Sunday, July 3, 2016

Pentecost 7C

Galatians 6:1–16

 

THE BURDEN OF CHRISTIAN FREEDOM

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

Once upon a time a man came upon a small boy carrying a still smaller boy who was lame. The lame boy was obviously a heavy load to carry. The small boy looked like he could fall over at any time. Nonetheless, he refused to give up and strained forward with the lame boy on his back. The man said to the small boy, “That’s a heavy burden for you to carry.” “That’s no burden,” responded the boy, “That’s my brother.”

 

When I served as Associate Pastor at First Lutheran in Decatur, Illinois, I often visited a man in his late 70’s, who had been caring for his invalid wife for almost twenty years. One time I commented on how difficult it must have been to care for her all these years. His response was, “It has not been all that difficult. I am glad I am able to care for her.” In effect, he said to me, “She’s no burden. She’s my wife.”

 

In Galatians 6:2 Paul exhorts the church in Galatia: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” It is not surprising that Paul exhorts the Galatians to bear one another’s burdens. But what about this reference to the “law of Christ”? Is Paul contradicting himself The past couple of weeks we have noted that Paul views Christ as the one who has freed us from the law. As Paul stresses in Galatians 5:1, “for freedom Christ has set us free.” In Galatians 5:4 he warns: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Given this warning, what sense does it make for Paul to talk in the very next chapter about fulfilling the law of Christ?

 

Paul gives a clue in Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” For Paul the law of Christ is this commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. It is the Golden Rule. In Mark 12:28 we read that one of the scribes asked Jesus, “Which commandment is first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” Then Jesus added, “The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” This second great commandment is the law of Christ.

 

As we have learned, at the heart of Christian freedom for Paul are the two classic core values: love of God and love of neighbor. To live by the Spirit of God is to focus on living by these core values. We are free inasmuch as we are loving God and loving our neighbor. To fulfill the law of Christ, therefore, is to love our neighbor; and in the community of Christ, the church, a major part of loving our neighbor is to bear one another’s burdens.

 

Here in Galatians 6 Paul appears to be especially concerned with bearing the burden of the sin of a brother or sister in Christ. Paul is realistic enough to know that followers of Jesus are not going to live perfect lives. For the well-being of the community and the well-being of each member of the community, it is essential to correct those who have gone astray and to be corrected when we go astray. As Richard Hays explains, Paul views the church community “as an extended family (v. 10), in which members should take responsibility for one another. He wants the members of the Galatian churches to see themselves not as rivals competing to see who can be the most devout (5:26), but rather as brothers and sisters (adelphoi, v. 1) supporting one another as they walk through perilous times of spiritual warfare. Because they bear responsibility for one another, they cannot casually allow other members of the family to go astray; they have an obligation to hold one another accountable to live as faithful followers of Jesus.”[1]

 

For the good of the community and the good of each member of the community, we need to hold each other accountable. In so doing we fulfill the law of Christ. It is a crucial part of what we might call “the burden of Christian freedom.”

 

Now Paul is especially concerned not only that we hold each other accountable but also how we hold each other accountable. In 6:1 Paul exhorts the Galatians: “My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” Gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul lists in Galatians 5:22–23. Last Sunday I described “gentleness” in this way: “`Gentleness’ refers to meekness. A gentle soul is submissive to God’s will, teachable, and considerate to all. Gentle souls are not haughty or boastful, do not overstep God’s limits, and do not use unscrupulous means to make themselves rich.” When we correct erring members, we are to do so with great gentleness and humility; for no one is in a position to cast down stones from on high on an erring brother or sister in Christ. We are all susceptible to sin and temptation.

 

Paul is fully aware that the cost of bearing the spiritual burden of one another’s sin can be high. That means the cost of Christian freedom can be high at times. Certainly on this Fourth of July Weekend we have reason to be mindful that freedom comes at a cost. The Revolutionary War was fought to establish a nation dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal and that all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

 

Yes, indeed, loving God and loving our neighbor— the heart of Christian freedom— can be a costly venture. Paul is mindful that Jesus paid the ultimate cost by giving his life on the cross. We may not be destined to die on a cross. But whatever burdens we bear— be they spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, or relational— they can be overwhelming. What will enable us to bear those burdens?

 

In Matthew 11:28–30 Jesus issues this invitation to his followers: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus bore the burdens of so many in his life. He ended up dying on the cross. In what sense was his burden light?

 

The religious elite of his day tended to view certain types of people as burdens. They sought to avoid “those on the bottom of the heap”— tax collectors, sinners, lepers, and other “undesirables.” They believed that not associating with such people was a matter of religious obligation. They refused to bear the burden of these “undesirables.”

 

Jesus saw things in a completely different way. He saw fit to associate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners. He healed lepers. He preached good news to the poor. He did not treat women and children as second class citizens. He did not view any of these people as burdens or dregs to society. In his words and deeds he proclaimed, “These people are not burdens; they are my brothers and sisters.”

 

In our own day and age it does not take long for the poor, the hungry, the elderly, the homeless, the disabled, the mentally ill, refugees, immigrants, and many others to discover that much of society views them as a burden. The formula can be quite simple: if you make my life more difficult, I do not want you around.

 

A society in which such an attitude is prevalent is anything but free. A truly free society is one in which no person is considered an unwanted burden. The poor, the hungry, and the homeless are not burdens to society— they are our brothers and sisters. The elderly are not burdens— they are our mothers and our fathers. The mentally ill, the disabled, the imprisoned, immigrants, and refugees are not burdens— they are our neighbors. Juvenile delinquents and unwanted children are not burdens— they are our children, our sons and daughters.

 

At the same time, Paul stresses that each person, as best they can, is to carry their own load— or perhaps we would say, carry their own weight. It is all part of contributing to the well-being of others and the community as a whole. But no matter how limited a person’s contribution may be, that person is still first and foremost a child of God.

 

Members of our refugee sponsorship team have faced some real challenges in helping the Alajrab family get established in their new land. Team members have had to bear some significant burdens. But I know they do not view the Alajrabs first and foremost as burdens; they view them as fellow children of God, our brothers and sisters.

 

When we learn to see each person we encounter not as a burden, but as a child of God, our brother or our sister, we will be free indeed.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 



[1] “The Letter to the Galatians,” New Interpreter’s Bible, volume XI, pages 331–32.