I’ve been rereading the passion narratives during Holy Week as part of my morning devotional time, and I’m struck by the repeated expressions of Jesus’ anguished struggle. Several times in the gospel stories, Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message says, “Remove this cup from me. But please, not what I want. What do you want?”
Reflecting on these takes me back to a discussion I had with a colleague many years ago. I don’t recall the context or what stimulated the conversation—a reading, a story, a quote. But we talked about the passage from John 12 where Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’ Father, glorify your name.” My friend and I began to contemplate the question of how much time passed between the question Jesus asks himself and the interior answer that resolves it. For how much time did Jesus anguish between “Will you save me from this which I would like to avoid?” and “No, it is for this purpose that you have prepared me and for which I have come.”
Some passages of scripture capture in a paragraph an action or teaching that took place in a single moment in time. Other passages distill and condense into a single sentence a teaching that took months or years to unfold or which took the early disciples months and years to comprehend. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one from the other. For instance, scripture records Jesus observing the gifts to the temple treasury and telling his disciples that the widow who put in two coins gave more than all the others. Does this story record an event that took place a single time at a single place on a Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m.? Or does this scriptural story capture a repeated teaching of Jesus, implying that he used to say this frequently over the several years of his ministry? Biblical scholars disagree.
Now back to the question my friend and I were contemplating. The scripture says that Jesus’ soul is troubled and that he wrestled with whether to ask God to save him from hardship, and then he resolutely expresses the discernment that his calling and purpose are fulfilled as he embraces the suffering and hardship. Did all of this happen in the small slip of time it takes to read the passage? Or did it take months, or years, or a lifetime, for Jesus to completely arrive at this inexpressible and life-giving offering of himself?
Like many of the laity and clergy who are reading this, I responded to a calling early in my life, a vocation of following Jesus. I’ve done better on some days than on others. Every season of life and stage of ministry has brought fresh challenges. At every step I wrestle again with what I want, desire, prefer, and find convenient, and how these feelings frequently contrast with what I discern God asking me to do. Virtually every biblical story of people being called by God leads them to go where they did not want to go—Moses didn’t want to go back to Egypt (“Please, Lord, send someone else!”); Jonah didn’t want to engage the people of Nineveh; and Paul was challenged to lead the very people he’d been persecuting. The call to follow Jesus has less to do with what you and I want or how you and I feel and more to do with making ourselves useful for God’s purposes, wherever that takes us. Our discernment involves attending to the natural talents, spiritual gifts, developed skills, and shaping experiences that we offer to God’s purposes through the community of God’s people.
In the face of God’s calling, what remains for us to discern is whether we will say a hearty, sober, joyful Yes to the adventure of following Christ or not. With the Yes comes the experience of being alive, an aliveness nothing can take away, not even physical death itself.
Peterson’s The Message has Jesus saying it this way, “Right now I’m storm-tossed. And what am I going to say? ‘Father, get me out of this’? No, this is why I came in the first place. I’ll say, ‘Father, put your glory on display.’”
And so he did.