07.03.2016 Preaching Text: “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.” (Galatians 6:4-5)
Just the other day I was driving with a friend who told me he’s always enjoyed going to church. But then he quickly added, “Not that I’m perfect or anything.”
I wholeheartedly agreed with respect to myself. “Of course,” I reminded him, and myself, “being a sinner is one of the main prerequisites for church membership!”
Yet how this simple fact escapes us. Tim Keller agrees, saying that religion has a tendency to create injustice because its adherents get used to thinking of themselves as better than others. When we think we’re right, we see others as wrong. And once they’ve been so consigned, it’s an easy step to view them as the “other.” This can lead to a dehumanization of those who think and act differently than we.
This does not mean, of course, that there’s no such thing as right and wrong. Nor does it mean that the church shouldn’t strive to be in the right. After all, when we become disciples of Jesus we properly begin the process of transformation, of seeking to become more and more Christ-like.
When Jesus confronted those who would have stoned the woman caught in adultery, he says, famously, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” As we know, the self-righteous would-be executioners, to a person, walk away, convicted of their own sinfulness.
But for us the story often stops there. We miss Jesus’ follow-up commandment to the woman. “Go and sin no more,” he tells her.
This means, among other things, that when we follow Jesus we are commanded to live to a higher standard. While it is true that Jesus ministered to sinners and tax collectors, much to the chagrin of the religious leaders of the day, he was not approving of their sins but reaching out to them that they might change their ways.
The church, in other words, has standards – high standards. As I’ve said on many an occasion, it was possible technically to fulfill Mosaic Law. But there is no fulfilling the law of Christ, which mandates that we love God and neighbor PERFECTLY – even as we have been perfectly loved.
One of my father’s favorite sayings used to annoy me to no end. Whenever, that is, any of us kids were finding fault with someone else, he, without fail, would interject: “Just make sure you’re alright!” As I say, this was really quite annoying!
Of course Paul, in Galatians, says pretty much the same thing: “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.”
One valuable aspect of reading scripture, for me, is how whenever I’m feeling particularly self-righteous about the sins of others (sins to which I myself am personally immune), I invariably find the tables suddenly turned, as now I’m called onto the carpet for things I’ve said and done!
Reading scripture is, in other words, humbling, or at least should be. One sees this in Jesus’ response to the seventy.
Filled with a bit of self-righteous triumphalism, the returning seventy marvel at how the demons submitted to their authority. Jesus responds with a warning: “[Do] not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you;” he says, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
His point is that they are merely the vessels through which God has acted. It is not they who are responsible for these remarkable feats, but GOD.
The singular message they were sent to convey had to do with the coming of the Kingdom of God, a future for which they and those who listened to them were destined, and for which they can take no credit.
In Galatians, Paul again reminds us of something else we easily overlook: God judges us not in terms of how well we stack up against others, but how well we meet God’s standards.
It’s all too easy to look around and find others to whom we can favorably compare ourselves, especially when we judge by the standards we ourselves have set!!!
It is an altogether different matter when we consider how God judges.
This means that Christians are required to be humble. And we’re not talking about false humility, as when we downplay our strengths in order to appear modest and unassuming.
No, it’s a humility based on fact, on reality. Christians live in humility because being fully aware of both God and ourselves allows for nothing less! We are humble because we are sinners. Period. And not because we think acting humble will win us points.
One side-effect of such humility is how it helps us live in community.
“Do not be deceived;” Paul writes in Galatians, “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 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.
“So,” he concludes, “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.”
Genuine humility thus draws each of us ever-closer to the family of faith. Knowing our faults and weaknesses, we strive to find a way to live peaceably with one another.
It has been said that the church is a laboratory for learning how to love. As Martin Copenhaver has written, when we join the church we are thrown together with people we might choose as friends, but also with those we might not otherwise choose.
Nonetheless, we commit to live together in the Spirit of Christ. And if we can learn to get along with each other here, we are better prepared to do it out there (out in the world). So the church is, if not a laboratory, a school where we learn how to love God and our fellow human beings, in the same way God loves us – and this despite our inevitable differences. Amen.