Sermon October 20

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

October 20, 2013

“Gospel Relationships”

Galatians 5:26-6:18

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about the meaning of the gospel. The gospel is the story of grace – that we are saved by the cross of Christ. We are brought into a relationship with God through trusting in Jesus Christ and not by our own efforts to reach up to God or to please God. This is the foundation of the Christian faith. Galatians was Martin Luther’s favorite book in the Bible for this reason – because it emphasized that we are saved through the work of Christ and not through our own works.

Paul comes across so forcefully about the content of the gospel because he discovered that there were false teachers who had come in after him and they were leading the Galatians astray. These false teachers were Jewish Christians who accepted the fact that Jesus had died for both Jews and Gentiles, but they believed that to be truly saved required obedience to all of the laws and rituals of Judaism. To Paul this was not just a different opinion but it constituted a false gospel. Paul tells us that salvation is entirely the work of Jesus Christ and we can only receive it as a free gift. To say that there is something more we must do in order to complete our salvation is to say that what Jesus did is not good enough.

So we can see that the letter to the Galatians is a weighty treatise on the Christian gospel. It is filled with deep and complex doctrinal arguments about the meaning of salvation. It’s the kind of thing that you read and then have to read it through again to make sure you really understood it.

But even though Galatians has a heavy theological theme, it also has some parts where Paul gets very personal with his readers. This happened in chapter 4 where Paul said: “Friends, I beg you, become as I am.” And Paul reminded the Galatians that when he first came to them he was suffering a debilitating physical ailment, and they took him in and cared for him.

Now in chapter 6 Paul becomes very personal again. Bracketing the beginning and the end of the chapter, the first and last word Paul uses is adelphoi, which means brethren. In the first sentence it is translated as “my friends” and in the last sentence as “brothers and sisters”.

And in the middle of the chapter, as Paul comes to his concluding statement, he says: “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand.” Think of all of the computer generated mail you get. Of course this whole letter is Paul’s personal message to the Galatians. Paul has a great deal at stake in the Galatian church and so he wants to make a personal connection with them. Up to this point, Paul had been dictating the letter to a scribe, but, as he did with some of his other letters, he takes the pen from the secretary’s hand in order to add a personal postscript.

In the same way that this last chapter is personal, it is also practical. At the end of chapter 5 Paul had sketched out what it means to live in the power of God’s Spirit rather than in our own power. When we are guided by the Spirit of God who dwells in our hearts, then we will discover the fruit of the Spirit growing in our daily lives – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithful, gentleness, and self-control.

Paul’s message is a practical one – about how the gospel is to be lived out in the everyday lives of Christians. This theme about gospel relationships begins with the last verse of chapter 5 and then leads into chapter 6. Paul starts first with how Christians should not treat each other. He said: “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.”

What Paul says is instructive in that it shows that the way we behave toward others is determined by our opinion of ourselves. The word for conceit literally means empty glory. It describes someone whose opinion of themselves is empty or vain. The problem is that a false or empty sense of personal worthiness poisons all of our other relationships. We end up always comparing ourselves to others. The deep insecurity of conceit leads to a need to prove our worth to ourselves and others.

When we do that, relationships end up like a competition. If we feel ourselves superior to others, then we challenge them in order to prove our worthiness. If we feel ourselves inferior, then we envy them. Needless to say, this destroys the sense of community within the church. Lost is any sense of the fellowship of the Spirit.

Throughout this letter Paul has been addressing those who have been so anxious to fulfill all the laws of God. I think we can imagine Paul saying – “So you want to fulfill the law, do you? Very well; let it be the law of Christ.” As Paul said in 5:14 – “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Those who walk by the Spirit are not ruled by self-conceit. Instead, they are able to heed the words of Paul in Romans 12, where he said: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

As C.S. Lewis pointed out, humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. When we walk by the Spirit our eyes are open not only to recognize our own sinfulness and short comings, but also the value and importance of others in God’s sight. Then we discover that truly Christian relationships are governed not by rivalry, but by service.

Secondly, Paul deals with how Christians ought to treat one another. It is the gospel that enables us to live as brothers and sisters. In that Christian relationship we are to look out for one another, to encourage one another. This means a willingness to take responsibility for each other. Paul uses the example of a Christian brother or sister tripped up by sin. Instead of feeling self-righteous and thinking how good we look in comparison, Paul says that we “should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”

To restore is a medical term used for setting a bone back in place. It can be painful, but it is a healing pain and it is to be done in a spirit of gentleness. Paul insightfully adds that we should also watch out so that we are not tempted in the same way.

As Paul identifies how Christians ought to act in relation to one another, I think the overall principle he gives us is revealed in verse 2 – “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Notice again that Paul words this in a way intended to appeal to those who are especially concerned to keep God’s law.

We should also notice the assumption which underlies this command, namely that we all have burdens and that God does not mean for us to carry them alone. Helping someone who is burdened is not something which can be done at arm’s length. It requires us to be physically close to one another, standing right next to each other and adding our own strength under the burden so that the weight is distributed over more than one person, and therefore lightening the load of others. In the same way, Christians must stay close to one another in a committed fellowship in order for us to perceive and respond to the needs of others.

In verse 2 Paul says to “bear one another’s burdens”, and in verse 5 he says “for all must carry their own load.” How can we possibly carry each other’s burdens when each should carry his own load? It sounds contradictory, but it isn’t. The Greek word translated as “burdens” means a heavy weight. The word translated “load” refers to a kind of backpack.

We all have differing sets of difficulties and opportunities, and also differing sets of weaknesses and strengths. These are our load – these things comprise our responsibility. However, there are burdens that are too heavy for one person to bear alone and that is where we need to look out for one another.

It is also worth noting that the physical presence of other Christians is part of our experience of Christ’s presence in our lives. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed we say that we believe in the communion of saints. In other words, we’re saying that we are in the presence of Christ when we are physically present with Christian brothers and sisters. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God.”

In the first few verses of Galatians, Paul said: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” The good news of the gospel is that through Christ we are freed from a slavery to sin and idolatry. But we are also freed for something. We are called into a family of faith where we are to live in the power of God’s Spirit and in relationship with one another. The gospel that frees us from sin also gives us a responsibility for one another. And that’s good news too.

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