A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.
July 7, 2013
We’re celebrating our country this week, and there is so much to be grateful for in these United States. With all our imperfections, we Americans are still a beacon for freedom and democracy that other countries strive to emulate.
That’s why when we find the Apostle Paul extolling the virtues of freedom in his letter to the Galatians, we might think he was a bona fide, liberty-loving American well before his time. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” writes Paul in Galatians 5:1.
And just when we expect Paul to wax eloquent about our God-given rights to a self-determined life, unencumbered liberty, and the pursuit of whatever makes us happy, Paul throws us a curve ball. “You were called to freedom,” Paul writes, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”
“For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,” Paul adds. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (5:13-14).”
If you have been following Paul’s line of thought in Galatians these last few weeks, you can be forgiven for feeling whiplashed! Paul has been at his oratorical best challenging the notion that Christ-followers should be hamstrung by the rituals and requirements of the Old Testament law. That’s all in the past, Paul says. Now we are free in Christ, free in the Spirit, no longer slaves to the law.
Then, just as we prepare to light the fireworks of Christian freedom, Paul deliberately uses that word “slave” again to describe our obligations to each other. Americans tend to view themselves as private, autonomous selves who are naturally directed by their own self-interest and desires. Paul, on the other hand, sees Christ followers bound inseparably together in community, more committed to the common good than their individual welfare. For Paul there is no private self; there is a community of selves, linked together in love.
In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr writes, “The primary…spiritual problem in the West is the lie of individualism. It makes community almost impossible. It makes compassion almost impossible.” And I would add, “It makes spiritual transformation almost impossible.”
I am convinced that if Paul could address the Christian church today he would hammer away at our failure in community. Today the notion that individuals or groups within a church should submit to the will of the body is viewed as oppressive, even dictatorial. And the idea that I would gladly sing a song I don’t particularly like in a worship service out of love for those who do is patently offensive.
Of course this very line of thinking would offend Paul, the same Paul who said that through love we ought to become slaves to one another. Imagine how churches today might look and feel if they actually took these words seriously! What if Christ-followers actually exhibited Paul’s community-building fruit of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—as they interacted with each other?
In Galatians 6, Paul further elaborates in being rooted in community. Notice that while Paul is terribly upset with the Galatians, he tenderly refers to them (in v. 1) as “friends”, or more literally, as brothers and sisters. Despite their many deficiencies, Paul still considers the Galatians to be like family.
Read on, and you see that Paul assumes the Galatian church (and every family of faith, for that matter) is made up of broken people who, to use an old-fashioned word, are “backslidden” in their faith. In some form or fashion these folks are violating their covenant relationship with God and/or their faith community.
These “transgressions”, as Paul calls them, should not be ignored under the cover of “that’s really none of my business” or “to each his own”. Instead, they should be addressed in a spirit of gentleness, humbly and not proudly. As iron sharpens iron, Proverbs 27:17 says, so people can improve each other.
I know my own spiritual journey has been vastly improved by people, including some in this church, who cared enough to confront me in love about something. And I hope others who have been confronted by me can say the same.
Paul continues by revealing still another assumption—every single one of us carries a burden, in some cases a heavy burden extremely hard to bear. Just as each of us is broken, so each of us is burdened.
And so, Paul says, Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. To what “law of Christ” is Paul referring? What is the one “law” we should fulfill? The law that says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I want to commend you, First Baptist Church, for doing a great job in the burden bearing department. Over and over I have watched you rally around each other in time of need. Whenever you give a hug, lend a hand, make time to listen, offer a meal, provide counseling through the Butner Fund, provide for daily needs through the Benevolence Fund, you are bearing one another’s burdens, and fulfilling the law of Christ.
Before wrapping up his letter Paul seems to contradict himself again, declaring that all must carry their own loads. But upon closer inspection this is no contradiction. Each of us has burdens too heavy to carry alone. But each of us also has some unique talent to share, duty to perform, contribution to make that only we can provide. There is something God is calling you to do that is only yours to do for this community of faith. And if you don’t do it, we will all be the poorer for it.
Maybe you don’t think you have the time or energy to do only what you can do for this community. Maybe you don’t think you can make a difference. Paul would beg to differ. Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith.
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, we are not private, autonomous selves who happen to sit together under one roof. We are the body of Christ, bound together in Christ so that we might freely love one another and be transformed along the way. We are rooted in community. And it’s that marvelous gift of Christian community we celebrate through the Christian ordinance of communion.