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.

Colossians 4:2-18 – The Christian Life as Its Meant To Be Lived

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.”

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (New International Version)

Every church has its problems. Much like individual believers, each faith community has its own character and personality – which makes their particular issues unique to them.

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in the ancient city of Colossae to address an issue which was weighing on his heart.

Broadly speaking, the problem of the church was legalism. That is, boiling down and condensing the Christian life into spiritual rules to live by. Although, on the surface, that may not sound so terrible, for Paul it was damaging to Christianity.

Whenever anyone or any group of people systematize Christianity into a list, it is a fool’s errand. Let’s face it: the worship of God, and thus the Christian life, is, for the most part, ethereal and mysterious. Throughout church history there have been legions of folks who have attempted to nail down Christianity into laws we can clearly see and hold people accountable to.

Whether it is making human contrived lists of sins to avoid and codifying them as something like the Terrible Ten or the Nasty Nine; or whether it is trying to humanly comprehend salvation in a tidy Five Spiritual Laws or Basic Principles for Life – all this predilection for list-making does nothing but discourage the Christian heart and divide one another about things that just don’t matter.

Paul wanted all his churches to be encouraged and united in the love of God in Christ through the enablement of the Holy Spirit. This requires prayer – lots of it! Because we must live by faith, trusting God for each step to take in the Christian life, rather than relying on the list to tell me what to do.

So, that’s why Paul ended his letter to the church on a note exhorting the people to never give up praying.

“Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of Containing God’s gift of himself.”

Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

Devoting ourselves to prayer means that we will need to quit devoting ourselves to something else – namely, the nice, neat, packaged formula of do’s and don’ts on the list. Paul didn’t just want the people to adopt a different list; he wanted all the lists tossed into hell!

Instead of always trying to control outcomes, Paul wanted perseverance in prayer without knowing what the result and outcome would be. His deep desire was that believers would rely on God and the mystery of Christ. He longed for the church to pray with all their doubts and uncertainties – not believing they always needed sure answers for everything.

The Christian life cannot be made into some geeky algorithm so that we can avoid suffering, know all the right things to say in a conversation, and always keep God happy. God is not some algebra equation to figure out. He is not a gumball machine to put a quarter in and get what you want. He is not Santa God. 

Christianity requires living in the tension of not knowing everything and yet having cogent answers for others who inquire about our faith.  It is a dynamic relationship in which we must continually interact in prayer to God as we largely improvise our lives, spontaneously applying what understanding we have for each situation we face.

“The whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision and contemplation of God to whom we pray.”

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)

Christians need an ongoing dialogue with the God who answers in his own good time, according to his own good will. We are to make good use of the time God has given through choosing our words with others wisely as we simultaneously carry on a silent prayer conversation with God. This is a Christianity that’s far above rules and laws and checklists. It is Christianity as it’s meant to be lived, depending on Jesus, and relaxed in the Spirit.

This takes practice, practice, practice. Failure is both inevitable and expected. And that’s okay. We’re not living by lists and human contrived rules. We’re living a new life in the power of Christ’s resurrection.

God of Mystery, the One who conceals and reveals, forgive me for my attempts at reducing faith to a few spiritual rules to keep. Help me to speak in ways which are gracious, loving, and redemptive. May the person and work of Jesus come tumbling out of my mouth while I inhale the breath of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Above paintings of prayer by African artist Angu Walters

Galatians 5:2-15 – Faith Expressing Itself Through Love

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

You, my brothers, and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (NIV)

Faith, expressing itself through love, is the grace others need from us. I did not grow up committed to learning the Bible or following Christ. I pretty much went my own way throughout childhood, and especially my teenage years. I still remember what it feels like to not be a Christian. 

I have found throughout my Christian life that folks with a past in which they did not live by grace, but only looked out for themselves, have a temptation to embrace strict rules when they become Christians. They know what it feels like to not have Jesus in their lives, so they sometimes go beyond Scripture and impose standards on themselves, and then others, to keep on the straight and narrow.

If, and when, that happens, the Apostle Paul has something to say about it. Embracing certain practices to obtain or maintain righteousness mean nothing in God’s kingdom. For the Galatian church who went down the path of strict outward rule-keeping, Paul had strict words. Here is how one version of the New Testament puts it:

“You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace! We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith. Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.” (Galatians 5:4-6, CEB)

Any Christian tradition or individual believer which ignores God’s grace in favor of controlling one’s own faith through certain rules is no Christianity, at all. Paul would have nothing to do with it. His position was clear and pointed. We are called to freedom, and we are to use that freedom to serve others through love. Freedom is not something where we do whatever we want without regard to others. That is selfishness, not freedom.

“Grace must find expression in life, otherwise it is not grace.”

karl barth

Freedom is a gift of grace. It is given to us so that we will live freely into who we are meant to be as humanity. In other words, there are to be no obstacles of extra-biblical or unbiblical rules impeding us to realize our full potential as Christians saved by grace through faith. Our possibilities include full unhindered expressions of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control for the benefit of ourselves and the entire community of the redeemed.

Grace is the currency of God’s kingdom, flowing freely through love. God has your back. Grace forgives, and never runs out. Love endures and never withdraws. When we grab hold of this essential and beautiful truth about God with spiritual gusto, then the only rule we want to keep is the continuing debt to love one another.

Are there any practices, rules, beliefs, or doctrines you impose on yourself which are burdensome to you, or others?  Why do you do them?  Do you expect others to keep them?  What would change if you threw grace and love into the mix?

Gracious God, your love has extended so far as to give your one and only Son on our behalf.  Through Jesus, I embrace the faith and love gifted to me through his redeeming work.  Help me to daily die to myself and my propensity for outward rule-keeping, and to live the gracious life you died to procure for me.

Matthew 7:15-20 – Life, Not Legalism

two trees

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (NIV)

There was once a pastor who found the roads blocked one Sunday morning and was forced to skate on the river to get to church, which he did. When he arrived the elders of the church were horrified that their preacher had skated on the Lord’s day. After the service they held a meeting where the pastor explained that it was either skate to church or not go at all. Finally, one elder asked, “Did you enjoy it?” When the preacher answered, “No,” the board decided all was good.

Nothing can choke the heart and soul out of true spirituality like legalism – a precise extra-biblical list of do’s and don’ts. For many folks, it seems easier to live by the list than to pursue the harder road of developing character qualities. Christian discipleship involves growing into spiritual maturity and allowing a seasoned character to shape how we make decisions.  We must patiently and consistently follow in the way of Jesus, which is the way of grace and of life.

Today’s Gospel lesson is Christ’s conclusion to his Sermon on the Mount. It is a sermon that sets forth the values of God’s kingdom and devalues the core of legalistic thought.  I define legalism as a compulsion to spell out every detail of how everyone is to live a godly life, going beyond the stated commands of Holy Scripture. The problem with this approach to the Christian life is that godliness is merely an outward expression of our ability to hold to the list.  This legalistic way feeds human pride and boasting, going against the inner heart values of humility and meekness in Christ’s Beatitudes.  The teaching of Jesus ends up getting lost in trying to do everything right or perfect.

Jesus, through the Sermon on the Mount, led the crowd to a point of decision, letting them know they are at a crossroads. There are only two alternatives: Either choose the way of life as expressed in Christ’s teaching, or else choose the way of destruction through the legalistic list.  To press the crowd toward the necessity of choosing wisely, Jesus used metaphors to make his point.

wolf in sheeps clothing

False teaching in the form of legalism is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We need to be wary of people who seem pious and sincere, yet who do not quite pass the smell test. After all, Satan himself, the Apostle Paul once said, masquerades as an angel of light, appearing righteous, yet, is intent on deceiving many (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

So, how do we recognize a wolf who spiritually and emotionally devours people, instead of altruistically helps them?  Look at the fruit of the tree.  Jesus is the good tree.  Christ advocates for a searching of the heart, which results in the fruit of righteousness.  The bad tree is also seen by its fruit.  Anyone who fails to uplift and live the Beatitudes of Jesus will be seen by the rotten fruit of boasting and pride.

False teachers believe they are above others because of their expertise at keeping the list of do’s and don’ts.  A false disciple will always be shown by their profound lack of grace, gentleness, and genuine humility. They inevitably advocate for holding to their brand of religion and keeping the non-biblical list.  The profound lack of Christ’s Beatitudes in their lives will eventually result in their being cut down and thrown into the fire.

For Jesus, there is no riding the fence between the two alternatives he presented – and it is a matter for him of life and death. The way of Jesus ends in life, good fruit, entrance into the kingdom of heaven, and stability.  The other alternative ends in destruction, bad fruit and fire, exclusion from the kingdom, and being ruined.  These are solemn thoughts from our Lord Jesus himself.

The sobering reality of Christ’s teaching is that many people can be deceived with a devil’s bargain: take the nice handy list and you will become godly; here are twelve principles to change your life; follow these rules, pray this prayer, give your money to this, and all will be well. It is, however, a highway to the grave. The false teacher proclaims himself a “fruit inspector” and then goes on to judge everyone by the legalistic list.

There is a need to repent of religious lists, political agendas, and teachings which ignore and demean Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. One of the telltale signs of holding to a conjured list is when we are not honest with one another about our struggles. The bald fact of list-living is that we cannot fulfill it. So, when we know we are not measuring up to the list, the temptation is to keep up appearances as if we are.

List-living eschews showing any weakness or imperfection.  I cannot admit my sin to anyone because the list pronounces me a failure if I do.  I cannot enter a deep and prolonged grief over my loss because the list says I need to stay strong.  I cannot profess my doubts about God because the list says if I doubt, I am not a real Christian. Just tell me what is on the list, and I will do it – even though I cannot.

Here is my response to legalistic list-living: To hell with the list!  Instead, give praise to Jesus Christ who has given us the way of grace! It is grace which transforms hearts, turns lives around, and provides genuine joy and satisfaction. If grace is not the answer, we are not asking the right question. The tree of life has an abundant supply of gracious fruit.

The greatest anti-legalistic prayer we can pray is the tried and true ancient prayer of the Church:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”