Saint Mark records these words of Christ our dear Lord: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
These words could well be a title for these chapters of Mark. All around Christ were people who had willing spirits, but weak flesh.
There were the priests. They served God in the temple and heard His Word often. They were dedicated to serving God and the people. Surely they had a willing spirit.
But we find them rejoicing in a plot to arrest and do away with Christ. Now, it is never good to rejoice in a man’s death. Even if someone is a terrible person, as they surely thought Christ was, it is still not loving behavior to wish him harm, or rejoice in his harm, or worse yet, cause his harm. May we never be found taking pleasure in someone’s misfortune.
But this was even worse because Christ is not only a Man, but is also the true Lord of Israel in human flesh. His own people, the Jews, and particularly the priests as servants of the house of God, should have rejoiced and delighted in Him. Instead, they rejoiced and delighted in His destruction. Their spirits were willing to serve the true God. Yet when the true God stood before them, they plotted His death.
They fell victims to their own sinful flesh. Their religiosity was full of man-made rules and self-righteous beliefs. That way, they could go on pretending that they were the good and faithful people, all the while they plotted the death of God.
Judas was their accomplice. He began as a disciple of our Lord. Like the rest, He willingly listened to the sweet teaching of the Gospel from Christ’s lips. He worked alongside the other eleven and apparently performed miracles with them in the Name of Christ. Judas was not an evil villain who twirled his diabolical mustache as he laughed maniacally. No, he was a true disciple of Christ, for a time.
If he were insincere or unwilling to be a disciple of Christ, Judas could have left the Lord much earlier. But he kept on for some three years, with the same kinds of sacrifices that the other disciples were making at the same time. That is a willing spirit! Yet in the end, the moral corruption in Judas fell short. Why? It started with greed and covetousness, as Judas dipped into the moneybag of the disciples. That was the chink in his armor through which satan first wounded him. The devil eventually implanted the idea of betraying Christ in Judas. Then, on the night Christ was betrayed, satan actually entered Judas.
The willing spirit of Judas was no match for the tempter. So he was led to betray Christ with a kiss. What a vivid picture of a person pretending to be willing to love Christ, yet in reality betraying the Lord with a corrupt flesh!
Then there is Saint Peter, to whom Christ spoke the words, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Peter, like Judas, was a longtime disciple. He had confessed his faith that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. With James and John, Peter was brought by Christ closer to Him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Surely Peter, the Rock, would not fail! So he pledged to his Lord that very night that he would never abandon Him, even if everyone else fell away. What a willing spirit! We should not fault Peter for making the pledge, but for failing that pledge.
But satan was sifting Peter. Like Judas, Peter was no match for the prince of darkness, particularly on that darkest of nights when the Lord was betrayed. As Peter tried to remain faithful, his fears overcame him. He failed to confess Christ when confronted by a maidservant. Here we have the mighty Rock intimidated by a little girl! The willing spirit had fallen short. The potential threat of death was too much for Peter’s weak flesh.
We know that we are no better. Christ did not speak His word about willing spirits and weak flesh only to Peter, but to all. We are faithful and strong one day, and then the next we fall to the smallest temptation. We pledge our lives to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away. Yet we are vulnerable, each one of us.
Woe to us if we say that we could never give in to temptation. Woe to us if we delude ourselves into thinking that it is impossible to fall away and lose the grace of God no matter what we do. But that is just what our over-confident old Adam wants us to believe.
Christ has chosen us to be His disciples. To be sure, we are not one of the Twelve, but only disciples in the broader sense. But even if we were one of the Twelve, like Peter and Judas, that would not make us immune to satan’s schemes. He sifts us, and we fail so often.
May we repent like Peter. May we not lose our salvation, as Judas did.
Better yet, may we be faithful. When we pledged ourselves in our Confirmation vows, we constantly said, “By the grace of God.” In other words, we acknowledge how weak our flesh is. Of ourselves, we can do nothing. Only by the Spirit working in us can we succeed at any spiritual undertaking. So we pray for His help.
With that help, we can be faithful. Peter later in life was faithful even to death by crucifixion. We need not always fail, since God is with us. We can confess Christ before men without faltering, no matter the cost. The cost may come for us. May we not flinch and deny when that happens.
Our example is Christ, although He is far more than only an example. He did not have a sinful flesh, so He never was limited by the weakness we have. But rather than use that as an excuse for our failures, we should strive to be like Him. He, the most faithful Witness, is more than worthy of our imitation.
We might say, “It’s not fair because it was easy for Him!” But that is not really true, is it? In the Garden of Gethsemane, we glimpse the tremendous battle of will that He endured. Christ was greatly distressed and troubled because He knew the horrific tribulation about to befall Him. He said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” He fell on the ground and drops of blood broke out on Him. He prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Remove this cup from Me.” He did NOT want to go through the horrors of that day.
Here we glimpse the tremendous mystery of the two natures of Christ. He was willing to suffer, out of love for us and for His Father. Yet He did not want to suffer, because no sane man could desire the worst torture any man would ever endure. So His human will, with its natural instinct for self-preservation, wanted to be spared the monstrous suffering of the Cross.
Yet He also said, “Not what I will, but what You will.” Christ’s will as the Son of God submitted to His Father. He bowed His head to the yoke He must bear. So this Man was the One whose will and spirit together obeyed. Even when faced with the most severe threat of death ever, He did not back down.
He could have easily gotten out of it. He could have passed through the mob that came for Him, just as He had once passed through another angry mob. He could have beaten up the soldiers as Samson did. He could have hardened His skin so that no thorn or nail could pierce Him. Or with a single word, He could make no one able to approach Him.
But He did not. His spirit was willing, and His flesh was strong.
At the Cross, as He suffered to atone for sinners, some of those sinners stopped by to hurl insults at Him. “He saved others,” they said, “but He cannot save Himself.” In response, Christ could have said, “Cannot save Myself? Watch this!” and then shattered the Cross and stepped down while those mockers cowered before Him. Or He could have simply said, “Hey, I’m atoning for YOUR SINS. Could you give Me a break?” But He did not do that either.
He WAS strong. He could have done anything He wanted at that moment. But His will was bound to His Father’s command. His heart was set upon paying for our salvation. He did not step down. He did not complain. He set His will and flesh to the task, and restrained His power so that He could be our Redeemer.
And we, who have received His redemption by faith, are strengthened to be faithful where our flesh alone would surely fail.
May we patiently follow His pattern, rather than deny Him. Amen.
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