Galatians 6:1–16 (NRSV)
Bear One Another’s Burdens
6 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. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5 For all must carry their own loads.
6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
Final Admonitions and Benediction
11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16 As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
So often in communities of faith we are better known for the things we do not do than the things we stand for. It is much easier to speak about the faith traditions of Friends by saying, “we don’t baptize or have communion.” But when we focus on the things we do not do we can miss the richness and fullness of what a community is. The truth is Friends do recognize baptism and communion, we only experience and practice them in ways that differ from other denominational groups. I mention this because much of what Paul speaks about in the letter he wrote to the Galatians could be seen as focusing on the things that the church does not do instead of the things that they practice.
There are reasons for Paul’s defense of the gentile community to reject the traditional laws of the Jewish heritage of the Church. He is not rejecting the importance of the Torah or the prophets, but he is actually providing a way for us to embrace those teachings in a deeper and richer way. If we were take the dietary laws as an example, we could simply take the letter of the law at face value and accept or deny it, but what Paul suggests is something more. He gives us permission to enter into a conversation with God. As the wisdom writer converses with God, “Let us reason together.” What Solomon suggests is to think about why the law is there, to consider how this law affects those that participate or decline to participate in it. So if we were to look at the dietary laws we should ask why God would suggest to an ancient culture to reject the consumption of pork or shellfish, why it is important to refrain from eating flesh of animals that lack hooves even though they chew the cud. If we were to look at this portion of law we could see that all animals that eat meat in their diet are not seen as kosher, and that those that eat greenery but lack a split toed hoof are animals that do not have a segmented stomach and rely on bacteria to assist on the digestion of the cellulose. If we were to reason with God about this we would find that the consumption of flesh eating beasts give a greater risk of prion diseases, as well as parasites. The second group would include an animal such as a rabbit or a horse which are non-ruminant animals. These types of animals have a greater developed cecum. In humans, who do not have a developed cecum we have an appendix, and at times we can get a disorder called appendicitis which is when the appendix is inflamed and becomes filled with toxins, if this ruptures then the body can be filled with these toxin which can lead to death. In these animals that lack the multiple chambered stomachs the cecum can also produce an abundance of toxic bacteria which can poison those that eat their flesh. I remember that when I would hunt rabbits as a child my dad would check the intestines to determine if it was safe for us to eat and if it was not it became food for our cats.
These laws that were given to Moses protected the people of Israel, it kept them safe from the potential health risks of contaminated food that the gentile cultures faced. Yet God told Peter not to call things unclean that he has made clean. This one statement is filled with information, first off there are reasons that things were unclean, and second there are ways that God can redeem things that were previously seen as unlawful.
Paul knew of this because he spoke with Peter and with James when he went to Jerusalem, and he is building on this as he speaks to the people of Galatia. He came to the conclusion that the entire law could be summed up in one statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We might recognize that Paul’s summary of the law is similar to the law that Jesus taught, with the exception that Jesus also said that we should love God with all our heart, mind, spirit and strength. Paul is not saying that we only need to love others, because the love for God is inferred, because this is a faith community seeking to express their love for God in their lives. So Paul said if you want to show your love for God this is how you do it, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
As he concludes this letter to the Galatians he gives us practical advice to fulfilling the law of Christ. If a transgression is sensed in those within the community we need to approach with gentleness and take care that we are not tempted. Gentleness. This is a difficult concept to actually implement because what is gentleness? To know how to approach another with gentleness we have to know the person, we must know how they speak, how they reason, how they react so that we can approach them in such a way that we set off defensive mechanisms that would distract them from the Spirit. To be able to do this we need to have our own spiritual lives in order. What I mean by this is we must be clothed in Christ. When we are deepening our relationship with Christ and participating in the lifestyle that He showed us in his ministry we will have a lifestyle devoted to worship, prayer and service. Which means that when we sense that someone is transgressing or participating in a lifestyle choice that is distracting them from their relationship with God we will approach them under the influence of Christ. Before we even begin to consider advising them we have been in prayer and are listening for the Spirit to lead us to speak.
Paul also includes a warning with this. “Take care that you yourself are not tempted.” This statement can be seen in a couple of ways. First we can be tempted to overlook and even engage in the participation of the sin. This is probably the view that we often take when we consider temptation. But I think a second view is more likely what Paul speaks about. This view is the temptation of pride, to look at ourselves too highly, or superior to those we are attempting to guide. I believe this is a more accurate look because Paul goes on to speak about humility and the discipline of examination.
Paul then goes on to say that those that encourage the adherence to the law for those who were born gentile encourage this out of pride. It is much easier to determine status within a community if there are standards to make judgment. It is easier to make these judgments if there is little or no examination required of those that seek the status. We can simply say I follow the law, but in this have we missed the ministry that God has called us to participate in? Even the circumcised cannot fully live up to the standards of the law. So to put in legal aspects to our faith we ascribe to legalism, and when legalism is the prime objective of faith we sacrifice relationship and ultimately community. Legalism places people in a cast, where mankind can enter in to make determinations in areas reserved for God. Legalism is directly attached to pride, and pride is attached to the flesh.
Let us then focus of the greater command to love. Love God and love others. Taking on the lifestyle that Christ showed us. Jesus did not come to condemn but to save, he came to provide the path of reconciliation between God and mankind. We ourselves can do nothing, we cannot save someone from their sins because we ourselves are sinners. It is only Christ who can save, and it is only through the Spirit that we have the opportunity to participate in this process with others.
I recently had a conversation with another minister. In many ways this minister is amazing, He planted a church and has been able to fully invest all his time in praying with people and ministering to their needs. He says that he has seen the miraculous at nearly every meeting for worship. But he asked a question, “Can we raise the dead.” Can we cause the miraculous to happen? The others involved in the conversation supported this notion, yes we can raise the dead. I made a statement that no we cannot. And immediately was seen as having a lack of faith. I went on to say that we cannot raise the dead or heal any disease, but only Christ can do this through us. I mention this because there is a fine line there that cannot be crossed. If I say I can heal you, and God’s will is that you are healed in that moment, I can become prideful and take credit for the work of Christ. I then open myself up to the praise of men, because I have this gift, I am a miracle worker and you may not be. I then have status in the community because if I can work the miracle then clearly I hold more weight because who wouldn’t want miracles to happen in our Meeting? A fine line, between obedience and pride. It is only Christ that works through us. It is Christ that can be seen through us. We are crucified with Christ and it is no longer us who live but Christ living in us.
Paul encourages the people of Galatia to focus on the more important things. Focus on the relationship with God. When we are focused on the right things then everything else will fall into place. If we earnestly seek to become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others, we are not focused on the things of legalism and status within a community. Instead we are focused on God, and what God can do through us if we are obedient to Him. It is the relationship between God and us and between ourselves that is most important. Those relationships are more important than the election, they are more important than our nation and state. Those relationships are more important than our careers and our egos. When we cross that fine line, we begin to mock God. We begin to tell God that we are more important and that I am equal to Him. We become consumed by pride and this again places a barrier between us and our God. And we reap what we sow; if we sow pride and legalism, we will harvest pride and legalism, and if we invest our time and efforts in relationships and encouraging others to seek God, we will assist Christ in His harvest.
We are a community of faith, we are a community of people that seek to honor God and encourage others to seek Him too. We can focus on the does and don’ts of our traditions or we can focus on fanning the flames of the light within all people. Our tradition has a rich history, a history of intimacy between humanity and God. We believe that God really does want to not only save us but to teach us personally and to guide us through our journey of life. We believe that because of this every aspect of our lives are sacred and should be lived as a holy sacrament. It is the relationship that is important. That is why our spiritual ancestors chose to be known as the Religious Society of Friends. Consider that as we enter into this time of Open worship and Communion in the tradition of Friends. God wants us to be His Friends. He wants us to know Him and know His will now and in the future. He wants us to actively participate in the work that He is doing all around us and to share all that we have with the community, so that we can participate in the greatest hope of all the resurrection of the dead. He wants us to join with Him in the restoration of Life and the return of humanity to God. What are we focused on today? Are we focused on the relationships and the encouragement of others along those pathways of faith, or are we focused on the things of our flesh. Are we in communion with God or are we mocking him? “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith…As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.