On the night of his arrest, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him into the garden to pray. Jesus wants their support, but this is also to prepare them for the trial to come. Jesus tells them to stay awake. It was important that they see his struggle and participate in it. But they could not. They went to sleep.
Jesus calls Peter out especially, because he had been the most outspoken and boastful, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?” Then he says, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial,” that is, “that you may not be overcome when you enter the trial coming upon you.” “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,” he says (see Mark 14:32–42). Jesus knows that they need to nurture the spiritual fortitude, strength, courage, and endurance that comes from being discerning of God’s will and awake to God’s presence.
When Jesus tells them to stay awake and pray, he is telling them to be reflective and discerning. If they are to ask God for anything, they are to ask God for discernment and understanding, for inner strength and courage.
To be awake is to be mindful of God’s mind, and part of this involves developing the capacity to think. One of the great challenges in American Christianity is to get Christians to think.
I read somewhere that in the third century, the one known as Julian the Apostate was determined to blot out every trace of Christianity. What he discovered, however, was the principle of spiritual thermodynamics; the more he applied the heat of persecution, the more the church seemed to expand and multiply. Frustrated with his efforts to wipe out the Christian movement he made this assessment. He said, “Christianity provokes too much thinking. Even the slaves are thinking.”
But once Christianity stopped being persecuted by the establishment and became part of the establishment, thinking was not as necessary. Once Christianity gained favor and cuddled up to the powers that be many Christians simply stopped thinking. It was too risky.
Biblical scholar and theologian Walter Wink has done some rather extensive research and study on the concept of the “principalities and powers” as it is found in Scripture and manifested in society. In the mythical world of biblical times the reference is often to demons, but it could also refer to the domination system of the world. Wink concludes from his study that all the outer, visible organizations, institutions, systems, and structures of the world have an invisible, inner, spiritual reality. He says that while we may not be accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon, or the Chrysler Corporation, or the Mafia as having a spirituality, they actually do. He contends that what people in the world of the Bible called “principalities and powers” was actually the spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day.
The capacity to resist conformity to the Domination System, to the powers that be, is difficult and must be nurtured. If we are spiritually sleepwalking there is no way we will have the inner strength and courage to resist conformity to the will of the powers that be, let alone be able discern what is good and right and just and loving.
Prayer is not intended to be our way of getting what we want; it’s our way of staying awake and being open to the Divine Spirit. It’s our way being present to the Presence of God. It’s our way of drawing upon the discernment, wisdom, compassion, grace, and inner strength of Christ to resist conformity to the Domination System and to work towards transforming it.
In prayer we discover our mission as collaborators with God and as agents of the Spirit. We discover how to be peacemakers and advocates of restorative justice and to work for the renewal of the earth. In prayer we learn to be humble servants and we learn how to see through the veneer of lies and deceptions that coats so many of our religious and political and social institutions. In prayer we open up our minds to what is good and true, so that we can be transformed, rather than be conformed to the mold of the world.