Monday, 9 October 2017

Love is made the cornerstone

Sermon preached at Kilsby URC on 8th October 2017. Main text: Matthew 21:33-46.
Photo by Rebecca Calcraft
What do we found our lives upon? What is at the heart of our lives? How do we live out our relationship with God? In terms of practical day-to-day living that’s the subject of the Ten Commandments, and more figuratively it’s the subject of this extraordinary parable. Like all parables it has many layers and many meanings, and many possible interpretations – and this parable is especially complicated. But as American theologian Ched Myers said, “a parable is a way in which prophets speak to kings – reframing issues so the hearer is roped in, thinking it’s not about them, and then wham, it gets you”. And I think that’s how Jesus was talking, and I hope that’s how it’ll work for us.

I have one word of caution. One reading of this parable that has been popular in the past is that it’s about the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people, or perhaps the Jewish leaders, and their supplanting by Christians. I find this reading really objectionable. As well as being grossly anti-semitic, and having been a contributor to persecution of Jews by Christians over centuries, it’s a complete misreading of the text. Because Jesus was a pious Jew, deeply knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible and of rabbinic thought – and this parable is absolutely full of deeply Jewish ideas. You can certainly say that he was arguing against a particular way of thinking, but he was speaking from and within the Jewish tradition.

When he was speaking is an interesting bit of context. In the gospel of Matthew, this parable occurs among a set of teachings that Jesus gave in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. He had showed the form of king that he was, riding on a donkey to challenge the Roman authorities; had confronted the corruption of the Temple authorities in turning over the money-changers’ tables; and was challenging the ideas of the Pharisees and rabbis through his teaching. Jesus was not in a safe place, and the cross loomed as a very real possibility. And this is not a safe parable.

We hear it at harvest-time, with many churches observing harvest services. The full moon of the past few days has been the harvest moon, all wide and bright as the cold air comes. So the parable begins by talking about the harvest time for the vineyard. That’s the phrase in my translation but the literal phrase in Greek is ‘the time of the fruits’, and that word time is the unique Greek word Kairos. You might know that the Greeks had words for two kinds of time, the cyclical time which recurs again and again, like the seasons – that was Chronos. And the unique time when great events happen, when change occurs, the time above all times when only one thing could happen – and that’s Kairos. So the parable is set in a time of great significance, just as Jesus was talking in a time of great significance.

Now let’s look at those tenant farmers. At first glance the story is written hugely against them. They’re tenants, hired to do the work of looking after the vineyard and making it ready for production. And their treatment of the owners’ slaves and son are horrendous. But I think we have to read it as the reaction of an oppressed people against their circumstances. Jesus was talking in a place where the people were deeply oppressed – their land had been stolen by the Romans, who demanded huge taxes from them and had a whole series of unjust laws; but the local kings and religious authorities were also money-grabbing and unjust. And the result, as has happened throughout history, when people have been oppressed, was a series of rebellions and violent acts. That doesn’t make them right, it doesn’t make them justified by God as sometimes people try to make out, but it does explain them somewhat. And I think it’s part of the idea behind the parable.

I read this week an amazing poem by the African-American poet Langston Hughes, which he wrote in the 1950s at a time when the black people of the United States were treated horrendously by their governments. It captures that feeling of hopelessness and what can come out. It’s called Harlem and reads like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Of course black people in the US achieved something like equality – though they have a long way to go for that – without mass violence, not least because of the power of Christian witness from preachers such as Martin Luther King, but only after great despair and hopelessness. The tenants’ scheme to kill the heir and take his inheritance sounds daft – wouldn’t the owner notice, or return violence with violence? – but it’s the kind of hard bargain that oppressed people try to make. In the days when this country had an empire, we oppressed people in so many countries – took their money and labour, mistreated them and gave them unjust laws and hierarchies – but just as bad was the legacy of colonialism, in setting one group against another, so that when the British left, the idea of conflict and scratching out a little advantage was left really entrenched. In biblical times, we can see an echo of this in the story of Jacob and Esau – the younger twin, less loved by his father, who found a way to weasel his way into the inheritance and created a huge rift with his brother as a result.

Not all violence that involves oppression comes from below. Just as bad can be the violence of the powerful upon the powerless. This week, look at the photos of the police in Catalonia beating people on the streets for coming out to vote – whatever the rights and wrong of the referendum, it’s a terrible sight of violent power exercised upon the powerless. Or the scenes from Las Vegas, of gun violence which is enabled by the Americans’ love of weaponry and inability to control their violence; and which as many commentators have said was also about race and thus about power – because if the murderer had been non-white, the response would have been hugely different.

And both kinds of violence were deeply present in the history of the people of Israel. There had been plenty of revolts and rebellions – the founding story of Israel was the escape from oppression in Egypt through God’s help; just 150 years before Jesus’ time there had been the rebellion of the Maccabees which is commemorated in Hannukah, and there were regular rebellions against the Romans. But likewise the people of Israel had perpetrated some horrendous crimes, of mass killings of their enemies, of keeping of slaves, and of oppression of their own peoples. It was the latter kind of violence which the prophets spoke against so often, and so powerfully, in their message that God seeks justice for all and mercy to everyone, rather than retribution and violence. And it was in that prophetic tradition – that in more modern times we call speaking truth to power – that Jesus was speaking so often, and I think including in this parable.

Because one of the key images for the prophets was the idea of Israel as a vineyard. Almost certainly Jesus’ listeners would think of an early part of the book of Isaiah, which parallels the start of this parable very clearly. It begins:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
After a few verses, the prophet talks of the injustice of God’s people in the vineyard:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
This is pretty clear stuff. The people of Israel are likened to a vineyard, but their oppression of others, their injustice and mistreatments, are condemned utterly. And I repeat – this is not an anti-Jewish message. This is a message from within the Jewish tradition to the whole world. God is on the side of justice. God is on the side of mercy. God is NOT on the side of violence. God is NOT on the side of those who take others’ land and livelihoods, whether with weapons or with law-courts or with money-lending schemes or with slavery or with concentration of wealth in the hands of elites. That’s a message for the time of Isaiah, and for the time of Jesus, and it’s a message for today. Our God is a God of justice and of love.

Now as I said, all parables have layers and multiple meanings, but most people read the vineyard owner as God in this parable, and the son as Jesus. And there’s an important note here. Jesus asks his listeners how the owner might react, and they reckon he’ll do further violence. But there’s no evidence of that in the story – instead we see a vineyard owner, we see a God, who loves and loves and loves some more. He sends slave after slave, he sends his son. His goal is an extravagant wish to bring more love, and to give more and more chances. This story is sometimes called the parable of the wicked tenants, or in more old-fashioned terms the parable of the wicked husbandmen, but as some have said, we could call it the parable of the long-suffering God.

So instead of supporting more violence, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, the culmination of the Hallel Psalms which give especial praise to God and which were and are recited on all great Jewish occasions. He alludes to the rejected stone and how it becomes the greatest of all stones. There was a story that would be known to all Jesus’ listeners, of the building of the temple in the time of King Solomon, which was linked to Psalm 118. It said that the temple was carefully planned, stone by stone, and each stone carved out in its right shape for the temple, some distance from the temple site. The first stone to be delivered but the last to be used was the capstone. So when it arrived, the builders didn’t know what to do with it, putting it to one side and forgetting about, as if they rejected it. And eventually the temple was all but finished so they sent to the quarry for the capstone and received back the word ‘we already did’ and only then did they remember that funny-shaped stone way over in one corner of the site.

And so in humility Jesus pointed out that God’s way of responding to violence is by love, and by picking out the most unlikely person from the most unlikely place. And his great intervention in the world came in the shape of a peasant born in a stable to an unmarried mother who had to flee as a refugee, who lived with people on the margins and died an enemy of the state on the town rubbish dump. But on that basis, on that wonderful marginal basis, God changed the world.

Because this is the message of the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. God is against oppression, and God is against the violence which comes against oppression. But God uses the most unlikely tools to change the world. And so he can use us, in the words of the first letter of Peter to become living stones, to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house and to be a holy priesthood. We won’t do this by perpetuating the cycle of violence, by retribution and punishment and war. We do this in the way that Jesus did – by coming from nowhere, but by being everything and by sacrificing everything. And in that way we overthrown the rule of domination, the rule of violence, and bring in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of peace. And in that way love is made the cornerstone of the temple of God, now and for ever.

Amen.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

Resolving conflict: reconciling ourselves to each other through Christ

Sermon preached at Daventry URC on 10th September 2017 - recording available. Texts: Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14.

Conflict. It’s a part of any human community. John doesn’t like what Rosemary said, and he’s in a huff about it. John’s friend Bill gets drawn in, and Bill’s wife Jane, except that Rosemary’s sister Judith is already in an argument with Jane. And ten years later, the arguments remain, the hurts stay. The community is diminished, but nobody can quite address it.

Image: XPastor
 And in churches, conflict can simmer and remain around for many years, because people stay in the same churches for many years, even sometimes generations. I was part of a church once where thirty years earlier there’d been a big argument over the use of the building, a group of people had left to worship in another part of town, and progressively the people who had left got old and died off, with just a small number of them remaining. But the rift hadn’t healed. And it was still a hurt that people didn’t want to talk about. That was in a town far from here, but I know of similar stories of churches in this area, where splits haven’t healed after years, or where people carry on together in the same church community but are unreconciled to each other.

If conflict isn’t addressed, it can get worse and worse. I’m reminded of William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree”. The first verse is quite well known. It runs:
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
However, the poem gets darker and darker. The unquenched anger becomes something real and tangible. Eventually the poet kills his foe.

So what do we do about this kind of conflict? That’s the subject of the reading from Matthew today. It’s not a cheery topic, not one many of us would like to think about, but it comes up as today’s reading in the lectionary, and it’s a really important topic. I need to say something directly before I continue. As someone who’s not been to this church before, let alone preached in it, I want to emphasise that what I have to say today is not loaded, it’s not based on particular conflicts between people here. So rest assured that any anecdotes aren’t aimed at specific people here – though that does mean I might unintentionally hit on a raw nerve or two.

And Jesus presents us with a solution of sorts, though it’s an odd kind of solution. The process Jesus outlines can sound incredibly harsh, like a recipe for a disciplinary committee of the sort practised by our Reformed forebears in places like Geneva and Edinburgh in the days when these were not cosy places if you stepped out of line with the community. And there’s the frankly quite odd statement that if the offender should be treated like the Gentiles or tax collectors, who elsewhere in the gospels Jesus is very tolerant towards. So is there really anything to be taken from this?

Well yes, if you look at the passage in the context of Jesus’ other teaching. Matthew 18 is a whole workshop on forgiveness. First of all, the immediately preceding passage is the parable of the lost sheep and the shepherd’s joy in finding it. And the passage is followed with Jesus telling Peter that we should forgive something not just seven times (which was the Jewish law) but seventy-seven times, or in some versions seventy times seven times; and after that another parable, that of the servant who is forgiven his debts by his master but then refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to another servant.

So I don’t see this as a passage about discipline, about the best way to chuck out a recalcitrant church member. I see it instead as a passage about forgiveness, about reconciliation, about rebuilding relationships. 

We often talk about the members of a church as a church family. Some translations talk about ‘if another member of the church sins against you’, but the Greek word is adelphos, literally brother but given the misogyny of the Greek, better understood as brother or sister, which is what other translations say. And that family link is important. For most of us, if we are hurt by a sibling, we don’t seek to have them expelled from the family. We might struggle with connecting with them, but eventually our goal is to restore our relationship. 

Remember also that the gospel of Matthew is thought by most scholars to have been written in the years following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, in the city of Antioch in Syria. The communities called here ‘churches’, are the word ekklesia which had been used in Greek-speaking Jewish circles for some time to mean assemblies of believers. Almost all of these were small groups, perhaps 15-20 people. Think house churches rather than a church of this size, and certainly not the numbers found in a large parish church, cathedral or American-style mega-church. Moreover, they were tightly bound together, persecuted by the mainstream Jewish community out of which they had come, and increasingly also persecuted by the Roman state. In such a body, close relationships really matter. A rupture between two people could lead to a big problem for the entire community. It had to be healed for the good of all.

So this is a passage about love rather than law. It fits so well with the lovely words of St Paul in our reading from Romans that “Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”. Now I’m not a big fan of St Augustine’s theology, but he had a phrase that you may know, often put in this way: “Love God, and do what you will”. In other words, if you are filled with the love of God, if your life is oriented towards loving God as the most important thing you can do, then your actions will always be pure. So I’d like to quote more from St Augustine, in a modern rendering by Stephen Tomkins. Augustine was preaching on the 1st letter of John, in the section which says that ‘whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love’, and he wrote:
If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good.
So Jesus says, here are the steps to follow. If someone does wrong to you, you don’t kick back, you don’t nurse a grudge. First thing, you go and talk to them. You need to say straight out “you’ve hurt me, you’ve done me wrong”. That’s a shockingly difficult thing in itself to do. Very often I don’t have the courage to do it myself if someone has done me wrong. But it’s a necessary first step. And it acknowledges the other person’s humanity, that they too are a child of God whatever wrong they’ve done you. So there’s a lot of forgiveness needed in being willing to do that. And it may be sufficient by itself. 

There are cases where even this first stage is too hard, especially where there’s a big disparity of power balance between the people – if the person doing wrong is a church leader of some sort, for instance; and likewise if the wrong-doing was abusive in some way, emotionally or physically. In these cases it may not be possible to confront the wrong-doer directly, without additional support of some sort. Indeed, there are horror stories of churches where this very passage is used to justify further abuse by powerful people who insist upon their ‘Matthew 18 rights’. I read some awful cases online in the past week, preparing for this service.

But even if it’s possible to talk directly to someone, it may not be enough, and in that case we’re presented with a couple of further steps: to bring along a couple of others to talk it through with the wrong-doer, and then to take it to the whole community. That last step is incredibly difficult – to tell everyone what has happened. And this isn’t about gossiping, it’s about openly stating the issue. Imagine raising a long-standing personal dispute as an item at the next church meeting. It’s would be tough, unpleasant. But if it was done in the right way, in a spirit of openness and loving forgiveness, and if the other person could hear it in that spirit, and if the church could support you both through the process – that could be the sort of thing that really heals wounds that fester over decades within a community. 

And if it still doesn’t work, Jesus advises, we are best to openly acknowledge that the community is broken, to be public about it. It has to be done in love and care. Religious communities have treated transgressors really badly in the past, calling them excommunicated or expelled. But if we can openly acknowledge that the person who has done wrong is looking in a different direction from the rest of the community, perhaps with fault on all sides, then that’s perhaps another way towards eventual healing. And it’s a way to avoid blaming the victim, which I’ve not mentioned but can be a real risk in some cases – where wrong is done to someone, but the community closes ranks to support the wrongdoer and it’s the victim who is driven out of the community. That’s happened far too often to women who have been raped, it’s happened far too often to children who have been abused by people they trusted. What Jesus is talking about is a way to love everyone and forgive everything, but to trust the victim of wrong rather than blaming them.

Although even then you don’t cut somebody off. “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” has to be read in the light of the company Jesus kept. He ate with Gentiles, in defiance of pious Jewish custom. He touched and healed those who were considered unclean. He had tax collectors, those frequently-corrupt collaborators with Roman occupation, among his dining companions and disciples. The traditional author of this very gospel, Matthew, was himself a former tax collector. So again even at this extreme stage, the person has to be treated with love and respect. 

And the process has to be carried out at all times in a spirit of love and in a spirit of worship. Jesus reminds us that when two or three are gathered together, he is there among us. That’s a pretty salutary reminder for any gathering of Christians. We hopefully think in those terms in our worship, but do we act in that way when we have business meetings? I’ve been to church meetings, even elders meetings, which to put it politely would have been conducted somewhat differently if we thought of them as places where Christ was present among us. And this is all the more important where we’re talking about great hurts that may have been carried out by one Christian upon another.

So does Jesus mean us? This group of people gathered today in his name? Yes he does. And he means every church everywhere worshipping today, wherever in the world in whatever ways. He promises us that he is there with us, holding our community together. And that brings me to discernment, the process of listening for the will of God through the Holy Spirit.

What the sequence of steps for dealing with someone who’s done you wrong reminds me of, is the process of progressive discernment. I was a Quaker for fifteen years, and Quakers have long talked about an individual having a ‘concern’ – a matter that presses deeply on their heart. Often that’s the way that real change begins, from one individual’s concern. Among Quakers, it’s how the campaign against slavery began, how their work with the ambulance brigades in the world wars began, and how their witness for same-sex marriage equality began. If such a concern is really strong, you might believe that it’s God telling you to do something. But how do you know it’s from God? You pray about it individually, deeply, at length. Then you bring together a small group to pray together and to discern the leadings of the Holy Spirit on the topic. If that group believes that this is something coming from God, you take it to the whole church to seek their discernment. You might even go to another level within the denomination to seek further discernment – in the URC that would be synods and the general assembly. And what Jesus is saying here is a similar thing, but about handling conflict

If we want to restore community, if we want to restore wholeness to our broken relationships, we have to seek the will of God together, in wider and wider groups. We have to listen prayerfully to the still small voice of the Spirit, and we have to be prepared to forgive each other and to rejoice in the return of the lost one to our community.

This matters well beyond the church. We live in a world where community feels quite a long way from many people’s lives. And we’re in a world where conflict and separation are everywhere. The places change but the conflicts remain. So many of these sores are to do with ancient hatreds that never healed, because nobody put in the work to make them heal. What Jesus offers us here is a way of doing that, which if we practice it in our own local hurts and conflicts just might offer a beacon of hope to a world that is suffering so much from conflict. There’s a hymn from Zimbabwe which is based on today’s passage - I know it through the Iona Community. It runs:
If you believe and I believe, and we together pray
the Holy Spirit shall come down, and set God’s people free.
And set God’s people free, and set God’s people free,
The Holy Spirit shall come down and set God’s people free.
If we gather authentically in the name of Jesus, if we are able to forgive one another, if we can rebuild relationships that are bruised and battered – then the Holy Spirit will move among us, and God’s people will be set free. Amen.


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Come to Jesus to find shalom: a sermon on rest

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 9 July 2017. Text: Matthew 11:16-30. Immediately preceded by listening to a recording of John Bell's hymn "Come to me, come to me, weak and heavy laden".
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. We’ve talked a little about burdens already. We are all carrying burdens in our lives. For some of us these are physical burdens – our health, a disability, the health of someone we love. For some these are emotional burdens – a relationship in turmoil, deep unhappiness or anxiety, worries about the future. For others they are practical burdens – problems about housing, jobs, money. Whatever our particular burdens, Jesus invites us to find rest in him.

My own burdens are often self-inflicted. I was writing this sermon yesterday, after a busy week at work, with a long to-do list, and reflecting on the irony of preaching on rest while feeling busy. So this sermon is directed to myself in the first instance, and I hope might be useful for others too. Now I’ve long been fascinated by the beginning of the 23rd Psalm. It begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures”. Note that verb ‘makes’. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists.

So this is a verse of great comfort and encouragement, as well as quite a challenge to those of us who live otherwise. But of course it’s unwise to take a single verse from the gospels out of context and construct a whole sermon out of it, not that it’s stopped me or other preachers in the past. Let’s go back to the start of the reading and see what light it can shed on what it means to come to Jesus in our weariness and heavy ladenness.

Image: St Joseph the Worker
This is the continuation of a passage earlier in Matthew chapter 11, where Jesus receives a message from John the Baptist in prison, and then talks to the crowd about John, his message, and the kingdom of God that he pointed the way to. When this passage begins, Jesus is talking about the difference between the way he’s treated and the way John is treated. He’s cross. Whatever prophets do is wrong, it seems. John gets mocked for his asceticism, his fasting and simple clothes; whereas Jesus gets mocked for his incarnational ministry, his eating and drinking with all kinds of people. One has a demon, the other is a glutton.

Jesus’ comparison of the people of his time is to children, and he’s normally very positive about children, so I think we have to think of unruly teenagers on the street corner, or perhaps that stage in a birthday party where too much sugar has been eaten and drunk and the kids go haywire. Not the sort of thing that any children associated with this congregation would do, but you get the drift. Spoiled brats, complaining and criticising whatever they’re offered.

Actually what it reminds me of is Prime Minister’s Questions, with its awful weekly braying, points-scoring and constant negativity. The sort of thing which gives politics, and the country as a whole, a bad name. Now I’m tempted to say that in the face of all this horribleness, Jesus simply gets grumpy and lashes out in response with his exhortations against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Remember that these were the places Jesus knew and where his ministry was centred. Home turf. But the theologian Tom Wright makes a fascinating point – that it could be seen as warning as much as threat – that he was saying, if you continue on your current path of point scoring and petty name calling, then it leads to violence, and worse violence, and ultimately your destruction. There is only one way to peace and full life, and that is the way of non-violence, of acceptance, of sacrifice, that Jesus proclaimed as the kingdom of God. So if we hear the words about “this generation” and wonder how that applies our generation, or rather to generations living today, then it’s this message which comes out clearly.

There’s another part of this early passage which really interests me – the phrase “wisdom is proved right by her deeds”. Now in some ways that might be linked to the idea that Jesus says elsewhere, that ‘by your fruits you will know them’, yet it goes beyond that in a way that it’s important to understanding the end of the passage. That word wisdom is the key to a large body of Jewish literature such as the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, known as the wisdom literature, which has a deeply spiritual but also practical way of talking about ways to God and ways of living. Wisdom, often seen as female, is described in this literature as a mysterious and ethereal being, which brings shalom, which is to say peace but also well-being, wholeness and flourishing. In later Christian writing close parallels have been drawn between Wisdom and the Holy Spirit. In this passage Jesus clearly draws a direct parallel between himself and wisdom and seems to be saying that you can see this wisdom through the deeds that he has performed.

And this distinctive and unique character of Jesus carries on as he thanks God for the way he reveals himself – not through big words and theories, but in everyday ways which can be understood by infants. A few chapters earlier, Jesus said that blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; and blessed are the poor in heart, for they will see God. And I think this is in a similar vein – the core of his message is not only a simple one, but it’s also one that comes from experience. Live like Jesus, and you become his follower, and will gain the life he promises us – not just in some future existence after death, but right here and now.

Having said that, he presents us with a complex verse that takes a whole host of biblical scholars to unpick, about nobody knowing the Father except the Son, and nobody knowing the Son except the Father. We could have an entire sermon on that verse, but that would be exactly the sort of intellectualism that we’ve just heard spoken against. But I will say that it’s a verse that speaks a lot to me of the Trinity, and a sense from a growing number of writers that the Trinity, the nature of God as three-in-one, is not an abstract philosophical puzzle but is about relationships, about living. At the heart of the Trinity, at the heart of God, at the heart of the universe, is a loving relationship - God knowing God in God’s different aspects. And this verse tells us of God inviting us into that relationship – we know the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit together as one.

There’s a wonderful Irish writer by the name of John O’Donohue, now dead, who combined spirituality and deep theological depth in his writing. On the theme of the Trinity he wrote some amazing words. He wrote [in Anam Cara]:
The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfilment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus who said, Behold, I call you friends. … In friendship with Jesus, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free.
And it’s that daring to be free that Jesus presents us with, as we come back to the end of the passage, where he offers us to come to him if we’re weary and carrying heavy burdens. I talked earlier about the implications of that offer, but the way it works it also important.

Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon us, promising that he is gentle and humble, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and that he will bring rest for our souls. For one who is asking others to take up a new way of living, he’s presenting it in a calm and reassuring way. Elsewhere he tells people to take up their cross, foresees that they will be persecuted in his name, and so on. But here he is being reassuring.

Now the word yoke is not widely used in today’s urbanised society, but for people of Jesus’ time, it was very familiar. For those who don’t know, it’s the harness used to enable an animal to pull a plough, cart or similar object. In Jesus’ time and the centuries before, it was also a metaphor – being put in a yoke was to be enslaved. To take up the yoke of the Torah, the law, was a positive thing, though as the New Testament writers commented, extremely difficult to get right.

However interpreted, a yoke was a hard thing to take up. So Jesus offering it at all to his followers as a positive metaphor would be a surprise, and to emphasise that it was light an even more striking comment.

But there’s an important aspect to this image. Although some of the yokes of the ancient world were for a single animal, many were for a pair of animals – Jesus is offering to share our loads with us, to take on his tasks, but only with his support all the way. That’s such a powerful image to me. We are not called to labour on Jesus’ behalf, doing his bidding as servants.
Image: aaaComputerforChrist
Instead, we are called to take the yoke alongside him, to work with him in the building of the kingdom of God. We are invited to learn from him, to follow his path, to become his disciples. As he says in John’s gospel, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

And as we learn from Jesus how to be his disciple, to be his friend, we will be supported all the way, as he takes the yoke next to the yoke that we take, and as he ensures that the yoke is no heavier than we can manage, and much lighter than the burdens we carry by ourselves.

Jesus twice promises us rest, and to me that’s not just an offer to stop and sit down, but it’s a promise of the same kind of shalom that comes out from the wisdom tradition. Jesus promises us wholeness, peace, integrity, deep joy in all parts of our lives. Just as the Trinity is about relationship, so shalom is about relationship – it’s about integrating all the parts of our life into one, and making it all shine with God’s love.

So we are invited to take up Jesus’ yoke, to learn and work alongside him, and we are promised rest for our souls. Sounds like an excellent way to spend the summer!

Amen.