’ prayer, his concerns, his fears, his struggles, or his uncertainty than about mere exhaustion? What if the disciples were sleeping because they did not want to carry the burden of expected action incumbent certain knowledge? What if the disciples were hoping that by not knowing what was to come and what might be expected of them they could operate with “plausible deniability”? What if “sleeping” is code for not wanting to know and to be responsible with the weight of that knowledge and if “staying awake” is code for vigilance and action?
This possibility puts a new twist on Matthew’s story, a twist particularly relevant for us. If staying awake is a way of describing a life of faith that does not avoid being vigilant to the expectations of God’s kingdom and the needs of God’s children and if staying awake is a way of describing a life actively committed to acting on that knowledge, then life in the kingdom just became a lot more demanding and complicated than many of us hoped!
The difficult good news is that the kingdom requires just such attentive waking.
This past week, nine of us from Young Harris College traveled to Washington, DC as part of our spring break mission trip. The purpose of the trip was to transition faith into action by studying human trafficking, to inspire us to act, and to empower in some concrete manner those actions.
The knowledge gained in DC jarred us awake.
The statistics about the number of people trafficked around the world and within the US is astonishing. The average age of a person trafficked for sex in the US is appalling. The centrality of Georgia for national and international trafficking is disturbing. If any of us on the trip were asleep because of exhaustion or avoidance, this knowledge shook us awake and defies us to return to the comfort of our slumber while millions of others remain in a perpetual sleepless hell.
Having arrived back on campus, we feel it our task to jar others awake, too. Over the coming weeks, we will educate the campus on this horrific, secret world all around us. We will look for ways to inspire our hopes for change in both the conditions fostering and the laws related to human trafficking. We will strive to empower those within the Young Harris College community to pair faith and knowledge with action, embodying the kingdom’s demand that we remain awake by proclaiming release to these modern day captives.
We are fully aware that this embodiment will not be easy. As Jesus’ prayer in the garden that night reminds us, lives committed to the liberating power of the kingdom might have to sacrifice more than they planned or wanted. We might wish that this cup of knowledge and its accompanying responsibility had not been offered to us. Nevertheless, the cup has been. Are we to accept it, or are we to pass it off to others, hoping they will take it and the burden it brings? Jesus accepted his cup. May we accept ours, and may the knowledge held in that cup stir us from our slumber and motivate our action.
Who Am I?
I am a young man.
I am an old woman.
I am tall,
I am well educated.
I am a high school dropout.
I am raped.
I am bought, burned, sold, beaten.
I am ashamed, astounded at how little is known.
I am discarded.
I am depressed.
I am elated.
I am uncertain.
I am helpless.
I am lonely.
I am curious.
I am frightened.
I am important.
I am hopeful.
I am ready for change,
to be change,
to enact change,
not to be exchanged.
I am your daughter,
I am your child.
I am God’s child.
I must be freed.