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Learning to move in love

Sermon Pentecost Proper 9 9 July 2023

Jesus’ words to us today are about animals. It might not be obvious at first to everyone, but it would have been obvious to Jesus’ disciples in the First Century. Because we live in cities now, and we’re not as close to livestock and working animals as we used to be, the images in

I grew up around a lot of farm animals. We had draft horses, pigs, cows, hunting dogs, on my grandparents’ farms. I learned that they weren’t born knowing how to work for humans. They had to be taught. And much of that learning came from other animals, not from the humans.

For example, the oxen that Jesus’ first-century disciples knew about, had to learn how to plow. The harsh, rocky soil of Judea was not easy to farm. The rocks had to be moved by hand before the land could be plowed. And then the ground was hard, sometimes as hard as concrete. So a man working alone or even in a team would find it almost impossible to plow a row before he could plant wheat.

So farmers used oxen, large muscly animals known for their strength. But to connect the ox to the plow, the farmer had to use a wooden yoke, a large heavy piece that went around the animal’s shoulders and neck. And typically in Jesus’ day, it took TWO oxen to pull a plow with enough strength to plow the earth.

But oxen are not born knowing how to do this. So a farmer typically yoked together an experienced adult with a young ox, and the older ox would literally teach the younger ox how to work together. They had to learn to walk in step with the other ox, so that the weight of the yoke was less burdensome. The young ox had to learn to move with the older, more experienced ox.

The Apostle Paul also had to learn to plow alongside the other apostles. When Paul met Jesus, he was blindsided, knocked to the ground (Acts 26: 12-18) and he started immediately to preach but eventually the other disciples obligated him to receive teaching from Priscilla and Aquila.

This is particularly interesting to me because Paul tells us that he was a Pharisee, zealous for the Law of God (Acts 23:6). Didn’t he know the Scriptures?

Yes, he did. In fact, he knew them so well, at least he thought, that he persecuted Christians in the name of the Law of God! But Paul was zealous not for the love of God shown in the Scriptures but for the commandments contained in the Law.

A Jewish sage once claimed that the Law of Moses contained 613 commandments. 613! Can you imagine being a homemaker back in those days trying to keep the law about wheat and yeast and oil and all that? Nobody could do it! Nobody could keep all 613 commandments.

But Paul loved all that stuff. He loved the MINUTIA of it all. He loved laying weights on other people. Making a big deal out of nothing. As Jesus said, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel.

SO it was HARD for Paul to LET GO of the attitudes he had learned. He, like you and I, had been taught a lot of hooey—a lot of misinformation about God’s law, a lot of incrustations upon the Law placed there by well-meaning but mistaken instructors. No wonder Paul cries out, “Who will rescue me from this body of Death?” (Romans 7) The “body of Death” he’s talking about is the corpus, the body of attitudes and habits of mind that are formed by strict adherence to the minutia of the Law. It’s a mindset of judgment rather than love. He had become a slave to it—because he can’t stop thinking in judgment on himself and on others.

Bless his heart. And I mean that sincerely. He was raised up in a society not unlike our own, where there is an anxious culture of critique and condemnation. The “law” that keeps Paul, and us, bound and yoked is an ethical system, a culture, a history, a legal code, that blinds us to God’s mercy and love.

But in Romans 7 Paul turns a corner. He is set free by the power of Jesus—there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus! And he discovers that Jesus is NOT a warrior Prince, he’s NOT a champion of war, but a Prince of Peace! His yoke is… LIGHT. And we are liberated from the minutia, and we walk in LOVE!

Jesus is trying to show us that his law is the NEW law—the law of love—and it’s a light yoke.

In the eighth chapter of Romans, Paul goes on to say that he who loves his neighbor is fulfilling all the law!

Paul is not laying a new burden on us. He’s finally found the victory! The Holy Spirit fills us with love and other graces to make the living of the Law of Love possible.

It’s not automatic though. You have to take on that yoke of love every new day. And you have to learn to move in love with Jesus.

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