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Bear One Another’s Burdens

Sunday, June 7, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Luke 10:1-11; Galatians 6:1-6

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When the staff was planning for the summer worship theme for this year, we were reflecting on the deep and profound polarization that we are living through these days. More and more, we sort ourselves into our various tribes, and we mainly affiliate with, and click through to read, people who reinforce our own views. We face significant challenges as a society and a world, yet we are deeply divided about how to respond to those challenges.  We can feel the tension between feeling called to cross lines to embrace those with whom we disagree, and feeling called to draw lines to be clear about what we believe.

As we were thinking about how God might be calling us to respond to this, we noticed that the lectionary epistle readings for July begin with our remarkable little passage from Galatians 6 this morning, in which we find the phrase, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”   “Bearing each other’s burdens” struck us as a thread worth pulling on, as we try to find our way forward. We’ll be exploring other texts through the month, but Galatians 6 is our launching pad.

The letter of Galatians, as a whole, is a full-throated defense of the freedom to which the gospel of grace releases us. Freedom is always a good place to start. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul says in chapter 5; “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  On the cross, Jesus set people free from all the evils of every age.  We are no longer bound or subject to any imperial or coercive regime.  We have been set free.  As we like to say here at Lewinsville, “We do not need to be afraid, of anyone, or anything, anymore.”

But in chapter 5 and 6 of this letter, Paul makes it clear that the freedom to which we belong has a particular shape to it. We need to be clear about this, because Christian freedom is distinct from what the world often means by freedom. Christian freedom is not some kind of unbridled, unrestrained autonomy, as if we are free to do whatever our tiny, self-absorbed egos might want to do.

Some years ago, I was on a mission trip in the Dominican Republic with a group of adults from another church. During that week, as our group was reflecting on the beautiful work we were doing alongside families and children who were living in profound poverty, I shared with the group how embarrassed I was to realize that there was a big part of me that just wanted to get away from other people. In that context, I had the horrible realization that there was a part of me that dreamed of living in a great big air-conditioned house, all by myself, with TV on all the time and an endless supply of Dr. Pepper – never having to interact with other people. My seminary-trained, but deeply un-reformed, self thought that sounded like a great way to live! That part of me wanted freedom from other people, but Christian freedom, freedom that is shaped by the cross of Jesus, is the freedom to be for other people. Christian freedom is freedom to pursue the common good.

According to Galatians 6:2, those in the church are to bear one another’s burdens, which suggests that we have responsibilities for each other.  Disciples of Jesus are not radical individualists.  Our love for Jesus binds us to our neighbor, whether it is our neighbor in need or our neighbor with whom we disagree. When another person is broken, we are to step in.  When another person has been sinned against and hurt, we are to walk alongside them, and not to abandon them.  When another person has committed the sin, we are to walk alongside them, and not abandon them.  When another is weak, we are to help carry the load.  Christian freedom is not freedom from other people, but is the freedom to be for other people.

But then we come to verse 5, in which Paul says, “All must carry their own loads.” The Greek verb for ‘carry’ is the same as the verb for ‘bear’ in verse 2. How does verse 5 stand alongside verse 2?  Which is it?  Are we supposed to bear one another’s burdens, or are we supposed to bear our own loads?

As the old joke has it, “Yes.”

Christian freedom is oriented towards the other, especially the other who is in need.  But Christian freedom does not take advantage of this, by saying to oneself, “If I don’t do my part, if I just slack off, I can count on other people to step in and carry the load for me.”  No, Christian freedom is both; it is the freedom of responsibility for oneself, and it is the freedom of compassion for others.  “Bear one another’s burdens” and “all must bear their own loads.”  Christian freedom is both.

During this 4th of July week in which we are celebrating the freedoms in our country, we may imagine that there can be public policy implications of these twin common-good postures of responsibility and compassion; responsibility for our own loads, on the one hand, and compassion for those whose loads have grown too heavy, on the other.  These implications can be drawn out in education, health care, criminal justice, so many areas.  For instance, in the immigration sector, we can and should have a vigorous conversation about immigration protocols and border security, but we must address issues of overcrowding in detention facilities and provide for basic human dignity for those who are in custody – especially little children – basic essentials like soap and toothpaste and safety.  We can do both.

According to Galatians 6:2, bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ. Christ’s own life of sacrificial, self-giving love fulfilled God’s law.  Christ did not live a life of freedom from other people, but of freedom for other people.  When we live towards our neighbors – whether we are talking about loving our neighbors who are in need or our neighbors who are our enemies – when we do that, we participate in Christ’s fulfillment of God’s law.  That’s what Christian freedom looks like.  To God and to God alone be all the glory.  Amen.