A Sermon for July 3 on Galatians 6:1-16
This is the fifth and final Sunday the lectionary has us working our way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and this evening we’re basically dealing with Paul’s closing message to those church communities. He’s packed a good deal into this relatively compact letter, much of it having to do with the matter of the full inclusion of Gentile believers as Gentiles. No need to convert to Judaism to be a follower of Jesus, he’s argued all the way through. And here as he draws it all to a close he brings it home in a blunt yet strangely poetic way: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” Gentile Christian or Jewish Christian; that’s not a distinction that actually means anything, for “a new creation is everything!” “For those who will follow this rule,” he writes, meaning those who get this vision, this new way of seeing, “peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” That’s what he’s been getting at over the course of the whole letter; that in Jesus Christ, God is doing a whole new thing. To use a rather fashionable word, there is a whole new paradigm here, in which those old distinctions, patterns, and practices have all been shown to be insufficient. “A new creation is everything,” and that new creation is brought about as wildly audacious and free gift.
Yet Paul also knows that people remain people, and that as such they’ll make a grand job of missing the point. It was then as it is now… and forgive me my use of a metaphor hopelessly tied to this current age… so easy to keep working with the familiar old default settings, preferring them to a complete wiping of the computer hard drive and the installation of a whole new operating system. So they wondered, if even though in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, isn’t circumcising our male children still the proper thing to do? And really, shouldn’t they—the Gentiles—be giving up eating the meat of those filthy pigs? Or how about from the other side—something Paul doesn’t take on here, but which surely did figure in the minds and hearts of some of those Gentiles—don’t you miss having those reprobate gods to blame when things go wrong? Is there really any harm in making the odd offering to one of them, just to hedge your bets?
Well, Paul might say, in this new paradigm, “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Or as he writes in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17) Again with some apologies for pressing this image, the computer’s hard drive has been wiped clean, and you have no business trying to get some computer wizard to recover the old files.
But again, he’s a realist, is our Paul, so he knows that the communities to which he writes are filled with real living, breathing people. And so as he draws his letter to a close, he begins by offering some very sane and sage pastoral counsel.
“My friends,” he writes, “if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Two things here. First of all, ours is a culture that pays lip service to a “live and let live” sort of approach, in which we tend to think that it is not right to delve too, too much into someone else’s business. Yet ours is also a culture that has elevated gossip to a kind of art, and which quite happily exposes the lives of celebrities and politicians to public scrutiny. Beyond the supermarket tabloids and endless online musings, even gossip that is little more than fabrication can cut you or me like the sharpest of knives. So what is it? Live and let live, but we’re going to talk about it behind your back?
Against this, Paul is brilliantly clear in his counsel to these church communities. “If anyone is detected in a transgression”—catch the word “detected”?—if anyone seems to be getting in some kind of trouble, “you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” “You who have received the Spirit,” which means something like “you who have caught this wild ‘new creation’ vision and reality,” “should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” In a spirit of gentleness, restore the person whose life is coming off the rails. Don’t bracket them off imagining that “it is none of my business”, all the while finding excuses to share the details of their lives in the name of intercessory prayer. You know, “we need to pray for Jack, who is drinking a lot and has been staying out really late at night. Poor Jack, I’m afraid he’s having an affair, so we better pray for him… and for poor Jill too, who must know that something is wrong…” Or “I’m so worried about Esther… did you hear what she’s been doing?” That’s gutless gossip, disguised as concern.
Restore them, Paul says, and do it in a spirit of gentleness. You’re aware something is wrong, and it is scary as all get out to actually go and talk with the person about it. Absolutely. Might you say the wrong thing? No doubt. But “in a spirit of gentleness”—isn’t that a powerful phrase?—should you maybe talk to that person about what you’re seeing unraveling in his or her life? Paul would say you should, and I think he’s also say that to do so is far kinder than gossip.
And then this: “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.” Isn’t that interesting? I’m sure you recall all of the news reports coming out of northern First Nations communities, about teen suicide epidemics. It was like a contagion, right? One young person ended his or her own life, and suddenly it became a very real possibility for others. Same is true of the use of drugs like crystal meth or crack. Why does anyone ever think it is a good idea to try those? Do they think they’ll be the one who can do it recreationally, and just walk away? Or is it because someone they know and like and even trust is doing it, and so it becomes something real and possible. Same thing with sexual infidelity and even divorce, by the way. Basically bracketed off as beyond even considering, such things become possibilities when someone close to you makes that move. I know of church communities where, strangely, such things became all but the norm. We are, all of us, vulnerable.
Yet still Paul wants to say to “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” There’s risk in bearing one another’s burdens, and he knows it. The novelist and theologian Charles Williams—with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien one of the famous “Inklings” group—wrote at length about what he called “substitution” and “exchange”, believing that just as Christ bore our burdens in the whole of his life and death, so we bear one another’s burdens in our own lives. Williams believed strongly that a real exchange of burdens happens, when one member of the Body of Christ sits with another member—hears their story, carries them in prayer, really supports and upholds them. Have you had the experience of listening to someone share their pain, and watch them walk away a little lighter while you walk away feeling a little heavier? I know that experience, and it what Williams—and St Paul—were talking about. Bear one another’s burdens, even in and through the risk.
Yet to his sane pastoral counsel Paul adds this: “For all must carry their own loads.” Is that contradiction? Here the biblical scholar Charles Cousar comments, “[T]his mutuality”—this bearing of one another’s burdens—“only happens when those who help are aware of themselves, their own needs and weaknesses, and have not forgotten their own accountability.” It is no contradiction, but rather a kind of stunning paradox, in which members of the Body are called to recognize their own needs and wounds, and to do so from a place of deep accountability and self-awareness as a thoroughly “new creation”… even when you feel dogged by the old garbage.
You may have gathered over these weeks that I’m rather taken by Paul. He sometimes gets written off as being hopelessly patriarchal, as being “anti-body” and unsettled by sex, and as being the one who turned to gospel of Jesus into the religion called Christianity. I think, though, that when you meet him and engage him in his own context, you find that he has so very much to say across the ages. You are a new creation, even on those days when it is hard to feel it or see it. You are called to bear one another’s burdens, and to do so in a way that restores in gentleness. You are called, in short, to live trustfully and truthfully in a world that can short on both. He’s a sane, wise, and somewhat fiery guide to life in the real world, is our Paul. It has been good to again meet him in this letter.