Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4–10; Hebrews 12:18–29 & Luke 13:10–17
Last Monday at the Spiritual Cafe, we had a very interesting and enlightening discussion concerning the question of whether Christianity is hard or easy. We were specifically looking at this question from the viewpoint of C.S. Lewis, the famous British writer who was also an Anglican lay theologian.
Lewis suggests that Christianity is both hard and easy. It can be easy for us as Christians to go to church regularly and to be decent people who do good and charitable deeds. But is that enough? Does that make us truly Christian? Lewis would say no. He says that Jesus wants ALL of us, not just a part, or parts, of us. Jesus doesn’t just want us to go to church regularly and to do good and charitable works. He wants us to commit 100% of ourselves to him.
My way of understanding what Lewis was saying is to think of it in terms of the Two Great Commandments that Jesus gave us in the Gospels. The First Commandment is to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength; in other words to commit ALL of ourselves, that is 100% of ourselves, to God. If we do that, then the Second Commandment comes naturally; to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. The hard part of Christianity is to give ourselves totally to God, which for me means that our relationship with God comes before anything else, even other relationships, such as those with husband and wife, children, or other family members and friends.
This takes us back to the message from last Sunday’s gospel when Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51 NRSV) Jesus told people that following him would result in conflict among families, between those who choose to follow him, and those who don’t. He was telling people that to follow him would require them to let go of other relationships. They had to be prepared to be 100% committed to following him. In other words, he was telling them that being a Christian was going to be hard. We hear Jesus tell his disciples elsewhere in the Gospels to “take up their cross each day and follow him”. He was warning them that being a Christian was going to be hard. But he also told them that, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”(Matthew 11:30 NRSV) Exactly what might that mean?
Here, Jesus is making reference to the Jewish law and the demands the Pharisees placed on the Jewish people to obey the law. There were 613 individual commandments, or statutes, that made up the Jewish law, and the belief was that a person needed to observe or uphold each and every one of these laws if they were to be acceptable in God’s sight, and to therefore be in a right relationship with God. The Pharisees, as guardians of the law, demanded that people keep each and every one of these laws. This was a totally unrealistic expectation, and it placed a huge burden on the people. Jesus, on the other hand, was telling people that his burden was light. All they really had to in order to be acceptable in God’s sight, and to be in a right relationship with God, was to believe in Jesus and follow his example.
In today’s gospel passage we see a perfect example of both the absurdity of the demands of the Pharisees in relation to the law, and the hypocrisy that the Pharisees themselves displayed when it came to observing the law.
A woman who has lived for eighteen years with a crippling condition where she is unable to stand straight, appears in the synagogue on a sabbath day when Jesus is teaching. He calls her over, places his hands on her, and cures her of her condition. The leader of the synagogue, angry that Jesus has cured her on the sabbath, tells all those present in the synagogue that anyone wishing to be cured of an ailment should come on one of the other six days of the week, when the law permitted work to be done, but not on the sabbath.
Why was healing considered work? The religious leaders saw healing as part of a doctor’s profession, and practicing one’s profession on the Sabbath was against the law. The synagogue leader believed that obeying the law was more important than the compassion of Jesus in healing this crippled woman. Jesus shamed him, and the other leaders, by pointing out their hypocrisy. They would free their animals and care for them on the sabbath, but they refused to rejoice when a human being was freed from Satan’s bondage.
So in that sense, the burden of the law was heavier than what Jesus was asking of people. Remember, the Jewish belief was that in order for a person to be acceptable in God’s sight, and to therefore be in a right relationship with God, they had to comply with all of the statutes that comprised the law. Jesus, however, required only that people believe in him and follow his example. But to do this, was not going to be easy, it was actually going to be quite hard. To believe in Jesus and to follow his example meant to observe the First Commandment: which is of course to love God with all of one’s heart, mind, soul and strength.
As C.S. Lewis noted, the very moment that we wake up in the morning, our hopes, wishes and desires come flooding into our minds. They overwhelm our thoughts and take our mind away from our relationship with God. The challenge for us as Christians, is to push those thoughts away, even if it’s just for a few moments, and to let God into our conscious where we can be quieter, calmer and more peaceful in his presence. If we can do this each and every day, then we will gradually start to find that God becomes more and more ingrained in us, and we are more aware of His presence in our lives.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes in today’s passage that eventually the world as we know it will crumble, and only God’s Kingdom will last. Those who believe in Jesus and follow his example are part of this unshakable Kingdom. When we feel unsure about the future, we can take confidence from these verses. No matter what happens during our lives here on earth, our future is built on a solid foundation that cannot be destroyed. Rather than putting our confidence in what will be destroyed; we should build our lives on Jesus and his unshakable Kingdom.