NRSV GALATIANS 6:1-16
6 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4 All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5 For all must carry their own loads.
6 Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher.
7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised – only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14 May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16 As for those who will follow this rule–peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
We’re now halfway through the year – you didn’t really want to have that reminder did you – but it is still a time to reflect on where we are and where we are going. Actually, any time is a good time for that. But it is especially important in these days – for us as a nation, coming off our national birthday last Thursday, and as a church with our 175th anniversary as a chartered congregation coming up next month.
It’s good to know your story, not so that we can worship the past but so that we can get a picture of what the original intention was. That can help you stay on target, and avoid that old expression, “When you are up to your hips in alligators, it’s hard to remember that the original idea was to drain the swamp.”
What were they thinking when this country was started? What were our spiritual forefathers and foremothers thinking when they began a church here, and how does that affect how we do ministry in these days?
It sounds so easy but it can be tricky. There can be all kinds of mixed baggage. In my old movie files there is one that I try to watch this time of year; it’s the musical ‘1776.’ It has a lot of catchy music and provides the rather incredible sight of actors portraying Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams sitting around singing about what kind of bird will be the national symbol.
What I like best about this particular portrayal of those early days of our republic is that it doesn’t pull any punches. Those were tough days, with tough decisions and difficult compromises to make, and the movie gets into that. It talks about the difficult decision to withhold anything in the Declaration about the institution of slavery. True to what I’ve read about history, Adams wanted something in there abolishing slavery. But Franklin, ever the diplomat, wanted the support of those in the deep South and he could only get that by keeping out any prohibition of what has been called our ‘peculiar institution.’ In the play, Franklin reminds a sulking Adams that they are just men, not gods, and that the issue will have to be taken up by following generations.
We still have a hard time with this. It’s been a struggle to open up our society little bit by little bit, to women, to African-Americans, to Eastern Europeans, to Asians, to people who were and are not descendants of the northwest European males that filled Assembly Hall in Philadelphia in 1776. Our national history is full of scare tactics by those who wanted to raise the fear factor down through the years toward all of those who are ‘not us’ – those who are Irish, or Jewish, or Italian, or southern European. With 9-11 and since the fear factor has gone up toward anyone with an Arabic name or who wears clothing that is a part of the Islamic tradition. And of course, there is the suspicion toward those who come from south of our borders, and the worries that they are taking over our nation, when our nation over the years has been blessed by those immigrants who have come and dreamed and built.
There has always been the concern in our nation that other kinds of people are moving in to take over. It’s just been ratcheted up in our time. We have heard that by the year 2050 it is estimated that this nation will no longer be a majority of white people with western European background. With the influx of immigrants our nation will be much more pluralistic and will look less and less like ‘us.’
You have heard that from this pulpit, and probably many others, time and time again. But it bears remembering that our Christian forebears were dealing with many of the same issues. Like the folks who made up the Jewish-Christian community in Galatia, in what is now Turkey. They were part of the Jewish community in that region; after all Jews had moved out from Palestine and there was a significant Jewish community in Galatia. To that community another section of the Jewish tradition came in and started talking about the Way of Jesus, an itinerant Jewish rabbi from Nazareth. Some of them felt that he was the Messiah, the long awaited Chosen One of God, and then a Pharisee from Tarsus named Paul came in and really got them into an uproar. He started bringing in all of these Gentiles, these outsiders, with his teachings about the radical grace of God through this Jesus. They were really climbing the walls when they heard that this Paul was teaching these newcomers to the faith that because of this Jesus, called the Christ, they did not need to follow all of the Jewish law anymore, especially the rite of circumcision.
For some of them that was too much. They had faithfully followed the law all their lives, and now to let these other people in without following that same law was more than they could handle. They felt a need to keep things the way they had always been for people like them, so they put the pressure on other Jewish Christians to put the pressure on the Gentiles to follow the law.
It was this situation that led Paul to write his angry letter to the Galatians. There is no doubt in this letter how Paul feels about them. He chides them, calling them “Foolish Galatians,” because they have let someone come in and play with their heads that have caused them, in Paul’s mind, to abandon their trust in the grace of God through Jesus Christ. In this section Paul writes about many things that are hallmarks of what it means to follow Jesus – the call to carry each other’s burdens; to treasure our relationship with God and not take it for granted, because whatever we sow, that is what we will reap; not to grow weary in doing what is right.
But it is the way that Paul wraps up this section, and really the whole letter, that is intriguing. He writes, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” For Paul the Jesus event – birth, life, ministry, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, the whole thing – made everything new. All of creation has been transformed. Every human being has been made different. A new creation was not just some nice idea for the future. It was a reality brought in by nothing less than Almighty God taking on flesh and dwelling among them and transforming them.
So what does it mean for Paul and the Galatians, and for us who seek to tap into the same spiritual energy they had? First of all it means that even though we live in a world that seems to be going crazy at times; even though we live with people who seem to be self-absorbed to the max; even though we may wonder about our own habits and words and lifestyles; still with all of that, the old world is passing away and a new world is coming. Things are moving. We only get glimpses of it from time to time. But it is coming. God is on the move. The Holy Spirit is making people and systems new.
None of that makes it easy. When God is moving that means that the lowly are lifted up, the poor have good news preached to them, that the oppressed go free. Sometimes that means that we are given good things, and sometimes that means that good things are given to somebody else, and often it is given to somebody that we wonder about. That’s when it is important to remember that this is God’s action to make things new. It may not always square with us, but if God is doing it we can have faith that it will be the best for all.
Secondly, this new creation is understood Christologically; in other words, it is seen through the lens of what Jesus did, how he lived, what he taught, and how he died. Most importantly, it is seen in his resurrection. It says that God is working for new life in any person and in any situation. In places and situations where we might have given up and thrown in the towel, God is still working. Whether it is in a love life turned sour, or a job that didn’t work out, or family relationships that are all twisted into knots, or a society that looks so very different from the one we grew up in. Death does not have the last word; hopelessness does not have the last word. God has the last word, and that last word is always resurrection.
The final part of this is that with the new creation, because it is in Christ, there are no boundaries. There are no dividing walls. We are all one in Christ, Paul wrote earlier. Now he writes that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision – the big dividing wall in the Galatian community – is really nothing at all. The only thing that counts is the new creation given by Christ. And when Christ brings that, there are no walls, there are no barriers.
Not that this means we can live any way we like. Because the new creation is in Christ, it is a new creation that is lived his way; and the way of Christ is always the way of love. That’s why this community was told to gently take back those who had wandered away; that’s why they were told to be careful lest they themselves be tempted; that’s why they were told to carry their own burdens, and in the act of that to help each other carry theirs, too. In the new creation given by Jesus, we are all in it together. No divisions. No walls. We are one in Christ.
Over thirty years ago a special document was penned in the land of South Arica, a nation dealing at that time with apartheid, the separation of people according to skin color. In the midst of that struggle church groups came together and offered up the Belhar Declaration; a statement that affirmed their strong belief that Jesus Christ did not come to keep people apart, but to bring people together. Just as the apostle Paul told the Galatians that Christ comes to break down every barrier, so this document expresses the core belief that Christ still does that. We are all one in Christ. That is the new creation.
We are using part of that Declaration as our affirmation of faith this morning because this statement serves as a kind of bridge linking not just the people of South Africa and us, but those spiritual ancestors of ours as well. They, too were looking for that new creation. They got tired of staying home from church because the Appomattox River was too high. So they started a church here. They started a place of worship, a place that would give witness of the new creation in Christ.
We are also using that Statement of Faith for another reason: the new creation is not easy. It’s a lot easier to just keep going, doing the same old thing, and not expect too much out of yourself or someone else. To live in the new creation means that we open ourselves up to each other. We open ourselves up to the possibility that I might be wrong and have something to learn. It means being open to the ways God surprises us.
It’s summer. A good time to sit and reflect. A good time to wonder what God has to teach us today. A good time to live in the New Creation. Amen.