On 6 July 2014, the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island. The readings were Psalm 145:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end.
In his letter to the Romans, St Paul bewails the fact that he is unable to do the good things he wants to but instead does things he doesn’t want to do. Understandably this is a source of distress to him. However, what Paul cannot do because of the war within him between his old desires and his new wish to serve God, Jesus can do. As Jesus said in the passage from Matthew, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. With his help, there is no need for Paul, or for any of us, to struggle alone against insurmountable difficulties.
A few years ago, I had an experience in which I was overwhelmed by an encounter with the Holy Spirit. I wasn’t at some big event. No one prayed that the Spirit would come at that time. I was sitting at home chatting in text to a Christian friend in Skype. I remember shaking, having tears pouring down my cheeks and feeling an intense sense of how much God loved me. These are the sorts of comments others have made when they have encountered the Holy Spirit.
There was one other thing that I experienced which I have not known anyone else to describe. Maybe I just haven’t listened to or read the right people. I really struggled later to explain what it felt like. The best I can come up with is that I felt the burden of being me was lifted from me for a time. I knew that when the experience ended, I would need to pick that burden up again.
That may seem rather strange to you. It seemed pretty strange to me when I described it that way. I was not aware of being at all burdened by being who I am before that experience. It was only once the weight was lifted that I realised what I had been carrying and would resume carrying.
I suspect St Paul might have some understanding of what I mean if today’s passage from the Romans is anything to go by. I think you can hear in his words the frustration of being himself, being weighed down by just who he was and what he was like. How he longed to do what he knew was right! He wanted to please God, he delighted in God’s law. But doing something practical about that was a different matter. He might want to do the right thing but somehow his body carried on doing otherwise. There was a war going on within him between what Paul the disciple of Christ and Paul the natural sinful man wanted to do. He recognised that he could be his own worst enemy.
In the midst of berating himself, Paul recalls that all is not lost. Jesus is available to rescue him from his ‘body of death’. Jesus promised that anyone who was burdened could come to him and find rest for their souls.
The way that rest would come about is by Jesus’ yoke, which he describes as light. Most people have probably come across a yoke. People can use a yoke across their shoulders to carry buckets or heavy loads, balanced on either side. It can also be a framework which ties two animals together, allowing them to work to pull ploughs or carts more easily without discomfort.
However, Jesus was talking of rest for souls not bodies. The yoke was a metaphor for the Law. Rabbis referred to people taking on the yoke of the Torah (Law). The Law was intended to be something good but by the time of Jesus it had been transformed. The Jews were living under Roman occupation but were allowed to continue to practise their religion. The Law was a means of maintaining a distinctive identity. As the Law had originally been given to a nomadic people living in the wilderness, it required interpretation in order to work for those living a more settled existence in villages, towns and cities.
The Pharisees made it their job to interpret exactly what the Law meant. In their efforts to get things absolutely right, they effectively created a huge list of prohibitions, all aimed at helping people to please God by obeying him. Jesus gave his opinion about the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew Chapter 23: ‘They preach, but do not practise. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.’ The Law had become a huge burden for the people, with the risk of guilt and self-condemnation every time they failed to keep one point of it. Paul, as a Pharisee, would have been well versed in every aspect of the Law and its interpretations. He would have been an expert in the burden it had become.
Jesus, on the other hand, talked about his burden being light and his yoke easy. The yoke of Jesus, his Law, is the law of love. Love God; love your neighbour as yourself. There is no need to learn literally hundreds of very detailed rules in order to please God. There are two rules only and the way to learn them is to learn from Jesus, the one who is gentle and humble in heart. We are to learn gentleness and humility by copying our Lord.
Of course, Christian discipleship is not an easy option. There may be only two rules but learning to apply them is a lifetime’s work. However, unlike the Pharisees whom Jesus accused of burdening the people and doing nothing to help them, Jesus is there to help. Paul realised that Jesus was the one who could rescue him from himself. Here perhaps the physical version of a yoke is helpful in informing us. It allowed two animals to work together. It could enable a less experienced animal to learn from an experienced one as they were yoked together. As we take on Jesus’ yoke, we are making our way through life with him right there beside us.
Alone an inexperienced animal is unlikely to go in the right direction or plough a straight furrow. Similarly, we are unlikely to be able to get through life well by ourselves. The war that goes on within us, so well described by Paul, can pull us in the wrong direction so easily. With Jesus beside us we have guidance, teaching, and forgiveness when we do go wrong. Jesus will not let us down.
As the Psalmist says:
The Lord is sure in all his words
and faithful in all his deeds.
The Lord upholds all those who fall
and lifts up all those who are bowed down.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor