“Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial...” Mark 14:38
Those who read the gospels closely, with any degree of attentiveness to the connections between them, soon become aware that Matthew, Mark and Luke follow substantially the same story-line. Their narratives, however, are by no means identical. The evangelists manifestly handle their material with a certain freedom consistent with their individual purposes and perspectives. There are places, though, where the evangelists adhere very closely to the traditions they have received. The words spoken and the order of events stay very much the same. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the account of the Last Supper and the prayers of Jesus after the Last Supper in the Garden of Gethsemane. This should lead us to appreciate that some things were burned into the memory of the apostles and tenaciously preserved in the theology and practice of the church.
One obvious example of this in the accounts of the Lord’s Supper are the words that Jesus spoke in giving the bread and cup to the disciples. We call these the “words of institution.” When the minister takes the bread and cup and repeats the words of Jesus—“this is my body, this is my blood”—the minister is preserving a tradition unchanged from the night of our Lord’s betrayal. St. Paul insists that he has observed this tradition in what he taught the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you...” (1 Cor. 11:23)
Now, it is not that there are no differences at all in the Last Supper reports of the words of Jesus. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus gives the cup and says, “This is my blood of the covenant...” In Luke, Jesus gives the cup and says, “This is the new covenant in my blood...”-- a wording that St. Paul also uses in 1 Cor. 11:25. This may reflect Jesus’ own elaboration of the meaning of the cup at the time of the Last Supper. Or, it could reflect the development of apostolic teaching about the covenant for the benefit of the church. But, the difference between “my blood of the covenant” and “new covenant in my blood” is small indeed and certainly does not call into question the historical character of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
We can also note that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, toward or at the end of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus warned Peter that he would deny him three times. This is followed in Gethsemane with Jesus’ dread of the cross, his prayer that the Father would remove the cup, but with the qualification, “not my will, but yours be done.” Here, too, there are a few interesting differences in the details. Matthew and Mark again run closely together, with Jesus saying to the Father of removing the cup of suffering that “all things were possible” for him. In Luke, Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing...” (There is no reason to believe that Jesus would not have said both during an extended time in prayer!) Matthew and Mark also record Jesus’ three-fold interruption of his prayer to awaken the sleeping disciples. And finally, and most specifically for our consideration this evening, our three evangelists all record that Jesus charged the disciples to “pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Mt. 26:41; Mk. 14:38; Lu. 22:39, 46)
If you recall Jesus’ Gethsemane charge to the disciples from older translations, the earlier rendering was typically to pray that they would not enter or come into “temptation.” The word in Greek is peirasmos, which means “trial” or “test” and is translated here by the NRSV and several other more recent translations as “time of trial.” Now, in the context, “time of trial” clearly provides the most cogent rendering of Jesus’ words. The slumbering disciples were not facing just any old temptation. They were not facing the broad array of temptations that overtake people from time to time. For example, Jesus was not urging them to pray lest, upon awaking, they might be tempted to go out and rob the local convenience store or hit the streets for a night of drunken carousing. He had just warned them that they would all desert him. He had warned them that their loyalty would be tested and be shown to be wanting. He urged them to pray that they not be overtaken by a crisis of faith for which they were not prepared.
At this point I would submit that in this episode—Jesus praying in Gethsemane—we have the context for fully understanding and appreciating the Lord’s Prayer. It is really impossible to read of Gethsemane and not think of the Lord’s Prayer. Note the points of contact. Jesus prays to the Father, as we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus prays, “Not my will, but yours be done.” In Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Your will be done.” And, of course, the closing petition of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Lead / bring us not into temptation”—which is precisely the same word spoken to the disciples in the Garden. Thus, whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer and come to the last petition, our thoughts should go to Gethsemane. All temptations to sin are serious and we should daily pray for deliverance. However, the Lord’s Prayer carries a reminder of what were effectively Jesus’ last words to the Father and to his disciples before his arrest. Thus, the Lord’s Prayer always carries a reminder of the limits of our strength and of the Father‘s freedom to test our faith and obedience to the limit.
The petition, “Do not bring us to the time of trial / Lead us not into temptation,” is of the same sort as Jesus’ petition, “Remove this cup from me.” In Gethsemane, the Father had brought Jesus to the “time of trial.” Jesus began to be “distressed and deeply agitated.” (Mk. 14:33) He pleaded with the Father that this trial might pass. Jesus is clearly struggling with fear, but he is not cowardly. So also when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” we are not necessarily asking for an easy “pass” on costly obedience. Instead, we are acknowledging our weakness and fear and natural aversion to hard suffering. We pray this in fellowship with the suffering savior, and are reminded where our strength ends and where God’s begins.
As we come to the Lord’s Table this Maundy Thursday evening, let us remember that, like the disciples, we are more likely to sleep than watch and pray. Let us remember that, like the Lord Jesus, we find the prospect of suffering for the sake of the kingdom intimidating and fearful beyond our natural strength. And, let us be grateful that in this meal, offered to us in holy, ancient words repeated time out of mind, “This is my body, this is my blood,” we are given strength to face the trials we cannot face on our own and the grace to rejoice in the presence of Christ in the shadow of the cross.