Lessons from the Last Supper and the Garden
Friends are those who are there for you through the good times and bad. There are fair-weather friends, those who will unload their problems on you but who won't take your calls for help when you're down. But true friends are the ones who always stay loyal to you and stand by your side when you are weakest, willing to protect you when you are most vulnerable. On the last night of Jesus's life, the ones He called his "friends" (Jn.15.15) deserted Him when He needed them most.
If we think of the nearly three years that Jesus's disciples had spent with Him as their "classroom schooling" and imagine the night of the Last Supper through Good Friday morning as their final exam, Christ's disciples would have received a failing grade. That's not just my opinion. The disciples would later level that criticism at themselves. It was they who confessed that for all the time that they had spent with Jesus and for all the warnings He gave them that He would suffer, be killed, and then rise again from the dead (Mt.16.21; 12.40; Jn.2.19; Lk.9.44), they didn't believe Him. When the temple guards came to arrest Jesus, the disciples admitted that they fled in fear and quickly lost whatever faith they had. When Jesus was in danger, they declined to stand by Him at His trial, much less offer to go to the cross with Him, as bishops of the Church would be expected to do? They didn't even organize a prayer vigil. Eventually, each one of them would bravely suffer a martyr's death rather than renounce their faith in Christ. But not on that fateful night. It's not as though Jesus had not given them ample reason to believe in Him. The disciples had received multiple epiphanies from God regarding Jesus's divinity. Peter had confessed Jesus to be no less than "the Messiah, the Son of the living God," and Jesus assured him that God had "revealed" that truth to him (Mt.16.16). On the Mount of Transfiguration, Christ gave Peter, James, and John a glimpse of His divine nature (Mt.17.1-8). The disciples also witnessed His many miracles: from His walking on water to raising Lazarus from the dead. They clearly knew He was no ordinary itinerant teacher. On the night of the Last Supper the disciples said to Jesus, "We believe that you came from God" (Jn.16.30). So what happened to their backbones over the next 24 hours? The answer to that question will help us understand the nature of true faith and how we acquire it.
On the night of Jesus's arrest, His disciples showed themselves to be no different from Nicodemus, the half-hearted disciple who believed in Jesus but with reservations. Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God," (Jn.3.2) Nicodemus admired Jesus and was drawn to Him. But he also doubted Jesus's orthodoxy and questioned his mission. And right up to the last hour with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, all of the disciples likewise were half-hearted believers deserving of the admonition "O ye of little faith" (Mt.8.26). They loved Jesus, loved Him very much, and they probably had a notion that He was indeed Israel's savior, but their belief in His divinity and messianic role lacked the strength of a conviction. Indeed, when push came to shove, they showed themselves to be complete cowards, choosing to save their own necks. Before they could stand openly in the world and preach the gospel with bold certitude, they still had a great lesson to learn.
What they could not grasp, until Christ revealed it to them on Easter, was that the messiah would establish His reign by rising from the dead, even though Jesus told them what to expect. It was because Our Lord had "concealed from them" (Lk.9.45) the meaning of his words. Why would Jesus do that to them? Because He needed to teach them the most important lesson of all: that Christian faith is something God gives to a soul only after that soul shows Him it is ready to receive it. Faith is not something we acquire by rigorous study. It is not a subject, like mathematics or cooking, that we master through our own efforts. God gives faith as a gift (1Cor 12.9) to those whom He trusts to embrace it. No matter how hard we try, we cannot summon up faith in our hearts and minds. It is challenging to understand why faith would not be a personal decision. When we hear it said, "the one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned" (Mk.16.16), we get the impression that there is inside our hearts a little switch labeled "believe": all we have to do is exercise our free will and turn it on. You either choose to believe in Jesus or you don't; it's that simple. But it is not that simple. When Jesus said to His disciples, "apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn.15.5), He meant that we require grace even to believe in Him: we are—so much more than we can even imagine—totally subject to God, totally at God's mercy. This is how Jesus put it: "All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father, except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Mt.11.27). There is only one way to become a believer in Christ and that is to receive faith from Him by way of revelation.
In other words, on the night of the Last Supper, the disciples lacked conviction about Jesus's divinity and understanding about His plan to redeem the world through His death and resurrection because Our Lord chose to withhold the grace necessary to grasp it. He chose not to reveal the faith to them because they were not yet ready to receive it. Before they could receive the faith they had to be humbled. Saints cannot achieve their sainthood unless and until they know themselves first to be sinners undeserving of divine grace and unworthy of salvation. They had to fail Christ, and accordingly He had to let them fail. It wasn't easy for Him or for them to endure this last and most terrible trial, but the Church could not have been born otherwise (Jn.16.21-22).
The world is filled with many souls who sincerely believe in Jesus. Even demons believe in Him (Mk.1.24) But only in a few does belief mature into a conviction we call faith. "Many are called but few are chosen" (Mt.22.14). Why is that? Because only a few are willing to give Our Lord everything and make a commitment of heart, mind, and soul to him (Mt.22.37). There are many who admire Jesus as a great and good man; who see Him as the equivalent of, say, Ghandi, or The Dali Lama, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: an inspiration to many and a beacon of hope. And many others just love Jesus to pieces and think He's so wonderful. Their admiration and their affection for Him may be sincere, but they will always suffer doubts about His incarnate divinity and question His resurrection from the dead. Why? Because Our Lord does not reveal the faith to those who want to make Him into an extension of their own egos or use His name to advance a political agenda. God gives faith conviction to those whom He knows truly thirst for the truth and whom He trusts will sacrifice whatever they must to keep the faith once they have received it.
That is why Jesus allowed His disciples to see "the light of the world" and then took that light from them and left them in darkness (Jn 12.35-36). You can't gaze upon the pattern of God's glory until you discover and own the dark truth of your own fallen nature. You can't preach salvation from sin and darkness until you have passed through it yourself. When Jesus encountered his disciples again on that first Easter Sunday, He explained to them that they, along with Him, had to suffer, but in different ways. He had to endure the Passion. They had to endure losing Him. In this way the Church learned its greatest lesson: the Church is nothing without Christ on the cross. Remove Christ suspended from nails and all you have left is a lot of people speculating which one of them will be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (Lk.22.24). It is a great feast without a sacrifice; all priests and no victim. You can have a passion for social justice, but without the passion of Christ there is no redemption. We have instead a gaggle of unredeemed sinners looking in a mirror and believing that they are gazing at God. That was the indispensable lesson the disciples had yet to learn. Had they not learned it, the Church's foundation could not have been built. Should the Church ever forget it, it will stop being the Church and become something else: a community of believers. That's what the disciples were on the night of the Last Supper: a band of believers deeply attached to their friend and teacher. But a band of believers who love Jesus does not a Church make. That's when Christ took this little egotistical community of believers and forged them into saints, men of conviction who would turn the world upside-down by summoning others to live the Faith; men who could say to others with conviction as Christ said to them: "Take up your cross and follow me" (Mt.16.24). He put them through hell so that they would afterward be able to lead others to Heaven.
Jesus was teaching His disciples right up to the end how to be the Church, but He was never more exasperated with them than at the Last Supper when their questions revealed they did not understand his great commission or in whose presence they were sitting. When Jesus announced to his disciples, " I go and prepare a place for you...and you know the way where I am going," (Jn.14.3), Thomas replied incredulously, " Lord we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" (Jn.14.5). Jesus then told them directly, "I am the Way;" meaning, "Where I am, there is the Kingdom of God." But even then they were not getting it. Phillip followed up Thomas's question by saying, "Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied." Jesus said to him, " Have I been with you all this time, Phillip, and you still do not know me. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father?'" ( Jn.14.8-9). We wonder who hurt Jesus more that night, the Roman guards who laid open his back or the disciples who broke his heart?
The disciples later admitted it was them. They were the ones who let Jesus down and failed Him when He needed them most. At the Last Supper, as they sat at the table with Him, these future bishops and saints of the Church were arguing with each other over which would be considered the greatest when Our Lord established His kingdom (Lk.22.24). They were behaving like adolescents, not listening to their teacher, and avoiding responsibility. Jesus had told them they could not enter His kingdom unless they became like little children (Mt.18.3). But little children like to do chores with their parents. Adolescents want to do their own thing; they don't want to be constrained by their parents' authority. Every parent of an adolescent can hear the frustration in Jesus's voice when He calls to His disciples, "So, could you not watch with me one hour?" (Mt.26.40) They were sleeping when they should have been praying. Had they behaved like real bishops of the Church, true saints, they would have been by Our Lord's side strengthening him with prayers through the night. When the guards came to arrest Him, they would have not fled in fear. "Perfect love casts out fear" (1Jn.4.18). They would have fallen to their knees and doubled their prayers to the Father.
Luke said that in the Garden of Gethsemane they were so grieved they fell asleep (Lk.22.45); that's why they weren't praying. It's true, grief can weigh the heart down with sadness and induce sleep. And in fairness to the disciples, it had been a long night. It was not just that the hour was late; Jesus waited until that night to disquiet them with some weighty teaching. He told them that He was leaving them; that they would be hated because of their association with Him (Jn.15.18-19); that some of them would be killed (Jn.16.2); and that if they did not remain faithful to Him, God would use them for kindling (Jn.15.6). One can understand why they felt especially drained. They had just been ordained priests. They had been given the privilege and responsibility of the Eucharist: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk.22.19). And then He told them that doing this would result in their persecution (Jn.16.33). That's a lot to process overnight.
But under the circumstances that's hardly an excuse. The fact is that they were being selfish. They weren't thinking of Him. We don't often think of Jesus as needing anything from others or as needing anyone's help. We often imagine our heroes are like Superman, invulnerable to normal human weaknesses. But Jesus did not wear tights and a cape. He came to earth from heaven, but he came as a humble man (Phil.2.5-7), a man who would be a victim. We may forget that the whole point of the Incarnation of God in Christ is that God took our human weakness and failing on Himself. He didn't just look like one of us. He was one of us. The few hours before his arrest, Jesus was feeling both afraid and lonely. He needed in that hour what we all need when we are feeling vulnerable: a friend. It's amazing how much strength we can draw just from the presence of a faithful friend. When my mother died and I was feeling sad, I appreciated beyond words the few people who sat beside me and said nothing. Their attention to my grief was healing love, their silent witness to my sorrow a balm to my soul. But who was there for Jesus in His hour of grief? No one. The disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane portrayed the Church at its worst—each absorbed in himself and no one focused on Our Lord.
Matthew tells us that in the Garden Jesus "began to be sorrowful and troubled" (Mt.26.37). What does that mean exactly? I think it means He began to cry. We don't often see our leaders shed tears. It's not manly to cry in public. We expect stoic reserve from our great men and women, a sign that under pressure they can control their emotions and keep focused on the business at hand. Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus (Jn.11.35). But that was different. He was empathizing with Martha and Mary who were grieving for their brother. He was sad for them. But that night in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was burdened by his own immediate future. He felt, "very sorrowful, even to death" (Mt.26.38), so weighed down with grief that he could not pick himself up. He who could walk on water was drowning in anxiety. He who had everything under control had relinquished control. He of whom God declared "this is my beloved son" was now revealing that He was, every last ounce of Him, right down to the sweat coming off his anguished brow, also the son of Mary; a man whose nerves were not made of steel (Lk.22.44).
But why was He who escaped from danger many times before, not saving Himself now (Lk.4.29-30)? If He knew He was going to be arrested and tried, why not get on a horse and get out of town? Why stay and and face His executioners? He endured this anguish because He lived to do God's will and this was God's will: that He suffer at the hands of humankind's mortal enemy. Satan could not touch Him without the Father's acquiescence; now God would permit it. The hour had come. Christ had spoken of his "hour," and it had arrived (Jn.2.4; 12.27; 17.1). It was the hour Satan had been looking forward to since the Fall of man. At last! There is no celebration in hell but this: for a few short hours one night and into the next day Satan had his way with the Son of God (Jn.13.27; 14.30-31). And so the scripture was fulfilled: "He will strike his heel" (Gen. 3.15).
It's a frightening thing to walk into a dark tunnel not knowing where it ends or who might be lurking in the shadows. But, still, why was Jesus, the light of the world (Jn.8.12), crying? Why was he anxious? He knew what His role in God's plan for the salvation of humankind was. His task, the reason he came down to earth from Heaven was to serve as the perfect scapegoat, the perfect victim whose death would expiate original sin. Everyone who is born of a woman is born to live. Christ alone of all men came into the world to die. His death, He knew, would restore human beings to the original state of holy communion with God that we enjoyed before the Fall. So why didn't He just get on with it and go coolly about his business. Why the drama and the anguished prayer: "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet not what I want but what you want" (Mk.14.36)? The answer to that question is already known to anyone who has ever loved; and no one loved more than Christ who incarnated Love. He cried because death is always final. And saying goodbye is hard. I cry when my adult kids come home and I haven't seen them in months, and then I cry even harder when they go away knowing that it will be several more months before we are together again. He whose love is infinite has a well of tears in His sacred heart that are wet and infinite as well.
And he was anxious because physical pain can be excruciating. And lest there be any doubt about it, Jesus anticipated a very painful death. I am not so afraid of death as I am fearful of making a long and painful exit from this world. I have witnessed many deaths, and some of them were excruciating. Who isn't afraid of that? How does a man pray when He knows He's going to be crucified? Luke said He sweated drops of blood (Lk.22.44). But the greater point is this: He stayed and He prayed. He did not flee from Jerusalem in order to save Himself. Why? Because that's what true love does. "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins" (1Jn.4.10). The first man, Adam, hid from God in the Garden of Eden and thus showed the world what love is not (Gen.3.8). Christ in the Garden of our redemption, by his faithfulness and vulnerability, taught the world what love is.
"Seek and you will find," Jesus said (Lk.11.9). That is a sacred promise: Our Lord will reveal the faith to all those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" (Mt.5.6). He will not throw his pearls before swine (Mt.7.6). He will give faith only to those who have earned his trust. The ones most sure to receive the gift of faith are the ones who know how desperately they need forgiveness. The road to faith begins with a confession of sin. Show God that you know yourself to be a sinner in need of the redemption that only the crucified Christ offers. Anything less than that will not do. You may have sentiment and admiration and genuine affection for a good man named Jesus, but you'll never know Christ until you admit your personal need for the redemption that He alone has accomplished. He only reveals himself to those whom He's sure he can trust to keep the faith and the only ones He trusts are sinners humbled by the crushing weight of their own guilt before God, a guilt that they know they cannot cast off without His divine assistance. The surest way to acquire faith is to do as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane: get on your knees with Him and weep for your sins and for the sins of the whole world. And then trust in Him who went to the cross for our sins, the one and only man of God who can actually do something about it.