“By thine agony and bloody sweat … good Lord, deliver us.” Such is the way in which the Prayer Book recalls for us the suffering which Jesus underwent in the Garden of Gethsemane as he anticipated his crucifixion. That Jesus’ mind was filled with fear that night there is no doubt. It is a hard thing for anyone to face death; and the usual Roman method of execution by means of the cross was crueler and more painful than most. The thought of execution must have been made harder for Jesus to bear by his knowledge of the fact that he had committed no crime: his death was to be the result of jealousy, treachery and deceit on the part of the religious and political authorities and even on the part of one of his own associates. A death like that, cruel and unjustified, would be a torture for anyone to face. Yet we are left with the impression that Jesus’ sorrow “even to death”, his agonized pleas to God the Father, and his sweat, which Luke describes as “like great drops of blood falling upon the ground” were caused, not by the anticipation of death, but by something which to Jesus was more terrifying than even death itself.
What was it that Jesus feared so greatly? Our answer to this question is found in his prayer to the Father, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” It was a cup which Jesus begged to have removed from him—and that cup was the cup, not of suffering and death, but of separation from the presence and favor of God. For one whose entire life had been lived in the most intimate communion with God, to be separated from God was a separation far worse than any of the separations which death necessitates. We fear death because it takes us away from the comforts of life, from the people and places and things we know and love. Jesus feared his death on the cross because there he was to take upon himself the alienation from God which all had known except him.
During his ministry, Jesus had spoken of his oneness with the Father, and the first chapter of John’s gospel describes him as “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father”. Such was the intimacy of the relationship which existed between Jesus and the Father. It was an intimacy which Jesus expressed in his temptation in the wilderness, when he said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” For Jesus, unity and communion with the Father truly were more important than food and health, far more important even than life itself. “My food,” he said to his disciples, “is to do the will of him who sent me.” That is the picture we have of Jesus—of a man whose entire life was sustained by his relationship with God, who depended totally on God for everything that he was and did. We can see, then, how the severing of that relationship could appear to Jesus as a terrible, frightening prospect—to be cut off from the one who literally was his life.
This was the cup which Jesus was to drink, the cup which he asked his Father to be removed from him—the cup of total separation from God, the Holy One, brought on by our sinful nature—by the sinfulness of mankind.
How do we feel when we’re separated from God? I think that there are many of us, myself included, who often prefer to be in that state. God can be a bit of a nuisance when he speaks to our conscience; when he tells us to love people we’d rather have nothing to do with; when he makes us give what we want to keep for ourselves; when he tells us not to impose what we regard as our “rights” on other people. At times like that God gets in the way, and we’d rather have nothing to do with him. Yet, ultimately, that’s not the way we’re supposed to be. “What is the chief end of man?” asks the Shorter Catechism. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Without God there can be no meaning in life, no joy, no peace, no hope in any final sense. Most of us never discover the truth of this fact because we spend so little time thinking about life—either because we can’t or because we’re afraid to (I’m not sure which).
“In every man,” wrote the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, “there is a God-shaped vacuum.” Jesus was aware—intensely conscious—of the extent of that vacuum. It takes up the whole of life, for life can make real sense only as we allow God to enter and share it with us, and fill it with the rich colours of his pallet.
The prayer of agony in the garden, the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” are the expressions of a man who knew, with the totality of his being, that life without God is not life at all. Jesus took that punishment upon himself, not because he deserved it, not because he had been out-manoeuvred by the stealth of his opponents, but because he chose to. Time and time again he had told his disciples about the suffering which awaited him in Jerusalem—not because it was unavoidable, but because he had come specifically “to give his life a ransom for many”.
As he hung on the cross, Jesus freely took upon himself not only a physical death he did not deserve, but also the alienation from God caused by sin—not his own sin, but the sins of the world, our sin. Jesus took upon himself what we justly deserve. St Paul, reflecting on this a generation later, was able to write, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” St Peter locked on it this way: “Christ … died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” What we know of Jesus’ own teachings and what we hear from his first followers all points to the conclusion that the death which he anticipated at the Garden of Gethsemane was no mere martyr’s death, but rather one in which he would take upon himself all that in human experience alienates and separates us from God—what we call sin—so that we might enjoy the communion which he had with the Father.
It was God’s will that Jesus should die, but also that we should live—live in fellowship and harmony with God. Jesus’ agony as he faced his cross comes now as a challenge to us to accept what he has done, to be reconciled to God, by faith to come to Christ and to let him by his power draw us into communion with the Father.
We pray, “By thine agony and bloody sweat … good Lord, deliver us.” And we ask that by what he has suffered for us, Jesus might deliver us from the sin which separates and alienates us from God and establish us forever in his life and love and power.