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. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Today is a special day for me as it is an anniversary. No, it isn’t my wedding anniversary; that day will come in just over two weeks. Today is my anniversary as the pastor of Staunton Mennonite Church.
Back in July of 2006, you all hired a 26-year-old student with one year of seminary training. What were you thinking? So today I celebrate, we celebrate, our ten-year anniversary together.
A lot has happened in ten years. We have said goodbye to a number of friends, some who have moved away, others who have passed on to the next life. And yes, there have been more than a few who simply didn’t believe that this was the place for them to best grow as a Christian. All of those losses hurt in some way or another.
Good things have happened in the last ten years as well. Ten years ago I did not have any children, and the church didn’t have many. Today we have an expanded nursery and we are thinking about the next steps to accommodate our youth. To give you a sense of how much time ten years really is, consider that our friend Leah H. ten years ago would have been one year older than my son Paxton is today, and she was living in Alaska. Today she is traveling around the US and Europe with her school choir.
All of that is simply my way of saying thank you. Thank you for taking a risk on an unproven, inexperienced, uneducated pastor in his mid-twenties. And thank you for accepting me, all of me. Thanks for accepting the goofy, farm-boy from Ohio, who loves sports and random song lyrics from the 1990’s. You have allowed me to experiment. You have allowed me to fail. And you have allowed me to grow. You have allowed me to walk with you through the good times and through the bad. You have truly been church to me.
Our scripture for today comes from the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia. Throughout this letter we find Paul giving instruction on how the church is to hold together in spite of their diversity. Recall that there are two main groups of Christians in this church. There are the Jewish Christians, who grew up as Jews, ate according the food laws, and practiced the holiness code. These Jews came to recognize Jesus as the messiah that had been promised to their ancestors long ago. There were also the Gentile Christians. The Gentile Christians came from various backgrounds and religious systems. And the big question of the day was whether or not one had be first become a Jew to be a Christian. The Jewish Christians said yes, of course you need to eat kosher and practice the holiness codes! But the Gentile Christians didn’t want to give up their pork chops, crab cakes, and yes, their foreskins.
So Paul writes this letter to the church of Galatia emphasizing that it is all about Jesus, not food or Torah. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, as long as you follow Jesus, you are in.
Remember that in the first century, Christians were a minority. I will say that Galatians is Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, or that 1 and 2 Corinthians are Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. Notice that I didn’t say to the churches. There was only one church in each city.
Today, if there is a disagreement in the church, what usually happens? People leave and go to the church across the street or just down the road. If there are some theological differences, or even worse, some issue over what color the new carpet should be, people will leave and go somewhere else. But this wasn’t an option in the first century, especially before mass transit or automobiles. If you were a Christian in the first century, you were stuck with the other Christians in your city. This was your church, this was your community.
Community is important, but I bet you already knew that. We need one another to help us fulfill our calling to love our God and to love our neighbor. I know that you know how important community is because you have chosen to be a part of a small congregation.
When I was in seminary, we attended one of the larger churches in the area. They had excellent preaching, the music was done well – almost professionally. But I still laugh at one of the dear elders of the church, and yes, I remember his name, but no, I’m not going to share that name. We attended this church for a few months and about twice a month, this elder would come up to me and introduce himself. I’m kind of good with names, so I remembered him. But he didn’t remember me.
I’m not trying to be hard on this elder, but this story illustrates something about community. In a large church you cannot know everyone’s name. Some large churches do a great job of working through small groups to provide community, but not all do. Church is meant to be a community of believers who gather together, praise God together, and who are there for one another both in prayer and in a real, physical way. Even if you don’t like and agree with one another!
In our small church, we not only know each other’s names, we know your children’s names, your parents’ names. We know your struggles. We know your joys. We know when you miss church, and we care enough to check in on you when you are absent. That’s uncomfortable for some people. But that’s a part of being a community of believers.
So in Paul’s concluding chapter in this letter to the community of believers in Galatia, Paul lays out a few points for how to be community to one another. Because being community isn’t just about gathering together because of a shared interest, like stamp collecting or Grateful Dead music. Community is about restoring a brother or sister when they fail, carrying one another’s burdens, and reaping what you sow.
Paul writes in verse 1, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” I am sure that we can all come up with examples of how this has been done well in the church. Unfortunately, it is probably a lot easier to think of times when it has been done poorly.
The first thing that I want to draw your attention to is the word “sin,” or “transgressions,” as it is translated in the NRSV. When I think of sins, I usually go to the worst things possible. This person is cheating on their spouse, they worshipped other gods, or they killed a bunch of kittens. Sins are always something someone else does, right? But notice that here Paul does not use the most common word for sin. Instead, he uses the word παράπτωμα, paraptoma. Paraptoma is the word from which we get the English word peripatetic, which simply means to walk around. Paraptoma literally means to trip, to fall, as you are walking.
Oh, sure, those people sin. But don’t we all stumble a bit? I know that I do.
Paul isn’t just talking about how to restore a person who has done some heinous, terrible thing. He is saying that the community of believers known as the church is called to help one another up when we stumble. And how are we to help one another up? With a quick kick in the pants? No, gently.
This is one of the advantages of being in a community of believers who knows one another well. If someone in this church stumbled, made a mistake, and was caught, it would be very easy for people outside of our church to point fingers and condemn that person. This is even easier today with social media than it was ten years ago. If I hear about what someone is doing in a church in Indiana, I can post some condemnatory response on Facebook. But if I don’t have a relationship with that person, I’m not restoring them gently. I’m just heralding my moral superiority.
Paul’s second practice for the believing community is found in verse 2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Carrying or bearing one another’s burdens is kind of a churchy thing to say. The phrase means to carry a weight for someone else. I am just pretty sure that this is metaphorical. Paul is speaking of the problems that people have, and I think that he is intentionally vague.
Imagine that someone lost a job and is having a difficult time paying their mortgage. That is a burden that we as a church can help someone with. When someone gets injured, we offer to help by building a ramp for their house. We try to do something that costs us, financially or physically, to make it easier on our brothers or sisters.
This practice does not require community. You don’t need to know someone to carry their burden. If you see a person begging for money on the side of the road, you can carry a portion of their burden by putting money in their paper cup. The question isn’t whether or not you need to be in community to bear one another’s burdens because clearly you don’t have to be in community to do this. What Paul is saying, though, is that this is something that communities of believers do.
This is especially important because most of us don’t like to share about our personal lives, especially with strangers. I’m not going to tell someone I don’t know if I am having my gall bladder removed, but I will share that information in community. And because you and I have a relationship, you may feel called to help carry my burden.
One of my favorite stories on this topic is shared by Nadia Bolz-Weber in a book. Nadia is a pastor in a Lutheran Church in Colorado where they reach out to people who traditionally aren’t interested in church. Nadia had been building a relationship with one of her neighbors and this neighbor was very interested in Christianity. She read Christian books and listened to Christian podcasts. Nadia liked to spend time with this neighbor because they could talk about theology all day long.
But this neighbor did not belong to a church. She didn’t have a need for a church. She didn’t want a church. She got what she needed from her books and podcasts.
One day, this neighbor’s appendix burst and she was rushed off to the hospital (I’m a little fuzzy on these details. Grace, please). Nadia found out about her neighbor’s emergency surgery after the event, but she knew that this woman would not be able to care for herself when she got home. So she got a group together from their church and they went and cleaned this woman’s home, did her laundry, and when she came home from the hospital, Nadia was there with a homemade casserole.
The neighbor showed up at Nadia’s church the next Sunday.
Months later, after the neighbor had been a regular attendee at Nadia’s church, Nadia asked her neighbor why she was now so engaged in church life. Was she no longer getting what she needed from her books and podcasts?
Her neighbor replied, “A podcast never baked me a casserole.”
The believing community is a place where we carry one another’s burdens.
Finally, let’s consider this phrase, “You reap what you sow.” We find this in the second part of verse 7, and I want to read through the end of verse 10: “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
A part of me wants to day “duh.” Of course you reap what you sow. I planted some peas in my garden this year; I’m not expecting to harvest sweet corn! But while this statement is obvious, it isn’t always easy.
In the previous chapter, Paul was comparing the “pleasures of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.” What I want us all to remember is that this idea about reaping what you sow isn’t just about how we live our lives as individuals, though it applies there to. Paul is writing this as a practice for the community of believers known as the church.
Are we seeking to help one another out in a gentle way when we stumble? Are we carrying one another’s burdens? If so, we will reap good fruit!
I want to close this sermon by giving my “state of the congregation” address. After 10 years of ministry at Staunton Mennonite Church, I will say that you are bearing good fruit. It isn’t always seen between these four walls, but you are bearing fruit in the community. It is always a challenge to give a good assessment of the church over the summer when so many are traveling, but I don’t measure the health of our church by how many show up on a Sunday. I measure the health of the church by how we are doing at picking people up when they stumble. I measure the health of the church by how we bear one another’s burdens. I measure the health of a church by how good we are doing ate being a community of believers who love God and love our neighbors. And by those metrics, I would say that we as a church are doing quite well.