Wrestling and rest

The readings are for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). Will we choose to wrestle with Paul, or rest with Jesus?

Poor Paul had a problem. He did not live easily in his body. He found it difficult to live harmoniously with himself. Thank God, he concluded, for Jesus Christ, who says in the Gospel, “Come to me, all who are burdened; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Poor Paul; although he was thankful for the opportunity, he never did seem to find much rest.

Although actually, some of the commentaries[i] suggest that Paul did not mean, in this passage, what we think he meant; even that Paul was not speaking for himself, but for a humanity, born from the sin of Adam, which has yet to find its way into the grace of God. It is inconceivable, they say, that Paul, who knows the grace of God, who knows the love of Jesus, who knows his way to salvation should continue to condemn his body to death! The man who met his Lord on the road to Damascus knows that in that moment, his life changed course, and that he was diverted from death – that death he would visit upon his fellow men – that he was diverted from death into life.

And yet, we recognize for ourselves the dilemma described in Paul’s angsty arguments against his own will and actions. We know we shouldn’t check our phones while we are driving – but how many of our hands stray towards that siren screen, as though they had minds of their own, apart from our sensible will? We know we shouldn’t take one more drink, place one more bet, but our bodies seem to have other ideas than our sensible minds. We know that the spiral of negative thoughts, revisiting the same scenes over and over again will not change the past, nor help the future; and yet we find ourselves slaves to the voices in our heads that shout down the sensible voice of reason.

Come to me, says Jesus, all you who are weary and burdened; for I am gentle, and humble, and my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

So why are we still in that place, wrestling like Paul, or Adam, wanting to do the right thing when we have been made saints by our baptism, made holy by the holiness of God, sanctified and sent to share that grace with the world? Why isn’t it easier to live as a saint?

When Paul was taken aside from the road to Damascus, led blindly into the city and set down for three days to recover his sight, his journey was not over. It was diverted, his destination transformed from one of destruction – he was pursuing Christians to kill them at the time – to one of salvation. He ended up as the greatest evangelist to the Gentile world, spreading good news wherever he went.

His journey was not over. “Wherever he went” covered the Mediterranean world, which was a long way in those days. It included shipwrecks, arrest, trials and tribulations. It included in-church arguments, friendships and fallings-out. His journey, at the time of his conversion and diversion, was just beginning. And he was still human, prone to all of the failings and foulness, good intentions and bad choices that afflict us all.

Come to me, says Jesus, all you who are weary, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

This, that Jesus offers, is not the image of the end of a journey. The yoke which joins us together, to share our burdens between us, between us and Jesus is used for walking together, not for standing still. The burden is light because of the way that it is carried, not because it has been laid down. Jesus is not speaking, this time, of a destination, but he is offering a way of walking the rest of the journey together.

It is a gentle and humble way of proceeding. It does not depend on punishment, or pain, but on encouragement and mutual assistance. It is gentle, dealing not in threats and beratements but in loving kindness, grace and mercy.
It is humble, seeking not to impose itself upon us, but courting us with its love, seeking not power but justice.

So what are we to do with those things that we do that we hate? If it is true (and I think that it is) that Jesus has already defeated the evil that besets us, then how do we live into his victory?

The greatest commandments that we have been given are to love God with all of our heart and mind, body, soul, and strength; and our neighbours as ourselves. It begins and ends in love. For those things that drive us crazy, drive us to drink, drive us to destruction – there is love. Perhaps it is the support of family and friends, perhaps of a more formal support group: AA, or a hospital-sponsored health program. It may be the community of the church; the small group comfort of a Thursday evening healing service, or the silent support of Centering Prayer. Is there more that we should be doing together, to ease the burdens, and lighten the yoke? Are there ways that we can support one another in this community, that we have not yet thought of or tried? Don’t be afraid to suggest them, for the yoke is easy and light when we carry our burdens in tandem, between us. The way of Jesus is not the way of singular struggle, nor of self-crucifixion. It is the way of gentleness and humility. It is the way of love; and love does not exist alone.

It is that assurance, of love, of gentleness, that we find at the altar, week after week. We say our confession – because the journey still involves sin – and we are assured of God’s forgiveness, week by week, day by day. We come in humility to find the most humble of offerings already set before us: the Body and Blood of Jesus broken open for us, for our salvation.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light, says the Lord.

Come to me.

[i] The New Oxford Annotated Bible, third edition (OUP, 2001); The Oxford Bible Commentary (OUP, 2001)


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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