Doing the right thing doesn’t involve un-necessary guilt.
I have a constant and irritating problem, and it involves a computer. Well, to be precise my laptop and our printer. Quite regularly the former will not talk to the latter, in fact frequently my laptop can’t even see the printer. Over the months we’ve had the current equipment configuration, Graham has patiently shown me a whole raft of things that may be the source of the trouble, because it’s never quite the same thing twice. But I’ve a poor memory for tech stuff, and you can bet your bottom dollar that when he’s frantic to meet a marking or report deadline, it will be the moment I simply can’t make them talk to each other whatever I try, with a deadline of my own to meet. I feel guilty interrupting him to get him to fix it, he gets grumpy solving the latest glitch, and I feel more guilty still. Then some time later, problem solved and deadlines met, he gets guilty that he got grumpy. We both feel that we can’t seem to do anything right.
It can be the same with the ordering of church life. Those who have been called to and accepted positions of ministry and authority from those around them can, if they are not careful, live with a constant sense of guilt that they are able neither to fulfil the preferences and desires of every person in every pew, nor bring immediately to fruition every sensible and spirit-filled practice that prayer and prophesy lay on their hearts. We get grumpy, and we feel even more guilty. We think there is no good in us, and we can’t seem to do anything right.
Likewise, when we first hear and read this mornings scriptures, it would be very easy to be left with the feeling that we can’t do anything right.
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he’s dwelling on the fact that however much he, or historically the people of Israel, are aware through the Law (the Ten Commandments) that guides how they should live and what the right things to do are, they fail. The Law has in fact been there to show them just how wrong they are, time, and time and time again. From the Old Testament we know that each time Israel has been rescued by God, from starvation, slavery, and exile, it’s not long before they’ve forgotten the faithfulness of God, and they’ve wandered off to place their faith in idols and other gods, only to call on the name of the Lord once again when things turn sour and difficult. We are rightly challenged that we’re pretty good at doing the same thing, and surprised that St. Paul sees himself as being as guilty as any other Jew of his time, or any other man or woman of our time.
In fact, there’s almost a sense of relief for us, in the slightly tortured, guilt ridden words of St. Paul; relief that we’re not the only ones who may spend quiet hours wandering in our heads around the inside of our lives, our motives, our lack of faith, our inability to give enough of ourselves to others, or do the right thing. He may have been externalising his own thought processes to talk to fellow Jews living in Rome, but he couldn’t have highlighted his own failings and humanity better; or ours.
Our Gospel from Matthew this morning also seems to start by suggesting we can’t do anything right. In a conversation that has come out of John the Baptist enquiring from prison as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, we find Jesus pointing out that their combined ministries have shown the Jews of their time to once again be a fickle generation. Both have been refused a hearing because they are uncomfortable to listen to, and failed to conform to the stereotypes of the current zeitgeist. Nothing changes. People still have a strong tendency of making a song and dance about their own populist agenda, refusing to consider an alternative focus or reason for their endeavours, and forgetting the love and faithfulness of God. We just can’t do anything right.
Or can we? Are we in fact making our things just way too difficult for ourselves, dwelling on our repeated failings, living with a misplaced guilt that suggests that we’re not achieving the right things, and the fact that we have sinned and constantly fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and all he has called us to be?
It is all very well admitting defeat when we can’t fix the computer, being honest about our failure to be always patient or loving towards our family and our neighbours, or knowing we’ve simply run out of our own ability to give because of our own health issues, but if we forget that under the new covenant we don’t encounter God in a list of rules and regulations but in the grace that revealed his love for us through Jesus Christ our Lord, we’re making our burdens heavier than they need be.
Living with a constant sense of guilt is not a cross that we are called to bear. Yes, we recognise that following the example of Christ can lead us through a narrow gate to a hard road (Matthew 7:14), and that we must take up the cross of whatever ministry we are called to fulfil in Jesus name, because not to makes us unworthy to call ourselves Christians (Matthew 10:38). But that road and cross should not include a load of un-necessary guilt.
Jesus, the gentle, prayerful priest in the second part of our Gospel this morning (Matthew 11:25-30), reminds us that we are called to learn from him, to be his disciples, not just in the things that we focus on doing in his name, but through knowing ourselves loved by God through having Jesus present with us on the journey.
The invitation to discipleship is about more than learning or knowledge, computers or even the ordering of church life; it is the adoption of a way of life that is expressed in terms of doing and being something in relation to Jesus. Jesus grounds the invitation in his own relationship with his Father (Matthew 11:27). The proper ordering of our relationship to Father and Son (we know the one through the other) can be deemed “light” and “easy” because an improper relationship to them surely makes for a much harder and more restless life! We ask ourselves what is our relationship with Jesus showing us, and if we forget the ongoing love, grace and forgiveness of the cross and resurrection, we’re missing something vital.
We do not rest in the presence of an absent master, but in Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). Doing the right thing requires us to remember why it is we gather around the table as the body of Christ, each individual, each called, each receiving the body and blood of Christ not simply in bread and wine, but in the sense of knowing ourselves to be chosen, forgiven and loved as God’s own children. That is what makes our burdens light, and lets us rest. Knowing ourselves, and those around us, as loved and forgiven, all made in God’s image and called as individuals but yet part of this corporate body, can dispel the load of un-necessary guilt. Yes, we are then called to practice that which we know ourselves to have received in Jesus, and that is what makes the road a hard one. Of course we will at times fail to meet his ideals and ours, but Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, for all people and for all our fallings-short. The right thing to do is to remember that we can always and continually return, lay our failings and our guilt at the foot of his cross, repent, receive and turn with a lighter load, to serve him afresh.
“Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:25)