Galatians 3:23-29 – A Ministry of Equals

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ, you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises. (The Message)

Ever since the fall of humanity, people have had the predilection to organize themselves in groups that keep them distinct from other groups. Whether it is high school peer groups or office politics; whether class warfare or church cliques; there has always existed a tendency to think better about the groups we identify with, and to look down and believe the worst about those we don’t understand or just don’t plain like.

Jesus is the person who changes it all. Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of us equal with each other, whether Jew or a Greek, in bondage or in freedom, a man or a woman. The cross of Christ not only brought deliverance from sin, death, and hell; the work of Jesus Christ ushered-in a new egalitarian society.

I’m not sure the English translations of the Apostle Paul’s phrasing to the Galatian Church can truly capture his emphatic pathos about this issue. For Paul, Christ’s cross has done so much more than bring personal salvation; it has completely eradicated prejudice, discrimination, and division. 

Therefore, the Church is to be the one place on earth where divisions no longer exist. It is to be a foretaste of heaven. The Church is to be a new society, a community of the redeemed, based in equity, diversity, and inclusion, from every people group, race, ethnicity, and gender. Together as one, just as God is One, the Church lives the kingdom values of Christ’s words and ways in a fragmented world.

Since the ground is level at the cross, we are to live into Christian unity with a humble attitude and loving actions. To do otherwise is to be immature. We (hopefully) expect kids to be kids and not be like adults. They need teaching, training, and tutoring to learn. When kids grow up and get into adulthood, we then expect them to be like an adult. If they continue in childish behavior, they are immature.

Many adult Christians are still stuck in spiritual childhood. The evidence of this is seen in trying to stratify church society into insiders and outsiders, those who have always been in the church and newcomers who haven’t, the committed servants and the lax pew sitters.

Rather than all of that dividing of people, energy is to be placed with living into the egalitarian society inaugurated by Jesus (and Paul). Not taking women’s leadership seriously, avoiding relationships with the poor, and being xenophobic all come from a place of immaturity. It is childish behavior. Jesus expects better.

Embracing an egalitarian society neither means we are all the same nor should act alike. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of people help make a rich mosaic of support for one another in the Body of Christ.

Being egalitarian means all people are created in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions. All persons, therefore, deserve morally equal treatment, respect, and justice. A just and good Christian ethic ensures all believers are handled with love, given sound instruction, and are free to explore their gifts and abilities within the church.

Church, at its heart, is a community of equals. Thus, the church, as an egalitarian community, must actively reject racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination while purposefully seeking ways to create and maintain a unified community without divisions.

Jesus reached out to the misfits and marginalized in society who were suffering from political, cultural, gender, and religious oppression and discrimination. The community of persons Christ formed included people of all ages and backgrounds. Children were welcome. Women sat down with men to learn and became active participants alongside one another.

Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman, all illustrate that ministry is to reach beyond our own familiar group. In short, Jesus practiced a radical hospitality.

Christians would do well to emulate their Lord, as well as take their cues on ministry from Paul, who grounded both his theory and practice in a Trinitarian theology of equals.

Gracious God, you have abolished barriers through the redemption of Christ.  Prevent me from erecting walls that would divide and use me to be a bridge so that others may experience equality in Jesus.  Amen.

Galatians 6:1-10 – Fulfill the Law of Christ

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. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load. Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. 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. (New International Version)

Its all about grace. God’s grace. In Christ, lived by means of the Holy Spirit. Its not about hard black-and-white lists of rules or principles to live by. The Law of Christ is to help each other in our troubles, no matter what.

Overwhelming physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual burdens can become even more heavy through failing to live up to someone’s or some group’s or a church’s unwritten list of rules. “Keep a stiff upper lip.” “Everything is possible for those who love God.” “Stay positive.” “Just have faith and trust God.” Or worse, silence…. These and hundred other phrases communicate to people with crushing loads that they will have to carry them alone.

The letter to the Galatian believers spells out what is to truly characterize Christian interactions, and what it means to walk in the Spirit. Believers in Jesus are to emulate the behavior of Christ, the ultimate burden-bearer, who came to restore sinners, not condemn them.

We have a responsibility to rescue, renew, and revitalize persons who have lost their way. We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.

Someone caught in the crosshairs of a bad decision, or ensnared by making a wrong step, who is now in over their heads, needs help. In such a case, we are to restore, not punish. The person’s wound needs spiritual cauterizing. The broken spirit needs to be set back into place to heal properly.

The tone and the attitude which we do this important work of restoring people is through gentleness (meekness). We are to have a mindset and heart stance which understands there is no moral superiority with me. I could easily be the person in need of restoration.

When we have a gentle spirit, then we discern we are not above falling into the same trouble. We, too, are ethically and morally vulnerable. So, the church has a corporate responsibility to bear one another’s burdens.

There are other people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in over their heads, too. Their health and mental health challenges, the emotional weight of hard circumstances, and their broken spirits require others to help shoulder the load so that the weighted-down person is not crushed.

Nobody in any faith community is above doing this work of burden-bearing. And it isn’t appropriate for an individual to boast about the burden-bearing work of others, as if it were theirs. You and I are to take responsibility for our own actions and attitudes without taking credit for someone else’s efforts.

A mature spiritual community of people are able to distinguish those loads which individuals must bear for themselves, and those burdens where help is sorely needed. We are accountable to carry our own backpack. And we are also accountable before Christ to share our load with others when it becomes too heavy for us.

If we choose not to allow others to assist us when we need it, then we will reap what we sow – we’ll feel the full weight and consequences of our silence. The planting and harvesting metaphor isn’t just for those who have engaged in wrongdoing. It is also for those who don’t put any seeds in the ground to begin with. They shouldn’t expect a harvest, at all.

Grace lived out in real experiences knows when to get under a load and help carry it. And grace also knows when to be kind to self and share the heavy burden with others who can help shoulder it for a bit. This is Christianity which relies on the enablement of the Spirit, made possible by Christ, who carried our crushing weight of guilt and shame for us.

Our Christian freedom in Jesus is to be stewarded wisely through carrying one another’s burdens, and so, fulfilling the Law of Christ.

God of all comfort, our help in time of need: We humbly pray to relieve and restore persons in need, people for whom are tired, sick, weary, or unable to continue as they are. Look upon them with the eyes of your mercy; comfort them with a sense of your goodness; preserve them from the temptations of the enemy; and give them patience under their affliction. In your good time, restore them to holistic health, and enable them to live their lives to your glory; and may they dwell with you in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Galatians 6:11-18 – What Counts is the New Creation

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 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. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (New International Version)

Motives matter. The interior life of a person is important. Life is neither a mere getting things done nor doing what is needed on the exterior. A house may be beautiful and orderly on the outside, with careful landscaping, a manicured lawn, and attractive appearance – yet on the inside it might be disorderly, full of relational discord, and completely discombobulated.

The exterior life of a person is also important. But it’s only half the person. And, unlike God who sees the heart, we aren’t always privy to what’s going on inside someone.

Folks who are enamored with outward displays of spirituality and righteousness tend to be compulsive about maintaining appearances – for both themselves, and everyone else.

Policing outward forms of righteousness through clear identifiable means is really nothing more than old fashioned judging of one another. It’s antithetical to grace. And it smacks of the snooty superiority of Star-Bellied Sneetches.

Rather than a star on the belly, in the Apostle Paul’s day it was circumcision. Those who had it were “in” and those without it were “out.” Never mind the interior life. A hard outward boundary of righteousness was established by false teachers who made the Christian life easy by simply holding to readily observable forms, like circumcision.

It wasn’t that circumcision was a bad thing. The issue was making it a necessary part of the Christian life. Not circumcised? Not a Christian, insisted the false teachers. In other words, one had to become Jewish before becoming a Christian. I can picture the Apostle Paul doing a hand to the forehead, saying, “Oy vey.”

For the Christian, one must be vigilant not to exaggerate baptism. On the one hand, I would argue far too many believers underestimate the significance and importance of baptism. Flippantly making it a personal choice, as if the individual is in complete control of one’s own salvation, is not only wrongheaded – it’s downright blasphemous.

Yet, on the other hand, a preoccupation with getting a person, especially a child, baptized, as if the world might end if it doesn’t happen, betrays the same problem as Paul faced with circumcision in the first century.

The proper approach, it seems to me, is to embrace the full spectrum of Christianity – both outward and inward – the whole person. And Paul addresses this by anticipating a question of the Galatian congregation: What, then, is of central importance?

The answer is: a new creation. To be transformed by the power of the Spirit is what really counts. The grace of God in Christ, applied to a person, brings a change to inner motives and attitudes, as well as outer behavior through loving actions.

We must always keep in mind that the sign points to the substance. It would be weird if I were traveling to Milwaukee on I-94 and pulled over on the interstate next to the sign marking the city is ahead, crawl all over it, and say, “I’m here!”

The overall thrust of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that they were debasing the true worship of God into an outward show, honoring Christ with their lips but not holding him in their hearts.

Christianity is fundamentally not about what we do for God but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is divine grace which saves people. We belong to God. Just as we neither chose our own parents nor the time when we were born, so akin to this is, before we chose God, God chose us. We don’t “born again” ourselves; God does the rebirthing.

And since it is solely the work of God in us, there is zero reason to boast about the circumstances of our new birth and becoming a new creation in Christ. We didn’t save ourselves. It would be something like getting a COVID-19 vaccine and then bragging about how we stopped the pandemic.

Instead, we are to bear the spiritual marks of Christ’s crucifixion on our inner selves. No one is saved because they deserve it but simply because they need saving.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, grant us the faith to accept your saving work in the cross and to be so transformed by it that we will not be without excuse on Judgment Day. Help us not merely walk at your side, with mere words to offer. Convert us and give us new life in you so that in the end we will not be dry wood, but living branches in you, the true vine, bearing fruit for eternal life. Amen.

Galatians 5:16-26 – Let the Spirit Guide You

“Be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires…. the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit.  Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.” (Common English Bible)

I’m the youngest sibling in my family.  So, I know what it feels like to be a third wheel with things.  When I was a kid, it seemed as if everyone believed I was too young to do anything or engage any of the real fun stuff, like watching “Mannix,” “Sanford and Son,” or “Love American Style” past my bedtime. Although now, I understand why I couldn’t watch those shows, the fact remains, I was often a third wheel.

At times, we treat the Holy Spirit of God like some third wheel. We pray to Almighty God. We pray in Jesus’ blessed name. And what of the Holy Spirit? Seems the Spirit gets the short end of the stick, getting treated like a younger sibling in the Trinity family. In fact, I’ve been in some churches where it seems their understanding of the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible – the Spirit is nowhere to be found.

Truth is, we never quite know what the Spirit might do. Heck, we aren’t even sure what pronoun to use for the Holy Spirit. It? He? She? They?  Because the Spirit seems so mysterious and ethereal, because the Spirit is so unpredictable, we send he/she/it off to some metaphorical bedtime so that we can watch TV and do whatever we want. 

Or perhaps we really are diligent about the Christian life. We strive, work, and wrestle to live a good life. Yet, somehow, we far too often fall short and feel like a failure. Why is that?

Could be that we’ve looked at the Holy Spirit as the third wheel. We believe in the Spirit. We have faith the Spirit is there. Yet, we don’t have any idea how to relate. God is big and sovereign. And Jesus has a real body and blood. But the Spirit? Well, the Spirit’s out there, man – like, too cool for school, or like one of the characters on “The Mod Squad,” or something. 

How do you have a relationship with someone or something (many often refer to the Spirit as a “thing”)? How do we relate with a person (after all, the Spirit is fully a person) who is so crazy and seemingly other than you and me?

The Holy Spirit is the power source of the Christian life.  Without the Spirit, we can easily degenerate into all kinds of illicit thinking and behavior – including immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, substance abuse, casting evil spells, hate, fighting, obsessive behaviors, violent anger, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, or living for the party.

It is the Spirit who helps, comforts, provides strength, and enables us to replace old habits with new ones, and dead practices with solid spiritual action. The Christian virtues which flower and produce the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control occur through a close intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. 

The Spirit helps us in our weakness when we pray and act.  The Christian enjoys such a close affectionate association with the Holy Spirit that it is as if we are a like a sacred temple with the person of the Spirit taking up residence within. 

By means of the Holy Spirit, God is always with us and continually, at this moment, working within us to make our redemption in Christ an actual real-live encounter. In other words, the Spirit gives us feet to walk among this world, armed with the implement of God’s love.

I’m going to make a simple observation about our New Testament lesson for today. All the spiritual virtues mentioned are the “fruit” of the Spirit, not “fruits.”  The nine ethics are a package deal.  When you have the Spirit and spiritual fruit, you possess all nine Christian values. 

If we look at the list and say something like, “Well, I’m pretty good at kindness and goodness, but I don’t have much peace or patience,” what that really means is that we are probably doing kindness and goodness from a different place than by means of the Holy Spirit. Because when the Spirit is manifested in us, we exhibit spiritual fruit. We cannot separate the nine spiritual virtues any more than we can separate the Trinity. They’re all one spiritual fruit, cultivated and produced within the inner person by the agency of God’s Spirit.

Maybe we need to consider the shadow side of our lives. It could be that, for example, we are far more driven by our anxiety about most things than about genuine altruism and love. The results of our actions and words might look the same, but the motivation might be far from truly altruistic. It simply will not last if our actions are generated from a place of worry – because it is not of the Spirit.

So, what to do about it?  We must mortify (put to death) the deeds of the sinful nature. You have been crucified with Christ and you no longer live but Christ lives in you by means of the Spirit He has given to us (Galatians 2:20).  If we have C-clamped our hearts so tight that the Spirit cannot get in, then it’s high time to loosen the grip and enable God to do some gracious and merciful work within us.  It’s the only way to experience genuine transformation of life.

The spiritual life can be scary. Letting go of control is hard for many people, including me. But the results are worth it. The Spirit is competent. The Holy Spirit might work in wild and crazy ways and might show up on “Saturday Night Live” where you least expect to discover her.

Jesus said that the work of God is to believe in the one he sent (John 6:29). The Spirit always points us to Christ, the one who has delivered us from the realm of sin and brought us forgiveness. This work of Christ enables the work of the Spirit, who now makes our deliverance a practical reality in daily life.

The Holy Spirit is not a third wheel, but the real deal. Whenever we open our hearts to the Spirit, we experience the wideness of God’s mercy. And when the Spirit is working inside of us, it makes the car chase scenes in “The Streets of San Francisco” look a lot less dramatic.

May the Spirit of the living God be with you now, and forever.  Amen.