Bear One Another’s Burdens: Galatians 6:1-10
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 7, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love most dearly. The staff at Home Church is eagerly awaiting tomorrow morning when the new air conditioning system becomes fully operational. This is the last week of school for children in the public system, and I know that a lot of little folks are looking forward to different activities in the summer. Every year my daughter Madeleine likes to do the Five Yesterdays program in Old Salem. The boys and girls get to learn all sorts of old crafts and games. Sometimes they even get to shingle a house. In July we will have Vacation Bible School here at Home Church, led by Tamara Thomas and Mallie Graham, both of whom taught for years in the public schools. I taught one of Mallie’s former students at Salem Academy who then went on to Harvard. Latonya returned to Winston-Salem and still tells everyone that she is my fifth daughter. I can’t guarantee that a week of VBS will get you into an Ivy League College, but I think it will be a week well spent. In today’s lesson, we’ll see that Paul valued teachers.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Christians in America. First there was all of the uproar over a popular Catholic priest in Miami who decided to convert to the Episcopal Church so that he could marry the woman he has loved for many years. His case is a good example of what Paul is discussing in Galatians. The church should not impose unnecessary laws and burdens on people. We know from Scripture that even Peter had a wife. Although Paul encouraged his followers to remain celibate, he never made it a requirement for church leaders. The other story is far more tragic. A doctor named George Tiller in Kansas was murdered in the foyer of the Lutheran Church where he was serving as an usher. His family was present when he died. His death is a grim reminder that religiously inspired violence is not confined to the Middle East. The bullets that were fired in that house of worship in Kansas were preceded by many years of verbal assault in many houses of worship throughout the United States. It is sad that we have two such dramatic stories illustrating the themes we have been discussing in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Fruit of the Spirit: Last week we ran out of time while discussing Paul’s concept of the fruit of the spirit. A member of the class made the very good observation that Paul is not only contrasting flesh and Spirit here; he is also contrasting work and fruit. We live in a work-oriented society; Americans work longer hours on average than any other people in the industrialized world. We take fewer vacations, and even though we are less healthy than most nations, we take fewer sick days. This, of course, only applies to those Americans who have jobs. Our society is one of the few that believes that the reward for hard work is more work. Even our leisure activities take the form of work. We go to the gym to “work-out”. We take work home. School kids have about two hours of homework each night. I was struck by this statement of a CEO in an interview in the Times recently: “I get up at 4:30 every morning. I like the quiet time. It’s a time I can recharge my batteries a bit. I exercise and I clear my head and I catch up on the world. I read papers. I look at e-mail. I surf the Web. I watch a little TV, all at the same time. I call it my quiet time, but I’m already multitasking. I love listening to music, so I’ll do that in the morning, too, when I’m exercising and watching the news.” That explains a lot about business.
Few of us know what is like to lie on a hillside and try to find shapes in the clouds or see how many stars you can count in the night sky. We assume that hard work leads to success, and much of the time it does, but we may have forgotten there are good things that do not come through work. One of the hardest things to learn in sports is the need to relax rather than trying so hard to do it right. Whether it is baseball or tennis or judo, you have to learn when to stop trying and just do. This is what Yoda taught Luke Skywalker.
Paul urges us to live in such a way that we produce Spiritual fruit. Nearly every morning I look at our tomato vines to see how the fruit is growing. I worked all of five minutes planting the tomatoes and another ten staking them. I haven’t even watered them much this year thanks to all of the rain. I am simply taking care of them and waiting for the fruit that I will enjoy. This is often hard for Americans. We like to work hard to increase the yield or make things ripen faster, but Paul understood how organic processes work. Things take time to develop, and they will blossom on their own if you let them. This is how he describes the working of the Spirit of Christ in us. It is foolishness to force yourself to become more gentle or patient or generous or kind. You have to gradually become a patient person.
Paul is urging the Galatians to relax and let the Spirit work with in them; to guide them to a more wholesome way of living. This is one of the things worship should help us with, but many churches simply ratchet up the tension and guilt and shame that infects our daily lives. What would happen if Moravian leaders followed this list of Spiritual fruit for the triennial review. Ask yourself: is your congregation full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control or is it full of enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, and envy? In our lesson for this week, Paul builds on this theme with some practical advice for all churches.
Read: Galatians 6:1-10
Restoration: Paul talks so much about the power of the Spirit of Christ to transform lives that he sometimes gives the impression that baptism alone turns a person around. This has been the source of a lot of contention in the history of Christianity, and all I can say this morning is that Moravians have never believed that baptism is the same as spiritual rebirth. Baptism is outward sign, but it does magically re-order a person’s psychology. Someone recently told me that she thought churches should do psychological screening of members. Pastors quickly learn that things do not work in the real world of the church the way that theologians say they should work. Theoretically, salvation should be a simple process of having faith in Jesus, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit. After that people should live in the Spirit and not satisfy the desires of the flesh, just like Paul said. Theologians argue about which comes first, regeneration or baptism, but that’s one of those chicken and the egg questions. The real problem is that theory rarely matches experience. Therefore it is gratifying that Paul acknowledges to the Galatians that brothers and sisters in the church transgress. Paul was a pastor who understood that humans are fallible creatures. He knows that the believers in Galatia were not perfect. Some of the situations Paul writes about in his letters could be on Jerry Springer. He does not address any specific type of transgression in the letter to the Galatians but merely tells them how to restore a brother or sister has committed a transgression.
Paul’s words are a little hard for us to make sense of today. We live in a society that has taken the concept of personal freedom to the point that we believe that we are autonomous individuals who have no responsibility to others for our actions. Even if we choose to join an organization, we tend to believe that our lives are our own and no one can judge us or hold us accountable. We are taught from an early age to ignore people’s private lives unless they do something so scandalous they have to be fired from their job or arrested. When someone is guilty of such an offense, we then cast them into the outer darkness and forget them. For the most part, we ignore or tolerate offensive behavior until we are forced to cut the individual off completely. I’m sure you can think of examples from the news or your personal experience. As a wise person pointed out to me last week, we do not forgive or forget in our society.
Gentleness: Paul asks the church to do something quite different. When someone is known to be doing something wrong or harmful, the community of faith should work to restore them rather than simply condemning them. Their transgression created a rift in the relationship and the goal of church discipline should be to restore the relationship. Keep in mind that Paul believed that sin is harmful to people and the community, and that the loving thing to do is help someone turn away from sin. What Paul is describing is similar to the modern practice of having an “intervention” with someone whose addictions are harming themselves and others. The goal of such an intervention is not to punish offenders or shame them; it is to help them. It can be unpleasant, but it is done out of love and should be done with a spirit of gentleness.
Paul gives an interesting warning here, instructing that the ones who restore a transgressor should take care not to be tempted. It is not clear what Paul means here. He might be acknowledging that we are often tempted to join in the sin we are supposed to be helping another person overcome. Paul could be warning people not to get dragged down by someone you are trying to save. Of he could be referring to the temptation of self-righteousness that is always there when you judge another person’s behavior. We have to admit that we sometimes make ourselves look good by condemning others, which is why some children are tattle-tales. In condemning others, we are often seeking praise for ourselves.
I suspect, though, that Paul was warning against the temptation of being too severe in dealing with transgression. One of the dangers of corporeal punishment, for instance, is that the one wielding the paddle or switch grows too fond of inflicting pain. Comenius warned teachers never to punish students while they are still angry. It often happens that attempts to correct or punish offenders lead us to do worse things. The history of Christianity is filled with overzealous defenders of morality and orthodoxy, and it is illuminating that Paul includes this warning in his harshest letter. He may have been reminding himself that the goal of his letter was restoration, not punishment.
The Law of Christ: It is in the context of restoring an erring brother or sister that Paul gives one of the best verses of Scripture: “Bear one another’s burden and in this way fulfill the law of Christ.” Bear one another’s burdens. The church is not just a social institution or a means of personal salvation; it is the community where we learn to help each other. Christianity is not just about what you can do as an individual; it is about your willingness to share the burdens of others. There was a time in the church, including the Moravian Church, when people could speak honestly about their struggles with temptation and seek forgiveness when they had failed. Many people today tell me that the last place on earth that they would admit their sins and problems is in the church. We have learned to keep our real problems secret in church. We don’t want anyone to know how we are tempted and how we falter. This may be the real reason that churches are dying these days; we are no longer bearing one another’s real burdens or letting others help us when we are troubled.
This is not an incidental matter. Paul says that we fulfill the Law of Christ when we share our burdens in love. This verse has often bothered interpreters. For five chapters Paul has been critical of those who try to live by the Law, and here he is saying that there is a Law of Christ. He doesn’t tell us what he means by the Law of Christ, but he does say that we fulfill it by helping those who are struggling, by restoring those who have committed transgression. Clearly this Law of Christ includes redemption and forgiveness; compassion and charity. Bear one another’s burdens rather than condemning them and excluding them. The Law of Christ is not a law of fear and punishment; it is gentle and joyful and redemption. Perhaps most importantly in our modern society; it is not individualistic.
Carry Your Own Load: In typical Pauline fashion, as soon as Paul tells us to bear one another’s burdens, he tells us that each of us must carry our own loads. This is one of the problems with trying to write general instructions. I was always confused by adages and proverbs as a child. Should you look before you leap or is the one who hesitates lost? A fool and his money are soon parted, but you should still cast your bread upon the water. Wisdom requires more than memorizing proverbs and Bible verses. We musst understood the context and purpose of these instructions. Everyone must carry their own pack on a long hike, but if someone gets injured, others take up the burden. That is what Paul is saying. You should bear one another’s burdens in the church, but you should not force someone to carry your burden because you are lazy.
Paul is also instructing the brothers and sisters in Galatia to resist the temptation to pry too deeply into each other’s lives. I bet that Paul had in mind Jesus’ teaching about the temptation to remove the mote in another person’s eye while ignoring the timber in your own eye. It is remarkably easy for people to ignore their own faults and failings while gossiping and criticizing others. The first step in church discipline is not an inquisition; it is rigorous self-examination. Test your own work, Paul says, rather than criticizing the work of others. The food critic in the movie Rattatoulie confesses that the work of a critic is easy. Others do the hard work of preparing food, and the critic simply uses wit to condemn. Churches today are filled with critics, but Paul tells us that we should focus on what we are called to do rather than obsessing about the failures of others.
Teachers: In the midst of all this advice, Paul throws out an apparently random comment that those who are taught God’s word should share in all good things with their teachers. Once again, Paul does not clarify what he means. It is likely that he simply saying that students should provide for their teachers instead of being ungrateful for their instruction. Keep in mind that there were no professional clergy in the first century; no pension plans; health insurance; no housing allowances. Those who taught in the church did so because they believed in what they were teaching and wanted to instruct others in a better way of living. They were more like yoga instructors at the Y or literacy volunteers than like modern professional clergy. Rather than working to advance their economic prospects, they chose to spend time instructing converts in the Scripture and the teachings of Jesus.
I strongly suspect that Paul was talking about more than paying teachers here. Nothing makes true teachers happier than the success of their students. A paycheck is necessary, but seeing someone learn is the greatest reward. One of my students at Wake recently told me how proud he was to finally get an A on one of my papers. He was a senior and that had been one of his goals in school. He was happy, not because of an A in a grade book, but because he had earned an A. I nearly cried when he shared his pride with me. That is sharing in all good things with your teachers. This is what we need more of in church.
Sowing and Reaping: Paul ends this section of Galatians with a familiar admonition. We will reap what we sow. I know parents who struggle with teen-age children but fail to recognize that they are reaping what they sowed when they spoiled those children when they were young. Paul takes this truth about reaping what we sow and applies it specifically to the issue of the flesh and spirit. Remember what we learned last week. The flesh is not the same as bodily desires or the “lower nature,” it is selfishness and corruption. If we spent our time and our money and our energy gratifying our selfishness, then that will be our reward. If we spend our time sowing discord and strife in church, then that is the kind of church we will have. But if we direct our energy toward Christ and his Spirit, then our churches will not be places where blood is shed and hatred is allowed to take hold.