We’re here at the end of Galatians. We’ve been looking at these early followers of Jesus and their struggles to faithfully live out the Gospel message of freedom in Christ that Paul had originally proclaimed to them. They had gotten swayed by a distorted message - one that said that in order to fully become part of the church, they had to follow the Mosaic law -- follow the rules, regulations, and festivals of the Jewish faith -- including circumcision.
We’ve used the challenges facing these churches to examine our own congregation more closely, and the invitation for us to become the church that God wants for us to be and the church that this community needs for us to be. Most importantly, we’ve been looking at what it means to live out the Good News of God’s kingdom here on this island - and again this letter from Paul to the churches in Galatia offers some guideposts for us. I invite us to hear these words from Galatians chapter 6, verses 1 through 16:
Scripture - Galatians 6:7-16 - NRSV
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. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads. 6Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.8If 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. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. 10So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
11See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12It 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. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May 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.15For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
You can see across the street the small garden that Ben and I are trying to cultivate. It’s two and a half beds - with peas and beans, kale and zucchini, and soon some potatoes. We started with crops that are relatively low maintenance but that are favorites of ours -- after all, you can’t beat the fresh taste of a vegetable that you picked from your own garden.
Now, you might be thinking that it’s rather ambitious of us to attempt this feat of growing vegetables - after all, we are new parents and are spending incredible amounts of time and energy on growing and nurturing our tiny human. You’d be absolutely right in this assessment. We started it way too late, we haven’t been very diligent about watering, Ben’s beans have been nibbled by deer, God only knows why the kale hasn’t even come up, and the potatoes to be planted are still sitting on the porch. I am, however, quite proud of my peas, which -- to my delight -- are actually growing, and hopefully will produce a harvest.
However, the time and attention that we are giving Michael - at the expense of our garden - will produce a harvest of a different sort.
I guess you really do reap what you sow.
Paul here is giving some final reminders to the Galatians about how to live this life of freedom in Christ - freedom from the laws and rules that governed God’s people. Paul proclaimed that in Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of the law and that we were freed to love God and our neighbor as we love ourselves. But this freedom comes with a responsibility -- we aren’t free to do whatever we may like.
Here, Paul goes into a bit more detail about what the responsibilities are for those who have this new life in Christ - to bear one another’s burdens, to hold one another accountable in love, to work for the good of all -- reminding them that in all things, you reap what you sow...not as warning that a punitive God is going to get you...but as an admonition that the consequences of our actions rebound in our communities and in our lives.
“Bearing one another’s burdens” is a phrase that you hear in churches all the time. We talk about it when we ask for prayer requests. We use the phrase when caring for those who are sick or are in need of some extra help. Indeed, one of the most important things we can do for one another in the church is to help each other through hard times.
It’s also a reminder for us to think twice about the burdens people carry as we go about our day to day business. There’s the saying “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Or -- “be kind to unkind people -- they need it the most.”
It’s an understanding that we are all in the same boat -- we all face challenging times in our lives, we’re all susceptible to sin and temptation, we all experience brokenness and are in need of healing.
This advice to bear each other’s burdens might appear to conflict with what Paul has to say in verse 5 with “each person carrying their own load.” It means that while we are responsible for one another, God is the only one who can ultimately judge our hearts. We can’t compare ourselves to one another -- and we can’t keep account of who has done what for whom, or whose turn it is now to step up or step down -- we can only examine our own lives to see how well we are walking according to the Spirit. We can offer words of encouragement or guidance, but our final accounting for our lives is not to one another -- but to God. Our work is tested by God’s hopes and desires -- not by our own.
Which isn’t to say that we aren’t called to hold each other accountable in love. Paul is clear that in cases where members of the community have gone astray, that we are to restore that person in a spirit of gentleness -- again, not in a spirit of judgment or self-righteousness, but in love -- knowing full well that we could be the ones in need of help and forgiveness next time...and that we are all in need of extra help and encouragement as we are on this journey of faith together.
I’ve been a part of a couple of covenant groups in my lifetime. Covenant groups -- or accountability groups, as they are sometimes called -- are small groups of people who commit together to help each other grow in their faith -- usually by committing to follow certain spiritual practices together, or by stating certain goals around spiritual growth. The hope is that others in the group can encourage and inspire each other in the faith, and can serve as motivators to actually living out the practice you commit to. It’s the same principle behind having a gym buddy -- you are more likely to work out if you know that someone’s relying on you to go with them.
There are two in particular covenant groups that came to mind as I was thinking about this passage and how difficult it can be to hold each other accountable in love.
The first was when I was in college. A group of us would get together every week to “check in” with how we were doing in our devotional time with God and how we were doing in living a life of faith on campus. Incidentally, some of these folks were also my roommates -- which made things complicated at times. We’d meet together and we’d talk about how much time we had spent in prayer or journaling that week. Inevitably, one person would say that they struggled finding the time to read their Bible or didn’t journal like they wanted to, and then the can of “shoulds” came out. “You should read your Bible first thing in the morning.” “You should put your Bible on top of your laptop so you can read it before writing your papers.” “You should have read your Bible instead of going out with your friends last night.” “You should follow this daily Bible reading check-list so you can read a little bit every day.” “You should do this and you should do that…” And it was all well-intentioned, to a large degree -- but it also led to an atmosphere of self-righteousness...like everyone else had it all together, and I was the one who couldn’t make the pieces fit. If you were on the receiving end of the “shoulds” it was not a comfortable - or very loving - experience.
Later, because I’m a sucker for punishment, I decided to give covenant groups another try. This one was formed with some other young adults at Green Street United Methodist Church in Augusta where I was attending at the time. And the vibe of the group was completely different. When someone mentioned that they hadn’t lived up to what they said they were going to do - people asked questions like “What do you think caused you do to that?” or “Where is that struggle coming from for you?” “In what ways can we as a group support you?” “How can we pray for you?” “What do you need to do to live differently?” It was night and day -- and I felt supported and uplifted, even when we had to have hard conversations. There was the sense that we were on this journey together and that we could rely on one another in our spiritual struggles and celebrate with one another in our growth.
In many ways, these groups are intended to function much like the early Methodist societies that John Wesley founded -- groups of people that committed together to a rule of life. [quote from brochure]
The General Rules of the United Methodist Church are to do no harm, to do good, and to attend upon the ordinances of God. Which brings us to Paul’s third recommendation for living out this new life in Christ found in verse 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.”
There’s a saying that is attributed to John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Movement. “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
The working for the good of all - as John Wesley understood it - is comprehensive -- body and soul -- tending to physical needs by giving food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, helping those who are sick or imprisoned, and tending to spiritual needs through encouragement or instruction. He even went so far as to talk about helping each other out with employment or business deals.
I think we could add to this list all the ways that we are called to work for the good of the community - volunteering in our schools, caring for the environment, or standing up to injustice. Basically -- make the world a better place, all around you, wherever you find yourself.
As we consider our own congregation -- and to use the harvest language that Paul uses in this passage, I believe we’re in a season where we’ve got a lot of sowing to do. To be sure, there there are some things on Paul’s list here that we do well. We are a congregation - in fact, we as a whole community - bear one another’s burdens pretty well. And we are certainly a group of people who do a whole lot of good in the world. But I would invite us to consider what ways are we in ministry beyond bearing each other’s burdens? What ways are we contributing to the spiritual growth of one another and those on this island who need hope and encouragement? What good are we - collectively, as a congregation - doing?
We’re not at harvest time yet. We’re in a season of planting seeds - of sowing life in the spirit -- of turning over and preparing the soil of our hearts to see what new life Christ will grow in and among us. We live in this reality that Christ has made us into a new creation - that promise holds for each and every one of us -- and it’s a promise that holds true for us as a church as well if we will only step into it and claim it for ourselves.
We are on this journey together. My hope and prayer for us can be found in the words of Paul -- that we do not grow weary in doing what is right. I pray that we can take the time to seek out God’s Holy Spirit as we work for the good of all - as we bear each other’s burdens, as we hold one another accountable in love. I pray that this church is a place where all can find hope and healing for the road ahead -- where those who are troubled can find peace, where those who are questioning can find a listening ear, where those who are bent over from life’s burdens can find a hand or two to help, where those who yearn for more are invited into the depths of God’s love, where each and every one of us can live as a new creation.
May we continue to sow seeds of God’s spirit, trusting that God will work in and through us to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our communities. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the Chebeague Island United Methodist Church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two dogs, and soon will expect a new addition to her family. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the chuch community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.