When you commit to the Gospel, you commit to take up the cross and follow the way of Jesus. That way can be uncomfortable and costly, and yet, it is the way of life.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 14 A
Text: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace, in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let’s set the scene for this Gospel text. Jesus had recently sent his disciples out as missionaries to bring the Gospel to new communities. Some places had been receptive to their message, but some places had just run them out of town. John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard rumors about the stir that Jesus and his disciples were causing. John sent concerned messages to Jesus, who responded by saying: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6). It seems clear that some people were indeed taking offense at Jesus and his teachings.
That’s where our Gospel reading today picks up today. Jesus is frustrated! He’s frustrated that some people refused to listen to John the Baptist, refused to listen to Jesus, and refused to listen to his disciples.
Instead of receiving the message, people were criticizing the messengers, saying: John the Baptist was too strict; Jesus is too wild! If Jesus had known the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, he might have compared these people to Goldilocks grumbling that ‘this porridge is too hot; this porridge is too cold!’ Instead of really hearing the Gospel teaching just as it is, they were waiting until it felt just right. They were waiting for it to be comfortable on their terms.
The lectionary actually cuts out Jesus’ harshest words of condemnation. The Gospel writer says, “Jesus began to reproach the cities in which his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.” Jesus names some of those cities by name: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” (Matthew 11:20-21). Jesus concludes: It would have been better if they’d just brought the Good News to someone else.
No wonder some people were offended! This is not a warm-and-fuzzy Jesus. This is a turning-over-tables Jesus. Can you imagine being called out like that? Can you imagine Jesus saying: “Woe to you, Minneapolis! Woe to you, St. Paul! Other people took the Gospel seriously and repented. Why didn’t you?”
You can see why the lectionary left those lines out. It’s uncomfortable to listen to the Jesus we find confusing or offensive! Sometimes we just want to skip ahead to the Jesus we find relatable or reassuring. Sometimes we, too, want the Gospel message to feel just right. We don’t want to sit in the discomfort of realizing that, even though we don’t live in Chorazin or Bethsaida, a word of conviction might come for us. We might be reminded that we have not been listening to God. That the same God who offers us reassurance, also calls us to repentance. The same God who offers us comfort, calls us to transformation. Sometimes change is uncomfortable, so we’re tempted to just avoid it.
It’s important to realize, though, that Jesus isn’t just angry when he cries woe on certain cities. He’s sad. We don’t use the word “woe” very often, but the Greek word here is used throughout the New Testament. It’s a cry of frustration and dismay. It expresses sorrow that the inevitable consequences of an action will not be good. My seminary professor liked to translate this word as ‘alas!’ “Alas for you, Chorazin! Alas for you, Bethsaida!”
Jesus isn’t cursing these cities; he’s grieving. Jesus is distraught that they didn’t accept his teachings, that they didn’t change their hearts when they heard the message of the Gospel. He wants them to listen. He wants them to hear. He wants them to change. Jesus is bringing good news, even if it’s hard news. Discipleship might be challenging but it’s worth it. Jesus wants good for these communities who are rejecting him.
But Jesus doesn’t give up on even the most recalcitrant of people. That’s just not Jesus’ way.
He knows that his message can be hard to hear, That it can sound backwards. Jesus is teaching the way of sacrificial love that will lead him to death on a cross. That way will looks like weakness to those who have been considered powerful; like foolishness to those who have been considered wise. Jesus’ teachings resonated instead with those on the margins, those who suffered, those who were poor in wealth or poor in spirit; those who truly were truly hungry and thirsty for righteousness.
So Jesus offers the invitation again: “Come to me, you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.” The strong and powerful, the intelligent and successful, they might have missed it. But if you’re tired and weighed down, this good news is for you. If you’re lost and afraid, this good news is for you. If you’re struggling and hurting, this good news is for you. If you’ve been labeled an outsider, this good news is for you. If you feel like you’ve failed, this good news is for you.
And what good news it is! Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and I will give you rest.” Taking on the yoke of Christ, following the teachings of Jesus, brings rest for the soul. Who among us is not longing for that right now? Those who come to Christ are be received not with condemnation, but with gentleness.
No wonder Jesus is grieved that so many have rejected such a gift! Alas, alas, for them! This promise of Jesus, this gift of soul rest, is for those who follow Jesus’ teaching, who take up his cross. You can’t wait for the Gospel message to feel just right. You can’t think, “I’m strong enough to do this on my own, without God.”
But you can come just as you are, with all the mistakes, shortcomings, and burdens you bring with you, and you can put those things down at the feet of Christ. You can put down the despair that has been weighing on you.
Then you can pick up the yoke of Jesus’ teachings. You can love your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. And that sounds hard! That is hard.
But you don’t carry that weight alone – no one carries a yoke alone. You are yoked to Christ, who bears it with you, You are yoked to one another, the community of believers, You are yoked to the great cloud of faithful witnesses who have come before you. You are never alone, you are never left behind, not even when you stumble.
As the apostle Paul says in Romans, even when you can’t live up to being the person you strive to be, when you end up doing the things you don’t want to do, and you can’t do the good you do want to do – even then, Christ is your rescue! Even then, you stand in God’s grace. Even then, you are filled with God’s holy spirit. God’s mercies are made new again and again, forever.
It turns out that the yoke that seemed so burdensome is light. It turns out that the love of neighbor that seemed so demanding is rewarding. It turns out that the journey of discipleship that seemed arduous is filled with joy. It turns out that the cross that brought death is the way to life.
You are invited to that life, you who are weary and weighed-down. You are invited that rest, the kind of soul-rest that revives you for the rest of the journey. You are invited to follow the way of Christ. It will change you and it will cost you, and it will also save you over and over again.