The High Path
Week of Sunday July 7 – Pentecost 7
Epistle: Galatians 6:1-18
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. 2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For 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. 8If 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. 9So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10So 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!12It 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. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. 14May 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. 15For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! 16As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
17 From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.
18 May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
A group of us in high school spent almost all our long weekends and holidays bushwalking in the Flinders Ranges. We soon learned that if you could plot a course along the ridge tops then life was glorious. The views were inspiring and the walking was easy. Descending from a ridge was a serious undertaking; scree rock, almost impenetrable bush, and steep unstable slopes sometimes turned life into an exhausting struggle. Creeks were often choked with brush; we spent much time with our poor maps seeking out the spurs that made crossing from one ridge to another tolerable.
We could imagine that, in Christ, God has placed us on the high ridges. "For freedom, Christ has set us free," Paul tells the communities in Galatia. (Galatians 5:1) "... do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence... if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another..." (5:13-15)
Sometimes we are called to travel through dangerous country with loose rock all around. At other times we stray down off the high ridges; our own failings mislead us and we venture into foolish territory; we transgress.
Given his earlier anger, Paul is surprisingly gentle with the Galatians about this. If someone is overtaken in a fault, you— the ones spiritual— be equipping them in a spirit of meekness, lest you be also tempted... (Galatians 6:1 ) NRSV translates it as "restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness." Bishop Tutu famously said, "God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low."
There have been hard lessons for me to learn about this. I seem to have been called to walk a melancholic path in life, and to trawl questions of our existence which other folk find destructive, and sensibly do their best to avoid. Losing my way off this ridge has lead to dangerous depression.
I'm sharing this because in theological college, colleagues and lecturers sometimes gently took me aside and encouraged me to "lighten up," and enjoy life. The memory of these incidents is like old burns; burns which occasionally pus up, and never fully heal. None of us recognised the path I was called to walk, nor how close it travels to the cliffs' edges.
Let me emphasise that these hurts came from people who loved me, and were gentle with me. In contrast, I remember bluntly telling friends who had been overtaken by a fault to "go and sin no more." There was little gentleness in what I said. It was mostly informed by my own self-righteous outrage. I am appalled by the trail of pain I think I have left behind me.
I was different from my father, who was rarely angry with me. Almost always, if I was misbehaved, he reacted with gentle pain or frustration, and reminded me I could do much better! God is the same, and if we are not gentle in our correction of each other, we will not be Godly; we will fall into "biting and devouring each other."
In his gentleness, my Dad was "bearing my burden." Paul said, "Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ... For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’" (6:2, 5:14) Gentleness and kindness help us get back up on the ridge top before we stray too far down into the wild bush and dangerous slopes where you can lose yourself. But gentleness can only come from us when we are aware of our own failings.
Here is the point of all this sharing. Do you notice that NRSV has no paragraph breaks through verses 2-5? They are part of a whole thought.
2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads.
If we do not bear one another's burdens we are nothing! Despite all my erudition, despite the Chancellor's Letter of Commendation, despite my high calling as a Minister of the Word, I was nothing until I learned compassion and could, and would, bear the burdens of others. Whilst I condemned and judged and wrote off, instead of feeling their pain and struggle, my calling and skills were no "cause for pride," as Paul put it. Instead, I was harsh and destructive despite my best efforts.
Paul says "… all must carry their own loads," (Galatians 6:5) This is not a call to some kind of laissez faire theological self-sufficiency that can excuse itself from responsibility to other people. Our worth is shown when we bear the burdens of others. In Christ, your burden is my load!
He makes the burden bearing point specifically about supporting those who are the ministers to the community—perhaps there was some debate about this in Galatia, but burden bearing goes beyond that example to supporting all of us: Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. (6:2)
God's "quite low standards" could lead us to think that behaviour does not matter. But being "self-indulgent" with the freedom we are given, can be deadly. Paul says "…God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8If 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." (6:7-8)
Sowing to our own flesh is essentially being self-indulgent; that is, living according to our personal whims rather than the needs of the community. So although we notoriously think of boozing or sleeping around as sowing to our own flesh, it also involves things as disparate as gossip, not washing our hands before shared lunch, or not helping with the dishes. These things indulge our personal selfishness just as effectively as boozing and sex. They have the same result. There is no support here for a hierarchy of sins.
What such self-indulgence does, says Paul is reap corruption from the capital-F-Flesh. I quoted Martyn on this last week.
[The Flesh] … is not a mere component of a human being, a person's flesh as distinguished from his spirit. The Flesh is rather a supra-human power, indeed an inimical martial power seeking to establish a military base of operations in the Galatian churches, with the intention of destroying them as genuine communities.
To live in the real world… the Galatians must deal with this powerful actor... [they] are not alone... For in v16 Paul speaks of another actor, again supra-human, the Spirit.
Self-indulgent freedom will scar us, corrupt us, and even destroy us. We align ourselves with a destructive power. Freely taking on the burdens of others, paradoxically, builds us up. It brings us to eternal life.
It is also burdensome. It costs, and it hurts. We can become very tired. We are given the freedom of self-preservation that 'sometimes goes home early,' and more of us should indulge in it. But he encourages us not to give up.
So 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, and especially for those of the family of faith. (6:9-10)
This is not an exhortation to us as individuals, I think. He speaks to the plural, the Us of the community. A community which does not give up to self-indulgence reaps a good harvest. That community cannot depend on the efforts of a few; the community as a whole needs to use its freedom well.
God's "quite low standards" are in evidence again. We are to work for the good of all. And especially for those of the family of faith. This is not saying we give Christians preferential treatment! It is saying that they, of all people, should be well treated by us, but that we act for the good of all. Christian business associations, for example, may not be working for the good of all, but be a self-indulgence.
Now Paul sums up: "See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!"(6:11) It sounds like he was using a scribe but is now writing the last few lines himself. I imagine there is a Galatian in-joke happening here; perhaps Paul had notoriously bad eyesight; perhaps he had been chided in the past for tiny unreadable scribble!
There is an extended pun in this letter, around the word flesh. Flesh can be the flesh of the foreskin, (6:13) it can be our own self-indulgent desires, and The Flesh is an autonomous power—one of the principalities and powers of Ephesians 6:10-12. The humour is deliberate: … they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. (15) … let no one trouble me… for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. (6:17) Earlier he has said "Tell those who are bothering you I would like to see the knife slip." (5:12) (Jerusalem Bible)
Our culture is hung up on niceness and respectability. We should howl with laughter when King Saul goes into a cave in the middle of the wilderness in one translation, to 'go to the bathroom,' but few of us even see the humour. The Hebrew at that point says he is going to 'cover his feet' and the toilet reference is there to show how David could have humiliated him by killing him on the can, but didn't. (1 Samuel 24).
In 1 Kings 18:27 Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, wondering if their God has "gone aside." The Hebrew means "perhaps he has gone to the toilet." What sort of God needs to do that? The jokes have a point; they are not gratuitous smut.
I think Paul is doing the same. Bordering on the bawdy, inviting risqué comments, he ridicules the insistence on circumcision. They just want to make a good showing in the flesh! And then, deadly serious … so that they won't be persecuted for the cross of Christ. These Jewish Christians who insist of the theology of circumcision are only pretending to follow Christ. In fact they are afraid of the trouble it will cause them if they are true to the implications of the cross and don't follow the old Jewish way to righteousness.
This is as cutting as anything Paul has said about them. It circumcises the entire theological edifice which they have erected, for "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything!" We are not talking about snipping round the edges; what counts is a new creation; a new creation is everything! "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." (6:14)
The bluntness and crudity (from our perspective, anyway) cuts through the froth to the real issue. Our relationship with God has been restored by the faith of Christ. Gratis. (2:15) We are set free for freedom, not rules. (5:1) God is doing a new thing to set us free from the present evil age. (1:4) There is no other gospel. (1:6-10) So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all… (6:10) and walk along the glory of the high ridges.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!