Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 6.23 “Rest” Matt. 11:25-30
There was a poster that found a happy home in the Martin household, but was, sadly, lost, long ago. It read “How beautiful it is to do nothing, and afterwards to rest.” How true that is. And how beautiful. How good, as well. Hey! Platonic trifecta, right there! Pr. Martin bingo!—yes, I’m aware of the game 😉 and how Lutheran too! Really, the whole gospel is summed up right there.
While Pharisaical, Arminian, and Romanist legalists, time out of mind, have tried to make Christianity a program of prescriptions for all these arduous works of the law, good deeds, moral rearmament that we must do in order to “be saved”, the real gospel of Jesus Christ as Luther re-discovered it [all dusty and discarded in a pile of junk in the church’s attic] is “how beautiful it is to do nothing—but rather, as kites in a high wind in Jamaica, to be blown about by the Spirit and let God do everything in us—and afterwards to enjoy his perfect rest”.
Here is the beating heart of the Gospel. And how can your heart not be stirred by this Gospel, my all-time favorite? “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you… rest.” It’s that verse that first got my attention as a child, that let me know that Jesus is LORD, God, and he gets me as no one else does. It’s the verse that brought me back to the fold after frequent forays among the wolves.
In his classic essay “After Virtue”, Alasdair MacIntyre puts his finger on the problem with the modern world (since the “Enlightenment” of the 17th century). The modern world has no goal—no telos (Greek for goal or point or ultimate destiny, no “the meaning of life” if you will). One point where centuries of Asian and Greek philosophy (summed up by Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) and Judaism and Christianity are at one (as C.S. Lewis realized 40 years before MacIntyre in his Abolition of Man essay) is the idea of a divine destiny to life, which is, quite simply: the adoration of God.
For Christ’s apostles and prophets, and all sound philosophers (in the literal sense of “lovers of wisdom”) what are called “the virtues”—courage, temperance, justice, etc. are not ends in themselves or means to shaping the world for our devices and desires (as with all “Enlightenment” sophistry) but are simply means to God’s End of shaping us so that we can enjoy his rest, the End, the goal, the point and purpose of life.
Our beliefs, desires, longings, character traits are simply the Way we get to the End God ordained. In Abolition of Man Lewis calls it the Tao—the Way. Which, by the way, is exactly what the earliest Christians called the Faith—the Way. And Lewis and MacIntyre notice that whether it’s Homer, Confucius, Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, or Luther, the Way is described remarkably the same. Courage, temperance, justice—these are the sails sending us on down the Way that leads to the End of enjoying God’s presence, being remade in his image, enjoying his perfect rest.
For all the ancients, human beings cannot move themselves one inch. We are not self-propelled. Only God is self-propelled and moves creation his Way. We are kites, and without the divine wind, we are lifeless and inert. We are sails meant to be filled and driven on the high seas to that harbor where we find home. Courage, for instance, is just the way our sail is angled to catch the divine wind best, to be driven towards home rather than to the reefs, the Sirens, and shipwreck. And the same with all the other virtues…
For “Enlightenment” philosophers though, like Kant, Hume, Mill, and the whole sorry crew, Adam Smith, etc., culminating in Darwin and Nietzsche, there is no telos, no End, no goal to life. (No God in heaven either). For them, we’re the only gods. We move ourselves to maximize utility (the name of the Enlightenment god, aka “Chance”) to get what we want, to fulfill our natural desires. The idea that courage is desirable, sacrificing our interests, losing our lives in a great war for instance, was senseless to them—although they agreed it was a useful fiction to instill in others to get them to be slaves to our will to power.
And this, MacIntyre notes, is why we’re living in an utterly barbaric age, have been governed by barbarians for at least 3 centuries, with no end in sight. It’s why we are waiting, as he says in the famous last sentences of his book, not for Godot, but for a new and doubtless quite different St. Benedict who will restore true communities that are worshiping God on the fringes of an atheist and depraved society. Or, as Lewis put it, commenting on the god-fearing families of Pylos in Homer’s Odyssey: “in every age there have been civilized people, and in every age they have been surround by barbarism”.
And I am not digressing! All of this is the necessary background to grasp what Jesus means by being “heavy-laden” and what he means by rest.
If, [as we’ve been noting from the Gospel these last several weeks about having enemies and hardship as Christians in this world] if you are happy with the “Progressive-Enlightened” world of rational self-interest that says it’s fine to quit normal work, shun your friends and neighbors as lepers, huddle in your house, in order to avoid a bad cold—fine to cancel and shout down churches and people who would suggest such a way of life is cowardly and evil (cancelling them as “conspiracy theorists” hypothetically speaking, not that that could ever happen in modern America 😉 well then; you are not “heavy-laden” but happy with how things are.
But if the Tao, (Law) that we should fear God above all, serve our neighbor more than ourselves, be truth tellers willing to lose our lives for Christ’s sake—if that pricks your conscience, if that speaks to you—at all—it will do so by laying a great weight on your shoulders, a Sisyphean stone, a burden you cannot budge…
And if you spend years bearing this heavy load, you’ll be tired, weary, worn out. But, if God should show up as an itinerant carpenter-rabbi (working miracles 😉 and promising: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you… rest” then your heart will soar. And the Way, the Road you thought you’d never find (that you thought maybe’s just a myth?) suddenly opens up before you with a shining City (the City of God?) gleaming in the far distance…
This is what I hear in that one sentence. It is a life buoy tossed to me when I’m drowning on the high seas.
It makes me realize all my flailing that I called “swimming” was just wearing me out and pulling me down. In order to be saved, I need to just… stop, drift, go under the water, and let Christ get hold of me and pull me up, fill my sails, and point me to shore.
Rest is what God does on the 7th day of creation. It’s what he’s always “doing”. The doing that is not-doing, but is, rather, simply being the awesomeness he is.
The great Christian mystics saw divine rest as the beatific vision, the enjoyment of God for his own sake, rather than for any benefit he confers on us, “something very like adoration, some kind of quite disinterested self-abandonment to the One who securely claims this by simply being what he necessarily is”, as Lewis puts it. It is having your sails filled with the divine wind, surfing the greatest Wave ever. It’s the telos, the End!
Which is what Jesus gives you today, by Word and Sacrament—perfect rest; peace surpassing all understanding, guarding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.