the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak

Last week I heard a terrific talk on Matthew 26.36-46 — Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

This is the journey it took me on:

As we kneel beside Jesus in this moment of intimate prayer, we get an authentic taste of the cost God bears to reconcile us to himself.

Jesus falls apart at the prospect of draining the cup of God’s wrath against sinners. He’s broken and oppressed. Weighed down with grief and fear. Begging for there to be any other way.

But he also willingly chooses to trust his Father. He surrenders. And consents to walk the path laid out for him — the path leading to the cross.

As a result, he completes the mission the Father sent him on. And leaves us an example at the same time.

  1. An example of trusting obedience — “yet not my will but your will be done”.
  2. An example of honest wrestling in prayer — not hiding his dread at what awaits him but laying it before his loving Father.
  3. An example of transforming forgiveness — dealing gently with his wavering followers as he restores and summons them to renewed obedience.
  4. And an example of God-honouring response to suffering — not allowing the darkness to blot out his confidence in his Father’s goodness (and thus the goodness of the path before him).

In a sense, these are the two mega-themes of the Christian faith: God’s decisive achievement of reconciliation in Christ and the response it summons us to.

But what really gripped me about the talk — and what still grips me about this passage — is how it brings together these two themes.

It all hinges on the third point.

You see, Jesus invites his inner circle to share his agony — following at a distance, keeping watch and praying. And when they fail (not once but three times), he forgives and summons them to renewed obedience.

Verses 40-41 are where things get really interesting.

Notice first how Jesus won’t let them hide from their failure: “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?”

As always, God’s forgiveness isn’t a shrugging indifference — as though what we do (or don’t do) doesn’t really matter. That’s what makes is forgiveness.

Notice too how his gentleness and understanding in forgiving — “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” — goes hand-in-hand with a reiterated summons to obedience: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”

This transforming forgiveness is what Christ willingly drinks the cup to secure for us.

Ultimately, Gethsemane opens a window into the cross not simply as the objective achievement of reconciliation — securing the possibility of salvation or whatever. It also gives us a glimpse of the ‘subjective’ goal of the cross — the flesh and blood reality of salvation.

For here we see our Saviour choosing to drink the cup we deserve to drink in order to call forth and enable our stumbling and faltering Grace Rather Than Fear-driven obedience

He surrenders to his Father’s will so we might obediently trust.

He pours out the grief and pain in his heart so we might bring our own to God in prayer.

He forgives and restores so we might become agents of transforming forgiveness.

And he clings to his Father so we too might know the light that shines in the darkness…

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