Gesthemane: A Secular Sermon

Tom Ellis
5 min readFeb 2, 2024
El Greco, Agony in the Garden of Gesthemane, c. 1590

“O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt…

O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.”

— Matt. 38; 42 (KJV)

What is a “secular sermon”? Like any sermon, it begins with a text to interpret. In normal usage, sermons are given by priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, or other spiritual leaders of churches, synagogues, and other faith groups to interpret and comment upon passages from a book that the congregation views as sacred — the “word of God” (or Allah or JHVH, as ‘twere). But a “secular sermon” can be given on any text whatsoever, not on the presumption of its “divinely inspired” status, but merely because it contains a nugget of wisdom that the speaker considers worth pursuing. (This is what I tend to do with all my Medium articles, which is why they generally begin with a quote.)

The biblical quote I have chosen occurs while Jesus and his disciples are spending the night in the Garden of Gesthemane, on the night before Jesus is to be arrested and crucified. I have always loved this scene, in part, because it puts the lie, directly, to the orthodox view, common to most Christian sects, that Jesus himself is somehow God incarnate, or “consubstantial” with God (whatever THAT means!). Rather, it presents an image of Jesus as just a normal human being facing a horrifying reality: that the next day, at any moment, he will be arrested, humiliated, flogged, and dragged through jeering crowds to an excruciating public execution, nailed on a cross, and that he has run out of options for escaping this ghastly fate. And like any of the rest of us at such a moment, he is thoroughly depressed: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.”

Most of us can relate, based on any moments of darkness and despair we have experienced in our own personal lives. But today, we all — everywhere on Earth — face a kind of Gesthemane moment with respect to our future on this planet. Whether we like it or not, we all face a catastrophic collapse of our global civilization within the next few decades, due to the predicament posed by the mutually reinforcing intersections of the rapidly accelerating global heating from excess CO2 emissions, coupled with the depletion of the global oil reserves upon which our entire industrial economy depends, and the consequent breakdown of the global social consensus that has enabled world trade and maintained the norms of civility that made diplomacy possible. Collectively, if we are honest with ourselves, it is evident that we all have nothing to look forward to, other than accelerating deterioration of our biological support systems and depletion of our energy reserves, leading to breakdown of social cohesion, wars, chaos, violence, and mass starvation. We all, in short, are facing a kind of imminent crucifixion.

So what does Jesus have to teach us in his (and our) moment of dire distress and hopelessness? He offers two prayers, which are slight, but important, modifications of the same prayer. The first, understandably, is a desperate plea for relief from intolerable emotional distress: “Let this cup pass from me…” The “cup,” of course, is a metaphor for a vial of poison, something supremely bitter that you don’t want to touch or smell. Naturally, you want someone to take it away from you; to alleviate your misery.

We all, I’m sure, have felt this way about our global predicament these days: somebody, please, make it all go away! We yearn for the “good old days” when we could safely assume that we, or our children, might have a bright future ahead, and that the world to which we were accustomed — hot summers, cool autumns, cold winters, and warming springs, with bountiful crops, flowers, insects, and wildlife — would go on as it always had. But these certainties no longer exist, as parching droughts, hellish wildfires, rampant floods, violent storms, and vanishing insects and birds, upend our hopes and dreams, filling us with chronic anxiety. It is perfectly normal, in such circumstances, to yearn for salvation, whether it be a miraculous technological breakthrough, an inspired leader, a robust economy, or whatever. But the more we learn of our predicament, and the more we witness the progressive disintegration of our social fabric into bitter division, pervasive lies, hatreds, and tyranny due to the rise of toxic demagogues like Trump, Putin, and Modi, the harder it becomes to put our faith in any kind of hope for the future.

And this is where Jesus offers us his second prayer: O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” The last four words, taken directly from the core mantra of the Prayer of Jesus, are the heart of this prayer as well: Thy will be done — not mine.

Jesus is reminding us here that the essence of spiritual insight is acceptance of that that is — letting go of the subjunctive (“If only…”) altogether. And in the Buddhist tradition, that acceptance is spelled out in the Five Remembrances:

1. I am of the nature to get sick; there is no way I can avoid getting sick.

2. I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way I can avoid growing old.

3. I am of the nature to die; there is no way I can avoid death.

4. I am of the nature to lose all that I cherish; there is no way to avoid losing everything.

5. My actions are my only true possession; by my actions shall I live.

In our present, dire circumstances, we can simply change the first person singular “I” into the plural “we,” for these words apply to ourselves and all the larger systems of which we are a part: our families, our communities, our nations, our global political and economic order, and our living planet. All are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and die — and none of this can be avoided. So may we all have the wisdom, with Jesus and the Buddha and all other great spiritual sages alike, to say “thy will be done” and “this is because that is.” And then get busy doing what needs to be done, right now: taking care of everyone and abandoning no one, and growing gardens, growing community, and growing awareness, by learning, teaching, healing, and creating. And through such determination, may we find peace, even in these catastrophic times. Amen.



Tom Ellis

I am a retired English professor now living in Oregon, and a life-long environmental activist, Buddhist, and holistic philosopher.