Reconciling the “Two Gethsemanes”

July 7, 2008

“Smitten for offenses which were not His Own, He, for our transgressions, had to weep alone.” — Second verse, “Night with Ebon Pinion” (emphasis added)

“Long in anguish deep was He,
Weeping there for you and me,
For our sin to Him was known;
We should love Him evermore
For the anguish that He bore
In Gethsemane, alone.” — Third verse, “In Gethsemane Alone”

Oftentimes, when we in Churches of Christ are directed to a song “to prepare our minds for the taking of the Lord’s Supper,” the song we sing is not about the crucifixion event itself, but about Jesus’ weeping in the Garden of Gethsemane.  “Night with Ebon Pinion” and “In Gethsemane Alone” are among the more popular choices for this.  The Bible story these songs bring to mind are the accounts in the Synoptics, where Jesus’ “soul is burdened with sorrow to the point of death” and He falls “face down” and prays “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me, nevertheless not My will but Yours be done.”  Luke even notes “sweat like drops of blood” pouring from his brow.  Three times the night before His death Jesus prays this prayer while His disciples sleep.

The presumption behind many of these songs is that in this moment, the suffering of Calvary begins.  In essence, Jesus knows what’s coming, and His “human side” gets scared.  He begs God earnestly to be spared from the pain that is to come, but knowing that it is necessary to the salvation of humanity, He couches His prayer with “Thy will be done.”

I don’t buy it.

To be sure, I believe the stories are true as they are reported in the Synoptics.  The problem I have is with the interpretation rendered in the songs.

For one, the Gethsemane that is portrayed in John stands in stark contrast with the supposed image of Jesus in the synoptics as a blubbering coward.  In John 17, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden is one where He is giving God the pep talk, not the other way around.  “The hour has come.  Glorify Your Son, that Your Son might glorify You.”  “I have finished the work You gave me to do.  Now, Father, glorify Me with Yourself.”  Jesus is not afraid of the cross; He’s looking forward to it.  He’s done everything God asked Him to do in His earthly ministry.  Now it’s time to get on with the next part of His mission.

Two, the supposed “fearful Jesus” of the Synoptics is dramatically inconsistent with the character of Jesus revealed in those very books, especially in Luke.  In Luke 9, Jesus “resolutely sets His face toward Jerusalem” immediately after telling His disciples TWICE that when He got there, He would be betrayed and killed.  The Jesus portrayed in the Synoptics sees the cross not as something to be avioded if at all possible, but as the inevitable and even desirable destination of His journey.  He went to Jerusalem for the specific purpose of dying.  It would be inconcistent with the character of Jesus to try to back out at the last minute.

In a similar vein, if the prayer described in the Synoptics is what the lryicists interpret it to be, this is the first and only time in Jesus’ life when anyone records Him doing something that is completely selfish.  Everything else Jesus has ever done in His life has been for somebody else. 

Likewise, a few minutes after His final prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus tells Peter to put away His sword, because “Don’t you think I can appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  If Jesus really is pleading — as earnestly as we see Him begging His Father for anything in His life — to avoid the cross, to spare His life, to at least find another way, isn’t that the moment that those twelve legions show up? 

Instead, one angel appears.  One.  And that only with a few words of comfort, not an army.

So what do we do with this?  How do we reconcile the Gethsemane of John with that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke?  How do we compare the Jesus in the garden with the Jesus on the road to Jerusalem?

Is Jesus really begging for His life?  I don’t think so.  But I do think He is begging for somebody’s.

One key line in Jesus’ prayer in John may give us some insight into what might be happening in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  In John 18:9, when Jesus surrenders to Judas and the mob, He asks that His disiples be allowed to go free.  This is in fulfillment of a prophecy He Himself made in 17:12, “Of the ones You have given Me I have lost none.”  The rest of that verse reads, “except the Son of Perdition.”  Jesus makes a point of the fact that none of His disciples have died under His care.  They are His friends.  He has taken care of them.

Well, all except one — the “Son of Perdition.”

Judas Iscariot is the only one of the original twelve who will die before the crucifixion.  After betraying Jesus into the hands of the rulers, he regrets His decision and tries to return the money he was paid and buy Jesus back from them.  The rulers want no part of it, so Judas goes out and hangs himself.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that this is the part of the story Jesus wants to change.  Maybe what Jesus is praying for is permission to surrender Himself to the authorities so that Judas doesn’t have to betray Him.  Maybe what Jesus is weeping over is not the imminent loss of His Own life, but that of someone close to Him.  Maybe the part of God’s will that Jesus is having a hard time accepting is that we humans have to be allowed to make our own choices, even when those choices are destructive.

If I’m right — if Jesus really is weeping not for Himself or for us but for Judas Iscariot — the problem of the “two Gethsemanes” is neatly reconciled.  We see Jesus not at His cowardly worst, but at is selfless best.  We see the embodiment of “pray for those who percesute you.”  And we see God letting Judas be Judas, not intervening to prevent the betrayal, but wracked with grief over its consequences for a dear friend.

And now, if you can’t sing “Night With Ebon Pinion” the same way again, I’m sorry.  And you’re welcome.


How Personal Is Spirituality?

June 26, 2008

There is an interesting article over on New Wineskins about discipleship, namely, what is the role of church leaders in creating more Christ-like members? On the one hand, there is the Rick Warren, purpose-driven, station-to-station regimented model I call “No Disciple Left Behind.” Like the similarly-named education program, it provides a safety net for those who would not otherwise be very involved (or interested) in spiritual growth. Newcomers are shepherded “around the bases,” going from one experience to the next in sequence until they slide victoriously home.

The problem with that model is two-fold. One, programmed spirituality has a way of stifling the very Spirit of God the leaders are trying to cultivate. If the whole point of discipleship is to unleash the Spirit of God in transforming lives, there is something a bit arrogant about dictating to God exactly how and when and under what conditions that unleashing will take place. Two, like the similarly-named education program, it appeals to the “least common denominator.” Those who might otherwise be inclined to race ahead are held back in the name of conformity to a program.

The most-mentioned alternative to the Purpose-Driven model of spiritual growth is what is sometimes called “Self-Directed Spirituality.” In this system, rather than being givena program to complete, the new believer is given a menu, with the freedom to choose whatever is right for him. Church leaders, in turn, try to provide a wide variety of offerings to suit as many different palates — and pocketbooks — as possible.

The problem with this model is, likewise, twofold. One, Jeremiah tells us explicitly that “it is not within a man to direct his own steps.” Newcomers come to Christ specifically because what they were doing before was not working. They have tried to direct their own paths to God and have failed. Spiritual direction is what they are seeking. They need more than a menu; they need a recommendation about what’s good. Two, there is the harsh reality that if left to their own devices, many Christians will actually fall further from God rather than be drawn closer to Him. See the Parable of the Sower.

I suspect that the problem with both models of personal spiritual development is that both start from a faulty premise, namely that spiritual development is meant to be personal. When the New Testament talks about drawing closer to God, being more like Jesus, unleashing the Spirit of God in our lives, it is always in the context of “one another.” “Love one another.” “Bear one another’s burdens.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Consider one another better than yourselves.”

Perhaps God never meant for “spirituality” to be experienced solely on a perosnal level. Perhaps God has always intended us to be part of a redeemed community. After all, Jesus did say “upon this rock I will build my church.” Singular. Collective. Moses did not lead 600,000 individuals or even 12 tribes out of Egypt so much as he did one nation.

Maybe, then, church leaders trying to create Christ-like disciples should focus less on individual disciple-making and more on community-building. If preachers and elders would focus people’s attention on their roles and responsibilities within the faith community, maybe individual members would have more enthusiasm about being a part of it. Come on Sunday night, Wendesday night, at Bible class time, to youth devotionals, to gospel meetings and VBS’s and camps — not because you stand to gain from them, but because the rest of us need you.

And when you need us, you’ll know where we’ll be.

(NOTE: If I’m right about this premise, the implications extend beyond whether or not people come to church on Sunday nights or Wednesdays. It will ultimately force a reconsideration of many of the things we do together and separately. Worship. Evangelism. Even eschatology. I might explore this here, or elsewhere, or not al all. Comments welcome.)

Because Jesus Rose From The Dead

June 13, 2008

Because Jesus rose from the dead:
• I can live non-violently, because I am more confident in God’s ability to give me my life back than I am in the government’s ability to protect it.
• I can love unconditionally, because I know that one day God will make all of us perfect.
• I can serve diligently, because I know that if Jesus can overcome death, He can overcome anything.
• I can suffer joyfully, because I have seen that the path that begins in pain ends in glory.
• I can live purposefully, because that one simple truth gives meaning to everything else.
• I can trust implicitly, because the One who commits His Spirit into the hands of God will not be abandoned.
• I can serve confidently, because I too will one day share in the final victory over the last great enemy.
• I can serve meekly, because the King is on His throne so I don’t have to be.
• I can give sacrificially, because I know that what I leave behind is rubbish compared to what awaits.
• I can endure patiently, because the promise of eternal resurrected life is worth waiting for.
• I can mourn hopefully, because those who have gone before share in the promise of resurrection when He returns.
• I can preach truthfully, because I can simply repeat the promises God has already made and know He will keep them.
• I can live righteously, because I am no longer a slave to the passions and cares of this life.
• I can praise passionately, because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the best news man has ever heard.
• I can evangelize urgently, because I want you to share the hope I have and I don’t know how long either of us has left.

The Locke Paradox

June 11, 2008

In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” John Locke wrote that “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” Writing in an era recently ravaged by all manner of religious strife, manifested most notably by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 settling the Catholic-Protestant conflicts of 17th Century England, Locke’s premise makes sense. Locke argued that rather than have a Hobbesian central authority to settle all matter of religion on behalf of a society, the best available option was for religion to be privatized. If religion is a matter for the private chamber instead of the public square, then the doctrinal persuasions of one leader or another become irrelevent to his actions as a public official. Furthermore, if I tolerate your doctrinal dissent when I’m in power, maybe you will tolerate mine when roles are reversed.

Locke’s ideas on toleration formed the basis of much of the thought on the relationship between church and state in America’s infancy. The “go along to get along” mindset was formative for men loke John Adams, who believed that virtue was the key to happiness, and that if a person were properly educated, he would see that only through the pursuit of virtue was true happiness possible. Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” was largely a reaction to the excesses of church influence in government and politics.

And given the Catholicization of the Spanish Empire under Isabella, the painful birthing of the Anglican church under Henry VIII, the whole Oliver Cromwell mess, and (oh by the way) the Thirty Years War, Locke and his disciples might have a point. Keep government and religion separate, if for no other reason than in the name of peace.

As far as that goes, I agree. For that matter, so does the Apostle Paul. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul says Christians should pray that they can lead “peacable, quiet lives” in relation to the government. Interestingly for those of us in Churches of Christ, he uses the exact same language to describe the relationship between men and women in the church.

Furthermore, the historical evidence seems to indicate that Locke may have had a point. Societies where religious disagreement is a reason to fight have been marked by constant sectarian violence or harsh repression of any dissenting views — religious, policitcal, or otherwise. By contrast, the tolerant societies have (generally) been peaceful, so long as there was nothing else to fight over.

But I would argue that Locke was not so much right as he was lucky.

Those societies which adopted his views fo tolerance and put them into practice were, at the time they became tolerant, largely Jesus-ist. The major societal disagreements Lockeian cultures have faced have not been between Jesus-ism and something else, but between one brand of Jesus-ism and another. But as Jesus has taken more and more of a back seat in those cultures, what has replaced Him has become harder and harder to tolerate.

John Locke was lucky, then, because his brand of tolerance only works in a society that leans on the crutch of the teachings of Jesus. Kick away that crutch, and tolerance becomes catastrophic.

Ironically, Christian teaching says as much. 2 Corinthians 12:20-21 says that the only possible path to virtue is by being invested in a community of faith. A religion that is purely private cannot, by definition, do anything to prevent sin or promote virtue. In fact, “private” religion does the exact oposite, providing a shield behind which all manner of vice and iniquity can hide.

For a society to truly be tolerant, there must be certain moral precepts everyone agrees to, accepts, and openly discusses in the public arena. If those precepts are violated — or even supressed — what is left is chaos.

Note:  This was originally published on Stuff I Think, For Now, my old Blogspot site.  I’ll be bringing ministry-related stuff over here in the coming weeks.  Lipscomb sports, politics, and other random stuff will stay over there.

The Palimpsest Problem

June 10, 2008

Suppose you’re playing a trivia game, and this question comes up:

“Who was the first Pope?”

Most trivia people, Catholic or not, immediately answer “Peter.” Whether they believe in the Papacy or not, most people recognize that “Peter” is the expected answer. The official list of Popes kept by the Vatican even starts with Peter.

However, among Restorationist Christians (of which I am one), this question is a theological minefield. You see, we don’t believe in “apostolic succession.” That is, we believe that the authority bestowed on Peter and the other apostles by Jesus is transmitted to our day and time not by the succession of men appointed to authority, but by the collection of their very words in the text of the New Testament. In short, we believe that Christianity has always been — and should continue to be — a “rule of law” if you will, as opposed to a “rule of men.”

What difference does this make? For one, it means that there was no “papacy” in Peter’s day, so he couldn’t have been one. What’s more, if we’re right, even if someone had tried to make Peter into what we commonly think of as a “pope,” he would have refused. Furthermore, we see the very concept of a papacy as a Constantian corruption of the true religion of Jesus.

So, for me to say that “Peter is the first pope” (or, in like manner, that Roman Catholicism was the first Christian church) for the sake of a grade in school or points in a trivia contest is gut-wrenching. It goes against the very foundation of my religious existence, which if you know me at all you know is a big deal.

That’s my palimpsest — my button under the surface that triggers in me an ethical dilemma every time I face the “first pope” trivia question. Sadly, I cannot claim that I have always disdained the points to make the point. On this I (far too often) have to throw myself at God’s mercy for a hypocracy I still don’t have the strength to defeat every time.

But that said, we Restorationists are few and far between. There are “official lists” of Popes that include Peter, and if you aren’t a Restorationist, it’s unfair of me to expect you to doubt them.

As we become more and more sensitive to one another’s palimpsests, we must be equally gracious with other people’s ignorance of ours.

They’re All About Duty

June 4, 2008

“With humility of mind, regard one another as more important than yourselves.” — Philippians 2:3


Two characters in the TV show The West Wing are arguing about whether or not the Gilbert & Sullivan song “He Is an Englishman” comes from Pirates of Penzance or H. M. S. Pinafore.

“It’s the one about duty,” one offers.

“They’re all about duty,” the other counters.

(The song is from H. M. S. Pinafore, by the way.)

Conflict is inevitable.  Even among those who seek to live according to the teachings of Jesus, there will be disagreements, discord, even disunity.  Even though he prays for unity in the Garden of Gethsemane, in Luke 17 Jesus acknowledges that “stumbling blocks are inevitable,” even for His disciples.  Every person who walks with God will eventually find Himself a perpetrator of some sin or other.  The good news of the gospel, of course, is that there is forgiveness for sin in the blood of Jesus.

That’s when we are the perpetrator.  But what about when we are the victim?

As Americans, we tend to think in terms of our rights.  We want justice, protection from those who would harm us, even safety from the consequences of their attempts to harm others.  But as disciples of Jesus, we are called to think in somewhat different terms.  The one who stumbles is told that even as you stumble you have a duty not to take anyone else down with you.  The one who is the victim has a duty to forgive, no matter how many times or how severely he is harmed.  Jesus is not handing out rights, but obligations.

No wonder the disciples said, “Increase our faith.”

Herein lies the heart of Christian unity.  Harmony between believers is possible, but only if we can learn to trust one another.  For many, the hardest part of faith is not carrying out one’s own obligations, but trusting someone else to perform theirs.  A little bit of trust, a little bit of humility, a little bit of a servant’s heart deflecting glory away from ourselves (after all, we’re just doing our duty), a little bit of recognition of what God has given us so we can share it with others, all add up to a healthy, unified Christian community.

Unity in Christ depends on us all recognizing and doing our duty.