Galatians 6:1-16 – 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.

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. (New International Version)

It’s all about grace. God’s grace. Not rules. Not a list of principles to live by. Not judgment. Not punishment or penance. Grace – amazing, wonderful, scandalous grace.

The Law of Christ is to help each other in our troubles, no matter what.

Overwhelming physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual burdens can become even more heavy through failing to live up to someone’s or some group’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 someone’s silence…. These and hundred other phrases communicate to people with crushing spiritual and emotional 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 a heart stance which understands there is no moral superiority with me. I could easily be that person in need of restoration.

With a gentle spirit, we discern no one is 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 physical struggles, 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.

Burden-bearing is the work of everyone and not a select few. You and I are to take responsibility for our own backpack of stuff – our own actions and attitudes. 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 to carry.

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 a Christianity which relies on the enablement of the Spirit, made possible by Christ, who carried our crushing weight of guilt and shame for us.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus (Matthew 11:28-30, NIV)

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  face palm, 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 through carrying one another’s burdens.

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 also, before we chose God, God chose us. We don’t “born again” ourselves; God does the rebirthing.

Since salvation 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 like getting a COVID-19 vaccine and then bragging about how we personally 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. That’s what grace truly is – and that’s how we are to live toward one another.

Merciful God, you are our Burden-Bearer. Awaken our hearts to remember your love. Open our eyes to see your grace. Stir up hope in those who are overwhelmed with sorrow and fear. Teach them to place their burdens at your feet as an offering — a sacrifice well-pleasing to you. Teach us all to allow others to help us in our time of need, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

Romans 7:14-25 – Our Existential Angst

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
 
So, I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
 
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (New International Version)
 
We can relate to the Apostle Paul. We, along with him, have many times said to ourselves, “I don’t understand why I act the way I do. I don’t do what I know is right. I do the things I hate.” 
 
Paul’s existential angst is a timeless description of our common human condition. There are times we seem completely unable to follow our conscience and do what’s right. It can be maddening, even to the point of experiencing a continual low-level discouragement and/or depression which underlies almost everything we do.
 
The prescription for dealing with this mental, emotional, and spiritual malady does not include the law. That’s right. Putting our willpower and effort into obeying commands gets us nowhere. Even if we obey laws and rules and commands for a time, our efforts eventually break down. We fail to do what we want and do just the opposite.
 
The law isn’t bad. It just doesn’t have the capacity to transform us. The law’s purpose is to show us how bad off we really are in this world, to give us an awareness of our true condition so that we will seek help. 
 
We humans are a bundle of contradictions, doing good, then bad, and flip-flopping back and forth – all with great frustration.
 
In our abject misery, what then, shall we do? Who will help us? Is there anyone to save us from our plight?
 
Sheer willpower and obedience will not help us; it won’t work. It will only give us a false hope. Any success in using such willpower only deludes one into believing they have the answer… until they yet fall again into the abyss of their own inner darkness.
 
The good news is that there is a Savior, a Redeemer, a Rescuer who has the will and the power to deliver us from our predicament.
 
The grace of God in Christ is the operative power that changes lives, not the law. Freedom from the tyranny of our “should’s” and our misplaced desires comes from Christ’s forgiveness through the cross. 
 
Like a lover enamored with his beloved, our desires become oriented toward Jesus for his indescribable gift to us. That is the strength of grace. Transformation is relational; it is found in a person, not a program. And the only person and relationship which has the ability to change us is, I believe with all my heart and mind, the Lord Jesus Christ.
 
Why? Because I myself have been transformed and changed by such a relationship with Christ. I, along with the hymn writer John Newton, can say, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
 
“Self-help” for all the good it really can do, is in many ways an oxymoron. There is no Bible verse which states that God helps those who help themselves.
 
Yes, we have an incredible capacity for good and vast internal resources within us which we lack awareness of for which we can tap into. Yet, when it comes to an outright metamorphosis, we need a new heart – and we can no more simply decide to change our lives any more than we can perform heart transplant surgery on ourselves.
 
People need the Lord.
 
Whenever the foundation of a house is about to crumble, it won’t do to rearrange the living room furniture and do a bit of spruce up painting. And we deceive ourselves if we believe that all our efforts at landscaping the property and having a great curb appeal will do the trick.
 
If the foundation crumbles, the house implodes, and nothing else will matter.
 
Jesus is our cornerstone. Without him, we are at risk, about to fall and without hope. With him, true restoration and renewal happens. And then, when the house is repaired and in order, we set about the task of being good stewards and maintaining and caring for the wonderful changes which were made.
 
If we want freedom from self-loathing and to experience peace and contentment, calmness and confidence, satisfaction and settled peace, then we will grow ever closer to the Savior who exudes all those qualities, and more.
 
For the Lord not only saves and delivers; he also sanctifies and encourages. And the existential angst becomes forgotten.
 
Saving God, I thank you for delivering me from sin, death, and hell through your Son, the Lord Jesus. May your Holy Spirit apply the work of grace to my life every day so that I can realize practical freedom from all that is damaging and destructive in my soul. Amen.

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

1 Corinthians 2:1-11 – Relying on Spiritual Power

Brothers and sisters, when I came to you, I didn’t speak about God’s mystery  as if it were some kind of brilliant message or wisdom. While I was with you, I decided to deal with only one subject—Jesus Christ, who was crucified. When I came to you, I was weak. I was afraid and very nervous. I didn’t speak my message with persuasive intellectual arguments. I spoke my message with a show of spiritual power so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on God’s power.

However, we do use wisdom to speak to those who are mature. It is a wisdom that doesn’t belong to this world or to the rulers of this world who are in power today and gone tomorrow. We speak about the mystery of God’s wisdom. It is a wisdom that has been hidden, which God had planned for our glory before the world began. Not one of the rulers of this world has known it. If they had, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory. But as Scripture says:

“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
the things that God has prepared
for those who love him.”

God has revealed those things to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches everything, especially the deep things of God. After all, who knows everything about a person except that person’s own spirit? In the same way, no one has known everything about God except God’s Spirit. (God’s Word Translation)

We need the Holy Spirit of God.

Without the Spirit’s help, Jesus is just one guy out of thousands who were crucified in history – merely an example of someone martyred for his faith. Yet, Jesus was infinitely more. Christians discern Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. 

Because of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, people can be redeemed from empty lives, saved from destructive life-patterns, and given the kind of security and purpose which God intended from the beginning. The Spirit’s role is to take these redemptive events of Jesus and apply them to our lives. 

Christian Trinitarian theology understands we are unable to see the truth about the cross of Jesus Christ unless God the Holy Spirit, sent by God the Father and the Son, breaks into our lives and does an intervention, showing us our denial about how we are really doing – as well as our delusions about who we really are.

Admitting we need the Holy Spirit of God means the power of Christianity and the Christian life rests with Jesus Christ and him crucified, and not with us.

We are, in many ways, powerless. I realize this is not a popular message, especially in Western society. Tell the average American they are powerless, and they’ll think you’re off your rocker. It sounds ridiculous. Some would argue that we have done quite well, thank you very much, on our own. We have a couple of cars, a house, a job, and a family. After all, we worked hard, and we did it.

However, any worldly success we gain, and getting the things we want, may lead us to the delusion we have the power to do whatever we want.

Oh, sure, we might reason, we have problems just like everybody else. After all, we cannot control everything.  But we are not completely powerless. Just because we have difficult circumstances and a few problem people in our lives doesn’t mean I am weak, right? God will step in a take-over where I leave off, right?…

Wrong. Apart from the Holy Spirit of God, we are unable to become Christians and live the Christian life.

If we believe we manage our lives fine, with some help from God, then we might be in denial about how much we place ourselves at the center of the world. Whenever our consistent response to adversity, or the realization we are not handling something well, is to try and fix ourselves, we are living the delusion we have the power to independently change.

A reflexive response in asking Google to find answers to our problems; or dealing privately with our personal issues; or expecting our willpower to be enough; or passively resigning ourselves to mediocre lives because we have tried to change or be different; then we are feeding the delusion we don’t really need the Holy Spirit of God. I just need more effort or information to overcome my problems, right?

Wrong. More won’t solve our issues. And when it doesn’t, we easily become discouraged. We might even chide ourselves for our inability to deal with problems.

Our real need is for the true power source of the Christian life. We need the Holy Spirit applying the work of Jesus Christ to our lives so that we can live a victorious life.

Unfortunately, it typically takes a tragedy or crisis to break our delusion of power – a bad marriage, a family member’s addiction, a runaway child, a terminal illness, a bankruptcy, a death.

How bad do you and I need to hurt before we will admit we are not managing our lives well, at all, and that the real power to change resides with the Holy Spirit?

There is power in the cross of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul believed this with all his heart. Although Paul was an intelligent and learned person, he did not rely on his abilities but on proclaiming the power of Jesus and him crucified.

The crucifixion of Christ was a past action with continuing and forceful ripples into the present time.

The cross of Jesus is more than an historical event; it is an ongoing reality to experience for victory over all the brokenness of this world and all the mess we have made of things putting ourselves at the center of the universe.

The Reformer, John Calvin, repeatedly instructed and encouraged his Geneva congregation that the Spirit joins us to Christ, assures us of salvation, and grows us in confidence through the Scriptures. Calvin, although a genius, did not rely on his intellect or abilities but insisted we need the Spirit’s witness to mature as followers of Jesus.

There are tough situations and incredibly sad realities which are mysteries beyond our comprehension. They defy simplistic answers and are greater than our attempts to explain them. Hard problems stretch our faith. And they ought to cause us to cry out to God and Christ’s Church for help because we are powerless to manage our lives.

We absolutely and totally need the Holy Spirit of God. Without the Spirit, we are lost. But with the Spirit we experience the saving power of Christ’s cross to deal with everything in our lives.

The Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next. Amen.