A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Person on 9th July 2023
The first part of Handel’s Messiah ends with the soprano soloist singing the aria ‘Come unto him all ye that labour, come unto him that are heavy burdened, and he will give you rest.’ Then the chorus joins in singing ‘his yoke is easy and his burden is light’. These words, taken from today’s reading in Matthew’s Gospel, sound lovely and comfortable.
But let’s think about these words of Jesus in the context of other things he said. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, in relation to the law of Moses, ‘You have heard that our forefathers were told “Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to justice.” But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to justice’. Again; ‘You have heard they were told, “Do not commit adultery”. But what I tell you is this. If a man looks at a woman with a lustful eye, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ Really, Jesus, you think this is an easy yoke and light burden? You are saying that it is not just our acts but also our secret intentions that matter? …. That is indeed what he is saying: in Matthew we read immediately before these statements that Jesus said: ‘Do not suppose I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish but to complete.’
Jesus does seem to recognise this is a problem: in chapter 7 of Matthew we find him saying:
“Enter by the narrow gate. Wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many enter that way; narrow is the gate and constricted the road that leads to life, and those that find them are few.”
Paul certainly had a problem with this. In the reading we heard from his letter to the Roman church we find him struggling with the conflict between the “good” Paul, who wants to do the right thing, and the “bad” Paul who does the wrong thing. I think anyone with even the slightest degree of self-awareness will recognise something similar in themselves. So, are we in a hopeless situation, a Catch 22? – if the great apostle Paul can’t control his impulse to sin, what hope have we?
But what we heard read today from Romans is far from the whole story – we have to look at the context, to see Paul’s overall message and arguments. Romans is perhaps the most theological of Paul’s letters, and the most complete exposition of his understanding of the gospel. This is a Jewish theologian’s understanding of the relationship of law and sin to the gift of God through Jesus Christ.
To the Jews of his time, the Law of Moses, the sacrifices in the Temple, and the physical sign of circumcision were what differentiated them from all other peoples, especially the pagan Romans who occupied their country. These showed that they had a special relationship with the one true God. Paul, who had been called to preach to the Gentiles, had to work out what was the relevance of the law and Jewish religious practices to these non-Jews. We see some of this working out in his letter to the Romans.
Earlier in chapter 7 Paul says that we only know what sin is because of the law, although they are not the same thing. ‘Yet had it not been for the law I should never have become acquainted with sin. For example, I should never have known what it was to covet, if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” Through that commandment, sin found its opportunity…’ I think we all know that feeling when we are trying to diet. We may be feeling content with the salad we just ate until we are offered a slice of chocolate cake…once we see this delicious but forbidden treat, we have great difficulty resisting eating it!
So what is Paul’s answer to this problem? We find it at the beginning of chapter 8:
‘In Christ Jesus the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death.’ Through Christ, God has made it possible for us to fully obey the law in the way Jesus says we must do, because our conduct ‘is no longer controlled by the old nature, but by the Spirit’. The Holy Spirit is given to us as a gift. There is a term much used in the New Testament for this giving attitude of God towards us – grace. Grace, the Greek word charis, meansfavour. Paul tends to use it as the equivalent of the Hebrew word hesed which occurs often in the Old Testament, meaning the loving kindness of God. He uses it a lot. Of all the times the word ‘grace’ occurs in the New Testament, almost two thirds are found in Paul’s epistles, with a high percentage of those appearing in Romans. That grace is the gift of the Spirit, which Paul says makes us God’s children by adoption and comes to the aid of our weakness. Those commandments of Jesus in the Beatitudes might look like we are being asked to carry a very heavy iron bar up a steep hill – impossible on our own. But grace, the help of the Spirit, is like having a world-champion weight-lifter at the other end of the bar.
My daughter Ruth, who some of you met last month when she came to church with me, was for about 10 years a Buddhist. In her late teens she declared that all the family were Christians so she wasn’t going to be a Christian (she was a difficult teenager!). Through a clever plan of God’s, which involved meeting Colin, who is now her husband, on a train, she was converted and is now a wonderful Christian. A few years after she became a Christian I asked her what difference she had found between Buddhism and Christianity. Her response was that Buddhism had wonderful ideals, but you had to do it all yourself; in Christianity you had the help of God’s grace and the Holy Spirit.
Let us come back to the words of Jesus from today’s Gospel reading: ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ What is the burden Christ wants us to bear? The three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, all record Jesus telling his disciples that if they want to be his followers they must renounce self, take up their cross and follow him. Luke makes this even stronger by saying this must be done ‘day after day’.
What does ‘take up your cross’ mean? We sometimes use the term ‘a cross I have to bear’ about things like a bad knee or a criticising mother-in-law. But such inconveniences were not what those who were listening to Jesus would have understood by this. Crucifixion was a cruel and drawn-out method of execution used by the Romans for slaves and conquered peoples – Roman citizens were not crucified, they were usually beheaded, a much quicker and less painful death. Those condemned to die on the cross had to walk through their community to the place of public execution carrying the heavy wooden crossbeam, everyone (including the condemned man) knowing what their fate would be. Jesus was telling them that following him was far from an easy option – it might result in them losing their life in this world. But it would result them in saving their life in the world to come.
We in the UK, unlike our Christian brothers and sisters in some countries, are most unlikely to face death for being followers of Jesus. So what does taking up our cross mean for us? Jesus precedes this command with saying we must deny ourselves. And he didn’t just mean giving up chocolate for Lent, difficult though that can be for some of us. He meant death to old, self-centred self, the self that feels free to hate a neighbour or look lustfully at an attractive woman or man. The self that does what it wants regardless of the effect on others. We can all think of some politicians who have been in trouble recently for doing just that. But partying after telling everyone else they couldn’t even visit dying relatives is only an extreme case of things that all of us, if we are honest, have done at some time.
The burden of carrying the cross daily is another burden that seems to be anything but light. Let us remember that Jesus literally bore his cross – but he was helped to do so by Simon of Cyrene. He will help us to bear ours if we let him. As Jesus said to Paul “My grace is all you need; power is most fully seen in weakness.”
How do we get this gift, this amazing grace, this undeserved help? By prayer. First, we have to admit to ourselves our weakness and own up to our selfishness, which is not easy to do for most of us. God helps us to do this, most often in silent, contemplative prayer although he can also use family and friends to show us our failures. Then we have to genuinely want to change, want to follow Jesus’ teachings and example in our hearts as well as in our acts. Talking honestly and openly with other Christians we trust, perhaps in a Bible study or house group, or to a spiritual guide, is another way God uses to help us. Let us all take hold of this amazing grace, so that the love of God will shine in the world darkening around us.