The Archdeacon of Leeds, Venerable Paul Ayers
Jesus says, My yoke is easy and my burden is light. But hang on a minute, I thought being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is really hard, a tough challenge – all those rules and regulations, all those things that you’re not allowed to do. (That’s how some people think of Christianity, something restricting and stifling.) But have you thought about how difficult it is not being a Christian?
The trouble is that a lot of people in churches don’t know what it’s like not to be a Christian. I remember some research done years ago which showed that nearly everybody in our congregations was a ‘cradle Christian’ – meaning that they had been coming to church all their lives.
That’s not my experience. I was sent to Sunday School as a child, and as soon as I was old enough to say I didn’t want to go, I stopped. As I grew up I decided that I hated the idea of God – someone dark and foreboding, looming over me – and I decided that God didn’t exist. My wife is just the opposite: she was brought up in a Christian home and went to church and youth group, she can’t remember a time before she was a Christian. But I know what it’s like when the church means less than nothing to you. I used to walk past our local church, and play in the churchyard (until the vicar found us and chased us away), but it never occurred to me that it even had an inside, or that anybody ever went there, or what they would do there. People that don’t know what that’s like – the difference between being a believer and really not being a believer – might not feel the same compulsion to invite others to become believers.
The equal and opposite trouble could be that some people in churches don’t know what it’s like to be a Christian. If that sounds a bit harsh, let me explain. My friend Derek was a full-on committed Christian, he loved the Lord and understood the Gospel, and it showed in his character and demeanour – a lovely guy. But he told me it wasn’t always like this. Before he became a Christian – and I’m using the word in the sense of an active, believing follower of Christ, someone who has come to their own personal faith in Jesus – there are lots of ways of describing this, being converted, making a commitment, being save, born again, receiving Christ, asking Jesus into your life, confirming your baptismal vows – anyway, before Derek became a Christian (in his terms) he had been going to church for years. But he didn’t know that he wasn’t a Christian. He didn’t know what he didn’t know. It’s a bit like sneezing. You know when you have sneezed. If you have to ask, I’m not sure what sneezing is like, I don’t know if I’ve ever sneezed, then you haven’t. Or to change the image, you know that with this corona virus there are people who are infected but show no symptoms: you can’t catch Christianity and show no symptoms.
So we might have some people who are Christians, but who can’t imagine what it’s like not to be a Christian: therefore they don’t realise deeply how difficult life is without Christ. And we might have people who are living without Christ but don’t know it, and so they don’t realise deeply how much better life is with Christ, either for themselves or for their friends and neighbours. Either way, those people are not going to feel deeply the need to invite others to Christ.
And then there are people like me. I do remember what it was like not being a Christian – in my formative teenage years I was a definite atheist – and I remember what it was like becoming a Christian. And I remember telling my best friend – it didn’t occur to me not to – and sadly from then he on he wasn’t quite my best friend any more. But I have been a Christian for so long, have I got so involved in the life of the Church that I don’t make as many opportunities to share the faith? And another challenge I heard recently: can I say, not just ‘how I became a Christian’, but ‘why I am still a Christian’?
Jesus says, My yoke is easy and my burden is light. Don’t we want people to be eased of their burdens? Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. It’s very hard work trying to live without Jesus Christ, trying to get through life without the purpose and pardon and presence and promises that he gives. Without Christ so many people are weary and heavy laden.
And if you are following Christ, and you are finding it hard – hard to love your neighbour, hard to forgive those who trespass against you, hard to turn the other cheek, hard to pray, hard to trust him for someone or something you are worried about – well, for one thing, think how much harder it would be without him, and think how much he is actually upholding you, walking with you, yoked together, supporting, guiding – yes, challenging, but always encouraging you to keep going – a spiritual Joe Wicks telling you, ‘You can do it, you’ll smash this, keep going, don’t drop, I know it’s hard, but we’re going to get there.’ Doing exercise might seem hard, but it’s not as hard as being unfit and unhealthy. I’d rather get out of breath doing a few push ups or going for a jog that get out of breath climbing the stairs.
In 1937 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book about this. In German the title is ‘Nachfolge’, which means ‘Following’, but it was translated into English as ‘The Cost of Discipleship’. Unfortunately this gives the impression, if we’re not careful, that being a disciple of Jesus is a grim, hard slog that means giving up pleasure and enjoyment. Yes, there is a cost to discipleship. Yes, we do have to give things up. But the only things God calls us to give up our things which are bad for us in themselves, or bad for others, or which hold us back from experiencing the fullness of life which Jesus gives.
And what about the cost of non-discipleship? What about the cost of not following Jesus Christ? Do we imagine that those who are not students/disciples of Jesus are having all the fun? Really? No, life without Christ is ultimately boring, anxious, meaningless and futile. The fact is, following Jesus Christ is the most fulfilling, meaningful, purposeful, exciting, demanding course of life that anyone can follow.
So when we hear Jesus say, ‘Come to me… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light’, let’s breathe a sigh of relief, and let’s make that invitation freely known to the whole world.
COLLECT FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply upon us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may so pass through things temporal
that we lose not our hold on things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.