Today we’re going to try to better understand how to fill the sails on the second mast of our five-masted ship, which carries us toward the resurrection we celebrate at Easter.
Last week, we looked at the mast of prayer; this week, we’ll see how the mast of presence helps drive us along.
As far as today’s Scripture is concerned, we’re picking up in Mark where we left off last Sunday. Jesus was praying for the strength to follow Father God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the midst of that intense process, he went to check on the three disciples he took along, Peter, James and John. Jesus found them asleep—even Simon Peter, the assertive disciple who only recently had pledged to stand by Jesus even unto death.
“Simon, are you asleep?” Jesus asked, his rhetorical question capturing the irony of the moment. “Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Two more times Jesus returned to find them similarly asleep, suffering from a drowsiness that seems to me more the work of the devil than the result of any physical exhaustion.
“Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners,” Jesus said. “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” Jesus then was arrested and taken down the rocky, thorn-strewn path toward crucifixion.
I have no doubt that Jesus’ followers had many moments they would have handled differently if “do overs” were possible. They would have been by Jesus’ side as he prayed in anguish. They certainly would have stayed with Jesus and spoken up for him at his trial and crucifixion rather than denying knowing him and hiding. Nearly all of those do overs would be tied to their level of presence in both a physical and spiritual sense.
I am sympathetic to their situation. We, of course, are blessed with a full understanding of the story. The disciples were struggling with the collapse of their high expectations as their teacher faced torture and ultimately murder on a cross.
They could not comprehend what Christians now declare, that this death was only temporary. The core of our belief system is this: Jesus rose from the dead, resurrected, remade, inaugurating God’s remaking of all creation, rescuing us from sin.
Even knowing what we know, however, our biggest problem may be the failure of many of our own church members to be fully present. There are many in the American church who call Jesus “Savior,” perhaps even attending church regularly, but who are for all practical purposes asleep in the garden at a critical time.
It’s not a new problem. In the 18th century, Methodism became a British religious movement as a response to the lukewarm, Laodicean behavior of the Anglican church.
In one of John Wesley’s more famous sermons, “Awake Thou That Sleepest,” the founder of Methodism expressed his deep concern for those content with this life, particularly if they were outwardly religious but not particularly engaged with God or with the work God is doing in this world through the resurrection.
“Awake, thou everlasting spirit, out of thy dream of worldly happiness!” Wesley said. “Did not God create thee for himself? Then, thou canst not rest till thou restest in him. Return, thou wanderer!”
In modern times, the problem is similar, but worse, I think. We have more to distract us, more to keep us feeling content until our time in this world is all used up.
We are tired because we do too much that is not really of God’s will. And when it comes to worship (loving God) and active engagement in Christian ministry (loving our neighbors), we treat those activities as just more items on a troublesome to-do list rather than the priorities they are.
In short, we fail to be present. We stop being present spiritually, simply going through the motions, acting like what Wesley called an “Almost Christian.” Once there, we’re not far from reducing or ending our physical presence, withdrawing from church and ministry, and quietly hoping we bought enough fire insurance with our baptism to cover our eternal souls.
If any of this is sounding uncomfortably true, the answer is to engage in a little spiritual warfare. I am convinced that this problem goes beyond simple apathy. We are under attack, and the best weapon Satan has found in the 21st century may be distraction.
Distract them with material wants, and they’ll miss seeing the needs of others. Distract them with entertainment—sports, television, sports on television—and they’ll think they’re much busier than they actually are, lacking time to worship God.
Fire these weapons accurately and often, and one day these Almost Christians wake up to realize their best years are behind them, even if they are surrounded by lots of stuff. All they have left is a longing for Christ and no way to make up lost time.
I sincerely believe Christ’s grace remains available even to those who learn only late in life the value of being present in Christ’s church both spiritually and physically. We are saved by the grace of God, not by our works.
It’s still good to say thanks for eternal life, however, to respond to such a tremendous gift from God with all the loving presence we can muster.
Actively loving God and our neighbors from the day of our baptism until the day our bodies give out is one of the best ways I know to offer such thanks, particularly when you consider it is how God asks us to respond.