The story is told of a monastery where the monks lived under a vow of silence. But once a year, one of them was allowed to address the community. And when Brother Gerald's turn came, he got up and said, 'I question Brother Gregory's spiritual commitment – I'm in prayers at chapel every day, but I often don't see him there.' Well, another year went by and then it happened to be brother Gregory's turn. And he got up and said, 'Well, I question Brother Gerald's spiritual commitment – he may be in chapel every day, but I never see him fasting – he's always tucking it away in the dining hall.' After another year it was brother Dominic's turn. And to everyone's surprise he turned up without his monk's habit, dressed normally and carrying a suitcase. And he got up and said, 'I'm leaving. I can't stand all this in-fighting.'
Well, these Sunday evenings we're in a series on 'Church life: how to love one another.' And tonight we're going to learn from one of the New Testament churches where Christians were not loving one another. It's the church – or actually, a group of churches – in a place called Galatia. And the apostle Paul wrote to them in his letter to the Galatians. So would you turn in the Bible to Galatians 5 and 6. And let's get a flavour of what this church was like. Look at chapter 5, verse 15:
"But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another."
That makes them sound like pitbull terriers, rather than Christians. But's that because they were at one another's throats – in-fighting, just like Brothers Gerald and Gregory in the monastery. Then look on to verse 26:
"Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another."
And that all comes from thinking we're in spiritual competition with each other – that we're a bunch of rivals. So, if I think I'm a better Christian than you I become conceited – proud. And if you twig that I feel superior to you, that'll provoke you. Whereas if I think you're doing better than me, I'll feel inferior, and envy you. Skip to chapter 6, verse 3:
"For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself."
So some people in these churches thought they were really something – that they were the most spiritual, 'first class' Christians. To which Paul said: 'You're kidding yourselves.' So what was going on here? Well, the background is that the people Paul was writing to were Gentiles – non-Jews – who'd come to faith in Jesus through him. Paul had then moved on. And some Jewish background teachers had moved in. And they told these new Gentile Christians something like this: 'Look, your faith in Jesus is good as far as it goes. But to become spiritually complete, you now need to take on things from God's Old Testament law – like being circumcised and keeping the food laws.' And some of the Galatians had fallen for that –and thought they were now the most spiritual, 'first class' Christians, which created this atmosphere of competiton and comparing with one another – as if the church was a bunch of rivals.
Every church and Christian group is prone to that. And you may have felt that sense of spiritual competition among us – for example, when it comes to how much personal Bible reading and prayer we each do; or how many people we're each sharing the gospel with. Or you may have felt that sense of spiritual comparing among us – where some people seem to be thought of as 'first class' – like the people on your Christian Union committee at school or uni, or certain leaders or church staff – whereas you may feel relegated to being 'second class' because of something in your past – like divorce or abortion – or because of your ongoing struggle with a particular sin in the present. But if there's spiritual competition and comparing among us, it's actually a sign that we've lost hold of the gospel. Paul wrote Galatians to put the gospel back into these churches, because only the gospel can free us to love one another, instead of compete with one another. So look back to Galatians 5.13, where Paul writes:
"For you were called to freedom, brothers [and I'll add 'sisters' because the original word implies both]."
So one of the central messages of Galatians is that God's acceptance of us depends 100% on Jesus' death on the cross – which paid for the forgiveness of everything that makes us unacceptable. And that frees us from thinking that it depends even a fraction of a percent on anything we do – whether that's getting circumcised or only eating certain food (like the Galatians were thinking); or whether it's doing our daily Bible reading or sharing the gospel three times a week (like we might be thinking). That's the gospel-freedom Paul is on about.
So on the one hand, the gospel lifts me up by saying, 'Ian, look at the cross. God loves you that much, and he did there everything necessary to make you acceptable to him, as the sinner you are.' But on the other hand, the gospel cuts me right down to size by saying, 'Ian, look at the cross. You are so sinful – even now, 35 years into the Christian life – that it took that to make you acceptable to God.' And once the gospel has both lifted you up and cut you down to size, you don't want to be competing spiritually – because you know you're just a forgiven sinner whom Jesus is still working on by his Spirit, and that every one of your Christain brothers and sisters is just a forgiven sinner whom Jesus is still working on by his Spirit. So instead of thinking like a bunch of rivals, asking, 'How can I beat you, spiritually?', we start thinking like a band of brothers and sisters, asking, 'How can I help you?' So look at chapter 5, verse 13 again:
"For you were called to freedom, brothers [and sisters]. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another."
Then comes the famous 'fruit of the Spirit' passage – which we tend to read individualistically, as if it's about me and what my walk with God should look like, when in fact it's about us and what our church life will look like… if we have Jesus at the centre, and really grasp that we're all just forgiven sinners whom Jesus is still working on by his Spirit. And in chapter 6, verses 1 and 2, Paul spells out very practically what that will look like. The first thing he says is this:
1. Help One Another in the Struggle with Sin
So look on to chapter 6, verse 1:
"Brothers [and sisters], if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted."
So in chapter 5, Paul has just said that Christians continue to be sinners and to experience sinful desires. So you may think, 'I bet Ian Garrett never loses his temper with his kids, or feels tempted by sexual images (or whatever).' But the Bible says you ought to know better. It says: put no-one on the pedestal of being above sin and temptation, because no-one is. As a Christian, you continue to be a sinner, and to experience sinful desires. And although you have a new, over-riding desire to please Jesus in response to his love, your ongoing sinfulness constantly frustrates that, so that your life is a constant mixture of pleasing Jesus, struggling against sin and actually sinning. And that mixture is the normal Christian life this side of heaven, which we need to help one another in. And sometimes, as in Galatians 6.1, that means helping a Christian brother or sister who's taken a bigger moral tumble than the daily norm:
"Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression…"
This probably means 'if anyone is caught up in some moral tumble and comes and tells you about it'; although it could mean they're 'caught' (in the sense of found out) by a fellow-Christian. So for example, a long time back a Christian guy in his twenties here suddenly disappeared from church. I realised I hadn't seen him for weeks, and guessed something was wrong. He finally replied to my messages and agreed to meet up. And it turned out: he'd had some awful news from home, gone out and got drunk, and ended up in a one-night-stand, sleeping with a girl whose name he couldn't even remember. He was overwhelmed with guilt and shame. He said to me, 'I haven't been able to face God or other Christians since it happened.' And he also said to me, 'I can't see any future for myself as a Christian – in fact, this makes me wonder whether I ever was one.' So what does verse 1 tell us to do for a brother or sister like that?
"Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness."
Now at first, 'you who are spiritual' sounds horribly just like the superior, first class attitude that Paul has been writing against – as if it's talking about, 'you who are spiritual –who would never get caught up in drunkenness, or put a foot wrong sexually.' But that's not what Paul meant. Literally, it says 'you of the Spirit' – in other words, you whom the Holy Spirit has brought to faith in Jesus, which is just a way of describing all Christians – but describing us in a way that reminds us that to be a Christian is just to be a forgiven sinner in whom Jesus is still working by his Spirit, to make us more like him. And in this situation, to be like him means to restore the other person as he would – in a spirit of gentleness.
Because what does the Lord Jesus do when you sin? Does he look at you condemningly and say, 'I can't believe you've done that (or done that again)'? And do you really expect me to forgive you?' No, that's not how the Lord Jesus treats us, is it? Of course he is disappointed and let down by by our sin. But he's not surprised by any of it – because he anticipated all our sin, past and future, and died for it on the cross. And he's able and willing to forgive all of it. There's no sin that's too big or too often fallen into for him to forgive.
And that is the spirit in which we're to help restore one another. So I reassured that guy who'd got caught up in drunkenness and that one-night-stand that Jesus had seen even that coming, and died for even that on the cross, so that there was forgiveness for it. And I reassured him that it didn't mean he wasn't really a Christian – because I'd watched his Christian life; I could see his overriding desire was to please Jesus (albeit imperfectly). And I was able to say, 'Look, this wasn't the real you. This was you being completely inconsistent with the real you. Now, trust the Lord's forgiveness and get going again.'
Now there's often much, much more that needs to be done in helping to restore people. For example, where adultery or pornography has undermined marriage, there may be a long process of helping the offended spouse come to terms with it and exercise forgiveness, and of trying to rebuild trust and build in defences against future sin. Galatians 6.1 is only one word on this subject – but it gets to the heart of what we should be aiming to do, and with what attitude. And talking of attitude, just look on to the end of verse 1:
"Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted."
That could mean, 'lest you be tempted to sin in the same way', which would be a warning not to think you're above temptation in the area where the other person has fallen. You're not: there's no sin of which you and I are incapable, given the right (or rather, wrong) circumstances. Or it could mean, 'lest you be tempted to feel superior or condemning as you deal with the person who's fallen.' Either way, it's a call to be humble and uncondemning as we help our brothers and sisters get up and get going again. So first Paul says: help one another in the struggle with sin. And the other thing he says here is:
2. Help one another in all the burdens of life
Look on to verse 2:
"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ."
So verse 1 was talking about one specific burden we carry – namely, our ongoing struggle with sin, and all the falls into sin and the discouragement and guilt and consequences that brings. But verse 2 makes it as general as can be:
"Bear one another's burdens"
And as I was preparing, I wrote down all the burdens that came straight to mind, that I'm aware people here are carrying. Like the burden of unemployment or the fear of unemployment. Or the burden of responsibility at work or being over-pressured by work, by Ofsted, by expectations. Or the burden of unwanted singleness or homosexual feelings. Or the burden of a difficult marriage. Or the burden of children who are sick or disabled or who have problems at school or who are far from Christ. Or the burden of infertility. Or the burden of bereavement and all the losses it brings. Or the burden of looking after a spouse who's unwell. Or the burden of caring for elderly parents or relatives and ultimately facing their dying. Or the burden of getting old ourselves and ultimately facing our own dying. Or the burden of the way a broken home or broken marriage has affected you, and continues to do so. Or the burden of depression in yourself or someone close to you. Or the burden of ministry, of spiritual responsibility, of the sense that there are more burdens than people to help carry them. And I probably haven't mentioned half of the things on your mind.
And I take it that to 'bear one another's burdens' means: to get thoroughly involved in one another's lives, so that everyone feels their burdens shared and lifted by being understood and encouraged and helped.
And each one of us can only really do that for a few people. But if each one of us does it for a few people, then many, many people are covered. Obviously the 'few' will include the people closest to you – spouse, family, close Christian friends. But the other key place to be looking for your few is in the small group you belong to in church, if you do. We often say that to belong meaningfully to a large church like this you need to join a small group. Because that's where we can get to know other people and be known. And it's where we can actually live out these 'one another' passages we're looking at these Sunday nights. And certainly in my Home Group, just listening to people's prayer requests sets my agenda of the burdens I need to try to help them carry.
So what does bearing one another's burdens involve? Well, for a start it involves being there, which applies straight away to our small groups. I suspect we hugely underestimate how much just our small group life itself helps us bear our burdens. So that just by being there week by week, or fortnight by fortnight, you're helping your brothers and sisters more than you realise. But 'being there' applies way beyond that. It means offering hospitality so that brothers and sisters can come and be with you and talk and unload. And it means meeting or visiting people when we hear there's a need so that we can be there with them.
And I've never forgotten the wisdom of a very experienced bereavement counsellor on a training course I did. You go to those courses feeling a complete novice and that you're useless until you've got the expertise. But the most memorable thing she said was, 'You don't need any expertise or even anything to say, to start being a help. The most important thing is… being there.' And that applies to all the burdens I mentioned a moment ago, not just bereavement. Being there – rather than running or staying away. And can I say, I still regularly feel out of my depth and unsure of what to say or do to help, but the bottom line is that just being there will help.
So there's being there, then there's listening. The old saying is that 'a problem shared is a problem halved' and there's a lot of truth in that. I suspect we hugely underestimate how much we help by just listening. We don't have to solve one another's problems to be helpful. And very often we can't, because there is no solution: many of the problems of personality and circumstance which burden each of us can't be 'solved'. But being understood and encouraged and helped in them makes all the difference.
So, being there, listening. And then of course we need to think, 'What can I say that will help?' and 'What can I do that will help?' And on the one hand, you'll gain wisdom in that over the years. And on the other hand, you'll always feel out of your depth. But that's OK, because the aim is not to feel comfortable or competent – but to help our brothers and sisters. So back to verse 2 again, and let's just dwell on the end of it:
"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ."
Remember, some Jewish background teachers were saying, 'Your faith in Jesus is good as far as it goes, but to become spiritually complete you now need to take on things from God's Old Testament law – like being circumcised and keeping the food laws.' And throughout Galatians, Paul has said, 'No, that's wrong.' He's said, 'As far as being accepted by God is concerned, you are complete already – because that depends 100% on what Jesus did on the cross and 0% on what we do.' And he has also said, 'As far as spiritual progress is concerned, it's not God's Old Testament law that can change you. It can tell you what God wants and doesn't want, but it can't change you. No [he has said], it's your relationship with Jesus that changes you – it's being loved and forgiven by him, and having his Spirit at work in you.' And that's why, in verse 2 he says:
"Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ."
And as you read the word 'law' there you need to put it in inverted commas. Because most times Paul uses the word 'law' literally to mean God's Old Testament law. But sometimes (like here) he uses it metaphorically to mean 'what rules and shapes your life'. And throughout Galatians, Paul has said, 'Look, it's not God's Old Testament law that ultimately rules and shapes your life. It's Jesus – as he forgives you and then rules and shapes you by his Spirit.' So when he says, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the 'law' of Christ," what he means is, 'If you bear one another's burdens, you will be fulfilling, or living out, the ruling, shaping work of Christ in your life – which is to make you more like himself.
So to end with, just turn back to Galatians 2.20. This is one of the great statements in Galatians of what Jesus did for us, where Paul says that in God's sight, on the cross,
"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
So that reminds us what Jesus did to bear our ultimate burden – the burden of sin and the judgement it deserves. He was crucifed for us. Despite being the Son of God, he stooped that low to lift our burden. And he loved us and gave not just a bit of time or energy or help – but himself. And in Galatians 6.2, Paul says: that's the standard for bearing one another's burdens. And as we give ourselves to one another like that, we're living out the ruling, shaping influence of Christ, and the example of his burden-bearing for us on the cross.
So the message of Galatains 6.1-2 is: let's help one another in the struggle with sin; and let's help one another in all the burdens of life. Because, returning to where we began, we're not in spiritual competition like a bunch of rivals. We're in spiritual teamwork, as a band of brothers and sisters.