Sermon July 7th, 2013 - Galatians 6 - Living by the Spirit
[Fellow believers], 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. Carry each other’s burdens, and, in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen (N.I.V.)
Martin Luther once said:
“The Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle, to which I am betrothed. It is my Katie von Bora.”
Obviously, Luther liked Galatians. Our lectionary – our suggested Bible Readings for the church year – gives us a good look at the book of Galatians at this time of year. Today is the sixth Sunday we’ve had a reading from this book. It’s important to know that the Galatian Christians were Gentiles – non Jews – who had been converted to faith in Christ under Paul’s ministry. But later, some false teachers appeared in that Christian community. And the conflict between Paul and these false teachers is at heart of our text this morning. I pray that God would richly bless the time we spend in his word this day!
The false teachers were saying something like this:
You Galatians have taken an important first step by coming to faith in Christ. Now you must complete what you have begun. You must observe the Law of Moses. It’s required that your men be circumcised. You must also celebrate the Jewish festivals (4:10), and observe the kosher food laws ( 2:12). Only by doing these things will you fully share in the inheritance promised to God’s people.
The church at Galatia was one of the first congregations Paul founded. In Galatia, Paul first preached his radical new theology – that a Gentile need not become a Jew on the way to becoming a Christian. And these people received his message with gratitude. Paul was proud of these Christians and proud of their faith. But some false teachers arrived in town saying that faith in Christ wasn’t enough for salvation. And it wasn’t long before some Galatian Christians began to question their faith.
If anyone knew that it’s impossible to keep the law perfectly, it would be Paul. The false teachers were telling the men in Galatia that they must be circumcised. But Paul knew that circumcision would be the first step in a lifetime of trying to be saved by keeping the law. What was needed, Paul argued, was not circumcision, but a new beginning, a fresh start, a new creation. The danger here was that faith in Christ as the only Savior would be lost. For Paul, regeneration, what he called “the new creation” is most important. For Paul, righteousness is a gift from Jesus, it’s a gift credited to our account, or, as the theologians say, it’s imputed to us, not earned.
Believers in Jesus are members of a special family of faith. That special family of faith is the church. In that family, people care for one another. They support one another. They sacrifice for one another. And the only boasting they do is in the cross of Christ. Because of that cross, and what happened there, we have been saved – rescued from the curse of sin. And now, we boast about what God has done for us – in and through his Son. At the cross, Jesus forgave our sins. We are now God’s adopted children. And we are pleased to serve him.
To understand the radical change that had occurred in the lives of these people, think about someone who had grown up in a traditional village in central India. That person’s world would have been divided into Hindu and Moslem, Sikh and Christian. It would have been further divided in to people of high and low caste. These basic distinctions would have had an impact on marriage, and friendships – all kinds of things. Now, imagine that person moving to a small town in central Saskatchewan. They’re now in a very different world! Familiar distinctions and divisions are gone. They must adapt to this new setting. Paul told the Galatian Christians that they too lived in a whole new world. Now there was a new landmark for them – and that was the cross of Jesus Christ.
Earlier on in his letter to the Galatians, Paul had made a list of what he called the works of the flesh… Later, he described what the Spirit wants and the fruit of the Spirit. Unlike the Apostle Paul, the false teachers in Galatia dealt with sin by condemning the sinner. But according to Paul, those who have experienced God’s grace in Christ, which has delivered them from all their sins, will be gracious with others. We love others because Christ first loved us. (1 John 4:19). We’re not like the Pharisee who told God that he was grateful he wasn’t a sinner, like the tax collector he was criticizing. (Luke 18:9-14).
The false teachers in Galatia had an attitude of smug superiority. They were blind to their own sins. In the Gospel of John, the scribes and Pharisees were scandalized by the woman caught in adultery, but, according to Jesus, they couldn’t see their own pride, and their neglect of widows and orphans. Speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said in Matthew, ch. 23, verse 4:
4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (N.I.V.)
And the Apostle Peter criticized this kind of thinking when he said (Acts 15:10):
10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? (N.I.V.)
As a former Pharisee, Paul could have had plenty to boast about with regard to his keeping of the Law, but at this point in his life, he boasted only in the cross of Christ. Paul had begun his letter to the Galatians by saying (Galatians 1:6-7):
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7 which is really no gospel at all. (N.I.V.)
When Paul looked back on his life, he realized that, before his conversion, he had been just like these false teachers. Paul knows very well what was at stake here. We need to remember that Paul’s major concern in this letter is freedom – attaining it in Christ, enjoying its benefits, and not allowing it to be stolen away by false teachers. But Paul also knew that freedom could be abused. That’s why he had said, in Galatians 5:13-15:
13 You, my [fellow believers], were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (N.I.V.)
In our text, the Apostle Paul describes a situation in which a believer has become trapped in some kind of sin. Paul’s advice was that mature, Spirit-led believers restore that person. The word used here for “restore” is a medical term that has to do with setting a fractured bone. And the word he uses for “transgression” brings with it the idea of sliding off the road and into a ditch. For Paul, Christian compassion comes to the rescue and puts that vehicle back on the road again. The restoration of the fallen believer requires gentleness, not the arrogance and harshness of the false teachers.
In the Christian community, there are many burdens we can help each other to bear. There are many ways we can support one another. Christian fellowship means that we are not left to bear our burdens alone. One pastor says that when he was growing up, his father was rarely angry with him. “Almost always, if I misbehaved, he told me, “You can do much better than that!” In his gentleness, he says, my Dad was "bearing my burden." Consider Jesus’ words, from the 11th chapter of Matthew (vs. 28-30). He says:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (N.I.V.)
The word that Paul uses for “burden” here brings to mind the cargo that a ship carries. When you think about it, carrying cargo is what a ship does. As a matter of fact, carrying cargo is what it’s designed for. Likewise, we Christians are designed by God, and empowered by God, to carry the burdens of others. And our ability to do that comes from our relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul expressed the basic principle this way (Philippians 4:13, N.I.V.):
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
In the Christian community, according to Paul, each of us has a task to do for the Lord. Each has a task that he or she is gifted for. We’re not doing these things to earn our salvation but because we are already saved. We give God all the glory. This is a special kind of love – it’s a sacrificial, caring love. It’s a reflection of Jesus’ amazing love for us. We seize opportunities for service when they come along. The Holy Spirit helps us recognize those opportunities – and act on them!
Paul says in Romans, chapter 12 (3, 6a):
… since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly. (N.I.V.)
The Apostle Peter said (1 Peter 4:10):
10 Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (N.I.V.)
As Christians, we are encouraged to “speak the truth in love.” In the church, our focus is on relationships. Paul’s goal was always “by all means to save some.” With that goal in mind, he built bridges to people. And then he crossed those bridges with the gospel. Paul was thrilled when his Christian friends helped him bear his burdens. He was pleased when they prayed for him. For Paul, this restoration – this setting people back on the right path – is a central part of the “law of Christ” – the “Law” that commands us to love one another. (Jn 13:34).
The Apostle Paul reminds us of a basic Biblical principle. And that is that we sow what we reap. This is an unchangeable law of God. But, when you think about it, farmers don’t produce the grain that ends up in the bin. They sow the seed, they tend the fields, and then, in due time, they harvest the grain which God gives. When a farmer sows a field, they trust that God will bless their efforts. Should a farmer sow only a small quantity of seed, they can expect only a small crop. Paul says, in Galatians chapter 6, verse 9 (N.I.V.):
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.
In serving the self, there’s disappointment at the end of the day. On the other hand, in serving the Spirit there’s joy – especially at harvest time. Paul reminds Christians that a lifetime of sowing faith, hope, and love, produces a wonderful harvest. Paul is advocating a new kind of life, a grace–filled life. The Apostle Paul reminds us that teaching is a critical task in the Christian church. And ongoing support for teachers and Christian leaders is an important form of Christian fellowship. It’s a partnership in the Gospel. God’s people serve the Christian community by providing the resources needed for the ongoing ministries of the church. Few things more clearly reveal the priorities of the heart than this generosity of spirit. A concern for God-pleasing stewardship is never far from Paul’s thinking. His collection for the poor at Jerusalem is a good example.
You know, at the end of the day, only one thing truly mattered for Paul. And that was the cross of Christ (6:14). Paul says that in Christ he has been crucified to the world, and the world has been crucified to him. This is the language of Baptism, the language of dying and rising with Christ.
Pastor Craig Koester says:
“Three deaths have occurred [here]: Christ died, the world died, Paul died.” All of the old antagonisms and their bitterness stored up for generations: dead. All of the old ways of measuring ourselves and one another: dead. All of the fleshly definitions of who is in and who is out: dead.
But if the cross represents three deaths, it also heralds a new beginning. Christ died, Paul died, the world died. But God raised Christ, and He will bring that triumphant reversal to fulfillment in every other sphere. Because Christ is risen, we [have been] raised to new life.
Paul’s gospel heralds nothing less than a total overturning [because] all things are made new. “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; he says, but a new creation is everything!” Paul’s past accomplishments are now, in his opinion, just so much barnyard manure.
Paul began his letter to the Galatians with a curse on those who were preaching a false gospel. But he ends his letter with a prayer for these same people – a prayer that they would come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. Paul wants all people – both Jews and Gentiles – to experience the same blessings. He wants all barriers to faith to be removed. He wants to make sure that those who hear his message will remember what he has said and stand firm in their new freedom in Christ. Paul’s prayer for the Galatian Christians remains his prayer for us, today. May God grant it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father – We thank you for the wonderful blessings we have in Christ – the forgiveness of sins, and abundant life in the here and now, the promise of a place in heaven someday. Help us always to hear the clear message of your Word – that we are saved by Christ alone, through faith alone, and by Your Word alone. Help us enjoy these blessings, and by your enabling, to share them with all who have ears to hear. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.