There’s a lot for us to think about in today’s readings from Scripture. I really feel for the Apostle Paul… He wrote, “I do not understand my own actions… for I do what I do not want, I do the very thing I hate.” My sinful, physical self is at war with my spiritual self… my soul! Paul seems to be saying. “I can will what is right, but I can’t do it… wretched man that I am!” I’m with you brother Paul… the Devil made me do it! It’s no wonder that Paul was so focused on the saving power of Grace. If he… if any of us… was to pin our hope for salvation on obedience to the Law alone, we’d surely come up short… we’d never make it. But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord: we are saved by Grace!
You know, the Law is a funny thing… and when I talk about the Law, I’m talking about the Law that was passed down from God through the Prophets, Judges and Kings of Israel. The Law that was given to the Hebrews in order to turn them… to change them… from being a hodgepodge of self-interested tribes, all jockeying for wealth, power and position in a small swatch of real estate at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea… and make them a people… the people of God… under God’s almighty rule. And here’s the thing about the Law: the Law began with God… through the Ten Commandments and further revelation to Moses of certain behaviors that were pleasing to God… and certain behaviors that were not. This is the same Law that underpins most of Western jurisprudence to this very day. But you know how we humans are… we love to complicate things. Whenever the Law of God doesn’t seem to satisfy our temporal need for order and predictability, we take “nips and tucks” in the fabric of the Law… we rewrite and interpret… turning God’s commands into human doctrine… and rules… to give us the order and predictability we think we need. In the case of the Hebrews, the Law became 613 mitzvot… detailed statutes governing every aspect of their daily life and worship. And that wasn’t entirely a bad thing… God wanted them to govern themselves justly, taking into account the needs of the poor and oppressed… and ascribing to a Godly standard of behavior. And God wants the same for us. But I wonder, sometimes, if some of the “nips and tucks” we make to God’s holy ordinances don’t end up being self-serving in a way… a way for us to build hierarchy… and place ourselves above brothers… and sisters… and neighbors. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s when we know we’ve gone down a bad road. The Law was meant to unite us, after all, not to divide us.
Arguments over doctrine… between the Bishops of several major church centers around the Mediterranean (e.g., Alexandria, Antioch and Rome)… almost caused Christianity to implode during the second and third centuries AD… until the Emperor Constantine stepped in, said it was his way or the highway, and imposed an overarching Imperial doctrine over the Church. That same doctrine of superiority eventually led to the “Great Schism” between the Roman (or Western) Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches in the eleventh century. A second “Great Schism” took place during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century… and it’s happening in various places around the world today: Christian brothers and sisters using church doctrine and practice, based upon some human interpretation of God’s Law, as an excuse to hold themselves separate and apart from other members of the Body of Christ. So it’s nothing new… it’s happened throughout church history, just as it happened between Jews and Samaritans five hundred years before Jesus was born. I’m afraid that’s how we humans roll.
But in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us that the “yoke” of the Law… or what the Law has become after millennia of human tinkering… is not the only way. It’s not even the best way. Sure, we can go on slaving away at the nigh impossible task of meeting all of the requirements heaped upon us in the name of religious orthodoxy… in the hope that we might be held blameless on the last day… OR, we can take a step back and, instead, apply our energies to living into the New Covenant… the new yoke… that Jesus offers. Jesus’ prayer to his Father is meant to remind us that God is not above turning the tables on wise and intelligent religious leaders, some of whom may be well intentioned, in order to show us a better way. And the Way of Jesus is a radical departure from much of the onerous religious doctrine that has been promulgated by the church since its inception. The Way of Jesus refreshes and sustains us.
But there is a catch. Taking ourselves out from under the burden of two thousand years of church dogma doesn’t mean that God’s Law no longer applies. Jesus said he didn’t come to change the Law. The Law stands. Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matt 5:17-20). So, what must change for followers of the Way of Jesus is their approach to fulfilling the Law. And it is easy, in one sense… and oh so difficult in another. We are called to fulfill the Law like Jesus did, not by abiding by a bunch of rules and regulations, but by loving. Loving God… loving our neighbor… by loving one another as Jesus loves us. So easy to want to do, as Paul might say, and yet so hard to actually do. But that’s it, in a nutshell. That was what Jesus did throughout his time on earth as he lived as one of us… healing those suffering in body, mind and spirit and preaching and teaching about the coming Kingdom to all who would listen. And that’s what we’re called to do… as followers of the Way. That’s the yoke we’re being offered by Jesus Messiah: to represent Christ to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, offering help to the helpless… and hope to the hopeless. “Learn from me,” said Jesus. Watch me. Be my body… be church. And you’ll find rest for your souls. God’s grace awaits… but we must claim it. And we do that by taking up Jesus’ “yoke of love” and pulling together… this day and every day… to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth.
Piece of cake… right?