One March in 1993, my pastor asked me to come to a worship service, but it was unusually on a Thursday night. “Why Thursday night?” I asked. “Because it focuses on the Lord’s Supper and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.” she responded. As soon as she said, “Gethsemane” she had me hooked. I had spent 1989-1992 up in Alaska and and one things I had done during their long winters was to get back into all my old music I loved growing up. I had repurchased albums I had lost long ago on those new fangled compact disks! And one of those CDs was Jesus Christ Superstar. And, of all the songs from that musical, “Gethsemane” was the song I listened to over and over again as the snow fell. I felt that it packed the most punch.
The early nineties was a time in my life where I was trying to get back in touch with more than just the music I loved early in life. It was a time when I was trying to re-engage my faith. I had, as many twenty something Christians regularly did in my days, wandered away from the church. I always would have described myself as a Christian. But the practice of my faith and my relationship with God was spotty at best. There was something really missing (beyond my lack of participation in a Christian community). I increasingly became aware than even my thought out teenage theology was lacking. I had seen enough, even in my twenties, to know my pat answers to complex questions were lacking. And “Gethsemane” brought that into focus for me.
I knew all of the orthodox teachings about Jesus growing up. I could have recited all the facts. I had learned them and spent many an hour in the pew, in classes, and even reading the Bible on my own. But, what was lacking, I increasingly realized, was a human Jesus. My young self had, for all practical purposes, envisioned a “superman Jesus” who really wasn’t humanity as God intended but an almost other worldly being. Infinite power and infinite knowledge were at this Jesus’ fingertips. Yes, he loved us. Yes, he died for us. Yes, he rose for us. But, I wondered, with such knowledge and power how could he really empathize with us – really empathize with me? That Jesus was a magical figure who was less and less satisfying to me as an adult.
But Gethsemane in the musical (although not totally Biblical) captures what must have been a poignant moment in Jesus’ life. Here he was outside of Jerusalem. He had done everything he was supposed to do. And now, he could leave, and everyone would be happy with him (from his friends to his enemies). All he had to do is go back to Nazareth. If he stays, he is going to die (and it isn’t going to be quick either). And, he is less than clear on why he must die in this way. But he stays because he knows he has made this commitment to God. He stays because he believes it to be the will of God. He doesn’t quit when he so easily could have. To me, every time I read the Gethsemane story in the Bible, knowing human nature, I think this proves his divinity more than any of the miracles. He stayed, even without all the answers, when anyone else would have left.
The worship service that helped changed the course of my life was called a Maundy Thursday service. It took this feeling I had of a fully human Jesus struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane and the service not only affirmed it but began to widen that view to earlier in the night during the Lord’s Supper (which, to me, had been pure ceremony before that). It opened my eyes that Jesus never was this superhero, otherworldly person, with powers like the Greek gods come to save the day. He was one of us. I have never wavered in my belief that God gave Jesus miraculous powers, that he was able to heal the sick, multiply loves of bread, turn water into wine, and the like. But, the older I have gotten, the less important all that is. What is important about Jesus is he taught us how to love. He taught us not how to be a superhero, but how to be people – real people. He showed us how we can help others (and help ourselves) just by being the people we are all now capable of being. And he showed us that he so wanted to correct our relationship with God that he stayed the course when any of us wouldn’t have.
And my journey really pivoted after that Maundy Thursday. I stopped missing Sundays. I stopped trying to be a ‘lone ranger’ Christian. I rebuilt who Jesus was in my mind. Prayers came again more naturally and less terse. And I began to make friends anew in the church and not just try to retain old friendships as I had been doing at that stage in my life. I didn’t see it in 1993 but seminary was in the future, the pastorate, the chaplaincy, my future family, and so much more.
What got me thinking about all this? Today is Maundy Thursday (as I write this). I hope you will look out such a service tonight. If you are in greater New Orleans, Kenner Presbyterian is hosting a joint service tonight with Parkway Presbyterian. Kenner is located on Iowa Street. But, whenever you read this, and wherever you are, I hope Jesus become more real and less otherworldly to you on this day. I deepens our journey on the road of life when we do.
What do you think?