On Resisting the Poison Chalice

by Michael Usey, Mark 14.32-36 NRSV

Abba, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me;  yet not what I want, but what you want.—Mark 14:36 NRSV, adapted

Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one written, is the only one to capture Jesus’ use of Abba in his Aramaic tongue. It is here in the Gethsemane prayer: “Abba, all things are possible to you.” Earlier in the daily prayer, Jesus had taught his disciples to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” Now in the garden of Gethsemane, the night of his arrest, the eve of his death, came its moment of truth. “Do I mean this prayer?”

At this moment Jesus knew his arrest and death were imminent. Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom had gotten caught in a vortex of political, social, and religious paranoia, and people saw his death as a way out of danger. The mechanism of sacred violence by which people believe the sacrifice of someone’s life will save the whole was in full swing.

Jesus’ prayer was the agonized cry of one who knew this was the last moment to turn from death’s path. Can one imagine a fiercer inner conflict than this, to preserve one’s life or to offer it up in the inscrutable hope that God will somehow use it for the good of the world? So in agony he prayed to God, his Abba: Abba, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.

Luke’s version has the more familiar cadences: “Not my will, but yours, be done” (22:42). There is the intimate address, Abba. There is the expression of trust in the power and goodness of God, “All things are possible to you.” There is the acknowledgment of the clash between the will to live and the will to serve God’s highest purpose; and there is the offering of one’s life into God’s purposes, “Yet not what I want, but what you want.”

This is the fourth week of our fall worship series called EVOLVE.  Each week we are holding in our hearts a word that might help us to evolve closer to what God’s spirit is calling us to be.  We’ve considered the concepts of evolve, thanks, when, and today, help.  It’s a companion sermon to last week’s, when we joined with the psalms asking God when will come divine help, because we separately need God’s succor and support.

Back to the gospel of Mark, in which the drama is only intensified. Jesus took his disciples to the garden. He asked them to sit while he prayed. Here was another instance of Jesus needing sustained, solitary prayer. He then asked Peter, James, and John to go with him to a place of prayer. These three were chosen by Jesus to be with him at other key moments, such as at the transfiguration.

Mark says next that Jesus was “greatly distressed and troubled” (14:33). Raymond Brown asserted that the Greek verb for “distressed” connotes profound physical and emotional disarray, “a shuddering horror,” and that the Greek verb “troubled” conveys deepest anguish. The other Gospels soften or omit this picture of Jesus as one at such a desperate place.  Jesus then said to his disciples, “My soul is extremely sorrowful, even to death; remain here and watch” (14:34). The call to stay awake and be watchful had more to do than with simply not falling asleep. More is needed than extra caffeine. Then the text says he went a bit farther, “he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him” (v. 35). Then the prayer, “Abba.” Matthew’s gospel says that three times Jesus prayed this prayer. Three times signifies a long agonized night of prayer. 

Jesus prayed to the God he trusted utterly. He prayed honestly to be spared an excruciating and humiliating execution on a Roman cross. He prayed for God to intervene and make some new way in this crisis so he wouldn’t have to die this way. He could have chosen to run from this scene and escape death this way, but the integrity of his life and mission would not permit him to do so. So with one breath he begged his God to find another way, and with the next breath he submitted himself to the train of events, whatever they proved to be. He would be true to his calling—and to the way of the kingdom he preached. God had used his life for the kingdom’s sake; if death were to come, God could use his death too.

Remove this cup . . . yet not what I want, but what you want. Simple words, a simple petition, but unfathomably deep: I don’t want to drink this poison chalice.  I don’t want to throw myself into a raging current that will dash me on the rocks of human ignorance, hatred, cruelty, and violence.  I don’t want my life to end like this–sweat, whips, nails, welts, torn tendons, labored breathing, and my blood on the stones. But if doing so will unleash a new possibility for good, one that you, God desire to unleash in the world, then I will drink the chalice and expand to meet my final challenge.

Was Jesus’ prayer answered?  The first half wasn’t; God didn’t adjust the world to make Jesus’ life easy.  Nor does God do so for us; we are promised suffering.  But the second half of his prayer?  Maybe so.  The consequences of Jesus’ surrender to this path that night continue to spread across time and space like pond ripples.  No Disney fast pass, no reprieve, no get out of jail free card.  Nor did he take the path of independence, shutting God out and choosing his own path instead. No, in weakness, in vulnerability, from the edge of the abyss, he reached out to God for help.  And in return, he received the strength to move forward and drink the poison cup dry.  This is speech to God in its most mature form.

Here’s what I love about this prayer: the great commandment according to Jesus (and celebrated in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other traditions) calls us to love God, and to love others as we love ourselves. This command presupposes a right and healthy way of loving ourselves.  Jesus’ plea for the cup to pass was an expression of that healthy love for oneself.  If Jesus had stopped there, the prayer would have fallen short–but he didn’t.  His prayer beautifully integrated love for himself (Let this cup pass from me) with love for God and others (Not what I want, but what you want).

We are too often not a good friend to ourselves.  Abraham Lincoln said, I desire to so conduct the affairs of this administration that if, at the end … I have lost every friend on earth, I shall have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.  Deep down in way too many of us is not a friend, but an enemy.

If a friend makes a mistake, we generally say it’s okay, since no one is perfect.  But when we make a mistake, we can beat ourselves up, mercilessly taking ourselves to task.  If a friend overworks, we encourage them to relax some, play some disc golf, hike with their dog.  Much less so with ourselves, for inside of many of us is a cruel taskmaster who is never satisfied.  When a friend has a weakness, most of us try to be gracious and compassionate.  But not so often with ourselves.  If we would love ourselves in a healthy way, we first must (as Lincoln said) become a friend to ourselves. 

This prayer forces us to the ground floor of our belief. As Stephen Shoemaker has said, it portrays the utter freedom of the person and the utter freedom of God. Jesus knows he is free to go ahead with a martyr and savior’s death or to flee that death. He believes that God may yet find a way to fulfill the kingdom’s purpose other than by his death. The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with people of faith praying to God, hoping God will change God’s mind—and God doing exactly that.

In the radical openness of God’s universe and of God’s continuing creation and redemption of it, prayer is a way of discerning our human participation with God in creation and redemption. It is an honest cry to ask God to find another way. It is an act of deep trust to follow our best discernment of God’s will even if that means suffering and death.

On one level it is morally absurd to think God would “will” or “want” Jesus’ death. This would make God a monster. Remember, it was Jesus who said, “It is not the will of my Abba that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt 18.14). The phrase “God’s will” has been used to cover the most horrendous and heartbreaking of events, from the tragic death of the young to natural catastrophe to the sacred violence of crusades. Again, God’s true will is the uniting and healing of all things (Eph 1.9-10; Rev 21.1-2). It is shalom, well-being and peace. I am not asserting that I know exactly what God wills; I do not presume to know God’s thoughts or wishes.  I do know that in our sacred texts, God’s will is almost always character, not circumstance; meaning that when a NT writer mentions God’s will, the list that follows are character traits, not a specific place or job or person. As it is here, actually: I don’t think God wills Jesus’ death; but I believe God willed that Jesus follow his path and teaching to the very end, even if it meant Jesus’ murder.

Moreover, in the kingdom of God that Jesus preached and embodied, the means must be consistent with ends. The ends are present in the means, so Jesus chose nonviolence as the way. You just can’t kill for Jesus or in the name of God, whether that name is Yahweh, Allah, or Abba.  The powers of evil call for resistance from God’s people, but we are always tempted to become evil in order to defeat evil. As Frederich Nietzsche said, Whoever fights monsters must be careful not to become one in the process. Jesus was willing at this point to give his life; he was not willing to take life.

When Jesus knelt in the garden he knew that his preaching and living of the kingdom had brought him to a final clash with the powers that be and their resistance to God’s kingdom. Who wants to die, especially this one who loved life as much as anyone who ever lived? But now to refuse death would be to deny all he had lived for. James Hillman considers the death of Socrates, who himself felt bound to his death: “His death belonged to the integrity of his image, to his innate form.” And so did Jesus’ death belong to the integrity of his personhood and the integrity of the way God had chosen to redeem the world—not through the power of the sword but through the power of love made eloquent in suffering.

C. P. Snow’s book The Sleep of Reason is taken from the title of one of Goya’s etchings, El sueño de la razon produce monstruos: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.” Jesus rouses us from spiritual sleep to spiritual watchfulness. Prayer is what alerts us to the presence of evil in all its forms, monstrous and banal. It keeps us from giving up our sacred personhood and becoming capable of monstrous acts.

Bernard of Clarivaux talked about the three stages of love. In the first stage we love God for our own sake, for what God can do for us.  In the second stage, we love God for God’s own sake, for God is beauty and goodness and light.  Yet in the third stage, Bernard says we love ourselves for God’s sake.  We join with God in seeing ourselves in a gracious and compassionate light. This is what asking God for help means: we learn to stand with God and see ourselves as needy, weak, limited, imperfect, edgy, stressed out, driven, frightened, and troubled.  We are all these things at one time or another, especially now.  But we don’t criticize, condemn, chide, or reject ourselves.  Rather, we join with God in God’s desire for your own expansion and well-being.  We join God wanting the best for us, and in the light you make your request for help for your friend, yourself.  

Let me invite you to pause this sermon here and consider what that might mean for you to be a friend to yourself, to love yourself for God’s sake.  Will you take 5 minutes and talk about with those you’re with, please?  [Pause]

I’m not watering down Jesus’ soul-wrenching prayer in the garden to let us be easy on ourselves–to let ourselves off the hook for doing the hard work of living the Jesus life of justice, mercy, kindness, and love.  This life led to his death, and it calls us to do every day for us too.  But I am advocating that we speak to God about ourselves with the same compassion we can easily bring to others.  Jesus prayed for the poison cup to pass from him; we can ask God for real help now for us, and not feel like a spiritual failure.  These are incredibly difficult times we are living in.  I believe they will pass, and there will be an easier time in our lives right now.  But being a lover of God and a Jesus follower is not easy.  We can ask God for help and speak to ourselves with friendly care.  We are not failures because we sin or don’t follow through or want to give up or are afraid of pain, physical or psychic. 

In south-central Kentucky is the Abbey of Gethsemani where Thomas Merton lived. The brothers have built a “garden of Gethsemane” out in the woods. When you approach it, you see first a memorial plaque. The garden is erected in memory of Jonathan Daniels, a young seminarian who was murdered in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. This is no sentimental journey. Then you come to a sculpture, life-size, of the three disciples. They are reclined against one another, dead asleep. Then you go around a bend in the woods and see the solitary agonized figure of Christ kneeling on a hard stone. (How long could one kneel like that?) His head is not bowed in pious resignation; his hands are not folded in proper prayer. His head is thrown back in agony, his hands cover his face. With his head thrown back you see his neck, a strong, sinewy neck, exposed to earth and heaven.

This is how Jesus came to the garden, offered his prayer to his Abba, prayed for some other way, then yielded himself in deep willingness to the purposes of God, which he could barely see but trusted with his life. He asks us to watch and pray so that in our hardest hours of testing and trial we will be true to God and to our best, truest self.