Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load.
If you have ever felt like life is a juggling act, you’re not alone. Depending on who you are and in what stage of life, you may be juggling work, family, education, time alone for your own mental and physical health and your hobbies, and, I hope, your life of prayer and faith formation. All of these things seem, at times, to be at odds with each other. After all, there’s only so much time in a day. We may think that we have this juggling act together, and maybe we do, for a while. But then something comes along, like sickness, a job loss, children or grandchildren, and, whether good or bad, we have a new juggling act to learn.
Today’s passage highlights three pairs of seemingly opposite things we must always juggle. And that’s the first point in today’s sermon outline. The first pair is interdependence and independence. As for interdependence, Paul says, in verse 2, “Carry each other’s burdens.” A few words later, in verse 5, Paul writes, “Everyone should carry their own load.” That’s the independence part.
That’s not an easy juggling act. It’s described so well in the title of that book about family life: Mom And Dad, Get Out of My Life! But First, Will You Take Me and Cheryl To The Mall?”
The second pair of seemingly contradictory values we must learn to juggle is accountability toward each other, when Paul says in verse 1, “if someone is caught in a sin…. restore that person” and our accountability, or responsility, to ourselves and for ourselves, when he says in verse 4, “ Each one should test their own actions.”
We’ll never escape the need for both, as millions of teenagers about 17 years old have found when they said, in sheer exasperation: “Mom, Dad, you are so controlling! Why are you still trying to run my life and look over my shoulder at everything I do? Why can’t you just leave me be, give me some freedom for a change, instead of telling me what to do all the time? I’ve had it! I’m leaving home, now, and you can’t stop me!”
“Where are you going?” Mom and Dad ask. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to go join the Army.”
The moment he or she gets off the bus a training camp, there’s an abusive drill instructor yelling obscenities in their faces from three inches away, telling them what to do. But at least they have made their own choice. At least they are no longer accountable to Mom and Dad.
If that’s not enough to juggle, there’s a third pair of seemingly opposite things to juggle in life and in church: assertiveness and gentleness, which requires humility. It takes assertiveness to do what Paul says in verse 1, to approach a brother or sister who is “caught in a sin,” in order to restore them. But then Paul goes on to say, “do so gently, or you may also be tempted.” Tempted, that is, either to do the same thing you talked with them about, or tempted to load up for bear and let them have both barrels of condemnation, wrath and rejection, or tempted to walk away and just wash your hands, or just as bad, shrug your shoulders and say, “maybe it’s not so bad after all…..different strokes for different folks.”
These juggling acts are all the harder today because, for one thing, God made us for community and relationship. And yet there is, sadly, an epidemic of loneliness afflicting the world today. More people than ever in the world, with more ways to connect by digital media and social media, and more people are suffering the symptoms of loneliness and isolation, like depression and even suicide.
And yet, we live in an era of organizations gone rogue, of communities that are either falling apart or which are enforcing conformity with angry, hostile twitter mobs and social media shaming, of institutions too large to fail and yet too big to succeed, like when Cargill Corporation bought up other food companies ten years ago and needed another five years just to figure out what all they actually had bought and where it was, all around the world. Christian denominations that are supposed to be the moral and spiritual consciences of the world are caught up to their elbows in financial and sexual scandals. Don’t get me started on political parties and institutions that are supposed to serve the nation and uphold the Constitution, instead of expanding and perpetuating their own power.
In such a world, Are we to be interdependent or independent? Are we primarily accountable for ourselves or for each other? How can we be accountable to each other if we each must take account of ourselves and before God? And if we are to be gentle, self-reflective, humble and responsible for ourselves, when could we even ever get around to approaching someone else to discuss delicate matters with them? Are we to carry our own burdens or carry each other’s? How did all of those seemingly opposite, contradictory ideas end up so close to each other in just a few Bible verses? Was Paul asleep at the switch, or, at the pen?
Paul was like mother and father to the Galatian Christians, having brought them the gospel and planted their church. But Paul wrote this letter to them because they were in full scale rebellion against him and the gospel they had learned from him. How many parents and grandparents among us can identify with what he wrote in chapter 4: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you… I am perplexed about you?” Whenever our children, young or grown up, are going through tough phases, or, worse, making self-destructive choices that affect and afflict everybody else, in the name of their own freedom and dignity, only to be bound and enslaved by bad things and their consequences, doesn’t it hurt as bad as labor all over again?
The Galatian Christians may have thought that they were asserting their own freedom, dignity and responsibility when they ditched the gospel that Paul had brought them for another gospel so-called. That new gospel, which Paul called “no gospel at all,” obligated them to a strange, selective and inconsistent hodge-podge of Hebrew civil and ceremonial laws, like circumcision and the observances of certain seasons and holy days, in addition to Jesus and his teachings, as though Jesus were not enough. Paul’s language to the Galatians is the harshest and hardest he uses anywhere else, precisely because he was fighting for their freedom and dignity, not against them. “You are forfeiting God’s grace,” he says. For their new gospel required more trust in their own goodness and faithfulness, and in the goodness and faithfulness of the legalistic false teachers, than in the goodness and faithfulness of God. Their rebellion against the gospel would lead to even greater control by others, to the point of bondage, bondage to fear, the fear that they weren’t doing enough, or doing well enough, to earn God’s pleasure, and, of course, bondage to the false teachers who were telling them what more they always needed to do to earn God’s pleasure.
The true freedom and dignity which the Bible and the Gospel offers is not what the world usually defines as freedom and dignity. In the world’s eyes, freedom and dignity are only about asserting one’s own will and desires, whatever they are, for whatever we want, without any control, criticism, cost or consequences. As if that were even possible on this planet. That understanding of freedom makes “bearing each other’s burdens” a vice, not a virtue. It hinders our liberty to fulfill all our own wishes. That’s the point of the t-shirt and bumper sticker I have seen a few times, that says, “Excuse me, but haven’t you confused me with someone who cares?” Or, “talk to the hand.”
That understanding of freedom and dignity pits everyone and their freedom, dignity and well-being against each other in a zero-sum, winner-takes-all, dog-eat-dog free-for-all fight to the death, in which only the most powerful, the most persuasive or manipulative win, and always at the expense of others. Like what goes on in our politics and culture today. Like what happens whenever Patriot Prayer has a demonstration in Portland and Antifa shows up, or vice versa. Like what Paul saw coming among the Galatian Christians.
The true dignity and freedom which the Bible and the Gospel offers is not a reward to be won by dint of power, in competition against others. Nor does it come from the waywardness, rebellion, resentment and reactivity of the Galatian Christians. Biblical, Gospel dignity and freedom is the freedom to be and to do what God sees in us, what God wants for us, and what God offers to us. God sees us through the eyes of Jesus, with the same love he has for Jesus, His Son. What God wants for us and offers to us is infinitely greater than anything our own imaginations can hold before us: to be adopted as God’s children, to be joint heirs of Christ in his resurrection glory, honor and nature, enthroned in God’s heart with Christ, and more that my mind cannot grasp, and my words can never describe. It is a gift, the work of God’s Spirit in us and among us.
Which brings me to the second question in the outline: What does it mean to be “spiritual” in Galatians 6:1? In this case, look at the context. Paul is referring to his previous words in chapter 5, verses 22-23, about the fruit of the Spirit: “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.”
Exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s power and presence in the character traits and qualities we just heard about: that is what Paul means by “spiritual,” when he says, “you who are spiritual, restore” the person who has been caught up in some sin. “But do so with gentleness,” he adds.
Gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Those in whose lives the fruit of the Spirit are showing- love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, humility- will be able to approach an erring brother and sister in the right ways for the right reasons. Whether they accept our approach or not, our gentleness and humility will tell them that our purpose in coming to them is to restore them to the fullness of dignity, freedom and well-being, not to punish them, not to prove ourselves superior, not just to keep everyone under control or in conformity.
Which brings us to the third question: How does being “spiritual” help us juggle the seemingly contradictory demands of life in the world and the church? Those juggling acts of interdependence and independence, assertiveness and gentleness, and accountability to oneself and to other? I could say, “Join the Stephen Ministry and you will learn how those seemingly opposite traits actually enhance each other. But there’s more to say right now.
In the not-too-distant past, we Mennonites sometimes elevated accountability too far over respect for the individual, and we did so over all sorts of disputable things, like dress length, hair length, beards, ties, wedding rings, and more. But now, in reaction to all that, it seems we’re afraid of anything that sounds or smells like accountability. Now, our culture, and often our churches, go to the opposite extreme and elevate affirmation and the encouragement of our independence over any sense of accountability.
And it doesn’t work. Neither extreme does. Like the kids who ran away from home to join the circus, hoping to become a trapeze artist, and quit after ten years of shoveling out the animal cages waiting for their chance, it’s not a question of if we will be accountable to others, but to whom will we be accountable, and why, and how? Social media mobs of the cultural left or right? Or will it be with people in covenant relationship with us, who have promised in their baptismal vows and church membership vows to give and receive counsel, because they have enough humility to know how much they also need help staying on the straight and narrow? People who have earned our trust because their lives exhibit the fruit of God’s Spirit, whose first spiritual fruit is love? Since accountability is a given, we might as well get accountability right, rather than trying to reject it all together, only to find ourselves in terrible bondage to the wrong kinds of people.
As for “Bearing each other’s burdens, and bearing our own burdens,” Interesting, isn’t it, that at the same time of life when we start saying, “Mom and Dad, get out of my life!” we typically start having crushes, and our peer group takes on life-and-death importance? More importance than Mom and Dad and siblings have, it seems? At the same time that we’re wanting and learning how to stand responsibly on our own two feet, we’re learning how to live well in relationships of interdependence outside of the home.
But it’s a juggling act. I see the heartaches of young people especially, as they seek understanding, support and community at school or on social media, sometimes to get a boatload of judgmentalism, rejection for their vulnerability.
Contrast that with the Stephen Ministry taking shape at Zion Mennonite Church, and the enthusiasm, energy and commitment that Pastor Jana brings to it. But I have always been very encouraged and satisfied by the strength and nature of Zion’s ministries of mutual aid and support, like from the elders, small groups, and Mennonite Women. If someone is suffering from illness, bereavement or injury, no one should have to face them alone. Nor should anyone face temptation or tribulation, any suffering, sorrow, sin or sickness alone.
There is One Person among us who bears all the fruit of God’s Spirit, and who has juggled all the seemingly contradictory pairs of virtues, like independence and interdependence, like accountability and personal responsibility, and has done so perfectly. That person is Jesus, who shares with us his Holy Spirit. Trust him, follow him, call on him, and he will live in us and through us in such ways that we will look like him, in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, goodness, and more. His kingdom is a win/win relationship that harmonizes all these opposites that I mentioned: assertiveness and gentleness; independence and interdependence; accountability for oneself/to oneself, and accountability to each other.
Then the world will see a community in which my dignity and freedom and your dignity and freedom can not only coexist, they are actually necessary to each other; they will actually enable and increase each other. Then there will be relationships in which we are free to bear our own burdens of personal responsibility as we also bear each other’s burdens.