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Bishop's Message

RSS By: Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

The Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo shares regular thoughts and reflections about our life together.

The tension between grace and works

Apr 25, 2016

Ministerium Gathering

Matthew 11:25-30

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

2016_ministerium
Pastors gathered for a Synod-Wide Ministerium. See the pictures here and the prayers of intercession offered here.

I hear that there is a bit of a betting pool among members of our synod staff when it comes time for an ordination. The wager revolves around the question: "When, in the rite of ordination, will the Bishop begin to choke up?" Most often it is at the time when the stole is placed on the ordinand’s shoulders and I say: Receive this stole as a sign of your work, and live in obedience to the Lord Jesus, serving his people and remembering his promise:

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.

 

It’s a wonderful promise, a comforting promise to which many of us turn when our burdens seem impossible to bear, when our best efforts to cope with them have failed and we are close to collapse. It is a promise that offers hope of help, hope of a God who will lift the sweaty loads off our backs and replaced them with a lighter yoke, lighter because it yokes us with One who is greater than we are, and with whose strong help we can bear any burden.

 

That’s what the passage means to many people. But it meant something very different when Jesus first said it.

 

Our Lord had just finished a preaching mission to several Galilean cities, where his welcome had been less than warm. The people in those cities were smart and capable. In spite of Roman occupation, both their local economies and their religious institutions were still working. They were not looking for help from Jesus or anyone else, and whatever gifts he had hoped to give to them, they declined to take. This Galilean mission was a failure, in other words, and in the passage at hand we hear Jesus’ response to that failure. After heaping some powerful reproaches on those who did not welcome him, he thanks God for showing things to simple people that wise and understanding people cannot see. At least one reason why this is God’s will, apparently, is so that no one gets human wisdom and understanding confused with divine revelation. Those who know God do not arrive at such knowledge by their own natural intelligence or capable efforts. They know God because God has chosen to be known.

 

By the time Matthew wrote his account, some believers were proposing fairly weighty requirements on new prospects. And if you pay any attention, you know that such requirements were not unique to that time, long ago in a land far away; such requiring happens right now, wherever religious people meet to decide what it means to know God. I think the case can be made that Matthew’s Gospel is not about a struggle between two different religious traditions. It is about the struggle within one religious tradition over the requirements of faith. A struggle of which we are well aware.

 

We Lutherans need to be careful here.

 

In traditional telling, when Jesus offered his heavy-laden listeners a lighter load, he was offering them a religion of grace to replace the religion of works under which they were laboring. I confess that I have actually preached that sermon myself, offering the gathered assembly the high Lutheran ground while denigrating the competition. In hindsight, my offering was not true on many levels. It was not historically true. It was not theologically true. It was not even humanly true.

 

As best I can tell, the truth is that every human being who longs to know God lives with the tension between grace and works. On one hand, we long to believe that God comes to us as we are, utterly unimpressed by the tricks we do for love. On the other hand we live in a world there those tricks often work really well, so that it is next to impossible to give up believing in them too. Follow us around for a day or two and you may discover what we believe most by how we act.

 

I may believe that I live by God’s grace, but I act like a scout collecting merit badges. I have a list of things to do that is a mile long, and while there are a number of things on the list that I genuinely want to do, they easily become things I should do, I had better do or God will not love me anymore. I may believe that my life depends on God’s grace, but I act like it depends on me and how many good deeds I can perform, as if every day were a talent show and God had nothing better to do than keep up with my score.

 

Honestly, now, do you know what I mean? Human beings, even Lutheran human beings, have a perverse way of turning Jesus’ easy yoke back into a hard one again, driving ourselves to do, do, do more and whipping ourselves to be, be, be more when all God has ever asked is that we belong to God.

That comes first. Everything else follows that, but we so often get the order reversed. We think there are all kinds of requirements to be met first, all kinds of rules to follow, all kinds of burdens to bear, so that we are not yet free to belong to God. We are still loaded down, by our ministry and our families and all our other responsibilities but really by something deeper down in us, something that keeps telling us we must do more, be better, try harder, prove ourselves worthy or we will never earn God’s love. It is the most tiring work in the world. And it is never done.

 

We live under the illusion that our yokes are single ones, that we have got to go it alone, that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with heavy requirements – good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience – all those rules we make and brake and make and break, while all the time Jesus is standing right there in front of us, half of a shared yoke across his own shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of a team.

 

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." No wonder those words have weathered the centuries so well; no wonder they are still music to our ears. They assure us that those who please God are not those who can carry the heaviest loads alone but those who are willing to share their loads, who are willing to share their yokes, by entering into relationship with the One whose invitation is a standing one. "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

 
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