Text: Galatians 6:1-10
Believe it or not, I selected this text weeks ago, without a clue about how national news stories were going to play out this week. But I can imagine, if this were a congregation of folks who regularly said “Amen” and “Mm-hmm” in church, there might have been much response — “My Lawd, uh-huh” and so on — as Phyllis read the scripture this morning.
It could have been any week of news stories these days, though, and the apostle Paul’s words would be spot on. For it’s not just the world of politics where we find protracted division, heated debate, violence in words or action, people caught in wrongdoing, selfishness and boasting. In just about every corner we witness these behaviors and attitudes, and they are so pervasive that it is easy to become discouraged.
There is so much wisdom in this passage from Galatians — and while it is not written for an audience of politicians, or even “unbelievers,” Paul certainly paints a picture that looks like the way I’d like to live in community. There is so much humility and graciousness in Paul’s advice for “restoring” one who has done something wrong in this description. This process recognizes that not one of us is perfect, and that self-righteousness will lead us nowhere. It’s actually quite remarkable, given that many modern readers don’t usually think of Paul as a very humble person, himself (but I’ve come to believe that Paul has gotten a bad rap).
Let’s pause for a moment and put Paul’s letter to the Galatians in its historical context. Biblical scholars are divided about just when this letter was written; it might have been his earliest letter (at least of those included in the New Testament), written as early as 49 AD to the congregations (in the southern part of the province of Galatia, in modern-day Turkey) that he established on his first missionary journey; or perhaps he wrote, in the mid-50s, to the northern Galatian churches that he established on his second missionary journey. Whichever the original audience was, his letter was occasioned by the appearance, on the scene, of a follow-up group of missionaries who asserted that these Gentile Christians needed to become Jewish — that is, to be circumcised — in order to be true followers of Jesus.
So Paul wasn’t addressing a general audience, but a community of faith, although he advised those believers to treat everyone (onscreen show Gal 6:10) with this level of humility and respect — even those outside of the church.
And even in the church, this is hard to do.
It doesn’t happen here (of course!), but there are faith communities where fault-finding and blame are the order of the day, where gentleness — one of Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” (and note the passage in which Paul coins that expression is also in Galatians) — gentleness is in short supply. There are churches where the interpersonal dynamics simply mirror those of the world around us. And this is not a new challenge, not simply a symptom of living in the current days.
Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, wrote of this dynamic in his own time, more than 200 years ago, as he reflected on this passage: “Temptation easily and swiftly passes from one to another; especially if a man endeavours to cure another without preserving his own meekness” (source: Notes on this passage).
And it seems this is a challenge for our denomination, in spite of years of trying to come to a respectful resolution to the impasse we’ve come to over matters of human sexuality.
Many of those in church leadership have wondered: What if we could be examples of how to get along in spite of differences? What a gift might we offer this world that is so bitterly divided over matters of power and pride?
And if it can’t happen on a denominational scale, can we at least live this out in our local church? Can we be witnesses of the power of grace?
Paul tells his readers that they don’t have to become God’s people in “the old ways” because, through the Spirit of Christ, they have become “a new creation” (Gal 6:15). As one of my former classmate (who’s now a professor at our seminary) puts it: “It is not that circumcision does not save while non-circumcision does; it is that neither one saves” (source: Alicia Vargas, WorkingPreacher.org, 2016). The new creation, living in the Spirit, empowers us to do this difficult work of living together.
And speaking of difficult: In this passage (in almost the same breath, actually), Paul says, “Each person must carry their own load,” which sounds contradictory to the command to “Carry each other’s burdens.” What do you make of that? What I’ve learned is that what we have here is a confusion in translation from the two different Greek words in these verses. “The ‘burden’ we are to help each other lift is literally a boulder too large for any one person to shoulder. The ‘load’ each of us is to carry alone is a Roman soldier’s daypack” (source: Brad Hewitt and James Moline, Your New Money Mindset: Create a New Relationship with Money, 2016, p.108).
We are to carry our own backpack, and bear one another’s burdens — because the latter are burdens that were never meant to be borne alone.
All of us have work to do, responsibility for ourselves and for those God has put closest to us. But we also bear a greater responsibility for sharing, which requires that we draw near to others in our community. We come to church and to a life of faith not just to connect with God; if that’s all we do, we’re only getting half of it. God’s plan is that we learn how to live with one another, and especially with others who are not like us — and a community of faith is the perfect classroom for that. Not because we’re “like minded,” or because we only show our best sides to each other, but because we’re not, and we don’t. We’re not like-minded, and we aren’t always our best. We’re human, and we’re different, and, if we create safe space to really show who we are, with all our frailties and struggles and imperfections and pain, we can, and a healthy and safe space, spur one another on to good deeds and maturity, support each other and stay in relationship even when we disagree.
Another professor sums it up thus: “In listening, in surprise, in hospitality for a moment we catch a richer glimpse of God’s reality and find the energy of the Spirit, lest we grow weary” (Source: Professor Sarah Henrich, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013).
The key is that Spirit which makes us a new creation, which creates, of the gathered Christian community, an alternative reality — a safe haven for being imperfect and diverse, yet which empowers us to get along in spite of our difference. It is the Spirit which enables us to bear one another’s burdens. It is the Spirit which keeps us humble. It is the Spirit which keeps us from growing weary in spite of the hard work that living in community brings. It is the Spirit which brings restoration and healing, for ourselves, for our neighbors, and, in time, for the world. May we keep walking in that Spirit, be energized and healed by that Light, and share it with others. Amen.