‘Come unto me …’
‘Come unto me all you who are weary and are heavy laden.’
What was Christ offering them?
In the years after the crucifixion and resurrection Paul produced his brilliant theological reconciliation between Jewish thought and the evolving Christian belief, in which he envisaged Christ as seated in the heavenly places (Eph. 2.6). This Risen Christ – whose Spirit lives in each of us and in whom we live - offers peace and all the other Christian virtues – but what was it that Jesus of Nazareth was offering to those who heard him say ‘Come to me..’?
Was what Jesus was offering just for those who would hear his teaching after he died? Was he preaching just for posterity? So that someone like Paul could weld it into a theology of redemption for Jew and Gentile?
Or was Jesus actually offering something real to his hearers there and then, in far off Palestine?
An alternative explanation could be that the gospels, which were written forty years after the crucifixion by anonymous first century Christians, were written in the way they were to show that the teaching of Jesus applied after his death. That they were written for post-Easter Christians – people who would apply the sayings in a ‘risen Christ’ sense.
However right that may be, I believe that Jesus did not conduct his life and teaching for posterity only. When he said ‘Come unto me..’ I believe he actually meant it for the people who were there and heard the invitation.
If we accept this, then we must ask again: what was Jesus offering, when he said these words? Why should they come? What would they receive? What had he to give them?
The simple answer must be that he offered them a different picture of God. His God was unlike the God they were currently worshipping as Jews. Not totally different, for the Jewish Bible (our Old Testament) sometimes spoke of God as a Father or Mother, or even as a mother hen! But mostly they were bound by a strict religion that laid a heavy legalism on their shoulders. Their religion conceived of God as being so holy that he was unapproachable by all but the most senior clerics. It was a nit-picking religion, a religion of sacrifice and offerings, run by Priests and Scribes. Instead, Jesus talked of not putting new wine in old bottles, and of new cloth needing new garments for them to be sewn into. Where were the new bottles and the new garments?
Here we are at the root of all religion, not just Christianity, because when we ask what the purpose of religion is, we come to the heart of what Jesus was saying.
What do all religions do – what has been their role in human life and society? Surely it is very simple. Religion is there to reconcile man to God, to remove the sense of guilt and to help regulate society. Religions all do this in different ways and with different emphasises. The earliest religions required sacrifice – initially human sacrifice - by men to pacify God. In return God was expected to grant a good harvest, or to bless the hunt for food, or bring victory in fighting with another tribe.
In the long evolution of man, his developing brain has tried to understand – make sense of – the life he has lived on earth. Through long millennia he has often seen his efforts fail through no fault of his own – locusts would eat his crops, or floods would wash away his home, or lightning would strike someone important to him. In explaining such events he has often seen God as punishing him for his misdeeds. If things went wrong, it was thought, it was because we had offended God in some way. In a similar way a young child who learns that his parents are to divorce will often think that in some way he has been the cause.
Our ability to feel guilt is part of what makes us human. It is a consequence of being able to make choices and is part of the cost of our humanity. To expiate this guilt primitive religions make human sacrifice to propitiate the Gods. There is also, of course, a desire on the part of the humans to manipulate God to achieve what they want – prosper their crops, give victory over the enemy or whatever.
Jewish religion dealt with guilt and sin by way of sacrifice. The form changed over the centuries, but sacrifice remained at the heart of the god-pleasing, guilt-assuaging process.
Jesus dealt with guilt – common to all humans everywhere – in a different way. Instead of changing how or with what one should make sacrifice, he changed the picture of God. He said that God was not the forbidding angry heavenly power their religion portrayed - utterly distant in holiness and unapproachable. Instead he called God ‘Daddy’. He talked of God wanting to heal sickness and restore people to sanity when their mind was deranged. He told stories about a prodigal son coming home and being wonderfully welcomed by his father. He talked of a loving God searching for his lost children.
When Jesus said ‘Come unto me..’ he wasn’t addressing the millions who would read his words in nicely printed New Testaments centuries later. He was looking into the eyes and hearts of the men and women in front of him. Farmers, women and children, sick people, illiterates, fishermen, out of work peasants, tax collectors, and religious bigots. The average run-of-the-mill person.
When he said ‘Come unto me..’ he was offering them a new picture of God. A picture that would deal with the guilt and anxiety that every person knows – that is built into our being human. And the next injunction was to take upon themselves the yoke of Christ – his teaching and values. That is an integral part of the message.
It is hard for us sometimes to realise just how revolutionary the message of Jesus really was. It flew in the face of all current teaching. Although there were similar strands here and there in the Jewish Bible, the current understanding of religion was a far more sterile affair. Buy your pigeons, give them to the priests for the sacrifice to be made – no talk of a father-son relationship.
So what was the cure Jesus held out for this universal sense of guilt that the Jews, like everyone else, had? Jesus offered a picture of a Father – a loving Father does not make his son feel guilty, but loves and cherishes him. He helps him over the various problems he has to face as he grows up. So with our Heavenly Father – he is not angry with us, our guilt is overcome by a realisation of his great love for us. We no longer need to try to be acceptable to Him – he already loves us and wants the best for us. And this evokes the best from us.
This was – and is – at the core of the message of Jesus. And the early disciples lived in the light of that message all their days. But the message of Jesus, in the years after the cross, became the message about Jesus. Linked to the new picture of God as Father we include the picture of Christ as the sacrifice for all.
The disciples – going first to the Jews and then to everyone else – dealt with the universal sense of guilt that people feel by the message of the Cross. No longer was the message just about a loving Father but, in addition, they preached that by his life and death and resurrection Jesus had shown himself to be the Christ – the long expected messiah – who by his death had opened the gate of heaven and brought us to the Father. Some saw the death of Jesus as a ransom paid to the devil, some saw it as an offering to God on behalf of mankind. Down the centuries there have been many theories of the Atonement. But they all said that we need no longer feel guilty because God is our Father and Christ died for us and accomplished our salvation.
The message of Jesus became linked to the message about Jesus. A new solution for the guilt that all men feel – and still feel – had been found.
When, today, people hear a preacher announce his text as ‘Come unto me..’ they immediately think of the Risen Christ. They see Christ in the heavenly places, beckoning them to come to him. They sometimes fail to remember the original message of Jesus, which was to announce the new message of who God is, and what He is like, so that people could lose their fear and guilt and foreboding about God. By forgetting that Jesus showed us God as our Father, making us all brothers, the danger is we only have half the good news. Rejoicing in the salvic death of Jesus and his resurrection we miss out on the other part of the gospel – that we are all one under the Fatherhood of God.
Please note, I am not saying that Christ did not die and rise again. I believe he did. I am not denying that by his life and death and resurrection we are reconciled to God. I believe we are. Of course the Cross is the true symbol of the Christian Faith – the empty cross, signifying the resurrected Christ who goes to prepare a place for us.
What I am saying is that the revelation of the loving Fatherhood of God is the heart of the message of Jesus Christ. A view of a loving Father as our God overtakes any concept of the Cross as a ransom or payment to God.
‘Come unto me..’ is at the heart of our religion, as it is at the heart of the many stories Jesus is recorded as telling to the hungry and needy folk who came to listen to him. It was that message of Fatherhood that Christ came to reveal to us and for which he said ‘I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me’. This is the message he wanted people to hear and to learn and to live by. It was the message that ultimately caused his death. The message of the Fatherhood of God, which makes all men brothers and binds us all into the Kingdom of Heaven on an equal footing.