For the Good of All
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 7, 2019
Reading: Galatians 6:1-10
So, last week we looked at Galatians Chapter 5, and thought about our freedom in Christ, about how through Jesus we are free from condemnation and offered God’s gift of grace. The Christian life is not about a list of rules for moral behaviours that we adhere to in order to make ourselves acceptable to God, it’s about living in relationship with Jesus, being led by His Spirit, serving others in his name, and experiencing in our lives what Paul calls the Fruit of the Spirit– love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Who doesn’t want more of those things?
When we are living in close relationship with Jesus, these fruits will become more and more evident in our lives, and will make the destructive behaviours – what Paul calls the works of the flesh – less appealing. (I’m not going to name all of those, so you’ll have to go back and read Galatians ch. 5.)
But as Christians, we are still human beings, right? Of course! None of us is ever going to live our life perfectly led by the Spirit every single day, never succumbing to our baser tendencies, never wavering in our faith, never giving in to temptations; joyful all the time; peaceful and loving all the time.
I can personally vouch for this: a couple of weeks ago I went away on an 8-day Silent Retreat, where I spent time praying, reading, reflecting on the coming church year and what God would have me focus on for the year (what God wanted me to do or not do). By the end of it I felt so peaceful, so connected to God. Five minutes into my drive home from the retreat centre, I was yelling at other drivers on the road and calling them idiots! So, Lori – you may ask – how are you doing with that Fruit of the Spirit called “self-control?” Not to mention patience, kindness, gentleness etc.
So, as Christians, we are going to fall short of God’s perfect standards, and we are going to sin; and guess what? So are the people around us, including the good and decent people sitting beside you right now. Outside of the church, if you follow social media or popular culture, there’s a sense that Christians all think they’re perfect, and so there’s almost a sense of glee when a prominent Christian falls into sin, and everyone can say, “see, they’re not so special!”
You may have heard the joke about the atheist who said to the Pastor, “I won’t go to church…it’s full of hypocrites!” To which the Pastor responded, “No…there’s always room for one more.”
So, as Christians, who are trying our best to become more like Jesus and often fall short, we need to be constantly examining our own lives; but what are we supposed to do when other people, who are also trying to follow Jesus, are engaged in some of the destructive behaviours that Paul called the “works of the flesh,” and it becomes known to us?
Well, what we’re not called to do, believe it or not, is “just mind our own business.” Sin is to be taken seriously – Paul says: “God will not be mocked!” – and as I mentioned before, people outside the church look at Christians and judge the church and our Lord by what His followers do. What we do as Christians reflects on our Lord Jesus Christ… which is why I took down the cross I had hanging from my rear-view mirror. I didn’t want people to see my road rage, and then see the cross… :-D
So, if we’re not just supposed to mind our own business, what are we supposed to do? This passage begins by saying that if someone in the church community is known to be "transgressing,” then their brothers and sisters in faith should – with gentleness - confront them – not angrily or accusingly, to make them feel bad, but lovingly, with the aim of restoring them, of helping them get back on their feet and on the right path again. Yes, we’re supposed to actually address it with them, which is the most difficult, but most loving thing to do.
What Paul says ties in to Jesus’ own teachings that we’re so familiar with, about “taking the log out of your own eye first, then you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye;” and the other one you know, which is: “let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” These passages are not telling us to mind our own business, as they are commonly interpreted. In the first case, we’re still to take the speck out of our neighbour’s eye, but with a spirit of humility, examining our own lives first, or “testing,” as Paul says, “our own work” before doing so. Minding our own business is easier, because it means we don’t have to examine our own lives.
In the second case, the people who were throwing stones were seeking to violently kill the woman for her sin, not lovingly restore her into the fullness of life. Jesus wanted her life restored, and so after he had put her accusers in their place He said to her, “Go and sin no more.” She was not to be punished for her sin, but was called to turn her back on her sin and become a new person.
In this morning’s passage, the Galatians, it seems, instead of lovingly restoring people they thought were not living their lives the way they understood the Christian life, were condemning them. They thought they were the more spiritual ones, and although they weren’t physically throwing stones, they were exhibiting arrogance, and this attitude extended – not just to actual sins, but to different practices held by different Christian groups, who had been evangelized by different apostles. For example, some Christians held that their new freedom allowed them to eat foods that had previously been forbidden for Jews to eat; others still wouldn’t dare touch those foods. As we saw last week, some believed that circumcision was necessary, others didn’t. Everyone thought they were right, and they were proud of being right.
But Paul says, ‘you think you’re the super spiritual ones, eh?’ Well then, “All must test their own work; then that work rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride.” That is, all must take responsibility that their own lives are growing in the Spirit, so that when it comes time to address another’s transgression, they’ll have the moral and spiritual strength to do so in a way that is loving and that seeks the restoration of the transgressor, not his condemnation. Because the flip side of this is that other believers ought to lovingly confront us when we transgress, and we should be able to receive that from them with humility and appreciation. That’s how communities of love and trust are built.
Of this passage, my favourite theologian, NT Wright says: “People saw themselves as one particular ‘type’ of Christian, and looked down on other types. If they saw one of the others doing something wrong, they would feel smug; ‘that’ they would think ‘is not the way we would behave.’ They didn't understand that Christians who did things differently from the way they did things were not better or worse, they were just different. Instead of the community Paul had established where all were equal at the foot of the cross, all equally ‘in Christ’... the work of the ‘agitators’ had left a legacy of division based on non-theological factors.”
It reminds me of the person, many years ago when I was visiting a church, who said to me in a very proud way: “we are a church that dresses.” As though at other churches people go naked. I suppose she was trying to tell me that my attire was not up to their standards. Someone who is smug in their faith and sees themselves as better than another Christian or another denomination of Christians for any reason is not someone who is led by the Spirit.
Christianity is not, and was never meant to be, a solitary or self-centred faith. We’re meant to live out our faith in community, to support and encourage one another and to receive support and encouragement; because living a Christian life requires support and encouragement. After all, it’s so easy to be a perfect Christian when we’re alone at home, or out walking in the woods, or watching a sunset from the dock. Or on silent retreat. The true test of our Christian character comes when we have to be around other people, right? Are we still a perfect Christian in our words, actions and attitudes when faced with that person who rubs us the wrong way?
“Other people” are going to do things differently than we do; are going to understand scripture differently than we do; are going to prefer different kinds of music – their favourite hymn may be one that we can’t stand! Other denominations have liturgy and worship style that is too formal, or too casual. The one lady I mentioned earlier clearly values “dressing” for church; and I do too…please don’t come to church naked; but other than that, I assume that you’re all perfectly capable of deciding what clothes you want to wear.
Now, I’m not saying that ‘anything goes,’ and we should have no convictions; nor am I saying that we shouldn’t strive to give our very best to God. I would be the last person to say that. I believe very strongly that as Christians we should always give our best to God first and foremost; and that we should put effort into knowing what we believe and why; I believe our convictions should be based in the Scriptures, and that we should have solid convictions about how the Christian life is to be lived, and we should live by those convictions; we should be able to say, “I disagree with this interpretation of the Christian life, and here’s why.” The problem is if we see others as inferior to us because they believe differently, or because their convictions are different from ours.
In our current cultural climate of polarization it’s becoming harder and harder to have deep conversations or even respectful debates – to just talk to each other! – about complex issues of faith because of the growing tendency toward labeling people who see things differently. And, for the record, I’ll repeat what I said last week, that this attitude is strongly present on both ends of the socio-political spectrum. If you’re a liberal, you’re labeled a snowflake; if you’re a conservative, you’re probably a bigot; if I disagree with you, I’m a hater. How can thoughtful, respectful discussion of differences happen if we all have to be afraid of how we’ll be labeled? As a result, people become more forceful and defensive if they do express their thoughts, and that shuts down the discussion even more.
Sadly, this happens in the Christian church just as much as the rest of society. Other Christians, people who love and follow Jesus (or even other entire Christian denominations) are considered enemies or unwelcome or inferior because they hold to different beliefs or practices.
In the promotion for his new book, The Church of Us vs. Them, which is being released any day now, our good friend David Fitch points out that: “Conservative Christians are marginalized in progressive groups and progressive Christians are marginalized in conservative groups.” How can it be that both groups purport to follow Jesus - who said “whoever is not against us is for us” – but reject others who practice their faith differently, but who also love and follow Jesus? If we have this freedom in Christ that we’ve talked about, why condemn other Christians who have also been set free and set the burden back on their shoulders?
In April, I attended a 3-day conference where the keynote speaker was Canadian theologian John Stackhouse, and he addressed the philosophy behind this tendency. He said we live in a “post- postmodern” cultural climate where “truth” has become defined as “what seems obvious to me,” and can be reduced to a flippant one-line response.
The example he offered was when Justin Trudeau was asked about his decision to have his cabinet made up of 50% women, and his answer was “because it’s 2015!” No need to give sound arguments – and there are lots of sound arguments for having more women in the cabinet. But also no interest in listening to other people’s points of view, some of which may also be legitimate. Just shut down all dialogue with one line that says, “well, it’s obvious to me so it’s the truth.” This is just one example, but we see it happening all the time.
This approach, of dropping a “truth-bomb” and then walking away is not the approach that the Christian church should take, according to Paul, either when it comes to confronting people who are trapped in destructive behaviour patterns, or when it comes to being in relationship with people who think differently from us, who we may be tempted to view as “transgressors.”
So, what do we do about this? What do we do when our prayerfully- and scripturally-founded convictions run up against the reality of other people? What do we do when we see a fellow believer “transgressing,” as Paul puts it? He says: “Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” We enter into a deeper relationship with them: we talk to them; we listen to them; we love them; we walk with them; we let them know we care and that we’re with them to help them, no matter what.
Minding our own business is not the loving thing to do if someone who is part of our family of faith is trapped in sin. If we think they’re doing something that damages their lives, or their family, or the church, we put on a spirit of love and humility and we tell them, even though the burden we may have to bear is the burden of their angry response. It’s not our job to change them, to fix them or to control them – only God can do that. But you just may be the instrument that God uses to lighten their burden and to walk with them on the journey. And they might be the instrument that God uses to lighten your burden one day too.
The Christian church was never meant to be a place where some are considered better than others, either because of sins people are committing or because of differences in beliefs or practices. Rather, the church is meant to be a place where believers are humble, bearing each other’s burdens and lovingly encouraging one another to grow into the likeness of Christ. When we bear each other’s burdens – whether walking with each other in times of trial, or on the path toward restoration – it is Christ himself who bears all our burdens; because we are the body of Christ.
As Christians, we are part of the body of Christ, and when the church is composed of people who are led by the spirit, who humbly put the needs of others ahead of our own, who speak the truth in love to one another, it becomes a place where we build one another up, where we encourage one another on this (sometimes difficult) journey of faith, knowing we are not alone. In Christ there is no condemnation, and in the Body of Christ that is the church – when it is functioning as it was meant to – there is no condemnation, but love. We walk with others who share one Lord, one canon of scripture, one baptism into the Body of Christ, one mission, one future.
Now, you may be asking yourself, ‘Where is this church?’ I think I want to join that church! There is no church that is like that all the time, because all churches are made up of imperfect people like you and I, who try very hard to be led by the Spirit of Jesus, but who sometimes fail. And when we fail, we have fellow believers who will help us get back on our feet and keep trying; and when others fail, we talk to them and encourage them in the Spirit of Christian love.
I’ll end with a little poem that I like, not because it’s great poetry, but because the sentiment it expresses sums things up nicely:
What is the Church?
I think that I shall never see
A church that’s all it ought to be;
A church whose members never stray
Beyond the straight and narrow way;
A church that has no empty pews;
Whose pastor never has the blues;
A church whose elders always speak,
And none is proud and all are meek.
Such perfect churches there may be,
But none of them are known to me.
But still, we’ll work and pray and plan
To make our own the best we can.