Three test subjects will lie down, side by side, on couches inside a three-ton metal ball at the end of a 50-foot arm. They will be whirled around in a circular motion ... at speeds up to 90 miles per hour. Sounds kind of crazy, or for some people maybe kind of fun, until we have the whole the picture. Because it’s not some description about a really intense roller coaster or a college prank gone wild. It’s a press release from 1966 describing the training of astronauts for their mission in space. For fifty years, NASA has been putting astronauts through a whole gauntlet of trials. From strapping them in centrifuges (like we just heard) and spinning them at high speeds until they faint, to letting them fall 24,000 feet in a so-called “vomit comet” to experience weightlessness. Or, how about this: repairing shuttle parts under water for eight hours straight. Needless to say it takes a unique person to become an astronaut.
But we know why they do it. They do it because they’re entering a world where they can’t just rely on natural instinct. Everything has to be re-learned - from eating and drinking, to breathing and walking. They’re entering a world where they can only survive - let alone, achieve their mission - if they spend years (up to a decade before their first mission) learning new instincts that will help in this brave new world. So NASA prepares them for everything from emergency surgery in zero gravity to survival training in the jungle for landings that go off course.
Today, on Palm Sunday Jesus invites his followers (even begs & pleads) to prepare themselves for a new kind of world; the world he’s been introducing throughout the Gospel as God’s Kingdom. And here’s their training, their preparation for this new world: Keep awake, stay awake with me, and pray so that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (Mk. 14:38). Jesus knows that the coming events: his arrest and trial, crucifixion and resurrection - all the events we’re going to relive this week - they’re going to launch God’s Kingdom in a new way. Jesus won’t be with them like he has. And the disciples are only going to be ready for this brave new world - let alone, achieve any mission - if they stay awake and pray with Jesus.
Because the sad truth for these disciples, just like most of us, is that God’s Kingdom isn’t a place where we can just rely on natural instinct. It would be so much easier to just say, “If you’re a Christian, try to be nice as often as you can and figure out the rest on your own.” But in God’s Kingdom that would be just about as helpful as NASA telling it’s astronauts, “Don’t worry about all that training. Just try to enjoy the thrill of the moment from that first blast off the launch pad. You’ll figure out the rest on your own…” For astronauts and Christians alike, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Just look what happens at the launching of God’s Kingdom today. Jesus is arrested, and that puts in motion a whole series of events to usher in God’s Kingdom in a new way. The climax is going to be Resurrection next week on Easter Sunday: God’s new life entering this creation. And if that’s the destination well then you’d think the disciples might know what to do when Jesus gets arrested. You’d think as disciples in training of this brave new world they’d understand when Jesus is condemned as a criminal. Hey, when he’s getting falsely charged, mocked, and beaten without attacking in return - you’d think they’d know: he’s demonstrating the instincts of God’s Kingdom, no matter cost.
But that’s not what the disciples understand. There’s nothing exhilarating about it. There’s nothing exciting about blasting off that launchpad to usher in God’s new Kingdom because the world itself, that launchpad itself, is broken. Their natural instinct, like ours, is only about seeing victory when Jesus rides into the city on a donkey to the cheers of people. Their instinct is that they’re one step closer to victory only when the crowds are cheering. Natural instinct says, pay attention to the cheers, all those people waving palms and throwing their cloaks on the ground.
And natural instinct just cannot prepare them for betrayal and arrest, false accusations, mocking and derision, even torture and death. And when they’re attacked in the Garden of Gethsemane their instinct is, naturally, to pull out a sword and to strike back. Cut off someone’s ear, strike fear into their attackers to keep them away. And Jesus says, no, no, no! You haven’t learned the instincts that you’re going to need in God’s Kingdom. Until you learn those instincts, God’s Kingdom won’t get off the launchpad.
Three times Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake, to get ready with prayer for the intense gauntlet of trials that are going to launch God’s Kingdom in a new way. Three times Jesus prays, but three times the disciples fail, and fall asleep. At the time staying awake may have felt just as silly and irrelevant as an astronaut spinning around in a three ton metal ball. But the Gospels couldn’t be more clear. Each of the disciples’ failures to pray with J., also leads to a failure in staying with J. Three times, Peter curses and denies that he even knows Jesus. His natural instincts are actually pushing him further away.
One of our lessons on Palm Sunday is that it doesn’t matter how special or unique we are, the instincts we need for God’s Kingdom are never going to come naturally. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways” (Is. 55.8–9). It seems that when it comes to God’s Kingdom our natural instincts aren’t enough.
And so thanks be to God, we’re not just left to figure it out on our own. We’re invited to stay with Jesus. Just like those first disciples, our mission during Holy Week (and throughout the year) is to stay with him; to stay awake and to stay as close to Jesus as our own shadow, no matter what comes our way, because he’s the one launching God’s Kingdom. And if we can learn to do that, if we can learn to stay that close to Jesus, it’s going to get uncomfortable. Because that’s what happens when you launch into a whole new world - just ask any astronaut how it feels.
Our mission is to stay awake and to pray with Jesus. Those disciples didn’t need any special knowledge or training. They were chosen just to “be with him,” to “follow.” And on that particular night in the Garden of Gethsemane, they failed. So if we’re going to stay with Jesus in these coming days, we’ll need to find some way to keep awake where they fell asleep. We’ll need to find some way past our natural instincts and learn to walk, talk, and breath in this brave new world.
And if you don’t do anything else between now and next Sunday, you’ll be much better prepared for Easter if you just spend this week focused on three little sentences in your prayers. They’re easy to find, easy to read, but so hard to follow. It’s our shortest reading of the day from the second chapter of Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” This week make that your prayer. Stay awake with Jesus, and pray for the mind of Christ.
It’s the exact opposite of our natural instincts because this mind of Christ worries less about inflating ourselves, and more about giving ourselves to others. And one of the most amazing things about this mind is that it won’t strike back when it’s frustrated, threatened or attacked. It walks right through any kind of betrayal or accusation, any mocking or derision - yes, even torture and death. Because the mind of Christ has learned that any gauntlet of trials that comes our way is never the end. Any trial that s our way, anything, can be used by God as a gateway, part of our training, for God’s Kingdom. In this brave new world our safety and security isn’t about striking back but about trusting that the one who made us will never abandon us. And whether it happens right now, or far in the future, this God always gives new life to anyone who stays with Jesus.
So as we prepare to launch from Palm Sunday into the brave new world of Holy Week, reliving the trials of our Lord, let’s do everything we can to keep awake, to pray for the mind of Christ, and to stay with Jesus. No matter how dark or frustrated or uncomfortable it feels, let’s trust that if we stay with Jesus we’re going to lean even more about living with joy in God’s Kingdom. Amen.